Former Transvision Vamp singer Wendy James is returning with a new solo album. Peter Hackney interviews the queer icon ahead of the release of Queen High Straight.
Gorgeous, talented and fronting one of the world’s hottest bands at the time, British singer Wendy James was the perfect pin-up for glamour-starved kids behind the Iron Curtain in the late ’80s.
The Transvision Vamp frontwoman was such a pop cultural icon of the West that the songs she sang – such as Revolution Baby, I Want Your Love and Baby I Don’t Care – rang out at pro-democracy rallies across Eastern Europe. When former Polish president Lech Walesa (‘the man who broke the Iron Curtain’) won his country’s post-Communist elections in 1990, James was a guest of honour at the celebrations.
So famous was James back in the day that Kurt Cobain even donned a t-shirt bearing her visage at Nirvana’s legendary MTV Live and Loud concert.
Queer fans were among the most enthusiastic. Gay men loved her sass, drag queens wanted to be her, lesbians wanted to be with her and as late as 2005, one of Sydney’s infamous Sleaze Balls was closed by a lesbian cover band performing I Want Your Love.
“It’s not something I’ve deliberately courted but I’m aware of it and I have a great appreciation of my gay fans,” she tells the Star Observer today.
“I’m grateful to have a following of really loyal fans who’ve stuck by me and who still show interest after all this time.”
While superstardom is behind her and James has been largely absent from the public eye for some years, those loyal fans are in for a treat, with the singer readying a new solo album.
A 20-track alt-rock opus, Queen High Straight is currently being mixed in London, with the album due for release early next year.
“I can quite confidently say this is by far the best work I’ve ever done,” James says down the line from the South of France, one of her habitués along with Paris and New York.
“I’m very proud of this record and I consider it a legacy work.”
James has written every single track of said opus and the indie credibility she’s achieved has attracted a stellar line-up of musicians to the project.
Notable musicians include Thurston Moore and Kish Mauve collaborator James Sedwards, who plays rhythm guitar and lead guitar on the album. James Sclavunos (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Cramps) plays drums and percussion. Terry Edwards (Hot Chip, PJ Harvey, Lydia Lunch) plays trumpet, cornet, flugelhorn, tenor and baritone sax. James herself plays rhythm guitar, piano, organ, melodica and is of course the vocalist.
James says the album reflects her punky alt-rock predilections.
“Lenny Kaye and the Patti Smith Group, the Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, the Clash – they’re my guys,” she says.
In line with her indie ethos, James is releasing the album independently without major label backing.
“I’m not a contract person. I don’t want to get married. I don’t like anyone having any claim on me. And once you sign to a record label, as brilliant and as jubilant as that day can be, like any contact you are forever onwards beholden to them,” she explains.
“Of course, if the perfect record deal came along I’d consider it – but freedom is more valuable than money.
“What I’m doing is releasing through the pre-order model, and people can pre-order directly from my website thewendyjames.com and have the vinyls or CDs delivered, or download the file upon release.”
Her website also features a range of merchandise including the aforementioned t-shirt worn by Cobain and tees bearing the May 1991 cover of The Face, shot by Jurgen Teller, which features James nude aside from some strategically placed pearls.
“While I think I’ve bettered myself and I feel my latest work is the best I’ve ever done, I’m not precious about the Transvision Vamp days; I look back on those days with fondness. I do reference them in my merchandise and I always include some Transvision Vamp songs in my concerts,” she says.
But asked if she’d ever consider reforming the band, she’s adamant: “No. It’s diminishing returns when you do reunion tours and it can ruin your legacy when you do down that road.”
James is still in touch with her former bandmates, however, and periodically catches up with them online.
“My top question is always, ‘You’ve still got your hair, haven’t you?’, followed by: ‘You haven’t got fat, have you?’,” she laughs.
“Well, Tex was always leaning towards the portly side of things – but I don’t think any of them have turned into Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now just yet,” she quips.
Alongside the new album, James is getting ready for an extensive tour of the UK with the Psychedelic Furs in October.
“I’m really hoping to tour Australia at some point too and I’m very keen to hear from any Australian promoters who might want to bring me out there,” she enthuses.
“I have been in some talks about it and as soon as someone is willing and able to bring me and my band down, I’ll be on the first plane!”
Queen High Straight by Wendy James is now available on pre-order at thewendyjames.com in addition to merchandise and previous albums.