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POP BEAT

Happy Accident Makes It All Happen : James turned out weighty music for 11 years but finally found commercial success in the U.S. with the comic ditty 'Laid.'

March 19, 1994|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The English band James is headlining the Palace on Monday and Tuesday, demonstrating a huge increase in drawing power since last October, when it played one night at the Roxy.

The reason?

"A silly little catchy pop song," says the band's singer Tim Booth, laughing at the irony: After turning out a diverse array of fairly weighty music for 11 years, James has found its commercial footing in the United States with the popularity of the title track from the current album "Laid"--a bouncy, comic ditty about a relentless sexual pursuit.

"We've been brought up on the kind of maxim that pain is deep, you know," Booth said this week by car phone as the group motored south into California. "It's a Western false concept. Very English, very European, I think--suffering for your art. And when something comes as easily and as simply as 'Laid,' you kind of don't take it as seriously as some of the ones that you have to bleed for.

"We're very happy with it now. We're very proud of it."

Booth calls the song "a happy little accident." The sextet came up with it during one of the improvising breaks during its album sessions, then set it aside as too "pop." When producer Brian Eno listened to five hours of tapes, he singled it out and encouraged the band to polish it up for the album.

The song might not fit the James image--and that's exactly the way they like it.

"James has always been unpredictable," Booth said. "Our fans love that in England. They love the fact that every night we play a different set of songs. You never know how we're going to be. We can be very moody and difficult; we can be very uplifting and joyous.

"That's something that has been valued in England. But it also means it takes longer to become successful, because people find it much harder to pin you down."

James struggled through its first seven years after forming in Manchester in 1983. Following a major lineup change in 1988, the success of the single "Sit Down" moved James to the forefront of the English rock scene.

"Sit Down," an anthem of reassurance and solidarity that became a centerpiece of the live shows, bespeaks the group's willingness to shoot for big emotions.

"The idea is to move people really, and to move them in different ways," said Booth, 29. "To upset, to agitate, to uplift, to give people happy endings now and again, but not for the whole trip to be a happy ending. . . .

"You know, music is magic. It's like, how can people cry when certain instruments and certain rhythms are played in a certain way? Why does it make people cry? Why does it make people laugh? It's magic, and we try and keep connecting with that spirit of music rather than get sidetracked into any other cul-de-sac about power or money or fame."

That means there weren't any career considerations taken into account when the "Laid" album was recorded. With an atmospheric edge provided by producer Eno, and with the band in touch with its mellow side after playing 50 acoustic shows as Neil Young's opening act, the record is a distinct departure from James' previous work--the kind of record that might confuse the fans.

"I think we should confuse our fans," said Booth, laughing. "It's always a healthy thing to do. As long as you confuse them with beautiful music then that's OK really."

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