By Andrew Mueller, © March 2007 Uncut Magazine
It’s easy to forget just how huge James were. And still are – eager fans snapped up 25,000 tickets for their reunion tour in just half a day. After the break-up and the breakdowns, “it’s the right thing to do, after years of it not being the right thing to do,” they reveal.
In 1989, James released a single called Sit Down. It was chiefly noteworthy as the most straightforward yet populist singalong yet from these normally experimental, erratic and obtuse Mancunian janglers. But it still wasn’t quite bold or brash enough to seize the zeitgeist and crack the Top 40.
In 1991, James released another single called Sit Down. It was the same song, but it had undergone a dramatic transformation, reconfigured by Pixies producer Gil Norton as a thundering stadium anthem. It roared to Number 2, deprived of the top spot only by the obduracy of Chesney Hawkes’ presciently titled lone hit The One And Only. Still, Sit Down became one of the touchstone singles of the year, transcending the secular world of indie fandom to assume the kind of status afforded a much loved football chant in the national consciousness. Adding something affirmative to the chemical rush of the Madchester scene, James were suddenly huge. Everywhere.
As former Factory Records oddballs and perennial Smiths understudies, James climb had been vertiginous – at one point in the 80s, they’d paid their way by volunteering for medical experiments – but not quite as sudden as it looked. The eruption had been building slowly as James toured and toured, acquiring a fiercely loyal following and a well-deserved reputation as electrifying live performers. In December 1990, even before they had anything like a proper hit, they sold out two consecutive nights at the 9,000 capacity G-Mex Arena in their native Manchester.
After the re-released Sit Down broke them into the mainstream, James became a fully-fledged pop culture phenomenon, crowning their ascent by headlining the 1991 Reading Festival. The ubiquity of their distinctive merchandise – those baggy tops emblazoned with song titles – spawned an industry myth that they were selling more T-shirts than albums.
“In terms of units sold,” recalls guitarist Larry Gott, “in those years, yes. Since then, the records have eclipsed it, but in around 1992, that was very possibly true.”
“At one point we were banging out 30,000 t-shirts a month,” says bassist Jim Glennie.
“We were,” says Larry, “the biggest independent fashion wholesaler in the country.”
“Really?”, asks singer Tim Booth. “Why aren’t we richer?”
The cynic, of course, would suggest that the reunion of these three men, and the band that coalesced around them, is an attempt to prove a profitable answer to that question. But it requires approximately 30 seconds in the company of Tim, Jim and Larry to become convinced of three important things. First, their protective attitude towards James recorded legacy, which ran to nine studio albums, and a clutch of live collections and compilations. Second, a determination to add something worthwhile to their legacy. The third is something beyond music, beyond money – the reconciliation of people once close, then estranged. Between James split in 2001, and the beginnings of their reconstitution in later 2006, Tim and Jim barely communicated and had run into each other only once.
“In the last few years of James,” says Tim, and you get the sense he’s understating matters wildly, “we were a dysfunctional family”.
The 2007 incarnation of James is the sextet that made 1993’s Laid – Booth, Glennie, Gott, Saul Davies (guitar, violin), Mark Hunter (keyboards), David Baynton-Power (drums). Now as then, the trio gathered to meet Uncut in a London studio are James inner cabinet.
As Tim and Jim remember it, it was Larry’s departure from James in 1995 that rang in the period of James history that Tim and Jim have difficulty recalling without guilty winces.
“The three of us always ran James,” says Tim, “and then Larry left, and Jim and I didn’t know how to do it. We’d made peace in the last two years of James, but the years before that were hard.”
Asked how bad it got, the pair exchange rueful glances. “At it’s worst,” says Jim, “really bad.”
“We’ve been through wide sweeps of relationships,” says Tim, “from being really close to not getting on at all, to hardly being able to be in the same room. And it wasn’t just Jim and me. There was a lot of alcohol around, a lot of drugs – some didn’t benefit from going on tour. After the Lollapalooza tour (in 1997), there were a couple of the band who couldn’t leave their houses for three months because they’d caned it in so many areas. The whole band was dysfunctional.”
Today, James appear in riotous physical and psychological health. Tim no longer possesses the head of unruly curls, but he’s one of those fortunate men suited to baldness, which he sets off with a cabaret magician’s goatee. Larry, shrouded by a baseball cap, looks more like the furniture designer he now is rather than the rock guitarist he was, but fizzes with enthusiasm for James return. Jim, eerily, hasn’t aged in the slightest.
It was Larry and Jim who quietly, but diligently, kept the James flame flickering after the band split in 2000. Not long after James farewell tour ended, the pair started jamming together in Manchester, sometimes four or five times a week.
“In about 2004, we did this demo of eight songs,” says Jim, picking up the story, “then both went away for a bit and came back, and we’d each separately come to the conclusion that we could hear Tim on it. Which was weird because we’d never considered Tim – he’d left the band after all. But we needed a fucking great singer. For me, it was nothing to do with James, it really wasn’t. I didn’t want the band back together again. I didn’t want to go back to what we’d had when we split. But we needed a fucking great singer, and though it pains me to say this…”
Jim and Tim both laugh at this, with the relieved tone of people allowed to laugh at – and with – each other again. Tim declined their initial offer – he was moving house, making a solo album (Bone, a collaboration with Muddy Lee Baker) and had become a father. He was more receptive when the call came again late last year.
“I’d already heard the suggestion of doing a tour just playing our more obscure stuff,” says Tim. “I loved the idea, but I knew how impractical it was. The minute you get two or three thousand people in a room, they’re going to feel shortchanged if they don’t get the songs they really want to hear.”
Tim’s negative attitude to reunions shifted after seeing Bruce Springsteen wiht a reformed E-Street Band and the return of The Pixies. “I realised,” he says, “that these things don’t have to be completely uncool.” When Larry called again, Tim, due to venture north to visit his mother in Yorkshire, suggested spending three days jamming with Jim and Larry en route.
“And it was wonderful,” says Jim.
As all three of them explain it, they’d reconnected to what James had been before success screwed everything up.
“From 1982 to 1989,” says Tim, “we did seven years of jamming, four or five hours a day, four or five days a week. It was what we did. We weren’t trying to write songs, we were trying to discover music for ourselves. There was one year we wrote one song. And that ended up as a b-side.”
“The minute we started getting successful,” says Larry, “we didn’t have time to do that any more.”
From the riffs jammed by Larry and Jim, and the snatches of improvised lyrics contributed by Tim, things began to fall into place. The comeback gig was provisionally booked within 10 days of them plugging in. Now, there’s a reissued Best Of, an April tour of the UK that sold 25,000 tickets in half a day, festivals in the summer, a new album and a schedule reaching comfortably into 2008.
“Everything,” says Tim, “seemed to line up to this being the right thing to do, after so many years of it not being the right thing to do.”
“Here we go again,” Booth’s familiar singing voice emanates from a mixing booth upstairs in the studio, “The show is just beginning.”
Underneath this, there’s a frenetic drum part, supporting an angry bass, and a guitar wringing an instantly irresistible melody from the fury.
“It’s called Chameleon,” explains Tim, just as this splendid racket stops dead for a few seconds, before suddenly resuming.
“It’s fucking great, isn’t it?”, says Jim, tapping both feet with an enthusiasm that makes it clear that, as far as he’s concerned, the question is rhetorical. Chameleon is one of the brace of new songs that will appear on the reissued Best Of.
Realistically, though, these aren’t the songs that those 25,000 people who’ve bought all the concert tickets are going to want to hear.
“We’ll probably do three or four new songs,” says Tim. “I know what it’s like when you go to see a band play. You really want to hear certain songs. We understand that.”
Is it still possible to sing them with conviction, a decade and a half after they defined a moment, and even longer since they were written?
“Of course,” says Tim. “They’re fucking great!”
Even if they have a few grim associations.
“I’ve changed hugely since then,” says Jim. “I used to be so focused on what I wasn’t getting from it, rather than focusing on what I was getting. And when we weren’t jamming, and I didn’t realise how important that was.”
“In 20-odd years, though,” says Tim, “we’ve probably had four years which were bad, which is pretty fucking good. Now we’re able to communicate much better.”