WHEN James announced their reunion tour in January, perhaps the only people unsurprised by the response were their famously devoted fans, who snapped up all 35,000 tickets within hours of the shows going on sale. Six years after the band effectively split (though it was never made official), they’re guaranteed a heroes’ welcome on the seven-date tour, which kicks off tonight with the first of two shows at Glasgow Academy.
“We’ve just been amazed by the whole thing,” says Tim Booth, the band’s lead singer and chief lyricist, who is also famed for his dervish-like dancing on stage. “We were shocked at the size of the venues booked for the tour, and even more shocked when they all sold out so fast. It was a real litmus test of whether we’d just faded into history or whether the music had been doing the work while we were away – we just didn’t know. And some of the best gigs we ever did were in Glasgow, so it feels great to be starting out there.”
James are generally remembered for Sit Down, an infectiously affirmative anthem which inadvertently caught the Madchester wave and found itself adopted by a generation. However, they also had a mutually fickle relationship with both mainstream popularity and maverick indie kudos.
Taking the long view, their current reunion can be seen as simply ending the latest – albeit the longest – hiatus in the band’s quarter-century career. As far back as 1988, following an initial spell as the darlings of Factory Records, James were featured in a TV documentary about pop stars gone broke, getting paid as guinea-pigs for medical research.
Within a year, however, Sit Down saw its first release as a single and, by late 1989, audiences at the band’s already legendary live shows were spontaneously accepting the invitation in larger and larger numbers. Resplendently remixed by Pixies producer Gil Norton, the song was re-released in spring 1991, its hook-laden, heartfelt message of fellowship and compassion chiming massively with the E’d-up zeitgeist of the time, and taking it to No2 in the charts. A performance on Terry Wogan’s primetime TV chatshow underscored its degree of household recognition.
Like their 1980s Mancunian contemporaries – The Fall, New Order, The Smiths – James had never set out to write hits; Sit Down’s jangly charm was atypical of their preferred wayward experimentalism, and its timing largely accidental. Nevertheless, it launched them way beyond cultish coolness. In 1992, their headline show at Alton Towers drew a crowd of 30,000, and their singles and albums – the latter including Gold Mother, Seven, Laid and Whiplash – both featured consistently in the Top 40 throughout the rest of the decade, with their 1998 Best Of collection remaining in the charts for more than a year.
As their popular following grew on both sides of the Atlantic, however, so the critics began sniping about the band’s supposed stadium-rock pretensions, complete with unflattering comparisons to Simple Minds.
“It has been weird, the media’s attitude over the years,” Booth says now. “I think it’s partly because we never went in for public car-crashes: even when we had our differences, we tried to keep them private, so there was never a story there. Also, with a lot of cool bands, part of their being cool is this attitude of not giving a f***, whereas James have never been about that. We’ve always really cared about what we do, about making it as good as we possibly can.”
The further you delve into the story of James, the more unlikely twists and turns, ironies and contradictions you find. The band’s founding ethos was so unworldly that they refused to specify an A-side on their 1983 debut single, Jimone, because “it’s insulting to tell people which song is better”, and they split from Factory because they saw the label as overly image-obsessed. And yet, having adopted the homemade designs sported by fans at their gigs, they became arguably the biggest merchandising outfit of the 1990s, at one point shifting 30,000 T-shirts a month. The list of James’s support acts over the years is a long litany of bands who went on to be bigger and/or hipper than them, including the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Nirvana, Radiohead, Doves, Stereophonics and Coldplay. Warm-up duties on the forthcoming tour fall to hot newcomers The Twang.
Above all, in James’s history there are the recurrent episodes of apparently willful self-sabotage, from the 15-month time-lag between Jimone and its follow-up, to the band’s near-implosion towards the peak of their fame in 1995, when personnel departures and internal tensions were exacerbated by the discovery of a £250,000 tax bill. It’s precisely such quirks, however, that cement James’s cherished place in their fans’ affections. Musically, despite their gift for soaring singalong choruses, they were always as likely to be abrasive and obscure, playful and raunchy, or stark and brooding. Booth ascribes this stylistic restlessness to the improvised collective writing process that originally forged James’s sound, and on which this year’s reunion is once again based.
“The three core people involved are the same as in the early years of James,” he explains, referring to himself, bassist Jim Glennie and guitarist Larry Gott. “Back in those days, we’d sit and jam for four or five hours a day, coming up with literally hundreds of ideas, which gave us this huge range of starting-points to work from. But as things got bigger and busier, there was less and less time to do that, and the communication between us became really quite dysfunctional.
“Pretty much up until we hooked up again last November, I’d been totally against the idea of a reunion, because I wasn’t interested in going over old ground, but as soon as we were back in a rehearsal room together, it all just fell into place. It felt effortless again, and within three days we had the seeds of about 30 songs.”
Although back-catalogue tracks will predominate in the upcoming shows, with a mix of hits and rarities likely to get an airing, Booth sees this new material, slated for an album release early next year, as the primary object of the exercise. He points to the aptly named Chameleon, one of two new cuts on revamped singles collection Fresh as a Daisy, as proof that reinvention remains the name the game.
“It’s like nothing we’ve done before, very heavy – almost verging on metal,” he says. “For me this whole thing isn’t about going back, it’s nothing to do with nostalgia: it’s the start of something new.”