I love Rock and Roll. I adore it and will for the rest of my life. The best Rock and Roll exhilarates me, it speaks to me, it makes me cry, it says things to me about my life that not a lot of art can. But despite all of this, I am the first person to admit that there is at times something near ridiculous about Rock that very few artists can ever truly escape from. Elvis isn't ridiculous, neither are the Beatles. Dylan, Lou Reed, Pere Ubu, The Clash...these are just a handful of artists (among several others) who have escaped it. Only The Beatles could make a song as slight as SHE LOVES YOU into something truly transcending where as anyone else doing it would just sound completely trite.
The problem with a lot of Rock and Roll is that most artist don't understand how joyously funny it can all be. Some like Frank Zappa take it too far and ultimately seem to sacrifice their initial love in favor of poking fun at a very powerful art form. Others like The Sex Pistols seem to initially understand the sheer inanity of much of it but also seem to fall quickly into a very cynical and dark trap that they can't escape. Others, whether it is Rick Wakeman performing a rock opera on ice or Tom Verlaine talking Paul Verlaine, not only don't get the joke but don't even seem to comprehend that there might be one in question...which isn't to take away from Rick Wakeman or Tom Verlaine as they are brilliant in their own ways but they could never reach the power of someone like Elvis or The Beatles who could understand that a line like, "Yea, Yea, Yea" could be funny as well as groundbreaking.
So what does all of this have to do with one Wendy James? Well for me Wendy James has always been a rare breed, someone who understands the sheer ridiculousness at the heart of even the greatest rock and roll but is also someone who has always been totally in love with it.
James appeared in the mid eighties fronting a British Band called Transvision Vamp. They were a brief sensation and scored several charting hits but their three albums were all a bit hit and miss and rarely scored points with the critics. At the heart of Transvision Vamp, and especially Wendy James, was a real love affair with Rock and Roll and a real embracing of everything inane and ridiculous about it. Coming out of the late Post Punk movement when everything suddenly felt strange and inane, Transvision Vamp gleefully stole licks from everyone from Lou Reed to Serge Gainsbourg. Wendy would casually lift famous lines, play an ultimate pin-up model on their sleeves, and sing songs like BORN TO BE SOLD and BACK ON MY KNEES again in one of the most distinctive British voices of the eighties. Their live shows were particularly chaotic, and quite brilliant at times, when they shrugged off much of their lps slick production. In their great moments such as the terrifying PAY THE GHOSTS or the epic VELVETEEN (in which Wendy successfully channels not only Hazelwood and Sinatra but also Gainsbourg and Birkin) Transvision Vamp were a fine band who deserved much higher marks than the critics gave them.
Transvision Vamp broke up in the early nineties, shortly after their middle finger waving LITTLE MAGNETS VERSUS THE BUBBLE OF BABBLE album, and they disappeared from sight. They should have waited a bit as Brit Pop, and the acceptance of bands like the brilliant Elastica and the ferociously literate Sleeper, was just a few years away. Even Kurt Cobain admired Wendy and one of his most sublime moments was proudly wearing a Transvision Vamp shirt on a live MTV program shortly before his death.
Which almost brings us to the album I am paying tribute to here. After Transvision Vamp broke up, Wendy found herself feeling a bit lost and more than a bit depressed, so she did what any down and out Rock Star with nothing to lose would do...she sat down and wrote a long personal letter to one of her idols, a Mr. Elvis Costello and asked him to write a couple of songs for her.
Costello would say of the letter and the call afterwards:
"My wife and I got a phone call and wound up writing ten songs for this girl, Wendy James of the pop-punk group Transvision Vamp. Not one -- ten. We just had a weekend to spare, so we wrote ten. I said: 'If we don't finish by Sunday, forget it. It's got to be quick, like a Tin Pan Alley job.' I always said I could write pop songs to order, and then somebody said prove it. And I did."
So in an audacious move, on not only Wendy James part but also Costello's, a full album's worth of songs was handed to James to record. It should also be added that these weren't just any songs, but these were the tracks that so many fans and critics of Costello had been pleading for him to write, as they sound like a very direct continuation to his early MY AIM IS TRUE and THIS YEAR'S MODEL records. Only someone as brave and who possesses as much genius as Costello would dare give songs this quick witted and solid away...for the record I would like to point out in my eyes that Costello has only improved with age, and that people who have refused to follow his journey have missed out on many of the most remarkable records of the last twenty years.
To get back on track here, after Costello handed James the songs she then went so far as to hire Attraction Pete Thomas to play on the Chris Kimsey produced album. Stepping into the studio to cut the ten jewells Costello and Cait O'Riordan had given her must have been extraordinary for James and it is such a shame in hindsight that so few were listening.
NOW AIN'T THE TIME FOR YOUR TEARS isn't perfect. It has always sounded under produced to me and I have always thought a thorough remixing and remastering would do it wonders. Coming through loud and clear though on some of Costello's simplest but most brilliant lyrics is a confident James who gives the songs something really special, sounding like what you would imagine Jean Shrimpton would sing like fronting The Clash, James is consistently brilliant throughout the recording, even when the production lets her very much down.
The recorded in France album kicks off with one of the most explosive songs Costello had written since the ARMED FORCES era, the corrosive and exciting THIS IS A TEST. James sounds near possessed with something to prove even though the sound is too small. Even better is the blazing follow up, the stunning LONDON'S BRILLIANT, which surely ranks amongst the finest Costello lyrics of the nineties. Has their ever been lines that summed up London after punk like, "Still digging up the bones of Strummer and Jones" and "With a bite and a bark, he tried to make his mark. Now he's getting fucked silly somewhere in Piccadilly." James gives a winningly exhausted sounding performance on this track and it remains one of the real highlights of her career, a sad and spirited lament to having been born just past all the greatness.
Another favorite follows with the haunting BASEMENT KISS. I have seen some criticise James' voice on this track but I guess these people have forgotten what all of their Marianne Faithfull and France Gall records from the Sixties sounded like. The track is a brilliant backwards looking ode to to London in the Sixties that sounds like the soundtrack to an imaginary Ken Loach film starring Carol White.
PUPPET GIRL is probably the most famous track on the album, as Costello himself would perform pulverising live versions of it with The Attractions on their historic BRUTAL YOUTH tour. I saw one of these shows and this song was a real highlight. It returns Wendy to her most perverse Transvision Vamp days, as it sounds very much like she is singing about what many of her underestimating critics made her out to be. Costello seems very much in on the joke and the line " We'll ruin your reputation on the day you breakaway and try to cut your string" is truly prophetic, and quite touching coming out of Wendy James mouth.
EARTHBOUND is another track let down a bit by the producer but James still gives it all she's got, although this track was capable of shaking the speakers. DO YOU KNOW WHAT I'M SAYING joins BASEMENT KISS as the album's more striking ballad and it is followed by the brutal and fascinating WE DESPISE YOU.
WE DESPISE YOU sounds like a BLOOD AND CHOCOLATE outtake and that's a major compliment. Wendy sounds totally convincing in her rage here and it features some of Costello's most cutting lines since TOKYO STORM WARNING. The lines "When I don't fall at your feet, too old to be frightened and too scared to tell the truth. You lie in your teenage anguish but you can no longer blame it on your youth" is vintage Elvis and it very much reminds me of The Clash's final single, the chilling THIS IS ENGLAND, in which Joe Strummer laments, "I got my motorcycle jacket but I'm walking all the time."
FILL IN THE BLANKS is another exciting track marked by a great James lead vocal and a slightly disappointing backing track. It does manage to pull out the astonishing line, "Adjani, Dalle and Fanny Ardant, He says, 'All those French birds give me a hard on" so it can't truly be considered a weak moment.
THE NAMELESS ONE is the only track lyrically that sounds a bit like a throw away, but musically it turns out to be one of the better sounding tracks on the lp, which probably foreshadows much of the bad luck the album would experience upon its release.
The closer is a stunner and reminds me very much of a great dramatic Bacharach and David song from the Sixties. I WANT TO STAND FOREVER sounds lyrically a bit like something Costello would deliver a few years after for his own magnificent collaboration with Bacharach, PAINTED FROM MEMORY, and it contains one of the most memorable vocals ever delivered by Wendy James. It is a fine and fitting finale to an unjustly overlooked and often maligned album.
The album was released in 1993 to just okay sales and many negative reactions. The singles would feature a series of confessional acoustic B Sides co-written by James that were incredibly striking and unlike anything else she had ever delivered. The album would have a brief and delayed Stateside release a bit later but it fell on mostly deaf ears and quietly sank out of print.
The majority of Costello's original demos have popped up on various b-sides and bonus discs and they are all remarkable sounding. After the relative failure of the album to attract the public or critical ear, Wendy James quietly dropped out of sight. She would record another album later in the nineties but it remains unreleased. A few years ago she surprisingly re-appeared with a new band, the rough and exciting Racine and her new material shows a woman very much matured, but still in love with much of the racket of, not only hers, but all of our youths.
NOW AIN'T THE TIME FOR YOUR TEARS is a remarkable album that has unfortunately slipped under the radar for the most part. It is an essential listen for fans of Elvis Costello, Wendy James and British rock in general. Minor production quibbles aside, this album is a triumphant punk record steeped in the Sixties...and like the greatest rock and roll it is even a bit ridiculous...but sublimely so.