Fame came knocking for Wendy James when she was 21 years old and she was absolutely ready for it, writes Ed Power.
Three decades later and still a vamp.
“The record company probably couldn’t believe their luck when this girl turned up looking the way I did and acting the way I acted,” says wendy James.
All these decades later she is still synonymous with the gleeful,and outrageous 1980s rockers Transvision Vamp.
“I was full of attitude and self-confidence and so on”, says James, on her way to Ireland to perform at the Feile 19 event on September 20 and 21.
“And with a short dress and blonde hair. They were like… ‘bloody hell. Let her get on with it’.” Transvision Vamp were a Blondie for Generation Smash Hits.
James and her boyfriend Nick Sayer looked like they were falling backwards out of a glitter- bedecked wardrobe when they decided to take on the world. They made falling backwards out of a glitter-bedecked wardrobe and taking on the world seem like the best fun ever.
It was an extraordinary rise. With James singing and Sayer on guitar, the band formed in the late 1986 and had signed a record deal by Christmas. Their first hit, ‘I Want Your Love’, peaked at number three in the charts in July 1988 (and hit five in the UK).
On Top of the Pops that summer, Sayer and the other musicians sported leather jacks and studious frowns. James, who sat on a step as the boys played with their guitars during the intro, wore pink shorts and a cardigan that stretched to her feet. In the grey late 80s, she looked like as if she’d beamed in from another dimension. How could they not make it?
She really was a rebel in search of applause too. James had been abandoned as a baby and adopted by a well-to-do family in Brighton. She was 16 when she ran away from home.
Twelve months later she met Sayer. He was a budding songwriter with tall hair. She already looked like a pop star. They were pushing on an open door.
“When Nick and I met each other, I could sing and he could write songs,” is how she remembers those early days. “Very quickly Transvision Vamp became successful.”
The British pop landscape back then was quite barren. Stock, Aitken and Waterman was churning out manufactured dross. Rave and hip hop were still hugely novel. Amid all that, Transvision Vamp looked like they wanted to kick the table over and play by their own rules.
“It wasn’t fame as we imagine it nowadays,” says James. “The idea of having to tip a paparazzi off when you’re going got the shops just so you can get stupid picture in a tabloid…I would never do that.
“Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely full on. But our private lives remained very similar to what they had always been. We lived in West London. We had our local pubs, our local friends. I’m not sure that’s the case for everyone that becomes successful. But our private lives didn’t change much. Our schedules got very busy. We still had one foot in normality.”
Female rock stars were a huge novelty in the 1987. Regrettably they still are to a certain extent. So James was breaking the mould as well as burning up the charts. She took it all, the pressure, the workload, in her stride.
Did she have to battle sexism within the music industry? “The label took me seriously because I was the frontperson,” she says.
“If they didn’t have me they didn’t have the band.”
James now lives in France, where she is putting the concluding touches to a new solo record, Queen High Straight. Transvision Vamp broke up in 1992. Her relationship with Sayer had ended too. James was initially stumped what do next. She had a high profile. Still, she wasn’t entirely sure of herself as a songwriter.
Elvis Costello, of all people, took her under his wing. He wrote an entire record for her (along with his collaborator and then wife, Cait O’Riordan). Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears was wellreviewed. But James wanted to pursue another direction and chose not take the material on the road.
“All props to him,” she says today. “If it wasn’t for that album… He segued me out of Transvision Vamp and into my subsequent life. Geffen Records had high hopes for that album. They wanted me to commit to a long tour. My gut instinct was that I should call time on that project. That I should retire to my bedroom and start practicing guitar.”
She is happy, at 53, to be older and wiser. And hugely proud of the music she has made since Transvision Vamp. “Those were my training-wheels days,” she remembers. “Transvision Vamp were brilliant. But it was my first experience. I had a youthful energy and attitude. And we had perfect pop songs. You can’t replicate that.” Still, she wouldn’t go back.
“We had complete control in Transvision Vamp,” she says. “But at 17 I wasn’t particularly invested in how the music got made. I was interested in my singing bits. Whereas now I have evolved into a full songwriter and multi-instrumentalist and singer.” Pop music was rather unreconstructed in those days. She was well aware of this at the time.
“If you go back and look at old clips of me being interviewed …. maybe some of the male TV presenters were a bit wink wink, nod nod. I was insulated from that in that I really didn’t give a fuck what they were thinking, and still don’t. So it didn’t particularly effect me.
“But on principle, yes, I’m sure they talked down to me and were sexist towards me. That’s generally what men were like towards woman anyway.”
Wendy James plays Feile 19, at Semple Stadium, Thurles, Tipperary on September 21 and 22