DOA’s Guide to the Recordings of…James

The creative, alternative, Brit-rock band James was formed in Manchester, England in 1982 by Paul Gilbertson (guitar), Gavan Whelan (drums), Jim Glennie (bass) and Tim Booth (vocals). More than 25 years later the band is still going strong, with two original members (Booth and Glennie), and an impressive catalog of ten studio albums, a few live recordings, many singles, b-sides and even a “Best Of” release. Some would argue that James, along with other local bands like Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, The Charlatans and Joy Division/New Order, helped define a late 80’s rock sub-genre known as “Baggy” or “Madchester”. But I would argue that a specially talented band from Manchester just happened to get its start at that same particular time and place.

Certainly one of the better bands to come out of this era, as evidenced by their longevity and ability to re-invent themselves and their sound through multiple personnel lineups, various record companies and the fickle musical market forces, they counted Morrissey as one of their earliest fans and were often compared to The Smiths. Unlike The Smiths though, James was able to outlast the 80’s and 90’s and even put out some of its best work in the 21st century. But the band didn’t do it by resting on their laurels. They did it by being unpredictable, daring and bold and making a distinctive brand of creative rock music that ultimately defies categorization. Of course having a band full of excellent musicians and a dynamic and enigmatic frontman (Tim Booth) with a precious lyrical skill and a booming voice capable of expressing a heart full of despair and a mind filled with hope, along with possessing a unique dancing ability, certainly didn’t hurt.

In addition, the band was able to hook up with some of the best rock producers in the business including Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith), Hugh Jones (Echo & the Bunnymen, The Charlatans), Youth (Killing Joke, Crowded House, The Orb), Brian Eno (Ultravox!, Devo, David Bowie, Talking Heads, U2) and Stephen Hague (New Order, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Pet Shop Boys, Blur) that, aside from being recording studio whizzes, encouraged and helped the band expand their sound and achieve their potential. All of which enabled James to develop a devoted British fan base while exploring different musical genres and textures yet maintaining its own style and artistic integrity.

For some incomprehensible reason James was never able to break into the American music scene, except for mild success with its 5th album Laid. The title track of which, even after fifteen years, four new albums and dozens of better tunes, is still occasionally played on American radio stations today. Even an appearance at Woodstock ’94 didn’t seem to increase their popularity in the States. However, they were able to achieve somewhat of a cult status and following in the UK, thanks in part to their exuberant live shows, which enabled them to put out nine distinct, unusual, innovative and sometimes glorious rock albums before calling it quits in 2001.

Now, after a 7-year hiatus, James has reformed with what the members consider their definitive line-up, including the “Laid” six of Tim Booth (vocalist, lyricist and founding member), Jim Glennie (bassist and founding member), Larry Gott, Saul Davies, Mark Hunter and David Baynton-Power, with Andy Diagram rounding out “The Magnificent Seven”, and have released their 10th studio album, Hey Ma, a grand mixture of their past with a pulse on the present and an eye to the future.

It seems fitting to take a closer look at James as it proves its staying power by ignoring trends and producing a special brand of alternative rock that is true to the members’ hearts and speaks from their souls. Hopefully this will heighten and enlighten your musical awareness of this great, but often overlooked, band.

Stutter [Sire; 1986] – After a couple of promising EPs, James hooked up with producer Lenny Kaye and released its first album of raw, powerful and punky folk-pop that showed off the band’s energy and ability to create a discriminating new sound. It showed enough potential to gain a small following and enabled them to make more records. Recommended Track: “Johnny Yen”

 

 

 

 
Strip Mine [Sire; 1988] – Building on the folk-pop of Stutter, James reduced the amount of raw punk and replaced it with more polished pop hooks while retaining its youthful enthusiasm and playful charm. “What For” was featured on the American release of Sire Records’ “Just Say Yo” compilation in an attempt to garner a wider audience, but “Are You Ready” and “Ya Ho” are the recommended tracks.

 

 

 

Gold Mother [Fontana; 1990] – Following the release of the live album One Man Clapping, James’ 3rd studio album expanded its sound with the inclusion of new members and produced its best known song, “Sit Down”, which became an audience participation event at the band’s live shows. But the lesser known tracks showed growth both in the politically charged lyrics and with a more experimental musical sound that flirted with prog-rock and included some more ambient electronic-based, effusive pieces. This album was released in the US one year later, titled simply James. Recommended Tracks: “Come Home”, “Lose Control”, “Government Walls”

 

 

Seven [Fontana; 1992] – Less eclectic but more bombastic! A majestic mix of anthemic, stadium rock with an amalgamation of its earlier styles, complete with magniloquent horns and alternative pop hooks. Recommended Tracks: “Sound” and “Heavens”

 

 

 

 

Laid [Fontana; 1993] – A return to the more eclectic and experimental, only this time with Brian Eno at the helm. Ethereal moods and sublime ambient textures permeate the magnificent, atmospheric rock. Recommended Tracks: “Say Something”, “Low Low Low” and “Dream Thrum”

 

 

 

 

Wah Wah [Mercury; 1994] – Recorded and performed by James and Brain Eno during “The Laid Sessions”, this collection of 23 compositions was culled from countless hours of improvisations caught on tape. James’ most daring and diverse work, it captures the group’s creative genius. Recommended Tracks: “Tomorrow” and “Pressure=s On”

 

 

 

Whiplash [Mercury; 1997] – With longtime guitarist Larry Gott gone and new guitarist Adrian Oxaal in tow, James infused its sound with elements of techno, swirls of grunge-style guitars and U2-like arena rock and proved it could keep up with the times while still sounding like classic James. Recommended Tracks: “Lost A Friend”, “Waltzing Along” and “Avalanche”

 

 

 

Millionaires [Mercury; 1999] – Another new guitarist, this time Michael Kulas, but James didn’t miss a beat as itsr sound continued to grow by mixing clever lyrics and humming guitar textures over rich, layered melodies underscored by Eno’s luminous production. Recommended Tracks: “Crash”, “Just Like Fred Astaire” and “Shooting My Mouth Off”

 

 

 

Pleased To Meet You [Mercury; 2001] – James’ unique experimental art-rock meets sublime alternative pop. Some of the band’s best stuff both musically and lyrically, as they seemed to go out on top, only to return 7 years later. Recommended Tracks: “Space”, “Junkie” and “Getting Away With It All Messed Up”

 

 

 


Hey Ma [Mercury; 2008] – Re-united with old members, including guitarist Larry Gott and Andy Diagram on trumpet, James returns in stellar fashion with 11 songs that encompass the vast array of great sounds that graced its last four albums. Recommended Tracks: “Bubbles”, “Hey Ma” and “Waterfall”