Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Children Of A Lesser Mod: Favorite '80s Jam Songs Not To Top The Charts

As is the case with many bands, one could argue that the Jam's best songs weren't necessarily their biggest hits (although some of their #1's, like "Going Underground" and "Town Called Malice," were probably in the running). Allow me to discuss three such instances.

"That's Entertainment" is a song that, as Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield put it, "can break your heart even if you have no idea what Weller's saying." And I certainly have no idea what Weller is saying. He reportedly wrote it in fifteen minutes after returning from a pub. It is almost literally a modern-day folk song. Wikipedia writes, "The minimalist, slice-of-life lyrics only list various conditions of British working class life ... culminating in the laconic, ironic chorus of 'That's entertainment, That's entertainment!' " So, is it an ode to the common man, or a condemnation? Rather than try to figure that out, I prefer to simply let all the images wash over me as I drown in a grey English phantasmagoria.

Curiously, the Jam's most well-known song was never even released as a single in the UK; demand was so high that it ended up charting at #21 as an import single regardless. However, like many Americans I imagine, the first version of the song I heard was actually the demo version released on the Snap! compilation, not the original studio release, and, historical rock purity be damned, that's still the version I prefer.
A police car and a screaming siren
A pnuematic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing, stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking
That's entertainment

A smash of glass and the rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped up phone booth
Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat
Lights going out and a kick in the balls
That's entertainment

Days of speed and slow time Mondays
Pissing down with rain on a boring Wednesday
Watching the news and not eating your tea
A freezing cold flat and dirt on the walls
That's entertainment

Waking up at 6 a.m. on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol
An amateur band rehearsing in a nearby yard
Watching the telly and thinking about your holidays
That's entertainment

Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summers' day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were faraway
That's entertainment

Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude
Getting a cab and travelling on buses
Reading the grafitti about slashed seat affairs
That's entertainment

"The Man in the Corner Shop" is one of Weller's Kinks homages that, if you ask me, actually sounds as graceful and lilting as a genuine Kinks song, with the best "la la la" since "Death of a Clown." Although it seems to be about class envy, whenever I hear this one, I just imagine Mr. Micawber and Uriah Heep accosting me in a London alleyway.
Puts up the "closed" sign does the man in the corner shop
Serves his last then he says goodbye to him
He knows it is a hard life
But it's nice to be your own boss really

Walks off home does the last customer
He is jealous of the man in the corner shop
He is sick of working at the factory
Says it must be nice to be your own boss really

Sells cigars to the boss from the factory
He is jealous is the man in the corner shop
He is sick of struggling so hard
Says it must be nice to own a factory

Go to church do the people from the area
All shapes and classes sit and pray together
For here they are all one
For God created all men equal

While "Beat Surrender" was the official Jam "farewell" single, I've always felt that their second-to-last hit, "The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)," which only peaked at #2, has the feel of a true, proper farewell single. Imagine if the Beatles had released "Get Back" after "Let It Be." Precisely.

But beyond the question of mood, "The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)" strikes me as a more powerful artistic achievement and a better representation of just how far, stylistically and emotionally, the Jam had come. Paul Weller had been trying desperately to create a "real" soul song, but with "The Bitterest Pill," by jove, I think he'd finally done it. The lyrics describe a predicament of torment and anguish: the classic "my girl is marrying another" scenario. But how!
In your white lace and your wedding bells
You look the picture of contented new wealth
But from the on-looking fool who believed your lies
I wish this grave would open up and swallow me alive

For the bitterest pill is hard to swallow
The love I gave hangs in sad coloured, mocking shadows

When the wheel of fortune broke, you fell to me
Out of grey skies to change my misery
The vacant spot, your beating heart took its place
Now I watch smoke leave my lips and fill an empty room

For the bitterest pill is hard to swallow
The love I gave hangs in sad coloured, mocking shadows
The bitterest pill is mine to take
If I took if for a hundred years, I couldn't feel anymore ill

Now autumn's breeze blows summer's leaves through my life
Twisted and broken dawn, no days with sunlight
The dying spark, you left your mark on me
The promise of your kiss, but with someone else

It's like he turned Wordsworth or Keats ... into a soul ballad. Forget mod revival, this is Romanticism revival. The imagery (much of which, I have to confess, I've only untangled after posting the lyrics just now) is so incredible, I don't even care that most of the words don't actually rhyme (Place/Room? Take/Ill?). How can love hang in "sad coloured, mocking shadows"? "Twisted and broken dawn"? Even the record sleeve is majestically gothic.

Then - then! - there's the arrangement and the production, in which the band pulls out all the stops. An elegant piano all but announces, "Class of '77 this ain't." The string section soars so eerily high at the end of the verses that it almost sounds like a mellotron or a synthesizer. Weller even brought in a female singer to give it that special Marvin Gaye/Tammi Terrell touch. "Screw the other guys, I'm making the ultimate soul ballad, damn it." But, as AMG's Stewart Mason writes, "Rick Buckler's typically stiff and less than subtle drumming, which is oddly over-emphasized in the mix, keeps the song from drifting off into the land of adult contemporary." The Modfather? Adult Contemporary? Surely you jest.

I wish I were. For then ... came the Style Council.

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