How To Not Break In America (Because You Don't Want To)
ON A DAMP, dank Sunday lunchtime the three pasty-faced, unhealthy-looking members of the Jam sit in an uncomfortably functional room in a nondescript London hotel close to Oxford Circus, and consider their new album, Sound Affects.
On this latest long-player, the simplicity and directness of which is epitomized by the melodic minimalism of the ‘Start’ single already lifted from it, guitarist Paul Weller, bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler have once again worked with producer Vic Coppersmith, who by now appears a major force in the establishing of the busy, bleak sometimes violent sounds of the Jam: for the next time the group record, though, says Foxton, they are searching for an 8-track studio, in which they may well produce themselves.
Recorded at London's Town House in brief bursts of studio activity in between tour dates, this fifth Jam LP took three months in all to make, Setting Sons, their last album, only took two.
"We never really go into the studio with 12 songs, all arranged, all rehearsed," explains the group's songwriter Paul Weller, the normally thick tones of his South London accent rendered even more rasping by a dose of flu, "If we did that we could probably do an LP in two weeks.
"As it is, of late we've been going into the studio with vague ideas and odd bits of song structures, and worked the song out in the studio. It's mainly a lack of time, though, that makes us do it like that. The actual music is always created in the studio, though I may already have written some lyrics...It's not the ideal way of recording or the way we'd really like to do it – it's just down to present circumstances.
"Obviously the first album was just the stage act we were playing at that time, which we just put down on vinyl."
"Because we knew all the material," adds Buckler, "we did that one in about 11 days."
"I thought Setting Sons was a bit too slick, a bit too polished," offers Weller. "I don't think it's a really true sound...although it was certainly never intended to be a rock opera," he grimaces, "which is one impression I've heard bandied about of it."
Earlier this year, the Jam played their fourth brief foray of American dates. Unlike most British bands, though, the Jam express no great desire to conquer the States.
"I get very negative about America," says Weller. "In fact, I tend to go over the top about it and generalize much too much. The main thing, though, is that I just don't see the same enthusiasm there. It's so totally different from Europe, and it just becomes so frustrating, because it seems that we've just wasted a lot of time there when we could have been playing to a much more positive response to audiences elsewhere.
"I just get the impression that the majority of Americans just want to be entertained, they seem to need to be coaxed in some way into liking us. They don't seem to see much difference between rock 'n' roll and TV entertainment."
As are most of the post-'76 rockers towards their contemporaries, Weller is derisively dismissive of the Stateside triumphs of such competitors as the Pretenders and the Clash. "Just play their records," he barks gruffly of the Clash, "and you'll see why they did it in the States: 'Train In Vain' sounds like something by Nils Lofgren." Perhaps he should take some comfort in the knowledge that the Clash consider the music of the Jam to be equally comtemptible. Bruce Foxton, possibly with some accuracy, dismisses the Police as "just like another Bee Gees."
"I'm beginning to question the whole point of going to America, though," continues Weller. "Why, after you crack England, are you expected to immediately go and break America? It's a bit of a joke: why not Russia or Red China? Pete Townshend said that the reason people go and play in America is that they're the only ones who can speak English. But that's rubbish: the reason bands go there is just for money. Nothing else
"The Jam have got much more in common with Europe. I suppose it should really, because the environment our music is coming out of is European."
The band shakes its collective head in amused, bemused denial at the suggestion that the group enjoy a sizable success in Europe. "We've got a good following in Sweden." Bruce Foxton shrugs his often tense shoulders. "But everywhere else we seem to be regarded as a bit of a cult group. Japan was good, too – we went there earlier in the year – but there also we're only on that sort of level."
In the UK, the Jam are certainly the most popular of all the credible New Wave Brit Rockers, consistently knocking up number one single hits. Considering the orgasmic reaction the group had received at the Rainbow Theatre the previous evening on the first of the four London dates they were playing to climax their British tour, it is surprising to have to realize the group's large success is limited essentially to this island.
The group seems almost abashed, though, when I mention the degree of reverence with which they are regarded by their British fans – on the tube home from the Rainbow, the train had been crammed full of kids, many clad in the not always desirable late 70's mod style, the blame for which movement many lay about the neck of the 60's-obsessive Weller, metaphorically rocking the carriages with their choir-like renditions of such appropriate Jam near-anthems as ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’.
"That English following's taken four years to get that large." offers Paul. "We've been building it since 1977. Recently it has suddenly got a lot bigger and more fanatical – probably because of the number ones – but really it's the result of a slow build-Up over the years. Mind you, we've always had a really strong following: even when it was only 400 people those 400 were a really powerful force.
"We get loads of mods coming to our gigs," he adds, "but there's loads of other kids also...Really, despite what's been claimed, that New Mod thing that happened last year was nothing to do with us. It really came out of a few pubs down the East End of London."
"When we were doing the album at the Town House," laughs Rick, "I was up there on my own one day and I heard a noise in the corridor outside the studio: when I looked out I found the place had been invaded by about 50 mods. They'd broken in through the door and were swarming all over the place. When they found which studio we were in, though, they just seemed satisfied and said they were going down the pub.
"They asked me to come with them for a drink but I figured I couldn't really get through about 50 pints, so I just carried on mixing tracks."
"I thought that mod thing was alright," continues Paul, "It gave a bit of new blood to the music. People said it was all very contrived, but I don't think it was from the kids' point of view – It's not their fault all those poxy shops filled with crappy clothes started up.
"But, anyway, there'll be something else in six months' time. That's the way it seems to go at the moment."
Although the Jam were spring-boarded to their current success by the rapid emergence of punk at the end of 1976, the group had already been in existence for nearly three years, although its live work was mainly restricted to dates in the group's home town of Woking, just to the south of London. In retrospect then, does it seem that the group genuinely was a part of the Punk Movement?
"I certainly felt part of it, yeah!" nods Paul. "We didn't call ourselves A Punk Band, because there didn't seem any point – there doesn't seem much point in any of those labels. But I still felt part of it."
"And really," butts in Rick, "it was really so much more than just a fashion thing. You could go and see a band that wasn't 35 years old and playing music that'd been around for the past five years. It was definitely an alternative that people could very much relate to."
Paul Weller has no doubts whatsoever of the place of Punk in the history of rock 'n' roll: "Punk was the most important musical development in our time – certainly! In fact, it's a pity for really young kids today that things seem to have got away from that sense of unity that was around then – now it's all this splintered tribalism.
"It's a shame, really, that something like 2-Tone didn't stay in the clubs for a bit longer, but it did rise very quickly to the big venues."
Although the more politic Buckler sees them as "a good alternative, although I don't personally like it," Paul dismisses the electronic industrial chic purveyed by outfits like the Human League and Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark as "a load of fuckin' shit."
"The whole 'art' thing that goes with it," Weller expands, "has got very little to do with the experience of the average kid. It's like all those Liverpool bands – there's some little Scousers that follow us around, and I ask them, 'What do you think of these new Liverpool bands like Echo And The Bunnymen?' And they replied, 'They're a load of art school wankers!'
"In fact, I think a lot of the music made by those bands is very good, but the feeling I get off of them is very elitist.
"The bands I like are usually bands I can also trust – people like the Ruts and the Skids: they seem pretty trustworthy."
Although when initially revealed, the concept of the Jam being managed by Paul Weller's father seemed both curious and constricting, the group have had the last laugh. As all around them bitter financial feuding continues apparently indefinitely between New Wave groups and their management companies, Paul can contentedly comment: "Well, at least we know we haven't been ripped off."
Over the past year, indeed, Paul himself has launched his own financial, though artistically-based, venture: Riot Stories is the name of the, small, near-underground publishing house he is attempting to establish – contrary to reports elsewhere he has not wound it up, but is investigating cheaper, more immediate forms – poetry books in the form of fanzines seem for the moment to hold favor in the group's songwriter's head.
Though he quotes Shelley on the sleeve of the new album, and expresses a desire to study the works of English mystical poet William Blake, Paul cites the often dauntingly precise, sometimes deadeningly pretentious, currently unfashionable Liverpool poets like Brian Patten, Roger McGough and Adrian Henri – 60's British simulacrums of America's 50's Beat poets – as his favourite wordsmiths. Perhaps one should bear that in mind when considering the lyrics of the punningly titled Sound Affects.
Paul Weller is a great lover of the writings of George Orwell, though he disputes the currently fashionable belief that in 1984 the writer was delivering a prophecy of how he believed the world would be by that year: "I thought always that it was much more a consideration of all the flaws of an apparently Utopian society – because that's what the state of things Orwell's writing about has developed to. It's just a very hard-edged look at what such a society would really be like – unlike' the romantic way that people like Aldous Huxley saw it."
Equally, adds Paul, he sees no hope for the future of the world in the outmoded political dogma to which both the Left and Right adhere. The sorting out of political problems, he believes, can only be arrived at by people sorting out themselves.
"Until quite recently," he explains, "I was a convinced atheist. I completely abhorred the concept of God and the Church. Now, though, I'm quite convinced that a lot of the problems in the world are down to people not believing In God – whether it be a Christian or a Buddhist or a Muslim God...Although I'm sure that He's sitting up there and laughing at all those ridiculous re-born Christians and those Californian religious sects.
"That's the trouble: organized religion always seems to get corrupted – though it should be up to the people themselves not to let it get like that!"
Chris Salewicz, Creem, March 1981