What does it sound like?:
James were a band of cocky Mancs, who had a reputation as a live act to see. They supported The Fall and The Smiths. It wasn’t long before Tony Wilson and Factory Records came sniffing around. Two Eps later, they decided to take their business elsewhere and signed for Sire subsidiary Blanco Y Negro, hoping Eno would produce them. Justhipper collects the entire released output from that contract; two albums, Stutter and Strip-Mine, the contemporaneous singles and B sides and an EP.
In the end, they had to settle for Lenny Kaye to produce their debut. He was horrified to find a difficult-to-manage group of lads who couldn’t play their instruments, were unfamiliar with song structure and enjoyed bizarre lyrics. The most positive description of the resultant album, Stutter, is lovably shambolic. Sire had hoped they’d signed the next Smiths. The opening line of the opening track, Skullduggery, ‘An earwig crawled into my ear / Made a meal of the wax and hairs” must have been deflating. This Charming Man it ain’t. The music of Stutter is largely chaotic clatter, dominated by frenetic drumming by Gavan Whelan and Tim Booth’s deranged vocals. It reminds me of far out, skronking Jazz with words. Once you accept that, as The Guardian put it, Stutter “clangs like a grand piano falling downstairs, leaving singalong melodies in its wake,” it’s an invigorating listen and little gems emerge from the madness. There is the kernel of something here, a potential that isn’t quite realised. It ends with a dark flourish. Black Hole is uncompromisingly about death, the music as dire and full of dread as Booth’s lyrics.
The extras include the ‘Sit Down – Three Songs by James’ EP, which is nothing to do with the later song with the same title. It offers comparisons with the Factory EPs, sounding more professional and polished. Progress was definitely being made. All of the B sides are here including Justhipper, an extended version of Just Hip that was on a 12″.
Stutter, released in 1986, didn’t sell well, struggling to number 68 in the UK and largely ignored elsewhere. Relations with Sire soured. The Band holed up in Wales with Hugh Jones, known for his jangly guitar sound, to record their second album. Sire weren’t happy with the final product, describing it as too ‘English’. The release was delayed, Steve Power was drafted in to provide a remix and the results were finally presented to the public in 1988. An initial single, What For, failed to chart. The album limped out six months later to widespread indifference.
Strip-Mine isn’t that bad. The band are more proficient, the songs are much better structured and the lyrics are more direct and positive. What For actually enjoys a big, anthemic chorus. Charlie Dance is giddy with romance. Are You Ready is actually the radio-friendly hit Sire were calling for. Medieval show-cases Gavan’s drumming, now much more controlled, yet more dazzling. It all ends on the intense Stripmining, inspired by the heroic attempts to rescue survivors in a Mexican earthquake. These songs worked even better live and their following grew just as their record sales fell.
Besides the two single edits, the bonuses include four previously unreleased tracks. They are clearly unfinished, demo quality but not without charm. They do beg the question why other unreleased tracks aren’t on offer, such as the studio version of Stutter, or, maybe, the celebrated Peel Session from 1987.
James found a technicality to extract themselves from the Sire contract. They were so broke they took part in medical research and featured in a documentary about fallen Rock stars. However, they persuaded a bank manager to loan them £10,000 for a live album. He went to a gig to judge the asset for himself. The subsequent One Hand Clapping is a rollicking live album packed with Sire songs and issued on Rough Trade. Before long, the drummer went too crazy and was dropped just in time to catch the Madchester wave. Success with Sit Down and Gold Mother beckoned.
There are some James fans who see these recordings and the Factory EPs as the true James. For them, Justhipper will be an essential purchase. The remastering is good, providing much needed clarity from some very murky musicianship. It should also attract the casual listener interested in exploring early James, as it’s all neatly packaged together in one place. Cherry Red Records have done it again.
What does it all *mean*?
If at first you don’t succeed….
Goes well with…
The euphoria of witnessing a live act on the rise.
Might suit people who like…
The presence of Hugh Jones reminds us how much Madchester’s jangly pop owes to Liverpool’s Zoo Record early Eighties acts such as Echo And The Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes.