In the summer of Punk the Jam burst out of Woking dressed to the nines in suits and ties, and bashing out short, choppy songs that didn't bother to hide their roots in the early Who and Stax/Volt. Sharp-dressed Mods amidst a sea of safety-pinned Punks, the Jam stood apart from their contemporaries but shared with the best Punks a sense of rage and a commitment to blistering, three-minute, three-chord rock'n'roll that flew in the face of the bloated corporate, art, and hippie bands that had nearly destroyed by the mid-'70s everything the previous two decades had created.
Worshipping at the sonic altar of Pete Townsend's hard, choppy, windmill guitar, the Jam began as knockoffs of the early Who - only, like the New York Dolls to the Rolling Stones, the imitators made music that was ten times more exciting and intense than their models. By 1979 the Jam had spearheaded a Mod revival that produced a number of bands that are almost all forgotten today, and I'd like to comment on whether any of those Jam-influenced bands were any good but they're so obscure I haven't heard hardly any of them ( exception: the fabulous Vapors, whose first tour was with the Jam )
In the interim leader Paul Weller had incorporated a heavy Ray Davies influence into the mix, along with nods to the Small Faces and the Beatles, and as you might expect they had become a much better and more interesting band. By the time they broke up Weller nobly had a go at contemporary soul and dance, with considerably less than satisfactory results, which is one of the reasons he broke up the band in 1982. At the time of their breakup, the Jam were the biggest band in the U.K., virtual superstars; but in the U.S. no one outside of hip college students had even heard of 'em. Perhaps they were too British to cross over, as were Weller's forebears the Kinks; yet as a born-and-bred Arkie who knows absolutely nothing firsthand about English life, their songs connect to me in a way that 99 out of 100 bands and songwriters don't.
Great art is universal. So I blame the corrupt and incompetent record industry for not getting them on the radio sandwiched between Van Halen and the Cars - if they'd been given a chance, heartland kids would've gone ga-ga over the Jam. To my ears they were the best band of the entire Punk/New Wave era; their music, while derivative in certain ways, holds up much better than most of their fashionably nihilistic contemporaries. They are arguably the most influential band on English pop to emerge from the past 20 years, though their influence on American rock is neglible - nearly every U.K. band from the Smiths onward bears their imprint, not the mention the entire Brit-pop revival.
The Jam forged a style that was backward rather than forward looking, that was insularly British and raw-in-the-music-but-flashy-in-the-clothes. That might sound on paper a bad idea, but in reality it works brilliantly. And just why should we throw out the entire British Invasion like last year's obsolete computer? To ignore and discard the past, Weller seemed to insist, "just because" is shallow, narrow-minded, and ultimately self-defeating. The "new" music of his day, the mid-70s, consisted of Barry White ( replacing Otis Redding ), Led Zeppelin ( replacing the Who ), ABBA ( replacing the Beatles ), and so on and so forth - no wonder he was a musical reactionary!
Today hipsters wag the lie that rehashed disco remixes are somehow "new" and "revolutionary" under the guise of electronica, but Weller's disciples - Blur, Oasis, Elastica, Supergrass, Radiohead, the Verve, etc, etc - have produced the decade's best British music. None of them are a match for the Jam though, as one of the four or five greatest bands England has ever produced. If you're looking for information on the Jam, there are several sites, the best of which is The Jam website at thejam.org.
In The City (1977) ***
The Jam's debut basically responds to the Who's My Generation a decade late, but despite its inconsistencies and derivative qualities remains one of the most exciting documents from the Year of Punk. The other problem's the sound, which apparently attempts to recreate mono punch, which carries retro a bit too far and blurries up the sound - it's recorded way to raw, marring some excellent material. The Jam are still busy fashioning their signature sound, and several numbers are bluesier, rockabillier (cover of Larry Williams' "Slow Down"), and more American sounding than the Jam would ever sound again ("I've Changed My Address", "I Got By In Time").
And Weller's vocal prowess, never to get that great anyway, is pretty clumsy - he shouts too much. Etc., etc., I know what you're saying, "typical first album problems, big deal" - and you're right, the rawness doesn't bug me too much. The inconsistency does, and for every bonafide classic - the title tune (which the Sex Pistols ripped off for "Holidays In The Sun"), "Away From The Numbers", "Art School", "Sounds From The Streets" - there's a number I don't care for (just why do they cover "Batman"?).
People who don't like the Jam rank this as their best album for some unfathomable reason, but their best material would come later.
This Is The Modern World (1977) ***
The hasty follow up to the debut finds Weller with a shortage of material, and bassist Bruce Foxton's two contributions are slight. A one-step forward, one-step back in sound quality - the attack is muffled, but the sound's clear and you can hear the dynamics of the band easily. And it's quite a good band - Rick Buckler's stiff, unpretentiously forceful drumming and Foxton's hyperactive, bubbling bass lines make for punk rock's greatest-ever rythm section, which combined with Weller's relentless guitar attack makes them one of the greatest power-trios in history.
Too bad I'll never get a chance to see'em live. They almost make the filler exciting, but not quite, and there's far too much of it. "All Around The World" is a brilliant single with an unforgettable chorus; the title track one of the angriest angry-young man anthems committed to vinyl; and "Standards" is another great anthem with a melodic chorus, though since I'm an American I have a bit of trouble figuring it out ( just who is Winston? Churchill? Is the song commentary on the Labour Party or what?).
After that there's, as I said, filler. "Life From A Window" possesses melody but little else of interest; "In The Streets Today" possesses driving rock but little else of interest; and the cover of "In The Midnight Hour" is exciting but doesn't exactly replace the original, you know? The social commentary doesn't sound thought through that much ("Here Comes The Weekend"), reactions not insights. Okay, but their weakest album. The band came close to breaking up after this got some harsh reviews, but luckily they held in there to produce....
All Mod Cons (1978) ****
This is where the Jam arrive as Important Artists. Somewhere Weller had taken that great leap forward as a songwriter and produced a set of songs that draw inspiration from, rather than merely imitate, his idols. Maybe turning 20 had something to do with it - you know how fast kids grow (I'm 24 so I can remember very clearly just what a great step as a person 19 to 20 was! And 20 to 21, 21 to 22, 22 to 23, etc. Gets less every year, though)
The band branches out from its old bash it out approach to a new universe of styles, with bright, clear production opening up the sound - no muddy, muffled, blurry sound here. The only problem's that the sound's a little too thin, which weakens the impact a bit; other than that, a huge improvement. Weller still plays his Rickenbacker like Pete Townsend minus the pomposity ( never cared for those overblown operas ) and now he's tearing pages out of the Ray Davies songbook, not only on a cover of the Kinks' "David Watts", but also in the lacerating class resentment of "Mr. Clean", the everyday-life "In The Crowd", and the grittily detailed social commentary of "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight".
A brilliant album that showcases the many moods of Mr. Weller - the romantic ("Fly", "English Rose"); the introspective loner who stands apart from the crowd ("The Place I Love"); the pop star well aware of the transcience of his status ("To Be Somebody", title track); the angry young man ("Billy Hunt", "David Watts"); and, of course, social critic ("Down In The Tube Station At Midnight", "Mr. Clean"). "It's Too Bad" rewrites the Who's "So Sad About Us" a bit too obviously for comfort, but it's a good song nevertheless, and "'A' Bomb In Wardour Street" ( about a punk club, not the IRA, which was what this ignorant Yank thought it was about for years ) consists mainly of a riff and beat sans melody hook, but the riff-beat's so good I forgive'em.
There - I've mentioned all the songs! I almost never do that in a review. They're all good, if not all great, and if the production were better and there were a couple of killer singles alongside these very high quality album tracks, I'd rank it a classic five-star knockout. As is, it just barely misses.
Setting Sons (1979) *****
Several other albums came close, but for me this qualifies as the Jam's one undeniable classic. The first sound you hear's a telephone ringing, also the first sound you hear on Blondie's Parallel Lines and the Kinks' Face To Face. The rest of the album's considerably darker than that out of place opener ( the otherwise exciting version of "Heatwave", done ten times better than the Who and about on par with Martha and the Vandellas' original, likewise doesn't really fit in )
Weller originally planned on writing a concept album about the aftermath of a nuclear war, but didn't come up with enough material, so half of this sticks to the concept and half of it doesn't. It's pretty easy to figure out which is which, but the non-concept numbers aren't exactly wine and roses either. Possibly excepting Big Star's Third/Sisterlovers and John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band and anything by Joy Division, this may be the most depressing album ever recorded ( the Cure and Smiths don't count because nobody except teenage goth girls takes their "anguish" seriously ) Not that they're bad bands, mind you.
Weller's tone is so unremmittedly cynical that you'd be tempted to brush him aside if he weren't so damn accurate. What's so depressing is that he bases his sketches of misery in real life, things that we all can identify with closely. In "Burning Sky", the character who puts his old friends aside because he has to work so hard to get ahead hits the moral of the story on the head with a cynical but not-untrue "money matters"; and it corrupts human relationships, like it or not; and we all want and need it to get by, like it or not.
"Saturday Kids" might be Springsteen's "Glory Days" on the other side of the Atlantic, describing the small pleasures and constricted lives of working class youth following the footsteps of their parents, who followed in the footsteps of their parents, ad infinitum. "Private Hell"'s portrait of an old woman is perhaps the album's most chilling - is this what we've got to look forward to, lonliness, sexlessness, and obsolescence?
"Little Boy Soldiers" demonstrates Weller's increasing sophistication as a songwriter, with a good multi-sectioned structure that builds up to the moment when he whispers as Union Jack fighting the good fight alongside Uncle Sam, "All the world we killed and robbed, the fuckin' lot, but we don't feel bad," then screams, the music swelling behind him, "It was done beneath the flag of democracy!". In the classic single, "Eton Rifles", Britain's age-old class conflict spills over into street violence, and I treasure the biting couplets, "Thought you were clever when you lit the fuse/Tore down the House of Commons in your brand new shoes/Composed a revolutionary symphony/And went to bed with a charming young thing".
"Wasteland" is the most miserable of all, the aftermath of a nuclear war or maybe just the grey industrial landscape of modern Britain - pipes sounding as dolorous as pipes can sound overlay the musical backing, the melody as haunting as any you'll hear. Somehow Weller turns this into first-class entertainment - his melodies have never been better, and all the songs stick to you. The band appropriately finds a denser, more driving sound for the material. Very powerful stuff, indeed. For an experiment, play this for your happy-go-lucky friends and see what happens.
Sound Affects (1980) ****
A slight letdown after the previous two albums. There's filler, for one thing - the semi-instrumental group composition holds only as much interest as most band jams ( no pun intended ), and that's not the Jam's purpose, anyway; they're a song band. "Scrape Away" I could do without and "But I'm Different Now" feels slight. As does the rest of the album - compared to Setting Sons, I mean, which is to say that they've backed off doomy intensity and opted for a more diversified, danceable sound. Which I don't mind at all.
The aforementioned reservations aside - which are minor quibbles when you get down to it - this makes for the Jam's third straight beginning-to-end great classic. Weller must have been listening to Revolver a lot, an influence that shows up most obviously in "Start!" which amounts to "Taxman" with a different melody and lyrics. Here also is where Weller's Small Faces influence comes to the fore, and Motown takes it part in the overall ambience, too.
"That's Entertainment" takes its rightful place as Weller's best ballad, an acoustic portrait of the most miserable rainy-day, damp and fog, grey industrial, dole-queue aspects of modern-day Britain, where you've nothing better to do but watch TV and think about your holidays, feed ducks in the park and wish you were far away. Weller does mount an attack against "Pretty Green", but he follows it with a tender love song "Monday", and overall the sound's clearer and brighter than on previous Jam outings. This helps matters greatly on the demi-metal "Set The House Ablaze", a sharp condemnation of Europe's newly reawakened cult of neo-fascist skinheads, and "Dreamtime" which fades in with backwards guitar and builds to a slamming synth coda, "It's a tough tough world" - which is a cliche, I know, but Weller sings it with enough conviction to convey a simple truth that feels earned.
Another Ray Davies-ish social commentary / thumbnail character sketch is added with "The Man In The Cornershop" that possesses an unforgettablely melodic "na-na-na-na" chorus. But it's "Boy About Town" that's many a fan's favorite - Weller cockily struts the streets, all's well when you're young and free, and I can't help but glide upstreet, downstreet when I hear it.
The Gift (1982)
I don't own this; I've heard a few singles off it that sound somewhat subpar and a lot of people don't rate this highly. Apparently Weller tried to get funky with some soulful dance tracks, and while the man's certainly soulful, frankly he's too stiff to dance no matter how many pronouncements he makes in favor of "the beat!". I'm sure to snap up a copy when I see it. Hey, I'm an American - Jam records can be hard to find over here. The Jam broke up shortly after this release.
Snap! (1983) ***** Compact Snap ***** Greatest Hits (1991)*****
The Jam made some fine - okay, some great - albums, but they were primarily a singles band, as these compilations prove. Jam mania swept the U.K. during their reign; just about all their singles were big hits, and some even debuted at #1. Over here, I don't have to tell you, the Jam meant zilch. Whatever, stacking one smash after another proves conclusively that the Jam were a great, GREAT band, one of the finest singles outfits ever who provided some of their era's most durable and exciting music. From "In The City" to the grand finale "Beat Surrender", the Jam offered up one brilliant three-minute anthem after another.
The above discography represents what's essentially the same record. The double-vinyl (or single cassette) Snap! provides 28 selections that added up make for one of the best career summations in history - maybe Creedence's Chronicle gives it a run for its money; I can't think of much else that does. In order to fit on CD, Snap! had to be abridged to Compact Snap!. And Greatest Hits abridges it even further. Snap! didn't have any filler, which makes it the obvious choice if you see it and have a record player.
However, in America at least Greatest Hits is certainly easier to find, and its 18 selections are likewise an ideal introduction to the group. The British practice of releasing singles that aren't on albums means that several of the Jam's greatest moments are found only here - the cynical "When You're Young" which contains one of Weller's most biting lines, "The world is your oyster but your future's a clam"; the jaw-dropping "Going Underground"; the driving "Beat Surrender"; and "Absolute Beginners", in which for once Weller really does dance well, very, very well, with some of the snappiest horn punctuations this side of James Brown. If you're not a fan, listen to this and we'll talk after this has converted you into one - which I'm sure it will.
Extras (1992) ***
As you might have guessed from the title, this consists of odds'n'ends from the Jam's career. You know the drill - "not the place to start for newcomers, essential for fans". However, unlike most compilations of this type, this makes for a consistently enjoyable album. And a handful of these tracks are flat out great. "Dreams Of Children" and "Tales From The Riverbank" ache for the innocence of childhood as an escape from the cynicism and compromise of the adult world.
Bruce Foxton's tale of middle-class downward mobility, "Smithers-Jones" is the best of his very few Jam songs - you might say it's worthy of Paul himself! "The Butterfly Collector" and "The Great Depression" follow Weller down the path of melancholia and social commentary with typically sharp and tuneful results. And the small town girl "Liza Radley" is one of his more memorable characters.
The Who/Beatles/James Brown/Chi-Lites/Little Willie John/Small Faces/Curtis Mayfield covers map out Weller's influences, and the alternate takes and demos prove that even in nascent form his songs possessed power. More than a collection of leftovers, this presents a great band and a great songwriter in a fascinating light.
Edited by Graham Willmott July 2001