Ten of the Best: The Jam

❉ The Jam had it all and walked away at their peak. Lucky for us that they did!

Going Underground is awash in pop brilliance. It had the chorus, the hook, the bridge, the bounce and the frisson. It charted at number one, the first of three Jam singles to do so, an accomplishment unheard of since the Fab Four. Going Underground is, in a word, superb. And that’s why you won’t find it on this list. That would be obvious, something The Jam never were.

The Jam had an excogitative nature to them beyond their young years. They changed direction wherever they turned. In the space of less than a decade, Paul Weller gave his fans a voice of a generation and then gifted his guitar playing to a younger generation on Oasis’ Champagne Supernova. Noel Gallagher strove to be Weller, as did Graham Coxon. Whatever differences Blur and Oasis held against one another, this was one sticking point they both shared in 1995.

And yet these were but songs. It was the cartilaginous groove Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton brought to these songs that made them so special to listen to. Frequently overshadowed by their guitarist/songwriter, Buckler and Foxton’s recognition was visibly apparent when the duo reunited on 2007’s From The Jam sans Weller. These days Foxton steers From The Jam while Buckler revisits The Jam in a literary form – he was written two books with journalist Ian Snowball (see footnotes).

The Jam started Weller on a trajectory he maintains to this day, with True Meanings (2018) his most sophisticated album in years. And yet whenever he turns his telecaster to shoot out the chords for The Eton Rifles or hums the start of Beat Surrender, audience members still go ecstatic. The Jam had it all and walked away at their peak. Lucky for us that they did!

10. In The City

“I’d never heard The Jam,” The Undertones’ Michael Bradley confessed in 2016, “but when I saw their photos – with their black and white bowling shoes and their suits – there was something I really liked about them”. Bradley’s apt comments on the band’s attire testified to a part of the band’s stratospheric success, buoyed along by Paul Weller’s brooding good looks and driving power chords. Eighteen years old when the band appeared on Top of The Pops, Weller was in the perfect place to provide a voice for the torn teenagers who took the Mod-influenced anthem into the top 40.

It borrowed a title from a lesser known Who song, a synergy the band emulated with choppy guitars, tumbling drums and bustling lead bass lines. It also had a riff which The Sex Pistols flagrantly stole for Holidays In The Sun, an anarchic energy where The Jam played it cool vitality. Such was the cool factor that when Polydor celebrated the song’s twenty fifth anniversary in 2002 by re-releasing the single in its original sleeve, it returned to the charts. Entering the sphere based purely on 7’’ single sales, it started a record only Weller disciple Graham Coxon beat with 2004’s Freakin’ Out.

Weller would write superior songs (many of which appear in this list), but In The City set the template for the band to race from, Top of The Pops to return to, a chart performance which would only be improved upon and the first of Weller’s vision for a better England, an idealised vision that differed from the chaos and revolution projected by The Sex Pistols and The Clash.

9. To Be Someone

The Clash’s Joe Strummer wasn’t one of the many fans that paid for The Jam’s work in its bucketload, criticising them implicitly (see White Man (In Hammersmith Palais)) and explicitly (promising a better second album than the bottled Jam album in interviews). The Clash were fiery and animal, The Jam smart and sophisticated, both bands excellent in their own fields, but Strummer’s words were accurate in the latter category. Devoid of credible rhyme or reason, This Is The Modern World was as every bit as bad as the critics called it, the only embarrassing work in The Jam’s career (perhaps, even, Weller’s).

A return to his Woking family home reintroduced him to the joys of his ‘sixties record collection, a vibrant muse inspiring an album more exciting, more interesting and more intense than anything The Jam had yet recorded. It was unquestionably their best yet; Down in the Tube Station at Midnight and A’ Bomb In Wardour Street viscerally and verbally violent, Mr.Clean and In The Crowd conscious of class categorisation, all sung with a newly discovered ease.

“I’d found my feet,” Weller recalled in 1998.  “After This Is The Modern World, I thought, ‘Am I going to let this slide or fight against it?’ My back was against the wall. It was a matter of self-pride.”

Though The Jam’s outfit had veered into the portentous, All Mod Cons was a thriving rock album as delightfully self-aware as its album title was. To Be Someone, lyrics telling of rock grandeur, showed this side most efficiently and effectively. A litany of swimming pools, bodyguards and footballers assorted the lyrics in a backdrop of rock clichés catering to the rock mythos’ seedier side. Noel Gallagher, disregarding substance abuse to focus on his newer songs, played a tasteful acoustic rendition in 2006, the lyrics a pervasive influence throughout Definitely Maybe’s sequential story.

8. English Rose

The Jam’s muscular energy had many benefits, and a virile, masculine sound came as part of the band’s image. Not so English Rose, a small, subtle beauty, Weller alone with only a guitar and the sound of the sea for his listeners. Life starts in water, bodies are made from water and the sight of water brings us back to our natural state. It was the most mature lyric Weller had yet written, yet the twenty year old was so embarrassed by it, he didn’t include either the lyrics or the title on pressings. Bless him!

“It was me emotionally naked, speaking openly about being in love.” Weller recalled to Mojo. “I was aware it was something that blokes from my background didn’t do. They didn’t reveal their feelings, their sensitive side.” Good for him that he did, inspired by Weller’s homesickness when he was touring America and the absence of his girlfriend at the time, Gill Price.

Though she hasn’t gone down in music history as one of the greatest muses as Patti Boyd, Jane Asher and Justine Frischmann have done, Price’s compelling nature delivered a delectable mistress that no bonds could compare to, bringing a level of sensitivity to Weller’s work listeners might never have been otherwise exposed to.

7. Smithers-Jones

Weller wasn’t the only songwriter within The Jam. Bruce Foxton, steeped in the idiosyncratic pictures painted by Ray Davies and The Kinks, had covered David Watts and now found the confidence to write a civilian classic which drew from his own father’s experience of redundancy. Foxton’s songwriting voice was softer and more sympathetic than Weller’s, heralding a punchy pop song that delighted audiences at the Stiff Little Fingers and From The Jam gigs Foxton would play in future years.

The Jam prided themselves on the quality of their B-sides and this particular instance had a gravitas unheard on rapturous When You’re Young, generated by Weller’s gorgeous guitar breaks, as generous in playing on others’ songs as he was on his own. Foxton had taken to Paul McCartney’s assiduous bass playing on record, while his benevolence to others less fortunate than himself stemmed from a similar inkwell to Eleanor Rigby, Another Day and Pretty Little Head.

Fittingly, Smithers-Jones received an orchestral remake on Setting Sons, befitting listeners two superlative arrangements three months apart. Procul Harum organist Peter Solley re-arranged the frenetic guitar pyrotechnics for a beguiling baroque backdrop, as per a canny suggestion from Buckler. Tasteful passages carried musical and cathartic weight to them, particularly when the closing verse telling tales of slippers and television ends the song on a tastefully sombre note. If Weller wasn’t green with envy, he should have been!

6. The Eton Rifles

This is The Jam’s finest single, their most committed work, their fieriest sound, their most biting lyrics and their best sounding record. Every bit of this record punches with the perk it puts through a pretty piece of heaven realised in less than three and a half minutes.  Weller may have voted Tory in the seventies, but this paean played the pain of the working classes in a system designed to promote the wealthier classes.

Weller’s influences were American, but his lyrics were unquestionably British, opening the track with the droll “Sup up your beer and collect your fags/There’s a row going on down near Slough”. Behind the comical verses, there’s a sinister sound to the music, Foxton’s throbbing bass only shades away from metal. The synergy between Buckler’s rubbery drums and Weller’s wiry chords, melded with the chief sound of Weller’s next band – the Hammond organ. It’s all much, much better than it sounds on paper, meriting the band a place in the rock and roll hall of legends on this track alone.

Such was the energy of the track that it found itself a favour in one unlikely Prime Minister. “”I was one, in the corps,” David Cameron revealed in 2008. “It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to”. Weller’s response? “Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”

5. Dreams Of Children

This would have been The Jam’s choice of single but for a pressing error which installed a joyful, slick power pop piece on the A-side, seducing the listener and shooting to the top of the UK charts. It might make you wonder why Going Underground was ever considered for a flipside!

Such was the band’s commitment to their expansive art and such is the haunting quality Dreams of Children holds it won the band’s initial approval as an A-side. Where Going Underground sounded jocular even if it was a song about commercial disenfranchisement, Dreams is a vacuous entreé of misery and degradation, a desolate sleep woken by a modern nightmare. “I was alone/no one was there” echoes the chorus over a soundscape of backwards guitars, so hypnotic it pre-empted John Squire’s equally admirable attempts by nearly a decade.

It waded the line between courageous and contumaciousness, Weller’s wailing guitars a throwback to the Beatles’ magnificent Revolver era, without resorting to the insipid granulating recall from some of the ’90s Britpop bands. Oasis paid homage to The Jam on of their more exceptional B-sides Fade Away. Oasis have profited nicely from The Jam over the years; Liam Gallagher even got a clothing brand out of it!

4. Start!

The Jam’s weirdest number one, Start! Drew from an Orwellian well – not an animal farm or a dystopia but a Homage To Catatonia. In an interview  with 1000 UK #1 Hits, Weller said, “There is a lot of talk of an egalitarian society where all people are equal but this was it, actually in existence, which, for me, is something that is very hard to imagine.”

Unlike Going Underground or Town Called Malice, Start! was decidedly uncommercial in sound, a hybrid of alien guitar histrionics and effects. It was one of the most exciting number ones, yet many concluded that it bore a striking structurally similarities to George Harrison’s Taxman. It didn’t bother Weller; he simply used My Sweet Lord as a counter-defence! Perhaps in that light, The Jam were never invited to a court case.

On its own grounds, Start! Still sounds startingly unique, vast, dark and funky. It played a part on Sound Affects, an album that fulfilled its title by pushing the various sounds it could muster. It was a catholic affair, veering from Post-Punk realism to Off The Wall escapism. That’s Entertainment and Boy About Town offered realism, Pretty Green and Dream Time sensual grooves. Sounds Affects is The Jam’s most eclectic and far reaching album. If you ask their chief writer’s opinion, it’s also their best!

3. Funeral Pyre

Credited to all three members of the band, Funeral Pyre emerged from the sound of Buckler’s thunderous drums, a testament to his power where he didn’t sing or write lyrics. “If you’ve got a great song, you can really feed off of what it’s about“ Buckler told Modern Drummer. “You find something in there that reflects that song, and rather than basing it purely on a musical style, you can start to explore other things that suit that particular song.” It’s one of only a handful of songs with equal accreditation, giving Buckler some due for cavernous playing.

There are jazz shuffles over Weller’s haunting song. Funereal in title, funereal in spirit, the song echoed with the haunting spirits it wished to capture. The band had now become accustomed to the video format. A sandpit (which had earlier featured in War of the Worlds) was used as the location of the bonfire used to accompany the ethereal music video. It’s the band’s finest video, one which Buckler would write about in his thoughtful and potent autobiography That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam.

Buckler’s drumming spoke of the wild Keith Moon, fittingly the B-side Disguises re-invented one of The Who’s more earnest and obscure songs. The Jam rarely shied away from their influences, recording So Sad About Us to send off the mercurial Moon in 1978.

2. The Bitterest Pill

The Bitterest Pill: All Things Must Pass. In Utero. This Is Hardcore. Each a statement felt finely from the forced failure found from fame. Fame brings pleasure and takes anonymity. An anonymity Robbie Robertson returned to after one last waltz with his band. An anonymity Joe Strummer lamented during America’s stadium platforms. An anonymity Paul McCartney wished his partner held on December 8th 1980. Keith Moon, John Bonham, Tom Evans, Freddie Mercury, happy members of the rock pantheon, all paid the ultimate price for it. Britpop, a jovial time, tellingly soured as early as Dog Man Star, captains Damon Albarn and Noel Gallagher accepting the sour tastes on their astounding Tender and Let’s All Make Believe. Weller had tasted that bitter feeling himself on a song that came second on the charts to Eye of The Tiger and Pass The Duchie. Much like Midge Ure’s Vienna, it undeservedly missed the top spot.

It bore The Jam’s trademark, but this was a Paul Weller song in all but name. Buckler’s drum kept a tidy beat, Foxton’s voice a softer harmony. Weller’s guitar hooks, vocals, lyrics and soul are the selling points. Panache from pain, this was Weller’s soul hanging on a Motown song, one he reinvented for the new decade. The Jam were opening their hearts and with came a fitting female backing vocalist, Jenny McKeown, lead singer of The Belle Stars, which gave the song and edge and ballast Tracie Young would recapture on their next single and Dee C. Lee would continue in Weller’s next band.

Weller felt he could no longer continue with The Jam. It was at his bidding that The Jam had been so prolific, it was at his behest that he asked them to end. Buckler and Foxton were less keen, but conceded. Since 1977, The Jam’s five year recording career was on a trajectory almost as impressive as The Beatles. Their eclectic and forward thinking nature heralded The Smiths, The Stone Roses and Blur to pick up the mantle. For The Jam, this was it…

1. Beat Surrender

But not before they released one final hurrah, inviting their listeners to “succumb-ah to the beat surrender”. Piano-punched verses, brass-led bridges, this was a soul standard the ‘eighties desperately needed, one final piece of pop joy.

“I wanted it to be a statement” Weller revealed to Mojo in a 2015 interview. “A final clarion call saying: Right, we’re stopping, you take it on from here.”  Conscious that The Beatles had ended their career on  overproduced material none of its members were proud of, The Jam released a defining full stop. This high-tempo ballad mixed a crescendo of instruments, Weller and Foxton trading vocals with ‘sixties glee, Weller dancing behind a microphone. This was fun with a capital F.

It closed The Jam’s story and opened a new chapter; Beat Surrender shares more in arrangement with The Style Council’s Walls Come Tumbling Down! and My Ever Changing Moods, cool Euro vibes fusing R’n’B genres, light years away from the three chord power punk records of yore.

Rather than a reflective glance at their trajectory or a message the end was coming, The Jam ended their career on a fast, sophisticated pop note with audiences dancing, rather than crying, the night away. It worked, becoming the band’s fourth no.1 single, instantly hitting the position, a position they no longer had to fight for.

That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam by Rick Buckler with Ian Snowball was published in 2015 by Omnibus Press, RRP £14.95. The Dead Straight Guide to The Jam by Rick Buckler and Ian Snowball was published by Dead Straight Guides/Red Planet in 2017, RRP: £14.99.

❉ The Jam’s back catalogue is available in various permutations including boxed sets, live albums and compilations on vinyl, CD and digital download from UMC: Visit the Amazon Store.

❉ Eoghan Lyng is a regular contributor to We Are Cult. His writing has also appeared in Record Collector, CultureSonar, Punk Noir Magazine and other titles.

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