Q 4/98

-Stumbling Along by John Aizlewood

They rode with baggy, they were mates with Brian Eno and they sang about sex. Things never quite worked out...

They're in their eighteenth year now, old enough to vote, but for James it's been an unmitigated slog, with disappointingly little return. In comparison to most acts on the disastrously relaunched Fontana label (The Mystics or Kerbdog? Exactly), they are megastars, but they've never seeped into the consciousness of non-music obsessives. They've earned respect but it's the grudging, mealymouthed respect of sniggerers. Now comes the inevitable greatest hits, released to service James's South Korean-level debt to Fontana and, in theory, to finance their next proper album. Were it British Top 10 hits, this would be a three-track single featuring Sit Down, Sound and She's A Star. The American edition would be blank, but as there are no plans to release it there, that is actually the case. Poor old James, nobody's first choice band.

Yet - and this makes everything worse - James are dignified, brave, adventurous and melodious. They always have been and - good news at last - they still are. They wear pop's hair-shirt, but it looks fantastic draped over their weary shoulders.

A FORMER BEZ-LIKE DANCER, Tim Booth is easier to read than The Sun. He's a defrocked choirboy, expelled from Shrewsbury's ancient public school; he studied drama - how that shows - and he claimed to be celibate for a period, although presumably not while he sired baby Ben, with erstwhile James manager Martine McDonagh. He might still be a Buddhist, a religion made for western pop stars. Little wonder this walking paradigm's songs are laced with images of despair and redemption, of self-torture and ribald sex.

The Best Of - sequenced at random by an idiot - comprises Hymn From A Village from their Factory days, most Fontana singles and two new tracks. Sadly there's no chances taken and nothing from Booth's splendid collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti; but at least there's no room for anything from their nadir, 1994's unlistenable doodling with Brian Eno, Wah Wah.

Initially championed by Morrissey, James were the first New Smiths. Booth, as contrary as he would always be, had none of it. Hymn From A Village showed a band bitter before their time ('Oh, go and read a book') and immediately ready to leave Factory for an unhappy two-album stint with Sire.

They may yet come full circle. If The Best Of doesn't do a Carry On Up The Charts: The Best Of The Beautiful South and send James back into arenas and Fontana do cast them back into the wilderness, the smart money is on a re-emergence on Factory 2.

Like the Beautiful South's hits album, The Best Of has an incentive for early purchasers. Here, and acoustic seven-track CD recorded live in London earlier this year. It's cute - not a James word - especially the 10-minute Sound, and confirms the obvious: James write great songs.

The second Sire album, Strip-Mine, made Number 90 for a week and James found themselves files under Lost Cause, not for the last time. The band too their bank manager, Colin Cook, to a rapturously received, sell-out, 3000-capacity Manchester show. The subsequent loan fnanced a live from Bath CD-cum-CV, One Man Clapping in 1989 on Rough Trade. It featured Sit Down and Come Home so oviously strong that even Fontana noticed and signed them. Booth, bassist Ju Glennie and guitarist James "Larry" Gott deposed Gavin Whelan after the drummer had pysically attacked Booth and became a septet. The big time, with its forked tail, pointy beard and sharp horns, beckoned, although James would always make more money from their flowery T-shirts than their flowery records.

IN 1990, INEVITABLE COCK-UPS ensured that the initial version of the self-produced Fontana album, Gold Mother, omitted Sit Down. The live show Colin Cook had seen wasn't out of context. Sit Down had been a lost single on Rough Trade, but its uplifting chorus had seduced Jame's cult following a little more every time they played it. The burgeoning baggy movement liked it too and in March/April 1991 the re-recorded Fontana version was only kept off number 1 by Chesney Hawkes. All these years later, the linely "song from the darkest hour" still rings true, always James's most enduring and endearing quality.

The knock-on effect of Sit Down saw Gold Mother's gorgeous follow-up Sound [Seven], mostly produced by Youth, become their only million-selling album, but then James couldn't get major hit singles and subsequent album returns diminished. Wth a chorus to die for and typically superb verses, Ring the Bells (I can't see a thing through my ambition") out to have been the big one. It reached number 37 and worldwide success had slipped through James's hands like mercury.

Quickly they regrouped, hired Brian Eno as a surprisingly disciplined producer, and a few months later turned in their best work, Laid. The four tracks here display a band seemingly beginning not to care they would never fill stadiums. The title track presented a new James. It begins - as perhaps all pop songs should - 'The bed is on fire with passionate love/The neighbours complain about the noises above/But she only comes when she's on top' and repeatedly climaxed with David Baynton-Power's outrageously exciting drum tattoo. Lesser bands would have pasted in fiddly guitar, as Bread did when they used the same motif on Truckin'in 1971, although only the most curmudgeonly of souls could begin to care. In contrast, Sometimes (Lester Piggott) - the intriguing (Lester Piggott) seems to have disappeared from the title - and Say Something showcased Booth's elegiac side. These songs would have been outstanding on any other album. On Laid and The Best Of they're par for the course. They're never let down by Booth's gorgeous voice, imbued with unusual but constant pathos, part Warren G, part Sharleen Spiteri, part Space's Tommy Scott. Like that trio, he's not seen as a Yorke or Stipe, but like them, Booth's spine-tingling moments pop up in the least expected places, as when he confesses 'This body's young but my spirit's old' on Lose Control.

Ignoring Wah Wah - the public certainly did -James returned with Whiplash in 1997. They seemed renewed yet stagnant: Gott had left after recording, a tax bill of 50,000 had been settled when Born Of Frustration was used in an American television advertisement and Booth had exercised the project with Badalamenti out of his system. Producer Stephen Hague gave it a pleasing but conventional veneer, Booth wrote marvellous verses for She's A Star, which tried hard to burst into Go Now, but they were let down with an atypically feeble chorus and it seemed for a moment that James were just another early-'90s band looking to rekindle the spark. The handsome Waltzing Along and Tomorrow suggested otherwise, but it was close.

God only knows what they do now.

They're as stubborn (another admirable James trait) as disenfranchised mules; their audience is not growing (Whiplash sold 150,000) and they've influenced precisely nobody, but every track here - including new songs Runaground and Destiny Calling, which unveil the mature James: 'Tell us when our time is up/Show us how to die well/Show us how to let it all go' - bristles with inspiration. The Best Of, quite fairly, is all many people will need. Born of frustration, indeed.