Melody Maker June 1986: The Gentle Touch – Anti-rock, anti-cliché, anti-rebellion, James are attempting to wake up the sleepy world of pop to some kind of reality. Simon Reynolds wishes them luck. Andy Catlin looks on
James are a new thing. Maybe one of the last new things that’ll emerge from pop’s depleted range of possibilities, maybe the herald for a whole new order. It’s difficult to say.
This is an interesting stage we’re suffering right now. In James’ words, we’re all “dying to begin again”- but the accent, as of yet, is on death, decline, drift, disintegration. James could be a penultimate, teasing glory, or the promise of renewal. It’s difficult.
James are at an interesting stage too, making tentative, hopeful steps into a larger arena. Everything that makes them different and special is precisely what will create difficulties for them. But it’s going to be an adventure.
James are very relaxed about it all. If they have a fault it’s perhaps that their affability and modesty can make you forget that they are “important” – if that word has any meaning left in the diminishing realm of rock 1986.
They like to represent what they do as simple and natural and uncomplicated, a reticence that makes it hard to talk when you’re convinced, as I am, that their music is a sophisticated response to complex times. Sometimes I get the impression they’d like to promote the new LP, “Stutter”, without elaborating at all on contexts and intentions.
“Stutter” was produced by Lenny Kaye, he of “Nuggers” and Patti Smith fame. You’d think a group as English and indie as James would be shy of linking up with someone with such heavy associations with a certain tradition of American underground rock ‘n’ roll. Or was this a conscious alignment, a coming clean about being a rock band?
With James, nothing is ever deliberate, it just happens. Guitarist Larry Gott: “His name just kept cropping up. When we eventually signed to Sire, the label’s boss, Seymour Stein, knew him, you see.”
Singer Tim Booth continues: “Lenny was a mixture of chance and choice. We talked to him and saw that he was really sussed. With him we were prepared to compromise, whereas with someone else, we might have closed ranks.”
Compromise? I can’t see much evidence of commercial bland-out/gross-out.
“Perhaps compromise is the wrong word,” suggests Jim Glennie, bassist. “It was more a question of letting Lenny’s input come into the music”.
What is clear is that Kaye has given James a scope and force and brightness of sound appropriate to a major label group. James now have as much in common with early Echo or U2 as with the more flimsy, brittle sounding shambling bands.
I think it’s important to stress that James are a rock group. Important precisely because they have so little truck with what we’ve come to associate with rock – the stale sleaze, the megalomania, the rowdyism, the swaggering sexuality. James are opening up possibilities for a new kind of rock, one that retains the accelerating and urgency, but relinquishes the aura of violence and overbearing masculinity.
James aren’t alone – throughout the indie scene, both British and American, people are coming to the same conclusions, drawing from similar sources, developing elements like The Velvets, Byrds, Television, folk, into a rock that’s not just post-rockism, but post-r&b.
It’s funny how all these hip white kids in Britain have appropriated the music and imagery of an earlier American bohemianism, only to use it as a kind of dissidence against present day Americanisation. The jangly/fuzz sound is combined with a defiant Englishness, a dissent from all that’s taken as Americanised in this country – video, wine bars, yuppiedom, soul boy culture, consumerism. A dissent from pop itself, in fact.
Strange and exciting, isn’t it, that purity has become hipper than wildness, that innocence has come to seem a more desirable, cooler, state of being than worldliness? Are James aware they’re part of a wider change?
They say they don’t listen to other music much, too much like a busman’s holiday. Have they got any ideas why this change is occurring?
Tim muses: “It’s a different period… we’ve had that wildness stuff, and it doesn’t last long because the nature of it is such that you’re pretty ill, you can’t maintain the intensity and you burn out very quickly. So you move on to something else, hopefully something a bit more positive, and long term.”
Larry continues: “It sounds like you’re putting this purity thing into a category almost like the punk explosion, or the rock explosion before that. I don’t think it will explode because of its very nature. Only things like outrage explode.”
“And dissipate just as quick,” adds Gavan Whelan (drums). “We’re more like something that seeps into your bloodstream.”
I’m interested that Tim speaks of moving on to something positive because, in most of the songs, you seem appalled by things, disgusted.
“I hope there’s more than that. I hope there’s something positive at the end. Like ‘Black Hole’ speeds up at the end and that’s the way you get out. Plus there’s humour too – y’know, ‘Beam me up Scotty’! There is a lot to be appalled at, but not all life’s like that.”
Perhaps what’s positive is just the transfiguration of sorrow in music, the sheer exultation in sound and energy. James are perhaps the best, most innovative and dynamic of jangly – nowpop groups, rivalled only by those Arizona mystics, The Meat Puppets. And it’s positive just to be able to write about bad things incisely, yet with wit and compassion.
Tim’s lyrics traverse a number of interlocking themes – how machismo brutalises (both victim and self), the restlessness of desire that will never find peace in materialism or promiscuity, non-communication – and return again and again to the yearning for a home, for tranquillity, for “nature”, and “truth”.
There are two really central concerns – pollution (of the environment, the body, of language) and illusion (social masks, self-deception). Tim will joke about “getting high on negativity”, but it seems to me that he does work himself up into a kind of ecstasy of denunciation on songs like “Just Hip” and “Your Loving Son”. And, because they’re exhilarating, charged pieces of music, we too get swept up in it. Both songs climax by spiralling up to the heavens and James’ music seems to strive to rise above it all, leave behind worldly concerns and base things.
But I almost feel sorry for all those people whose lives are being dismissed as “disguises” and “built on lies”. The new single, “Really Hard”, implores “wake up from this dreaming state”, and it’s almost as though Tim sees all of everyday culture as a mirage, as ersatz-satisfaction. So, what are we left with, once all the veils are stripped away? Clear vision? What, I ask, are the real things?
A long, embarrassed, smirky, silence ensues before Tim speaks: “Well, there’s love… and there’s waking up. Like, things are often not very real – lots of patterns in the way people behave, are dependent on the way they were treated as a child, on the environment they were brought up in, the school they went to, the psychological games their mothers and fathers played with each other, certain key events. All that can make people into a kind of machine, repeating. And when you find yourself repeating these patterns you try to wake up from that. When you start to wake up, it’s very exciting.”
What do people wake up to?
“An awareness of the part of you that isn’t asleep, that is aware, and that’s common to everyone. There’s no real language for it, you could get bogged down in mystical language, although that’s not how I see it.”
One thing that marks James out is the explicit way they address the way pop is a form of conditioning, how rock’s dead history of gesture can constrict our vocabulary of desire and self. “What’s The World” and “Hymn From a Village” were brilliant essays on pop’s redundancy and the search “for some words I can call my own”. The new LP contains “Johnny Yen”, an hilarious rejection of the self-immolation of the rock outsider/tortured young artist.
“When you start to make songs, all the songs you’ve ever heard come in, and you have to be very alert to the clichés. It’s another facet to waking yourself up.
“Clichés are dead songs, there’s no energy, no lift to them, cos you can predict what’s coming, from the first note in. Like “Hymn From a Village” stems from when we started to make a song and it seemed very robotic, like a cliché, and that led to the lyrics ‘this song’s made-up, made second-rate’. It was a sleepwalking song. So it’s the same with life – if you wake up, you become more alive, instead of just going through the same tired habits and responses to what confronts you.”
It seems to me that what James are attempting is a noble project. They’re trying to inject into pop ideas and practices that are foreign or actively hostile to what pop has always been about. Pop and rock have hitherto been very much take take take, me me me, want, want, want – whereas James are trying to introduce reflection, selflessness, a quiet life, concentration, into its scheme.
It makes me wonder that Sire think they can sell them. There’s too much that’s jarring and alive about James for the radio – the disruptive intelligence of their song constructions, the fact that you can tell people are there from their playing, will all make it difficult for people to use James as background listening. Are James too up-pop to ever be successful?
“Lots of people come up, like you, and say, I like it, but it’ll never be popular. But lots of people come up and say that! The truth is we just don’t know. We want to find out.”
Jim: “You’ve just got to show people that possibilities exist.”
Tim: “We used to think the music would sell on its own merits, but now we see we have to sell it, sell it on Jim’s face, Gav’s beard, my shoes and Larry’s glasses.”
I hope it works.