Batten down the hatches: one of world’s greatest rock chicks, Wendy James, is staging a comeback. Famous in Australia for her string of roaring 80s hits with Transvision Vamp, her feud with Kylie Minogue, and for throwing a cake in Molly Meldrum's face (see video below) - we caught up with Wendy to find out what she's been doing since she dominated headlines both here and in the UK all those years ago.
With her platinum hair and perfect pink pout, she was a blonde bombshell personified; the package also included intelligence, vocal prowess and a primal scream that rivalled Chrissy Amphlett’s. A rock goddess had been born.
The Fleet Street tabloids were obsessed, fashion bibles The Face and i-D put her on their covers, Molly Meldrum waxed lyrical, and from 1988 to 1991, Wendy was one of the music scene's most controversial stars. With Wendy at the helm, Transvision Vamp released three albums and a slew of singles including the international smash hits I Want Your Love and Baby I Don’t Care.
“It was a whirlwind, a blur, we got ripped off and met some very nasty people - but we loved it,” Wendy tells New Idea down the line from the South of France.
Big Down Under
Australia was a particularly enthusiastic market. Wendy became a sensation here as the band criss-crossed the country, touring for months at a time.
“I think my personality resonated quite well with the Australian character,” she says.
“I don’t mean to generalise about a whole country but the Australian friends I have - male and female - are all kind of balls out, in-your-face, straightforward, up for a laugh and willing to take risks.”
There were reported dates with Jason Donovan and a strange rapport with former Tonight Live host Steve Vizard (of the latter, she now says: “I’m sorry, but I don’t actually know who that is”). Plus those memorable appearances on the top-rating Hey Hey, It’s Saturday, including THAT time Wendy shoved a huge cream cake into Molly’s face.
“I was put up to that by the TV producers,” she laughs. “I actually have a soft spot for Molly. I remember him being very supportive of us, so I was regularly on the show or doing international broadcasts where you stare into a camera but can’t actually see what’s going on.”
Informed of Molly’s subsequent health battles, she exclaims: “Oh no! I found him such a lovely man. Via your publication, I’d like to send Molly my very best regards.”
That feud with Kylie
Relations with another Aussie icon, Kylie Minogue, were less cordial. In the late ’80s, Wendy roundly slammed Kylie’s disco dolly songs and image.
“I think the attitudes she is portraying in her songs are really dangerous," Wendy complained to Smash Hits at the time. "The lyrics in those songs are tainted with the ideas of ‘I really need a man to look after me’ and ‘I should be so lucky if you fall in love with me' … it’s all pollution of the mind.”
In Countdown magazine, she sniffed: “I should think a certain amount of girls see me as a role model; far more probably appreciate Kylie Minogue at the present time. But that’s fine - they can go home and watch Neighbours.”
But Wendy’s not playing today.
“Oh, you’re not going to get me into that,” she says with a chuckle.
“She’s an institution, much-loved by all,” she adds sardonically.
After several high-octane years, Transvision Vamp split and Wendy went solo. She wrote to Elvis Costello and asked him to pen her an album (he immediately said yes) and in 1993, she released her debut solo album, Now Ain’t The Time For Your Tears.
Commercially, if not critically, it crashed upon take-off.
“Technically, that’s my first solo album, yes,” Wendy says now.
“I sang it and it came out under my name. But I don’t consider it a proper solo album because it was written by Elvis and his girlfriend at the time, the bass player from The Pogues.
“I don’t mean to do it down but I don’t think that album represents me - it was Elvis Costello’s somewhat inaccurate view of how he saw me and the lyrics reflect his opinions far more than mine."
Wendy then disappeared from public view and eventually became fodder for ‘Where are they now?’ profiles. But she wasn’t resting on her laurels. After the Elvis Costello experience, she decided she would stop singing other people’s songs and write her own.
What she's been up to since
“I went away and I literally put my practice in,” she says.
“Normally, the trajectory of a musician is that they sit in their bedroom and learn guitar and get their barre chords and start writing a few basic tunes, and then they form a band and get discovered after their third album … And none of that happened for me.
“I became famous very quickly, so I never got that schooling where you sit down and you learn your craft. And it takes years. You have to make lots of mistakes. You need to think, ‘This song is amazing,’ in the evening and ‘This is shit!’ in the morning,” she says.
Wendy finally returned to the music scene in the mid ’00s under the moniker Racine, releasing two critically acclaimed albums.
Her cachet climbed further in the 2010s with the solo albums I Came Here to Blow Minds (2011) and The Price of the Ticket (2016).
By The Price of the Ticket, her reputation was such that a stellar array of musicians lined up to play on the album, including James Williamson from The Stooges, Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, the Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, and James Sclavunos from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Queen High Straight
Now, she’s readying her new album, Queen High Straight.
Asked if it continues in the direction of the last disc, she replies: “I’m a music fan, right, so I don’t just churn out one sound. My wheelhouse is that punky new wave thing - but I also dig The Shangri-Las and the big girl sounds of the ’60s … I love getting as filthy and dirty as The Stooges. I can listen to a punchy little ballad by Gram Parsons. I can flip over to the UK for some garage punk or Paris for the 1960s yé-yé girls, or bloody Willie Nelson or Fats Domino.
“So naturally, my music picks up on different flavours and that’s what you’ll find on the album.”
With Wendy utilising the online pre-order model - where fans pay for content in advance, funding its recording and delivery - Queen High Straight is now available on pre-oder at her website, www.thewendyjames.com. The ambitious 20 -track album will be delivered in October on multiple formats including CD, vinyl and digital download.
Two tracks posted online - I’ll Be Here When the Morning Comes and Perilous Beauty - point to an album at least as impressive as her last song cycle, which was described by New York’s Village Voice as “a wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating giant of an album”.
Canvassing her career, Wendy tells New Idea: “I think it’s absolutely true to say that my trajectory has risen since Transvision Vamp. Not financially or in terms of worldwide success but as a musician I’ve definitely improved, and each album has topped the last one.
“I have no doubt that, as cliched as it sounds, Queen High Straight is my best work to date and once it’s in the can and getting pressed up, I’m going to be one very, very happy musician.”
Queen High Straight by Wendy James is available to pre-order now at www.thewendyjames.com, where merchandise including t-shirts and lyric sheets can also be purchased. Wendy James will tour with the Psychedelic Furs from 1 October. See website for details.