British Evasion #2, James - "Laid"

The Basics: A lot of the bands covered on this blog are artists who just barely missed the big time. They were in the right place at the right time but...unfortunately, someone else got there first. This goes doubly for British artists, of whom we only seem to let a small portion on the charts each year--I'm talking true British artists, not British people who move to LA to make it big.

The '80s and '90s Brit-pop scene seemed littered with artists who snared a sizable following in the UK, but failed to make much a splash over here the way Oasis did, save maybe for a song or two. It's a shame, because many of these bands were as good, if not better than their more successful counterparts. In the US, we take a legendary band like Blur and say, "yes, we'd like that 'Woo Hoo' song but keep anything you may have that is of merit." This is why the terrorists hate us.

The funny thing about Manchester's James was that this phenomenon seemed to happen to them twice. Formed in the early '80s, James was best known as being part of the so-called "Madchester" scene, a loosely defined late-80s music scene that combined elements of rock and dance music and arose from the international success of local bands like The Smiths, The Fall and New Order. "Madchester," a term coined by Factory Records director Philip Shotton ran from the late '80s to the early '90s and latched onto by NME and buoyed by the Factory Records label and bands like the Happy Mondays, The Stone Roses, and The Charlatans.

James stood somewhere outside of the media fascination with "Madchester," (which was mostly concentrated on the Mondays and the Roses), but still benefitted from it, with their self-financed singles "Sit Down" and "Come Home" becoming local hits and eventually getting them noticed by the Fontana record label, who gave them their first major record deal. Their big break came when a certain hometown rock star publicly gave them props--a move that became a cross for the band to bear.

However, the band persevered, and because they had never been as tightly tied to the Madchester label as the other bands, they didn't suffer when the
enevitable backlash arose, thus giving them ample opportunity to hit again when the cycle came back around--which it did...sort of. The band stuck around for much longer than their peers, building up an increasingly interesting and strong body of work. By the time people's interest in Britpop came around again in mid-90s, James were primed to score big. 1993's explicit-as-it-is-catchy single "Laid" from the album of the same name became a huge hit on US college radio, increasing their stateside exposure. Unfortunately, their unwillingness to strike while the Britpop iron was hot meant that by the time they released a follow-up, their US audience had dried up and the UK audience had shrunk considerably, affecting sales, but failing to have much of an affect on the band's consistently excellent material.

Tell Me More: Begun in 1982 when guitarist Paul Gilbertson and bassist friend Jim Glennie began jamming together, playing loosely improvised shows--even opening for The Fall--and eventually bringing on drummer Gavan Whelan. After running through a roster of vocalists (and names, including Venerial and The Diseases, Volume Distortion, and Model Team) the group settled on Manchester University student Tim Booth who they met at a disco. Within a year they were signed to former TV host Tony Wilson's Factory Records. If you're unaware of the history of Factory Records, I can only suggest that you immediately Netflix the Michael Winterbottom film 24 Hour Party People. A simple paragraph explaining Wilson and his relationship with the early-Manchester scene would not do the story justice.

After releasing two EPs, the group got a bit of an awkward endorsement from one Stephen Patrick Morrissey, then the lead singer of hometown heroes The Smiths for whom James served as opening act. I say awkward because, at the time, The Smiths were massive stars in their native country at the time, and being anointed "the next Smiths" by one of the Smiths is almost as much of a double edged sword as being named "the next Beatles" by Lennon and McCartney--just ask the guys from Badfinger.

Still, with their "next big thing" status cemented, the band attempted to push forward, but soon became hamstrung by internal problems. First was guitarist Paul Gilbertson's worsening drug habit, which became so bad the band kicked him out, replacing him with Larry Gott. Furthermore, it was now 1985 and the band had three EPs under their belt, but no album. Sensing Factory was more about image and partying than taking care of business (which, if you watch the aforementioned 24 Hour Party People, definitely seemed to be the case)
, the band jumped ship to Sire Records and teamed up with Patti Smith collaborator/rock writer/producer Lenny Kaye to record 1986's Stutter. The record stalled at 68 on the UK charts.

The band, sensing a ripple in the job security waters, went back into the studio and recorded Strip-mine; a conscious attempt at delivering a more conventional rock album. Instead of being grateful for the band's effort, Sire shelved the album for almost a year until a radio-friendly remixed proved worthy of official release. Strip-mine only reached 90 on the charts.

The band found a loop-hole in their Sire contract and were back on the street, unemployed and without a label. The band hit a low point, frequenting university medical studies in order to supplement their income, footage which was reportedly used to illustrate the desperation of has-been rockstars for a TV documentary.

But James weren't has-beens. In fact, their live following was still quite sizable, it simply hadn't translated into record sales. Signing with the indie label Rough Trade, the band decided to trade in on their live following and self-financed the recording of the live album, One Man Clapping, which hit #1 on the indie charts.

Back in business, the band made a couple of changes in the lineup, adding keys, violin and
trumpet to become a septet, and took to recording their third album, 1990's Gold Mother (later released as just James in the US). When frustrations arose with Rough Trade surrounding the band's perceived limited potential, the band jumped ship once again to the Fontana record label.

Just as the album was being released, the Madchester scene began to get media attention, and James were considered not only part of that scene, but also part of what was being called the "Baggy" movement coming out of their hometown. Baggy was essentially rock bands playing variations on psychedelic music with funkier, more dance-oriented beats. The association with the movement helped the band's momentum, and their next single, the infectious "Sit Down," a remake of an earlier single, sort of fit with the Baggy sound.

A re-released version of Gold Mother in 1991 including "Sit Down," which became a huge hit in the UK, hitting number 2 on the charts, but the band was (no shit) quickly labeled a one-hit wonder, despite having had three other singles from the album previously chart. "Sit Down" became one of the biggest selling songs of the year, found its was onto some US college playlists, and the album pushed around 250,000 units.
I think I had a nightmare that looked a lot like this video after watching 4 straight hours of Gap ads

Because they're a British band and Brit bands kinda like to be ungrateful a-holes when they think they're not getting their due, James began spurning audiences who only wanted to hear "Sit Down" by playing previously unreleased material at their live shows, as an F.U. to their perceived one-hit wonder status. The new material ended up on 1992's Seven, which, while not well-received by critics, became a hit based on the hit "Sound." The album and a subsequent acoustic tour with folk-rock god Neil Young brought James to a larger audience and giving them some stateside heat.

But the band had big plans for their next album and drafted U2/Talking Heads producer and ambient-rock god Brian Eno to shepherd their next album to greatness. Eno got all Svengali on James' collective white ass and took them to the next level of record production. Two albums came out of the recording sessions: the song oriented Laid and the decidedly more freaky-deaky Wah-Wah.

Laid was released first, gaining rave reviews from critics on both sides of the Atlantic. While the album reportedly did only okay in the UK, it blew up in the US, thanks to the success of "Laid" among bearded college radio DJ-types. Yeah, college radio DJs actually served as tastemakers back in the '90s. Go figure.

The First Single: Laid isn't the only album I've ever bought based on hearing only a single song by a band that turned out to be a one-hit wonder, but it's probably the best. The hit title song in question is indeed a stupendously rousing track, but, as is often the case with these unexpected hits, it is neither the best song on the LP nor representative of the album as a whole, which is really quite mellow and tends to wash over the listener.

Nonetheless, it is a track that instantly gains one's attention; in fact, having not been in college or much of a college radio listener in the early '90s (far too busy playing with my Technodrome) I didn't even hear the song until the late '90s, and in the most peculiar of places--the original trailer for the crude teen sex comedy American Pie. (Apparently I wasn't the only one. The song became the unofficial theme song for the film series, showing up in the trailer for each installment, and while James' version was never included on the films' soundtrack, an unnecessary cover of "Laid" played over the wedding scene in American Wedding.) The song's striking, explicit lyrics (which were censored for TV, instead of "she only comes when she's on top" Booth replaced "comes" with "hums"--check out the Letterman video below for proof) and folk-rock instrumentation made me instantly think it was a semi-obscure classic rock song I'd somehow missed, which, at the time seemed unlikely. If it wasn't Zeppelin, Floyd, or Stones, who else could it be? (As you can see, my musical taste was far from fully formed in 9th grade).

Only when I heard the song on a friend's mixtape (that's right, kids, cassette tape!) was I finallyt able to discern the artist. Heading out to Nashville's Great Escape (where all the good one-hit wonder albums go to be traded or sold in for about a buck) I found the album with the unusual cover of a bunch of Limeys dressed in women's clothing. I bought it for about six bucks and it's easily one of the top 50 albums I own. It's also widely considered by critics and fans alike as James best album.

"Laid" gained a huge following and eventually made its way to the charts, first the Modern Rock Tracks where it hit #3, and gaining enough momentum to crack the Hot 100, coming in at #61. Quite amazing for a song with lyrics that trace a man's unhealthy obsession with his psychotic girlfriend who has a predilection towards S&M.

Youtube commenter: "this is how I dance at home when no one's looking :D" Freak.

The Second Single: If you've learned anything on this blog, I hope that it's that there's really instance), the hard and fast rule seems to be that if your single hit with a large part of the audience for any reason other than it was simply a great song, your follow-up doesn't have a chance. Now, am I saying a song like "Laid" isn't a great song? Not at all. But I am saying that I think a large part of the audience enjoyed the song for its lyrics alone; the overtly kinky lyrics no doubt thrilled the college radio audiences, and the fact that it's a well-constructed song with fantastic singing, instrumentation and a memorable melody doesn't hurt either. It's simply a funny song, and not many people were demanding to hear more from the band. Maybe if the band had followed "Laid" up with a song called "Shagged," the same audience would have pounced, but instead, the band went a different direction.

"Say Something" is James doing what they do best. It's a mid-tempo track that builds to a stirring chorus. It's a fantastic song that makes one question why these guys never made it as big as their big brothers The Smiths or even fellow Brian Eno students U2, the latter of whom could learn a little something about subtly from James, and in particular Tim Booth, whose voice is controlled but lively, and strong while retaining a vulnerability. The lyrics are also depressing as watching a puppy freeze to death, and the song seems to slip over the listener rather than hit them--never a good sign for a song that's supposed to be a hit.

The track managed to hit #19 on the Modern Rock chart, but failed to chart on the Top 100. It would be the band's last charting single in the US.
And while hindsight is 20/20 and all that crap, one has to wonder why the men in charge didn't pick "Sometimes (Lester Piggott)," a song that had been an even bigger hit than "Laid" in the UK? The song is in the running for the band's best song ever; it's a gorgeous almost gospel ballad propelled by a ringing acoustic guitar and washed of organ. It's the kind of song that, even if it hadn't been a major hit, no doubt could have benefited from being a widely released single, maybe earning much-deserved spots on "Best Tracks of the '90s" lists that Rolling Stone and Pitchfork are intent on revising every two years. Try not to feel at least a little affected while listening to "Sometimes" and then ask yourself why A&R men are even allowed to keep their jobs?

Where Are They Now? In a bold but decidedly unwise move, the band released their follow-up to Laid in 1994, Wah-Wah--an experimental album culled from the Laid sessions recorded by Brian Eno. The album didn't sell and a proper follow-up didn't come until 1997, after a long hiatus in which lead singer Booth recorded and released a collaborative album with David Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti, Booth and the Bad Angel, which spawned the single "I Believe." The band recorded the follow-up album in England with Booth traveling periodically from the US to add his vocal parts. This long break and unwillingness to make hay while the sun shines is arguably the reason James never became an international sensation like they could have and should have.

For an album that took four years to make, Whiplash was a slightly disappointing follow-up to Laid, but one that managed to spawn a Top 10 hit in the UK, "She's A Star." In 1998, the band released a massively successful Best of collection which paved the way for an equally massive and successful tour.

Signs that the band's popularity was waning came in 1999 with the release of Millionaires, an album that, while entering the charts at #2, failed to sell the expected number of copies. The album received good reviews from outlets such as Q, who stated that the album was a bonafide classic that should be cited alongside the likes of OK Computer and Urban Hymns. The album spawned three singles, none of which cracked the top ten.

2001 was a bittersweet year for the band. With the release of Pleased to Meet You, the band hoped to regain their foothold in British rock, but instead were met with cold indifference by the mainstream, and the album was the band's first since Strip-mine to not make the top ten. Still, with the single "Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)," James retained their critical reputation as one of the best singles bands in British rock.

After the release of the album, lead singer Booth announced he was leaving the band to pursue other interests which included recording a true solo album, Bone, and briefly appearing in Batman Begins as the villain Mr. Zsasz, directed by noted James fan Christopher Nolan.

Booth as Mr. Zsasz in Batman Begins

In 2007, Booth announced he would be rejoining James for a series of concert dates. Despite previous lineup changes, the Laid lineup rejoined for the tour and subsequent 2008 album Hey Ma. The album featured the band working without Brian Eno for the first time in nearly fifteen years, instead tapping Booth's collaborator Lee Muddy Baker to man the knobs (does that sound sexual?).

Hey Ma
didn't have any charting singles, but nonetheless, the band continues to be an impressive live act with a large devoted following. The band is also in the process of releasing various EPs, DVDs, live albums, etc. including The Night Before, a mini-album released in April 2010. The album is part of a two-part series; its sequel, The Morning After, will be released in August 2010.

And as if to prove the timeless/classic nature the song has retained over the years, two-hit wonders Better Than Ezra covered "Laid" for their 2005 greatest hits album.

The First Single: "Laid"
The Second Single: "Say Something"
Bonus: "Sometimes (Lester Piggot)"