Darwin and the Finches sit down next to James

Playing the Empress Ballroom over two hot summer nights in 1990 was a pivotal moment for Manchester band James. Now they are set to return to the Winter Gardens – this time playing alongside an orchestra to mark their 40th anniversary. Michael Shanagher may have been just 11 in 1990, but James’s music was part of the fabric of the northern music scene that formed him as a musician in his own right. The frontman of Blackpool band Darwin and the Finches sits down with long-time James band member Saul Davies.

It’s 8pm on the 3rd of August 1990. I’m 11 years old and more than likely still playing out in the fading light of the summer sun – playing two a side football with the brothers who lived at the end of the road and my own younger brother. I bet we won too.

As I’m running down the wing waiting for a pass to secure the winning goal and seal the deal, there is also another group of lads waiting in the wings to seal their deal and take to the stage in the Empress Ballroom for the first time. James walked out on stage that night to a capacity crowd of 3,000 people and launched into what would become some of their greatest hits of the next few years.

Saul Davies (pictured far left), multi-instrumentalist and percussionist for the Manchester-born band whose biggest hits include Laid and Sit Down, was on stage that night and will be returning to the venue for the first time since later this week.

“I remember it clearly,” he says. “I think for us it was a turning point, that gig, because we had the feeling of like oh shit, something big is happening. We’d been playing to 600 in Hull and 1,000 people in Newcastle but it was like hang on – you can play Blackpool and play to six thousand people over two nights.

“It was significant because there was a feeling that we were breaking out of Manchester and I remember the feeling was amazing. It was one of the definite signs that something was happening to us – that we were no longer just in a little Manchester enclave. It was very formative for us.”

The second night, Davies remembers particularly well.

“I remember it was really hot. Me and Jimmy [Glennie, eponymous founding member] walked up to the train station after the gig because we’d been told that loads of people had missed the train after we played on really late, so we went there giving people bottles of water.”

Davies is full of little anecdotes from those two summer nights in 33 years ago and for myself and my Darwin and the Finches bandmate, Liam Pemberton, it’s a joy to listen to. Long after James played their set at the Empress Ballroom, we took to Blackpool stages ourselves and have witnessed the town as it has morphed in and out of its musical hum and vibration.

We’ve been gigging on the circuit for years, and in our view we experienced the best that Blackpool had to offer when the town was a hot pocket for bands who had their jets primed for take off.

James was one such band, and one that has informed our musical upbringings. James are a band of the people that our own northern roots are connected to. At the time they played the Blackpool in 1990, they had been together about eight years but they would go from there to play “their own Spike Island”, as Davies put it – a 35,000-strong show at Alton Towers. The way he describes it though, the career and trajectory of James has always been an unfolding mystery and one that the band are acutely aware of.

“Things just happened,” he says. “You play one show, then the next show is bigger, then you do Top of the Pops.”

Much has happened in the years since they first stepped out onto the Empress Ballroom stage for James. In fact, their upcoming show in Blackpool will celebrate pretty much 40 years since the band’s very first show together – an achievement that not many can claim.

It felt like an almost semi-religious fervour in the room – people with their hands in the air and people crying

On Friday (12th May), the band will play alongside an orchestra and deliver a more poised and deliberately thoughtful reworking of many of their greatest hits – songs that have been reshaped in part by the Manchester music maestro and composer Joe Duddell. After rounding up their tour with a triumphant show at the Royal Albert Hall, the band will then release the songs on an album – Be Opened by the Wonderful: 40 years orchestral. What is it like working with an orchestra as opposed to the normal well-oiled James machine?

​​”Well, it’s radically different. It is much more efficient working with these guys, because they’re used to being told what to do and they turn up on time,” Davies laughs. “They do their thing and then they go away when they’re supposed to, whereas we get together and start drinking tea and talking about what we’ve been doing, and we don’t do anything! We’re forced to work and concentrate.”

While the orchestra know what they’re doing, there’s a great deal of uncertainty among James, Davies admits, even after four decades together.

“That’s very deliberate, so we can move within the songs – we’re constantly improvising. It’s very different to a normal James show but there are also some big similarities.”

Does that lack of certainty bring a level of pressure or nerves when asked to turn it on like a light switch in front of a few thousand people that have paid a few quid to get in?

“We’re playing a song called Alaskan pipeline, which is one of my favourite James songs,” he explains. “It’s a beautiful song and last night we were playing it and I came up with a completely different kind of melodic part to it. I was thinking, oh, this is really nice, then hit a couple of bum notes. There’s no hiding place!

“But I always think the bum note is a sign that somebody is trying to do something, and that’s not a bad thing. Yesterday, I thought we rivalled the actual recording of it. I was thinking, oh, fuck, I wish we’d recorded this. It sounds amazing.”

Songs mean multitudes of things to different people, even to the writers themselves. Have James’s songs transformed in terms of the meanings they hold for Davies?

“Yeah, very much, I think all of them have really because they are just so different [when performed with an orchestra]. Even when they are very set, like She’s a Star – the tone of it and the setting is so different, that you start to discover a hidden kind of emotion within the song. Not only is the arrangement different, but the tempo is very different.

“The emotion in the songs has always been there but it’s wrung out a little more in this particular setting. I think Tim [Booth, frontman] is able to linger on the words a little more, so there’s more space and some of the emotional content of the songs becomes more evident.

As a consequence of that, Davies considers, the songs appear more intense, but says they are still hugely uplifting.

“People have been singing along and, fucking wow, people don’t stop singing a song. It’s amazing. We just played in Edinburgh and it almost felt like She’s a Star ushered in an almost semi-religious fervour in the room – people with their hands in the air and people crying – it made me think that we should have done James tissues on our merchandising stand.”

Davies is affable and humorous. It’s clear he takes everything to do with James and being in a hugely successful band very seriously, but it’s also clear that he still understands the fundamental reason for being in a band with your mates – to have a good time. He is also a mad football fan and when asked who he would most like to drink coffee with, dead or alive, he takes a short pause and confidently states, “Johan Cruyff”.

I’ve said this before, if you’re northern and have a working-class upbringing it is either football or music or both. I may have enjoyed a kick about on the street as a kid but I was never going to reach anywhere with football. There’s something about the northern spirit that’s hard to name. It’s in the air, in our mannerisms and swagger, but it’s also about being able to dive into a stream of creativity and connect with our innermost hopes, dreams, fears and loves. If you could bottle it, James would sell it by the gallon on those merch stands.

We’ve all grown up with these songs, we’ve been in bars singing along pissed at 3am. We’ve been in our friends cars driving around with the cheap knock-off stereo blasting out of the windows round town. We’ve been stood in front of the mirror with a hairbrush pretending no one’s watching. We’ve taken these James songs to our hearts because they are part of the northern fabric the band have been weaving into for the past four decades.

We have grown with them and they have grown with us. The orchestral reworking is the blooming of a long ago planted seed and now we’ll get to sing them as lullabies to our kids when we put them to bed at night. We get to lose ourselves when we ping it to our in-car bluetooth mega machine and push the volume again to stupid levels. Much about James stays the same but we all bring new and different meanings to the music as the years pass us by.

Maybe that’s why this tour sold out so quickly. Maybe that’s why the band’s manager regularly tells Davies, “It’s just about the songs Saul. It’s just about the songs.”

James play the Opera House on 12th May. Darwin and the Finches play Bootleg on 23rd June (with Cherished Times) and their new EP, Lift, is out 19th May

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