Standing up for Sit Down: Pete Mitchell on James

The Absolute Radio DJ looks back at the unconventional career path of the Manchester mavericks

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James have retreated into the confines of the recording studio to begin work on a possible new album that will follow up the experimental, simultaneous release of The Night Before and The Morning After in 2010. This current burst of creativity comes off the back of a much lauded and highly successful tour which saw them reconnecting with their loyal, fanatical, obsessive followers. I know it’s a well worn and tatty old phrase but this band have always done it their way. Their ubiquitous flowered emblem t-shirt was a hit even before most people had even heard of, let alone seen, them. Every student in every refectory sported one.  

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Never a band to flirt with convention, they reluctantly took a slow seven-year path to chart success in the early 90s and instructed their audience to Sit Down — obligingly they did.  Their recent tour has featured Echo and the Bunnymen as support, which at first glance seems a little incongruous but they both have a number of similarities.  They came out of “scenes”, they were student-land superstars and their respective front men have a hint of the messiah complex about them. They are defiantly both eccentric and quintessentially English.

The effervescent guitarist and fellow Dentonian (a small hatting town in Manchester where we both grew up) Larry Gott, shines some light on the subject when we meet. “You don’t often see two bands of this calibre on the same stage, but for some critics it seemed off-balance, almost a mismatch. I guess there was some resentment towards us from the reviewers because historically the Bunnymen are influential and are much more quoted, whereas James don’t have the same kudos and we are not thought of in the same light. I thought about this. Why is it that they have that perspective and we don’t? I think we are seen as mavericks and mavericks are not as powerful as the movement. The Bunnymen were important and part of that Mersey/Indie movement, possibly the most important group of their generation. The whole Madchester scene helped our career no doubt, but we were an aside. As mavericks who stand alone, we are that. When I look at our career path I can’t think of anyone who has one similar. We are  seven individuals, we are not cohesive and we don’t have that leader mentality or one vision, but I think we are respected.”

Pour moi, James epitomise a movement and its inherent spirit. Drama student Tim Booth, an unsure, misplaced youth straight out of an oppressive private education in Shrewsbury, comes to Manchester in search of enlightenment and freedom. They only thing he can do is dance. Isolated and alone he trawls the cheap clubs and bars just doing his own weird thing. He is randomly spotted at an indie student disco, manically dancing like someone possessed. He is then asked to join a local band called James as their front man and he can’t even sing, never has up to this point.  

This is how scenes and stars are made, and the band were right there at the epicentre of the “Madchester” movement, a few years down the line. The rise from those early t-shirt days, packed shows, Morrissey declaring his undying love for the band (he took them out as support on the Meat Is Murder tour), the Smiths covering an early James song, What’s the Word, to their eventual mainstream breakthrough, is nothing short of miraculous.

In December 1990 on a freezing snowbound night at Manchester Central (G-Mex), the crowd filtered into the former railway station.  The heat begins to dry off the soaking wet clothing of the ever faithful, causing a heavy condensation to hang in the air. It’s as heavy as a thick smog and the floor is drenched. You can imagine that this scene resembles that of the  opening day of this railway station  in 1880, when it became the northern terminus for services to London St Pancras. Energy, steam and the expectation of the crowd. The mounting excitement is palpable. 

As the lights turn to illuminate the blinking audience, Tim Booth stands at the edge of the huge stage and with a simple hand gesture commands the audience of 12,000  people to sit down. Slowly and orderly and in great swathes, they begin to hit the deck en masse in their James t-shirts and Joe Bloggs flared jeans. A weird calm descends as Booth quietly sings in an almost lullaby fashion. You could almost hear the proverbial pin drop.  Then slowly and meticulously the band start to gather pace, hearts begin beating faster and faster  as the anticipation swells and vibrates. Manchester is about to hit 8.5 on the Richter scale.

As the group crash back into the big chorus it’s like 5,000 volts of electricity has coursed its way through the crowd. Instantly 12,000 wet arses jump to their feet, arm in arm, singing and pointing up at the band in total admiration,  “Oh sit down, oh sit down, sit down next to me.” It’s cathedral like.

Although now it seems slightly farcical, it was a moment when the whole auditorium was at one. The connection between band and audience was complete, and centre stage, in the eye of the storm was that slightly odd-looking misfit student, who had previously been seen dancing manically all alone, as people looked on bewildered and bemused.

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Pete Mitchell talks to James this Saturday at 10pm 11th May on Absolute Radio.