from the Village fire EP, Factory FAC 138, 1985
Here’s where the divisions between the A and the B side break down. James’ first three releases were two seven inches, Jimone (‘Folklore’, ‘What’s the world’ and ‘Fire so close’) and James II (‘Hymn from a village’ and ‘If things were perfect’, conceived as a double A pairing), then a twelve inch EP, Village fire, which gathered all five together and cast ‘What’s the world’ as lead. My conclusion in Backed with terms is that I can take any one of these five as my b/w pick. But it’s almost impossible to chop away a single finger from this hand – they came to me as an indivisible whole in the form of Village fire and finally they are all now available again in that sequence on the double CD edition of Fresh as a daisy: the singles. The compilation tracks James’ evolution from Factory fire to Eno-produced pop hits, passing through subdued releases for the Blanco y Negro-Sire coupling and Madchester festival anthems; a journey from which I jumped ship after seeing them live at the time of Gold mother’s release in 1990.
It was hard to begrudge them their success or the canny prevalence of the lower-case typography and daisy t-shirts which bloomed everywhere you looked, but the feeling remains that although they came close with the best moments on Stutter and Strip-mine, and the hits are respectable as hits, the Village fire songs are the height of their artistic achievement.
The tour programme for those performances in 1990 contains notes – written with critical freedom – by the likes of Dave Haslam, Dave Simpson, Les Inrockuptibles’ Jean-Daniel Beauvallet, and one Kevin Pearce, who said:
‘James have not held my interest. I am not a camp follower. I lost James in the crowd, chancing upon them from time to time. … If James are accidentally caught up with any sociable movement where music is stripped of language and meaning, the irony should not be missed. James seemed awkward in company, and I liked that. James had a way with words, and I liked that even more. James should wilfully refuse to waste their natural resources. They should supply cerebral stimulation. A chance to exercise the little grey cells as well.’
If things had been perfect, James would have recorded Stutter and Strip-Mine for Factory rather than Sire, and what LPs they would have been, if we judge using the formula x = vl(√t) (where v = Village fire, l = James’ live performances and t = Tony Wilson). Evidence exists in the form of their set at WOMAD in 1985, where their sound has a breezy, swirling majesty and the possessed syncopation that typified the Village fire songs, from the weird and graceful jerkiness of a puppet on a string (‘If things were perfect’) to the physical ferocity of a pneumatic drill (‘Withdrawn’). James live were perhaps the most psychologically intense meeting of heart and mind to be found at the midpoint of that dismal psychological decade. As unconventional, insular, determined and bloody-minded as you could wish a group to be. Swapping instruments after each song. Tim Booth dancing the tarantella. And singing:
‘Add a touch of mystique where the writing gets weak
Break up coherence with a cut-cut-cut-up technique
When you’ve got nothing to say
Or show that you’re willing to play
With words that simply aren’t out of touch
With the genuine feelings which lead to their birth’
‘This language used is all worn out
A walking corpse that won’t play dead
Disease dragged on from bed to bed
Pay for your twist, pay for your shout
Wasn’t meant to be
Built on complacency
Open your eyes and see’
– ‘Hymn from a village’
How magnificently arrogant to launch yourself upon the (pop) world with this invective about it – an arrogance significantly more substantial and stylish than, say, the sunglassed kiss-my-arse swagger of the Stone Roses. The forgivable arrogance of self-definition through opposition, through youthful certainty that you’re not like anybody else.
But it wasn’t just the words, or Tim’s increasingly frantic wail as ‘Hymn a from a village’ careered to its close. It was the guitar pealing like cathedral bells, the buoyancy of the bass, and drums which released the whirling dervish inside the body of anyone (Morrissey included) who knew that these songs were the equal of any on Hatful of hollow. There was magic to raise up a seventeen year old heart, and the mind which floated, a little disconnected, somewhere above it.