HAS IT really been three years since the Jam made its first live appearance in America? Since three teenagers in matching suits and skinny ties fended off accusations that they were merely Who copyists and insisted they had nothing to do with the phenomenon called "punk-rock"?
Obviously it has been; the Jam has just completed its fourth US tour, and each one was slightly bigger and better received than the last. They are still not enormously popular here – definitely a cult item – but it doesn't really worry them. They may even prefer it this way.
Things have changed quite a bit since that first visit in mid-'77, and the Jam has changed too. They are no longer teenagers; the suits and ties are gone; nobody seriously calls them Who clones anymore; and, strangely enough, they now display more of an affinity for punk ideals than they were willing to admit back when it would have been vogue to do so. Also, they are now indisputably one of the most successful bands in the UK, which allows them to do pretty much what they want with a minimum of compromise. In talking to Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler one senses a strong commitment to values formulated in the maelstrom that was 1977 London. A listen to All Mod Cons or the new Setting Sons affirms that the Jam is in it for more than a good time.
If All Mod Cons displayed the Jam in full bloom after two good but flawed slices of high-energy attack ('In the City' and 'This Is the Modern World'), then Setting Sons is the Jam fully aware of their capabilities and seeing how far they can stretch them. The focal point, of course, is Weller, who writes and sings nearly all the songs; though the band is by no means solely his vehicle, he clearly does most of the steering. I spoke briefly with bassist Foxton and drummer Buckler at Polydor's London office, then caught up with guitarist Weller at the bar of the Holiday Inn (where else?) in Cherry Hill, New Jersey a couple of hours before the first gig of the recent American jaunt.
First order of business was to sate my curiosity about Setting Sons, an album which, like All Mod Cons, drops vague hints of thematic continuity without actually supplying a thread to connect the clues. The record conjures up a decaying Britain, using military images and suggestions of shattered lives and careers. Needless to say, it's not a fun record, which doesn't seem to matter to British listeners, but is almost guaranteed to turn off the average American radio programmer.
So, I asked Weller, is Setting Sons a concept album? Well, it is and it isn't.
"Originally, there were four or five songs which were going to be linked up. At one time I was thinking of doing a play for TV. I was going to base the album around that idea until I received letters from a few kids asking if it was true we were doing a concept LP, because, they said, the last thing the world needs is another concept album. I thought about it and realized they were right; concept albums go along with Jethro Tull and bands like that. I had written four or five songs for it already which I did use, so while it's not quite a concept album it has a sort of ambiguous theme running through it.
"Initially it was about three school friends who are really close but get split up through a civil war or whatever. Two go off to different extremes – one a leftist, the other a rightist – and one abstains through all of it. That's it very, very vaguely. I never articulated the whole story. It ends with a meeting on the wasteland, the old playground, after the war. It's still very vague."
That said, it's not difficult to pick out the songs written for the show: 'Thick As Thieves', the epistolary 'Burning Sky', 'Wasteland', the single 'Eton Rifles', and possibly 'Little Boy Soldiers', the album's showpiece of experimentation. The last is a chilling anti-war narrative which skirts moods drastically three or four times within its three minutes and features Bruce Foxton's cello debut. What's important is that all five songs stand on their own, even without the thematic concept. Setting Sons is similar to All Mod Cons in this sense, but Weller feels that Cons was more successful in making a statement without tying all the songs together. It's still his favorite Jam LP.
Does Weller feel as pessimistically about the future as Setting Sons would indicate?
"To say yes maybe comes off as being a bit contradictory; why carry on being in a group if you feel that bleak? Actually, a lot of the album stems from what I was reading around the time I wrote it. It's going to sound really clichéd, but I reread 1984. Some of the press in England called 'Eton Rifles' [in which a couple of would-be revolutionaries take a beating from the status quo] a defeatist song, but to me it's like what O'Brien says to Winston: 'Nothing's ever been any different.' We all go through perpetual motions and I don't see how we can break out of it. I might be completely wrong but I don't think so.
"I don't fancy the thought of dying on some Russian – or American – battlefield. I saw a documentary on TV before I left where they interviewed some average American kids and they were so fiercely patriotic it was frightening. It was totally blind, and I can't understand it after Vietnam, where thousands of lives were just thrown away for the cause of democracy. We've been speaking to people since we've been here and we keep hearing how we have to break America. To me, the point is not just to break in America, but in Russia and China as well; not to sell records but to get the message across. I don't know much about older people, but I'm sure young people are nearly all the same and none of them really want to die. A band like us is only ever going to achieve anything if we can get into those sorts of places, go everywhere in the world."
Can a rock band ever be more than just entertainment? Will people really listen to Weller's message?
"While I've got no romantic visions about it, I still think it's possible," he admitted.
As for breaking in America – an important topic to English bands – the Jam agrees to a man that while it would be nice, they won't tailor their music or compromise their Britishness to do so.
"This'll be our fourth time in America and nothing's really changed," Bruce Foxton explained "Neither our attitudes nor our writing have altered. But there are a few thousand kids out there who want to see us and that's the prime reason for going. In a way, playing in America revitalizes us, makes us work a little bit harder. When we do a gig in Britain there's a tendency to come out knowing in the back of our minds that we've already won the audience. In the States we have to work for it."
Weller concurred and added that Setting Sons was "more British than anything we've ever done before." He then vented his anger at British bands who have "Americanized" – the Clash in particular. "London Calling's a cop-out. It is for British people anyway. It's alright for Americans; I suppose you're getting a decent blast of music, but it's a cop-out as far as we're concerned."
Weller's current favorite bands are Joy Division, the Skids and the Slits. "I admire their attitudes. That's what I'm into. You've got to give people credit for trying to be different. At least they're not trying to be 'rock 'n' roll'. I'm not either; that's just dead to me. I'm much more into attitudes. I was talking to someone the other day who went to see the Slits in New York and was disappointed because they were basically incompetent. But what does that matter? It's all getting away from that original punk ideal that anyone can do it. Of course that's true: anyone can play guitar. You don't have to be someone special. I'll admit there's a certain amount of pretentiousness in some of these bands but at least they try to do something different, which is admirable. We work in an orthodox framework – melodies, tangible lyrics even the performance is orthodox, I guess – but at the root of it all we're still trying to do something different."
Did he think American audiences had different expectations from rock bands than British audiences? "Generally, I think American audiences are more into that rock 'n' roll thing; 'yeah, let's just rock out.' It's more accessible to them. I can't knock them for it. After all, you've got your culture and we've got ours. It's just not my scene."
Is the orthodox rock 'n' roll band on its way out? "I'd like it to be, but it's not, is it? The Clash and bands like that are perpetuating that type of stuff. I used to be a fan of theirs, but ever since they started getting it together in America every picture of them you see is this quasi-American gangster sort of stuff and there are all the Americanisms in their music."
If Weller feels the Clash have strayed from the ideals they were instrumental in creating, his own belief in them seems stronger today than it was. "From the outset I believed in it, but it didn't really apply to me because I could already play guitar. Up until that time, you could never hope to play like Clapton or be as tight and perfect a band as Wings. With punk, though, you didn't need to."
Maybe, then, he had a lot more in common with the punks than he was willing to let on at the time? "Probably...er...well, a lot of that was for the benefit of the press. Actually, it totally changed my writing from ballads and love songs by showing me that you could do more with a song than that. Of course, love songs are still important if they're honest. Up until that time I just concentrated on melody and didn't really care about lyrics. I do think the love songs I write are honest. They're what I experience; they're not just written for the sake of it."
Another aspect of Weller's songwriting that has surfaced over the past couple of albums is his ability to create story-songs about specific characters – the type of song one associates with Ray Davies, an obvious influence on Weller's writing.
"I think all my characters are people I know. It gets a bit close to home sometimes when you write like that. You could get upset and hurt people. Fortunately, nobody's confronted me on anything yet. That's mainly because I haven't said in interviews who the songs are about. It's not as if I'm running anyone down, though. If anything, I'm standing up for them."
Where to from here? Will the Jam take a still more experimental path on the next album?
"The only thing we're thinking of at the moment is doing maybe 16 really short tracks and making some sort of musical collage with hardly any gaps between them. Costello just did 20 tracks. Maybe we'll do some instrumentals. We don't want to go over the top experimenting, but we do want to create something new while working in the traditional framework by breaking it down and reshaping it."
The Jam's latest (British) 45 – "a double non-A-side," according to Bruce Foxton – includes a three-track live bonus single with the first pressing. 'Going Underground' and 'The Dreams of Children' comprise the single, and 'Away from the Numbers', 'Modern World' and 'Down at the Tube Station at Midnight' the bonus disc. Weller called 'The Dreams of Children' "a totally new sound for us." Upon completion of the American tour the band headed straight back to the studio for a new album, which they hope to have out towards the end of the summer.
If and when the Jam attains the American success their music deserves, one thing is for sure: they'll have done it their way – without compromise and not as part of any trend.
"I'd sooner never be successful in America than end up known as 'that great new wave band from England' or something like that," Weller states. "That would mean nothing to me at all."
He sounded like he meant it.
Dave Schulps, Trouser Press, May 1980