Mods For Moderns
Jam's Paul Weller knows where he's going.
You can't dismiss what has gone before, But there's foundations for us to explore. 'All Around the World'
IT MUST'VE been sometime in early '77 when I first word of the Jam began to filter over to America. "The first thing to be said about the Jam," reported Paul Rambali in our pages, "is that...they sound like the Who." And it was the first, and in some cases the last, word on the Jam for most people.
Of course, it was true, they did sound like the Who, though not the current, nearly-dormant version. No, the Jam took their direction, energy, stance, and firepower straight from the Who's very first LP, My Generation; from the guitar/bass/drums/vocal line-up, to the strong identification with R&B (the Who covered two James Brown songs, the Jam have done Wilson Pickett, Arthur Conley and the Supremes) to the youth-oriented subject matter of the songs. With Paul Weller slashing chords and coaxing feedback out of a Rickenbacker, Bruce Foxton laying down busy, melodic bass lines and Rick Buckler flailing away (though not quite with the reckless abandon of young Moon) at the drums, the then-teenage Jam not only sounded the part but looked it as well. Clad in Mod-tailored mohair suits replete with skinny ties and short haircuts, the look alone brought to mind one of Townshend's better lines: "I look bloody young but I'm just backdated." Were the Jam merely a cleverly packaged Who substitute for the '70s, or was there a major talent for the '80s lurking behind Paul Weller's seemingly impenetrable exterior? In 1977 it was difficult to know.
In a year that saw new bands bursting onto the London scene at a phenomenal rate, each more likely than not spouting some kind of rhetoric or pushing some outlandish image, separating the men from the boys just wasn't that easy. If the first single, 'In the City', was great (its descending riff later appropriated by no less than the Sex Pistols for 'Holidays in the Sun'), the first album (In the City, too), though promising, was as spotty as the faces of most Jam fans. More important to the Jam than the fact that certain critics felt that the boys were displaying their influences all too freely, were those fans, most of whom were probably still in diapers when The Who Sings My Generation was released. The Jam obviously were getting through to their generation, so if critics wanted to call them throwbacks they at least had to acknowledge that the message was still relevant in 1977 and that the Jam's live shows were among the best of any of the new British bands'. Weller, characteristically, remained silent on the subject of just what the Jam thought they were trying to do.
On the title track of the Jam's second album, This Is the Modern World, however, Weller lashed out at the band's critics with a venom: "What kind of fool do you think I am?/You think I know nothing of the modern world.../Say what you like cause I don't care, I know where I am and going too/It's somewhere I won't preview/ Don't have to explain myself to you/Don't care two shits about your review." Of course he obviously did care enough to write the song, but in 1977 such contradictions were to be expected. He made his point, though. He was planning to be around for awhile and if you didn't know what he was getting at, well, he did. As if to support his arrogance, This Is the Modern World was a big step forward in terms of the Jam's recorded sound and contained songs which bridged the gap between mod arrogance and 1977's recession-inspired punkisms. Still, the LP was greeted warily by those who either expected more from the Jam, or felt that they had already exhausted their '60s-inspired repertoire.
The Jam carried on regardless. Live, their shows were no less than sensational, and they were already one of Britain's top concert draws. Their first full-fledged US tour, though, was pretty much a disaster, partially due to bad timing (resistance to anything new and British was at its peak) and partially because they were playing to the wrong crowds in the wrong places. Opening for Blue Oyster Cult in arenas just wasn't the way the Jam were meant to be experienced.
While preparing for their next LP, the Jam began releasing singles (in Britain, of course) at a rapid rate. First came 'News of the World', a Bruce Foxton tune which didn't really do too much, artistically or sales-wise. Next up they kovered the Kinks klassic 'David Watts', a song that hadn't lost an ounce of relevance in the 10 years since it was written, and had a good-sized hit with it. 'Down in the Tube Station at Midnight', the harrowing narrative of a Pakistani who gets beaten up by thugs in the London underground late one evening, was a strong follow-up, retaining a kind of sensibility and eye for detail, indicating that Weller was finally coming into his own as a writer. It too was a hit.
All Mod Cons, the third Jam album, finally appeared last November and was hailed just about everywhere as a masterpiece. Using the structures and conscience charted by mid-'60s Who and Kinks, the Jam injected new life into an old form, much as, say, the Stones had done to Chuck Berry. What's more, it was by far their most successful record to date. By the time Polydor got around to releasing the LP over here, the Jam were already firmly entrenched as one of the biggest active bands in Britain. But success in Britain can only get you so far (not very) in America, and whether a band as distinctly British as the Jam will ever really get over here remains to be seen.
"DO YOU THINK this album'll go over in America?" Weller asks me before we sit down to do an interview at Polydor's office in London. "Probably no," I reply. "I don't either," he admits. "It's too English." On the Jam's two trips to America Weller got to see a bit of our country, I wondered how he felt about it.
"It seems very conservative. Almost everyone I saw there seemed to be very rich, yet on the other hand you have places like Harlem. It's very weird — deceptive — everything seems to have a big front. The feeling I got was that it was all very superficial."
Weller, along with the rest of the Jam, hails from Woking, a suburb about 20 miles outside London — "a sort of nowhere place," he calls it. Britain being an extremely fashion-conscious country, far more so than here, I wondered whether he had followed any particular trend while growing up in Woking.
"I was sort of into skinheads, you know, though only the clothes part. I didn't go in for Paki bashing or queer bashing." He credits not wanting to go out and work as his major reason for picking up the guitar; that, and attracting more women. He finally got around to forming a group, a four-piece prototype of the Jam, with Bruce, Rick, and a lead guitarist named Steve Woods, with whom Paul used to collaborate on songs. They played mostly Motown covers at first, and were pretty much without image or direction: "We was mostly into getting pissed and smoking dope, so we didn't need any kind of image — we were just playing rock'n'roll."
He credits the decision to develop the group's neo-mod image to "something personal, not musical. I got into something personally clothes-wise about three or four years ago, I can't remember exactly when we started wearing suits, but it must've been around then." They started getting gigs in some of the London pubs about three years ago, though, he says, they were infrequent. Then the punk rock thing started happening in England, and the Jam, being young and playing fast music, became classified as part of it.
"We never really tried to capitalize on that kind of audience because we never really asked for it," he explains, "but I'm glad it happened. It was the best thing to happen to British music in a long, long time." Did he ever feel part of a real movement? "Yeah, it was very strong in the beginning. I was 100% into it and I still retain some of the ideals from that time." Yet on the Jam's first visit to the States, they vehemently denied any connection to the punk movement.
"A lot of the bands were getting into so much crap at that time," he responds. "Polydor America got on the wrong end of it, anyway, using ads like: 'The Jam don't need safety pins to keep their act together.' That had nothing to do with us."
How does he view the first two albums, in retrospect? "I think it's a very natural progression from one into another. I listen to the first album now and I just cringe, it all sounds so primitive. It's good that we went through all that, though. Everybody knocked the second album, but I think at least it was an honest approach — that's how I felt at the time it was recorded. Whether it's good or bad is irrelevant. I think it's the honesty that counts — that was the early punk idea as well. I think now that we've transcended the material on Modern World. We're probably saying the same things, but in a much more subtle yet open way."
Did he ever feel that the band was on shaky ground after the generally poor reaction to Modern World?
"The media put it that way, but I wasn't worried. They were saying we were finished, but I knew we weren't. That's what I've got against the press. Now everyone has seen fit to make All Mod Cons a masterpiece, so it's cool to like the Jam again. It's the fans who stuck by us through everything anyway."
And what did he think about All Mod Cons being called a masterpiece?
"Well, it is," he says in total seriousness. "It is a masterpiece, but we don't need critics to tell us that."
As good as it is (and I believe it is that good), Weller claims the album was not the result of any great deal of premeditation and planning. In fact, he says there wasn't much thought put into it at all: "I wrote the bulk of the songs in a couple of days and didn't have a chance to sit around playing them for a long time. Most of them just came together. The band just progressed to the point where we're a really tight unit. We don't have to rehearse or practice, it just seems to come together."
Listening to All Mod Cons for the first time was a chilling experience for me. The album literally bursts with feeling, both on Weller's observations on alienation, loneliness and isolation and on his nightmarish story-songs like 'Tube Station' and 'A-Bomb in Wardour Street', but what shines through the almost dreamlike quality of much of the record is that Weller actually cares about what he writes; that is, people. He brings his characters to life in the same way that Townshend, Davies and precious few others have been able to do. Maybe the triumph of new wave in Britain, whatever its failings, is that it brought back at least some bands who care. I ask Weller whether he thinks most of the Jam's audience listens to his lyrics.
"I think so," he replies. "We receive a lot of letters — about 60 a day — and some of the things people say give me a new perspective on things I've written. It's astounding some of the things you find in the songs that you don't even realize are there until you look for them. The really important thing is that people get what they want from the songs. It's important that we're not just a fun band, but we do have fun, and that we have our serious bits, but we don't take ourselves too seriously. I suppose in a way we're striving to be the perfect group."
There's a unifying feeling throughout All Mod Cons that makes it seem very much like it could've been intended at one time or another as a concept LP. Although Weller denies having thought about it in that way he adds: "You could just take a character like Billy Hunt and center it around him. The trouble is that there have been so many things like Quadrophenia and Sham 69s That's Life that I decided that I'd let it hang loosely rather than connect it. I'd like to write in a more general style so that everyone can understand it."
Finally, I ask Weller about his ambitions, and if they've changed since he started out with the Jam. Had they changed in, say, the past five years?
"Definitely," he replies without flinching. "Five years ago I wanted to be the biggest star since Elvis or the Beatles."
"Well, not that anyway. I don't want to be a loser or anything, but I'd like to see the Jam become one of the first bands to stick by their word and actually do something. I'd like to channel money back into music — I would, really. It's hard to do, but I still think it's impossible to hang onto your ideals. You may lose some of them along the way, but I think you can be successful and still keep a certain amount of self-respect."
At that the discussion concludes, with Paul's manager (who also happens to be his father) whisking us away to the recording studio where the Jam are putting the finishing touches on their new single, 'Strange Town', the story of what happens when a UFO decides to make a landing in London. It's a great tune, with a healthy chunk of black humor in the lyrics. Weller is quite pleased with it.
"It's going to be number one," he assures me. "If it isn't I shall be very surprised. I won't lose any sleep over it, though," he adds. And then laughs.
Dave Schulps, Trouser Press, May 1979