The Jam was formed by a group of young teens in Woking, a town on the edge of London. Guitarist and songwriter Paul Weller was eventually joined by drummer Rick Buckler and bassist Bruce Foxton. Like many young bands from the era, The Jam gained a record deal in the wake of punk. Their music was fast and aggressive, but it was only vaguely punk – instead Weller was influenced by mid-1960s mods like The Who. He played a Rickenbacker guitar, and the group wore tailored suits.
The group’s 1977 debut In The City was competent, both mimicking The Clash and looking backwards to the 1960s. The Jam stumbled with their quick followup album, however, as Weller suffered from writer’s block. Their third record was written largely by Foxton and was vetoed by the album’s producers. Weller returned to Woking to listen to The Kinks and write songs. His new songs were clearly influenced by Ray Davies, English slices of life like ‘Down at the Tube Station at Midnight’.
1978’s All Mod Cons heralded the beginning of a terrific sequence of albums, with 1979’s Setting Sons, 1980’s Sound Affects, and 1982’s underrated The Gift. The group deservedly became huge in Britain, still at the top of their game when Weller broke the band up in 1982. They sold out Wembley Arena for five consecutive nights on their farewell tour, and all fifteen of their reissued singles charted inside the top 100 in 1982. Weller went on to form The Style Council and then a successful solo career, while Foxton played with Stiff Little Fingers.
The Jam are surprisingly eclectic with Buckler and Foxton able to handle whatever their leader required: punk, rock and roll, R&B, and terse post-punk. Foxton’s thick bass plays an important role, and Buckler’s a sturdy drummer. They’re also surprisingly sophisticated for a three-piece, punk-era band – songs like ‘Going Underground’ and ‘Town Called Malice’ go far beyond three chords.
Weller’s thick accent largely precluded them from success in America. Like The Beatles and The Kinks, some of their best material didn’t make it onto their albums, instead featured on b-sides and non-album singles. The box-set Direction, Reaction, Creation is a good one-stop shopping solution for a band that didn’t outstay their welcome. The band have never reformed, although Foxton and Buckler have both performed with Jam tribute acts. I’ve covered all six of The Jam’s albums but I’m planning to add reviews for The Style Council and Weller’s solo career; I like them both, but they’re less essential than The Jam’s 1978-1982 peak.
The Jam Albums Reviews
In The City
Paul Weller was only 18 when The Jam released their debut. While he hadn’t found his niche as a songwriter yet, he’s clever enough to make In The City a charming debut. Weller is clearly too nostalgic and romantic to fit in with most punks – ‘Time For Truth’ laments the decline of the UK as a superpower, a presaging of the Ray Davies territory that Weller would later inhabit.
The Jam are already eclectic – while the title track resembles The Clash, there’s rockabilly in ‘I’ve Changed My Address’. The cover of the ‘Batman Theme’ is clearly the product of a band not taking themselves very seriously; and the cover of ‘Slow Down’ adds to their retro charm. Weller’s songwriting is competent enough to suggest future greatness on songs like ‘Art School’, ‘I Got By In Time’, and ‘Away From The Numbers’.
The Jam would find their identity on All Mod Cons, leaving their early albums as curios. In The City retains a teenage charm nonetheless.
This is the Modern World
The sophomore slump is an overused cliche in popular music, but for some reason it occurred often in the late 1970s. A bunch of acts, from Kate Bush to Dire Straits, quickly rushed out second records that failed to match the quality of their debut. The Jam’s second album was released eight months after their debut, and there are clear signs that Weller was scrambling for material – Foxton contributes two songs, while ‘In the Street, Today’ is co-credited to early Jam guitarist Dave Waller.
Significantly, the charm of the debut is missing – the po-faced lead single ‘This is the Modern World’ lacks melodic interest and feels didactic. Songs like ‘Standards’ keep aping The Clash with diminishing returns, while their reading of ‘In The Midnight Hour’ is improbably serious. What’s often overlooked, however, is some clear development in Weller’s songwriting. The observational ‘Life from a Window’ features an acoustic jangle and shows a clear Ray Davies influence, while ‘I Need You (For Someone)’ and ‘London Girl’ mine the mid 1960s sound of The Who and The Beatles and would have fitted nicely onto All Mod Cons.
This is the Modern World is a frustratingly dour second record, but there’s more development in Weller’s writing than in sometimes acknowledged.
All Mod Cons
After a tough tour of the USA supporting Blue Oyster Cult, where This is the Modern World failed to reach the top 200, The Jam were expected to deliver a hit record quickly. They went rushed into the studio to record, but their third album, largely made up of Bruce Foxton songs was scrapped. Weller went home to Woking, spending his time listening to Kinks and writing new songs. His new songs showed immense development as a songwriter, largely eschewing punk and focusing in on mid-1960s influences like The Kinks, The Who, and The Beatles.
Despite the overall lack of punk on All Mod Cons, advance single ‘A Bomb in Wardour Street’ is a more convincing snarling rocker than anything The Jam had released before. But its double a-side, a cover of The Kinks’ ‘David Watts’ is much more indicative of the rest of the record. Song like ‘To Be Someone’ and ‘It’s Too Bad’ employ a mid-1960s sound, while the character sketch/assassination of ‘Mr. Clean’ recalls Ray Davies. Best of all is ‘Down at the Tube Station at Midnight’, where a 20 year old Weller employs striking imagery in his tale of a late night attack.
With Weller’s writing maturing, The Jam transform from a competent band to an excellent one on All Mod Cons.
If All Mod Cons reflects a simpler time of life with its mid-1960s pop sound, its sequel Setting Sons is a tougher record. Weller originally planned it as a concept album about three childhood friends who reunite after wartime to discover they’ve changed. The concept was scrapped, perhaps due to time constraints, although vestiges of the concept remain in songs like ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ and ‘Burning Sky’.
While the sound of Setting Sons leans toward tougher rock overall, there are also moments where the band expand past the constraints of a three-piece. Album highlight ‘Wasteland’ features a recorder, while ‘Smithers-Jones’, Foxton’s only solo composition on a Jam album after 1978, is almost entirely accompanied by orchestration. The dominant mode, though, is rock – opener ‘Girl on the Phone’ features a frazzled Weller recalling an encounter with an obsessed fan, while single ‘Eton Rifles’ is terse and martial. ‘Private Hell’ and ‘Burning Sky’ keep up the intensity, but the upbeat ‘Saturday’s Kids’ presages Sound Affects and the cover of ‘(Love is Like a) Heat Wave’ adds some levity at the end.
Setting Sons is the Jam’s most rock-oriented album, continuing their newfound excellence from All Mod Cons.
Sound Affects combines the mid-1960s Beatles sound with ideas from contemporary post-punk. Weller considers it the best Jam album, and he describes it as a cross between Revolver and Off The Wall. The Revolver influence is obvious in the number one single ‘Start!’, which uses McCartney’s bass-line from ‘Taxman’ as its foundation. Foxton’s backing vocals are prominent, and the harmonies add to The Beatles feel. Impressively, ‘Set The House Ablaze’ combines terse post-punk verses with a warm harmonised chorus, serving as a great microcosm of the record.
Also recalling the 1960s are the dreamily psychedelic ‘That’s Entertainment’ and the bouncy ‘Boy About Town’. ‘But I’m Different Now’ sounds like a 1960s garage-rock hit, sped up and toughened up for the 1980s, while ‘Man In The Corner Shop’, ‘Pretty Green’, and ‘Monday’ are all tuneful and memorable. Sound Affects is more experimental in its slightly weaker second half – the mostly instrumental ‘Music for the Last Couple’ is mostly instrumental, a rare band composition, while ‘Scrape Away’ mirrors XTC’s dabbling with dub in the same era.
Sound Affects is an alluring album, alchemising conciseness and urgency with dreaminess and texture experimentation.
The Jam’s final studio album finds Weller growing tired of The Jam formula, exploring other genres like Northern Soul. It anticipates his work with The Style Council, and frustrated his bandmates who wanted to stick closer to the formula that had made them successful. The Gift is a little less consistent than the three albums that preceded it, but it’s still often excellent. It was the band’s first number one album in the UK, while the ‘Town Called Malice’/’Precious’ double a-side single also topped the charts.
Songs like ‘Carnation’ and ‘Running on the Spot’ would have fitted among the retro-Mod pop of Sound Affects, while the low-key ‘Ghosts’ is one of Weller’s very best compositions. Songs like the upbeat ‘Town Called Malice’ and the wah-wah guitar of ‘Precious’ show the band adapting beautifully to blue-eyed soul. ‘Happy Together’ is a fun opener, while ‘The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong’ heads into experimental territory.
The Gift finds Weller a little bored with The Jam; as a result it’s inconsistent, but the best songs are right up there with The Jam’s best.
The Very Best Of
It’s worth picking up a Jam compilation for non-album singles like ‘When You’re Young’, ‘Going Underground’, ‘The Dreams of Children’, ‘Funeral Pyre’, and farewell ‘Beat Surrender’. It’s staggering that the band could make such great albums while holding back some of their best material for singles. At the same time, their albums make more sense – Weller’s interests shifted so frenetically during The Jam’s tenure that this compilation is downright incoherent.
I wanted to note this odd compilation that I purchased from a bargain bin – it complements the singles collection, compiling the band’s deep cuts and b-sides. For a long time, Sound Affects, Very Best Of, and Collection were my only Jam albums. It’s largely superfluous, covering large swathes of classic albums like All Mod Cons and Setting Sons, but it plays well with its focus on more relaxed material, and highlights strong b-sides like ‘The Butterfly Collector’ and ‘Liza Radley’. ‘The Butterfly Collector’ is clearly inspired by The Kinks’ ‘Shangri La’, but it’s still my favourite Jam track.
10 Best Jam Songs
The Butterfly Collector
Down at the Tube Station at Midnight
When You’re Young
Set The House Ablaze
Back to Punk and New Wave Album Reviews….
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