The Magnificent Seven Ride Again: James (and Squeeze) at Radio City
“I never thought it would happen,” read the reunion t-shirts inside New York’s illustrious Radio City Music Hall on Friday September 19. Those words, as fans of classic pop music will be all too quick to identify, form the opening line to the Squeeze single “Up the Junction,” and for around four thousand New York based fans of that South London quintet, who have finally reformed after a decade in an acrimonious wilderness, they could not have been more aptly chosen.
But they applied to us ardent believers in the opening group, too. James, the Mancunian misfits whose fortunes went up and down over a two-decade career more often than those of Crystal Palace FC – reformed last year after their own considerable hiatus. (That hiatus was interrupted by singer Tim Booth’s excellent 2004 solo album Bone. Visit this link to read an interview with Tim from that period, and more about James’ back catalogue.) If we perhaps never fully wrote off the possibility that time might heal whatever wounds caused their split, we certainly had no expectations that, should circumstances bring them back together, it would be with the same seven members behind the group’s early nineties commercial peak, but which only recorded two albums, 1990’s Gold Mother and 92’s Seven. Nor that they would then go back to the studio and record a new album – this year’s Hey Ma – that sits comfortably alongside the best of what is now an impressive ten (studio) album output. There are comebacks and there are nostalgia trips, and this has felt, from the beginning, like neither of those so much as the long overdue Return of a Magnificent Seven.
It’s tempting to head off on a couple of immediate tangents: one that attempts to justify James as among the greatest of rock bands, the other that then explains why such greatness has never been universally accepted. But the answers to both questions were on show throughout their set at Radio City. The same group that obstinately followed up its best-selling 1993 album Laid with a set of commercially disastrous studio jams (Wah Wah) – followed by a three-year group silence from which they never fully recovered – stepped on a New York stage for the first time in God knows how many years, facing an audience primarily comprised of Squeeze fans who probably needed a jolt of familiarity… and opened with “Dream Thrum,” an album track, from 15 years ago, that even by the standards of James’ many ballads, is so delicate that you feel it could blow away in your hands. But presumably the lyrics about “change” had some poignancy and besides, it happens to be among quite a few James’ fan’s firm favorites. And so,as they segued into “Oh My Heart” from Hey Ma (a song that, admittedly, plays into their sometimes reputation as U2 lite), the message was clear: James were not here to play a greatest hits set. As ever, they were going to follow their own obstinate path.
Just look at them. (Though in my case, sitting in the mezzanine, binoculars would have helped.) Vocalist Tim Booth, still sporting the goatee look he acquired during the Bone period, in what appeared to be a suit. (Thankfully, he stripped the jacket off quickly enough.) Trumpeter Andy Diagram in a red dress. (Diagram left the group shortly before the album Laid, on which the remaining six members graced the sleeve in female clothing: presumably this is not unrelated?) Guitarist/violinist/percussionist Saul Davies in black tie and jeans. Bassist Jim Glennie, who with Booth is the only remaining founding member from 1982, holding down the casual/mod look while pacing back and forth the same short distance the whole set. If ever a rock band has lacked an image (the iconic daisy logo aside), it’s James.
But then listen to them. (And you don’t get much of a better opportunity than at Radio City, where, so legend has it, a pin dropped on the stage can be heard as perfectly in the back row of the top balcony as the front row of the stalls. Certainly, the clarity of sound for James – at least from where I was sat – was nothing short of perfect.) Those double drums and chiming guitars of new American single “Waterfall,” a song so good it has not one, but two (different) middle eights. The initial hard drive of “Ring The Bells” that peels away suddenly to acoustic guitar and vocals. The hypnotic combination of violin and vocoder on “Out To Get You.” Tim Booth’s falsetto war cry on “Born Of Frustration” (as opposed to the Jim Kerr chant later in the song). The chorus line from the new album’s title track, “Hey ma the boys in body bags coming home in pieces” that is so inadvertently anthemic, some in the audience start clapping along in time, though to me this seems disrespectful to the deceased. The manner in which keyboard player Mark Hunter’s sound effects, drummer David Baynton-Power’s steady crescendo and guitarist Larry Gott’s enthusiastic flexing turn Hey Ma’s finale “I Wanna Go Home” into a cathartic tear-jerker. Oh, and that majestic feel-good two-chord refrain that is “Laid,” with its series of sexually-charged lyrical couplets – the shortest James album track on my iPod, and yet the group’s biggest American hit.
So, yes, James did finally play some crowd-pleasers at Radio City. But they teased us on the way there. After building audience participation mid-way, Booth walking casually out into the stalls during “Born Of Frustration,” singing from atop a seat back without any of the patronizing posturing that typically marks this familiar crowd-pleasing gesture, they then brought it back down again with the archetypal James ballads, the brooding, steadily-building “I Want To Go Home” and “Out to Get You,” and Hey Ma’s still little-known “Upside Down,” before ultimately concluding with “Sometimes” and “Laid,” the two songs from 1993 that most people in America know them for. (And which still get airplay on my local station WDST.) As the audience rose to its feet for this finale (Squeeze fans included), the energy in the vast hall increased accordingly, and the part of me that wants to share James with the rest of the world couldn’t help but wonder why they hadn’t started out this way. The part of me that loves them for who they are merely enjoyed every minute of the entire set.
It was, I learned later, not the group’s favorite show of the tour. Having spent the week playing clubs up and down the east coast to a rapturous reception that may well have caught them by surprise, they were frustrated to be reduced to the position of support act. (Though as I also learned, the fee from this gig, even as opening act, went a long way towards covering the considerable touring costs for a seven-piece band.) And having played some 22 songs in Boston just a few nights earlier, they were equally annoyed to be reduced to a mere 11 in a union-controlled venue that brooks no over-runs. And then there were the ghosts to exorcise: it turned out that the only other time they played Radio City, opening for Duran Duran in 1994, what could have been a fond memory was rendered null by the death of Tim Booth’s father just 24 hours earlier – something he refrained from telling the audience that night, for reasons he no longer understands. Letting it all out this time around, the choice of songs like “All Out To Get You,” “I Wanna Go Home” and “Upside Down,” all of which reflect on love, loss and the distance between them (physical and emotional alike), seemed perfectly appropriate. And if he wanted to give his twitchy shamanic dance an extra twinge or two to release the demons, that was fine with us. As I’ve written elsewhere at iJamming!, I rate Booth as possibly the very best lyricist of his British generation, and hold his voice in equally high regard to that of Michael Stipe, about whom it was once famously written that he could sing the phone book and we would be in rapture. There are, in fact, many musical, lyrical and emotive comparisons to be made with Athens’ finest, and though relative consistency of line-up is not among them, it’s hard to deny that, after spending most of the 2000s in the wilderness, each act has made a pronounced return to form this year. That makes me a happy man.
Criticisms? Yes. The set list drew from just three albums: Hey Ma, and the best-sellers Seven and Laid. An artist’s prerogative, naturally (and every group should always play as much of their new album as possible, imho), but with so much beautiful music dotted over so many of their other seven albums, I nonetheless felt a little short-changed. I wasn’t necessarily looking for (UK) hits. I was just looking for them to draw from their career-long melting pot the way that other groups of similarly creative zeal ensure to do. Presumably, set length had everything to do with the relatively narrow choice of material.
As for Squeeze, every South Londoner my age must feel a fond twinge of nostalgia when they hear the likes of “Cool For Cats” and “Up The Junction.” And earlier in the day, I’d dug out 1981’s East Side Story, maybe the second best concept album ever recorded about working class London. So I was happy to see Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford back on stage together, letting bygones be bygones, playing the aforementioned singles along with East Side Story’s trio of hits “Labeled With Love,” “Tempted,” “Black Coffee In Bed” – and its album track that almost puts those three to shame, “Piccadilly.” And yet nothing about the group’s stage set-up or performance convinced me to stay until the end. We all know they’re gifted storytellers. My own experiences assure me they’re wonderful people. But the live show was a relatively humdrum performance, the stage far too big for such a rigid group – even wearing loud suits – to fill. By comparison, James’ magnificent seven, huddled together as they were by their support band status, had tapped into something primeval during their set, that intrinsic understanding of one’s musical partners that allows riffs, lyrics, couplets and choruses to become something so much bigger than their individual components. It’s a hard thing to elucidate on without trading in clichés. But it’s a reason to believe. And certainly a reason to take a family outing to the Stone Pony the following night for more – hopefully much more – of the same.