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James

+ {Booth And The Bad Angel} + {Tim Booth}

Initially one of the new breed of Factory label outfits that cropped up in the wake of 80s casualties JOY DIVISION, Manchester’s indie sensations JAMES subsequently took the inevitable plunge with the majors, therefore rivalling and competing with former stable-mates HAPPY MONDAYS and NEW ORDER. Sadly, like many of their peers, British success didn’t translate or equate to US sales, but with memorable homespun hits such as `Come Home’, `Sit Down’, `Sound’, `Sometimes’, `She’s A Star’ et al, who really cared? Not leader Tim Booth, that’s for sure.
Formed in August 1982 in the Whalley Range borough of Manchester, the genesis of the group kicked off a little earlier when Jim Glennie took up the bass on the advice of long-time buddy Paul Gilbertson (guitar). Adding drummer Gavan Whelan and a singer or three, the loose collective performed the odd gig under various monikers (Venereal & The Diseases, Volume Distortion and Model Team), and although they supported The FALL, the sprawling improv band didn’t really have a focal point. This changed dramatically when er… drama student Tim Booth was roped in to the band after being spotted dancing at a Manchester Uni disco. Subsequent rehearsals revealed he’d also a talent for singing and songwriting, and after a brief liaison under the Tribal Outlook moniker, the 4-piece resorted to JAMES.
Almost immediately after catching the eyes and ears of entrepreneur/TV presenter Tony Wilson at a Hacienda gig, JAMES inked a deal at Factory Records. Unwilling to commit themselves to a full set, the quartet delivered their debut maxi-single, `Jimone’. Their folksy idiosyncracy and wilful weirdness was beloved of the music press almost from the off; the NME lavished praise on its three tracks which all found their own respective niche: `Folklore’ as the title for Stuart Maconie’s biography of 2000, `What’s The World’ as a SMITHS circuit song, and `Fire So Close’ becoming `Why So Close’ for their inaugural set.
When guitar tutor Larry Gott filled in more often than not for the then-heavy drug-taker Gilbertson, a full-time place for the former was made available when JAMES were urged to release a long-awaited follow-up. It’d been a year and a half, but on the release of their double-header, `Hymn From A Village’ and `If Things Were Perfect’ (under the “James II” banner), their cult standing increased considerably when the 7” topped the indie chart in March ‘85.
True to fashion, Booth and the boys were snapped up by Seymour Stein’s Sire Records, although their exclusive single `Chain Mail’ failed to deliver a hit; even on the back of a support slot to The SMITHS. Legendary underground mover and shaker, Lenny Kaye (formerly of the PATTI SMITH Group), was roped in to produce the band’s debut Top 75 album, STUTTER (1986) {*7}, but some critics were less than enthused. Tim’s overtly English-accented vocals were the primary focus of the band’s often erratic and unorthodox, cerebral, improv-driven indie-pop/folk, and this bizarre combination made the band a compelling live act. Unable to conjure up a hit from the disco-dour `So Many Ways’, the set still had its jingly-jangly moments in `Johnny Yen’, `Scarecrow’ (very MIKE HERON), `Billy’s Shirts’ and `Skullduggery’.
However, financial difficulties led to the band moving along the corporate corridor to WEA subsidiary Blanco Y Negro, where, after two pop flops `Ya Ho’ and the sing-a-long-a `What For’ (surely one-that-got-away), they released long-in-the-can parent sophomore set, STRIP-MINE (1988) {*6}. Eventually produced by Hugh Jones, after Steve Power and Steve Lovell bailed after cutting `Riders’ and `Refrain’, the album’s quirky off-kilter approach and lack of any attendant singles, led to disappointing sales all round. Apart from a biased 9/10* from an NME reviewer, the group and everybody else concerned were less than impressed with the results; several listens down the line one is still getting to grips with the pop-infused `Fairground’, `Not There’ and the cornily-titled `Charlie Dance’.
With The SMITHS out of the way, it was a missed opportunity. When Rough Trade and a loan from the Royal Bank of Scotland endorsed the release of their third album, the live ONE MAN CLAPPING (1989) {*5}, things nonetheless looked decidedly touch and go for JAMES. When an on-stage fight had broken out between Booth and Whelan the previous November, there could be only one outcome, the removal of the drummer; he subsequently teamed up with folkies GONE TO EARTH and, later, CALVIN PARTY. Indeed, throughout the ensuing year and a couple of Peely/Rough Trade-sanctioned signature hits, `Sit Down’ and `Come Home’, further personnel changes saw the addition of fresh drummer David Baynton-Power, keyboard player Mark Hunter, multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies and seasoned indie trumpeter, Andy Diagram (from The PALE FOUNTAINS). Geoff Travis never thought the band a worthy proposition to take the place of the mighty SMITHS, so with some regret, the boss of Rough Trade allowed Booth and Co to buy themselves out and, in turn, find a commercial proposition at Fontana Records, who’d just signed The FALL.
In the summer of 1990, with the “Madchester” scene rife, fortune favoured the brave as JAMES climbed into the Top 40 with the brill, `How Was It For You?’. The platter was duly followed by similarly-placed hits, `Come Home’ (again!) and the exclusive `Lose Control’, the former lifted from Top 20 album, GOLD MOTHER (1990) {*7/*8}. When re-promoted the following March with a Top 3 re-vamp of `Sit Down’ (and `Lose Control’), the set also reached No.2. Outrageously anthemic and tediously annoying after being played to death on the radio, college fave `Sit Down’ was a nice addition to the likes of sex, sin and stress songs, `Crescendo’ and `Hang On’. Suddenly the band were riding on the frayed, flared coat-tails of the baggy scene alongside fellow “Madchester” bands like HAPPY MONDAYS and The STONE ROSES. Their obstinately obscure sound of old had now been bolstered by chant-along choruses of almost football terrace proportions and the ubiquitous JAMES t-shirt was de rigueur for fresher students up and down the country.
JAMES were now playing to stadium-sized audiences after supporting BOWIE at Maine Road, releasing their follow-up, SEVEN (1992) {*7}, to match; an altogether big production of bombastic proportions, it went down like a lead balloon with some critics. Nevertheless, the near-No.1 album had its moments of grandeur in `Born Of Frustration’ (its biggest hit by far at No.13), `Ring Them Bells’ and title track; Booth’s star appeal was its forte as he ploughed through `Live A Love Of Life’ and `Heavens’.
Without Diagram’s trumpet work, 1993’s LAID {*8} was stripped of its extra layers by producer BRIAN ENO; the result a more opaque, skeletal sound that recalled their experimental, earlier work. Lyrically, the album was as complex and as vivid as ever, while the gorgeous `Sometimes’ gave the band their fourth Top 20 entry. At last American audiences had the chance to appreciate the band via a tour in which they opened for NEIL YOUNG. With its title track and album climbing into the US Top 75, and with another Brit hit, `Say Something’ (twinned with `Jam’), the soaring subtlety of singer Tim played its part in JAMES finding their level. The ENO sessions also provided the material for the WAH WAH (1994) {*6} album, a limited-edition side-serving of ambient improvisations with the seasoned electronic wizard.
Tim duly teamed up with avant American film composer, ANGELO BADALAMENTI (he of Twin Peaks fame) and, together with help from ex-SUEDE guitarist, BERNARD BUTLER, the eponymous one-off set, BOOTH AND THE BAD ANGEL (1996) {*5}, reached the Top 40. A diversion that hardly caused a fuss when released, its lightweight approach to ambient-pop (`I Believe’ and `Fall In Love With Me’ among its best tracks), was treated by fans and critics alike as something that was necessary for their beloved JAMES to succeed and grow.
As much a part of the Britpop scene as contemporaries SUEDE and OASIS, it was clear that in Top 10 single, `She’s A Star’, from the equally fruitful WHIPLASH (1997) {*6}, the 6-piece – Adrian Oxaal superseding Gott – had learned a few traits and tricks of the trade along the way. Produced by Stephen Hague, with ENO taking a lesser role as guest artist and co-composer on follow-up hit, `Tomorrow’, the brooding JAMES were finding it harder than most to reach a consistent level; for examples press-play `Avalanche’, `Go To The Bank’ and Top 30 breaker, `Waltzing Along’.
A stop-gap, career-spanning “Best Of” set in ’98 proved the band had still phenomenal support when it reached No.1; staying in the charts for over a year. Though a pointer to its longevity was the thoughtful inclusion of golden oldie `Hymn From A Village’, two fresh and exclusive Top 30 hits, `Destiny Calling’ and `Runaground’; a remix Top 10 hit of `Sit Down’ helped out no end. JAMES were also behind a couple of covers by of way IGGY POP & BOWIE’s `China Girl’ and The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `Sunday Morning’. A further personnel detail was fulfilled when Oxaal made way for Michael Kulas.
Previewing their near chart-topping MILLIONAIRES (1999) {*6} album with hits `I Know What I’m Here For’ and `Just Like Fred Astaire’ was probably an inspired idea, but for many critics of the band it had none of the zip or lyrical sparkle of old, even in the almost poignantly-titled `We’re Going To Miss You’.
Ten albums in and JAMES were showing little sign of parting company (just yet!). PLEASED TO MEET YOU (2001) {*7} imparted the wisdom of maturity rather than the arrogance of youth. Although the set didn’t quite reach the Top 10, while the classy `Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)’ should’ve raised support higher than its lowly No.22 peak, the veteran Mancunians proved that a midlife musical crisis was all in the mind; check out `Space’, `Alaskan Pipeline’ and the title track.
Yet, as the festive/Xmas-recorded double concert set, GETTING AWAY WITH IT… LIVE (2002) {*6}, proved, it was to be the band’s parting shot. TIM BOOTH duly returned to his first love: theatre/dance, while keeping his solo music career on the boil with BONE (2004) {*5}, a sunny sojourn aided and abetted by co-producer/multi-instrumentalist, Lee “Muddy” Baker; the following year saw him playing the role of Mr Zsasz in the movie, Batman Begins.
The return of the magnificent seven, or just plain JAMES (aka Booth, Glennie, Davies, Gott, Hunter, Baynton-Power and Diagram), were drawn back to the circuit for one reason or another in 2007. While a resurgence of their greatest hits by way “Fresh As A Daisy – The Singles” was stirring up the pot, the group put aside their 7-year itch to unhitch HEY MA (2008) {*7}. Although times were hard for “alt-rock” acts who’d a good song to sell, the download-centric ground-zero effect on having a hit among the X-Factor pop stars didn’t stall JAMES from again breaking an album into the Top 10. While the subject matter was serious (the fallen Twin Towers mentioned in the title track), Booth’s crusading cathartic message of hope and peace was littered all over the shop on `Upside’, `Waterfall’, `Oh My Heart’ and `Of Monsters And Heroes And Men’.
Whether one thought 2010’s twin sets were akin to mini-albums or EPs (depending on which side of the world one lived), the hour-long THE NIGHT BEFORE {*6} and THE MORNING AFTER {*6}, were separated by the obvious upbeat or downbeat mood swings. Building on the soaring vox of Booth and delivered in his inimitable pronunciations, fans could pick if they wanted to go `Crazy’ at `Ten Below’, or indeed take two pills into the shower for the “hangovers” `Got The Shakes’, `Rabbit Hole’ and `Tell Her I Said No’.
Three decades on but never running on empty, the always-rewarding JAMES were up for it again on “comeback” set, LA PETITE MORT (2014) {*7}; the connotations and references are for one to look into. A near Top 10 album of two halves, it was neither sensational, unconsciously orgasmic or deathly when one stripped away the wee layers of Euro-disco straddling `Curse Curse’. Having said that, Booth and Co’s embraced all the elements of old (hook-line choruses and climactic crescendos) on the uplifting `Moving On’, `Walk Like You’ and `Interrogation’.
For their next trick, JAMES and producer Max Dingel (retained from their previous outing), arrived back to base from a hideout in Scotland with umpteenth set, GIRL AT THE END OF THE WORLD (2016) {*7}. A breath of fresh air and continuing their alliance with electronica, guitar-pop and the dance-floor, the near No.1 record churned out romantic rhymes for the discerning and disillusioned; at their most potent on `Nothing But Love’, `Attention’, `Surfer’s Song’ and `Move Down South’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Feb2014-Mar2016

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