James

TrackAlbum / EP / Single
FolkloreFactory FAC-138
Billy's ShirtsStutter
FairgroundStrip-mine
VultureStrip-mine
MosquitoBlanco y Negro NEG 26T
LeakingOne Man Clapping
Sit DownRough Trade RTT 225
UndertakerFontana JIMM 512
Top Of The WorldGold Mother
Out To Get YouFontana JIM 712

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James photo

The moment Tim Booth (l) realises Gavan Whelan (r) will have to be sacked on account of his out-of-time finger clicking. Jim Glennie and Larry Gott look on.

 

Contributor: John Hartley

Oh, you had loads of songs, so many songs, more songs than they could stand – verse, chorus, middle eight, break …” According to legend, Morrissey had one-time Smiths support band James in mind when he wrote this single. If this legend is indeed true, then he was correct, in both ways. James always had songs, loads of songs: for a number of years it was a band policy that no two consecutive gigs would have the same set list, and a James gig without an unreleased or unheard song was a rarity indeed. In the earlier stages of the internet’s world wide boom, one of the band’s fan sites listed loads of songs for free download, culled from sessions or live cassettes; Discipline, Wonderful, Violent Rain. (My favourite was Gregory’s Town, which I came across via a bootleg myself. A studio version of this track was part of the James back-catalogue-embracing Gathering Sound box set a few years ago. It was beyond this teacher’s pay-packet, but if the band happen to be reading and have a spare copy, well, as Morrissey also sang, I wouldn’t say no…).

The other way in which Morrissey was right was that there were more songs than ‘they’ could stand, ‘they’ of course being the music press who performed the predictable build-them-up-to-knock-them-down routine after the ultimate success of Sit Down and the re-released Gold Mother album. It is a credit to the band, and a suitable two-fingered salute to the British indie music press, that not only are James still going, they have just released an album that debuted at No.2 in the British album charts. James have been releasing records for over 30 years now. This Toppermost will only concentrate on the first decade.

It was Chris – of course it was Chris, it was always Chris – who introduced me to James. Flicking through the plastic box in which he kept his twelve inch singles and albums, just before we went to see The Wedding Present play in Manchester, there were a handful of sleeves that took my fancy. I was still quite new to this ‘indie’ malarkey: The Mighty Lemon Drops were my way in, followed closely by The Wedding Present. Amongst many others Chris had The Railway Children’s debut album. They were from Wigan – Wigan! My dad worked in Wigan! Bands didn’t really come from places like Wigan, did they? He also had Strip-mine, by James. A strange band name, I thought, but I liked the font and the cover image was intriguing. I liked the pictures inside more, especially the one with the bloke holding a kitten. I borrowed the record a few weeks later and gave it a listen. It was ok. One song stood out by a mile, though: Fairground. Maybe it was the unconventional instrumentation, maybe the waltzing rhythm, or maybe the lyrical twist on an argument: “when we dance together your rhythm and tempo cut through my quickstep and tune”. Whichever, it was sufficient to whet my appetite and leave me wanting to hear more when I returned the album to its rightful owner a week later.

A couple of months later I found myself with ten pounds burning a hole in my pocket. I don’t know how this came to be – Christmas had been and gone, we were now five weeks into the new year and my birthday wasn’t for a while yet either. It doesn’t really matter in the long run how I got this ten pounds. I had it, and I was determined to spend it, that day, on Strip-mine. Unfortunately, nobody had mentioned this to the major chain record shops of Bolton, and nobody had mentioned to me the existence of the town’s independent record shop, so a purchase of Strip-mine wasn’t to be. In fact, the only thing I could buy was a cassette of Stutter, priced £8.69. I balked at this initially, still being in a £5.99 chart mindset, but then that hole burned a little bigger. I bought Stutter, took it home, listened to it and nearly cried at its awfulness. Surely there weren’t two bands called James? I felt sick, partly because it had cost me a couple of quid over the going rate.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I have by now, for the first time, loved and lost. Nobody could possibly imagine how this feels: the emptiness, the desolation, the sheer, just … aaaaarrgghhh. I have no idea what prompts me to do this but I reach for the jettisoned cassette of Stutter and play it. Maybe because nothing, not even the thought of paying over six pounds for an album, could make me feel worse than I already do. And my ears hear beautiful music, so gorgeous a combination of notes and voice that I cannot comprehend my earlier mindset. Skullduggery, Scarecrow, So Many Ways … so many songs beginning with the letter ‘S’. However it is Billy’s Shirts that seals it for me. What probably put me off first time round turns out to be what convinces me second time round – James indeed have so many songs that they try to fit about six hundred into this particular one. I love the sea-shanty feel of the song, whose very instrumentation conjures up images of narrow streets heading down to an eighteenth century harbour, and for whose opening guitars the term ‘higgledy-piggledy’ could have been invented. I was now hooked, by the way.

A return to Strip-mine was called for, so I borrowed Chris’s copy again and forgot to return it for a couple of weeks. I began to discover that one of many joys of James was that none of their songs sounded the same, and that each individually had a style that seemed perfectly suited their lyrics. Medieval, for example, had militaristic snare drumming and recorders. Withdrawn sounded like the urgency of what I imagined a panic attack might bring. I couldn’t put my finger on what made Vulture stand out on Strip-mine, but it did. There is the lilting bass line around which the song is built, the whispered vocal line, the whimsical piano underneath it all. Of course, the total of the song is greater than the sum of its parts, and Vulture remains a favourite of mine.

All of this must have taken place in a relatively short time, because I had managed to get tickets, along with the rest of my circle of school friends, to see James play live at the Free Trade Hall in Manchester in March 1989. The gig was part of a tour to celebrate the launch of their live album One Man Clapping. At this stage I was completely unaware of the effort it must have been for the band to even get to the stage, through trials and tribulations of record company disinterest and through very real medical trials just to raise enough money to keep going. Largely ignored by the media yet buoyed by a loyal fanbase, One Man Clapping was made possible – according to band accounts – by the enthusiasm of their bank manager who remained convinced when others faltered. The gig was on a Saturday, the album not out until the subsequent Monday. However, tickets sold out and as Morrissey watched from the wings I found yet more fuel to convince me of James’ greatness in Undertaker. The track would ultimately become a B-side, but I was hooked by the rickety bass line and the burst from whisper to fury in the vocal commentary on religious evangelism.

When One Man Clapping was released a couple of days later, it was swiftly purchased. A live album by a band with so many songs would inevitably have the odd one or two with which I was unfamiliar, I guessed. It was a great pleasure to learn that in fact half of the songs on the album were new to my ears. Chainmail had been a single I would subsequently discover, although the version here I find superior. Stutter was of course a live staple, although I had only heard it once before, at the Free Trade Hall. I loved Leaking, however. Here was a half-improvised take on a song that nearly made it onto Strip-mine and contained frantic singing, urgent guitars and almost panic-stricken drums that all collapse mid-song. It came as little surprise to learn that the lyrical content described a burst of near-incontinence, and the second half of the song perfectly represents that feeling of relief and release when, after waiting outside the bathroom for an age, we are finally able to sit down for a nice long wee. When my daughter was three she drew a picture I reckon to be the artistic equivalent of this song …

James drawing

Three months later and James would release the song that ultimately proved to be their breakthrough. Unfortunately for them, and incomprehensibly for me, it wasn’t to be this release however. The first incarnation of Sit Down was released via Rough Trade; its long piano outro apparently new keyboardist Mark Hunter’s first recorded contribution to the band’s canon, and it was proof if proof was ever needed that James deserved much more than they had got so far. Lyrically detailing affinity with the many weird and wonderful people that make up the human race, it was an appropriate soundtrack to my journeys to Chorley to volunteer on a Barnardos summer scheme for children with learning difficulties. I signed up for two days. After the first day I pleaded with my parents that I couldn’t return. They discussed, rationally and logically. I went back, convinced that this was an area of life I would never, ever understand. It’s now my career. Sit Down helped immensely: “those who find themselves ridiculous sit down next to me, in love, in hate …”.

Although failing to get James in the Top 10 at this point in time, Sit Down certainly helped keep the momentum going. So too did autumn single Come Home, and by December of the same year James were selling out Manchester’s Apollo, a sizeable leap from the Free Trade Hall and a huge achievement for a band who started the year as all but forgotten. Their appearance at the Apollo would be captured by the BBC, with snippets shown on SNUB TV, including the legendary stage invasion during encore Sit Down, with Tim Booth imploring – half professionally, half purely overwhelmed – the crowd to “just get off the fucking stage”. He’d earlier asked the crowd if they were finding the infamous Apollo security “too tight”. The gig provided an airing for yet more unheard songs – so many songs – that would appear on Gold Mother. They started proceedings with Hang On, and Government Walls was the second song captured by SNUB TV, but this particular attendee remembers best of all the hairs standing up on his neck at the awe-induced silence that met Top Of The World.

There were now hushed whisperings at school of a new James album, but in the meantime it was my duty to seek out their past. This was not easy; much was deleted and accordingly expensive. It transpired that my new boss at the petrol station, where I spent Saturdays selling petrol and sweets to the rich and famous of Bolton (well, Stu Francis from “Crackerjack” at any rate), was a James aficionado. It also transpired that he wasn’t as daft as I hoped he might be, refusing my half-serious offer of a fiver to relieve him of the £20+ valued Chainmail single. However, Factory Records had foreseen the poverty and desire of a generation of sixth formers and kindly released James’ first two singles as a still-available EP. It was through Village Fire then that I was introduced to Folklore. This was a song that seemed anathema to the music I was force-fed by Radio One in the early 1980s (even the good stuff): tight vocal harmony, simple bass-line that probably led to the ‘nursery rhyme’ tags attached to early James records, and a very sound commentary on a way of thinking that appeared to pervade the background of many of my school colleagues.

The Eastern Bloc record shop in Manchester’s fashionable Afflecks Palace was similarly generous in managing to not sell its copy of the Yaho 12″ single until I returned a week after first spotting it, armed with sufficient cash to buy the only other piece of James back catalogue I could find anywhere. One of the many joys I found in James’ songs was their unpredictability; another was their almost impenetrable weirdness. I was thus delighted to discover Mosquito, with its near-narrated lyrics, barbed banjo and scratchy guitar string slides, and that’s before the song breaks into the short-lived free-flowing melody that immediately follows an unannounced key change. You can possibly imagine my delight when, shortly afterwards, I converted my younger cousin to James by playing him Mosquito, a song I warned him he would probably hate but asked that he not judge the band on that one song alone.

It was with great excitement and anticipation that I bought the major-label sponsored Gold Mother. The album’s lead single, How Was It For You, had broken the Top 40 thanks to the multi-formatting rules that had enabled me to possess both Undertaker in recorded form and the new band logo in stencil form and Tim Booth’s, erm, eccentric style of dancing had been transmitted live into my living room by “Granada Reports” much to the amusement of my parents. An alternative recording of the Rough Trade single Come Home had similar success. Having listened many, many times to a tape recording of a radio broadcast of the Apollo gig I was by now quite familiar with many songs on the album. Two of the songs contained within would be deemed dispensable within a matter of months, as a re-recording of Sit Down would bring James almost to the top of the charts and the subsequent clamour for the song saw a reissue of the album.

The other additional track was the single, Lose Control. This was released in late 1990, just before the band reached perhaps their highest peak: two sold-out nights at Manchester’s G-MEX venue. Attendance at the first of the two nights was drastically reduced due to unusually heavy snowfall in the north-west, but James were used to creating triumph over adversity and this wouldn’t be the last time they would do it either. I blagged a lift home through the blizzard from Newcastle-upon-Tyne with a couple of other students who had advertised a space in their car. On my return I took a tape recording of the single. Its B-side, Out To Get You, struck me immediately and I was surprised that nobody seemed to share my enthusiasm for it. Although not as surprised as when I saw a re-recording of it opening their album, Laid; “Looked in the mirror, I don’t know who I am anymore/The face is familiar, but the eyes, the eyes give it all away …” It made sense then, and it made just as much sense twenty years later when the Fluoxetine was prescribed.

Never strangers to a difficult period or two, James have continued to make and release music to this day. A newly-released album and a UK tour in May suggest this isn’t going to stop in the near future either, which is, of course, a good thing. Perhaps your interest will have been pricked by the selection of songs above and you will want to explore their later works also. If so, I would point you in the direction of Laid and Millionaires in addition to the current album Girl At The End Of The World.

 

 

The official James website

Tim Booth’s website

One Of The Three (incl. Discography)

“Folklore: The Official History of James” by Stuart Maconie

James biography (iTunes)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

TopperPost #525

2 Comments

  1. Rob Morgan
    May 28, 2016

    That will teach me to jump to conclusions – my initial response was “Wot no ‘Hymn From A Village’?” I should have read the accompanying text really – an excellent post as ever, I’m going to enjoy listening to some of the obscurer corners of their extensive back catalogue. Well done!

  2. Eddie May
    Oct 28, 2016

    Thanks for the write up – I was looking for info into what happened to Gavan – I remember seeing James a number of times in the mid 80s & he remains one of my favourite drummers. Really interesting rythms & good technical ability. I recorded their concert at Swansea Uni in about ’85 & the quality was good enough for his drumming to really stand out. Not sure if their recorded songs really captured their live brillance.

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