James - Biography
By Marcus Kagler
Certain bands exist on the cusp of success for years. James spent nearly a decade impoverished and languishing within Manchester’s local scene as the city’s “best kept secret.” Doomed to suffer a continuous lack of promotional support from various labels throughout the 80’s, it was rumored James sold more T-shirts at their wildly popular Manchester area gigs, than they did albums across Great Britain. Although the band would have many incarnations throughout their career, they were always consistently a “jam band,” in the sense that their compositions and live shows were based on elaborate improvisational pieces. This placed James at the center of England’s lingering neo-hippy scene, garnering the group a diehard fan base who followed the band on tour throughout the country. The group often incorporated surreal experimental soundscapes into their peculiar brand of pop rock. By the end of the 1990’s however, James popularity waned and the group called it quits after ten albums. By 2007, the cult of James returned in force when the band announced its reformation with most of the core members in tow. Their seven date reunion tour of Britain sold out in one day, and by 2008 the band announced they were working on their first full-length album of original material in seven years.
After playing under numerous monikers ranging from Venereal, The Diseases, and Volume Distortion, the group officially became James after bassist Jim Glennie and guitarist Paul Gilbertson met vocalist Tim Booth at a student disco in 1982. Along with drummer Gavan Whelan, the fledgling quartet decided to rename the band after the first name of a member, eventually settling on James (taken from Jim Glennie) as it was the most neutral name with little to no outside connotations. Basing their sound around wild tribal percussion, rudimentary guitar parts, and Booth’s poetic improvisational pieces, this early version of James was wildly different from the multifaceted pop they would become famous for in the 90’s. After signing to local indie label, Factory Records (home of Joy Division/New Order, Durutti Column, Happy Mondays, etc.) in 1983, the group released their first EP, Jimone to little notice. James' local live shows over the next two years, earned the band a cult following in the Manchester scene and they released their second EP, James II (Factory) in 1985. This EP caught the ear of The Smiths vocalist Morrissey, who invited the band on tour that year. The Smiths were arguably the biggest alternative band in England at the time and James' subsequent tour gave the young group their first taste of national exposure, eventually leading to a contract with Sire Records. Gilbertson’s escalating drug addiction culminated in his dismissal from the band at the end of 1985, with guitarist Larry Gott replacing him soon after.
James debut full length, Stutter (Sire) arrived in early 1986 and received a positive reception from critics, but due to Morrissey’s endorsement James was labeled a Smith’s rip-off in the minds of the British public. In an attempt to shake The Smiths stigma, James veered toward a slower folk-inspired sound for their sophomore full length, Strip-Mine (1988 Sire), but it too was largely ignored. After finding an escape clause in their contract the band left Sire, basically returning to square zero as destitute musicians. After signing a one-off deal with Rough Trade, the group released their first live album, One Man Clapping (1989 Rough Trade), which eventually made it to the #1 slot on the UK indie charts, catching the eye of Fontana Records, who signed the band that same year. At a subsequent gig, Booth and Whelan became embroiled in a fist fight on stage and Whelan was asked to leave the band. On a new label and without a drummer, James decided it was time for a drastic change. Whelan was eventually replaced by drummer David Baynton-Powers with the band adding three more members: keyboardist Mark Hunter, violinist/multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies, and trumpet player Andy Diagram. Embracing a broader more eclectic stadium rock sound, Gold Mother (Fontana) was released in the fall of 1991 to widespread critical adulation. The single “Sit Down” was a massive hit that would not only carry James to the top of the UK charts but also pigeonhole the group as a one hit wonder after Madchester met a quick death just a year later.
“Sit Down” was such a massive success that by the dawn of 1991 James were doing everything in their power to distance themselves from the song, including not incorporating “Sit Down” in their live sets much to the displeasure of their audience. Overseas, Gold Mother was re-released as the self-titled full length, James (1991 Fontana), and featured a re-recorded version of “Sit Down.” James abandoned their signature jangly pop sound entirely on Seven (1992 Fontana), which further explored their new U2-style arena rock sound and widened the band’s international notoriety, but ultimately proved a commercial misstep that alienated their diehard fan base. By the end of 1992, trumpet player Andy Diagram had exited the group and James was again at a crossroads. The band simultaneously needed to salvage their reputatuion by going back to basics and produce a grand artistic statement. After enlisting uber-producer and king of ambient art Brian Eno, the group crafted the most creatively ambitious album of their career. Laid (1993 Fontana) is laced with moving electronic atmospherics, complex avant-garde song structures, and Booth’s most poetic statements of love, loss, and redemption. In an ironic turn of events, the album was largely ignored in Britain but was a surprising hit in the US due to the poppy risqué title track. It wasn’t long before Laid became one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year with sales quickly following suit.
At the height of their career James decided not to capitalize on the success of Laid by releasing Wah Wah (1994 Fontana), a bizarre avant-garde improvisational album, also recorded with Brian Eno, that offered no singles and no radio friendly tracks at all. Wah Wah may have been a brave artistic statement, but it also singlehandedly sunk James career in the US and significantly damaging their commercial viability in Europe. The band took another hit when key songwriter Larry Gott left the group at the beginning of 1995, leaving James no alternative but to take the majority of the year off to regroup. With James on an extended hiatus, Booth joined forces with film composer Angelo Badalamenti (of Twin Peaks fame) for the collaborative effort, Booth and the Bad Angel (1996 Polygram).
After adding new guitarist Adrian Oxaal, the band recorded their eighth full-length album, Whiplash (1997 Mercury). Whiplash received little attention and James' popularity continued to wane. Oxaal was replaced by guitarist Michael Kulas for the band’s next full-length. Millionaires (1999 Mercury) once again mixed electronic flourishes with streamlined pop but it was largely ignored by the public. Undaunted, the band attempted to give their failing career one last shot in the arm. Reconvening with producer Brian Eno, the band masterfully combined their penchant for pop hooks with inspired experimentalism, producing one of the best albums of their career. Please To Meet You (2001 Mercury) exemplified James' creative aesthetic and ultimately served as the band’s swan song. Unfortunately, Pleased To Meet You received little promotional support and the album went overlooked on both sides of the Atlantic despite massive critical praise. A few months later, Booth announced he was leaving the band for good. James embarked on a farewell tour of Britain in the winter of 2001. Their last show was at the Manchester Evening News Arena and was recorded and released for posterity as the live album, Getting Away With It…Live (2002 Santuary).
Booth went on to release his first solo album, Bone (Sanctuary) in 2004, while Mercury re-released deluxe editions of Gold Mother, Laid, and Whiplash in 2002, complete with bonus tracks. A two-disc definitive best of compilation, The Complete Singles Collection 1983-2007 (Mercury) was released in 2007. In order to promote the singles collection James announced a short five date reunion tour of Britain, which was expanded to seven dates after the initial tour dates sold out in one day. Invigorated by the overwhelming public support the Laid line-up of the band (featuring guitarist Larry Gott) announced they were working on their first album of original material in seven years. Hey Ma (Mercury), James' ninth studio album, was released in September of 2008.