James are the sound of things to come [April 1, 1991]
This week’s Number 2: “Sit Down”, James
The 90s were the high-water mark of what is sometimes called alternative music, which is really to say bands consisting of white guys with guitars. This type of music had always been around and extremely popular, but the 70s saw bands focus on the album charts, while the 80s were the era of indie labels that only pressed five copies of each record.
It meant that the 80s were dominated by light pop, much of which was in the aesthetic of the time: shiny synths and dancefloor beats. Some of that music has aged well, but when it dominated popular culture, it felt choking and claustrophobic. There was an appetite for something that felt a little more wholesome, more handmade, more nutritious than the empty carbs of Stock Aiken and Waterman.
This is a simple reading of history. There are a lot of questions to be asked about whether guitar music was really that authentic, and whether pop was really that disposable. There are very big questions about who gets to decide what music is worthwhile.
But whatever way you cut it, there’s something going on in this week’s chart. We’ve got reissues of old favourites from The Waterboys and The Clash, plus perhaps REM’s biggest hit, “Losing My Religion”. Towards the bottom of the top 40 we find a fixture on every indie compilation, “Can You Dig It” by The Mock Turtles.
But the biggest non-Chesney Hawkes song of the week is “Sit Down” by James.
“Sit Down” is everything that’s good and everything that’s bad about the rock revolution that will occur throughout the 90s. Tim Booth’s lyrics have that charming, slightly overwritten sensibility that defined bands like Leisure-era Blur, imploring “those who feel the breath of sadness” to sit down next to him. Morrissey cast a long shadow over Britpop.
The song itself is pure Oasis, in the sense that it’s designed to be sung in a pub. It is a terrace chant, an arms-around-the-lads song, the national anthem of six pints and a burger on the way home. It would be very popular with people who were a bit too middle-class to take pills and listen to house music.
I don’t think James set out with this goal in mind - 90s Lad Culture was still only emerging at the time and James were always a bit more sensitive than, say, Ocean Colour Scene (who were at Number 77 last week and won’t chart again until 1996).
But this is what people wanted. Or what some people wanted. Straight white men didn’t quite dominate pop music for a brief moment at the end of the 80s. You had Guns ‘n’ Roses and Metallica, but not much in the top 40. “Sit Down” was one of the songs that showed the Madchester sound and indie rock in general could be a serious commercial proposition.
Elsewhere in the charts
Chesney Hawkes remains at the top of the charts this week. Get used to it, he’s not moving for a while.
Listening to these old charts has introduced me to some songs I missed first time. The absolute best so far is “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” by Definition of Sound who sound like De La Soul at a teenage disco. It peaks at Number 17 this week.
Also in very fun hip-hop tracks: “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo” by A Tribe Called Quest appears at a criminally low Number 86.
Over to you
Any strong memories of April 1, 1991? Let me know in the comments, I’d love to hear.