The quartet’s embryonic early rehearsals were chaotic affairs with songs of sorts gradually emerging from long, free-form jam sessions. The music became much more focused, however, after Gilbertson and Glennie started being tutored by their significantly more accomplished guitar-playing friend Larry Gott. Shortly after, Model Team International became simply James, and, in August 1982, they played their first gig at a venue called the 21 Club in Darwen, outside Manchester; the gig flyer declared that they were “James (not a poet).”
The fledgling band got their next break when they supported New Order at Factory Records’ new venue, The Haçienda, in Manchester’s Whitworth Street: an event which was captured for posterity on Factory’s A Factory Outing VHS video release. Suitably impressed by their performance, Factory label boss Tony Wilson asked James to again support New Order at Liverpool’s State Ballroom in March 1983. Factory then released the band’s first two EPs, November ’83’s Jimone and February ’85’s James II, the latter recorded after Paul Gilbertson had departed and Larry Gott had become James’ de facto guitarist.
Later assembled and reissued as the Village Fire 12” EP, James’ early Factory recordings created quite a buzz around the band. Jimone scooped the coveted Single Of The Week prize in UK rock weeklies NME and Sounds, while the NME gave the band a front cover feature to coincide with the release of James II. Further invaluable publicity followed when fellow Mancunians The Smiths (whose star was then very much in the ascendant) invited James to support on their UK tour following the release of their critically hailed second LP, Meat Is Murder, in February 1985.
Factory Records had hoped to release James’ debut LP, but after a major-label bidding war enveloped the band, Sire Records emerged with their signatures and released James’ debut LP, Stutter, on subsidiary label Blanco Y Negro in June 1986. Produced by Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye, the LP was a spiky, invigorating record, with Booth’s wild, whooping vocals cascading over the band’s adventurous, folk-flecked indie-pop sound. Linear anthems may have been thin on the ground, but with long-term live favourites such as ‘Johnny Yen’ and ‘Why So Close’ among the record’s frenetic sonic delights, Stutter seduced the critics and also cracked the UK Top 75, peaking at No.68.
Helmed by former Echo & The Bunnymen producer Hugh Jones, James’ second LP, Strip-mine, endured a difficult pregnancy. Though the band had deliberately intended to fashion a more straight-ahead pop LP, their record company requested the record be remixed; 12 months elapsed between the recording sessions and the album’s release in September 1988. Released with relatively scant promotion, Strip-mine still made it to No.90 on the UK chart, but while it’s generally regarded as one of James’ lesser works, it includes several excellent tracks, such as the jangly ‘What For’, the sprightly ‘Fairground’ and the infectious ‘Are You Ready’, all of which strongly hint at greater things to come.
The band’s relationship with Sire was relatively rocky after Strip-mine and they negotiated their way out of their contract during 1989. Though financially strapped at this time, Booth and co’s reputation as a live band was second to none and their range of highly popular t-shirts (which included designs involving flower petals and another with the group’s name displayed as ‘Ja-m-es’) sold heavily in Manchester, helping to keep the band afloat during this transitional spell.
James’ next release was a live LP, 1989’s One Man Clapping, a 10,000-only limited edition live LP, released through the band’s own One Man imprint in conjunction with Rough Trade. Culled from two spirited shows on the Strip-mine tour, the LP topped the UK independent chart, garnered a string of positive reviews and successfully renewed wider interest in James all over again.
Before the band began work on their next LP, however, their line-up changed radically. Drummer Gavan Whelan departed and, during the course of 1989, Booth, Glennie and Gott recruited keyboardist Mark Hunter, versatile multi-instrumentalist Saul Davies, drummer Dave Baynton-Power and ex-Pale Fountains/Diagram Brothers trumpeter Andy Diagram. James’ new extended line-up proved its mettle live during ’89 and released two radio-friendly singles, ‘Sit Down’ and ‘Come Home’, both of which cracked the UK independent Top 10 and tickled the lower reaches of the mainstream Top 100.
Rough Trade had originally intended to release James’ third album, but the band’s profile rose considerably during 1989 – a year when the UK indie scene underwent a dramatic sea change and embraced the nascent acid house revolution. With Manchester bands such as The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays (both of whom had previously supported James on tour) spearheading what the press dubbed the “Madchester” indie-dance scene, James’ home town was suddenly an extremely cool place to be associated with.
The hype did the band little harm and, after a successful UK winter tour in 1989, James signed to Fontana Records, who issued their third LP, Gold Mother, in June 1990. Released at the height of Madchester, when local stars Happy Monday and Inspiral Carpets were selling out shows at Manchester’s massive G-Mex Centre, the highly accessible gold-selling Gold Mother went to No.2 in the UK and yielded three Top 40 singles in ‘Lose Control’, the remixed ‘Come Home’ and the blissful ‘How Was It For You?’
James were riding the crest of a wave in the early 90s. A sharper, remixed version of the already highly infectious ‘Sit Down’ shot to No.2 in the UK singles chart in March 1991, earning itself a silver disc and going on to become one of the 20 best-selling singles of the year. Hot on its heels came the band’s fourth studio LP, Seven; issued by Fontana in February 1992 and charting at No.2, it earned the band another gold disc in the UK. Partially overseen by ex-Killing Joke bassist/hot-shot producer Youth, the album touted a robust, arena-friendly sound and again spawned a brace of hit singles, including the mesmeric ‘Sound’ and anthemic ‘Born Of Frustration’.
In the aftermath of Seven’s release, James toured the US for the first time and played a huge sell-out show in front of 30,000 people at Alton Towers theme park, broadcast by BBC Radio 1. Andy Diagram then quit before James returned to America for a high-profile acoustic tour supporting Neil Young; they then embarked on a fresh series of recording sessions with ex-Roxy Music mainstay/ambient pioneer Brian Eno.
The Eno sessions proved highly productive, eventually yielding enough material for two full LPs. The band’s debut for Universal Music’s Mercury imprint, the more traditionally song-based Laid was released in September 1993 to almost uniformly positive reviews. It rose to No.3 in the UK and helped break James in America, where it sold 60,000 copies and charted at No.72 on the Billboard 200. Though it spawned two upbeat Top 40 hits in ‘Sometimes’ and the openly risqué title track, Laid was largely a lot subtler and more atmospheric than its immediate predecessor, and included a brace of introspective beauties such as ‘Out To Get You’ and the affecting, piano-led ‘Lullaby’.
Edited down from James’ Can-esque studio jams during their sessions with Eno, the experimental Wah Wah was released in September ’94. Considerably less accessible than the sublime Laid, it largely baffled the critics yet still rose to No.11 on the UK albums chart and spawned the Top 40 single ‘Jam J’, which reached No.24 as a double A-side alongside Laid’s ‘Say Something’.
Twenty years on, both albums have enjoyed a critical renaissance thanks to Universal Music’s well-received 2015 4CD Laid/Wah Wah Super Deluxe reissue, but after Wah Wah’s original release, James suffered some turbulence when guitarist Larry Gott handed in his notice. In response, James recruited ex-Sharkboy guitarist Adrian Oxaal and returned sounding revitalised with 1997’s Whiplash, which charted in the UK Top 10, earnt the band a gold disc and bequeathed a fresh rash of hit 45s including the soaring ‘She’s A Star’ and the aspirational ‘Tomorrow’.
The band toured extensively following Whiplash’s release, bringing in additional guitarist/backing vocalist Michael Kulas and earning a place on America’s prestigious Lollapalooza tour. 1998 also proved to be a vintage year for James, with a series of sold-out tours and Mercury/Fontana releasing the UK chart-topping, double-platinum The Best Of greatest hits collection, which also featured two freshly recorded UK hits, ‘Destiny Calling’ and the world-weary ‘Run Aground’.
Major commercial rewards appeared to be there for the taking for James on the cusp of the new millennium, yet despite yielding two UK Top 40 hits, ‘I Know What I’m Here For’ and ‘Just Like Fred Astaire’, 1999’s smart, consistent Millionaires struggled outside of the UK, where it again charted at No.2 and went gold, selling a highly respectable 150,000 copies. Again produced by Brian Eno, 2001’s Pleased To Meet You also featured stellar material, such as the uplifting ‘Space’ and icily stark ballad ‘Alaskan Pipeline’, but it surprisingly stalled at No.11 in the UK charts and proved to be the band’s last album for six years.
James’ contract with Mercury ended after Pleased To Meet You and, after an emotional tour culminating in a huge hometown gig at the Manchester Evening News Arena (recorded for a live CD and DVD entitled Getting Away With it…Live), Tim Booth quit the band. He released a solo LP, Bone, in 2004, but by early 2007 he had rejoined James, with the band’s newly reconfigured line-up also welcoming back both Andy Diagram and Larry Gott, the latter coming back in place of Adrian Oxaal.
The band’s first post-reformation tour, in April 2007, was a sell-out jaunt that coincided with Mercury’s updated greatest hits collection Fresh As A Daisy: The Singles, which returned the band to the UK Top 20 and earned them yet another silver disc. James have remained on reliably consistent form ever since. Their fully fledged comeback, 2008’s energised Hey Ma, peaked at No.10 on the UK chart, followed by two mini-LPs in 2010, The Night Before and The Morning After, which were sold separately in the UK but packaged as a double-disc set for the US market.
Going from strength to strength, James’ 11th full-length LP, the polished La Petit Mort, was released through BMG Chrysalis/Cooking Vinyl in June 2014, and again featured a brace of classic, idiosyncratic anthems such as ‘Moving On’, ‘Frozen Britain’ and the epic, seven-minute ‘Walk Like You’. Despite being influenced by the death of Tim Booth’s mother, and its title reading as a literal translation of “the little death”, La Petit Mort is actually one of this rejuvenated band’s most consistently life-affirming records. It also demonstrates that, after three highly eventful decades, James still have absolutely no intention of sitting down – or even thinking of trading on past glories.
After having become superstars in the U.K. with songs like "Sit Down" and then undergone an acoustic American tour opening for Neil Young, James took a consciously quieter, subtler turn with its follow-up to Seven, Laid. This turned out not merely to be a nice way to undercut expectations, but a creative benchmark for the group, arguably its artistic peak. While there had always been a folky, rushed element to the band's work in its earliest days, the now-sextet, following the departure of trumpet Andy Diagram to concentrate on the Spaceheads, here focused instead on understated, moody compositions. Part of this approach no doubt had something to do with Brian Eno's production work, and certainly it's another feather in his cap. While his work with U2 combined with James' own seeming assumption of that band's throne in big rock terms could have resulted in The Joshua Tree redux, that didn't prove to be the case. Admittedly, a couple of songs are specifically aimed at arena-level singalongs, including lead single "Sometimes," which almost drowns under its own weight and speed, and the title track, a celebration of love and lust that ended up giving the band a surprise stateside radio hit. But Tim Booth generally avoids Bono's melodramatics in both hushed and soaring mode, his ruminative singing sounding more like the calm reflections after energetic action, the band's quiet soundscapes a perfect combination of Eno's ear for space and vastness and the group's own abilities. Strong tracks are legion, including "One of the Three," allegedly about British hostages in Lebanon but much more accurately a sharp, harrowing meditation on Jesus and apparently meaningless sacrifice, and the low-key beauties of "Out to Get You" and "Knuckle Too Far." But the best punch is right at the end -- the heartbreaking "Lullaby," a piano-led sigh of regret and wistful hope, and "Skindiving," Booth's near-wordless keen at his most affecting, floating over the low-volume shuffle and bite of the band.
Words: Ned Raggett
Retreating from the experimental tendencies of Laid and Wah-Wah, James return to straight-forward anthemic folk-rock with Whiplash. Although the album isn't a retread of Seven or Gold Mother, it is considerably more rock-oriented than its two predecessors, particularly because the group has incorporated some elements of Brit-pop into their music. "She's a Star," the record's first single, soars on a slide guitar and heavy riff that falls somewhere between Suede and Oasis, as well as a distinctive falsetto from Tim Booth. It is a small song that aims big, which makes it surprisingly graceful, and it's a trick that James only pulls off a couple more times on the album.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Following the breakthrough success of their previous outing, James released Seven, a record that married the ambitious scope of the lyrics with a grand, anthemic feel. Horns give songs like the lead-off "Born of Frustration" and the surging "Sound" a certain majestic grandeur, sweeping without being overblown. Lead singer Tim Booth is in fine form, lending passion to the proceedings, yet maintaining an intimacy. They don't totally abandon the more jangly, folk elements of past albums; it's still there noticeably on tracks like the lovely "Don't Wait That Long" and the shimmering, sardonic "Next Lover." Other highlights include the dramatic "Ring the Bells" and the resolute title track, which is propelled by Andy Diagram's trumpet, Booth's assured vocals, and a thumping rhythm. Seven might not be completely embraced by older fans, but it's a confident, artistic step and a fine entry in their catalog.
Words: Tom Demalon
It's not so much that James weren't expected to make yet another good record; when 2001's Pleased to Meet You was released, they hadn't made a truly subpar record since the late '80s. But it isn't just another good James record -- it's their best. It's their tightest, freshest, most contemporary batch of songs, weatherproofed to stand the test of time. From the dizzily uplifting "Space," a Brian Eno-influenced and produced song (sure sounds like his voice is in the chorus, too), to the glacially sparse ballad "Alaskan Pipeline," the perfectly titled record is fresh-faced enough to sound like a band high on being in a studio together for the first time, but the material and the execution is too focused, too mature to sound like a rookie effort. As with the title track on 1993's Laid, an album highlight is buried near the end. This time it's "Getting Away With It," a song that represents the remainder of the album with a solid tune -- with some of Tim Booth's finest, most meaningful lyrics that aren't necessarily preachy -- and well-placed layers of synths and strings that accent an otherwise merely good James song. To wit, there's a power and a heft throughout that the band only hinted at previously. A band with a dusty best-of and nine previous studio albums isn't supposed to do this, unless they're the Rolling Stones. James' tenth makes you wonder what all the fuss over U2 and R.E.M.'s rebirths are about. And with this clutch of alternate reality Top Ten singles strung together in the disguise of a flowing record, they're making the modern pop charts (in the U.K. and especially the U.S.) look hopelessly feeble. Songs of adulthood, parenthood, and addiction have rarely sounded this exciting.
Words: Andy Kellman
Ambition has never been a stranger to James, perhaps the one band to work the most frequently with Brian Eno to the least amount of attention. After returning to action with 2008’s Hey Ma, the Mancunian quintet decided to dabble a bit with the shifting methods of releasing music in the new millennium via the EP set The Morning After/The Night Before, a pair of complementary EPs released separately in the U.K. and then in tandem in the U.S. The title is indeed a bit of a giveaway, indicating the mood each half of the project conveys, and mood is a large part of what this is all about, James creating teeming nocturnal soundscapes, alternating between the propulsive and seductive, on The Night Before, then slipping into a cool-down for The Morning After. By its very nature, The Night Before grabs upon its initial listen, being built upon urgent rhythms and loud guitars, letting Tim Booth scale to neo-operatic heights, but The Morning After succeeds in its own quiet way, maintaining a cool intimate vibe without seeming monochromatic. Each EP has a handful of standout songs -- the melodic thrust of “Make for This City” on Morning, the escalating drama of “Porcupine” on Night -- but what lingers is James’ controlled mastery of mood, how the band never pushes too hard yet never settles over the course of this quietly satisfying set.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Ambition has never been a stranger to James, perhaps the one band to work the most frequently with Brian Eno to the least amount of attention. After returning to action with 2008’s Hey Ma, the Mancunian quintet decided to dabble a bit with the shifting methods of releasing music in the new millennium via the EP set The Morning After/The Night Before, a pair of complementary EPs released separately in the U.K. and then in tandem in the U.S. The title is indeed a bit of a giveaway, indicating the mood each half of the project conveys and mood is a large part of what this is all about, James creating teeming nocturnal soundscapes, alternating between the propulsive and seductive on The Night Before then slipping into a cool-down for The Morning After. By its very nature, The Night Before grabs upon its initial listen, being built upon urgent rhythms and loud guitars, letting Tim Booth scale to neo-operatic heights, but The Morning After succeeds in its own quiet way, maintaining a cool intimate vibe without seeming monochromatic. Each EP has a handful of standout songs -- the melodic thrust of "Make for This City" on Morning, the escalating drama of "Porcupine" on Night -- but what lingers is James’ controlled mastery of mood, how the band never pushes too hard yet never settles over the course of this quietly satisfying set.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
Going from the folk skullduggery of Stutter to the lavish club steps of Goldmother to the introspective beauty of Laid, James have never been predictable. The band's progression has delivered a seemingly inconsistent but impressive body of work, and Millionaires is no exception. Crisp, shiny, accessible pop songs such as "Crash" (sounding, oddly, like 1990's manic "Come Home" and the bittersweet, Laid-era B-side "The Lake"), "I Know What I'm Here For," and "Afro Lover," seem designed to go for Top 40 gold. For a band like James, this is unusual -- they've always seemed like the freaks and geeks of the school of popular and "credible" music. While it's not necessarily a bad thing for these outcasts to try to fit in, for at least half of the album it's exactly that: The flat, overproduced "Surprise" and the aimless "Dumb Jam" ignore the hook-laden nature of the band's past heights. Fortunately, the album's first half positively shines while taking this same populist approach. "Hello" succeeds with its hushed, electronic cries; "We're Going to Miss You" sounds like one of Midnight Oil's lost classics, simultaneously bitter and triumphant. Best of all, "Just Like Fred Astaire" somehow encapsulates every delirious high one feels when first falling in love. Essentially, the album two disparate halves: the former, an ecstatic stab of triumph and love, the latter, a mired, confused slab of dulling mediocrity. Indeed, Millionaires is as odd and unexpected as James' overall discography. With a little personal song programming, one can make it sound like the freaks and geeks knew what they were doing the entire time -- they might be a bit lost at times, but they have the creative heart that the musical jocks, cheerleaders, and hooligans would never, ever, own themselves.
Words: Dean Carlson
As Brian Eno's sometimes all too precious liner notes explain, when he and James worked together first in rehearsals and then in full recording sessions on Laid, a conscious decision was made to work on a variety of improvisations just to see what would happen. Wah Wah is the result, one of the more uncommercial albums any band of its stature and its accompanying major label has had a hand in releasing. Those expecting 60-minute maelstroms of free noise or recitations of obscenities or the like are in the wrong place, but definitely compared to the beautifully structured and precisely produced Laid, Wah Wah is much more a series of explorations in sound, sometimes quite fascinating ones. The general focus of Laid towards an evocative, restrained attractiveness and moody melancholy holds here as well, more immediate numbers with full lyrics from Booth sung in his fine voice mixed with more open-ended instrumental or wordless vocal jams. More than a few songs could have easily fit on Laid without a worry, such as the slow building "Pressure's On," easily a cousin to Laid's album-starter "Out to Get You," and the solid, techno-tinged trip "Honest Joe." Meanwhile, "Tomorrow," in re-recorded and even more warmly epic form, later became the excellent lead track on Whiplash. One tune, "Say Say Something," shares title and inspiration with the similarly named Laid song but takes a much different direction, with what sounds like Indian violin contributing to a slow-paced, serene wash of sound. Some songs are by default much more fragmentary than others, lyrics just dreamed up of the top of Booth's head, the rest of the band working around a rhythm loop or quietly rolling rhythm. Overall Wah Wah makes for a good listen both as a companion piece to Laid and on its own understated merits.
Words: Ned Raggett
Seven years is not an extraordinarily long time between albums for bands in the new millennium (some bands take considerably longer), so only those who pay attention closely might realize that James split and reunited in the seven years separating 2001's Pleased to Meet You and 2008's Hey Ma. Apart from the lyrics -- the title track opens with an overt 9/11 reference, as Tim Booth sings "now the towers have fallen" -- Hey Ma is such an extension of the band's signature sound that it's possible to think no time has passed at all, yet that isn't quite accurate. Not that the band went out on a low note, but James do sound revitalized, energized by the time apart and, perhaps more importantly, sounding connected to the time at hand, making music for a world in turmoil that needs more voices of protest and hope. Parallels to the fledging years of James cannot be ignored, as the band came to be during the pre-Blair and pre-Clinton years of the '90s, when there was a serious strain of seriousness within rock & roll, thanks in part to the crusading of U2. James shook this stiffness a few years later when they collaborated heavily with Eno, but here they reconnect to the crusading spirit of their earliest work without abandoning the sonic adventure of their late-'90s albums. This means that Hey Ma is intriguing and infuriating in equal measure, as Booth does have the tendency to raise his voice too high in protest. That may rub some listeners the wrong way, but perhaps in an affectionate way because there's a certain charm in how Booth has no concern about whether he goes too far, either in his lyrics or vocalizing. In 2008, there are many bands that attempt the kind of grand, sweeping sound as James -- think all of the post-Radiohead groups that are equally indebted to U2 but are graced with the personality of an Oasis knockoff band -- but James do have more quirks in their sound and plenty of quirks in Booth, who is always willing to act like a fool if it is in service of the greater good. These are the things that make Hey Ma a welcome comeback even for those listeners who may never have been big James fans -- after all, even if they're not quite to your tastes, it's nice to know that James are out there taking chances, unconcerned whether they succeed or not.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine
James completely revamped their lineup for Gold Mother, adding a violinist, a keyboardist, and a trumpeter to the band and attempting to write grand, ambitious arena-rock that recalled U2 and the Waterboys. Although a few of the tracks captured the sprawling, epic splendor that James wished to achieve, they have difficulty writing convincing material, and they aren't nearly as interesting as they were when they concentrated on jangling folk-pop.
Words: Stephen Thomas Erlewine