Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Dos: Day 329
Mon, Dec 10, 2012
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I remember tuning in to M-TV’s 120 Minutes and watching James played their first gig in the United States, at an outdoor rain-soaked free show in San Francisco’s Union Square. Being a devoted Smiths fan in San Antonio, I wanted to know more about this band that Morrissey championed fellow Mancunians, with their equally eccentric, lead singer Tim Booth of James. But it wasn’t till late 1992 after being contacted by former David Bowie, Talking Heads and U2 producer Brian Eno that fortunes of Booth and his band mates from James turned for the grandeur.
Talk about being eccentric, Booth found Eno’s production style of capturing the improvised moment very inspiring as Tim explained to Tony Fletcher when he said, “The turning point was probably round Laid. Until then I’d had great trouble, with some songs taking a couple of years. I was a real perfectionist about lyrics. But when we did Laid and Wah Wah together in that same six-week session with Brian Eno, I would improvise on tape and Brian would say ‘That’s great, you’re not touching that.’ On some songs I fought back and said, ‘No way, you’ve got to tell me that beforehand, so at least I can try and improvise decent lyrics.’ And on other songs I went with it. I knew I had to come up with this new method of writing lyrics in order to do it in that kind of time span. And I remember we were doing ‘Lullaby’ and I stood in front of the mike. They had a piece of music, I had no melody, no words, I improvised I think six takes.”
“Lullaby” may have been the penultimate song on 1993’s Laid but it was also one of the most important for the Eno produces sessions as Booth told Fletcher when he said, “I asked them to burn it onto cassette, went into another room, and wrote down from the cassette what I thought I might be singing. We made sure that the vocals were quite quiet, so some times I could hear what I was singing and got some great lines and other times I got some great sounds that suggested lines. I wrote out the words, I had maybe five pages of words. I went through each one, just underlining the ones that stood out, I stuck them together – and they were a complete, homogeneous, whole lyric about somebody I knew, and I had had no intention of writing about them. It completely made sense about their lives, and they’d been abused, it was like, Fucking hell, It was one of the best lyrics I think I’d written. I always knew stuff came from the unconscious, and I can be very quick. But this was like a new way of writing, that whenever I got blocked, I improvised it, did 4 or 5 takes, wrote out what I thought I was singing, and almost always in those 4 or 5 takes I can get a whole lyric.”
Although the majestic rhythms that Larry Gott, Mark Hunter, David Baynton-Power, Saul Davies and Jim Glennie create are essential but what gives electricity to the eclectic James sound is Tim Booth’s mystifyingly magnificent lyrics. Booth talked to Fletcher about his songwriting philosophy when he said, “I look at a lyric and if a lyric has got energy, and if the energy is a truth … you can feel when a lyric’s dead and when a lyric’s alive. So if I’m still writing about the same thing but I look at a lyric and say, ‘it’s still alive,’ I can’t then go off and start again and try and write a completely different lyric for the song. It just doesn’t work like that for me. That somehow would not be true to my unconscious. My unconscious writes the best lyrics I write, and I have a weird relation with it where I feel I have a duty to be as truthful and as accurate as possible. And feeling that if I betrayed that, I would lose that communication.”
Although James hasn’t become the mega-world icons like their Mancunian counterparts The Smiths, Booth and James have more in common with their NYC muses Velvet Underground. I believe that James’ Laid will be the Velvet Underground and Nico of 1993. So influential that everyone who will have experienced Booth and James improvised magic on Laid will have been inspired to start their own bands. We will see if my prognostication comes true until then reflect in the beauty, one of the best Tim Booth penned songs in the illustrious James canon, experience the soundtrack of your dreams through the sound of James’ eternal “Lullaby.”
You can read Tony Fletcher’s superb 2005 interview with Tim Booth here at ijamming.net.