James return… Again
HEY MA on April 7th 2008 through Fontana / Mercury Records. By: Jeremy Chick Editor-In-Chief
When, in early 2007, James announced a series of concerts to celebrate their reformation, even they were surprised that 35,000 tickets were snapped up in a matter of hours. They shouldn’t have been; since their inception, in the Whalley Range district of Manchester in1981, James have consistently upset the odds, persistently proving themselves the glittering thorn in the side of an industry that always had them down as perennial outsiders: witness the fact that the band easily headlined two nights at the 9,000-capacity GMEX Arena in 1990 well before their literate, rabble-rousing pop hit critical mass; witness too, their inevitable, though somewhat unlikely rise to the top of a Britpop pile notable at the time for its cartoon irony and moronic laddishness. When Sit Down, a caring stadium hymn about everyday transcendence, became one of the touchstone singles of the year, it eclipsed the secular world of indie fandom to assume the kind of status afforded a much loved football chant in the national consciousness. It reached No.2 in 1991 reinforcing James’ position as Manchester’s “best kept secret.” And when Gold Mother – the album that subsequently included Sit Down – went on to sell two million copies, James’ transformation into the biggest cult band in Britain was complete.
James are Tim Booth (singer), Larry Gott (guitars), Jim Glennie (bass), Saul Davies (guitar, violin), Mark Hunter (keyboards), David Baynton-Power (drums) and Andy Diagram on trumpet. ‘Twas not ever thus but this is the line-up that recorded Gold Mother (spawning the hits How Was It For You, Come Home, Lose Control and the aforementioned Sit Down), and Seven (although Diagram was absent for the subsequent Eno-produced Laid and Wah Wah albums). It is also the septet that has just completed work on the band’s first new studio album in seven years.
The story of James is the story of rock and roll itself. Whilst James – the phenomenon – has gone on to release nine studio albums and sell a total of 12 million albums worldwide, James – the band – has undergone a personal history that would have killed off lesser individuals. Briefly signed to Factory Records in the early 1980s, they released two EPs before signing to Sire and releasing their debut album Stutter in June 1986. Unfortunately, upon releasing their follow-up, Strip Mine, in September 1988 they were promptly dropped by Sire and featured (quite correctly as it turns out) in a television documentary as an example of how rock stars can be forced to become human guinea pigs in medical experiments in order to make ends meet. In reality, what kept the band a going concern was their incredible live performances and in Booth they were in possession of a unique talisman. Booth, a former drama student, had originally been asked to join the band as a dancer before being “promoted” to singer and it is his wired, shamanic, part rock star part dancing character from a silent movie presence that lends James their edge. Of course, the band as a whole has always had a rare understanding of their musical strengths and it was no doubt these two facts that attracted the attentions of Rough Trade who distributed the self-financed the 1989 live album One Man Clapping. The relative triumph of this record (it went to No.1 in the Independent Charts), persuaded Fontana to add James to their roster and, in June 1990, with hope rather than expectation, the band released the groundbreaking Gold Mother.
The original version of Gold Mother did not contain Sit Down (or Lose Control) but the huge success of the new Gil Norton mix and the two sell out GMEX shows meant that the record was repackaged (in 1991). In 1991 the band also released Seven, headlined the Reading festival and played to 30,000 people at Alton Towers, before heading into the studio with Brian Eno to work on the songs that would become the seminal Laid (which broke the band in the USA) and the experimental Wah Wah albums in 1993 and 1994 respectively. A Best Of reached No.1 in March 1998 before a new record, Millionaires, reached No.2 the following year and another, Pleased To Meet You, in 2001, again saw Eno at the controls and would prove to be the band’s last. A farewell tour culminated in a Manchester Arena show and a Wembley Arena performance that included a guest appearance by Eno himself.
James essentially split at the end of 2001 but the seeds of this split first appeared in 1995 when guitarist Larry Gott quit the group. Gott and Glennie (the band is named after Glennie’s Christian name) were founder members and, together with Booth, form the nucleus of the band. Booth has admitted, however, that “in the last few years James were a dysfunctional family” and when he quit in 2001 the split was irrevocable. The band that thought nothing of jamming for five hours a day five days a week had finally stopped jamming for good.
In 2006 Gott and Glennie contacted Booth again and asked him if he was interested in a reunion. For their part, Gott and Glennie had already demoed eight songs and come to the conclusion that they could “hear” Booth all over them. For the first time in five years they wrote and jammed together – “the best language we have for cementing our relationship” – and remembered why they were such a great band in the first place.
Last year James released a Best Of ..Singles compilation entitled Fresh As A Daisy and went on to play a series of concerts at Brixton Academy as well as the V and T In The Park Festivals. In September the band headed off to Warsy Chateau in northern France to write and record what was to become their first new record in seven years. Their brief may have been immodest – “to not only match our earlier work but surpass it” – but the results are somewhat more spectacular: a record, Hey Ma, that recaptures the spirit of Laid and catapults James into the pantheon of artists who are more alluring and even more relevant second time around.
Warsy Chateau proved to be a unique working environment. Producer Lee ‘Muddy’ Baker (who’d worked with Booth on his 2004 solo album Bone) allowed the band to build their own studios in their rooms and constantly fed ideas back to him in the main studio. He also allowed the band to jam at leisure, something that always brings out the best in them – if you remember, Sit Down came out of “a twenty minute jam that only ended ‘cos we were laughing too much to continue” – and ensuring a degree of spontaneity that had been lacking in the final days of James Mk1.† The band wrote eight pieces in one five-hour spell and a hundred and twenty in total for a record that finally boasts twelve songs that are as good, if not better, than anything James have recorded before.
Hey Ma, the song, features some pretty strong imagery about falling towers and “dust in the air” and is probably as cutely subversive as Country Joe & the Fish singing†“1-2-3. What are we fighting for?” although its hugely memorable chorus,‘Hey Ma, the boys in body bags,’ is, if anything, more shocking for the jaunty way in which it is delivered. Booth concedes that “it could have been a great pop song” by which i think he means a great single, as it’s already a great song – “if it weren’t for the lyric.” He also admits that “protest songs don’t work for me – I just like things with a weird edge!” although he could just as easily be talking about another song called Upside that Booth wrote about immigrant labour trying to provide for their families back home.
A number of songs on Hey Ma seem furiously personal. The Lou Reed-esque Waterfall (surely a single) recalls an occasion when Booth, during his time working with composer Angelo Badalmenti, bathed naked at Snoqualmie Falls – the spectacular waterfall complex near Seattle featured in the television drama Twin Peaks – and felt a special energy connected with the place. There’s an interesting theme running through the song, of a man with too much junk in his attic and a fear that his average dream of a life may contain too much television. In Whiteboy, the lyrics appear autobiographical: “My mum says I look like Yul Brynner, Too old for Hamlet, too young for Lear” – as Booth imagines a teenage boy, stoned at the kitchen table, listening to his mother prattle on about her fears and dreams whilst in the background TV images interject. And Bubbles is surely inspired by the birth of Booth’s son: ‘Wash the boy in the stream, so tenderly, Press his lips to your lips, Give him your breath, He awakes with the weight, Of the vision he holds, Sees the rent in time, Through which he must fold’. Booth admits that he wrote this song whilst “half asleep” at 5 am – aware that “the more unconscious the words are the deeper they are” – and that when the band performed the song in Edinburgh for the first time they’d only just heard of the death of Tony Wilson. It had been Tony that had given James their first break all those years ago and the song and performance felt all the more poignant and emotional because of it.
There are, of course, several more blistering tracks on Hey Ma (I Wanna Go Home, about a man dying of remorse in a bar, and Of Monsters and Heroes and Men, a song that’s intricately constructed around an extended poem, immediately spring to mind) but it would be churlish at this stage to be so particular. James may have always written “uplifting songs about insecurity, disaffection and mental illness” but Hey Ma is something else entirely: world-wary, rather than world-weary, intimate yet intimidating, foreign yet somehow fleetingly familiar, Hey Ma documents the sound of a band at the top of their game. It is also the sound of a band upsetting the odds like never before.
The glittering thorn returns.