|The Jam? They were a way of life|
As Paul Weller prepares to receive a Lifetime Achievement Brit, John Harris salutes a giant
Friday February 3, 2006
In a couple of weeks the music industry will gather for the annual orgy of false bonhomie and poor-quality catering that is the Brit awards, whose ceremonial aspect will conclude with the presentation of a special statuette to Paul Weller. Long a proud absentee from such occasions, his presence this year was presumably secured thanks to the nature of his gong: the Outstanding Contribution to Music trophy, whose underlying logic seems to be back on track after last year's presentation to that reedy voiced part-timer Bob Geldof.
All that said, given Weller's history of uneasy relations with the music business, there is likely to be a certain tension in the air. Always one to put blazing his own trail before the demands of commerce, his most celebrated act of wilful sabotage came in October 1982 - when, at the age of 24, he boldly announced that despite their place as one of Britain's most successful rock bands, he was parting with bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler and splitting up the Jam. "I'd hate us to end up old and embarrassing like so many other groups," read his official statement, which presumably failed to raise the spirits of the people at Polydor Records.
Up in the Leeds suburb of Garforth, meanwhile, a 15-year-old named David Lines decided to commemorate the news by loading his collection of Jam memorabilia into an incinerator, and watching as posters, T-shirts and badges went up in smoke. "There was such a sense of loss," he says now, his voice audibly quivering at the memory. "It was like a funeral. I was so young - I hadn't followed any other groups, and I had no idea that he was going to come back with the Style Council; I thought that was it. So I burned everything."
Lines, as outlined in his just-published memoir The Modfather: My Life With Paul Weller - a reminiscence of the 1970s and 1980s, rendered in the cosy style of Radio 4's Home Truths - was not the only one to be so poleaxed. I can clearly remember my own take on events: the article in Smash Hits headlined "Breaking up is hard to do ... but the Jam have done it"; the realisation that, at 12 years old, I was still too young to go and see any of their farewell concerts; the burning anger that came from being denied the chance to watch their valedictory TV performance on the Tube because a neighbour was having a bonfire party. I also recall a sense of bafflement that such a fixed part of my life should suddenly not be there: with their logo scratched into all those desks at school, their lyrics patiently memorised by me and my friends, and Paul Weller established as a reliable guide to just about everything, how could the Jam just disappear?
It's not something that's yet made its way into the accepted version of rock history, but between their decisive breakthrough in 1979 and that final, wonderfully brutal act of what is now known as "moving on", the cult of the Jam was an immovable part of Britain's cultural map. Superficially, it may have all been about white socks, bowling shoes and a mercifully brief mod revival, but something altogether more interesting was afoot; particularly in Britain's small towns and suburbs, their songs became a kind of folk music, treasured by exactly the people that Paul Weller - a working-class native of suburban Surrey - had a habit of writing about. In such songs as Saturday's Kids, Town Called Malice, Man in the Corner Shop and That's Entertainment, there lies a kind of poetically rendered social history, written just as the postwar consensus was shoved aside by the arrival of Thatcherism. If you want to understand the mixture of worry, confusion and national sclerosis that defined the years between 1978 and 1982, this is a
pretty good place to start.
If all this has long been ignored, at least part of the explanation lies in the Jam's anomalous place within punk rock, and the fact that music writers have usually ranked them below the short-lived Sex Pistols and the absurdly over-romanticised Clash (who, during the time they were together, never had a top 10 UK hit). "There was a real snobbery about the Jam," says Adrian Thrills, the one-time NME writer who became an early devotee when he was a teenage escapee from Stevenage. "They were the black sheep - never part of the hip London elite, who had a strong kind of fashionista element. That was something Weller was always very aware of, like he says in that song Sounds From the Street [from 1977's In the City]: 'I know I come from Woking/ And you say I'm a fraud/ But my heart is in the city where it belongs.' Having said that, I don't think he wanted in on any of that. He saw those bands becoming rock stars, and he took the anti-star aspect of punk very seriously. It guided him."
A half-hour conversation with Thrills hurls forth all kinds of very telling memories: accompanying the band on early tours that took them to such unlikely destinations as Dunstable, Crawley, Malvern, Falkirk and Barrow-in-Furness; beholding an audience that, relative to those drawn to more doctrinaire punk groups, contained "more regular kids - and a lot of people of 14 and 15"; and realising, as Weller's compositional talent came into its own, that his leavening of punk-ish aggression with both sensitivity and a keen sense of place made the Jam unique. "They did become huge," he says, "but there was a real dialogue between the band and their fans. And it transcended what the Pistols and the Clash had done, didn't it? Those bands were singing about Britain, but they weren't singing about their audience."
The Jam's golden period began with 1978's All Mod Cons album, though their first collision with the upper reaches of the singles chart came the following year, when a single entitled The Eton Rifles reached number three. It still sounds spine-tingling: inspired by the infamous occasion when protesters on a nationwide right-to-work march were jeered by hostile pupils from the public school, and suffused with a sense of bitter resignation. With the Tories back in power, Weller used the imagined scenario of a climactic ruck between toffs and proles to sound notice of an inevitable defeat: "All that rugby puts hairs on your chest/ What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?"
By now, the Jam's impact had gone way beyond their core crowds. The writer and novelist DJ Taylor was then a student at St John's College Oxford, addicted to the Jam since sighting them on ITV at the age of 16, and coming to the conclusion that they were "a sort of panacea to all these short-haired gits in Day-Glo trousers". "I can remember watching them doing The Eton Rifles on Top of the Pops in the college TV room," he recalls, "and a girl called Kathy Shipsey, who'd been to a convent school, turned to the bloke sitting next to her and said, 'Hamish - you were at Eton. What on earth are these chappies going on about?' I thought, 'This really is saying something. If Kathy Shipsey is worried about these guttersnipes from Woking, they're getting it right.' That song was bang-on for late 1979. And the lyrics are absolutely cracking: 'Sup up your beer and collect your fags/ There's a row going on, down near Slough ..."
Those lines, I suggest, sound like something by Philip Larkin. "They do!" Taylor agrees, sounding every bit as excited as he was in 1979. "They really do. There was a kind of buried literary consciousness that Weller had picked up from somewhere. When You're Young was another example: 'The world is your oyster, but your future's a clam.' Wonderful! In the context of a three-minute pop song, he was doing incredible things with language."
When success brought interviewers queuing to ask Weller about his cultural appetites, this aspect came even further to the fore. George Orwell was a much-cited touchstone, along with the 1960s Mersey poets (Roger McGough, Brian Patten and particularly Adrian Henri). In 1980, by way of signalling his new-found attachment to a world-view that was leftist, very English, and deeply romantic, the back cover of Sound Affects featured an extract from Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy. This, it was fair to say, was not the kind of thing that most rock groups tended to do.
Up in West Yorkshire, David Lines had long since taken the hint. "Weller started talking about Orwell, so I read absolutely everything," he says."The same went for Colin MacInnes. There was one time I got bollocked in class and as punishment the teacher asked me to write an essay about a book I was reading. I'd read a Weller interview in Smash Hits where he'd talked about Hugh McDiarmid, the Scottish socialist poet, and ordered a book by him from the local library. So the next day, I brought in 1,000 words on Hugh McDiarmid. And, of course, the teacher just wouldn't believe that I'd been reading this. I was sent home to get the book: there it was, on the kitchen table. That was all because of Paul Weller."
The accent on self-improvement was only heightened during the first phase of Weller's post-Jam enterprise, the Style Council, whose tangle of often esoteric reference points - jazz, socialism, French cigarettes - left many of his audience trying desperately to keep up. Impressed by his new group's claims to be "New Europeans", I foolishly took both French and German O-level (and dropped the latter within weeks); in his book, David Lines recalls obediently switching from Silk Cut to Gitanes and "spending the next six months peeling bits of tobacco - and skin - from my bottom lip". Despite such travails, a lot of us hung on: until around 1987, the Council were more popular than some retrospective accounts suggest, though the days of that perfect bond between audience and group had gone, chiefly at Weller's behest. Like so many supposed generational spokesmen - apart from the dependably hubristic Bono - he eventually turned out to be deeply uneasy about everything the role implied.
That, of course, partly explains his solo incarnation: stripped-back, bluffly unaffected, back in love with the rock'n'roll that predated the