Music Machine, London

DOZING AT the back of the lower layer of the multi-tiered Music Machine I couldn't help wondering what it is to be charming, chillingly nostalgic and contemporary. That sounds like a combination of Peter Gabriel and Julie Andrews.

But no! Lo This is The Jam, says the survey, and who am I to argue? One who fears the street, who frowns at suits, who abhors witless sloganeering.

Who, indeed?

The Jam onstage. A lot of space, for leaping and roaming. Abrasive and systematic lights, bouncing off and brashly pampering three strictly garbed stiff-limbed musicians who grasp and grope polished, sparkling instruments. Tautly animated, wilfully anguished. The Jam's unyielding antics depress – barely elaborated-upon standard rock choreography delivered with humourless, almost weary, cool.

As with all successful rock groups their show is primarily about effect, impact and assault – rigidly rehearsed and numbing.

The Jam are cold, old fashioned – and enormously effective.

Their's is the plodding world: bright, clear, nothing to fear. Clipped tales of decay, destruction, viciousness and violence sound as distant and vacuous as the World Service news. All the appealing abstractions zealously attributed to The Jam – power, passion, poetry – are at best feeble frameworks.

They're a shadow of what it's claimed they are (and purport to be), such shallowness is amply disguised live by their major asset – artificial presence. Hollow myth helps, too. Look hard and see right through them.

Their songs – some singles some not, a half hook and a careful slogan usually the distinction – were rammed out smooth and established. Forceful chords, neat bass, specific drums, raucously apt vocals, it's a dense sound, with little colour but much detail. Their earnest, ritualistic ditties lack, due to contrivance and pride, any fun or frivolity, and thus any actual substance, or at least something that seems proper projected with all the empty extravagance that is the Jam show.

The crude seduction of the stage show is an odd way to present their fastidiously-serious brutal ballads, but then The Jam ultimately are confused and contradictory, disciplined only in dress and musicianship.

I looked for might, tenderness, insight. What did I get? Blast, flash, debris, emptiness, no fun. I got wary parody. The Jam don't stretch imagination, they suffocate it. The Jam's reputation is the dots of an intriguing ideal (a majestic, lyrical power trio) joined ridiculously prematurely.

Where do The Jam go from here? Wherever they're sent? They just get better? They can only get better.

The Gang of Four, using the same instruments, proved the potential and genuine power of rock with a short, subtly-disorientating set crammed with alert, evocative songs that dripped with mood and atmosphere without resorting to drowning lights, sexually orientated pantomime and fancy footwear. Their songs scratched, stretched, absorbed, as delightfully deep as you always read the Pop Group's were.

The austere, imaginative Gang of Four were absurdly refreshing next to the stale Jam. Their records are amongst dozens eagerly anticipated during the coming months. The Jam are a damaging diversion.

Paul Morley, New Musical Express, 6 January 1979