Topic: Author DJ Taylor on The Jam (from TLS)
D. J. TAYLOR
Forty years ago this month, The Jam – three young pop hopefuls from Woking, Surrey, with Paul Weller on guitar and vocals, Bruce Foxton on bass and vocals and Rick Buckler on drums – could be found in Oxford Street’s Stratford Place studios laying down tracks for their debut album, In the City. The recording process was quick-fire and experimental – some of the backing vocals were apparently recorded in a lift between floors – and in keeping with the rough-and-ready working practices of the “new wave” of popular music then hitting the nation’s record racks, the whole project was wrapped up in a bare eleven days. Come early May, the band appeared on Top of the Pops to promote their first single before embarking on a national tour.
In their late 1970s and early 80s heyday, The Jam were arguably the most successful indigenous pop act in Britain. Of their seventeen hit singles, three went straight into the charts at Number One; four of their six studio albums made the top ten. Despite a smattering of female fans, they were mostly a boys’ band and, more than that, a working-class boys’ band: the atmosphere at their teeming and chaotic live concerts was essentially that of a football terrace. David Cameron, who professed himself an admirer of “Eton Rifles” (1979), a song about a Right to Work march that passed by the gates of Eton College to be barracked by the young gentlemen within, was sharply rebuked by Weller with the comment “What part of it didn’t he get?”
Four decades later, it is difficult to convey the sheer visceral excitement of those early appearances. I can remember seeing them on Marc, the late-afternoon television programme fronted by Marc Bolan. Bolan, a faded glam-rock star in a leopard-skin jump-suit, is clearly taken aback by his guests, so much so that he has to consult a button-badge to remind himself who they are. Leaping around the stage like outsize frogs bounding from one lily pad to the next, the boys, dressed in sub-fusc suits and black-and-white co-respondent’s shoes, perform their second single “All Around the World”, a tumult of chiming chords, screeching feedback and bawled lyrics about “youth explosions”, at such a pace that, by the closing seconds, Buckler’s drum kit has begun to disintegrate.
The Jam’s sound was initially characterized as a kind of Mod revivalism, much influenced by mid-60s acts such as The Who, while sharpened by the newfound punk aggressiveness brought to British pop by the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Buzzcocks. Throughout their career, they managed to remain manifestly up to date while always harking back to the bygone classics of Lennon and McCartney and the Kinks’s Ray Davies. The songs – the vast majority of them written by Weller – are, in no particular order, about love, violence, youth, social observation, class, identity and politics, that last preoccupation reaching a high point in the Thatcher-baiting “Going Underground” (1980) and “Town Called Malice” (1982). They are also oddly poetic, infused with what was, for the time and the place, a highly distinctive brand of romanticism, and above all determined to put their words to work in the service of the music.
Interviewed in About the Young Idea, the DVD that accompanied 2015’s commemorative exhibition at Somerset House, the always diffident Weller suggests that his “literariness” only began to declare itself on All Mod Cons, the 1978 album usually thought by critics to mark their transformation from New Wave also-rans to major-league contenders. In fact the lyrics of This Is the Modern World (1977) are already rife with literary allusion. The limpid, dreamy “Tonight at Noon”, for example, borrows from Adrian Henri (thanked in the sleeve notes) while “Standards”, a routine lament about the system grinding you down, ends with the fiery couplet “And ignorance is strength, we have God on our side / Look you know what happened to Winston”. “Winston”, it soon become clear, is Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Winston Smith.
Weller’s Orwell fixation is one of his most attractive characteristics. It can be seen in the Beatle-influenced single “Start” (its octave-jumping bass line robbed from “Taxman”), where the assurance that “It doesn’t matter if we never meet again / What we have said will always remain” and that “if we can communicate for two minutes only it will be a start” shows the influence of Homage to Catalonia, and it can be teased out of “Tales from the Riverbank”, a B-side from 1981, with its references to “this golden country”, where the protagonist “woke at sunrise, went home at sunset”. This returns us to the scene in Nineteen Eighty-Four where Winston, rendezvousing with Julia for some plein air frolics in a patch of woodland somewhere to the west of London, tells her that “ It’s the golden country – almost . . . A landscape I’ve seen sometimes in a dream”.
Nearly every Jam album, if closely enough inspected, yields up its cache of bookish reference. All Mod Cons’s “Billy Hunt”, about a teenage fantasist who yearns to grow bionic arms, after which “the whole world’s gonna wish it weren’t born” is first cousin to Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar (1957); “Fly”, a wistful love song from the same album, nods to Peter Pan; “Absolute Beginners”, a single from 1981, robs its title from Colin MacInnes’s novel. At the same time, Weller’s literariness is much more than a matter of name-checking his private library. Rather, it consists of a writing style that mingles down-to-earth reportage and idiom (“Saturday’s Kids live in council houses / Wear V-neck shirts and baggy trousers”) with what sometimes amounts to an almost baroque self-consciousness (sex to the middle-aged drudge in “Private Hell” is recalled as “the occasions he lies upon you”) to create something that can, in the end, be deviously ornate.
“Billy Hunt”, for instance, has a sinewy, alliterative line about Billy needing to “satisfy any whim that I wanted to”. The subject of “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”, about to be kicked to pieces by a gang of fascist thugs (“They smelled of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right-wing meetings”) approaches a slot machine (“I fumble for change, and pull out the Queen, smiling, beguiling”) to mint an image that not only connects him with the face on the coin but gestures back at the character in The Beatles’s “Penny Lane” in whose “pocket is a portrait of the Queen”. “Beat Surrender”, the final single from November 1982, and intended, Weller recalled, “as a letter to my audience”, invited the fans to “succumb” to the music’s adrenaline rush before finally assuring them, in language taken straight out of a Victorianbillet doux, that “I am yours and will always be beholden to / The Beat Surrender”.
And then there is the romanticism – dense, doomy and sometimes fugitive, in which the other half is urged “Let’s disappear love, let’s fly away / Into the demi-monde, into the twilight zone” (“Fly”), recommended to try “the tranquillity of solitude” (“That’s Entertainment”) and where being young – a natural theme for a singer who first entered a recording studio at the age of eighteen – consists of stealing “the silent wind that made us feel free . . . the greenbelt fields that made us believe” (“Thick as Thieves”). If much of The Jam’s output was aimed at conciliating the communality of its audience, then a fair proportion was bent on exposing it, and some of Weller’s best songs are about being on your own, searching out “the place I love” which is a “million miles away from here” (“The Place I Love”), maintaining your autonomy amid the anaesthetizing drift of the crowd.
Many of these themes come together in “Tales from the Riverbank”, which takes both title and setting from Kenneth Grahame but is also informed by the brand of 60s pop-pastoralism begun by the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd with Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967) – an earlier homage to Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. Here, above a meandering bass line, with occasional brass flourishes and drum rat-tats, Weller announces that he intends to “Bring you a tale from the pastel fields / Where we ran where we were young / This is a tale from the water meadows / Spreading love and joy into your heart . . . A place of hope in an endless time”. Curiously, the version printed in Suburban 100: Selected lyrics (2007) omits what might be regarded as the most crucial moment – a faintly doleful Weller deducing that “now you don’t get so many to the pound”.
By late 1982, Weller had had enough – of the adulation, the fan frenzy and more than enough of being considered a spokesman for a youth movement he didn’t remember starting in the first place. Breaking up the band – to the considerable distress of Foxton and Buckler – he went off with his friend Mick Talbot to form the Style Council, whose jazzy and later classically tinged records most Jam fans heartily disliked, before beginning an immensely successful solo career. Together with such contemporaries as The Fall’s Mark E. Smith and Morrissey, he remains a classic example of what might be called pop’s buried literary sensibility – the teenager with no formal education to speak of (Weller, who left school at fifteen, rated himself “really thick”) who has found out about books and uses them to irradiate his view of the world. Few British songwriters from that late 70s and early 80s golden age brought such articulacy to the three-minute pop song, so fervently proclaimed the power of words or stayed so close to an audience whose ideals they genuinely wished to share.
Water polo and meeting deadlines.