It’s tempting to write this as a fanboy. After all many moons ago I had a VHS tape entirely devoted to whenever James appeared on the telly. I would kneel before the machine and wait for the cheesy presenter to finish their introduction then hit record. I watched each performance back so many times the tape wore thin with the screen jittery and crackling like an endearing pastiche of Tim Booth’s freaky dancing.
Around this time I sung my throat raw at the G-Mex in 1990 and elsewhere formed lifelong friendships forged on the initial belief that the person standing in front of me was sound because they too had a daisy on their chest. I was right every time.
It’s tempting to write this as a fanboy, whose life was irrevocably changed and improved by an era history has dumbed down as ‘Madchester’, but that would do a tremendous disservice to a band whose huge success at that time with stadium-shaking hits such as Sit Down and Come Home was simply chapter two in a series of fascinating chronicles.
The first bunch of pages saw the band form in the early eighties, build up a loyal local following and be touted as ‘the next big thing’; turn down Factory Records because they were considered too image-conscious; decline a NME cover; join a sect; struggle financially to the point of becoming human guinea pigs for Manchester Royal Infirmary, while all the time crafting tunes of depth and menace and meaning and love.
Don’t even get me started on Johnny Yen that emerged frantic and beautiful from that period. That one song took me from listening to the Eurythmic’s Revenge LP on my bedroom cassette player to discovering Joy Division, reading every word of the Melody Maker by Thursday lunchtime, and finding substance in a shell that previously only had my name pencilled on it. Johnny Yen is an essay in itself.
Following the pandemonium and popularity their breakthrough album Gold Mother afforded the band went on to release a welter of outstanding work throughout the nineties. They broke America. They sold records by the millions and carved out so many blisteringly brilliant singles it would be amiss to list them here for fear of this (already lengthy) intro turning into a discography.
They had proven beyond any doubt that this wasn’t a band rooted to a time or place. This was a musical clan who possessed a rare alchemy that allied intelligent lyrics on matters that matter to belting tunes. Others played their handful of hits then faded to obscurity. James were and remain the gold standard.
Then, at the turn of the century, they did what every great band should do at least once in their lifetime. They split up. Fell out.
To further explain why this isn’t a fanboy piece by now I had drifted away. Unlike the legions of James devotees who stuck with the band through every thick and thin my love for them was reduced to playing their compilation album Fresh as A Daisy in the car on occasion. I am, in short, not worthy.
Consequently their triumphant return in 2007 largely passed me by. So too did the thoroughbred albums that were celebrated by critics and fans alike. I missed out.
That was until recently when I became aware of Girl At The End of The World, the band’s 14th studio album and already taking its place among their very best. Written in self-exile ensconced in the Scottish Highlands it’s a sterling collection of pop bombast, bittersweet themes and soaring hooks and at the time of writing it’s heading straight to the top of the charts.
On the week of its release the Cutter caught up with Jim Glennie, James’ bassist and founding member, to discuss songwriting, bloody-mindedness, and Jim’s other love Manchester City. I tried not to sound like a fanboy.
DC: The immediate response to Girl At the End Of The World has been so positive. You must be chuffed?
Jim Glennie: Absolutely. There is always that feeling when you bring out a new record that it’s a roll of the dice. You don’t know where you’re going to end up. And this has kind of opened doors again for us and given another little boost to our careers. We’re appearing back in people’s living rooms which is really exciting.
DC: If there are others out there like me who played Gold Mother and Seven to death then kind of drifted away from James to an extent in subsequent years…why should they listen to the new record?
JG: We’ve always tried to keep any new record up to the standard that people know of you and here we’ve achieved something quite special. We’ve worked hard on the songwriting and though the sound is a bit different it will still connect with James fans. I think the sound of this record is so impressive and we put a lot of time and energy into that to make it as powerful as we are live. We’re really, really pleased with the results.
DC: Is it a source of frustration that any new James material is accompanied by the word ‘comeback’? In other genres of music longevity is accepted as the norm.
JG: It’s been a long comeback this hasn’t it! When we got back together the first thing we decided was this was all about writing new songs. We don’t want to be a band that sits on its laurels and goes out and plays all the big tunes that people historically know. And it’s worth remembering that Sit Down or She’s A Star weren’t born as big tunes – they were new too once. We’ve got songs from our last album like Moving On which are massive tunes for us and the video went bananas and on this album we’ve got songs that will fit into James fans’ lists of what they consider big, big tunes that they love. That’s what it’s all about for us, focusing on where we’re at now.
DC: The story of James would make for a great country and western song. Do you think the reason why so many fans have stayed with you through the years is not only because of their love for the music but due to knowing the narrative behind the output?
JG: We’ve always done things the James way and we’ve always been bloody minded. It took us a long time to get success in the first place which helped make us quite insular. We built up a lot of self-belief and we weren’t going to be pushed around by the industry and forced to compromise. That sometimes made things more difficult for us but it’s also why we’re still here after all these years. If we tried to follow trends and do what was demanded of us we’d have got fed up with this a long time ago. I think we’re quite selfish really in making the decisions that we do but that’s why we’re still here and James fans appreciate that. We don’t always make it easy for them. We challenge them at gigs by changing the set list every night. You don’t know if you’re going to hear your favourite big tune. God bless them they understand that.
DC: After thirty years of songwriting do you still get the same buzz and amazement when a brilliant song materialises? Or is it now approached more methodically?
JG: The way we write is quite odd. We sit in a room and improvise. No-one comes in with anything prepared. That’s quite strange really in that we don’t have a songwriter but rather five of us in a room jamming and recording everything. Then songs just appear in front of you as we’re playing.
That is very instantaneous – it’s just bang, there it is – and sometimes it is there and you know it’s something good. That buzz is really exciting. Writing is one of the funnest jobs for us and when you get that ‘wow, this is special’ moment and you know you’re got the next stage of James’ life – the lifeblood of the next record – that is hugely important to us. Long may it last. It’s difficult for us to quantify because we don’t sculpt songs, we sit in a room and it’s kind of a case of hoping they appear. Fortunately for fourteen albums they have done.
DC: The album was written in Scotland. How did that inform the material?
JG: It’s difficult to say. I’m not sure Scotland has weaved its way into the music. Where we were did as in we locked ourselves away in a big house in the middle of nowhere in the middle of January in the highlands of Scotland. I think those conditions made us insular and we weren’t distracted at all. There was no internet and virtually no phone signal and we were locked away from the rest of the world so for three weeks we’d just wake up in the morning and start writing songs until we went to bed. That process had a massive impact on how the record turned out.
DC: Moving onto football, I hear you’re a lifelong Blue?
JG: I do my damndest to get to as many games and it’s still a huge, huge part of my life. I’ve got very used to the eight hour drive. Unfortunately being a musician you tend to be on the road a lot but I try to squeeze in games around that.
DC: What’s your favourite ever game or moment?
JG: I was at the QPR game and I’ve never experienced anything like that in my life. From the saddest five minutes to the most euphoric five minutes. The Gillingham promotion game was bonkers as well. Just totally City doing the very opposite of what you think will happen and just when you think all is lost Dickov scores and the place goes absolutely mental.
City beating United 6-1 as well. I wasn’t there unfortunately as we were touring so I watched it abroad in a bar. I couldn’t believe what was unfolding in front of my eyes.
DC: I remember only properly enjoying it once the fifth went in because I was convinced United would somehow find a way back.
JG: That’s ingrained in us and has been for thirty, forty years. And it’s not just the lack of success, it’s the fact that United were winning everything and your mate is a United fan and your family are rubbing it in and so is everyone you bump into. Its constant and you think ‘Here we go, and now I’ve got to face a week of it at work too’. That’s going to take a little while to work through the system. As a City fan you’re just waiting for it all to go horribly wrong again.
DC: Who is your all-time City hero?
JG: Colin Bell. That sixties team is what I remember as a kid. I grew up in Moss Side which was half a mile from Maine Road so there wasn’t really an option to be anything but a City fan (laughs)
That was the first City team that I remember and Colin Bell was amazing. Just amazing. Your first team, the one you grew up with, will always be something special.
DC: Mine was the late eighties so its Paul Lake for me.
JG: Me and Tim were just talking about Paul Lake before because I’ve not long read his book.
DC: It’s a fantastic read isn’t it.
JG: Oh man, it’s a great book. Heart-wrenching but so uplifting as well.
DC: Returning – regrettably – to the present what do you make of the recent loss of form and poor results?
JG: You look at the position we’re in and if someone offered us Champions League I’d take that now. At the start of the season it looked like we could steamroller sides but then it all went horribly wrong. Kompany has been missed but you can’t just crumble when one player is missing. You just can’t.
Pellegrini announcing he was leaving was an attempt to calm things down with all the rumours but it’s had the opposite effect. It’s just disrupted everything and now it’s just the case of hanging on in there. It would be typical City if we get Guardiola and aren’t in the bloody champions League.
DC: Talking of Pep are you excited about his imminent arrival?
JG: Absolutely though I feel sorry for Pellegrini. I think he’s done an amazing job at City but it shows the ambition of the club that they want someone of Guardiola’s pedigree. It’s exciting and there are loads of rumours – we’re going to be buying everyone at Barcelona by the sound of things – but I don’t think wholesale changes are going to be needed.
DC: Lastly a bit of a silly one. If James were a football club who would you be?
JG: Apart from their recent success I’d probably say Man City. Never doing things the easy way. Massive highs. Massive lows. I remember going to see City v Blackpool for our first game in the third tier and it was a sell-out. That was so City – more people going because we’re doing worse.
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