Fair Deal, Brixton, 15/03/82
"See me walking around – I'm the boy about town that you've heard of..."
THE JAM are The Gift, the fair deal from heaven, because, even if they do nothing else, they FIT. At the beginning of their career they had the mark of a group, especially of a Polydor "new wave" group, that would quickly be forgotten. The mod image looked dubious and the then pro-Tory politics rankled without actually disturbing.
But in fact mod turned out to be the perfect start – its social ambiguity gave them a diffident, lower middle classless distance from the sweet and stupor of things like punk and heavy metal. Weller used mod as a perspective rather than an engrossing style, as a fan rather than a champion. True, The Jam could play The Who's 'Much Too Much' with more confidence and dynamism than The Who themselves ever mustered, but Weller was no mere revivalist. Before he could even be sure of his musical bearings, the mantle of working-class hero had been placed on his shoulders, and The Jam were all of a sudden filling the gap between punk's irresponsible glee and rock's sedated sleepwalk. To this day Weller has never sold out mod, never pensioned it off; his elevation to the status of hero enabled him simply to ignore the rapid rise and fall of its official revival.
The Jam's solid entrenchment in the Sixties is a crucial part of their success and it works because they adapt r'n'b for an audience that knows little about the original music. Weller's open perspective allows him to draw into his songs whatever trademarks seem appropriate for individual themes without slavishly reproducing them. As he can phrase it to this day – with reference to both the funk of 'Precious' and the Motown bass lift of 'Town Called Malice' – "Take a pinch of white and a pinch of black/Mix it together and make a movin' flavour..."
"Pinch" is the key word, for by "pinching" the '60s and its endless memories,
The Jam have somehow attracted vast legions of the disaffected, the non-aligned, and the nobodies, who flock to Weller because no one style confines him and because he has not been "corrupted" by his fame. When he inherited Townshend's guitar techniques, he also took on the man's neurotic sense of responsibility.
A Jam gig is thus a fairly joyless spectacle. The Lonsdale sweatshirts are eloquent symbols of its rigour and sobriety: what we are really witnessing is a gymnasium of exhortation. Weller never preaches, but he never sings either. Where the Stones made up for not being black by being camp, The Who and The Jam strip r'n'b of its soul and sexuality. By using it as a basis for social anthems, they kill off the humour and narcissism of its live performance.
With a banner proclaiming the legend "Trans-Global Unity Express" pinned above them, there was a fine irony in the almost total absence of non-white faces in the audience. But, The Jam's is a definitively white, unsensual sound, and not simply because Buckler's drums are a battery blam bam pickup job. No, the real reason is Weller's voice. The words he sings are never integrated into the overall sound; they exist outside the engine-room of rhythm because they are not born of musical instincts in the first place. Every emotion, every potential inflexion, is thrown out with the same aggressiveness and urgency – so that a great song like 'Happy Together' carries exactly the same degree of imploring and hopefulness as an ephemeral fling like 'Precious'.
The problem is that too many Jam fans are constantly looking to Weller to speak to them, to somehow explain them. A Jam audience really works for its heroes, chanting for encores like possessed football supporters and loving themselves in their benevolently assigned mass identity. It's irrelevant to them that 'A Town Called Malice' is just a case of Madness meet the Four Tops down in the tube station at midnight, because Weller is the authority, the figurehead against which we are all of us matched and judged wanting.
On 'The Gift' Weller's confusion under the burden of this responsibility is almost pathetic. He can conclude 'Precious' with the confession that "I feel trapped in sorrow/In this imagery", and then immediately plunge into 'Just Who Is The 5 O'Clock Hero? With "Hello darlin' – I'm home again/Covered in shit and aches and pains" – and both sung in precisely the same cockney monotone!
What one feels most powerfully at a Jam gig is Weller straining to keep up with the expectations and assumptions which have been forced on him. His every movement is a genuflection of rhetorical presence – his torso muscling into his guitar, his neck thrusting out at the mike as if it would throw the whole of Paul Weller at the heart of his audience.
Bruce Foxton is of course the perfect complement to this bursting charisma: everything about him, from his early 70s ex-skin brushtop to his hideous skyblue suit, is plain naff.
At the Fair Deal The Jam made it clear just how extensively they are prepared to compress their manifold sources in the service of social conscience. As if 'Heat Wave' weren't enough, amazingly flatulent versions of 'Fever' and 'Hit The Road Jack' forced the point home. A handful of really exciting numbers – like 'Funeral Pyre' and 'Private Hell' – stood out from a predominantly safe and "assured" set, but they were few and far between. Weller even felt obliged to advise us that the two new "important" songs – presumably the ones we should be studying and learning – were 'The Gift' and 'Trans Global Express'.
Paul Weller no longer challenges anything, he simply fits the bill, meets the demand for a certain sanity with the contrived authority of his voice and its equalised emphases. As Richard Cook said, or at least implied, the sheep that are buying 'The Gift' are the very people who should be listening to The Fall.
As they stand at present, The Jam are a strident summation of traditional pop forms and archaic rock attitudes, the pivotal point of white youth culture. Weller himself sits so neatly between the messiah Joe Strummer and the craftsman Elvis Costello it's unreal – yet he touches neither of their heights.
What is more bewildering still is how he manages year after year to ignore the extreme conservatism of his fans, instead actually going to the condescending lengths of thanking them in full page ads for their undying "trust and loyalty".
"I believe in life – and I believe in love
But the world which I live in – keeps trying to prove me wrong."
– and what you give is what you get!
Barney Hoskyns, New Musical Express, 20 March 1982