The Jam: Direction Reaction Creation​

IF WE ACCEPT pop as the religion of youth in the last quarter of the 20th century, then there can be no more striking example of musical fundamentalism than The Jam. Either you were on the bus, or stranded at the depot.

The Jam were glorified with the desperate fervour of religious zealots. Their leader witnessed his own deification then subsequent crucifixion, and was to endure consignment to the wilderness before his recent resurrection.

One song on this mammoth 117-track breakdown of The Jam's recorded output encapsulates the frustration that finally compelled Weller to trash his initial exercise of music as an instrument for personal and social change. "I was hoping we'd make real progress/But it seems that we have lost the power," he sings on 'Running On The Spot' from The Jam's valedictory 1982 album The Gift. "We're running on the spot/Always have, always will/We're just the next generation of emotionally crippled." Though the last verse evinces hope of sorts ("Intelligence should be our first weapon/And stop revelling in rejection"), the overwhelming mood is one of resignation and, indeed, anger.

In the beginning, of course, it had been oh so different. On their early records, The Jam's aspirations extended little further than scraping together enough cash through the week to explode in an amphetamined blaze of lust for life at the weekend. 1977's In The City barrels along with little grace but considerable charm, its splenetic naivety sufficiently atoning for the lumpen lyricism and uninspiring R&B-derived tub-thumpery. Amidst the blatant homages to 'My Generation'-period Who, 'Non-Stop Dancing' is a vivid testimony to Weller's nascent grasp of soul power: "I don't mind other guys trying to compete," he gruffly serenades his girl, "'Cos our love is as strong as the beat – when we're dancing." This oblivion-bound racket ensured The Jam tapped a seam of empathy amidst the suburban working-class. You didn't need to subscribe to the mod credo when music like the brilliant second single, 'All Around The World', was so mindlessly pogo-compatible.

All of which explains why the second Jam LP in a year was such a failure, even in its own narrowly-defined terms. This Is The Modern World was nothing but a better-recorded retread of In The City, and 20 years on feels as depressing as one might expect a bunch of embarrassingly mediocre musical clichés, club-footed polemic and Bruce Foxton songs to be. Few could have imagined that The Jam were about to ascend the steep achievement curve. All Mod Cons was and remains a remarkable album, especially given its predecessor's shortcomings. As a quintessential expression of urban paranoia, 'Down In The Tube Station At Midnight' has perhaps been blunted by familiarity, but its eloquence remains undeniable, while the grubby-fingered class invective of 'Mr Clean' ("I hate you and your wife/And if I get the chance I'll fuck up your life") is deliciously ripe even today. And hindsight's reductive gaze renders 'To Be Someone', where Weller first acknowledges the ironies inherent in his position, all the more resonant.

It would take Weller 15 years and Wildwood to get anywhere near All Mod Cons. Indeed, Direction, Reaction, Creation suggests The Jam made only one truly great album, and post-All Mod Cons their best work appears on singles. Between March and October 1979 they released 'Strange Town', 'When You're Young' and 'Eton Rifles', an incandescent pop triad, yet the subsequent album Setting Sons was a portentous, if brave, failure. 1980's Sound Affects was a mostly successful attempt to forge a more stylised Jam blueprint; cleaner, sharper and more reflective, yet even its triumphs – 'Man In The Corner Shop', 'That's Entertainment' – would be eclipsed by two songs which emerged from the following year.

'Funeral Pyre' and 'Tales From The Riverbank' represent The Jam at their peak. The former obliterates the claim that Weller was merely adept at assimilating the past, a thunderous rampage of unhinged vitriol directed both at the dire lay of the political land in 1981 ("And as I was standing by the edge, I could see the faces of those who led pissing themselves laughing") and, even more pointedly, his own existential confusion. As the song concludes with Rick Buckler's apocalyptic drums firing off in all directions, Weller's voice re-enters like the echo of a spent young man: "I just can't grow up to meet the demands". It's stunning, but 'Tales From The Riverbank' is even better, a Byrdsian lament for the same Golden Country dreamt of by Winston Smith in Orwell's 1984, clearly a key text for Weller at this point: "Now life is too critical, life is too cynical/We lose our innocence, we lose our very souls."

Despite the preceding clarion call of 'A Town Called Malice', by the time of The Gift you have to suspect Weller knew the game was up. Its attempts at experimentation fail – albeit gloriously in the case of 'Trans-Global Express', abjectly with the steel-drum farrago 'The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong' – and its best moments are the desolately lovely 'Carnation' and the aforementioned 'Running On The Spot'. That their singles now routinely entered the charts at Number One merely emphasised the fact that The Jam had become just another facet of the corporate pop machine. Weller bowed out honourably with 'Beat Surrender', before getting his fingers thoroughly furnaced with The Style Council and retreating to more prosaic, personal battlegrounds in his solo career.

Direction, Reaction, Creation amounts to a weighty legacy for those who choose to trawl its far depths. The final CD of demos will be of interest only to the most devout disciples, with only a few Anthology-style revelations (the middle eight of 'Beat Surrender' appears during 'Solid Bond In Your Heart'). One suspects Paul Weller regards its existence – along with the impending reissue of all the individual albums – with a vexed equanimity: this is an aural tombstone to a talent still very much alive, a lesson in ancient history. (8/10)

Keith Cameron, New Musical Express, May 1997