James

By Phill Savidge

JAMES – 2010 BIOGRAPHY – THE MORNING AFTER

What does one expect from a James record these days? Sit Down? I don’t think so. And yet, when James released that legendary tune not many people were expecting that either. James have always been about jamming and feeling the groove and some of their most successful songs and albums have emerged after a seemingly endless foray into the realm of the unexpected. But even here you might find the typical James record full to the brim with ‘James’ type anthems and ephemera. And haven’t you always suspected them of being capable of something else? Enter The Morning After. 

James are Tim Booth (singer), Larry Gott (guitars), Jim Glennie (bass), Saul Davies (guitar, violin), Mark Hunter (keyboards), David Baynton-Power (drums) and Andy Diagram on trumpet. This is the line-up that recorded Gold Mother (spawning the hits How Was It For You, Come Home, Lose Control and Sit Down), and Seven (although Diagram was absent for the subsequent Eno-produced Laid and Wah Wah albums). It is also the line-up responsible for the band’s superb recent new mini-album The Night Before and the imminent new companion piece The Morning After.

Of course, we were expecting this: earlier this year when James released The Night Before, the album catapulted James into the pantheon of artists that are even more alluring second time around. Produced by Lee ‘Muddy’ Baker (who produced Hey Ma as well as Booth’s solo album Bone in 2004), The Night Before seemed fearless, a product, no doubt, of the way it was conceived: the band set up an ftp site to which they all contributed, downloading and updating each other’s efforts at various intervals whilst Baker knocked things into shape. This “virtual” recording process was presumably inspired by the band’s ten year history of working with Brian Eno and brought out the best in James, the results proving as diverse and intriguing as anything the band had attempted before.

The Night Before was nothing if not intimate. Ten Below was inspired by Booth’s memories of “surviving” a Welsh boarding school education where he spent a significant amount of time wearing hats and scarves under the bedclothes (he was “yellow” and suffering from jaundice) and listening to John Peel – who’d incidentally attended the same school. Crazy, the lead single, touched on a similar theme; Booth’s liver disease actually got worse not better and he found himself hospitalised and told that he had hardly any white cells left in his body. Throughout recovery (if life can be said to be recovery), Booth had been convinced that his physical frailty (which often produced hallucinations) meant that he was “crazy” and that sooner or later he would be exposed. (Imagine his surprise when he hit thirty and found he’d got away with it!) Ostensibly, both songs had a sense of triumph but it’s surely true to say that if James had always written uplifting songs about insecurity, disaffection and mental illness then these songs took the record to a whole new level.

With The Night Before in the bag, the deal was to complete the UK tour (which culminated in an Albert Hall headline show) and head for a studio where they could spend five days recording in a big room with no overdubs and with a view to capturing “something spontaneous”. This idea came about due to the diversity of the ftp sessions the band worked on and the realisation that they were writing two completely different kinds of song. James naturally come up with beautiful, quiet pieces of music anyway but rarely do more than one or two ever make it on to a long player and this time they wanted to make a whole album like that. The results are The Morning After and eight tracks that stretch the James envelope further than it’s ever been stretched before.

Aside from Gott’s outline work, The Morning After has its origins in the recent tour and true to their word the band really did just take the one day off (for promo!) before recording. The record has an intuitive, low-key “campfire” feel and features some of the saddest, darkest lyrics Booth has ever come up with. The bluesy opener Got The Shakes is a song about an alcoholic guy waking up and realizing he has beaten his wife where the line “some people shouldn’t mess with thunder” is as menacing as it sounds. Dust Motes concerns a man checking the dust motes in the light, devastated that his relationship is over and the kiss-off line “I’ll forgive you your transgressions, I’ll forgive you – if you die!” is as clever, funny and twisted as this paradox suggests. Tell Her I Said So is about Booth’s mother dying in a home (which she compares to boarding school – staff are cold the rules are rules, how can children be so cruel”) – and her being shocked that her life should end this way (“if I could leave I wouldn't stay, never thought I'd end this way”) and yet here are the first signs of light: the song suddenly embraces disco, employs a childrens’ choir to sing the refrain “here’s to a long life, here’s to a life that’s lived too long” and becomes curiously life affirming. It’s a respite of sorts.

On the ballad Kaleidoscope, a man overhears his wife (of twenty years) on the phone (presumably) continuing an extra-marital affair and concluding that he is too scared to divorce: the irony is that she is really on the phone to her doctor who has told her she has cancer and only weeks to live. (Incidentally Booth got the idea for this song after being constantly caught on the phone organizing a surprise party for his wife!) The misperceptions are exacerbated on Rabbit Hole (featuring lovely slide guitar and deranged keyboards) where some Alice In Wonderland allusions compete with the generic acknowledgement that nothing is real and everything is imagined. Booth finishes the tune in falsetto and the song leads beautifully into Make For This City, another projection song or city in the mind/imagined utopia where everything works and we can leave our front doors open and be fascinated with each other rather than be scared.

Subsequently, The Morning After’s key track could easily be Look Away for the simple reason that it is almost impossible to listen to it without singing along: this is electronica (if not Electronic!) without the indifference, a song about not facing up to the facts and where the line “All that really matters is that you weren’t in the building when the walls came tumbling down” is bleak beyond compare. But you want bleak? Listen to the album’s closer Fear for here is a song with a mood and a mission. Atmospheric, experimental and just a little bit haunted, Fear tackles that dominant inner monologue that stalks (perhaps) the life that’s lived too long: Fear fights for the drivers seat/Keeps breaking the chain/Next time he rides in the boot/We got wise to his game”.

A brief history lesson: whilst James - the phenomenon - has gone on to release ten studio albums and sell a total of 12 million albums worldwide, James - the band - has undergone a personal history that would have killed off lesser individuals. Briefly signed to Factory Records in the early 1980s, they released two EPs before signing to Sire and releasing their debut album Stutter in June 1986. Unfortunately, upon releasing their follow-up, Strip Mine, in September 1988 they were promptly dropped by Sire and featured in a television documentary as an example of how rock stars can be forced to become human guinea pigs in medical experiments in order to make ends meet. In reality, what kept the band a going concern were their incredible live performances and in Booth they were in possession of a unique talisman. Booth, a former drama student, had originally been asked to join the band as a dancer before being “promoted” to singer and it is his wired, shamanic, part rock star part dancing character from a silent movie presence that lends James their edge. Of course, the band as a whole has always had a rare understanding of their musical strengths and it was no doubt these two facts that attracted the attentions of Rough Trade who distributed the self-financed 1989 live album One Man Clapping. The relative triumph of this record (it went to No.1 in the Independent Charts) persuaded Fontana to add James to their roster and, in June 1990, with hope rather than expectation, the band released the groundbreaking Gold Mother.

The original version of Gold Mother did not contain Sit Down (or Lose Control) but the huge success of the new Gil Norton mix and two sell out GMEX shows meant that the record was repackaged (in 1991) and went on to sell two million copies. In 1992 the band released Seven, headlined the Reading festival and played to 30,000 people at Alton Towers, before heading into the studio with Brian Eno to work on the songs that would become the seminal Laid (which broke the band in the USA) and the experimental Wah Wah albums in 1993 and 1994 respectively. A Best Of reached No.1 in March 1998 before a new record, Millionaires, reached No.2 the following year and another, Pleased To Meet You, in 2001, again saw Eno at the controls. A “farewell” tour culminated in a Manchester Arena show and a Wembley Arena performance that included a guest appearance by Eno himself.

James essentially split at the end of 2001 but the seeds of this split first appeared in 1995 when guitarist Larry Gott quit the group. Gott and Glennie (the band is named after Glennie’s Christian name) were founder members and, together with Booth, form the nucleus of the band. Booth has admitted, however, that “in the last few years James were a dysfunctional family” and when he quit in 2001 the split seemed irrevocable.

In 2006 Gott and Glennie contacted Booth again and asked if he was interested in a reunion. For their part, Gott and Glennie had already demoed eight songs and come to the conclusion that they could “hear” Booth all over them. For the first time in five years they wrote and jammed together – “the best language we have for cementing our relationship” - and remembered why they were such a great band in the first place. They officially reformed and in 2007 they released Fresh As A Daisy, a Best Of ..Singles compilation that led to them playing a series of concerts at Brixton Academy as well as the V and T In The Park Festivals. A new album, Hey Ma, their first in seven years, recorded at Warsy Chateau in northern France, was a spectacular return to form and proved every bit as popular on the road as it did on the nation’s stereos. Occasionally, furiously personal (Whiteboy, Bubbles) and at times just furious (Hey Ma), the record seemed to recapture the spirit of Laid and remind everyone why James had been so relevant in the first place.

And that, of course, was before we had The Night Before and, more importantly, The Morning After. Prepare to be astonished.

 

The Morning After will be released on September 6th 2010. James will be appearing this summer at many of the world’s biggest festivals.