Tuesday, 18 May 2010

14. Sound Affects - The Jam

Purchased : December 1982

Tracks : Pretty Green / Monday / But I'm Different Now / Set The House Ablaze / Start / That's Entertainment / Dream Time / Man In The Corner Shop / Music For The Last Couple / Boy About Town / Scrape Away

This one too was purchased in Leeds on the way back from an entrance interview, this time for the University. And that's where I ended up so this LP was both a shield from the past (see previous post) and a herald of the future. Which is quite fitting given that the contents see the band looking both forwards in the shape of post-punk and backwards to the sixties for inspiration.

After successive number one singles The Jam were at the peak of their popularity in 1980, a position which often spells danger for the next album. Around the same time as this came out, The Police released the stunningly mediocre "Zenyatta Mondatta" which trod water in such uninspiring fashion that you can always find a copy in charity shops to this day. (I'll be interested to read what Marcello makes of that one).

The Jam, in contrast, released their most experimental and potentially challenging LP. There was another imperative for this. 1979 had witnessed a full blown mod revival and The Jam had become the rather reluctant figureheads for the movement. To avoid being washed away when the tide of fashion inevitably went out again and to pull away from a new legion of imitators , The Chords, The Vapors, Purple Hearts et al it was necessary to take a few risks with the sound.

So you get an opening track "Pretty Green" which, musically, is heavily influenced by Joy Division with the bass and drums upfront and Weller adding icy guitar squalls in the manner of Bernard Albrecht. Weller's lyrics concern the evils of money, the oppression - "you can't do nothing unless it's in the pocket" underlined by Foxton's relentless riff.

"Monday" subverts the usual pop trope of longing for the weekend (already explored on their previous LP's "Saturday's Kids") . Weller instead looks forward to seeing his love on a monday suggesting a workplace romance though the lyrics are poetic rather than prosaic. Resting on Foxton's highly melodic bassline and coloured in with piano and trumpet it's an affecting piece of Beatle-y pop.

"But I'm Different Now" is more traditional Jam fare recalling "Art School" from "All Mod Cons" but the playing is more controlled, with echoes of "Last Train To Clarksville " in the guitar, than their initial punk thrash. As the title suggests Weller is in repentant mode but the song is too frenetic to really hit home.

"Set The House Ablaze" starts off with an ominous riff similar to the Pistol's "Pretty Vacant " then Buckler comes in with sledgehammer drums that pound away relentlessly through the rest of the song. A burst of harmonised whistling adds to the sense of menace before Weller starts singing of an acquaintance seduced by the far right. As you would expect the lyric is condemnatory possibly inspired by the New Cross fire. The message concludes with a mixed down Weller muttering that indoctrination robs you of your humanity followed by a despairing la la la refrain and Buckler (who really deserves a writing credit on this one ) playing a military tattoo. Although it goes on a touch too long it's the most exciting track.

After that it's straight on to "Start" their recent number one single here dressed up with mariachi trumpets. The rhythm of course was lifted wholesale from The Beatles' "Taxman" and put to the service of an icy song about a casual sexual encounter and one recalls from Foxton and Buckler's book that Weller wasn't averse to sleeping with fans.

It's therefore something of a relief to cut from that to "That's Entertainment" one of Weller's most compassionate songs and many people's favourite Jam song. Weller strings together a random sequence of sights and sounds of the suburbs such as "feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away" in six verses over an acoustic strum. Foxton holds the track together with an accomplished bassline with Buckler just adding the odd crack for punctuation. In the latter two verses a backwards guitar adds to the mournful air; is Weller lamenting a world he's about to leave behind or is that world itself to be lost to eighties consumerism and individual aspiration ?

The rather weaker Side Two opens with "Dream Time" which sounds like an inferior re-write of "Dreams of Children" the little played and underrated double A side to "Going Underground". Like the earlier song it emerges from an intro of backwards Eastern -tinged guitars before covering similar territory to "Strange Town" Weller becoming alarmed by people whose "love comes in frozen packs bought in the supermarket."

Rescue is at hand with the excellent "Man In The Corner Shop" which conjures up a Frost Report scenario where the petit bourgeois shop owner envies the man who owns the factory and is in turn envied by a worker in the factory. The tension is resolved by Weller's reclamation of Christianity as a force for equality, an idea he's never pushed since and may owe a lot to his recent reading of William Blake. Musically it's perfect with Weller's chiming Rickenbackers riding a springy bassline and Buckler's punchy drums.

However we then get to the low point "Music For The Last Couple" a very rare group credit for what is a near-instrumental studio jam. It begins in a very Floyd fashion throwing the clicking sound from "Astronomy Domine" amongst its random sound effects such as a buzzing fly. Then a strident guitar line and purposeful bass hint at a proper song before we suddenly get a switch to Andy Summers-like guitar skanking, then a brief bass solo and Weller sings what sounds like a travel jingle. Then it all happens again and that's it. Just a tiresome space filler.

"Boy About Town " follows , a brief and rather regressive song. Five albums in Weller really can't get away with describing himself as a boy and the jaunty melody and optimistic tone of the lyrics seem out of kilter with what's gone before and what follows.

The final song "Scrape Away" is one of Weller's grimmest lyrics, again addressing someone who's been corrupted - "you're talking like some fucking hardened MP" and rejects Weller's own idealism. It all sounds a bit like the sort of harangue you'd get from a Trot selling "Socialist Worker" to a student who just wants to get on with their education and Weller can't sustain the attack over the full four minutes. The last minute is given over to some guy called Laurent who mumbles in French. Please use the comments box if you know who he is and what he's saying. Musically the track belongs to Foxton from the threatening five note riff that opens the song to the shuddering that leads into the chorus and the run that takes us out again. Without his dexterity it would be quite painful.

So it's the most interesting Jam LP and did what was expected of it but is it the best ?
I think another (which I'll reveal when we get to it) just shades it on consistency.

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