At 16, Wendy James began a musical odyssey that brought her international stardom as the lead singer of Transvision Vamp, a pop-punk band that went on to record several top-10 hits in England in the late '80s. Sexually charged, rebellious and hot, James became the poster child for the group that included her boyfriend, guitarist Nick Sayer. The band made it onto the music charts with their albums Pop Art and Velveteen in 1988 and 1989, respectively. And, as these things usually go, all went well until it didn't. The touring, countless appearances and lack of a personal life getting the best of James and her band mates, Transvision Vamp broke up in 1992.
"I pulled the plug on the whole thing," she says of that period. "I reached tipping point, really. I had my house in London. I had a private life I wanted to invest some time into. I needed to grow up as well, and read books, listen to music, write my own songs and make the transition from being a teenager to being in my twenties. I needed to come up with a revised, updated version of myself."
Along the way, she teamed up with Elvis Costello on an album, Now Ain't the Time for Your Tears (1992), a misfire that she calls "a big ticket item for me and Geffen Records. Lots of money, flying around, recorded in the South of France, mixed in L.A., everyone having a nice time." After having only worked with musicians from her band, she was now "working with top-flight musicians from The Attractions or session musicians. But the way the album ended up didn't live up to what I thought it would be when I embarked on it."
She knew there was something fundamentally wrong. "When you're on that merry go round of pop stardom, there's literally no time to understand how you're feeling about things. Flights all day long and touring six nights on one night off for a whole year. There was never any more time for me."
She went back to basics and decided she would learn how to write a song and play her guitar. "My boyfriend at the time [Mick Jones] bought me a Portastudio and I set about reading the manuals. It was time for me to express myself in my own voice. You need to know what you're about. You need to have your own vision. After about two years, I'd done my Wendy time and came out of my creative shell. I'd gone back to the stage of being a 14-year-old when you first get your guitar and start practicing and write your first song. So I'd done the who cycle of pop stardom and fame and gone back to the bedroom to start learning how to write a song."
That's when she realized that to reinvent herself like her idol Bob Dylan, she had to come to New York. "I always wanted to live in New York. I had freedom. No one particularly waiting for a new Wendy James album. I had enough money to make the move and had enough songs in my pocket, so I sold my house and moved in 2002. If I'd been born in America, I'd be one of those kids who took $10 and caught a Greyhound bus to the big city."
An encounter with Peaches brought her to Cobraside who distributed two albums, Racine and I Came Here to Blow Minds, which were well-reviewed but not big sellers. "The albums raised my profile," she says, "I wasn't making tons of money, but I was getting a nice little reputation."
And now James is back in the news with two singles from a forthcoming album recorded with Stooges guitarist James "Raw Power" Williamson and drummer James Sclavunos of the Bad Seeds. Of those tracks, Williams' guitar wreaks havoc on her 7-minute cover of Dylan's "It's All Right Ma," and while she's a bit more restrained perhaps on Fred "Sonic" Smith's "You're So Great," an obvious love for rock 'n' roll pushes through nonetheless.
Despite the two covers, James promises 11 original songs for the album when completed by the end of this year.
Photo by Ricardo Gomes