Wendy James found fame with Transvision Vamp but only discovered her musical voice after they split up. Now she’s back recording with kindred spirits from the Sex Pistols, The Stooges and the Bad Seeds. I’m a rock and roll girl first and foremost, she tells Janet Christie.
Portrait by Richard Gomes
There was a time in the late 1980s when Wendy James was on the cover of every music mag and fanzine. Peroxide hair, black eyeliner and pastel pink lipstick, she was the vamp in punk pop sensation Transvision Vamp. The band she formed at 16 with Nick Christian Sayer hit the big time and toured from Sydney to Stockholm, for three years topping the charts with hits like I Want Your Love and Baby I Don’t Care. Fame, money, it had all happened by the time she was in her early twenties, then at the height of their success, after selling five million copies of their first two albums, Pop Art and Velveteen, in 1991, Transvision Vamp split and James was on her own.
With no band and no songs, but a voice and a bucketload of ambition, what do you do? Write to Elvis Costello, of course, asking for guidance. Costello responded with an entire album’s worth of songs that became James’s 1993 solo album, Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears. It reached Number 43 but received mixed reviews and James went off to find her own voice.
It was time to start from the beginning as a songwriter, pick up a guitar and teach herself how to play, hone her craft. Now she’s back with a solo album and tour, making music with a Sex Pistol, a Bad Seed and a Stooge. It sounds like time well spent.
“I did things backwards,” she says. “My first band was famous then after Transvision Vamp I went away and creatively I knuckled down and learned guitar. It was a rite of passage. I set about the gruelling task of learning how to work a studio and write songs properly.”
James “went underground” at her house in West London, savouring the fun memories and considering her next move.
“I thought ‘I’m going to move to New York’. I wasn’t married and my long term relationship had come to an end so I reduced my four-storey house down to one suitcase and went.”
In New York she sofa-surfed with Transvision Vamp’s keyboard player in a flat above a nightclub and after a month found her way to her spiritual home in the edgy vibe of East Village. There she set up home within pogoing distance of the site of CBGB, the nightclub considered to be the crucible of US New Wave, where Patti Smith, Blondie, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Talking Heads and the Beastie Boys all began.
“The music that most speaks to me comes out of that place, New York Dolls, Television, all those bands that excited me. I lived in the Gramercy Hotel, during the fleapit years, slap bang in the middle of all the people I wanted to be around. I was like a teenager all over again, although I was in my late twenties, building up my life again. Now those people work with me and I’m living the dream.
“Transvision Vamp wasn’t famous there so I could write my own script. I started getting friends relevant to life in the present tense instead of people that knew me through a different incarnation. I met The Stooges, Patti, Lenny (from the Patti Smith Group) and Bob Dylan, and suddenly I was where I wanted to be.”
After her ten-year hiatus, James formed the band Racine in 2004, releasing two albums before splitting up in 2008, and in 2011 came her solo album, I Came Here to Blow Minds.
“I never had a plan. I’m freewheeling in my attitude but also I was lucky enough to make a little bit of money early on and financial stability buys you some freedom. It gives you more choice than when you have to do three crap jobs to pay the bills.
“I make a living from music, but I’ve been back down to eating cheese and crackers so I could pay the electricity. I’ve had a lot of money and had no money, but I’ve never had to go and get a job.”
James’ new solo album, The Price of the Ticket, ticks all the musical credibility boxes with a line-up that includes Glen Matlock from The Sex Pistols on bass, Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group on lead and rhythm guitar, Bad Seeds drummer James Sclavunos, and Stooges Steve Mackay and James Williamson on baritone sax and guitar: a roll call that endorses the calibre of James’ song-writing and voice.
“Glen I have known all my adult life because my boyfriend for many years was Mick Jones from The Clash, so when I needed a bass, I thought Glen can do this. Lenny I met being neighbours in the East Village – we were born to work together. James Sclavunos I met in the bar of The Bowery Hotel and we always said let’s do something together.”
If Transvision Vamp were high energy, teen fun punk, three decades later, James’ album is a much more grown up affair. Complex and confident, James’ vocals are simultaneously spiky and soft, while her band provides a dark New York underbelly of sound. There’s the 1960s Georgy Girl pop vocals of Indigent Blues, through the legacy of the New York Dolls, Stooges and MC5 in the evocative You’re a Dirtbag Lester [inspired by music journalist Lester Bangs], to a cover version of It’s All Right, Ma.
James laughs: “Anyone familiar with It’s All Right, Ma knows you have to be a fool or crazy to do that live because of the amount of lyrics. It’s seven minutes long and you can’t stand there with a piece of paper. You have to know it.”
Thirty years on James is still peroxide blonde and even thinner and cooler, with a laid-back delivery. She saves her energy for on stage. Still based in New York, she counts among her friends Patti Smith, Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and husband Chris Frantz, whom she visits at their home in Connecticut.
“I’ve just got my own little life going,” she says. “Every day I get up in the morning, pick up my guitar and a pile of lyrics. The music builds up in me and I write down the things I think. Then a song pings out, and the whole thing starts again.”
James’ taste was always more soulful and punky than pop, drawn to New York garage of Television and The Stooges, but ask her if the new album is darker than anything she’s done before and she demurs.
“I don’t know about darkness. I think there’s joy in there. These songs are clearly me and not Transvision Vamp. There are strains of similarity because I’m a rock and roll girl first and foremost, but these songs are more personal.
“I think my songs are better than what I was turning out 30 years ago. What I’m doing now is a lot more edgy and tough, far more aggressive and challenging, in a good way, than anything Transvision Vamp was doing. I couldn’t have written it before. That’s not to say it’s the epic moment of my life. Who knows what’s still to come?”
Born in Sussex in 1966, James was adopted when she was a baby. She moved to Brighton at 16 to study drama and English and was singing Patti Smith covers in a club when she met Nick Christian Sayer, a would-be songwriter. They began a partnership, personal and professional, moved to London and started a band with Dave Parsons, Tex Axile and Pol Burton. After signing to a record label, their third single I Want Your Love was a top 10 hit and they released three albums before going their separate ways.
“I’m doing the Transvision songs in the set and I’ve been emailing Nick saying, “F***ing hell, what are the chords to Baby I Don’t Care? He sends them back, otherwise I’d have to go on the internet. He’s doing very well, living in Brighton. I can hardly remember all the things we have been through…”
Despite her admission that it’s all a bit of a blur, looking back over the years to Transvision Vamp, would James have done anything differently?
“I’d keep an eye on how much money people are taking out of my bank account,” she says.
Did she feel ripped off?
“No more than anyone else who’s in a pop band when they’re 18,” she says. “It’s definitely a gravy train and you’re f***ed by it. There are so many people getting paid and you’re working so hard that when people say just let me have the signature on the cheque book, you say yes, you just do it. Because you don’t want to be doing that accounting when you’re 18.
“I’m more financially prudent now,” she says, without a trace of bitterness or regret.
“I had all the experience and the fun, the joie de vivre of it. Transvision Vamp was rebellious and fun. And it saw me evolve from a teenager who wanted pretty clothes and fame into someone with a passion for music who was happy in one pair of jeans.”
Honest and raw, James lays herself open in the album but doesn’t see herself able to do things any other way.
A woman who can condense her life and the contents of a four-storey house into a suitcase doesn’t have much baggage, physical or psychological, but she does admit songwriting is a deeply personal calling.
“There’s something quite magical about the discipline of trying to edit your emotions down into a three and a half or five minute song. It’s a very good way of understanding what it is that you’re feeling about yourself.
“You have to do what you believe in and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not and sometimes it’s genius. Be honest with yourself when you’re writing, listen to your inner voice, that way you capture the truth.
“I have always been around people who live by the principle of artist first, fame second. Whether you get good or bad reviews, whether you’re playing to three people or half a million, whether you’re at the top or on the dole, you stick to what you believe in and put the work first and all the crap second. The older you get the more confident you are and the ability to say no to things becomes far easier.”
For all that she sings about emotions, ask her about relationships and she gags. From Nick Christian Sayer to The Clash’s Mick Jones, Jason Donovan and Roland Rivron, there’s been plenty of media speculation about James’ love life, but she isn’t interested.
“Uh! I’m not talking about that. It’s just that any aspect of that is just ... uh!. I would be like that even if I wasn’t being interviewed. I’m just not one of those girls… ‘oh my boyfriend’ Uh!.”
Where she does open up is on the album, with Screamin’ Back Washington, a song she wrote on the subject of adoption.
“I’m an adopted person and I wrote it on my birthday a couple of years ago. I sing it from how I imagine my mother must have felt when she carried me to term and then offered me up for a better life. That’s how most adopted children like to think of their journey. It has occurred to me when my birthday comes around that she thinks of me that day.”
James has just had a birthday the day before we talk, her 50th, but for her it was just another day in the studio with the musicians lined up for the tour – including Louis Elliot (Grace Jones), James Meynell (Racine) and Sclavunos.
“I didn’t even think about it yesterday,” says James, who celebrated her birthday with champagne in styrofoam cups.
“She didn’t know who I am or where I ended up and I’ve never wanted to find her. She was Norwegian and did pass on some Viking genes. I’m quite robust and marauding, but I’m the Caribbean breed of Norwegians because I hate the cold and boats.”
Digging over the past has never been James’ style and she’s never had any desire to search for her birth family, content with the family she’s built up from friends she has gathered over the years.
“I don’t feel the need for a huge family around me. I consider my friends my family. I think my adoption has given me an independent streak and I’m quite happy being alone. I don’t know if that’s healthy, but that’s my disposition. I never had kids because I just never got pregnant. If I had, maybe I could have been travelling around with a teenage kid. I always look at one of my friends, Neneh Cherry, pregnant on Top of the Pops, a tremendous mother and artist. If I had been pregnant I would like to have been like her.
“Some people think it’s scary to be single and alone, but as anyone who goes travelling will tell you, you meet interesting people that way. And things that you never imagine happen to you. I’ve had a lot of moments where I look around and can’t believe where I am. How did I get here? That’s one of the benefits of being wild and free.”