Wednesday, 13 February 2008

JAMES: Born Of Frustration

With nineteen Top 40 hit singles and a dozen albums which more often than not reached the top three, James were among the most consistent and least commemorated of nineties hitmakers; like Pulp, they were an eighties overhang to which deserved success had come belatedly, but they were always too evansecent, too artfully avoidant to nail down for idolatry. They acted as though above the commonplace but were always deliberately separated from those strata. Even Tony Wilson didn't quite know what to make of them after their first two singular EPs in the mid-eighties; 1985's "Hymn From A Village" was one of the best anti-plastic cocktail anthems of its time, not for the least part due to Tim Booth's insistence on reading a book as opposed to bowing down to petrified white guilt statues of Aretha; this was a viable, workable and attractive alternative, as Gavan Whelan's exceptionally fleet drumming demonstrated.

I say "anthems" but James were always careful to avoid making their anthems anthemic; their most famous one, after all, was a polite clarion call for everyone to sit down (as opposed to thrusting, active Weller STAND UP!) and it was only kept from number one as a single by the eximious Chesney Hawkes, a gentleman for whom the expression "bless him" might well have been invented. Similarly "Born Of Frustration" was almost universally derided in 1992 as a botched attempt to go for the stadium, largely on account of Booth's supposed impersonation of Jim Kerr at 3:36.

Yet that latter mutates into the song's signature extended whoop, a whoop which doesn't emulate the lateral release of a Bono, but a vexed howl trying to make the landscape change all around it. Closer listening, and Youth's astute production, reveal how many elements are out of key with stadium rock; the muted trumpet and whistling unison in the climactic second half, Andy Diagram's diagonal trumpet commentaries which put me in mind of Mongezi Feza on Wyatt's "Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road," the washing machine guitar upwards slide at 3:11...

...and above all Booth. Any of the few remaining or awake inhabitants who saw James topping the bill on the Saturday at the 1991 Reading Festival - most of the audience having fled for the train or coach home following Carter USM's stealing of the night (a sort of Streatham to the Pet Shop Boys' Fulham at Wembley Arena later that year) - knew that he could never be a Bono but that he was far better at intimacy; the atmosphere was campfire, quiet singalongs verging on lullabies were encouraged. And still on "Born Of Frustration," despite the song's panoramic sonic scope, you cannot pin him down; this is a demand for shaded/gradated truth ("Show me the movie/That doesn't deal in black and white"), a vaguely threatening call for genuine democracy by, of and for the people ("Caught up in the webs you've spun - where's the confusion?") - it has to be recalled that 1992 was the year of transatlantic elections; Bush or Bill, Kinnock or Major (Bill triumphed, Major nosed through on a give-the-newbie-the-benefit-of-the-doubt ticket) - but Booth wants Politics in all of its bogus cosiness to be trampled and replaced by real action and, if necessary, conflict ("Stop, STOP talking about who's to blame/When all that counts is how to change" - and that second "STOP" is accompanied by a nearly audible stamp of the foot). Distorted reality against the unassailable realities of nature - the butterfly's wings, the leopard's spots, the singing birds - cannot compete, but in the circumstances the world seems to spin just out of the realm of useful comprehension, as the anxious doubling-up of Booth's vocal tempo against unchanging rhythms but increasingly dense musical activity towards the end proves; clinging to his own beliefs to prevent his falling into unbreathable space. And yes - a parallel world Simple Minds might have ended up capable of this masterful subversion of what the people think they want.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I looked up Tim Booth & he went to Shrewsbury the same time Mark Sinker did!

A very fine look at a song & band that are indeed unjustly overlooked...