Invasion of the Riff Snatchers
Can a bunch of ordinary guys repeat the British Invasion? IAN BIRCH watches the Jam take on America.
IT WAS only as we drove into Philadelphia that realisation struck. "Isn't this near where they had that nuclear accident?" gasped Angela, Polydor's ultra-efficient press person.
Of course it was! How could we have been so stupid as not to make the connection? How could we have been so stupid as to, er, come...?
I instantly studied the cityscape. That bubble of radioactive gas was lodged in the power plant at Three Mile Island, which is just outside Harrisburg, which in turn is just a thyroid gland or two away from Philadelphia. On the atomic scale, 90 miles is a drop in the ocean. Civil disorder had to be round the next corner.
However, everything looked so normal. The headlines screamed panic and talked in terms of the worst nuclear disaster ever. Farmers were apparently worried about contaminated milk supplies; engineers fretted over infected water.
So where were the thousands fleeing to safety? Why wasn't there a military curfew to prevent looting? Where were the hucksters peddling overpriced geiger-counters?
All apocalyptic fantasies vanished when the only evidence of any public concern turned out to be a couple of makeshift trestle tables manned by protesting students and a downtown cinema showing The China Syndrome.
And, obviously, the cinema was not concerned with making any heavy-duty political statement. It was simply cashing in on the current "meltdown" obsession with a thriller that depicts a near-catastrophe at a plant outside L.A. As someone remarked when the film was over: "I go to the movies to find out what's happening in the papers."
IN FACT, nothing much was happening in Philadelphia as we kicked our heels waiting for the Jam to arrive and play the celebrated Tower Theatre. At almost exactly the same time last year they had played the Tower, supporting the Ramones and Runaways. Now they were headlining, and the switch in status indicates how much ground they've covered in the intervening 12 months.
Nevertheless, they still have a long, uphill struggle ahead of them before they crack the massive American market. They may have topped the bill at the Tower, but the place was only quarter-full.
Such apathy didn't stop them putting on a superlative set. Indeed, it spurred them to heights which, despite uncontrollable technical hitches, they didn't reach the following evening in New York when the Palladium was sardine-packed with adoring disciples.
The band's reaction is exactly what you'd expect: they view it from a realistic historical perspective. Paul Weller constantly refers back to the British invasion of the States during the Sixties, noting the differences and seeing the parallels.
The Beatles, he reckons, had few problems because they were already such a phenomenon in Europe and delivered "nothing really new," whereas "all the really innovative British bands like the Kinks and the Who, it took them a long time anyway."
While you might not agree with his quality judgments, his comparisons with the Who and Kinks in terms of winning transatlantic recognition is perfectly on target.
This is already the group's third trip over the water and they know that, barring a marketing miracle or a modern world equivalent of something like the Monterey Pop Festival, there are at least several more such journeys in store before the Jam become anything like a household name.
Every gig, then, means another round of photographs, another round of interviews when the same questions are asked and the same level of ignorance displayed, plus another round of meeting the Polydor representatives. At one point Bruce Foxton sighed: "We should give them a tape of our answers. We can't keep coming up with new answers to the same old questions." That's what breaking America is all about.
TO BE fair, the Jam really believe that they have nothing new to say to the press. The only aspect that matters to them is playing live and releasing records.
Paul commented: ''We've been talking about this a lot recently...especially the press point of view. They've been trying to find something different to write about us for good copy...like deep meanings about what we're about. What we're about is being onstage and the records...just what we say in the songs. Yet if you say that to someone it just sounds so simple, and then they say the Jam are a bunch of thickies. It's so difficult.
"You want to be everything. You want people to come and dance to us and enjoy it and get off on that level. We want people to listen to what we say, and make their own minds up. We're not preaching from any particular stance. We just strive to be the perfect group, better than any other group is.
"The only people who always get it right are the fans. The thing is, we don't affect your life. We're not going to change your way of thinking.
"All I'm saying is that the fans are in touch. Most of the time they don't have to ask these things, because they know. Instead of them coming to say 'What's this song about?' they say, 'I understand that song because it meant this or something has happened in my life,' which is exactly the same thing.
"It's taken four years of hard work and believing in ourselves and not listening to other people saying we're shit or something. It's a question of maturing, growing, up fast. I tell you...a great quote I saw in the paper the other day comes from Stevie Wonder's song 'Uptight'. The line says 'No one is better than I, but I know I'm just an average guy.'
"That really sums it up, as far as I'm concerned. It's a question of saying we're just the same as everyone else, but we have our pride and self-respect and we know we're good. As far as I'm concerned, we're the best...but anyone can do it."
AT THE moment the Jam are going through a vital transitional period, which is when a band's tensions and contradictions show more than ever. The band don't want to be 'big'; they crave it. In Britain their name is made, and they know that they can only go on to consolidate that success.
More importantly, they consider that they achieved this with the minimum of compromise, and they want to do exactly the same in the States. It'll be an awful lot harder; even Elvis Costello allowed CBS to remix and add strings to 'Alison' before they put it out as the first single. Consequently, the Jam are almost embarrassingly grateful for every piece of ground that they gain, and never stop showing their determination to get more the honest way.
For example, it was once suggested to them that George Martin produce the next album "in order to get the American market."
Paul sighed: "It's just like the Clash getting Sandy Pearlman. They're always suggesting people like that." Bruce took up the point: "It would just become George Martin, or Phil Spector, or whoever it is. It wouldn't be the Jam any more."
In Philadelphia, Paul barked at the audience: "Last time we said we'd be headlining when we came back. Next time we're here, there'll be fucking queues outside."
In New York, he announced: "I have to say in all honesty this place ain't really us and I'm sure it ain't you either. What we give is what we get." By this time they'd only played four numbers but Paul – quite rightly – realised that the band were slack. The prestige of a Big Apple gig together with their fanatical commitment never to put on a poor show made them even more desperate.
After a patchy version of 'Strange Town', where the guitar solo was strangled and Bruce fluffed his usually brilliant harmonies (on record they're pallid; on stage they're rousing), Paul blurted out: "In the end we gotta break through. Everybody's gotta win in the end."
But fate was cruel and the situation just got worse. During 'Down In The Tube Station At Midnight', Paul's amp blew. He covered up by using his mouth as a harmonica, almost doing permanent damage to it in the process.
Then, as a parting shot, Paul introduced 'A Bomb In Wardour Street' with: "This song we feel is very, very close to us. It may take you three or four years. We don't know." The song, accompanied on stage with a battered tenement backdrop and exploding smoke bombs (they aren't above a bit of traditional corn), is of course all about the Vortex, punk's second home after the Roxy. Predictably, the audience went bananas.
NEW YORK is a Jam stronghold, as an incident earlier on in the day confirmed. Deejay Mark Simone from Radio WPIX held a competition on air to give away 50 tickets for that night's gig. He would stand at a certain crossroads in New York, and the first 50 people who recognised him would get a freebie. Hundreds of fans turned up and caused a minor commotion. The police appeared and tried to smuggle Simone away in one of their squad cars.
But the traffic was so bad that following the car was easy. So everyone arrived at the police station and started to lay siege to what should have been a place of safety for Simone.
A more major source of change, however, is the band's growing musical maturity. When All Mod Cons and the two successive single came out, critics noted a new depth to Weller's songwriting. He's beginning to deal with a larger and more subtle spectrum of emotions, embodying them as often as not in a wider array of characters. Some artists use characters to hide their own feelings Weller does the opposite.
"I use characters to express the way I feel. I'd use a character to bring myself out more. It's easier for people to relate to, instead of saying, 'This is just about me and do you dig it?' The whole thing is so ambiguous that they can make up their own minds and inject themselves into it."
As a result, bigger and better things are constantly expected of the band. Everyone seems to be waiting for Weller's masterwork, and more and more Paul finds himself being treated as an "artist" – which brings its own dilemmas. Did he think that such elevation would make the Jam less accessible to their fans?
"That's the only drawback. Like having an idea for a song...we could never get away with doing anything avant-garde, or even vaguely avant-garde...even if we wanted to, and I'm not saying that we do.
"The whole punk thing started because people were alienated by crappy music, obscure lyrics and references and everything. We don't want to get into that. That's what everyone was fighting about. Some people might not have meant it, but we did. But also we don't want to suppress anything that wants to come through naturally. We've overcome it in the past, so maybe we can keep on doing it. It's difficult. The day that we stop being accessible is the day we die."
Ian Birch, Melody Maker, 28 April 1979