Packed Off To America
THEY STARTED talking about clothes even before I left. They were discussing shirt makers. "Jermyn Street," was the consensus. "They will make silk up for you there." Paul Weller was already wearing blood-red shoes with winkle-picker toes. His feet looked enormous, and he and Rick Buckler had short Mod haircuts, which made their ears look big, their faces knobbly. One thing none of the Jam was looking forward to in America was the dreadful absence of teenage visual flair.
In Britain, we are living through the fag-end of a Mod revival. Strange scenes in the dance hall: parka gangs with fur hoods and sewn-on flags (no scooters, though), boys in suits and girls in miniskirts. A brief Mod moment which has more to do with commercial attempts to fill the post-punk vacuum (and to promote Quadrophenia) than with real suburban fantasy. These Mods line up in the toilets as if they're waiting for someone to come and give them marks for accuracy.
In the 1960's the essence of Mod was its self-sufficiency. Mods withdrew from the adult world altogether; theirs was a code of separatism. The Jam celebrate the original mood of Mod and they've played their way through the "Mod Revival" with a detached dignity, unfazed by the brash ska postures, glory boy claims. The Jam have always been Mods, and they've always been impervious to the hysteria around them
They arrived in London in 1976/1977 with all the young punks, but even then they were neat young men who wore slim jackets, narrow ties, and leapt about onstage. They sounded joyous like the early Who and played ‘Slow Down’ like Gerry and the Pacemakers. They were managed by Paul Weller's dad, and, in the eager critical glibness of those heady days, got known as Tories. They didn't seem to care much.
Paul, Rick and Bruce Foxton had been at school together in Woking – traditional Mod country, London commuter belt, bored suburbia. The way they tell it now, the Mod references came naturally. They did what all bands did then, played rock 'n' roll and Motown, guaranteed youth club music, cheap to make, easy to learn. It was only when they went to buy suits for the stage show, neat visuals for a neat sound, that they realized their peculiar lack of context. "At that stage," says Rick, looking me carefully up and down, "Hepworth's sold clothes like the ones you are wearing now." Flared trousers, wide lapels, and what the Jam thought, somehow, was that if you're going to play 60's dancing numbers you should look like a 60's dancing band. Precision was of the essence. The Jam spruced up while everyone else was getting into garbage bags.
It takes a lot of care to buck trends and a good organization. I spoke to the Jam on one of those days when they were lined up for interview after interview. They sat in a self-supporting circle, letting in outsiders one by one; they were cautious and sure of themselves. The Jam are, clearly, Paul Weller's group and he is, equally clearly, just one member of the group among three – the relationship is something like Pete Townshend and the Who. Rick and Bruce are sharp musicians and in the studios the trio do pretty well everything for themselves, add their own keyboards – percussion – wind when necessary. And they've always used the same producer, Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, the same designer, Bill Smith.
The Jam have never needed anyone else. They didn't become punk poseurs; they've never strutted through the rock biz scene like Bob Geldof of the Boomtown Rats, chatting in TV shows and gossip columns, slumming it with the music press, oiling the cogs of the star-making machinery. And they never became street voices, populists like Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69, singing just one more time for the kids. The Jam's first two LPs, In the City and This Is The Modern World, were full of powerful street images, fire and skill, but the group were celebrating the images, not the streets. They are a reactionary group in that their musical dreams lie in a golden rock past – schoolboy dreams – and they don't rate modern music much at all.
The peculiarities of the Jam are Paul Weller's. He's a prickly auto-didact, who didn't like lessons and reads a lot. His extra-Jam project is a publishing company, Riot Stories, and its first book of poetry, good city-scapes from David Waller, an old mate who was once thrown out of the Jam for musical incompetence. Waller is now sifting through a mass of other people's poems, piles of verses from young Jam fans. There's an anthology due and Paul Weller gleams with pleasure when he mentions it. This is an unusual rock ambition: digging diamonds from the roughs. And yet he still hears the great era of rock lyric writing as the 60's, Pete Townshend and Ray Davies, social relevance with Mod nonchalance. "Do you rate any writers now?" I ask. Silence. "Elvis Costello?" The other two laugh familiarly. Paul frowns and mutters. Self-taught, he's not about to learn anything from smart-alecks.
I ask Paul Weller if he will run out of things to say, exhaust the experience – dreary youth – that still informs his songs, but he takes himself seriously, doesn't value spontaneity anyway. All Mod Cons, the Jam's third LP, is a wonderfully clever record, particularly when you hear through its Mod artifacts and references, scattered about like debris from a party that went on too long. It's a record about disillusion,
Weller's success songs, weariness/wariness at the top and all that. And, more powerfully, it's a record about the vacant heart of crowd culture, the teenage apathy that is the other side of the coin of rock's community. The Jam's best street song is here: ‘Down At The Tube Station At Midnight’, a sour slab of London violence, tight and vengeful, skins and fascists, Dr. Marten's apocalypse. The truth is that the other punks, the Pistols and the Clash, were naive, cheerful, romantic. The Jam, last of the big three, have never been romantic. Love, as Weller says, is about hard work.
Setting Sons, the Jam's new album, is Paul Weller's most ambitious work. It is more diffuse than All Mod Cons, less immediately sharp, but its sophistication, depth, control, could open American ears at last to a classic British group. Weller is using increased artiface – puns and imagery, the Jam orchestra – to explore his sense of waste. The record is packaged, like All Mod Cons, in debris, but literal war relics now, uniforms and spent shells, the sense of victory promise: 1918, 1945, Britain and the land fit for heroes. And it is 1980, every promise long forgotten. People have grown old in work that only made sense if something better came. It didn't.
"Hate the system! What is the system?" the Jam chant, like yobbos and then, on ‘Eton Rifles’ tell us, as Weller takes on punk populism and marvels, mockingly, at a class consciousness that struts through the streets in safety pins. The punks, at long last, take on the nobs (on the playing fields of Eton). They find out what the Jam knew all along: in this sort of cultural clash, ruling class wit will always win. The kids troop back to Slough, and the Jam's new music has got the mood just right. Britain is swinging into the 80's with a government which is calling on folk memories of patriotism and promise and adjusting us to the sharpest decline in the standard of ordinary living we have ever known. Waste indeed, the move is from punk refusal to the Mod sense of fate.
The week after I talked to them the Jam won everything in the NME Readers Poll: Best Writer, Best song, Best Guitarist, Best Bass, Best Drums, Best Group, Best People. The NME's readers are Britain's most interesting fans, the least stuck on the past, and now the Jam, with no pandering to the people's taste, represent it (more than the Clash, more than the Police). They make the music that seems to fit.
The Jam have recorded as many good songs as Britain's biggest groups, and yet they are off to conquer America again, like learners. We all agree, before the conversation goes back to clothes, that there is still no sign of life across the Atlantic. The Ramones have been absorbed into their comic book and no one else mattered much to the Jam anyway. In America they would have been called the Jelly. We shake our heads and wonder.
Simon Frith, Creem, April 1980