Some bands just aren't cool. But did they really deserve the backlash?
Some bands just aren’t cool. Coldplay can sample Kraftwerk all they want but they’ll always be a bunch of student union try-hards led by a man who thinks he can team up with Bono to end poverty. James, the Manchester band responsible for stadium-filling hits like “Sit Down”, “Say Something” and “Come Home”, never tried to be anything other than what they were: a diverse bunch of lads trying to make music they liked. Throughout the 1980s, the critics championed their experimental, infectious alternative folk-pop. In the early 90s, when they exploded out of the Hacienda scene and started selling cartloads of records, James became the world’s lamest thing: a “stadium indie” band. They’d become more polished, more mainstream and maybe more boring, but did they really deserve the backlash? If they’d quit earlier, would they be critically revered like all the other great Manchester bands they played with?
“It’s a very UK-based thing. They like you when you don’t know what you’re doing”, guitarist Larry Gott tells me, of the press reaction. “You just stumble clownishly into something and that gives it a sense of authenticity. As soon as you get better at what you’re doing, you lose that sense of authenticity in the observer’s eye because it looks like you know what you’re doing”. The press, Larry says, treated James like a kid that is well-loved until it grows up, at which point everyone decides it’s “a bit of a cunt”. Founding member and bassist Jim Glennie is keen to emphasise that James never got polished and that, even now, they “like the fear, the fear of being on stage and having to make something work. The last thing we’d want to do is polish everything out, which most bands want to.”
The desire to take risks was with James from the beginning. Two kids from Moss Side, Jim Glennie and Paul Gilbertson formed the band in 1982 two weeks after Paul, a disciple of The Fall and Orange Juice (James are named after the brilliant James Kirk, Orange Juice’s original guitarist), persuaded Jim, a self-confessed “football hooligan”, to pick up a bass guitar. A few months later, Jim and Paul, then 16, had snuck into the Manchester student union. “We’d either climb in through a window if we could get in, or get someone to sign you in on the door. If you waited long enough some poor student would do it,” Jim remembers. There, they were impressed by the dancing of a student called Tim Booth: “I was from Leeds and I’d been sent to an English boarding school and ended up at Manchester University studying Drama. I met these guys, I was dancing in a nightclub and they saw me dancing and were stealing my beer. They were 16 but they were still pretty scary”, Tim says.
Once they’d stopped stealing Tim’s booze, Jim and Paul asked him to come out and rehearse with them. “We figured you were in university so you could help us with our lyrics”; Jim tells Tim. “He’ll do, bright lad”! The next day, Tim woke up with Paul’s number scrawled across his hand. Bleary eyed, he called him up and went out to Withington, to a scout hut the band practiced in. Today, Tim remembers it clearly. “Memory’s a false thing anyway, we know that scientifically, but I have strong memories of that day. Within a week we had a gig supporting Orange Juice in Sheffield and I was banging a tambourine and dancing and terrified”.
Soon, Tim became the singer: “I’d never done any singing. I’d never done any lyric writing, ever. I had to write lyrics because they started asking me to sing these songs with the most appalling lyrics. I quote you: ‘I have a way with girls, me being so good-looking. I have a fantasy, I wanna be raped by a woman’. And Paul’s going ‘you’ve got to sing that next weekend’, and I’m going, “Errrr, can I change the words?’” Leaving their proto-Kasabian lyrics behind, James were hard to pin down in the early days. At one show, Tim just read lyrics out, leading future promoters to bill the band as, “James (Not a poet)”. This footage from a 1982 gig at the Hacienda shows their debt to Orange Juice as well as giving you an idea of how far they were from the stadium band they later went on to be typecast as. Though Jim was “terrified” of Mark E. Smith, The Fall were “incredibly supportive” of James and regularly put gave them support slots at their club night.
As with many alternative 80s bands, James had a strong DIY ethos. “In the early days we used to do our own equipment and I remember travelling to Oxford on the back of a butcher’s van, under canvas, illegally, with the drums set up, freezing cold, blood everywhere over the floor because it’s a butcher’s van, a vehicle that wouldn’t go over 40 miles an hour. We ended up being so late we nearly didn’t get to play”, Jim says. The band huddled up in sleeping bags in the back of the van and Larry used to allow the local community to become unwittingly involved in an arts sponsorship program by going round the estates syphoning off petrol for their journeys. A man of the people, he didn’t pick on just one car. The butcher who lent the van got into fat rendering and ended up doing very well selling the fat to cosmetics companies.
James, playing on the roof of the Piccadilly Hotel in Manchester, 1991
“James was a rough, Manchester band”, Tim explains. “It was beg, steal or borrow. The original singer ended up in Strangeways Prison for GBH and the original guitar player ended up in Strangeways Prison for GBH. Thatcher had this enterprise allowance thing, which really helped us because until then, we had to sign on the dole and you had to be back in Manchester and you couldn’t really tour. It was tricky, but that was what was sustaining us”. This enterprise allowance, brought in to keep the official dole figures down, enabled the band to officially go professional. In the eyes of the state, they went from being unemployed lads from the industrial north, to thrusting young entrepreneurs. When they were on the dole, they were terrified that well-publicised gigs or reviews would have the authorities knocking on their door to ask them why they were on benefits when they were clearly coining it as Manchester’s latest, greatest indie band. The first time they were on the cover of the NME, they were still signing on.
The reality, of course, was that James spent years scraping by, rolling through a series of not-quite-successful relationships with Factory Records, Sire and Rough Trade. “For about the first five years, we earned about 30 quid a week, which was about the same as the dole”, says Tim. “And then it jumped after five years, but we had about seven years really without making money. We were just doing it because we loved what we did”. The potential for a big break came when The Smiths fought their record label to bring James along on the 1985 “Meat is Murder” tour. When Marr and Morrissey met, one of the things they shared was that they both had James’ first single. It was their Jagger and Richards meeting on the train station platform moment and James played the part of Muddy Waters. The Smiths were “very kind and generous” to James and covered the early James song “What’s the World”.
During the 80s, there was an impression that James were, as the NME put it, “lefty veggies gone bonkers”. In some ways, this impression has never left, clinging particularly to Tim. Once upon a time, says Jim, this wasn’t too far from the truth and on the “Meat is Murder” tour; Jim ended up giving Morrissey a massage because the great yodeller had a headache. “Back in those days we were a bunch of hippies so the idea of giving someone a massage was par for the course. If someone had a headache, you wouldn’t give them a paracetamol, you’d light a candle and get some oil out. I gave Morrissey a massage and he said, ‘Much better, thanks very much’. He was probably lying”. A few years later, when they were playing Top of the Pops with Nirvana, Kurt Cobain was so nervous he felt like he couldn’t sing. Tim offered him a throat massage to relieve his troubles. Kurt declined.
These idiosyncrasies applied to James’ life outside the limelight, as well. For a start, the band never talked about anything to do with their music. They would just get in a room together and start playing. “We’d have silent rehearsals”, Tim recalls. “Four or five hour rehearsals, four or five times a week. Then Larry joined, in 1984, and because he could actually play, he began to provide the semblance of a structure”. “I didn’t know what key it was in”, says Larry. “I didn’t know anything. Let’s say that 10- 20% of the time the music that the individuals were playing came together into something that was recognisable and you could tell they were actually listening to each other. The rest of the time, it sounded like a music shop on a Saturday afternoon. One’s playing Michael Jackson, another’s playing “Smoke On The Water” and nobody’s listening to each other”.
These were the famous James improvisations and out of the 20% that made sense, came the songs. The rehearsals were taped, so the band would listen back to the tapes and when they heard something they liked, they’d try and recreate it. They’d get the recreation about 40% correct and from there they’d have something fit to record. To this day, none of the band ever brings ideas to James rehearsals. There’s no enthusiastic “Hey guys, I came up with a great chord progression last night”. “We carried on doing this for a long, long, long, long time and it’s still pretty much the basis of how we do things now,” says Jim.
It’s also how they wrote their biggest hits. “Sit Down”, for example, came out of one of the improvisations. “It’s very simple if you listen to it again, like a lot of the best ideas. It’s only three chords, its E, A, B and they just keep cycling round”, says Larry. Tim started singing a melody over the top of it and after 20 minutes of playing the band collapsed in a fit of hysterics. “We just laughed and went, ‘that’s ridiculous’, because we’d just written a Eurovision song contest song or something”, remembers Jim. At the time, the band was falling out with Sire Records and they needed a song to make them feel like they had a future. They kept “Sit Down” for themselves and it became a No. 2 hit in the UK.
This summer, James release their latest album, La Petite Mort, some of which was written in Greece, where the band are enormously, hilariously popular. Listen to any James song on YouTube and you’ll find the comments section dominated by Greeks. There are a whole raft of Greek-language James covers, including this version of “Say Something” by 90s legend Filippos Pliatsikas. James played one gig in Athens in 2001, before they split up and between then and their reformation in 2007, they became mysteriously massive in the Hellenic world. It’s a popularity they’re happy with. The critics may not know what to do with James but the people will always love them.
Follow Oscar on Twitter: @OscarRickettNow