Tuesday, 8 June 2010

17 All Mod Cons - The Jam

Purchased : 27th January 1983

Tracks : All Mod Cons / To Be Someone / Mr Clean / David Watts / English Rose / In The Crowd / Billy Hunt / It's Too Bad / Fly / The Place I Love / A Bomb In Wardour St / Down In The Tube Station

After a year in which my album collection had more than doubled this was the first purchase of 1983. It was bought in Manchester on the way to an entrance interview at Preston Polytechnic at their soon-to-close Poulton-le-Fylde campus. Now that we were into the new year it was beginning to sink in that my school days would soon come to an end and a new chapter in life would begin whether I wanted it or not.

Of course by this time The Jam were dead and gone though you wouldn't think it from looking at the singles chart which had filled up with their back catalogue opportunistically re-released by Polydor. This was the one I expected to like the most since it was home to one of the greatest singles of all time, "Down In the Tube Station At Midnight" which was perhaps dangerous thinking. It's also the one Received Wisdom has put forward as The Jam's contribution to "The Canon".

As an album it had a fraught gestation. Their previous sophomore album "This Is The Modern World" had bombed and a first attempt at a third, apparently made up of mostly Bruce Foxton compositions, had been rejected by the record company as not up to scratch. Foxton has subsequently played down the idea of a lost Jam album in the vaults saying much of it was eventually re-cycled over the course of their career. One can't help think that this period cemented the power relations in the band ; Paul Weller got over his writer's block and there's not a Foxton song in sight on the finished product.

First up on this interestingly sequenced LP is the title track, a short angry song about their recent travails with Polydor that rests on a Foxton bassline shuddering with channelled rage. One minute, nineteen seconds and it's gone.

"To Be Someone" also concerns the rock business but this time it's sung from the point of view of a faded rock star looking back at the good times, a full decade before Prefab Sprout's "King of Rock And Roll". By an unfortunate accident of timing, the rock star most synonymous with the kind of dissolute lifestyle Weller is describing, the Who's Keith Moon died between the album's recording and release. Musically it prefigures their own "Start" by approximating the bassline to "Taxman" and features some very spiky guitar by Weller.

"Mr Clean" is a problematic song. Is he singing this vitriolic attack on a commuter in character or is he really so consumed by class envy he's prepared to advocate violence against the class traitor (all lefties hate their own kind who are trying to advance more than those who were born to privilege) he so despises ? The edgy guitar figure behind the first verse about the object's daily routine hints at trouble to come which arrives in Weller's bellowed declaration "If I get the chance I'll fuck up your life". Having got that off his chest Weller lightens up (and the music opens out) for the last verse with the hilariously phrased "Getting pissed at the annual office do". It's still an uncmfortable song though.

"David Watts" follows, the first Jam song to really grab me not realising it was a cover until much later. The Kinks song gives the other members a chance to shine with Foxton doing the lead vocal and Buckler's ferocious pounding and cymbal crashing driving the song at a frantic pace. There's no real sign they understand the homoerotic implications of the song, just three guys thrashing the hell (albeit in a more disciplined fashion than their earlier covers) out of a favourite track.

Then the LP makes a complete left turn with the "hidden" track "English Rose" not listed on the sleeve or lyric sheet for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained. What were we supposed to do- pretend we hadn't heard it ? Starting with a crashing wave and the sound of a ship's horn it becomes an acoustic ballad with antique phrasing. With Foxton and Buckler absent from proceedings it suggests Pink Floyd's "Grantchester Meadows" or Nick Drake, icons of the Middle England Weller was railing against two songs back.

The band then take another step away from punk by recording a song nearly six minutes long. It's something of a curate's egg the opening chords resembling the beginning section of Wings' "Band On The Run" albeit speeded up by Foxton's bassline. Then it takes its cue from The Small Faces "My Mind's Eye" with Weller re-spinning Marriott's conviction that he has a greater vision than those around him and there are musical echoes too. The second half of the song is a long dare we say proggy instrumental coda that at times sounds strikingly similar to the Stone Roses' "Don't Stop" amidst which Weller starts singing the refrain from their earlier song "Away From The Numbers" perhaps forlornly acknowledging he hasn't quite made that break yet before it finally turns into The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again ".

Side Two then kicks off with "Billy Hunt" an ugly, regressive song that could have come off the first album; in fact the bassline is very similar to "In The City". Sung from the viewpoint of a downtrodden daydreamer taken in by the Charles Atlas ads there's the odd good line like "I remember the first day at my job/Didn't get on too well with the foreman Bob" but its generally unsympathetic with crass references to the contemporary "Six Million Dollar Man" and a really moronic chorus. When the album was belatedly released in the US this track was dropped in favour of the infinitely superior "Strange Town".

Next up is "It's Too Bad" a break-up song which of course had a contemporary resonance at the time I bought the album, the more so as Weller and Foxton sing most of it in harmony. It's a rather cheeky re-write of The Who's "So Sad About Us" borrowing some of it's rhymes and the song structure's very similar . The band made the debt more obvious by putting a cover of the song on the B-side of "Down In The Tube Station".

Then we flick back into acoustic mode with "Fly" although Foxton is allowed in from the second verse and Buckler from the chorus onwards. There's an echo of "The Sound of Silence" just before Weller starts singing and the more aggressive strumming in the later parts of the song resembles "Pinball Wizard" at times. It's another love song although framed by (not very well-expressed) existential angst and it doesn't work very well for me.

Weller stays in romantic mode for "The Place I Love" although the music has a bit more bite, the guitar riff a simplified version of the arpeggio from future tourmates Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear The Reaper". Weller extols the virtues of a utopia "with beautiful moss and colourful flowers" then defines it negatively as "not within a yard of those trendy do's where dogsbodies pick you up and graciously give you a lift". At the time this was a baffling lyric but now I understand it to be a reference to The Walton Hop, the disco in Surrey frequented by paedophiles like Chris Denning and Jonathan King.

The romance ends abruptly with the clinking cowbell and staccato bass riff of "A-Bomb In Wardour St" released as a double A-side with "David Watts" but ignored by radio for its violent imagery. Wardour St was the home of The Marquee club at the time and the song is a condemnation of punk violence - "it's not my scene at all".

The violence theme leads neatly on to the song Weller will never, ever better. "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight" draws all the album's threads together - late 70s violence , singing from another's point of view and even romance. It's stunning musically as well prefiguring Joy Division with Foxton's bass the lead instrument. His classic riff , pregnant with menace, emerges from a background of sound effects to kickstart the song. Weller, in controlled hoarse tones, is a man making his way home to dinner with his wife when he is mugged by a group of thugs. What makes it lyrically special is the accumulation of detail, the things the man notices even as he's semi-conscious on the floor -"a British Rail poster read "Have an Away Day, a cheap holiday let's do it today". Weller's contributions on guitar are sparse but very effective especially the ascending chords when the horror escalates as the man realises "They took the keys and she'll think it's me". Even at this juncture Weller can't resist a little dig at middle class values "The wine will be flat and the curry's gone cold" is the man' next thought after contemplating the imminent rape of his wife. One of the top five greatest singles of all time without a doubt.

Coming to the album five years after its release it didn't have quite the impact on me it must have had on contemporaries being such a quantum leap on from their first two efforts. And it was slightly disappointing that none of the other tracks come near to "Down In The Tube Station" though that was always a tall order. Because of "Billy Hunt" and the two acoustic tracks I do depart from the critics and don't think this is the best Jam album. A few entries on and I'll reveal my nomination.

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