Perilous Beauty – from Vampish past to touching presence and future intent – the Wendy James interview

Wendy House: Former Transvision Vamp frontwoman Wendy James, hoping to be out and about later this year

As another week of UK lockdown against the coronavirus pandemic gets underway, I’m certainly not the only one reflecting on just how much there was about our old everyday lives that we took for granted. And high on my own list was live music.

I’ve already struck lines through various scheduled nights out around Preston, Liverpool, Manchester and thereabouts, including chances to catch Wendy James and her band next month at Manchester’s Deaf Institute or Blackpool’s Waterloo Music Bar, part of a full-on 19-date schedule promoting new LP, Queen High Straight, due to start in Tunbridge Wells on May 5th but now pushed back until – or at least pencilled in for – September. And when we spoke, Wendy was already extremely concerned about how things were back here as the pandemic started to inch its way towards her home nation.

The London-born singer-songwriter first made her mark in the late ‘80s, fronting alt-rockers Transvision Vamp, whose second LP, Velveteen topped the UK charts, while also  managing top-five hits with debut album Pop Art and the ‘I Want Your Love’ and ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ singles.

She went on to collaborate with Elvis Costello, James Williamson (Iggy and the Stooges), Lenny Kaye (The Patti Smith Group) and James Sclavunos (Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds), the latter joining her on drums and percussion on the new record, along with James Sedwards (lead guitar), Harry Bohay (bass), Alex J. Ward and Terry Edwards (horns) plus Louis Vause (accordion). And judging by the advance tracks I’ve heard, it’s a corker, as the quality of the personnel involved would suggest.

When I got in touch, she was already self-isolating, in her case in the south of France, while eager to know what was happening back in her native UK, pre-tour rehearsals with her band up in the air and more draconian restrictions ever more likely. And within a week or so, the situation moved on considerably, Wendy making a decision so many more touring musicians were being forced into, her shows shelved for now.

A statement followed, telling us, Doing simple maths, it was easy for me to see that in one month’s time when I’d be due to begin rehearsals in London, it was just not going to happen, nor an all-clear of COVID-19 by May 5th, when my tour was scheduled to begin. Making a calculation as best as possible, I’ve postponed all the dates until September.”

She’s still very much looking forward to those engagements though, with the original ‘ticket links still valid and working’. And Wendy’s also excited by the prospect of her new solo LP landing early next month, carrying on where she left off with 2016’s The Price Of The Ticket, the follow-up to 2011 comeback LP, I Came Here To Blow Minds.

It’s not an easy album to categorise, the title track a fine example, its ‘jazzy type of chords’ lending a ‘gentle lilt’, Wendy – who also fronted indie rock band Racine in the early 2000s – documenting on record her appreication of Bacharach and David and early years listening to Sergio Mendes ‘Brazil ’66’.

“Overall, my taste and style have not changed with time. The music that excites me now, ultimately, is the same as when I was starting out songwriting and back through my days in Transvision Vamp.

“I continue to marvel at Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, I continue to be blown away by The Stooges, I continue to be everlastingly enthralled by Bob Dylan, but the older one gets the more one discovers, and I am now informed more cohesively and fully by all the music, new and old, which settles into my consciousness.”

And from celebrations of Motown and ‘60s girl groups to ‘guitar guttural filth and sex’ on splendid first single ‘Perilous Beauty’, some ‘Django Reinhardt whimsy’ and a little speed punk, there’s plenty to savour.

But we started out by talking about her surrounds, Wendy ‘in the countryside, pretty much away from people’, in a country that had already seen a lot of cases confirmed. We were soon on to the home country though, at a time when America had announced it was stopping flights from Europe. Inevitably the conversation drifted on to Trump, Johnson, and co., my interviewee largely thinking along the same lines as me, although ultimately, as she put it, ‘It’s a subject we could explore for hours and hours … and reach no conclusion’.

“But tell me something though,” she added, ‘Out on the street, are people concerned? Are people wearing masks and stuff?”

Something of a pen-pic followed as to the view from the UK, albeit from someone admittedly in his own social media bubble, happier mixing in circles of like-minded souls, away from the nutters out there at the time, clearing supermarket shelves and swarming like ants on beaches and in parks. She soon carried on.

“I’ve a friend who lives in Rome, and he’s on lockdown, telling me this morning police are arresting people on the street if they don’t have a permit to be going somewhere. I’ve seen video footage from his window and sure enough, police patrols are on the street, speaking through loud hailers. Denmark’s on lockdown now too, and my friend who works for the embassy in Rome seems to think the UK is going to a lockdown. I live in America as well, and even though France has cases here, I feel so much safer with a European Government manning the station rather than that fucking Trump administration.”

Yes, home is also New York City for Wendy, although she told me, “One can’t really classify that as America. It’s at least the very best of America.”

I should point out here – the ‘one’ was the giveaway – that I was slightly taken aback early in our conversation. Having recently seen Wendy in her late ’80s days via the wonders of BBC Four’s Top of the Pops revisits, I half-expected a somewhat breathy, sultry punk pop star at the other end of the line. She was always far more than that, I realise, but I found it intriguing to think that a contemporary of mine – I’m two school years younger, leading her to quip, ‘Ah, so you’re in your early 30s too?’ – who dated The Clash’s Mick Jones had such well-heeled tones. I reckon my Mum would have been impressed by that frankly posh brogue, and would have adapted her telephone voice accordingly, in true Irene Handl style.

Touring aside, does she still return to England from time to time?

“Really only for occasional get-togethers with friends or parties, or if I’m working. I no longer have anywhere to live in London. I have to crash on people’s sofas. I was in London quite a lot last year, making the album in the UK, and providence providing I’ll be travelling over in a month’s time to begin rehearsals for the tour. I’ve no idea how it’s going to pan out. I’m just monitoring the situation like everyone else. But I have no reason to think I’m not coming.

“The gigs are selling well, and Manchester is doing exceptionally well. I’m planning to shoot a video as well in Swansea, a whole gig but potentially concentrating on a couple of songs. We’ll be playing a cinema there, a massive screen behind us, so I put together an amazing shot-list of all the stuff that tickles my fancy, culturally and musically, in movies and everything, the cinema putting together this compilation of footage to play behind us. So I had to step up a gear to make sure I had video directors there to get the footage.”

When she does think of the UK these days, where’s home? Would that be Brighton?

“I was only there for two years of my life. Wikipedia is not all it’s cracked up to be … certainly not in my case. I was born in London, raised in London, then met Nick Sayer while doing some schooling down in the south of England. Transvision Vamp formed in Brighton, but I only ever lived there two years. My home, England-wise? I’m happier now in Soho, London, but grew up in Portobello Road, West London.”

There’s certainly some heritage there, not least with its links to The Clash.

“Yeah, exactly. All of that.”

Guitar Heroine: Wendy James lets loose on her inflatable six-string, in readiness for her rescheduled 2020 tour.

Discussing my own South-East roots, we got on to her scheduled date at The Boileroom in Guildford, me swapping tips on my hometown and Wendy keen to praise Lydia at the venue for her work in helping set up that visit.

“There are quite a few dates on this tour which have been on my bucket list of venues I’ve seen my friends play, like Leeds Brudenell, which crazily I’ve never played there. And I’m desperate to play Glasgow King Tut’s. Those places are iconic in my mind.”

So many music venues are on the edge right now. We’ve lost a lot in recent years, so it’s good to support those still functioning. It must be a very different circuit to the one you played in the late ‘80s.

“The thing about Transvision Vamp was that our first ever tour was a uni tour, and by the time we’d finished that we were playing the Marquee club on Wardour Street and were at No.5 in the chart.

“We never had that schooling – doing the pub circuit and building our way up. The NME, Melody Maker and Sounds were all covering us as the band to watch, and Transvision Vamp became mega really quickly. But I’ve gone back and paid my dues since, I can assure you.”

Do you think you’ve always had more to prove in the sense that the music media, like their counterparts on the tabloids, would find it hard to look past the sexy image and everything else? You played that part well, of course, as had Debbie Harry and so many others down the years.

“I wouldn’t call it playing a part. I guess some women play a part, but whether it’s Debbie Harry or me, that’s the way we looked and that’s the life we led. We were being completely authentic. It’s not like we put on a costume then afterwards went home and did some knitting. We were those people, and we are those people.”

I get that, but still there’s that tabloid mentality …

“You mean sexist mentality. I don’t give a fuck about the tabloid approach to cheapening values. It’s hard for me to remember, because I was always very insulated in as much as that I was in a gang of boys and we were successful quickly. And my friends remained exactly the same – from being on the dole through to becoming a successful band.

“My scene was also the same, the pub I drank in on Portobello Road, so while a whirlwind of tabloid frenzy did start to pick up, and I knew they were saying this stuff, it didn’t reach me emotionally. But I’m sure if one was to go back in a time machine, it was far more sexist then than it is now … and it’s incredibly sexist now.

“It’s also ageist, the music business. If you make it – unless you’re Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger or one of the properly established old rockers; or Debbie Harry or Grace Jones, who are both still out there – on the whole they like you to remain in your box; the one thing that you were.

“And in the broadest sense of people’s knowledge of me – although of course fans know what I’ve done – the general public will still think of me as a late–‘80s/early-‘90s pop idol, right?  I mean, you don’t want to be thought of as what you were 30 years ago, do you? What’s that film where Brad Pitt gets younger? It would be a scientific challenge to ask someone to remain that person they were.”

Did you mean David Fincher’s 2008 film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?

“Yes, that’s right. They’re Benjamin Buttoning me! Ha ha! The truth is that I even think I look better, although I can see I was pretty in those days. And I’ve definitely enhanced my talent and creativity over the years. I’ve just become a more substantive human being. And I still think I look fucking hot, so what’s the problem?”

You’ve popped up a couple of times lately on BBC 4 re-runs of Top of the Pops for ‘I Want Your Love’ (1988) then ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ and ‘The Only One’ (1989). Have you relived those appearances lately?

“I have, because wonderfully I started getting messages last Friday night saying I was trending on Twitter in the UK. One of the ‘Baby I Don’t Care’ performances was on. I watched it and was, ‘Whoah!’ I can see why we were successful. It really was great.”

Is it like watching you in a different life?

“No, some of it I remember like it was yesterday. traipsing into the Top of the Pops studios. Some stuff I’ve forgotten completely, and you’d have to remind me, but some is so vivid it was like it was yesterday.”

Riding Tack: Wendy James puts in the hours at home, ready to promote her new LP, post-self-isolation period

Finishing what we were saying about your geographical roots, have you still got strong links to your Norwegian roots?

“Oh God! Where are you picking up this information?”

Well, I always read as wide as I can before interviews.

“Right … well, I was somewhat naïve to discuss being adopted when I was young. When you’re young you don’t realise you have to keep your private life private if you want it to remain so. Having said that, I don’t know who my parents are, but I do know I have a Norwegian birth mother.

“I’ve never wanted to find her or whoever the man is, but once the Brexit thing happened, as a person living and working in Europe quite a lot … the Norwegian passport is recognised in Europe although they’re not a full member state, so I went to their embassy in Paris to ask if I could finally become Norwegian, or have dual citizenship. And the sad truth is that apparently, up until the age of 21 I could have had dual citizenship at any time, but if you haven’t applied before, they strike you off – you’re no longer a Norwegian. I spoke to a couple of people in the embassy and there was no way of wangling that. So my Norwegian roots are gone, sadly. It was not to be.”

It’s been a manic couple of weeks with interviews and other bits and bobs to help keep a roof over my head, so I’ve not had chance to delve too deep into the new LP yet – that’s coming next. But I love the new single, both sides (I’ve since heard the horn-laden, soulful ‘Little Melvin’ too, and like that as well). I’m not sure how charts work these days, but these songs should be all over the place. ‘Perilous Beauty’ has true pop class and raunch in equal measure, taking me back to the likes of The Primitives back in the day, but also maybe Iggy Pop, while ‘Chicken Street’ has the charm of ‘60s girl bands with the added verve of The Cardigans. I love them both.

“Thank you!”

Are those both indicative of the delights of the album?

“Well, ‘Perilous Beauty’ is track two and ‘Chicken Street’ is track nine of the 20 tracks on the album, and the running order is literally the order in which I wrote them …”

Vampish Past: Wendy James, who followed three Transvision Vamp LPs with two for Racine now four under her name

So I gather. That in itself is an interesting approach, one I‘m surprised not many artists take.

“I don’t know why they don’t. It seems like the most organic tracking order you could possibly come up with. It’s the order in which they were birthed.

“With ‘Perilous Beauty’ I remember having a Eureka moment – I think it’s even on my Facebook video clips – where I was playing the demo three years ago, thinking, ‘Bloody hell – I’ve come up with a good one!’ And I was only two songs in.

“You’ll hear when you listen to the whole album, it’s a mixed bag. But you’re gonna freak, because I range from kind of Bacharach and David – with smooth, wonderful chord changes – through to hardcore speed punk. There are also a couple of really soulful ballads and there are so many Motown moments. As a white person I always want to try and get groove into my music, rather than just 4/4 white rock rhythm.

“This is what I mean about the evolution of a person as a musician. I was listening more and more to the basslines of James Jameson, the session bassist for Motown, and it was Glen Matlock who turned me on to him. Even though you’ll think of Glen as a punk, he’s a James Jameson nut.

“All the people I worked with on the last album – Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group, James Williamson from The Stooges, my old boyfriend Mick Jones from The Clash, all of these men and James Sclavunos, my drummer from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – have got 15 years on me or whatever, but they’re fucking encyclopaedic about music.

“I’ve been educated through all this … starting with Nick Sayer with Transvision Vamp … always surrounded by male musicians who, if they weren’t musicians, they’d be working in a record shop. They’re fanatical nerds, and it’s glorious – they can tell you the RPM of something, an obscure B-side, or where and when a gig happened. One always wants to make money and all that stuff, but the joy of being in a band or being a musician is the collaborative camaraderie with fellow musicians.

“And if we’re lucky enough to live to ripe old ages, our musical knowledge will be even more. You spread into country, bluegrass, South American music, reggae … there’s so much, and everything cross-pollinates. That’s why Britain in particular is a rather special island for music – because historically it’s an island of ports where sailors came through – or even through the slave trade – with their culture and their music. If it was just left to white English music, you’d just have fucking marching bands! Ha ha! You need some of that culture coming through.”

Is your studio band also your live band?

“Bits and pieces. Some are attached to very successful bands, but I’ve a handful of musicians now that are my permanent musicians, with the exception of James Sclavunos. When Nick Cave says it’s time for a tour, I lose Jim and gain Jordan.

“When we opened for The Psychedelic Furs last October, much as I love Transvision Vamp and the other iterations I’ve been through, for the first time in my life I now have a perfect band. I love them, they look great, they play well, and are incredible musicians. They’re funny, they’re intelligent, hard-working, humble, they pull their weight, they perform like motherfuckers, and I love them. They make me laugh, they make me feel safe, they make me feel secure.”

Do you keep in touch with Elvis Costello and Cait O’Riordan, having collaborated with them on your first solo album (1993’s Now Ain’t the Time For Your Tears)?

“Elvis, I’ve spoken to a bit in my life, and I’ve had one Facebook message with Cait, but that came about because Transvision Vamp played with Elvis Costello and the Attractions, and it was facilitated by the drummer, Pete Thomas, who oversaw the project, even though Elvis and Cait wrote the songs.

“I can’t lay claim to becoming great friends with him, but he did cause me to become great friends with Van Morrison, in a roundabout way. I spent a lot of time in Ireland and Van became my Dublin buddy for a while and used to stay at my house in London.”

That’s pretty cool in itself … even if he’s a bit of a grouch at times by various accounts.

“I’ve seen him be an horrific grouch to poor fans who come up and interrupt him. Ha ha! But he’s a lovely, cantankerous man. And he’s lived in the fast lane … drink and drugs, all that stuff. I can also lay claim that James Williamson, Lenny Kaye and all these people are genuine friends.”

I detected something of an Iggy Pop influence on the new single, so it makes sense in that respect.

“Well, The Stooges, the Stones, the Sex Pistols, The Velvet Underground … you know, that’s my comfort zone.”

There’s been success, but there were lows too, not least being dropped from the big label in 1993. Did that hurt you?

“Not really, because I had enough money in the bank to survive and retrospectively it was the very best thing that could have happened. After the Elvis Costello album – whatever other people think of it – it gave me a very clear understanding from there on in. I wasn’t going to perform other people’s versions of me (from there). I was going to perform my own stuff.

“It was absolutely necessary that I went back to the bedroom and learned how to play guitar and how to write my own songs. And one could never have done that on a contract with a major label. They would have been hustling to put something similar to Transvision Vamp out and keep going. In order to evolve into what we now know as me, it was necessary. And on a human level, I hadn’t stopped working since I was 16, so just had to fucking step back.”

That tale of going back to the bedroom, learning how to play guitar and write songs got me thinking about Mick Jones again, long before The Clash, being kicked out of the band Little Queenie, a hammer blow that ultimately inspired him to rethink matters and start again, as memorably tackled in ‘Stay Free’. But I move on, asking Wendy how touring with The Psychedelic Furs was last autumn. Did she have a good time on the road?

“Yeah, I knew Richard a little from America, sometimes go to his art exhibitions, and the whole thing was a dream from top to bottom. I can’t thank the promoters, AEG, enough for putting us on that tour. Not only were the band playing great, but we had so many laughs and the audiences received us well. And to a man and a woman, the new songs – four or five on this album – went down like crazy, people coming up, genuinely saying, ‘I really like it when you play ‘blah’, but your new songs are amazing’.”

And you seem to be in a good place right now, as a performer and a recording artist.

“Yeah … I really am. Ha ha! I’ve got no complaints. It’s a lot of hard work, and it took three years to make this album, but when you hear the whole album, your socks will get knocked off.”

And seeing as you mentioned him first, are you still in touch with Mick Jones?

“Yeah, I’ll always be super top friends with him. He’s one of my confidants in life.”

I’d love to interview him someday, and would like to think he’s seen my book on The Clash by now … and liked it. Maybe one day.

“Ah well, good luck with that – he’s the worst communicator in the world! He’s never sent a text in his life. You have to phone him about 10 times in a row to get one answer. And he doesn’t do emails either.”

Perhaps I’d stand a better chance getting a season ticket for the next block to him at Queens Park Rangers.

“I would say so … actually, literally, yes!”

Anywhere. It was lovely to talk with you. Hope you’re not in quarantine for a long while from here.

“I’m self-isolating, darling! But I always have done.”

Wendy James’ rescheduled dates: September 3rd – Bristol Fleece; September 4th – Swansea Cinema & Co.; September 5th- Cardiff Clwb Ifor Bach; September 6th – Brighton Concorde 2; September 9th – Cambridge Junction; September 10th – Birmingham Institute 3; September 11th – Stoke Sugarmill; September 12th – Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms; September 15th – Nottingham Bodega; September 16th – Manchester Deaf Institute; September 17th – Leeds Brudenell; September 18th – Blackpool Waterloo Music Bar; September 19th – Newcastle Cluny; September 21st – Guildford Boileroom; September 22nd – Tunbridge Wells Forum; September 23rd – London Islington O2; September 26th – Glasgow King Tut’s; September 27th – Edinburgh Bannerman’s; September 29th – Norwich Arts Centre.

Queen High Straight is available for pre-order as in 20-track deluxe gatefold double vinyl, gatefold deluxe CD, regular CD and digital download/streaming formats via this link, where you can also find details of all previous recordings and associated art, t-shirts, and ‘all things Wendy’.  You can slo keep in touch via her main website address, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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