Wendy James interview: 'I was expected to be coquettish, fluttering my eyelashes'

Wendy James - David Leigh Dodd
Wendy James - David Leigh Dodd

In the summer of 1982, Wendy James went to see The Clash. The 16-year old travelled to the Brighton Centre from her home near the Sussex coast and blagged her way into a concert she was too young to attend. She wended her way to the front of the room, and watched as the London punks began their set with London Calling, Clash City Rockers, and (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais.

Battered and bruised against the barrier – “I’d underestimated how much pushing and shoving goes on at a Clash concert,” she says – she was lifted to safety by the group’s muscular roadie, Ray Jordan, who plonked her at the side of the stage. From there she watched the remainder of the set. The incident is the first recorded example of Wendy James’s innate ability to place herself at the centre of the action.

“About two or three years later I became friends with those guys [in The Clash],” she says. “And Ray said to me, ‘Are you that blonde girl I had to hoik over the barrier?’ So we all left indelible prints on each other that night.”

In the years that have followed, Wendy James has worked with Elvis Costello, and his drummer Pete Thomas. She has recorded with Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith Group, James Williamson from The Stooges, Glenn Matlock from the Sex Pistols, and James) Sclavunos  from the Bad Seeds. Over the course of four solo albums she has worked hard to escape the 30-year shadow cast by Transvision Vamp, the band with which she found the kind of fame that might rightly be described as iconic.

“I’ve lived my life like Benjamin Button,” she says. “Usually, you start off with your bedroom practicing your guitar. Then you go off and you meet like-minded teenagers and you form a band. You struggle around in a transit van; and if you’re lucky, lucky, lucky then you have some success.

“But for me it was quite a quick trajectory from making a demo for Transvision Vamp into stardom on Top Of The Pops… [Eventually] I went back to the bedroom and picked up a guitar and worked out how to play it properly,” she says.

The latest results of this somewhat late bloom can be heard on Queen High Straight, her first album for four years. A superior collection of cosmopolitan pop music, the 20-song set is both catchy and complex. “I spend each day in splendid isolation, the quintessential intersection of nothing,” she sings on the waltz-time wonder that is Free Man Walk. In doing so, she might just have written the anthem that best describes the lives of everyone who hears it.

“Oh please write that,” she says in a voice that sounds as if it’s been marinated in bourbon.

James is on the line to London from her home in Southwest France. While the capital puts me in mind of a couplet from one of her earlier songs – “London’s brilliant when it’s raining, everybody’s moaning and complaining” – the 54-year old singer looks out from a terrace that affords of a view of fully rural acreage. She also keeps a home in the East Village, in Manhattan. Right now, she should be on tour; like everything else, it’s gone for a burton.

Wendy James in 1988 - getty
Wendy James in 1988 - getty

“I delayed it until September, and I’m just hoping that that’s realistic,” she says. “Because the more I hear from other agents, gig bookers, bands, I mean, everyone seems to be erring on the side of caution and delaying until 2021. But like everyone else, I just don’t know.”

It’s been 32-years since Wendy James made the kind of first impression one doesn’t soon forget. Tire-screechingly beautiful and possessed of the kind of swagger that suggested she attended school on Bash Street, she wielded her piercing sexuality in a manner that left the viewer in no doubt about who was the boss. When she sang the words “you don’t have to say you love me… baby please believe me, I don’t care” – from Baby I Don’t Care, Transvision Vamp’s biggest hit - she did so with the air of someone who meant it.

She talked a good game, too. Emerging at a time when Britain was bereft of pop stars, utterances such as “I will win an Oscar… I knew that before I was ever in Transvision Vamp,” and “before my heart stops beating, everybody in the world will know my name” made her all but irresistible to many in the press. Appearing under male bylines, a number of the notices were sniffy, and sometimes prejudiced.

Wendy James with comedian Vic Reeves in 1982 - getty
Wendy James with comedian Vic Reeves in 1982 - getty

“In the serious rock interview [Wendy James is] a concerned, thinking woman. In the colour photos – a veritable nudist. Either is fine in pop; both together is duff in a big way,” said one. Another praised the songwriting talents of Nick Christian Sayer, the guitarist in Transvision Vamp, and opined – wrongly, as it goes - that “one suspects he will still be on the scene long after his former girlfriend has parodied herself on to the afternoon game-show circuit.”

“They didn’t dissect men in the same way that they dissected women,” she says. “Not just music journalists, either, but all of the business… The Stones get a free pass on whatever, right? As they should. Brilliant band. But women are held to account slightly more.”

Wendy James incurred “shady comments from people in record company and managerial positions… that would get [them] Harvey Weinsten-ed out of there now.” She “[doesn’t] look back because I can’t be bothered to” but wonders aloud whether an absence of timidity on her part bamboozled people who expected her to be “coquettish… the kind of person who should be fluttering my eyelashes.”

I ask if she enjoyed being famous, to which she replies, “I guess so. Yeah. I mean, yeah. Yeah. I mean, yeah.” She draws breath, and adds, “That’s very bland answer, isn’t it?”

It’s not your strongest work.

Wendy James - David Leigh Dodd
Wendy James - David Leigh Dodd

“Okay, I’ll tell you what’s good about it,” she says, “it’s a quick learning curve. You imagine yourself at 17-years old, and then within a year and a half you’re playing three and four thousand seaters in most of the countries of the world… And you learn really fast and hard how to cope with the pace, how to cope with delegating work roles, how to cope with the media, how to cope with how strangers approach you, or how they might view you, which isn’t necessarily how you might view yourself.

“It’s such a benefit to learn when you’re young,” she says. “You can’t teach this stuff on a university course. You have to just get in there, f______ dive in and sink or swim, right?”

She thought the fame would last forever, and she was wrong. In the UK, MCA Records rejected Transvision Vamp’s third album, Little Magnets Versus The Bubble Of Babble, while its leadoff single, (I Just Wanna) B With U, barely scraped the top-30. Out on the road, the band were knackered; in the absence of sensible advice to take a year off, instead they opted to implode.

“Whatever the world may think of my music, I really think it was the best decision,” says the singer. “Because I just know that the music I’m making now gives me such pleasure. And we’d outgrown it [Transvision Vamp]. Like most pop bands, even if it’s the Beatles, you go through an arc and you kind of outgrow it. You become John Lennon.”

Wendy James in 1991 - getty
Wendy James in 1991 - getty

With Transvision Vamp only days away from closure, Wendy James wrote a letter to Elvis Costello on stationery from a hotel in California. Requesting that the songwriter compose a track for her first solo album, she returned home after her group’s final ever concert, in San Francisco, to discover that Costello had composed an entire LP. The cassette lay on the mat as she put her key in the door.

Written with an exaggerated flourish, the songs weren’t always kind. “The past prima donna in buttons and bells was speaking what’s left of her mind as the audience rebelled,” was the opening couplet of the glorious Do You Know What I’m Saying? It was a theme to which Costello warmed. “She entered on roller-skates, fetchingly tousled, she danced like an ambulance, talked like a cartoon mouse, she took of her clothes and it brought down the house,” he added.

Under produced to the point of anorexia, the otherwise meticulous Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears – an album the singer today refers to as “the Elvis record” – fared poorly at the box office.

Wendy James performing in 2019
Wendy James performing in 2019

“I never doubted myself,” she says. “I had the luxury of having a little bit of money in my bank account; and the world wasn’t desperate for a new record. Even if it had have been, it wouldn’t have mattered. I started Transvision Vamp when I was 17 and I didn’t stop until I was 25 or something. It was just really necessary to reclaim myself; not just discover my own music, but reclaim myself. So I knew where I was going, I knew the direction I was going in.”

For the longest time, Wendy James didn’t seem to be in a hurry to make music at all. As London surrendered itself to Britpop, the singer left Notting Hill for the Lower East Side of Manhattan. By heading west she knowingly followed in the Converse of Debbie Harry, who, a generation earlier, had lived on the Bowery with Chris Stein, the guitarist in Blondie. Of the reams of press devoted to Transvision Vamp, it is astonishing that not one article makes what seems to me to be an obvious connection between the two singers.

Wendy James didn’t release another album until 2004, and didn’t play live as a solo artist until 2016. She bumped into Elvis Costello on Lexington Avenue – it was only the second time the pair had met – but only to say hello. “You can’t say we became the best of friends,” is her summation of their relationship. And, anyway, the days when Wendy James required the assistance of other writers lay behind her like boyfriends in a rearview mirror.

“It turns out that the older I’ve become the more confident and determined I am in my abilities to express myself truthfully, as opposed to going through a producer or a collaborative process with different writers,” she says. “I started off singing songs with Nick from Transvision Vamp, and then I was the mouthpiece for the Elvis record.

“After that, it became really clear to me that, for better or worse, I wanted to express my own sentiments, and my own poetry, and my own musicality,” she says.

This change of emphasis did not come at the expense of the singer’s innate iconoclasm. After flying to Paris on a red-eye from JFK, in 2015 Wendy James convened for “beers with breakfast” with Kym Ellery, a (female) photographer from Sydney. It was suggested that the singer remove her top and pose for pictures. So pleased was she with one image that she used it as the cover for her album The Price Of A Ticket. In a state of virtual nakedness, she still looks to be in charge.

“I embrace that photograph because, even if I say so myself, I do look really good,” she says. And, anyway, “let me put this to you. Why are male nipples allowed on Facebook, but women’s nipples are not, even if that women is breast-feeding. See, we’re still not really equal.”

Perhaps not. But Wendy James’s refusal to accept that, at age 27, her career was over – and bet the house on this, few things are as satisfying to a certain sector of the music industry as the fall of a pop princess with a smart-mouth – suggests a persistence that is indomitable. By taking charge of her own front-story, and by writing her own songs, she has escaped a fate that might otherwise have been hers: a viral video clip with the heading ‘You’ll never guess what the singer of Transvision Vamp looks like now!’

Instead, she made the game her own. The days of pop stardom are behind her, but her name still carries weight. And as the thoughtfully curated Queen High Straight emerges blinking into the light of a strange planet, Wendy James is today answerable only to herself.

“Musically [Queen High Straight] is everything for me,” she says. “And I really firmly believe that the songs are really good. And I only hope that somehow… that it manages to reach people enough that people are able to hear it and go, ‘My God, these are really good songs.’

“I think I’ve got a unique little place in the music industry,” she says. “I’ve carved out a square inch for myself.”

Queen High Straight is available now from thewendyjames.com