James are one of those bands that get lumped in with a style that they’re not quite a perfect fit for. Emerging from Manchester in the first half of the 80’s they knocked about all the familiar Manchester-in-the-80’s clichés – you know, playing at the Hacienda, supporting The Smiths, a brush with Factory Records, that sort of thing. It takes the remainder of that decade, and a bit of a shift in the line-up, before they finally manage to get some career momentum going, though James are notable for being an act whose live performances are where they built the core of their audience, not through records sales or chart performance.
Their breakthrough came in the early 90’s, with two singles – “Come Home” which did OK by reaching Number 32 in the UK in 1990 and then the big one, “Sit Down”, which got to Number 2 in the UK in 1991. This success arrived at almost exactly the same time as the development of the “Madchester” scene, which became an influential blend of art rock, drugs, alternative music, acid house, more drugs, and psychedelia. But the bands most obviously associated with this scene – The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, The Charlatans – are not quite the right stylistic fit for James. They’re close, they overlap, but James lie just a little further out. They don’t quite sit comfortably with the old Manchester scene of The Smiths, The Fall and New Order (and the band explicitly rejected the advances of Factory Records, the most Manchester label of them all), but they don’t quite coherently fit with the new one either. So where do they fit?
The temptation is to say “jangle pop” because, well, “Sit Down” feels like it has a lot more in common with that style than it does with the blissed-out rambling of something like “Kinky Afro” or “I Am The Resurrection”. Even that, though, isn’t quite right and it’s constructive to look at the rest of the charts to see how they fit in. The Clash – rebel anarchist punks who garnered massive 90’s success off the back of a Levi’s commercial – had just scored a Number 1 with “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” Roxette’s “Joyride” is two above James when “Sit Down” enters the charts at Number 7. The following week they’re held off the Number 1 spot by (sorry about this) Chesney Hawkes’ “The One And Only” and lurking elsewhere in the Top 30 there’s “The Whole Of The Moon” by The Waterboys, R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and Simple Minds with “Let There Be Love” (The Clash are still in there too).
In fact the charts of March 1991 are fairly evenly split between what we might reductively call “guitar-y stuff” and “dance-y” stuff, with Snap!, Pet Shop Boys, Black Box and The Source all making their presence felt on the “dance-y” side of the equation (we’ll quietly gloss over “Do The Bartman” and the Comic Relief novelty single “The Stonk” – it’s for the best).” Sit Down” clearly aligns with one style over the other, not just because it’s obviously in the “guitar-y” camp but also because it has a slightly old-fashioned sound. And that’s one of the reasons for its enduring success. The band may get lumped in with Madchester – a scene which they massively outlived – and there may be a broad alignment with at least part of the charts in 1991, but “Sit Down” feels like it could be released in virtually any era. It’s perfectly easy to imagine it slugging it out in the upper regions of the charts alongside Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes, or indeed Wings and Status Quo. The production sounds pretty 90’s but the actual song could have been released anywhere within about twenty years either side of its actual release date.
Which, of course, it kind of was – because it’s original version was released in 1989. It was a lot longer, a lot less coherent and a lot less chart friendly, which resulted in it peaking at 77. It’s a solid, interesting version of the song but it’s also clearly the inferior model. The 1991 release tightens up the rambling running time, replaces the lyric with something altogether more identifiable, and generally just improves everything. But the change in the lyric is almost certainly the most important shift between the two versions, because what it gives the 1991 version of “Sit Down” is universality.
“Sit Down” is a great big bear hug of a song, wrapping the listener up in its arms for its four-minute running time and not letting go until you just give up and give in to its warmth. It is, in fact, a very warm-sounding song, full of lush guitars, Tim Booth’s inviting voice and that massive hook of a chorus that it’s practically impossible not to sing along to. The song radiates a feeling of inclusiveness, most obviously in the third verse where people who “feel the breath of sadness” or “find themselves ridiculous” are invited to sit down, as indeed are those, “in love, in fear, in hate, in tears”. The outcasts, in other words. People who are suffering. People who have been excluded are now being given a space where they can be included. It’s a very early-90’s form of inclusiveness but chimes equally well with a late-60’s we’re-all-the-same-maaaaan hippy attitude (see “Everyday People” by Sly And The Family Stone from this very series for a clear example), hence that feeling of timelessness. These may not be new feelings but they resonate down through the decades. And the last line of the chorus – “in sympathy” – says it all. This is a sympathetic song, one which wants to be understanding and one whose sense of inclusiveness is based on compassion.
That all sounds terribly hippy-dippy and the sense of universality undoubtedly helps the song, but it also reverberates with the Madchester scene as well. The idea that everyone could be united if only the whole population took ecstasy (or more specifically MDMA, which was the drug of choice in the Madchester scene) was one of the big “ideas” of the time – not really any different from the “everybody must get stoned” of the mid-60’s or the “turn on, tune in, drop out” of the latter 60’s, just expressed with slightly different chemicals and smiley-face T-shirts instead of tie-dye. The pro-drugs stance that was an embedded part of the Madchester scene, and the rave scene, sparked off a massive moral panic in mainstream society – yes, just like LSD did in the 60’s! – and would go on to be so expertly skewered by Pulp’s “Sorted For E’s And Wizz” further down the decade. But here in 1991 it was simply accepted as standard operating procedure for that scene. But not for James. There’s no chemical inducement in “Sit Down”. It’s more traditional than that, and that’s why James overlaps with, but sits slightly apart from, that Madchester scene. The sentiments are the same but the means to achieving them are different.
The single, big success though it was, saw release as a standalone. It wasn’t on the album, Gold Mother, which was released in 1990. Whoops. Oh and also the album was called James in America and Canada, where it was re-released in 1991, this time with the single on board as the opening track. Then there was another re-release. And another, in 2001, a remaster with bonus tracks dropped from the original to make way for both “Sit Down” and “Lose Control”. It is, in other words, a bit messy, but this also speaks to the band’s priorities, which were far more focussed on live performances then they were on album sales.
It still did pretty well though, conveniently (at least for this project) peaking at Number 2 in the UK album charts, where it spent thirty-four weeks all-in, and was received to generally warm and glowing reviews. The fate of this particular album and the machinations involved getting it into actual shops could be an article itself but suffice to say it worked for a band who were always more invested in appearing on stage anyway. And they were able to escape the gravitational pull of the Madchester scene which consumed many others, including initially better-regarded acts like The Stone Roses – James’s most recent album, Living In Extraordinary Times, was released in 2018 to positive reviews and though there’s a five-year hiatus in there while Tim Booth pursued other projects the band have continued to write and record for over thirty years. They would never ascend the singles charts with anything higher than “Sit Down”, but for one glorious moment in 1991 this song captured the zeitgeist, and it remains as loved and relevant today as it did on its original release. And that’s the song’s legacy – not as part of some contrived “scene” bur rather something far bigger and further reaching. And for a song whose whole point is inclusivity, that’s pretty much perfect.
What Else Happened In 1991?
R.E.M. break out from beloved cult act to international success with Out Of Time, and Red Hot Chilli Peppers have their commercial breakthrough as well with Blood Sugar Sex Magik. So do Pearl Jam, with Ten. Freddie Mercury dies of AIDS-related complications in November of 1991, bringing to an end one of the most distinctive voices in rock music (not that it will slow down the remainder of the band much). Michael Jackson releases Dangerous, but we’re past peak-Jackson now, and U2 continue their hot streak with Achtung Baby. Of course the most important album of the year is Nevermind, dragging grunge out of the gutters and into the mainstream, while making a huge star of Kurt Cobain in the process. Singles-wise, though, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” doesn’t crack the global top five, which means we have to deal with the hideous reality of Bryan Adams’s beyond-awful, anti-music hit “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” as the year’s biggest seller. Michael Jackson’s there at Number 2 (it’s “Black And White”) but most pleasing of all is the fifth-biggest seller of the year – “Losing My Religion” by R.E.M. It fails to get to Number 1 either the UK or US (19 and 4 respectively) which makes its global sales figures all the more impressive. Alanis Morissette releases her debut and so do The Orb, with the brilliant Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld. Julian Cope’s seminal Peggy Suicide arrives in May, and UK alternative mainstays The Wonder Stuff release their best album, Never Loved Elvis. There’s a few quirky UK bands around actually – The Farm, Orbital, The Mock Turtles and Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine all have releases, and Blur also debut, with Leisure. N.W.A are Niggaz4Life, Tupac releases his debut, 2Pacalypse Now, and Guns’n’Roses release both (sigh) volumes of Use Your Illusion. Massive Attack have Blue Lines and the era-defining Screamadelica by Primal Scream is released in September. Oh, and don’t miss Billy Bragg’s excellent Don’t Try This At Home. Portishead are founded, Talking Heads split, Ed Sheeran is born and Miles Davis dies at the age of 65 from a stroke.
What Did We Nearly End Up Discussing?
Madonna’s “Justify My Love” overlaps 1990 and 1991 in the UK, staying in the Number 2 position for most of January. It’s an interesting song, and it pretty much marks the point where rather than Madonna being the scandals, the scandals become Madonna, the two folding into one to the detriment of her career for a chunk of the 90’s. But why go with Madonna when Right Said Fred are sitting right there with “I’m Too Sexy”? There’s also the hilariously self-serious “Winds of Change” by The Scorpions, for anyone who enjoys a particularly good fart joke. The rest of the UK is hot garbage though, so America will need to furnish us with Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up” in the middle of the year, and Lenny Kravitz informing us that “It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over” a bit further on. But neither country are really covering themselves in glory this year.
1. The Beatles – “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane”
2. Stevie Wonder – “Sir Duke”
3. The Kinks – “Lola”
4. Jean Knight – “Mr Big Stuff”
5. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This)”
6. Ultravox – “Vienna”
7. Elvis Costello – “Oliver’s Army”
8. The Animals – “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place”
9. Sly And The Family Stone – “Everyday People”
10. Pet Shop Boys with Dusty Springfield – “What Have I Done To Deserve This?”
11. The Beautiful South – “Song For Whoever”
12. The B-52’s – “Love Shack”
13. Luciano Pavarotti – “Nessun Dorma”
14. Adam And The Ants – “Antmusic”
15. James – “Sit Down”
16. The Sweet, “Ballroom Blitz”
17. Suzanne Vega-DNA – “Tom’s Diner”
18. The Bangles – “Manic Monday”
19. Petula Clark – “Downtown”
20. Queen, “Killer Queen”
21. Blondie, “Denis”
22. Dire Straits – “Private Investigations”
23. Elton John – “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long, Long Time)”
24. Tom Jones – “Delilah”
25. Gloria Gaynor – “Never Can Say Goodbye”
26. Cyndi Lauper – “Girls Just Want To Have Fun”
27. Eddie Cochrane – “Three Steps To Heaven”
28. Bonnie Tyler – “Holding Out For A Hero”
29. Wings – “Let ‘Em In”
30. The Troggs – “Wild Thing”
31. Jimmy Dean – “Big Bad John”
32. Terence Trent D’Arby – “Sign Your Name”
33. Chubby Checker – “Let’s Twist Again”
34. Billy J Kramer And The Dakotas – “Do You Want To Know A Secret”