Wendy James, bless her, was the last person on earth to realise that Transvision Vamp were rubbish. Her solution? Write to well-known agony aunt Elvis Costello requesting a talent-transplant. Result? He's written her entire new album! A wide-eyed Giles Smith listens to the rock fairy tale of the year.
It was hard to miss Wendy James in the late 1980s. The list of magazines she failed to make the cover of starts with Shoot, moves on to Camping and Caravaning and ends there. And here she comes again in 1993, stepping rather timidly into a restaurant in Ladbroke Grove in a big black coat with her hair piled up. "I have no idea," she says quietly, "whether people want me on their television sets or in their magazines. And to be honest, I'm not that desperate to be in the centre of things."
Transvision Vamp sounded like The Clash after synthesizer lessons. And Wendy James sang a bit like Debbie Harry and came over as a big-mouthed pop star, high on self-confidence and a bit touchy at the edges. If you had a pound for every time the words 'blonde' and 'ambition' were twinned in magazine pieces about her, you would be rich indeed. Yet if you had a pound for every time Transvision Vamp went into the Top 20, you would have a measly £4. Her fame as a media item outpaced her fame as a singer. And then it all fell into disarray.
1991 will go down as Wendy James's annus horribilis. The third Transvision Vamp album slumped on the blocks and refused to budge. MCA appeared to have pulled the plug on the band, promotionally speaking. Still, they were out there on the road, giving it as much as they could muster. But James, who was by then 25, had started to find her role constricting. It chafed away at her nerve ends. At times, she says, she wondered whether she'd be stuck in bubblegum for the rest of her useful life.
"It got harder to sing the songs with any conviction. Bubblegum is fine when you're a teenager, but as I got older, it wasn't ringing true. With no disrespect to songs like Baby I Don't Care, I couldn't sing that song any more, because I wanted to say, I do care, and these are all the things I care about. And I had no solution to this at that point. I would just start calling things shit and getting negative about everything. It was about that time, late '91, I bumped into Pete Thomas with his wings on his back." In what James may well come to look back upon as the key coincidence, Pete Thomas, Elvis Costello's drummer of choice, happened to be in LA at the same time as James, who had gone ahead of the rest of her band to publicize some concerts. "And just off the top of my head I said to Pete, I'm thinking of going solo - do you think Elvis would help me out?"
Now, James and Costello had never met, nor had any cause to assume complicity. It's never actually been reported what Elvis Costello thought of Transvision Vamp, but it's probably safe to assume that when If Looks Could Kill came out in 1991, Elvis was probably not down at his local Our Price burying it on all formats. Even so, Pete Thomas still thought it was worth a punt. "He said, if you don't ask, you don't get. Why don't you try writing him a letter? So it was thanks to Pete for not dismissing the idea out of hand."
James went back to Washington, where the tour was opening, took some sheets of hotel paper and a biro from her room in the Washington Omni, sat down in a coffee shop on the university campus, and wrote, "Dear Elvis".
"I'm not a big letter writer, but I think I can script a fairly good one if I have to. It was a bit like a letter to an agony aunt. I wrote down all the reasons why I wasn't really a happy person - not with my emotional life, but with my musical life. It would have served me as a diary if I hadn't posted it. But I sent if off and fatalistically tore up my copy the next morning, thinking, well, you're living in cloud cuckoo land. Not that I asked him for any specific help. I simply said, I need to get better, and you're what I consider is better. So can something be done?"
She heard nothing for two weeks, until Pete Thomas phoned her, in a state of some excitement, saying, "I can't tell you what's happened, but you're going to like it".
"And then I got a letter from Elvis's publisher, saying, 'He hasn't just written you a single, he's done you a whole album. And he's going to demo it up for you with Pete while you're on tour and it'll be here waiting for you when you get back. If you like it, it's yours.' I went screaming into Nick's hotel room with a ridiculous grin on my face saying, you'll never guess what: Elvis has written me an album! He's written me an album!"
"To my knowledge, they did one run-through on each song; they didn't waste much time. The third track was a ballad, and I thought I'd landed in heaven. It was a one-woman fan club in my living room right there. I probably played it about five times in a row, just grinning and getting used to it. Then I phoned the publisher and said, Yes please, I'll have it. It was only later it dawned on me that it was now down to me to do something with it. It was a frightening realisation."
What she did with it was keep it raw and essential. Chris Kimsey, the Rolling Stones' engineer, was brought in to produce with a live feel. The album's spirit is pretty much in keeping with early Costello albums and the lyrics frequently reveal their author's familiar hand. For example, in accord with Costello's commitment to pushing the lyrical envelope, this is almost certainly the first pop album to rhyme "Fanny Ardant" with "hard-on".
But the extraordinary thing is, these are not just ten knock-down Costello numbers, plucked at random from the unpublished back catalogue or picked off a dusty shelf. Lyrically, they seem, at least in places, to be drawing on James's own life and times. "All Elvis knew of me was what anybody who had read a certain amount of music press knew, and what he could ascertain from my letter. Yet here was my own personal Elvis Costello album."
Take Puppet Girl, for instance, a piece about having your strings yanked ("Hey there, puppet girl, who put the mouth in all the things you say?"). Or take the Ladbroke Grove satire, London's Brilliant, which snaps at those "still digging up the bones of Strummer and Jones" and warns that "a cool profile down Ladbroke Grove won't make it no more". Or take Do You Know What I'm Saying, James's personal favourite, which includes the line, "The past prima donna in buttons and bells was speaking what's left of her mind as the audience rebelled...
"There's not one song where I got off easy. That one reminds me of that state where you're drunk and you find yourself pointing at yourself in a mirror. It's a song about any place where praise is given unduly and things are built up out of proportion. And when I recorded it, I was feeling like I wanted to put a few holes in my old self, give that self a slap round the face."
But perhaps closest to the bone is a song called The Nameless One. "It represents my bubble being burst and the horrific revelation that you're not as great as you thought you were. To a large extent, what happened in 1991 did that to me. The song is a list of B-movie actors, singers that never quite made it - not your first-rate talent. When I recorded that song, it all fitted together. It's why I chose it as the first single - so I could start at the very bottom, the lowest ebb and then see what happens."
James did finally meet Costello. It was backstage after a U2 concert at Earl's Court last year. She is convinced it was just a coincidence. "But we were given an introduction, and obviously I said thank you and he wished me luck and said have a good time. And that was the conversation. There isn't any more to it than that. Strange. Strange but true.