Try calling Paul Weller of the Jam a punk rocker, and finds out how icy a cold stare can be. The intense young man who fulfills the Townshend role in England's only Mod new wave band has very definite ideas about the Jam, and punkdom plays no part therein.
From clothes to musical arrangements, everything the Jam does is precise, careful and natty. Mohair suits do not breed revolution. Fortunately, Weller and his pair of conservative looners, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, have the musical aptitude and requisite R'n'R energy to stand up as one of the better remnants of the new wave.
Placing the Jam presents a bit of a problem; everything about them seems firmly locked into a 1965 time warp, with only subtle indications that more than ten years have passed. At first contact, the image and style is a bit suspect; after all, Weller was a scant seven years old when 'My Generation' was released, but there's a plausible explanation for that. Despite their lack of personal experience, the Jam have successfully managed to live life as the now-super-stars did during their formative years as art school Mods. With basically the same inclination towards teenage camaraderie that drove your Townshends, Bowies, Davies's and Ronnie Woods into Carnaby Street with pound notes to buy the latest styles, Weller and company have adopted the sounds, styles, tastes and outlook to their own purposes. And it works without being hokey or fake.
Judging by the Jam's debut album, In the City, the question of honesty arises as a major stumbling block to liking them. Reviewing the album in TP 21, I wrote, "It may take a while for the group to develop an identity of its own." The rave reviews in the British press did little to brighten the picture as they capitalized on the political conservatism of the band, raising questions about the fascist organization in Britain and its relationship to something or another. After seeing the group live and having a chance to query Weller on a few points, I like them a lot more; they're honest about what they do, even if that makes them anachronisms. They don't care; they play it like they like it. If nothing else, they're sincere.
For Weller, the Beatles were what it was all about as a kid. He grew up in a London suburb, and never had a chance to see concerts. The first time he was ever in the Marquee Club was when the Jam played there. He's never seen the Who, and doesn't like anything they've done in years. What he does like is Tamla/Motown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and those nonpareil art rockers, the Creation. He also gives a lot of credit to a few American pop groups of the '60s: Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Monkees, and the like. Otherwise, American music leaves him cold. It's a strange feeling, discussing dead bands with someone less familiar with their recorded repertoire, when he's the one who's supposed to be ripping them off. It's less disquieting than indicative of Weller's abiding honesty He's heard some of the music of an era, it appeals to him and he wants to play it Fine. Hard to believe, but ultimately acceptable.
The three Jammers are articulate and in tense. At an ill-conceived press conference in New York they fielded questions from local journalists, defended themselves against fashion cynics who found their matched black and white suits (and skinny ties) a bit hokey, and did their best to keep serious while responding to queries about Rotosound strings and their Mod/Rocker allegiance. Up close, Weller is just like a real person, much more a fan than a star. Quite a contrast from the poseurs that populate the punkier groups. Image aside, Weller has no fights to pick with anybody.
Crowded into the small stage of CBGB's the validity of the Jam as a high-energy aggro band stands out and up. Far from being a cheap imitation of those glorious days of the Who ("Live at the Marquee – Maximum R&B!"), the Jam possess all the spunk and exuberance (and talent) they need to justify their continued existence. Sporting matching Rickenbackers, Weller and Foxton jump around the stage nervously in non-stop motion, making a lot more melodic noise than can usually be obtained from two instruments. There are no holes in the Jam's sound, as Weller is constantly working neat little riffs into his rhythm guitar playing, just the way you-know-who did in the old days. The role of lone strings has been approached in many different ways, but Weller has chosen the most challenging route, and succeeds at it. (In the Jam's early stages, a few years back, there was a second guitarist, but Weller chose to go it alone after a while.) Foxton has a busy, loping bass style that can drive hard when called upon to. His bottom adds a lot to Weller's top, if that makes any sense. Buckler is a qualified drummer boy, maintaining the sort of non-stop drum attack so important in a trio. They all push themselves with intense concentration in a high-speed display that doesn't let up: song titles are shouted out hoarsely in between songs, with no chance to sit back in your chair before the song begins.
Live, the vocals come off much better than on record, where Weller and Foxton both sound like foremen barking orders to workers in a steel mill. I shudder to think how good the Jam would sound if they had a vocalist with the least semblance of a pop voice. Instrumentally they are tight on stage as well as in the studio, something many British punk bands find distinctly offensive. The other limiting factor that damages the Jam's records is the scratchy production that more than fulfills its distortion quota. Nonetheless, Weller has written some excellent songs that point to his being a potentially important pop-rock composer in years to come. Tunes like 'Away from the Numbers' on the first album, or 'Tonight at Noon' on the new one show a flair for melody and an interesting lyrical sense that encompasses teen euphoria, frustration, political matters and social questions rarely explored by today's songwriters. His songs tend to be a bit oblique at times, either by obscure references ('Uncle Jimmy' is about British Prime Minister James Callaghan) or incomprehensible singing
As of December, the Jam's catalog includes two albums and a trio of singles containing non-LP material. There isn't much in the way of progression between the two albums, although the addition of Bruce Foxton as a songwriter gives This is the Modern World a bit more variety. For all their archival quality, there isn't much to recommend the group's readings of oldies like 'Slow Down' (on In the City), 'Midnight Hour' (Modern World) or 'Sweet Soul Music' (45). I can't help thinking that it's the vocals, but that may not be the hangup.
Anyway, it's great to see a band with a unique consciousness, even if it belongs to another era. Groups like the Creation are just as valid models for young bands as the Velvet Underground, the Beatles or the Stones. There's no point in bickering over who has a better influence. Repetition has always been the name of the game, so there's nothing wrong with the Jam making like the Who or the Artwoods or Birds. It's up to them.
Ira Robbins, Trouser Press, December 1978