Monday, 10 May 2010

13. The Gift -The Jam

Purchased : November 1982

Tracks : Happy Together / Ghosts / Precious /Just Who Is The Five O Clock Hero ? / Trans-Global Express / Running On The Spot / Circus / Carnation / The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong / Town Called Malice / The Gift

You may wonder why this band suddenly feature heavily in the next few entries, rearing their trad head amongst the synth popsters. Well, for one I never stopped liking the more tuneful bands from the New Wave era. those that managed to marry punk’s energy and attitude to a melodic sensibility. For another, this was just after the band had announced their dramatic split so, very usefully for me, the stores started discounting their back catalogue to take advantage of the renewed interest it generated. But there was also a personal reason which goes back to the matters discussed in the previous post.

In the latter half of the Travelling Society’s four-year lifespan, my friend Michael had got his younger neighbour Sean ( who I knew from school but wasn’t as close to) , involved to some degree. When Michael announced his resignation in November 1981 ( in, perhaps , similar circumstances to Weller telling the other two now I think about it) I assumed Sean would be leaving too but no, we had already promised him he could be chairman (after Michael) the following year and he wanted to take up his position. That was the main reason why the Society limped on for another 6 months. I had no doubt that Sean’s enthusiasm would quickly wane and it duly did. When he admitted to not turning up for a walk because he “couldn’t be bothered” instead of the usual excuse I was secretly relieved but acted annoyed and abused him to provoke his resignation. I think he understood the ritual and obliged without us having to seriously fall out.

Nevertheless, for the next year- and - a - term that we were still at the same school , our relationship became more and more awkward. Michael’s leaving the Travelling Society made no difference to their friendship ; they were still knocking about together. Sean had seen at close quarters how much emotional investment I had bound up in the society and would have known how much I wanted what he still had. It gave him a terrible power to wound me and even though he was never a vindictive person I was terrified he might use it. His “interest” in walking having evaporated, the only thing we had in common was music and The Jam were his favourite band. So this LP and the others that followed functioned as a radiation shield, a protection from the gamma rays of Sean’s perception that he could emotionally rape me any time he chose. He wouldn’t do that to a fellow fan would he ?

This was bought in Leeds on the way back from an interview for entrance to Trinity and All Saints College. Life still goes on even if the quality's not what it once was.

I'm coming back to it after a long absence. The curtains closed on The Jam remarkably quickly. It seems we all obeyed Weller in consigning them to history even if, like me , you thought the Style Council were utter cack. I remember some time in the early 90s asking Sean (all tensions long since evaporated) if he still played his Jam LPs and he didn't either. Received Wisdom says that this, their final LP is a patchy effort which proves that Weller was musically outgrowing his partners.

The LP was trailblazed by portentous advertisments thanking their fans for their belief (implicitly recognising that their 1981 output was generally thought uninspiring) and now "The Gift" was coming. It came wrapped in a candy bag (which I've still got somewhere ). It begins with Weller aping a BBC announcement that for those watching in black and white "this one is in technicolour " a heavy hint that Weller was trying to broaden the group's sound and appeal.

The first track is one of the strongest. "Happy Together" is a fairly straight love song but there is a hint of uncertainty in the melody which subverts the message. One is reminded that Weller's relationship with a girl called Gill didn't survive the split either. It follows the typical Jam template of galloping bass, crisp drumming and slashing Pete Townsend guitar chords but the urgency in the performance makes it exciting.

"Ghosts" is something different with Foxton switching to fretless bass (not an experience he enjoyed) and Buckler keeping time on rimshots, cymbals and handclaps. There is no chorus, the song remaining in stasis as Weller exhorts people to positive action rather than passivity. Throughout the album Weller is taking more care with his vocals, the old angry bark is gone; he wants these lyrics to be heard rather than read. This track also sees the entrance of the hired brass to give colour to the later verses.

Next up is the long version of the recent No 1 hit (albeit the less played of a double A side) "Precious" . Based on a bassline suspiciously similar to "Papa's Got A Brand New Pig Bag" this is an extended white funk workout with wah-wah guitar, percussion flourishes and a free jazz saxophone solo that recalls Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Rick Buckler's lumpen drumming has been criticised but he does contribute some nifty cymbal work. The sound is the whole point here , there's not much melody and lyrically it's the same love song as track one.

"Just Who Is The Five O Clock Hero" a tribute to the working classes is a much warmer song which bounces along on Buckler's tumbling drums and Foxton's teasing bass. Weller's in a much more compassionate frame of mind compared to vituperative songs like "Mr Clean " or "Scrape Away" on the earlier LPs. The jaunty brass interludes echo this more mellow frame of mind.

Unfortunately it's followed by a real clunker. "Trans-Global Express" is given one side of the lyric sheet to itself as if it's the centrepiece song but it's awful. Weller's trying to write an international socialist clarion call but his message is neutered by a terrible production job which makes him sound like he's ranting from inside a fridge. Musically it hinges on Buckler's pounding drums which recall XTC's "Life Begins At The Hop" around which producer Pete Wilson arranges brass parts, football hooligan backing vocals and dub effects , the ending being a straight cop from XTC's "Living Through Another Cuba". Frankly it's just a mess.

Side Two opens with "Running On The Spot" which continues with the same pounding beat but thankfully on a more conventional song. Weller expresses his frustration at lack of progress in society (and maybe the band as well) , complaining that "You can't see further than the bottom of your glass" a theme he'd return to in the Style Council with all that Capuccino Kid nonsense. There's some neat ba-ba -ba backing vocals reminicent of the Turtles but musically they're treading water here.

Then comes "Circus" an instrumental and Bruce Foxton's first solo composition for three years. It's basically a punky update of Jet Harris and Tony Meehan's "Diamonds" a pleasant enough time filler with a drum solo and an interesting break where Weller approximates the John McGeoch guitar sound from Siouxsie and the Banshees' "Spellbound".

"The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong" is another dud, a less than topical diatribe about high rise flats set to a calypso rhythm complete with steel drums. Even in contemporary interviews Weller admitted that they hadn't got it right. On the plus side Weller's careful vocal is impressive and there's a neat echo of "Lazy Sunday" in the background harridan heard on the line "Coitus interruptus cause of next door's rows".

It's a relief then that "Carnation" is very good indeed. Kickstarted by Buckler's drums Weller delivers a lyric of bleak cynicism - "I trample down all life in my wake" at first using only acoustic guitar. Then the electric guitar comes in with "World In Action " organ filling the sound until Weller's bleakest line "Hold my hand and be doomed forever" heralds a hiatus in the song. Buckler retreats to his cymbals during an acoustic middle eight that owes a lot to the one in "California Dreaming" before crashing back in to introduce a piano reprise of the main melody. Then Weller reveals the final twist in the song-"if you're wondering by now who I am". He is the voice of the "Greed and Fear and every ounce of hate in you " perhaps inspired by the killer scene in the final episode of "The Prisoner" where McGoohan spins round Number One and encounters his own leering face. The long la la la coda recycles their own "Man In The Corner Shop" but never mind.

Then we have "Town Called Malice" the Motown pastiche that gave them their penultimate number one and is still one of their most enduring songs. Foxton's buoyant bassline leading into Weller's Hammond chords is one of the great intros. Weller's vignette of Woking contains some of his most affecting lines so one can forgive the weak pun of the title.

It's a shame that the concluding title track is another disappointment. Musically it's little more than a re-hash of their ramshackle cover of "Heatwave" over which Weller barks a series of second hand slogans from his favourite soul records.

And so after little more than 32 minutes the final Jam LP concludes. There were a handful of singles to come in 1982 but the story ended that year. I go with the consensus that it's uneven -the qualty span between "Carnation" and "Trans-Global Express" must be one of the widest on any LP. I don't think it tells you much about the band's internal dynamics. A bad or uninspired idea is still bad whatever the rhythm section is playing. And it's still much better than any Style Council LP, none of which you'll be reading about here.

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