Riding Waves And Setting Standards
WHEN I met Paul Weller I saw red. His shirt, his trousers, his pullover, his shoes – and I daresay his St. Michael Y-fronts – were all in shades of scarlet, with only the odd dash of white for two-tone tastefulness.
He looked magnificent. A king. I wished I’d worn my sunglasses but the gloomy day outside Polydor’s offices had given no warning of the visual onslaught inside. I also wish I’d noticed what Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler were wearing so I could give you a complete rundown what the devoted Jam fan might like to have in the wardrobe right now, but they were eclipsed.
Which tends to be the way of things with The Jam. As a team of musicians the readers’ polls in the weeklies show that all three are rated guvnors of their particular instruments but when it comes down to personalities, it’s Weller the songwriter everyone wants to know about and Weller who steps up naturally as their main spokesman.
Meanwhile Foxton contents himself with the one-liners and falling off his chair when something strikes him that way and Buckler smoothes off any rough edges in his capacity as genuine easy-going Mr. Nice Guy.
I SAT DOWN, SWITCHED THE RECORDER on and put my foot in it. "I’ve been listening to your albums in time-order," I began only to be brought up short by Mr. Weller leaping down my throat. "You can say ‘chronological order’ if you like," he said. "There’s no truth in the rumour about us being a bunch of thickies!"
Ouch. "Time-order", I ask you. What kind of patronising malfunction tipped that tortured phrase off in my brain?
But it’s no wonder Paul is so sharp to pick up on any hint of snobbery that comes his way. Pretty soon it emerged that the driving force behind The Jam’s rise to their present peak of popularity and critical esteem has been an ongoing Harvey Smith aimed at people who scorned or denied their potential from childhood upwards.
In ‘The Modern World’, Paul wrote: "All my life has been the same/I’ve learned to live by hate and pain/It’s my inspiration drive." That’s more than vicious, even in terms of standard 1977 punk rebellion.
Paul: "That song was about school (Sheerwater Secondary in Woking). I found the whole process painful. The hate was directed against the teachers. I’m a bit less cynical now because there’s been some relief in writing songs and having the chance to communicate with thousands of people I’d never have met otherwise.
"Some of the kids who went to school with me are like little old men already, like Toby jugs. But now there’s less opportunities than there was for us. A kid leaving school now knows he’s straight down the dole office, so his ambition drive is probably zero.
"What outlets are there for being different, apart from music and sport? What a choice! Every avenue should be open to you."
Also in ‘The Modern World’, Paul wrote: "Even in school I felt quite sure/That one day I would be on top." I believe it from the gimlet eyes and small, intense frown of Weller, a man who could drop into the conversation without sounding boastful the remark that "Of course we think ‘Tube Station’ should have been at the top of the charts for six months".
But I wondered whether the others had shared that feeling or been happy to scud along in his wake. They proved to be just as assertive.
Bruce: "I wasn’t thinking of music back in school but I did want to be Number One in whatever I was capable of doing, even though that was a nine-to-five career at first (printing). That drive was in me all right."
Rick: "Everyone feels ambition. When you first get a new job you want to be good at it, don’t you?"
Maybe, but I think it’s that sort of purposeful energy which they take for granted that makes The Jam special and different.
I TURNED TO HOW THEY’VE STAYED together since they were 15, despite the demands and turmoil of becoming stars during the period of fastest change in anyone’s life. I’m sure there are some interesting points in there but I couldn’t get the subject going, except that Bruce fell off his chair when I mentioned the word "sex".
When he’d recovered, I suggested to them that they had survived partly because of the protection afforded by Paul’s dad, John Weller. He became their manager at the start and made the band into a kind of family unit with mutual trust unquestionable.
Paul wouldn’t wear the idea that they’d been sheltered, but his answer did imply a certain cosiness preserved by John intercepting all the financial worries.
"We take an interest but we don’t get involved. That’s why I’ve always said I don’t feel a part of the music business. I see us as a group the same way I did when we were 15 and starting off. Maybe it’s not entirely true, but it’s how I like to look at it."
And so the picture takes shape. A band together for six years. Four chart albums and nine straight hit singles with the latest the most successful of the lot. Musical and family life merged. Paul living with the girl he’s been going steady with for years.
It’s a picture of extraordinary stability in the light of the Jam’s often black and violent music. I asked Paul whether the harsh material all came from his past, whether he had now found true happiness?
Paul: "I’m never really happy wherever I am."
Rick: "Miserable sod, isn’t he?"
Bruce (falling off his chair sobbing): "O God, I’m so sad."
Paul seemed neither disturbed by this mockery of his artist’s tragic soul nor inclined to take himself too seriously: "I never see life as being steady. I’ve always been uncertain. I’ve never felt I could sit back and relax – there’s just too much going on.
"I’m sitting there in front of the TV moaning on about world politics saying ‘Look at these bastards’ and Gill just says, ‘Yeah, shall we start tea then?’ And she’s quite right.
"Maybe I’m only an armchair radical. But every night I watch the news and I get so frustrated. I write it all down then in the morning throw it away because it’s rubbish, just paranoid rantings and ravings. Still, after six or seven pints I do start to cheer up a bit. That’s basic philosophy for you. Yeah, I think lager should be on the National Health."
DESPITE APPEARANCES, THERE WAS ONE loud hiccup in The Jam’s development. I had only to mention summer ’78 and Bruce groaned, "Don’t talk to me about that! I need my pills. We were near to committing suicide then."
Even now they find it hard to put their finger on exactly what went wrong. Rick described it as "collecting our thoughts. We’d been in the business a year and we needed to suss out where we stood."
Paul thinks it might simply have been exhaustion from recording two albums, touring America, Europe, and Britain twice all in less than a year. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear The Jam were within measurable distance of breaking up. In interviews at the time Paul was musing on the possibility of opening a value-for-money mod clothes shop while Bruce seemed to fancy becoming a Basil Fawlty in charge of a seaside boarding house (though he claims he was drunk when he said that).
Crucially, the band decided to scrap about an album’s worth of Weller and Foxton songs just when they were scheduled to produce the follow-up to This Is The Modern World. This drastic act of self-criticism is probably what saved them.
Paul readily admitted, "A lot of the trouble at the time stemmed from me because I was messing around writing these soppy songs or trying to be smart and arty. I had to realise that’s not what the Jam are about. Those songs were rubbish."
"Who said?" I said.
"I said," he said "If anyone from the company tried that on us we’d tell him to stick his head up his bum. I think we’ve got our own really good refining system, we always know when something’s not up to standard.
WITH THAT BEHIND THEM, The Jam set off on the streak of hot form which has sustained them up to the present. With All Mod Cons suddenly the playing of all three was matching up to the impact of Weller’s lyrics.
They opened by getting things off their chests with the title track and ‘To Be Someone’, reflecting on failure after fame. One line goes: "You drop us like hot bricks" but Paul denied that this was personal experience because he’d had very few friends anyway outside the band.
Then they blossomed into a dramatic realism with a strength they had never touched on before in the horrors of ‘‘A’ Bomb In Wardour Street’ and ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ and my more cheerful favourite, the portrait of ‘Billy Hunt’. "No one pushes Billy Hunt around/Well, they do, but not for long/’Cause when I get fit and grow bionic arms/The whole world’s gonna wish it weren’t born."
Setting Sons took The Jam’s growth another huge leap forward. Musically they advanced with the bold use of an all-strings arrangement for Foxton’s ‘Smithers-Jones’ and the complex structure of ‘Little Boy Soldiers’, but also lyrically with the stunning imagery and form of
‘Burning Sky’ and the movingly precise descriptions of a person under stress in ‘Private Hell’: "Alone at 6 o’clock – you drop a cup – / You see it smash – inside you crack –/You can’t go on – but you sweep it up."
PAUL WELLER CARES ABOUT HIS LYRICS far more than most songwriters, as you might guess from his recent launching of a small publishing company with a book of poems by his long-time friend Dave Waller. But Paul’s by no means satisfied with his own efforts yet, and only half of his Setting Sons compositions really pleased him, namely ‘Thick As Thieves’, ‘Wasteland’, ‘Eton Rifles’ and ‘Burning Sky’.
He’s working on it, however, partly by not allowing increasing wealth to run up the shutters between him and real life. For instance, where do you think he spent his holidays last summer? The Bahamas? Mustique? No. In a caravan near Portsmouth, like his parents used to. And while he was there he wrote ‘Eton Rifles’.
Mike Stand, Smash Hits, 6 March 1980