A Mod At 20 - Interview with Harry Doherty
Hope I die before I get old? The Jam's Paul Weller knows he can't write teenage anthems any more. HARRY DOHERTY sympathises.
ALL IN all, it was really quite a painless operation. The "moody", "difficult" Paul Weller is in approachable form, willing even, to volunteer the theme of the Jam's (tenative) new single.
"Like, y'know all this stuff that's goin' on now about UFOs an' that? I 'ave one of 'em landin' on earth, takin' a quick look about the place an' getting' out fast." He pauses for a second. "Christ, can you blame 'em?"
The story reflects Weller's new-found intellectual aspirations. He has, he feels, grown out of teenage anthems ('Time For Truth', 'In The Street Today', 'Standards'). It sounds absurd, but at 20 – he agonises over the passing of teens – Weller thinks he's 'too old".
RAK Studio, oddly sited in the middle of a Hampstead estate, is currently the Jam's favourite. This is where they recorded All Mod Cons (which has sold over 150,000 copies, qualifying for Silver) and it's where they're going to put down three or four new songs, one of which (they hope) will come out as a single in mid-February. 'Strange Town', the one they're working on now, is their first choice.
"I can smell gold already," producer Vic Smith declares as Paul Weller emerges from the recording booth having put down a guitar track. As the band have barely finished the backing track, one can only stand back in awe of Smith's spectacular sense of smell.
The Jam unconvincingly assert later that they're not too concerned with hit singles. Drummer Rick Buckler toes the party line and announces that he doesn't think they would like a number one single.
"Once you get a number one, what do you do next?" he plaintively enquires. The answer seems simple enough: try to get another. "You end up writing for the public at large." He requests that I speak to Paul about that.
Weller upholds Buckler's view. He'd much rather have a number one album. (Wouldn't they all?) "I don't care about singles," he shrugs.
There is a certain amount of apprehension about my presence; apparently the Jam felt that the MM had been sanctioning against them. A long history of downers, in fact. We were the paper which slammed All Mod Cons when everybody else was proclaiming it a contemporary masterpiece. And while All Mod Cons featured highly in critics' favourite albums for '78 in the other papers (NME placed it number two behind Bruce Springsteen's Darkness On The Edge Of Town), only Simon Frith and yours truly, out of 27 people, picked it as one of our ten. They had grounds, then, for supposing that they weren't exactly the darlings of MM.
The attitude was further illuminated recently when Weller reviewed the singles for us, adding in a brief note to the editor: "When are you bastards gonna do a proper serious feature on us?" You soon find that Weller has a mania about being taken seriously.
SO HERE we are Manager and dad ("Course I call 'im 'Dad'") John Weller is scooting about the studio attempting to find a location for our interview, eventually securing an upstairs office. To save time, he suggests that it might be wise to talk with Buckler and bass player Bruce Foxton while Paul is working on guitar overdubs.
The brief encounter with Buckler and Foxton serves only to emphasise the notion that the Jam is almost entirely Paul Weller's ball-game, although Foxton has risen to challenge Weller's authority occasionally. He wrote two songs on This Is The Modern World ('London Traffic' and 'Don't Tell Them You're Sane') but failed to make All Mod Cons, although a couple of his tunes were recorded.
"When we played them back, they were pretty boring, plus we've set our standards higher now. I was a bit put out, but I realised it was for the benefit of the group." Foxton admits to not being very prolific.
There is a general view of Buckler and Foxton as the fun-loving pair in the group, as opposed to the more introvert Weller who retreats, after gigs, to his hotel and girlfriend. The image, they maintain, is a trifle exaggerated, although essentially accurate.
"People started sayin' things like: 'Are you separated?'...and I suppose we are – we've gone more our own ways recently – but it works out even better," Foxton says. "There is a separation socially, but there's no separation on stage, where it all works."
John Weller mercifully interrupts the conversation to announce that Paul has finished, and could he have these two down to the studio to do some work? Buckler and Foxton are relieved that their bit of the interview has been abbreviated.
WELLER, I'D been told, is something of an unpredictable character, recently not given to talking much. When he did, he seemed prone to the occasional pretentious banality – like referring to the Jam's music as "pop art".
"I read something on some of the pop artists," he explains. "It was very similar to what we are doin'. They were just takin' everyday things, like washing machines, an' turnin' it into art. That is just basically what I feel that I'm doin' really, the same as Poly Styrene, takin' a situation like a tube station ('Down In The Tube Station At Midnight'), takin' an everyday experience and turnin' it into art."
There is a rather dramatic line in 'The Modern World': "I've learned to live by hate and fear, it's my inspiration drive." I ask him how true that is.
"I was talkin' about the mental hate that a lotta people suffer at school," he says. "The only thing I learned at school was to hate people an' be really bitter with people, like teachers. An' the more bitter you are, the easier it is to write."
Is it still an inspiration? "Nah. Now I suppose I have to take a more open view of things. I'm tryin' not to feed off that initial thing 'cos I'd just be writin' the same old songs over an' over again. My inspiration now is just by lookin' out the window every day."
IN THE studio, a couple of minutes later, Paul Weller makes a dramatic entrance, and – as if to assert his superiority – positions himself casually on a desk, chewing gum and dragging a fag. Buckler and Foxton sit meekly side by side on a settee across the room. A fraught-looking Weller immediately launches himself into conversation. Shy? You must be kidding.
"The trouble is that this All Mod Cons has proved to be...dunno...proved to be a bit of an albatross round our necks, typafing. I get paranoid now when I write songs, 'cos I think 'That's not up to standard', so I throw the song away. To me, like, the standard of songs on that album is so high that I throw a couple of songs away that maybe would be okay. Everyone's praisin' us and saying, 'Great album, but can they follow it?' – so I do tend to get paranoid about it. I think the best thing for us is to go back to doin' something really simple, even more simplistic than we've done in the past, towards the old R&B roots of the stuff we was doin'."
But why go back? If the progression is natural, shouldn't it be followed?
"Well, to me, takin' a really objective view of All Mod Cons, I would say that our next step is to advance even more, you know, which could be a bit silly really. We could end up soundin' like Genesis or somebody in three years' time. I wanna keep it simple all the time. But you're right, too. You can't suppress progression. I wouldn't suppress nothin', cos it's pointless."
I mention the obvious progressions on All Mod Cons and how it was practically a concept album. Weller agrees, informing me that there was a vague idea to string all the songs together, but seeing as the Who did it with Quadrophenia, he'd rather come up with something original.
"I'd like to do a concept album. The term has an awful sorta sound to it. It makes you think of Jethro Tull an' that, but I'd like to do something in that direction. I've been thinkin' of doin' a 45, you know...a concept single, havin' an A-side and then turn it over to the B-side and have a continuation."
'Down In The Tube Station At Midnight' was, in a sense, a concept single.
"It was more like a little play really. The words to it were like a poem, you know. I write a lotta stuff apart from actual song lyrics. That was a poem, and I put it to music. When we first started doin' it, I was thinkin' about makin' it like a TV theme, like a Sweeney. I was goin' to make it into like a vinyl play."
There were a lot of characters on All Mod Cons, people like 'David Watts' and 'Billy Hunt'. The situations you portray in songs are more complex, now.
"Yeah, but it's just that I think my songs have been takin' more of a general view. I mean, I can't write any more kids' anthems now, 'cos I'm 20 years old and you can't go on doin' that."
But 20 isn't old, I persist. Weller's retort is uncharacteristically emotional.
"It is to me, man, fuckin' 'ell. Once you're over 20, mate, you've had it. I can't go on writin' those type of songs. That'd just be lyin'."
Do you really believe that?
"Yeah, I mean, I felt the change, you know. I just felt so much older. You're not a kid any more. All the time you were under 20, like you were one of the kids an' it's great...but one has to face up to these things. I think that everybody must feel that, but they just don't want to admit it. It doesn't really bother me. Not too much. But now I've got to take a more general view, you know. I really like youth songs, really old classic youth songs, but I mean, it's just a lie to carry on writin' 'em."
That, I supposed, was the main difference between This Is The Modern World and All Mod Cons. Modern World was full of blatant "statements".
"That ('The Modern World') was a misunderstood song anyway, and a lot of the other songs were very personal. This one (All Mod Cons) is very much more general. I think you can get different age groups relating to 'em."
"That whole song was about all these sorta creeps who said that the Jam were derivative and 'not part of the contemporary scene' an' all that shit, so it's just a statement sayin', you know, 'We're just as much entrenched in the seventies as anyone else'."
That brought us to a subject I was intending to raise: its 1979, already, and the Jam are still thought of as a Sixties group.
"But you can't name one artist who's been totally original, you know. We was talking about it the other day and I could only think of one band that was totally original, an' that was the Pistols. An' then I thought about the 'In The City' riff which they nicked from us, for 'Holidays In The Sun'. So, you see, everybody steals.
"Everythings been done before, you know. How much further can you go? All this technical stuff today: The Beatles an' Pink Floyd were doin' that typafing in '67. As far as I'm concerned, the songs I write are about today, so that always pisses me off. Still does. The clothes I wear has nothin' to do with it. I dig these clothes, so that's it."
We talk a while about how Weller got into the mod image. He was eight years old when it was all happening, but maintains that he's into the "collective imagery of it all, the clothes and the music. People think I'm tryin' to put on some sorta front when they ask me about it." He wore the clothes to look different, but surely the clock has turned full circle again? It's not so flamboyant now to wear mod gear. In some cases, its the norm.
"Probably, yeah," he offers. "But it's not gonna affect me...I was here first. People put us down for being Sixties revivalists but we was doin' them clubs the same time as all the other bands, you know. I can use any chord sequence, no matter what period it comes from. No one's got a copyright on 'em, you know.
Most of the people who champion the Jam's cause refer constantly to the Sixties link.
"Yeah, that's true. I think that Charlie Murray, his review of the last LP in the NME was about the best piece of journalism we've had done on us, 'cos it was the first time that somebody had taken our lyrics seriously, which pleased me a lot. That was more important than any front pages we had in the past. But when it all boils down to it, it's the kids that buy our records and come an' see us that's really important.
"I think we're still representative of the kids. We still understand the kids, and vice versa. What I'm sayin' is that I can't go round writin' songs like 'I'm Still Young' – cliches and get away with it."
"Yeah, well, I don't think I'd ever do that. Like, we've dropped 'In The City' an' 'All Around The World'. I don't wanna be a Greatest Hits band. That's a deception. Our songs are still gonna be representative, and there are a lotta fans that are still gonna relate to 'em, like everyone related to 'Tube Station', but those early songs are now down on plastic for that period, like little vinyl photographs, and hopefully we'll have other greatest hits coming along to take their place."
I mention the early Jam image: the suits, the Union Jack on stage, the occasional rumblings of conservatism and monarchy, all combined to give them a right-wing identity.
"Nah! It wasn't right wing. I never thought it was right wing."
That was the impression.
"If that impression came across, it wasn't meant to 'cos I've got no allegiance to any fuckin' party. I hate all of 'em. I made that silly comment about votin' Conservative, right, and that was quite funny. It was all a bit of a joke. I was very annoyed 'cos there's a lotta kids who hang onto your every word, so you're influencing 'em – an' that's a bad thing, so I wouldn't make that type of statement again.
"I was just pissed off that their other bands were into this cosy thing of, you know, strict sorta left wing an' all that bullshit. I wanted to cause a bit of trouble between ourselves and other bands. An' I did. We received telegrams an' that. That's all we done it for, to get up their nose.
"The only reason the Union Jack was involved was 'cos it looks great on stage. That's the only reason I put it up there. The colours. You've got all the black and white, very negative, an' then you've got this flash of colour."
Influence is a power that is inevitable when a band is in an elevated position.
"Yeah, but all I'm sayin' is that I would use that power more wisely now. I think more about what I gotta say. I don't really wanna cram things down people's throats.
"The main reason that someone picks up a guitar is not to get across a political message. I don't ever believe that. That's a lie. You can do it but it's not the prime motive. The main reason you pick up a guitar is that you wake up one morning and you don't wanna go and work in a poxy factory. An' you can pick up more birds if you play in a group. That's the real truth of the matter. Anyone who says any different is a liar.
"You get a lot of these bands who moan about everything, but I regard myself in a lucky position, you know. I'd hate to be stuck in a factory from 8.30 til 5.30. This sounds corny, but I think it's good that kids who're stuck in that position have got some release with a band like us – or any other band."
I agree with Weller. One quickly became fed up with all those new brave people endlessly moaning and preaching but offering no solid alternative.
"Well, we done a lot of that as well, which was really stupid lookin' back, bitchin' about silly little things. I was thinkin' about this the other day, you know...all the bands that started off, once the competition thing started, slaggin' each other off – we done it, I'm not sayin' we didn't – an' really if all the bands had stuck together, it couldn't been so much bigger and so much more important. Everybody's talking now about...what is it?...oh yeah, the 'demise' of the new wave, an' in some ways it died as soon as all the bands got signed up. It was dead from that moment onwards."
It was inevitable that they would be signed up. But did the new wave have to die as a result?
"I don't think it had to happen, but that's when it did die. The moment you stick your name down on the contract, the whole thing's blown anyway. Everyone was tryin' to lie an' say 'We're not gonna get sucked in', but that's not the point. Even now, things could be a lot better. If all the bands got together and said 'I'll put some bread in and you put some bread in an' we'll start a club, we'll start a label' – but instead of that everyone just wants to boost their creditability by sayin': 'Look, I've done this first. Look, kids, I've stuck to my word', which is bullshit.
That's not what it's about. It's about unity."
Would you be willing to do something like that?
"Yeah. I'd do it tomorrow. If Strummer or someone came up and said: 'Yeah, let's do this', I'd do it. I'd love to do it. That would make it so much more meaningful. But no one's prepared to do that."
What sort of thing would you envisage?
"Well, a good club would make a difference, you know. There's nowhere really. Or a good rehearsal room for bands. I'd like to do a lotta things but I ain't got enough bread to do it on me own. That's what it should've been about.
"There were too many egos, I suppose. I experienced that myself, when we made our first record. There was competition to get records into the charts an' when somebody like the Buzzcocks or Sham went in, you thought 'You bastards'. That's the reason why people slag off other bands, 'cos they're scared of 'em. They're scared of competition.
"It's all down to prestige. I remember when it all started off, everybody was pluggin' everybody else. I remember when we was trying to get a deal with EMI about two years ago, I was sayin' to the bloke 'You should go an' see the Clash', when we was there tryin' to get a deal. I'd've loved him to sign the Clash an' sign us an' sign all the bands. That's the sort of thing I'm talkin' about, but we all went to separate companies an' started doin' our own thing."
All this amounts to a confession from the Jam, as well as an indictment of all the other bands who failed to live up to the new wave spirit.
"I'm not excludin' us. I've always said that I hope that new bands come up and give as a hard time, but there's a lack of bands....or rather there's loads of bands goin' around but the record companies are too scared to take the plunge any more, 'cos they realise they can't make any more money out of promotin' bands as 'punk rock'. They're waitin' for the next big thing an' they've got a long fuckin' wait. There's some great bands about but nobody'll take a chance on them, like the Nipple Erectors an' the Gang Of Four an' the Vipers. It all stems from the companies an' us, the top bands, doin' nothin' for 'em, not makin' enough room for 'em."
It sounds as if you're fed up with the routine.
"Me? Fed Up? Nah. I've never enjoyed it more. The last tour was the first time I've enjoyed playin' since the 100 Club and Red Cow days; the first time I've really got a charge off playin'. The only thing I'm pissed off about is that it could've been so much better. I'm not really talkin' about the Jam, 'cos I'm really happy with the Jam, but just generally. I mean, we could become the biggest band in the world, but it won't mean much really. There could've been something much more purposeful than that."
Harry Doherty, Melody Maker, 20 January 1979