Back In The Game: Jamie T’s ‘Panic Prevention’ At 15

The Maccabees' Felix White on his memories of a modern classic...

Jamie T was never easy to pigeonhole.

An indie songwriter who was equally influenced by hip-hop and rave culture, his approach broke new ground through its sheer individuality.

Across the summer of 2007 the songwriter played show after show, with each performance underlining the simple fact that Jamie T didn't write songs, so much as compose anthems.

His album 'Panic Prevention' felt like a real event, the sound of an unvarnished voice speaking truths that connected with people who didn't often feel heard.

Re-issued on vinyl in time for its 15th anniversary, 'Panic Prevention' remains a vital listen, one that retains a sense of mystery its peers have long since surrendered.

The Maccabees watched Jamie T's rise first hand, sharing bills and dressing rooms, crossing paths at festivals across the land.

Here, Felix White – who now co-runs YALA! Records – writes about 'Panic Prevention' and the album's impact on his life.

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It’s 2005. The Maccabees have just played Ocean Rooms in Brighton, sandwiched (as usual) between other guitar bands that look more coherent and leather-jacketed than us on a mid-week club night. I’m in a mental process that is becoming weekly routine – slowly shifting from the fantasy my brain has so keenly delivered me of the show, the room just about full enough to momentarily daydream us into a version of The Clash, before being back in the reality of dredging up leads on my hands and knees, stuffing gear back into plastic bags while the dancefloor dissipates back into an unpopulated nothing.

As I have stuffed the last lead back into the last bag (not the bag it arrived in and for all I know it might belong to the other band), a stranger is tapping me on the shoulder. He is immediately very familiar to me. This could well be because he is four inches from my face. Each of his characteristics are distinctly discernible; his cap casting a shadow over his forehead that extends to half hide his eyes, before they give way to a wide, toothy grin, framed by dark, curly hair jetting out at ninety-degree angles. The stranger is telling me that he is doing a gig downstairs, MC-ing at a breakbeat night, but just happened to walk upstairs and see us a minute ago. He mentions how The Clash lined up across the front of the stage too, just like us. There are some other bands plucked out of a roll-call of reference points he lovingly throws at me too; The Blockheads and The Specials, before, with all the comparisons and compliments ringing in my ear, I’m turning away again, slinging bags round each arm and picking up the amp without bending my knees (bending knees doesn’t seem appropriate when we’ve just been compared to The Clash), and walking it home through the streets of Brighton.

He might be the second or third person who has ever walked up to me and complimented our band without obligation. As I leave, the stranger has lulled me back into the fantasy I was reluctantly leaving and – instead of re-entering the real world – I develop a daydreamy speed to the amp-ferrying, suddenly making exaggerated assumptions through the dark roads about all the other people that might see the same things in our band, should they ever accidentally wander into a room we are playing too.

A year of roughly similar, ever enveloping nights later, The Maccabees (now with a record deal and someone else to pack leads into bags after shows), are playing a show at London’s Koko. We are, of course, sandwiched on a bill between guitar bands that look more coherent and leather-jacketed than us, each of which I now am well versed in beyond the local groups we shared stages with a year previous. There is one act on the bill though who is not a band at all. This in itself is quite a striking anomaly against the backdrop of Libertines/Strokes obsessed Britain. His is a mythical name passed around nights in Brighton and London. There is no recorded music of his I’ve heard. Someone has mentioned he does a cover of Billy Bragg’s ‘New England’. In a pre-streaming or internet-orientated world, I have no opinion on him yet beyond rare anticipation.

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As we walk in to soundcheck that afternoon, his is a strangely familiar figure sat on a table on the stage, dangling his legs back and forth, vacantly plucking an acoustic bass. As I get closer, squinting to make out the shape on the raised platform at Koko, it occurs to me suddenly who it is. It’s the breakbeat MC from Ocean Rooms. The same one with record references falling out of his mouth in Brighton a year ago. He hadn’t mentioned that he played acoustic bass guitar. Or that his name was Jamie T.

When Jamie T is due on stage later that night, we have just played and sit side of the stage waiting for him. Koko is stuffed full, the tier-upon-tier stacking itself into shelves of drunken attention for a singular boy about to walk into view, sit on the table and play songs alone with his bass. When he does – half swagger, half apologetic – the songs that leave him take on an exact impression of our first meeting. They have an odd quality of – though you are meeting them for the first time – feeling like you’d always known them. They are suddenly four inches in front of your face, grinning at you.

‘Back In The Game’ rolls out with a kind of surreal familiarity as if it’s always been in an ether somewhere, and just happens to have been plucked out of the sky by Jamie. This trippy affinity goes for the crowd too, who through first-hand osmosis from his London gigs in pubs over the past year, have already learnt it phrase by phrase, character by character. It’s not just ‘Back In The Game’.

Every song feels like it might be about a person that we know too, the frame of them at least, before they are flushed through a Desolation Row-ish re-imagination, then fixed permanently inside high adrenaline, slurred songs of South London idiosyncrasy. Jack who stumbled by the river screaming calling London. Harmonica man Sam that was so knackered. Crazy Billy Jay Jones who robbed banks just for the shits. Diego the friend with a criminal intention about a liaison. I leave the show again lulled back into a fantasy. This time the daydream is less focussed on myself, but instead one of fan-ish re-energisation that falling in love with music can every now and again do to you.

By the time Jamie T is touring the UK in 2007 for the release of ‘Panic Prevention’, The Maccabees have been taken with him in support. He has infused versions of the songs he once played alone and enlisted his band The Pacemakers. They are great. He has a camera on the tour with him at all times and, occasionally mid-backstage post-show drinking, he’ll whip it out and take a photo of you before putting it back in his pocket as if it never happened. The next day, you might find yourself captured on a slideshow of photos that roll throughout the show behind the band.

The songs themselves are being played everywhere by now, the new versions of ‘Sheila’ and ‘If You Got The Money’ and ‘Salvador’ daily occurrences across radio and MTV; all of them brilliant patch-workings of bedroom recordings, home-made samples and high-octane energy, walking exhibits that tie together previously unapparent relationships between Elvis Costello’s first two albums and ‘Paul’s Boutique’-era Beastie Boys. The band themselves play different versions of the songs, more straight ahead and shuddering to the point of breaking, in front of audiences entirely the same age as them, some who look like they belong at breakbeat nights and others in the room upstairs, everyone singing every single word of the songs as if they too know each and every character within.  

Mid-tour the album is released, the cover picturing Jamie swarmed in his room by records and posters. The morning before he plays London Astoria – bringing these songs that feel like have existed forever into a building no-one ever assumed could be knocked down – we all sit inside with a copy of the record in our different homes and listen to 'Panic Prevention' for the first time in it’s entirety.

It doesn’t strike me then, nor will it for at least another decade, that maybe the really special thing about these songs, the thread that encourages such affinity, is not the ingenuity of the collision between the references that littered his walls and the ‘have a go hero’s’ inside. Nor is it the juxtaposition between the ‘I think that’s the scrappiest version of that I’ve ever done in my life’ delivery and the particular sonic detail within. Neither, even, is it even the lulling between fantasy and reality that Jamie has encouraged in me in myriad ways for a couple of years previous. It might be that at every show, whether we know it or not, the thousands of us embarking on adult life for the first time are screaming out in unison to a young man’s articulating of his own, extreme anxieties. If only we’d known how prescient that would be fifteen years later.

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'Panic Prevention' 15th anniversary edition is out on vinyl now.

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