Larry Gott (guitarist, songwriter)
Sit Down is one of those songs that encourages people to put their arms around strangers. As soon as we launch into the opening bars, they start smiling. Then they turn to someone next to them or their girlfriend or boyfriend and hug them, and then they start singing every single word. As a musician, that's incredibly humbling.
Like most of our songs, it came about through improvisation. We'll get in a room and fiddle around on our instruments and from chaos and noise you suddenly get some music. With Sit Down, we'd been rehearsing at the Boardwalk in Manchester for a couple of hours, and the song just fell, almost fully formed, into our laps.
It's a very simple tune: three major chords – E, A and B – that repeat over and over with that silly drum beat. After 25 minutes playing around with it we had verses and choruses and an instrumental break. I remember everyone laughing afterwards. It felt so stupid, like we'd written a Eurovision Song Contest entry, but we knew it could be a special song.
We released it first on Rough Trade, at which point it was seven and a half minutes long and reached No 77! We were very disappointed with that and shortly afterwards label boss Geoff Travis told us we'd never sell more than 20,000 records, but kindly allowed us to buy back the song rights just before they went bankrupt. That did us a huge favour. When we signed to Fontana, they insisted that we re-record Sit Down with Gil Norton, who'd just produced the Pixies.
The new version spent three weeks at No 2, only kept off the top spot by Chesney Hawkes. If anyone ever asks me what I do and I say I'm a musician, they've sometimes heard of James – but as soon I tell them that we're the band who did Sit Down, they instantly know who we are.
Reading this on mobile? Click here to view video
Tim Booth (singer, songwriter)
With improvised tunes, I always get a few words straight away, and the phrase "Oh sit down" came immediately in the rehearsal room. I went away and wrote the rest of the lyrics over the next few days.
The opening line, "I'll sing myself to sleep, a song from the darkest hour," refers to my insomnia. I was writing at 2-3am. The lines "Now I'm relieved to hear that you've been to some far-out places, it's hard to carry on when you feel all alone" were me thinking of Patti Smith and Doris Lessing.
They both connected to me when I felt very alone and misunderstood. Throughout my teens, I'd had an undiagnosed illness and my skin was almost yellow. When I was 21, I'd almost died, so I was feeling pretty tortured in those days.
That line "I swung back down again" is about the mood swings I used to go through. I was meditating a lot to try and find some meaning to it all, and you can get quite high on that. Then you come back down to reality. I was celibate, no alcohol, vegetarian and living a monkish life, but when you're meditating for days at a time you get to some pretty far-out places. So "If I hadn't seen such riches I could live with being poor" is about the places I reached through meditation – the riches are psychological. When I'm writing, I let this stuff pour out spontaneously. If I start thinking about it too much, I usually bugger it up.
The lyrics about empathy with the sick and mentally ill were probably my way of wanting to be a beacon for other people in the way Smith and Lessing were for me. The line "Those who find themselves ridiculous, sit down next to me …" somehow stops the song being pompous. We made a video with homeless people, and someone suggested having a dog and a sheep in it. The sheep peed over my leg.
When we'd recorded it for Rough Trade, the Hillsborough disaster was on the TV on in the background, and that really affected us. That first version is sensitive and vulnerable – but we needed a Gil Norton to make us hammer it out. In the hit single, the vulnerability in the lyrics contrasts well with the tougher music.
We knew it was a big song, but we were shy of fame in some ways and refused to let the record company release it in America. We were naive musicians who wanted to make music that would mean something to people for a very long time, and clung to that punk notion of never selling out.
At the time, I didn't understand that every successful band has one song that kicks the door down. Before Sit Down was released, we played it in Paris, and a load of Mancunians had shipped themselves over. We started playing the song and one by one, everyone spontaneously started sitting down. By the song's end, the entire thousand-strong crowd were sat on the floor. Some of us cried. You remember those moments.
• La Petite Mort, James's new album, is released on 2 June by Cooking Vinyl. Details: wearejames.com