They have been through triumph and disaster but the Manchester band’s return has galvanised the fans
Before there was YouTube or Facebook, there was word of mouth. And the Manchester band James thrived on it like no other. In 1988, with no record deal, they sold out two nights at Manchester’s G-Mex centre, playing to more than 30,000 people.
Twenty years later, the band are at it again. In 2007, playing together for the first time in more than six years, and without a major label, they played a nationwide tour that sold out in 45 minutes. The songs they wrote and performed form the backbone of their new album, Hey Ma, which they recorded at their own expense in a French château.
From the opening chords of the first song, Bubbles, the new album is classic James, with intricate instrumental work married to inventive melodies topped off with Tim Booth’s soaring vocals. Lyrically, too, it harks back to the band’s earlier work, the title track’s reflections on the War on Terror marking a return to overtly political subject matter that they largely abandoned in the late 1990s.
“We think it’s f***ing brilliant,” says Booth, whose beard and shaven head, replacing his wildchild 1980s curls, seem to be his only concession to age. “But then we would, wouldn’t we? We wrote over 120 songs for this album, and if it hadn’t turned out well, there’d have been no point in us getting back together.”
Booth is the posh one among a disparate bunch of Mancunian misfits who were known as Venereal and the Diseases until they spotted Booth, then a drama student, on a dancefloor in the early 1980s. Their live shows quickly became the stuff of Manchester legend, and the band signed to Sire Records, turning down a rival long-term offer from the Factory impresario Tony Wilson. But Sire lost confidence when the debut album failed to sell, leaving the band so poor that at one stage they were reduced to selling their blood to survive.
The 1990s were the making of James, but even after the single Sit Down became an alternative national anthem and the 1993 album Laid sold more than 1 million copies, the band’s most convincing performance was as the architects of their own demise. On one day in 1994 (known within James as Black Thursday), they received a £250,000 tax demand, Booth announced he was taking a break to record an album with David Lynch’s composer Angelo Badalamenti, and guitarist Larry Gott (who started as the band’s guitar teacher) left to design furniture.
Back in the fold for the new album and tour, Gott reflects on the band’s chequered history during a break in rehearsals. “We’re not worried about what people say about this comeback thing. We’ve been has-beens before. In 1989, people were saying, ‘Oh James, I remember them; they were next year’s big thing back in 1983. They were Morrissey’s favourite band weren’t they?’ So we kind of got used to being ignored.”
Never more so than in 1994, when the band allowed the largely tuneless jamming sessions that resulted in Laid to be released as a separate album, Wah-wah. The fans fled in droves. And worse was to come.
Booth picks up the story: “The head of Mercury Records in the States was a huge supporter of James. I had a meeting with him where he promised to fund a $500,000, 20-minute movie of James that was going to go out in cinemas all over America. He got the sack six weeks later, and the guy who came in had some years previously been fired from a David Lynch movie by Angelo Badalamenti. We were f***ed from the moment he arrived.”
He shrugs. “It’s all part of being in a band. There are several moments in our history where if we’d chosen A rather than B we might have been much bigger.”
And is that the plan this time around? To shake off any lingering feeling that they might have underachieved? Or is this just the latest act of James perversity – to wait until they were all but forgotten and then storm back? “This is as weird to us as it is to you,” insists Booth. “We had no intention of coming back. When we split in 2001, that was it as far as we were concerned.”
Getting the band back together took a phone call, and a helping hand from the fates. Perhaps, as the James song has it, this was destiny calling. “Jim [Glennie, bassist] and I never stopped playing together,” says Gott. “In the end we just wondered whether Tim would slot back in.”
“It was all very odd,” says Booth. “Mercury had already decided to re-release a greatest hits album. Then Chris Moyles started to say lovely things about James on the radio. It felt like James was coming at me from all sides. I went up to meet Jim and Larry and we had a very honest meeting where we were all quite shy, vulnerable. But it was clear we got on.
“Then our manager got wind of the fact that we were in the same room together, and the next thing we knew we got a call from a promoter who’d put a tour on hold for us. From then on it was just a question of whether we were to climb on the bandwagon.”
Strangely, of the three core players, it was Glennie, the founder member of Venereal and the Diseases, who held out longest. “I knew that me and Larry had two-thirds of a great f***ing band, but we needed a great singer,” he says. “I didn’t want to go back to James because I wanted to make sure the creativity was there. I know it sounds a bit f***ing arty, but that’s the way it felt. In the end I was blown away by how much fun it was.
“Until 2001 I never felt that James was going to end, so I never felt like there was any rush. I’d been doing it since I was 15. Now I’m not taking anything for granted. For now, we’re back and I want to get records out.”
No one who has ever seen James live doubts their brilliance, with Booth whirling around the stage to the band’s swirling soundscapes – half messiah, half holy fool. Last year’s gigs were strong enough to silence any doubters, and if you look up only one clip on YouTube, make it last year’s Edinburgh rendition of Bubbles. The band were told of Tony Wilson’s death 15 minutes before going on stage, and dedicated the song, with its screamingly defiant chorus of “I’m Alive”, to his memory. “We’ll never play that song again so well,” says Booth. “Tony was Manchester. There’s no one to replace him. It’s the end of a chapter.”
And the start of another for James? “We can be better than we’ve ever been,” says Glennie. “We’re back with our strongest line-up and we’re hungry. For the first time we’ve thought: what if we tried really hard?”
Hey Ma is out on April 7. The band’s accompanying tour is sold out. www.wearejames.com www.myspace.com/jamesisnotaperson