Monday, September 9, 2013

Mods And Ends: The Jam And Their Four UK #1 Hits

Raise your hand if you know what a "mod" is. Put your hand down Jimmy, you're just trying to pull my leg. Right, that's what I thought. See, in order to explain what the "mod revival" was, first I would have to explain who the "mods" were - a task that is probably beyond my capabilities. Something about scooters, quaaludes, soul music, and Keith Moon. It doesn't really matter, just as long as you know the important part, which is that the music was good.

Well, the music was good the first time around, and it was almost as good the second time around. Which brings me to the Jam.

"The who?" you say. No, actually the Who were one of the original mod groups, not one of the mod revival groups. I'll be here all week. But seriously, mention the Jam to most Americans and they're likely to give you a blank stare in return. I think it's fair to say that few British groups have ever experienced such a discrepancy between their UK success and their US success as the Jam. Normally I'd use this factoid as an opportunity to bash the taste of my stateside peers, but honestly, with the Jam, I kind of see what the deal was.

The Jam may deserve the title of "Most British Band Ever." They were more British than Mary Poppins, Harry Potter, and Paddington Bear combined. Let's face it: no one can understand what the hell Paul Weller is saying. Not even Paul Weller can understand what Paul Weller is saying. And when you do understand it, the lyrics are stuffed with slang and jargon and they make no sense. Also, I know the Jam were trying to revive the classic British pop of the mid-60s, but compared to the Beatles, the Who, and the Kinks, a lot of Jam songs aren't really that ... catchy. I mean, they're catchy, but they're not catchy. "Stayin' Alive" - now that's catchy. For a band that supposedly excelled at the three minute pop single, a lot of their songs kind of sound to me like drunken, two-chord football chants. I actually like the Britpop bands the Jam inspired more than the Jam themselves. And I know people have accused Oasis of ripping off pre-existing songs, but the Jam sure did a lot of that sort of thing themselves. That said, there are about six or seven Jam songs that I really like, and when I like a Jam song, I definitely like it.

The Jam were one of the core members of the "Class of '77," which included the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, The Damned, Wire, Generation X, and ... am I forgetting anybody? Funny how, out of all those groups, the Jam went on to achieve the kind of chart success usually reserved for Bucks Fizz and Shakin' Stevens. For whatever reason, Paul Weller (otherwise known as the Modfather) just seemed to have his palm lovingly placed on the crotch of the British public. Which is interesting, considering he spent half of his time insulting it, but they're gluttons for self-loathing.

The Jam were like the Police, if the Police had never made it through Customs at Heathrow. They both were trios with one main singer-songwriter who completely overshadowed the other two members, they both started out in the punk scene in the late '70s but ended up branching out into more eclectic territory, they both became superstars in the early '80s but broke up at the height of their popularity. The difference? The Police wanted to sound like they were from someplace cool like Jamaica, and the Jam wanted to sound like they were from some shitty town in industrial England somewhere.

Like the Police, at first the Jam pretended to be punks just so that they could "make it," and then they gradually admitted that they were actually mods. By 1978, Weller's songwriting started including phrases such as "a pint of Wall's ice cream" and "toffee wrappers and this morning's papers." Add in the exploration of more carefully crafted production techniques, as well as the band no longer hiding their instrumental prowess, and you've got the default spokesmen for a generation of British youth, or something to that effect. Highlights from this late '70s period are many, but in a pinch I'd go with the haunting anti-racism mini-epic "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," the forlorn "Strange Town," and its surreal, folky B-side, the "The Butterfly Collector."

By the time 1980 rolled around, the Jam were on fire, but if you'd think they managed to top the charts by somehow compromising their sound or their lyrical stance, well, you would sorely be mistaken. "Going Underground," their first #1 hit, boasted some of Weller's most bitter, vitriolic, and politically caustic lyrics yet. Essentially, this song is his very artful and poetic response to Thatcher's political ascension; in other words, "Don't blame me, I voted for the other guy". Kerry voters, this one's for you.
Some people might say my life is in a rut
But I'm quite happy with what I got
People might say that I should strive for more
But I'm so happy I can't see the point

Something's happening here today
A show of strength with your boy's brigade
and I'm so happy and you're so kind
You want more money, of course I don't mind
To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes
And the public gets what the public wants
But I want nothing this society's got

I'm going underground (going underground)
Well let the brass bands play and feet start to pound
Going underground (going underground)
Well let the boys all sing and the boys all shout for tomorrow

Some people might get some pleasure out of hate
Me, I've enough already on my plate
People might need some tension to relax
Me, I'm too busy dodging between the flak

What you see is what you get
You've made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You'll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don't get what this society wants
I'm going underground

We talk and talk until my head explodes
I turn on the news and my body froze
These braying sheep on my TV screen
Make this boy shout, make this boy scream!

Q: Can you top the charts by railing about how much you loathe society and wish everyone in it would just get lost? A: If you're the Jam, you can. Also: I like Bruce Foxton's little "bass rumble" homage to the end of "And Your Bird Can Sing."

Speaking of Revolver, the first thing anyone ever says about "Start!" is that Weller nicked the bass line straight from "Taxman." This is true, but he also nicked the choppy guitar part, and the guitar solo, which people don't point out as often. Basically "Start!" is sort of an early form of sampling. It's not a cover version; it's a new song which is heavily indebted to a pre-existing song. That's fine with me, but the thing is, if you're going to rip off an old song, your new song better be just as good, or even better, than the old song. All "Start!" makes me want to do is go listen to "Taxman." I mean, if you're going to sample "Pastime Paradise," you better come up with "Gangsta's Paradise," you know what I'm saying? The lyrics, however, concerning the intimate struggle for interpersonal communication, are worlds away from the lyrics of "Taxman" and might actually be the most interesting feature of the song:
It's not important for you to know my name
Nor I to know yours
If we communicate for two minutes only
It will be enough
For knowing that someone in this world
Feels as desperate as me
And what you give is what you get

It doesn't matter if we never meet again
What we have said will always remain
If we get through for two minutes only
It will be a start!
For knowing that someone in this life
Loves with a passion called hate
And what you give is what you get

The Jam already possessed a '60s American R&B influence "once removed," given that the original mod groups of the '60s were obsessed with '60s American R&B, and the Jam were obsessed with the original mod groups. But by 1981, Weller was cutting out the middle man and trying to go straight to the source. However, as Elvis Costello or the English Beat also demonstrated, enthusiasm for a genre doesn't necessarily endow one with the ability to convincingly perform said genre. Keep in mind that most soul singers don't sound like they have a corned beef sandwich stuck in their mouth. And so the Jam's version of R&B comes off as kind of strange and awkward, but I find it oddly compelling. On "Town Called Malice," Weller stole the bass line from the Supreme's "You Can't Hurry Love" (hey, if you nick the Beatles, you might as well nick Motown while you're at it), and as with "Start!," the original may have been stronger than the song it inspired. On the other hand, the Supremes' lyrics certainly never read like this:
Better stop dreaming of the quiet life
Cos it's the one we'll never know
And quit running for that runaway bus
Cos those rosy days are few
And stop apologizing for the things you've never done
Cos time is short and life is cruel
But it's up to us to change
This town called malice

Rows and rows of disused milk
Stand lying in the dairy yard
And a hundred lonely housewives
Clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts
Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry
It's enough to make you stop believing when tears come
Fast and furious
In a town called malice

A whole street's belief in Sunday's roast beef
Gets dashed against the Co-op
To either cut down on beer or the kids new gear
It's a big decision in a town called malice

The ghost of a steam train echoes down my track
It's at the moment bound for nowhere
Just going round and round
Playground kids and creaking swings
Lost laughter in the breeze
I could go on for hours and I probably will
But I'd sooner put some joy back
In this town called malice

I know I'm quoting a lot of lyrics, but not only are the Jam's lyrics pretty good ("Stop apologizing for the things you've never done"?! "A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts"?!), I need to paste them here or otherwise you'd be lost. Trust me. At any rate, despite some of my misgivings, ultimately I think "Town Called Malice" does a splendid job of capturing the spirit of of early '80s England in a way that few songs ever have. Not that I would know, I guess. That just seemed like a fun thing to write.

I do know that, as far as Britain was concerned, the Jam could do no wrong, but by 1982, Weller was getting fed up with the limitations of the Jam, the other two guys were probably getting fed up with Weller, and so the band released "Beat Surrender" as a "farewell" single. It feels to me like Weller's attempt at making a "Land of 1,000 Dances" or an "Uptight (Everything's Alright)," but it came out sounding more like the theme from Laverne & Shirley. At this point, the song could have been three minutes of Weller passing gas and it would have reached #1, but it's not exactly one of my favorite Jam singles.

"What are some of your favorite Jam singles, Little Earl? You know, maybe like, some of the ones that didn't reach #1?" Funny children, I'm glad you asked, and I can't wait to tell you all about it, but you'll have to wait until next time.

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