And then they were seven. and pop stars to boot. James the group were ten years old by the time they came to record Seven in the sumptuous surroundings of The Manor in Shipton-on-Cherwell, Oxfordshire; ten years of high hopes and heartache, wonderful music and offstage chaos. Having burst onto the fertile early 80s indie scene and entranced many with their refreshing, unorthndox, gripping elision of pastoral levity and post-punk energy, they’d lost their founder and guiding light Paul Gilberston to a drug-related breakdown and, having produced two fabulous singles with Factory Records, had thrown their lot in, disastrously, with Seymour Stein’s Sire Records. This move had effectively put their career on hold and seen two erratically entertaining albums – Stutter and Strip-mine – released to widespread indifference. Surviving on bank loans and the proceeds from offering themselves as human guinea pigs in drug trials, they’d extricated themselves from Sire’s deathly embrace and financed a live album, One Man Clapping, which had at least reminded the world they still existed. Then they acrimoniously parted from drummer Gavan Whelan and again the future looked uncertain.
But the turn of the 90s brought solace and support from unexpected quarters. Their live shows were rapidly attaining a religious fervour; cult gatherings where growing legions of devotees in their characteristic daisy-logo’d tee-shirts came to see and hear electrifying performances from a band now incrementally expanded from the long-standing nucleus of Larry Gott, Jim Glennie and Tim Booth to include four “new boys”. Dave Baynton-Power had served his apprenticeships in various indie outfits in North Wales, Cheshire and Merseyside and been reluctantly persuaded to take his chances with James afrer a clairvoyant friend of Tim Booth’s had predicted the arrival of a Dave from Wales. Guitarist/violinist Saul Davies, a sparky bohemian, was throwing pots in rural Hampshire before Larry Gott spotted him at a blues amateur night. Mark Hunter was recruited via mutual mend Mick Armistead who’d contributed keyboards to One Man Clapping. Lastly, former Diagram Brothers, Dislocation Dance and Pale Fountains trumpeter Andy Diagram was absorbed into the band. This loose collective recorded the watershed Gold Mother album that, with the happy coincidence of the Madchester craze, re-ignited their career and saw them relocate to Fontana Records.
Fontana installed them in the Manor for the recording of what was destined to be their major league breakthrough, the album you’re holding now. The cover features a foetus hanging suspended in its mothers amnionic fluid. but the birth of the record was far from easy. After years of breadline subsistence, the band found The Manor distractingly well equipped and appointed. And then as well as the Manor’s gorgeous grounds, pool tables, tennis courts and local country pubs, came another distraction. With James’ star very much in the ascendant a re-issued version of 1991 ‘s Sit Down became a huge hit. Jim Glennie recalls taking a break at the Manor to listen to Radio One’s chart run-down “I know it was in there somewhere and the excitement rose as thc rundown went on and it wasn’t mentioned, because it had to be higher At 17, another now entry and that wasn’t us so it was higher than that. It went in at 7. Funnily enough I thought, I thought, well, I could kick it in the head now. I’ve achieved something”. But, as Larry Gott recalls, the tremendous success of Sit Down complicated the Seven sessions. “We were trying to get a new album done and then there’s all this mayhem surrounding Sit Down. It doesn’t happen to bands very often that a song from the past comes back to life like that. It became a real distraction We had to put the recording on hold; we did Top Of The Pops, we had the press coming down to the Manor all the time. Every day started with 3 or 4 phone interviews. We spent our lives talking about this thing we’d done ages ago.”
To kick-start the new record, Fontana suggested a new tack. Producer Youth, once of cult band Killing Joke, was installed and the sessions reconvened in London. As Mark Hunter remarks “Youth got us back in a room and playing like a band together”. The room was Olympic Studios in London, which Youth, famed for his eccentricity, filled with candles, oil wheels, strobes and incense in order to create a “vibe”. Creatively back on course, the band completed the album at Christmas time When Seven appeared in Spring 1992, purist critics were suspicious of its expansive gestures and big sound. But they were ignoring, perhaps deliberately, the fact that James music had always sought to reach out from beyond the confines of the indie ghetto. Those critics who sneered “stadium rock” and “Simple Minds” chose to ignore Seven’s diversity and mistake its self-belieffor self-importance. There are moments of high drama such as Sound, Ring The Bells and Born Of Frustration. But elsewhere, there’s the taut abrasiveness of Bring A Gun, the plaintive Mother, the infectious Live A Love Of Life and the ethereally graceful Next Lover, proof of the group’s peerless control at minimal volumes and slow tempo.
Seven is a big record by a big band, the high watermark of the band’s arena-filling phase, along with their performance to 30,000 people at Alton Towers, Cheshire. And then just when the media had them tagged them as a huge corporate rock band, their next move, acoustic work with Neil Young and Brian Eno, was to wrong foot everyone again. But Seven is where James were at in the flowering spring of 1992; confident, mature and punching at their full weight.