Wendy James – Queen High Straight

When I saw the list of available album’s to review I couldn’t resist having a listen to this. To younger readers this may look like an mature woman with peroxide blonde hair but to people of my generation Wendy James will always be the blonde bombshell lead singer of Transvision Vamp. Ironically to one of my very favourite Transvision Vamp songs Landslide of Love was featured on tonight’s Top of The Pops rerun on BBC4 from August 1989. That song came from their number 1 album Velveteen which I bought on day of release 26th June 1989.

Wendy was a feminist but she was always happy to flash the flesh, especially when she performed Baby I Don’t Care wearing only a bra on her top earlier in 1989, also on Top of The Pops. Wendy was always slagging someone or something off but had strong views and whilst being a pin up to many teenage boys, including myself, she would now be considered a strong female role model.

After a disastrous third album Transvision Vamp split up and ironically bassist Dave Parsons perhaps went onto the greatest success being the original bassist in rock band Bush. Wendy released a solo album written entirely by the great Elvis Costello in 1993 called Now Ain’t the Time for Your Tears but this only achieved moderate success and she disappeared.

In those pre Internet days of the mid and late 1990’s I’d often wonder what happened to the likes of Wendy, especially if you heard an old Transvision Vamp song on the radio or noticed an album or single of theirs in my record collection. Anyway fast forward to 2004 and Wendy re-emerged as lead singer of a band called Racine and they released their debut album Number One.

The next year I finally got to see Wendy play live as Racine played the Rock Cafe in Stourbridge and I met her and got all my dug out Transvision Vamp stuff signed including a few very old Smash Hits posters. She was impressed that I’d got so much old stuff but did say often fans of my age would bring old albums to be signed after shows and it was nice fans remembered her.

A second Racine album followed in 2007 and Wendy released a couple of low key solo albums in the next few years. She then came back onto my radar in 2016 when she released an album called The Price Of The Ticket which generated a bit of media interest as Wendy at the age of 50 posed topless on the album cover in just a pair of black briefs. Was it a publicity stunt, a body confidence statement, something to shock, her contribution to the MeToo movement? Who knows.

Wendy has been gigging around more recently too supporting other bands of her era or playing headline shows of her own encompassing music from her Transvision Vamp days to her new stuff. She was due to head out on tour this month to promote and support her latest release but that has clearly had to be postponed.

This brings us to her latest and fifth solo album Queen High Straight released on 1st May. This is a weighty 20 track double album clocking in at near 80 minutes which she has written, produced and mixed herself.

With such a large body of work to review I decided to take an unusual approach and start with closing track Kill Some Time Blues which is described in the album’s promotional material as the ultimate 60’s girl group song. Landslide of Love, mentioned in the opening of this review was a tribute to mad 1960’s producing genius Phil Spector so I was drawn to this track and immediately it stands out as a song which is a perfect pastiche to bands like The Crystals and The Shirelles and Wendy’s voice sounds much younger than her 54 years.

Opening and title track Queen High Straight has a mellow relaxed jazz vibe and showcases Wendy’s voice nicely. Perilous Beauty, which was one half of a double A Side single released to promote the album takes us back to her Transvision Vamp prime with it’s driving guitar riff and Wendy’s vocals are typically sexy and sultry but now with a nice mature tone compared to her younger days. Free Man Walk opens with nice layered vocals and has a slight folk rock vibe with an increasingly catchy hook before going into a Latin flavoured instrumental. It then comes back to Wendy singing some lines totally acapella before building again to a catchy conclusion.

Stomp Down, Snuck Up has a funky vibe with hints of AOR pop as well as the 60’s girlbands that Wendy and myself share a mutual love for. It then takes on a heavier twist with a lengthy guitar solo before repeating the initial formula again successfully. Again Wendy’s voice sounds much younger than her age. Little Melvin is described in the promotional material as having a Motown vibe and whilst not one of my favourite songs so far is still a very solid track with it’s Detroit flavour. If you ever wonder what the best ever Motown song was my vote goes to Tears of A Clown by Smokie Robinson and The Miracles.

Marlene et Fleur I’m assuming is a nod to the legendary Marlene Dietrich who my mum was incidentally named after. Any younger female readers who want to find out about a strong and ground breaking female icon then please read up about Marlene Dietrich. This song may also be a nod to Falling For A Goldmine from Velveteen which was written about Ms Dietrich. It also has a Velvet Underground feel another of Wendy’s and mine favourite bands.

A Heart Breaking Liar’s Promise is the album’s longest track at over five minutes in length but is a very pleasant pop song, again with a great chorus and lush production. Wendy’s band certainly all shine on this track too. Here Comes The Beautiful again has Motown influences but builds into a gloriously grand production and shows just how good her band are as it could easily have been played by Motown’s legendary session band The Funk Brothers. Chicken Street is the other song released as the Double A Side promotional single and is described as an unlikely love song but in my view is another very good pop/rock song with nods to Wendy’s early career.

Testimonial isn’t about a sportsman who has given his team 10 years plus loyal service but does have a nice melancholic and reflective feel and is the perfect sort of song for someone like Wendy to write looking back at her life experiences. It features a lovely short guitar solo. Bar Room Brawl & Benzedrine Blues began with a pub drinking vibe but builds into a sound that is hard to categorize. It’s dominated by a distorted lengthy guitar solo before climaxing with a country rock style sing along finale. Ratfucking is an unusual song title but has a 90’s pop feel on what is the album’s shortest track and again could have been something Wendy could easily have recorded 30 odd years ago with shades of Revolution Baby from Transvision Vamp’s debut album, 1988’s Pop Art, with Wendy’s voice again sounding effortlessly young.

She Likes To Be with the glorious lyric She likes to be underneath somebody has Wendy back to her sultry breathless best on a song which to me has a lovely relaxed late 1960’s vibe. Bliss Hotel, although not listed as having a Motown vibe in the promotional material, certainly has clear Motown nods in my mind with it’s horns and female vocal harmonies.

At about this time of writing the album Wendy apparently hit a creative block for a while and while she already had a superbly accomplished album’s plus worth of material in the can she pushed on and eventually wrote what she considers her favourite songs on the album. Freak In opens with a driving rock guitar riff and again showcases her band with Wendy’s vocals almost taking a background role on this track. The Impression of Normalcy has punk undertones and builds into one of the heavier songs on the album. I’ll Be Here When The Morning Comes is described as being Django Reinhardt whimsy. (Django was a pioneering jazz guitarist in the 1930’s and 1940’s) and the song does have a beautiful, whimsical, almost hypnotic quality.

Cancel It… I’ll See Him On Monday is described by Wendy as her favourite song on the album and is a perfect mesh of the 1960’s girl bands with vibes of the Kinks in their more reflective mood and shades of The Small Faces in parts. Again this is as near a perfect pop song as anything on this album. Penultimate track Sugar Boy, whilst I wasn’t a fan of it’s chorus, has more of those 60’s influences that Wendy and myself share a mutual love of. Then we are back to Kill Some Time Blues.

Aside from Wendy being one of my teenage crushes I can say this is honestly one of the best ‘later career’ albums that I have heard in a long time. It is great to have her back. She’s been missed.

Mark Wakeman