A FEW weeks ago, Wendy James was trending on Twitter. It’s been happening quite often over the last few months, a result of BBC Four’s repeats of Top of the Pops reaching 1988 and 1989, the years in which a pink-lipsticked, bra-flaunting James launched herself on the public consciousness as the brash, blonde frontwoman of Transvision Vamp.

On this most recent occasion it was for an appearance of the band in June 1989, performing The Only One, their follow-up to their top five hit I Want Your Love. James was demurely dressed by her standards at the time (white dress and white boots), but she looked as if she had just run a couple of marathons back to back, much to the heated Twitter interest of a lot of middle-aged men who had carried a torch for her in their teenage years.


“I do remember that specific evening,” the woman in question is saying more than 30 years later. “The BBC make-up artists had a whole load of body cream and I greased myself up to look shiny and sweaty and sexy. Or what I thought sexy was.

“And I remember The Beautiful South almost like being repelled: ‘What’s going on? She’s so greasy.’ I don’t know what they thought. They just turned up for Top of the Pops performances in their normal clothes. Hush puppies or whatever. We were all making an effort.”

Wendy James still is. It is possible you haven’t noticed though. Though she remains for many an overheated memory from 1980s pop culture, she has never stopped making music. After Transvision Vamp ran out of road at the start of the 1990s she recorded an album, Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears, written for her by Elvis Costello and Cait O’Riordan and then disappeared for 10 years to learn to write her own songs.

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Since then she’s maintained an under-the-radar musical output that in recent years has seen her team up with the likes of Glen Matlock, Lenny Kaye (better known for working with Patti Smith) and Bad Seeds drummer Jim Sclavunos, who can also be found on her newest album, Queen High Straight, whose 20 songs stretch over four sides of vinyl.

Today, James is in her sitting room in isolation in the south of France (she spends her time between there and New York). Lockdown has started and CNN is on softly in the background, reporting on the pandemic.

James is 54, but in conversation retains the self-confidence and outspokenness that marked her younger years, whether she’s raving about Cardi B and Stormzy or talking about her 17-year-old self.

The first thing I say, not entirely seriously, is that an album of 20 tracks is just showing off.

“Do you think?” she replies. “Would you say that to the Clash when they did a triple album? Sandinista was a triple album. Would you tell the Clash they were showing off?”

Well, now that you ask me, I think I would, Wendy. “OK. Well, it wasn’t meant to be showing off. I set out to do 20 songs and none of these songs are fillers or remixes or outtakes, it’s 20 bona fide great songs. I think it’s almost a mission statement.”

What Queen High Straight demonstrates is the width of James’s taste. It veers from gravelly rock 'n' roll to pure pop. The title track, she suggests, has a touch of Sergio Mendes about it, while The Impression of Normalcy is “really hardcore punk”.

On the grinding, gnarly Perilous Beauty she sings, “Sometimes I sound like gravel/ Sometimes I sound like coffee and cream,” which sounds about right.

The best thing on the album, though, is Cancel It … I’ll See Him on Monday, which is a proper pop song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the radio in 1967. It wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio in 2020 if it gets a chance.

“The minute I’d written that song I ran out of my bedroom, which is where I do my writing, shrieking, ‘I’ve done it. I’ve done it,’” she says.

Looked at from this end of the telescope you could argue that James’ story is one of possibly unexpected perseverance. The easy thing to do, back then, might have been to parlay her 1980s “15 minutes of fame” into a career in the media. Instead, she stuck to music.

There’s an admirable stoicism to that and maybe a level of bullheadedness. “The opinion of others don’t count for much,” is one lyric on the album. Is that how you see things, Wendy?

“I would say that is 100 per cent,” she says immediately, but adds, “Let me clarify that. Of course, I want to listen, I want to understand, I want to grow, and I want to learn. I think it’s specific to my music, because if I know the music’s great then it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”

I read her a couple of other lines from the album and ask if they also apply or not. “I don’t want to fall in love again,” for example.

“Yeah that’s not strictly …. That is in the heat of break-up … Which I wasn’t going through. But certainly I have experienced that feeling when I have broken up with someone and thought, ‘Well, I’m just not doing that again.”

One more, Wendy, “Give me the chance to dazzle you.”

“Yes! I love that line.” And she starts singing it back to me.

Time to rewind. Wendy James was adopted when she was a baby and brought up in a home that wasn’t very rock 'n' roll, she says. “If I had adhered to the way I was being brought up I would have a far more traditional vanilla life.”

Instead, she ran away to Brighton at the age of 16, started singing in bars where she met Nick Christian Sayer. They became a couple and started a band. It didn’t take too long before James was appearing on Top of the Pops or near naked on the cover of The Face and Tatler and giving good quotes while being slagged off by the music press.

In truth, Wendy, I tell her, the NME-reading twentysomething that I was back then didn’t have a lot of time for Transvision Vamp. But watching the TOTP repeats what jumps off the screen is the fact that you seem to be hugely enjoying yourself.

“Yeah, Top of the Pops performances were always fun.”

How do you look back on that young woman? “Somebody posted a clip of me at 17 being asked about sexism and, my goodness, the clarity. Bloody hell, did I really have that much knowledge back then? Because, obviously, a 17-year-old brain is not as evolved as you would hope my brain is now. I feel I’m quite proud of myself.”

It should be said that it wasn’t just panting teenage boys who responded to James in her youthful pomp. There was no shortage of teenage girls who were influenced by her style.

“I do have a healthy share of the female populace liking me as much as men. Maybe for different reasons, maybe for some of the same reasons.”

A Wendy James pink lipstick line could have gone great guns in 1989. “There’s a missed opportunity,” she says, laughing. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me.”

Whatever you thought of Transvision Vamp the band, James was met with a mixture of prurience and dismissal. Her combination of display and outspokenness prompted some brutal coverage. “We’re talking 30 years ago. The culture was inherently more sexist than it is now,” she points out.

The idea of being an outspoken woman wasn’t totally welcomed at the time. “It’s not completely appreciated now. Look at the female candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination. Women get called highly strung, they get called nasty, all these adjectives that men just wouldn’t get.

“When men are outspoken or ballsy or even rude … Look at Donald Trump. Well, I don’t want to get into that. He’s disgusting every day and his fans love him for it, whereas if that was a woman behaving like that, my God.”

Did her image maybe get in the way of being taken seriously? She appeared on the cover of The Face barely covered in a pearl bikini, after all.

“The Rolling Stones had their cocks out on album covers! Well, not their cocks, but they had their big erect bulges amplified by Andy Warhol."

Actually, I'm not sure that, despite the legend, that's Mick Jagger on the cover of Sticky Fingers (though members of the band were photographed holding it at waist level). Still, she is clear on how her younger self's image. "I have no problem with the way I dressed, none.”

That was then. And now? Are her ambitions the same as they were back then?

“What, world domination? Yeah. I would love my album to be a massive success and I’d love to be touring the world and having millions and millions of sold-out gigs.

“I don’t know if I would be very good with the bulls*** that goes along with it. But, on the other hand, I’ve cultivated a life where people leave me alone anyway. I wouldn’t get as harried as I did the first time around because I’m very capable of saying, ‘Time out,’ and saying no to stuff.”

She thinks about this some more before summarising her current situation. “I haven’t had massive hits since Transvision Vamp, and I haven’t been signed by a label that would put the machine behind me. But the drive to make music is there.

“Maybe for some pop stars it’s more of a youthful thing, and then they become a parent or do another job, because not everyone sticks in, but I am a musician. That’s what I am. That’s what I do.”

Queen High Straight is out on Friday. You can order it from wendyjames.com

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