Tuesday 25 July 2017

James : Justhipper - The Complete Sire & Blanco Y Negro Recordings 1986-1988

Justhipper is a collection from Cherry Red of the first two James album, Stutter and Strip-Mine, released in 1986 and 1988 respectively after signing from Factory Records. By the release of Strip-Mine, the band were on their uppers, having to do medical experiments to pay for rehearsal time and borrowing £10k to release their own live album One Man Clapping and escaping Sire / Blanco Y Negro's clutches on a legal technicality that the contract had to be renewed in writing six months after the final masters of Strip-Mine were delivered. Justhipper documents the two albums and the associated b-sides from the singles.

When James delivered the masters of Stutter, you can imagine the faces on the Sire paymasters as the opening line of Skullduggery came out of the speakers - "an earwig crawled into my ear, made a meal of the wax and the hair" - as their hopes of having signed "the next Smiths" dissipated in a frenzied scurrying of bass, guitar and drums. Even now, thirty one years on, it feels oblique, awkward and gives you something different each time you dust it down, the structure is all over the place, particularly as it gathers pace to its climax and everything drops down to leave just Tim, but like most of James' best work, even now, it's taut with the possibility of imploding in on itself under the sheer weight of ideas. 

Scarecrow, allegedly about Patti Smith, has a single hidden away in it but a James still learning their trade and seemingly refusing to wholeheartedly embrace the concept of a chorus either wilfully refused to embrace it or chose to ignore it or perhaps something in between. There's hints of the dramatic builds to songs that they'd embrace later with a different line-up starting to emerge particularly as the song reaches its conclusion.

So Many Ways was the lead and only single from the album, an interesting choice although from a record label probably the easy one as it's the song that most embraces the verse chorus verse chorus middle eight chorus structure that is so of its time. It did provoke a backlash from the music press, up to now exceptionally supportive, as it lacked the home made charm of the Factory recordings.

Just Hip harks back to that, clocking in at ninety-five seconds and sounding just like a jam with improvised lyrics that packs a million different punches as it skits from one idea to the next without pause for breath. It's not difficult to see how this would puzzle and perplex those that didn't get it.

When James released their 2 cd greatest hits compilation Fresh As A Daisy in 2007, Johnny Yen was added with the suffix (Should've Been) as a nod to the way the song has steadfastly refused to allow itself to stay off the setlist for long periods of time even now. Whether it should have been a single is debatable given the aforementioned structure that reigned in the heads of record company execs in the mid-eighties, but like so much of their best work the recorded version feels like an outline being set down for them to take into the live environment to do as they please with.

Summer Song is 1980s James at their most widescreen and joyous. The production feels so stripped back that you can hear every note that's being played as Tim exclaims "now you've found me, everything's so clear, with your arms around and your song in my heart, there's simply nothing I can fear" with a romantic optimism that leaps out at you. 

Really Hard puts a dampener on that, opening with "to be loving when the knives are out takes much courage and a mind without doubt" set to a drum beat that could be described as plodding were it not perfectly atuned to the mood of the song. There's some gloriously dreamy backing vocals layered directly underneath Tim that shine through even more on this remastered version. Like much of the second half of the record its introspection makes it intensely personal for those that get it and a little distant for those that don't.

Billy's Shirts returns to the James that was probably incomprehensible to Seymour Stein's suits in New York. Almost impossible to describe the song's next thought is upon the listener before the previous one has settled, so ripe it is with enough ideas for an album tied up in its schizophrenic darting three minute journey. It's baffling how it ended up as a song, derived from their well-documented jamming sessions, but it's a fascinating journey through four creative minds' thought processes.

Why So Close is a slowed down version of Fire So Close from the debut Factory EP Jimone, quite prescient in the fact that James still thrive on twisting and turning songs and reinventing them as something quite different from the original. 

On Stutter though James save the very best two songs for last. Withdrawn was the song Tony Wilson wanted them to release as their first single and it's not difficult to tell why. It possesses a frantic searching repetitive hookline which runs through most of the song to a climatic breakdown over which Tim sings "Withdrawn, muscles all tense, nothing flows for the self-obsessed, feel all washed up" like a man confessing his innermost dark feelings for all to hear.

That is however nowhere near as bleak as Stutter's closing track Black Hole, reportedly the inspiration for Inspiral Carpets' This Is How It Feels. Laterly in their career James used the music to counteract the darkness in Tim's lyrics and turn them into a catharsis or celebration. There's no such respite here though as it accentuates "I've been digging this grave, but now that it's made, I see black is one hell of a colour" not even tempered by "wrapped in my shroud, upstairs the music so loud that I can't concentrate on my sorrow, let down my hair and find something to wear then dance myself into tomorrow." It's a fitting end to an album that's as diverse and as uncompromising as anything they've done since.

The bonus tracks on the Stutter disc include the "Sit Down - Three Songs by James" EP (how little they knew at that time) which formed a bridge between the Factory recordings as the label were keen to get a release out. Chain Mail was the lead track, a live favourite, but possibly the weakest of the three songs here. It was backed by Uprising, a song about breaking out of a shell using jail metaphors - "I was proud of my cell, it was the best on the block, I was content until I spotted the lock" - and Hup-Springs, up there with their finest b-sides, which channeled that energy of the Factory EPs with the crisper production that their new label afforded them. The final track is Justhipper, which gives this compilation its name, an extended and even more experimental version of Stutter's Just Hip that featured on the So Many Ways 12".

The album fared disastrously in the charts, only reaching number 68, given the high expectations when the band signed to Sire and the pretty much universally positive responses they'd had to their two EPs and their live shows. The campaign was already dogged by the poor choice of lead single, So Many Ways, and the lukewarm response to it and the band felt the label had lost interest, not returning calls and not investing in any sort of sustained campaign to push the record. Things got worse for them as they set about recording the second album with Hugh Jones in Wales. The album and a single, Ya Ho, were delivered and scheduled for release in late 1987 yet got cancelled at the last minute, the label believing that the release was "too English" and not radio-friendly enough. Steve Power was drafted in to remix the album, the song Stutter was dropped for the more commercial sounding Are You Ready? and What For was finally released as the first single in March 1988. Things got worse as the single failed to chart and it was another six months before Ya Ho, the pre-Power version, and the album finally got to be released. It was no surprise that it limped to number 90 in the charts and sank without trace.

Strip-Mine represented a turning point though, both in terms of the band's personnel as the relationship with drummer Gavan soured and in the band's sound which started to display many of the traits that were to make them appeal to major labels again once Sit Down and Come Home had done their work in the independent charts in 1989.

What For was, in reality, the first of their big anthemic singles that helped them make their name, watch the live version on the Come Home Live video as evidence of ten thousand Mancunians singing back every word of it joyfully, but with the complete lack of any presence, its glorious chorus failed to make any impact on radio playlists and its frankly amateurish looking video didn't help matters in terms of getting it onto TV.  The song itself though is still a firm fan favourite and was welcomed back into the set with open arms, its building "I would prefer to be anywhere away from here, what for, tell me, tell me, what for" chorus a sign of exasperation mixed with positivity that people can relate to all wrapped up in something that would have appealed to a much wider audience had Sire bothered to promote it.

Looking back, it's questionable whether Sire ever actually listened to the record as it's full of the songs that started to expand James' live reputation beyond the walls of Manchester to the point by the end of the promotional cycle they were selling out thousand plus venues in London and elsewhere in the country. Charlie Dance was a thrilling two and a half rollercoaster ride, talk of "heads in a whirl in a blind romance" and "rumours in the city that the banks might close for a long holiday", as a predictor of economic woes whilst Fairground had an almost waltz-like serenity to it -"when we dance together, your rhythm and tempo cuts through my quickstep and tune."

Are You Ready was a late addition to the tracklisting despite having been in James' setlists since 1985. An upbeat track that filled Sire's criteria for something more commercial, it's a surprise that it wasn't a single with strong messages "you will not find love if you think you are not good enough" and "to receive my love, believe you are good enough" that meant Strip-Mine, far more than Stutter, actually started to talk directly to people in the way later lyrics would do and build the bond between Tim and those who saw his words as some form of life advice.

Medieval takes its name from the heraldic beat that underpins the song, perfect for a reinvention twenty odd years on the orchestra tour. It demonstrates Gavan's strengths - a real control and precision without ever sounding contrived or going through the motions. He said once he'd left it took four people to replace him and you can hear in the percussion here what he was getting at even if you don't agree with him.

Not There is a story about the band's founder and early guitarist Paul and his slide into addiction that led to his departure from the band after the release of Jimone - the lyrics are fairly direct "that look in your eyes is miles away, he's really not there" set to a dramatic backdrop. Ya Ho, like What For, has all the requisite ingredients for a single that could have broken down the chart walls for them. It might not possess such a striking chorus, but as it declares "let me be the one, let me be the one to take a cool long look with eyes prised wide" and the repetitive title kicks in over the breakdown, it feels like a missed opportunity.

Riders goes back to the more intense nature of the first album; a strange tale that recalls one of Tim's dreams which included Nick Cave, Jimi Hendrix, Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison where he was offered the power of the tortured artist in return for drinking a potion by Nurse Ratchett from One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest and Jed Clampett from the Beverly Hillbillies. Lines referring to "Now I can feel this creature flapping in my throat, I try and throw it up, but my cough turns to a choke. Put my fingers in my mouth, I have it by the head, it dug into my jaw" most likely perplexed a record label looking for a new Smiths rather than this weird and wonderful stories.

Vulture, like Medieval, has an almost waltz-like quality to it and the lyrics are suitably vague and hark back to the style of Stutter - "the only way to kill this breed is stuff his face, let him feed. Piling the plate, pushing the load, make him eat 'til he explodes" - not surprising given it's one of the oldest songs on the album having featured on their first Peel Session back in 1983.

Like Stutter, the album's crowning glory is at the end. Moving On has been rightly lauded as a song that helps others to come to terms with deaths in the family, but Stripmining preceded this by the best part of thirty years. Originally written about the Mexican earthquake disaster in 1985, it could equally be about the loss of a loved one - "when the world swallows whole all you've known, there are no landmarks you can recognise" - and the pain that comes with it. It segues into a gorgeous instrumental Refrain that flows perfectly from it and brings the album to an end.

The bonus tracks includes alternative versions of the two singles, Ya Ho coming from the original version of the single prior to the remixes, whilst What For is an almost indistinguishable other than for a few cowbells Climax Mix.

However, it's the four otherwise unreleased songs that are the real gems here with a much less-polished sound and structure to them than the album and all clocking in under three minutes. Mosquito starts with an off-key sounding banjo and a stream of lyrics that almost leave Tim breathless as he more talks than sings tales of Reg who "won't talk to you if you wear blue jeans." New Nature and Left Out Of Her Will talk about the parent-child relationship, the former dealing with parental expectation in a song where Tim's vocal takes centre stage until the others come in with backing vocals, the latter a two-way conversation with Tim playing both roles - "Break away from home, I'll break away the mould" competing with "How can you leave us, now we are so old." Island Swing deals with the subject of colonisation and the exploitation of the locals set to another banjo and is another song resurrected from shows going back as early as 1983. The interview, from a US promo 12", is fairly dispensable, other than actually hearing Gavan talking, as it introduces the band and talks about how great the recording sessions were, probably said with fingers crossed given the torturous remix process and the delays.

For those that came to James later in life, Justhipper is a fine round up of their first two albums in one package and forms a vital piece in understanding their progression from a ramshackle collective that could hardly play their instruments and suffered stage fright through to a band on the brink of a breakthrough once the issues with Gavan were resolved by his departure and they had expanded to a seven piece.

There are some for whom this will be all the James they need (other than the live album One Man Clapping recorded weeks before Gavan's departure) who refuse to acknowledge the line-up that produced Sit Down, Gold Mother et al as the same band.

For the hardcore, the remasters make the albums sound crisper and allow better separation of the complex instrumentation that their unique style of playing created. The inclusion of the b-sides, most on CD for the first time, is a real bonus too. There is though a sense of lost opportunity that neither the unreleased studio version of Stutter from the first version of Strip-Mine nor any radio sessions especially the joyous 1987 Peel Session, with its raw versions of What For and Whoops, a pared back Ya Ho and the unreleased fan favourite Stowaway, are included here. That said, with most other bands, lesser in our opinion, having the catalogues revisited, it's an important addition to the documentation of the weird and wonderful career of one of the most enduring and ambitious bands around.

James' official website can be found here.   They are on Facebook and Twitter.  Some of the band - TimAndy and Dave - are also on Twitter.

We also run the One Of The Three James archive, the most detailed resource for information about the band, and the site also has a Facebook and Twitter page.

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