LAST MONTH the Jam travelled to America for a short promotional tour, playing dates in established new wave centers, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston and New York City, in that order.
The ROCKER caught up with the band in San Francisco the morning after their first show had been cancelled because of technical problems with the electric system. Following the interview they played 2 energy-packed sets to crowded and enthusiastic houses. Their repertoire consists of short (average length: 3 minutes), faster-than-light songs focused around simple, danceable melodies with an absolute dearth of any kind of instrumental or vocal excess. No one sits when the Jam plays.
The band calls its music "environmental music." But don't expect to see them at a Save the Whales Benefit with Joni and Jackson. The environment that the Jam – Paul Weller, 19, Rick Buckler, 22, and Bruce Foxton, 22 – is talking about is the deteriorating economic and social situation in England and the desperate straits that working class youth in that country finds itself.
"We write about things that affect our lives – our environment, where we live," explains Paul. "That's why we have 'Bricks and Mortar' on the album. Where we come from, they're knocking down all the houses and they don't seem to be doing anything about building it back up again. There's all this desolation. We have this new song called 'Standards' which is about people who make standards in life, who live by codes and expect to live that way. It's angry times we live in."
An angry band? Surely. But a political band? Well, that's a point of some controversy. Where the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy in the U.K.' and 'God Save the Queen' were sending shock waves through every facet of English life, the Jam were seen by many to be ready to play good boy Beatles to the Pistols' bad boy Stones. They dress in Mod suits and ties. They look neat and washed, almost like you wouldn't mind letting 'em go out with your daughter. (If Johnny Rotten came around you'd lock your wife and daughter – and even your old virgin aunt and your son – up in a room with no windows and stand guard with a shotgun.) And where the Pistols had a record cover out with a safety pin in the Queen's nose, the Jam got media attention for playing some shows in celebration of the Royal Jubilee.
"We don't fire cannons and sing the national anthem every morning we wake up," Weller reassured us. "The Queen doesn't affect our lives either way so we don't bother knocking her. We don't try to be political – just environmental. I don't like the word 'politics.' At the moment – in England – it's a very trendy word. It's very fashionable to be a 'political band.' We don't want any of that sort of shit. The press puts a bigger social significance on the New Wave movement than there is. I suppose that's natural, 'cause there is something social attached to it – a reflection of society."
"We used the Jubilee," adds Buckler, "to play 3 areas in London where there are no venues, where the kids would never get a chance to see us. We used the Jubilee thing so the cats would say, 'OK, these cats wanna do something for the Jubilee, so let's let 'em use the town hall. That's why we done it."
"We realized 150 quid at each of the 2 gigs we did," declares Weller, smiling.
Yet, even a quick listen to material like 'Away from the Numbers' or 'Bricks and Mortars', will show that though the Jam may not be putting out an explicit call to the barricades, they're not exactly singing about 'Hotel California' either. Their songs question many of the basic bureaucratic precepts upon which Western society rests. Their anger is the anger which rock'n'roll has been expressing since the '50's. They rebel against the powers that oppress them in their lives – police, school, faceless civil servants, parents, alienated desolation. They are young; they are hungry; and they are angry. But – more than anything else – they are a fine, traditional rock'n'roll band. In fact, they're good enough – as songwriters and performers – that sooner or later you'll have to ask the inevitable question, 'Can the band still be angry when they start to make it?' (I mean, don't forget, the Stones were an angry band once too.) And Weller was ready with the only honest answer possible.
"Dunno," he admitted, unblinking. But one thing he does know, and that's that he'll never be another Freddie Mercury. "There's people in rock – proof that you ain't gotta be like that – John Lennon and Pete Townsend and Dylan and David Bowie. They've never shit outright and they couldn't give a fuck about what they've got to live up to – artistically or whatever. They're people first. And they're real artists, true artists."
But right now, with just one lp out (and one about to be released) the anger's still apparent, and it's translating exuberantly into the gritty rawness of their no-frills, high energy rock'n'roll. They don't want to call it punk; they don't want to call it new wave; they want to call it rock'n'roll. Period. "Our music's been done before," elucidates Weller. "I mean, there are ties with the past. There's a new awareness now, though. It's a non-descriptive emotion and attitude. We wanna rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll is an attitude. It's not really caught in any time span. True rock'n'roll is simple – 2 or 3 guitars and a set of drums and some good songs and that's it. It's not technicality."
Although the new wave bands in America are just names in fanzines to the Jam ("We know about the Ramones and we met the drummer from Blondie; he seemed OK."), they share some common problems, one of which is conservative format radio shying away from their music. "We got Radio 1, 2, 3, and 4," explains Weller. "Radio 1 is the main thing – that's real pop-ish sound. They only play us after certain hours – after all the kids are asleep. It's run by the BBC. They're afraid we'll scare the housewives; they'll drop the dishes. They play all this middle of the road crap like Abba and Osmonds and all that sorta shit – all very nice."
And if that sounds familiar, the problem of where to play seems universal as well. "It's a lot cheaper to run a disco. You don't have to pay a band. Disco music is the main thing in England. Most of the worst fucking shit comes from here. If the kids are happy enough – or stupid enough – just to go on dancing to their disco records and be totally brainwashed...it's really up to them. It's their choice. I mean, we don't wanna brainwash them, or we'd be as bad as the Disco Industry. We never force ourselves on the people. If they take it – great; if not – too bad: they lose."
Howie Klein, New York Rocker, November 1977