© October 2010 Uncut Magazine
It took a while to hit, but this Manchester anthem of “madness and frailty” was inescapable in 1991. “It can still be an amazing, healing song!”
IN 1987, James looked destined to become one of Manchester’s many intriguing musical footnotes. After early successes on Factory, the band had signed to Sire in 1986. But by the time they came to release their second album, Strip-mine, the label had become indifferent to them, and the band were close to bankruptcy.
“Our A&R guy went, ‘I can’t do anything with this record,”‘ remembers singer Tim Booth. “He said, ‘I can’t get anyone to release it, I can’t get anyone behind it. You’re screwed.’ We went into a cafe in Manchester and [drummer] Gavan [Whelan] said, ‘Maybe we should just quit.”‘
All the same, the band had one new song, “Sit Down”, that Booth claims, “we knew was a killer”. They signed to Rough Trade, sacked Whelan and added new members- drummer Dave Baynton-Power, violinist Saul Davies and keyboard player Mark Hunter. Refreshed, the band released a seven-minute version of “Sit Down” in 1989. Although it didn’t chart, the song continued to draw plenty of attention. “Every time it was played in nightclubs, people were sitting down on the floor,” says Booth. “We were asked to sing it to this three-year-old in a coma. When you’re going through psychological distress, one of the most healing things is to realise you’re not alone. That’s the subject of ‘Sit Down’. It became this communal song, with a heart and life of its own.”
James re-recorded “Sit Down” in 1991. By now, they’d swapped labels again – this time to Fontana – enjoyed three Top 40 singles and a Top 10 LP Gold Mother. This version of “Sit Down“ became an anthem for the last days of Madchester, and at last made them one of Britain’s biggest bands.
“We remained pretty bloody-minded and difficult, and blew quite a few chances,” Booth admits now. “We refused to let them release it in America.” Indeed, the band often refuse to play it live on their recent tours.
“Gil Norton did a rigorous re-recording. It took three days to give the song some bollocks” – Tim Booth
‘I’m not sure how much I like the song,” says Mark Hunter. “But I love the lyrics. I love that it’s a massive anthem about Tim’s own madness and frailty, that asks people to join in with that, and think about their own.”
TIM BOOTH: We were in a rehearsal space in Manchester, it’s now called the Boom Boom Rooms. A big room, me, Jim, Larry and Gavan, the original four-piece. And we were at the time quite sunk and down with Sire. It felt like they were trying to destroy us. In this dreadful period, we wrote “Sit Down“. We started playing it and when we got to twenty minutes, I fell about laughing. Because we knew we’d written a big song.
LARRY GOTT: It’s in the Boardwalk, the top room of a disused warehouse. We’d been on the Meat Is Murder tour with The Smiths. And we had all the sacks of grain we’d bought to eat on it in this decrepit room, with mice in them. The feeling I got after playing “Sit Down” was a strange jubilation, as it broke down to chaos and laughter, at the ridiculous obviousness of what we’d just improvised. It was Eurovision Song Contest.
JIM GLENNIE: What made us laugh was it just bang, locked in. You couldn’t do anything wrong. In the gaps, you played something that fitted perfectly.
GOTT: Each time we played it round, it got more jubilant. The elation we were feeling fed back in, so the next time round you play with that elated feeling, and you feel even better. It got so we couldn’t get any higher. That was when we burst out laughing. Like kids who’d just out-run the parky. How did we get away with that?
BOOTH: I got the words “sit down” at that moment. I think I got the rest that night. So I’m getting up at 2am, writing, “Sing myself to sleep/A song from the darkest hour…” I used to suffer from insomnia a lot, and the world can seem fairly bleak before the lights come on. I had an inherited liver disease, and it brings with it strange states of psychosis. The song is about that isolation you feel in the night. “Sit down next to me” being, “Does anybody also experience this?”
DAVE BAYNTON-POWER: When I joined, they were so poor they were involved in medical experiments. I heard a crackly demo of “Sit Down”, on some really cheap cassette player. It was the first song I recorded with them. I don’t remember changing much from the demo. It was all there.
BOOTH: We were in Bath Studio, and it was the day of Hillsborough, so that added to the emotional charge. We were devastated watching that on TV. Ironically “Sit Down “ became an anthem for venues trying to introduce seats.
SAUL DAVIES: They had a fixed, bizarre idea of what they wanted to do-turn a pop song into a seven-minute, piano-led, pastoral, Canterbury ramble. It sounded beautiful. People like Geoff Travis were saying, “This is never going to be a hit.” And he was right. It wasn’t, in that state.
BOOTH: Geoff Travis, God bless him, signed us. And they released “Sit Down “ with no promotion, and it went to No 90-something. And we hadn’t released the album. I went to Geoff and said, “This music deserves bigger audiences” – we were selling out 2,000-seater venues. And Geoff said, “Tim, you have to understand, you’re never going to sell more than 20,000.”
GEOFF TRAVIS: If I ever said anything like that, it must have been before I heard “Sit Down”. We certainly thought that should have been a hit. But the Musicians Union got the video banned because Jim sat on a stool playing drums, when he doesn’t on the record. It was immensely frustrating. James never felt like a Rough Trade band, although we really liked them. We were just giving them a helping hand.
BOOTH: I said, “Will you let us buy the record back off you?” And he did. So we sold Gold Mother to Universal. But not “Sit Down”.
GOTT: While we were away touring, “Sit Down” was getting played at the Hacienda, and people were sitting down. And then the Hacienda did special bus journeys on Friday nights from the club, to a Saturday evening gig at La Locomotive in Paris. Four coaches from the Hacienda went to see James.
DAVIES: It did feel like Manchester had invaded Paris. A bunch of nutters with floppy trousers from Hulme were sitting down…
GOTT: It just took our breath. We didn’t know what to do. The place was ram-packed – the heat in the air was causing a fog. And as they all sat on the floor, Tim walked through the audience, standing head and shoulders above them, looking almost Biblical in a cloud of sweat droplets in the air. What the fuck happened?
BOOTH: It was overwhelming. For this to happen, on that song asking for some kind of unity was devastating.
GLENNIE: It’s a hard song to dance to, you‘d look a bit of a twat. So sitting down takes the legs out of the equation.
BOOTH: A week later, we were playing Liverpool Royal Court theatre, and Larry’s strings snapped in the middle of the song, so I signalled Dave to take the song right down. And then the audience started singing it to us for 10 minutes. Larry cried. I was crying.
GOTT: “Sit Down“ always seems to engender some kind of participation – some kind of giving it back.
BOOTH: “Sit Down” led to me risking the songs on Gold Mother, which was about the split with my ex-partner who was also our manager and still at our gigs, who I’d had a son with, who I felt devastated to be leaving. To launch that tour, we played in Blackpool. And I was deeply shocked to look out and see 600 men sing, “After 30 years I’ve become my fears/I’ve become the kind of man I’ve always hated.” It was like, “Fuck – they feel like me.”
GOTT: We were called Manchester’s best-kept secret. At a Ritz gig, rather than shouting for more they just kept going, “Champions!” like a football match. “You’re the pride of Manchester!” That was when our support acts started appearing on Top Of The Pops. We were happy for them. It wasn’t, “And now, even the Carpets… “ The Roses and Mondays were like understudies.
DAVIES: We were all going to health food shops together, and a counterpoint to everything else that was cool in Manchester. We were all from there, we were going to the Hacienda. But we had a different aesthetic. Back in those days we were more like The Fall. If we rehearsed, all we did was jam songs we weren’t going to play. The Roses were playing a massive game, they were changing Britain. We were just sitting in a veggie restaurant, knocking tunes into shape.
GOTT: We were warming up on the bench. “Come Home” had cracked the Top 30 [actually No 32], and had a much beefier sound.
BOOTH: The record company said, “We want you to re-record ‘Sit Down’ – to make a tougher, more cynical version.” And we were happy with that. Especially with Gil Norton. He did a rigorous re-recording. It took three days to give it some bollocks.
GLENNIE: “Sit Down” had got bigger and bigger since it came out on Rough Trade. Having Top 40 hits with no daytime radio play seemed the best time to play that ace.
DAVIES: I found it quite confusing. What the fuck are we doing? Are we making a hit record?
MARK HUNTER: It was an amazing studio in Reading, I think it was Jimmy Page’s old place – a beautiful setting, a swimming pool, tennis courts. Gil’s one for striding round the room saying, “Change that note.”
DAVIES: Gil made it sound huge in a very pop way counting bars, applying a standard pop formula. Gil was in his room at night fretting over the nuts and bolts, and we were all poncing around drinking carrot juice. It didn’t feel like we were doing anything special.
HUNTER: There was a feeling the earlier one was too light. We may have taken it down a semitone, to make it weightier. The piano and guitars on the original were jangly, now they were strident.
GLENNIE: The moment of vindication was listening to the chart, when we gotta No 7.
DAVIES: I remember watching the news and John Major’s son was getting out of a plane with a James T-shirt on. I thought, “Fuck me, this is weird.”
BOOTH: Every band has a song that kicks the door down. And every band has a slightly ambiguous relationship with that song. If people are going to respond the same way to it every night, hasn’t it lost its magic? Now and again, l do it in a churlish, bad tempered, self-defeating way. We did it as the third song when we were headlining Reading, and I said, “If you came to hear that song, now you can all fuck off!”
HUNTER: It gets thrown out because we think people want to hear it and I don’t think we do it justice.
BOOTH: On the last tour, we started with it, with me and Larry walking through the audience from the back, with the audience singing along. It can still be an amazing, healing song.
Written by James
Performers Tim Booth (vocals)
Larry Gott (guitar)
Jim Glennie (bass)
Dave Baynton-Power (drums)
Saul Davies (violin)
Mark Hunter (keyboards)
Andy Diagram (trumpet)
Produced by: Gil Norton
Recorded at: The Mill Studio, Berkshire
Released as a single: March 1991
Highest UK chart position: 2
1987: James improvise “SitDown” during a rehearsal
June 1989: The original version of “Sit Down” is released and fails to chart. But it becomes a cult hit at the Hacienda, where crowds sit down when it’s played, a practice that spreads to James gigs.
December 1990: After three singles from Gold Mother narrowly miss the Top 30, James sell out Manchester‘s 10,000 –capacity G-Mex Arena.
March 1991: Rerecorded with producer Gil Norton, “Sit Down” is only kept off them No 1 spot by Chesney Hawkes’ “The One And Only”.