Monday, August 17, 2009

That's Entertainment

If you are in my age range, then you’ll probably know how important The Jam were. They created the blueprint for just about every decent guitar band over the next twenty-five years, though few have managed to produce music quite so incisive and meaningful with a lyricism veering from anger to love and back again. They laid the foundations for Britpop, inspiring both Oasis and Blur. Oasis front-man, Noel Gallagher, bows down to no man, but even he doffs his cap to Paul Weller, the man that he wittily dubbed the Modfather.

The Jam exploded onto the punk scene in 1977, delivering their ferocious mission statement, In The City, a musical tribute to London over three minutes of aggressive urgency. The Jam were a formidable three-piece unit, led by Paul Weller, a young sharp-suited mod, and backed-up by the powerful rhythm section of Bruce Foxton (bass) and Rick Buckler (drums). Although The Jam were never really part of the hip London elite, they were clearly guided by the anti-star aspect of the punk scene, though ironically they inspired passionate loyalty from their fans. They never lost the faith of that hardcore audience, charting a very true course through rock music’s murky waters, even as they progressed musically. Originally seen as the leader of the mod revival, Weller was far too clever a songwriter to stick to the limitations of any one genre, guiding the band through many musical adventures as his tastes developed.

Tagged as the spokesman for a generation, Paul Weller identified with and rallied the disaffected suburban youth with a set of songs that contained a potent blend of anger, enthusiasm and sensitivity, all wrapped up in keenly observed social commentary. Weller’s observations were never as vicious as the Sex Pistols or The Clash, but seethed with indignation about the pains of existence, as he tried to understand life’s inherent unfairness. He successfully encapsulated life in the grim late 1970s, perfectly defining the mixture of worry, confusion and fear of those years. The cult of The Jam was an immovable part of Britain’s cultural map, providing the soundtrack to the youth of the time, as they sang directly to and about their audience. However, although their music certainly captured a moment in time, the youthful perspective and impassioned delivery could just as easily speak to any generation of young people.

"When You're Young"

The Jam’s golden period began with All Mod Cons, their third album, which is considered by many to be their finest achievement. It stands as one of the pivotal works of the new wave movement, full of belief, power and well-crafted songs, defining for the first time The Jam’s distinctive sound. Following a poor critical response to the second album, This Is The Modern World, it was viewed as a make-or-break record for the band. The pressure was further ramped up when the initial batch of songs, largely Foxton compositions, were rejected by the producers in the hope that Weller would again find inspiration. They were right to do so, for Weller proved his genius, coming back from the brink with a career-saving, and career-defining, masterpiece.

The album was a perfect reflection of the times, based firmly in 1978, that enthused the press with that barometer of critical opinion, the NME, hailing it as “fresher and newer than anything else this year”. All Mod Cons is the definitive Jam LP, the moment when the band really started to fulfill the potential they had shown with their early singles. It was the first time that they begun to work with the recording studio, as opposed to against it, demonstrating a better understanding of dynamics and pacing. The record was a brave attempt to broaden their musical and lyrical scope without losing too much of their power and anger, resulting in a classic. The album’s title has been taken as a playful reference to the band’s association with the mod resurgence, but can also be considered as a bitter comment on the modern, desirable features coveted by many, given that the album’s cover features the band in a near empty room.

The album marked a great leap in songwriting maturity and sense of purpose, representing a transition from the relatively straightforward mod/punk music that dominated the first two albums. The angry young man In the City was well on his way to becoming the worldly Boy About Town. The 60s influences are obvious, but Weller chose his heroes well, borrowing from them in order to create his own modern (world) style. For the first time, Weller built, rather than fell back, upon his inspirations, carving out a distinct and distinguished voice all his own. Q magazine reckoned that, “the past met the present on All Mod Cons and the sparks flew in a white-hot Rickenbacker fusion of punk, pop, psychedelia and R&B”.

"We are the mods, we are the mods, etc"

Weller is clearly no stranger to The Kinks’ back catalogue with the debt made evident in a scorching cover of “David Watts”, but The Jam were not so much imitators as upholders of a great British tradition of literate songcraft. While they were not really innovators, they were certainly great songwriters. Sure this album has its influences, but it’s Weller’s biting opinions that really cut through. More interested in social comment than political confrontation, The Jam breathed a sophistication that others lacked in the punk movement, marking them out from their peers.

It was on this quintessentially English album where Weller’s compositional talent came into its own, where his leavening of punk aggression with both sensitivity and a keen sense of place made The Jam unique. He employed a story-style narrative with invented characters and vivid imagery to make incisive social commentary - all in a musically irresistible package. Some of the lyrics sound like something that Philip Larkin could have written. Whoever his literary influences were, Weller did incredible things with the English language in the context of a three-minute pop song. Cynical and sneering, but never overly abrasive, Weller was tough enough to break down his own defences and secure enough to make himself vulnerable in his songs.

Reflecting some of Weller’s disillusionment with the music business at the time, the album opens with the punchy title track, "All Mod Cons", a short but searing attack on the fickle hangers-on who disappear at the first sign of tougher times, “I’ll tell you what/I got you sussed/You’ll waste my time/When my time comes”. The attack on fame and celebrity culture continues with the next track, the powerful yet poignant, “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have A Nice Time)”, which almost implies that the band had lost its way. It feels like Weller is throwing off others’ expectations in a strong statement of intent before he returns to his musical roots, “I realise I should have stuck to my guns/Instead shit out to be one of the bastard sons/And lose myself - I know it was wrong - but its cost me a lot”.

"You might as well jump"

If the album’s opening is strong, the finale leaves you gasping in appreciation of its aggressive assault on your senses. The abrupt, punky “A Bomb In Wardour Street” is one of The Jam’s hardest and most intense songs. Clipped guitar chords trade blows with the metronomic drum beat, as Weller angrily bemoans the violent thugs that plague the punk scene, “And they tell me that you’re still a free man/If this is freedom, I don’t understand”. Scary stuff, but nothing compared to the last track, the colossal, “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight”, which brilliantly continues the theme of inner city violence with an exceptionally detailed account of an unprovoked attack in commuter land. This atmospheric and disturbing song was perhaps the best example of their ability to combine their newly found lyrical skill with the aggression and sense of injustice from their earlier work. It’s a virtuoso display packed with unexpected transitions and clever, spooky vocals as the victim edges towards his brutal mugging, “I first felt a fist, and then a kick/I could now smell their breath/They smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs/And too many right wing meetings”. Anyone still keen on Going Underground?

Mind you, the rest of the record is not exactly pulling any punches either, especially the coruscating “Mr. Clean”. The sly, seductive melody belies the bitterness of the lyrics with Weller’s hatred of the class divide prompting the tirade against the 9 to 5 existence of a successful businessman, “Cause I hate you and your wife/And if I get the chance, I'll fuck up your life”. The incredibly catchy “Billy Hunt” is a return to the punk-based guitar sound that made their name in a humorous glance at one man’s frustrations with his treatment at work and life in general, as he imagines himself emulating his superheroes and fighting back, “No one pushes Billy Hunt around/Well they do, but not for long/Cause when I get fit and grow bionic arms/The whole world's gonna wish it weren't born”.

"Baby, you can light my fire"

Equally bouncy is the cover of The Kinks’ classic tale of schoolboy jealousy “David Watts”, where Weller and Foxton trade lead vocals throughout in another song apparently dedicated to dreams and aspirations, though you cannot miss the irony and disdain when Weller spits out the line, “I wish I could have all he has got”. Slashing power chords also abound in “The Place I Love”, though the song’s message is surprisingly sensitive, “I'm making a stand against the world/There's those who would hurt us if they heard/And that's always in the back of my mind”.

The deceptively upbeat “In The Crowd” is a stark anthem, speaking out in favour of the individual’s sense of self and identity, “when I'm in the crowd, I don't see anything”. This was another departure from the band’s traditional sound with its cloying arrangement, culminating in a psychedelic jam (sorry) and an acid rock name-check of an earlier song, “Away From The Numbers” which dealt with a similar theme. There’s a Beatles element here, which can also be detected on “It’s Too Bad”.

Most surprisingly, Weller gave us an early taste of the future artistic direction of his solo career by including not one, but two, ballads, which was a courageous step when all around were still pushing anarchy and nihilism in their songs. The sentimental “English Rose” is a gentle, lilting acoustic track that highlights Weller’s ability with natural imagery and emphasises the sheer Englishness of his songs, “No matter where I roam/I will return to my English Rose/For no bonds can ever keep me from she”. The delicate “The Fly” is another ravishing piece of lyrical romanticism, deeply soulful and resonant. This was an album where the beautiful and whimsical could comfortably sit next to the harsh realities of life.

"We're jamming"

Although this record was a personal triumph for Paul Weller, it was also a collective success for The Jam, with the band displaying empathy and vitality throughout and showcasing the talents of all three members. Even though Weller would later almost casually refer to “any guitar and any bass drum” in the single “When You’re Young”, rarely has a band sounded so much in tune with itself. Foxton’s slippery bass lines, under-pinned by Buckler’s clinical drumming, served as the perfect soundscape for Weller’s trade-mark Rickenbacker guitar chords, not to mention his gruff, yet expressive vocals. Songs are short, tight and relevant with the vocal interplay of the two singers never bettered.

Four short years later, while their punk contemporaries faded away, The Jam went out at the very top, playing their final gig to a packed, tearful Brighton Centre. Announcing their own Beat Surrender, Weller said that, “I’d hate us to end up old and embarrassing like so many other groups”. All Mod Cons contained an eerie premonition of this moment when Weller sang, “it's too bad that we had to break up”, but more relevantly in “To Be Someone” he asked, “Didn’t we have a nice time?/Oh wasn’t it such a fine time?” It sure was.

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