John Wheeler looks back at The Jam, who became arguably the most popular and political band to emerge from the punk explosion of 1977.
“We’ll all be voting Conservative at the next election.”
Fanzine interview, 1977
“Imagine, if tomorrow the workers went on strike.
Not just British Leyland but the whole world.
Who would earn their profits? Who would make their bombs?
You’d see the hands of oppression fumble.
And their systems crash to the ground.”
Transglobal Express, 1982
This quote and lyric from Paul Weller demonstrate the considerable political distance he travelled in five years. In this article I will reflect on his journey.
The Jam were the sound of the suburbs, coming out of Woking in Surrey, England. The main driving force was songwriter Paul Weller, backed by inventive bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler. At the time of the interview quoted above Weller was only eighteen years old, and it showed. In 1982, the year that he penned the aforementioned lyric and that The Jam split up, he was just 23.
Musically Weller was influenced by the Sex Pistols and The Clash as well as a plethora of sixties legends. In terms of subject matter he was deeply influenced by his own working class background. Life and people are full of paradoxes and contradictions; Paul had little personal exposure to the daily grind of waged work but he came to articulate the frustrations, anger, pleasures and hopes of working class people across the country.
After some ill-focused, perhaps even scatter-gun attempts at political writing on the first two Jam albums Weller moved more towards social commentary on the third LP, All Mod Cons in 1978, but it was in the mid-period that he would really hit his stride.
During this period The Jam’s songs spoke directly to me as a fourteen year old growing up on a council estate in the ‘provinces’. Setting Sons was the album – playing time of just under half an hour and perfect to listen to while getting ready to go to school. Songs like Private Hell, Thick as Thieves and Saturday’s Kids speaking directly to the target audience.
“These are the real creatures that time has forgot,
Not given a thought, its the system,
Hate the system, what’s the system?”
Just where was all this coming from in a 20 year old? Weller was always an avid reader. Here’s an astonishing extract from an interview in Smash Hits (a best selling teenage pop magazine) a year after he left The Jam talking about George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia:
“[Orwell] describes getting to Barcelona when all the workers have taken over the city….this was it, actually in existence, and it worked – which is something very hard to imagine. I wish that could be possible worldwide.”
In 1980, after the massive popular success of Going Underground, the first of four Number One hits, The Jam would release the follow-up album, Sound Affects. Unlike the majority of pop stars of that era he turned to a Shelley poem for the liner notes – more specifically, The Mask of Anarchy:
“Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Ye are many they are few.”
And in the track Scrape Away from that album he had a few words of his own to add:
“What makes once young minds get in this state.
Is it age or just the social climate?
You’re talking like some fucking hardened MP.
You’re saying power’s all! – and it’s power you need!”.
This song actually predicted what would be Weller’s final break with Labour Party politics and perhaps politics in general when he got his hands very dirty with the Red Wedge musical movement to elect Labour in 1987.
By the time the final Jam album The Gift was released in 1982 the band’s split was inevitable. Weller wanted to break from his band mates but from his audience as well. Significantly he also wanted to move in a new musical direction. Like so many mods Weller had been an avid consumer of soul music since at least the mid-1970s, when an early incarnation of The Jam had covered classics such as Rufus Thomas’ Walking The Dog and Wilson Pickett’s In the Midnight Hour.
By the time The Jam broke up his interests had extended to more socially-aware soul music, especially that of musical and lyrical genius Curtis Mayfield. Mayfield sang about a different kind of oppression from that which Weller had experienced first-hand and there is no doubt that he was a major influence on Weller and his next group, The Style Council. Both The Jam and The Style Council covered Mayfield’s Move on Up and Weller ended up interviewing Curtis for the VHS video, Curtis Mayfield Live At Ronnie Scott’s.
Meanwhile The Gift had some great songs and some intensely political lyrics. As he sang on Carnation:
“I trample down all life in my wake.
I eat it up and take the cake.
I just avert myself to the pain.
Of someone’s loss helping my gain.”
Is it just me or is that a pretty good description of modern capitalism?
The Jam never really made it in America and it nearly made me drop my post-work glass of wine a couple of months back when I tuned into AMC”s series The Walking Dead and heard The Jam’s well-known classic, A Town Called Malice played virtually in its entirety. “A whole street’s belief in Sunday’s roast beef gets dashed against the Co-op, to either cut down on beer or the kids new gear, it’s a big decision in a Town Called Malice” might not make much sense in Flint, Michigan but people there face the same struggles with a different vernacular. Who are the zombies? The capitalists or their victims? I would go with the former.
The Style Council
Paradoxically Paul Weller’s exit from The Jam was the cue for the most political phase of his career.
Soul had always been there for Weller, and whilst it was one of several elements in The Jam it would now come to forefront. Drummer Steve White and keyboard player Mick Talbot would provide the musical chops and influences such as Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott Heron would now become central. It was a period of political activism for Weller that would ultimately lead to disappointment and disengagement – but not before numerous benefit concerts had been played and worthy causes supported.
The Jam described working class life. The Style Council, in their first few years, attacked Thatcherism and capitalism with a consistent ferocity and to a gentler, more accessible, style of music. The template could have been Curtis Mayfield and The Impressions’ This Is My Country. Music did not have to be shouty to get a powerful message across.
A case in point from their first album Cafe Bleu:
“Rising up and taking back, the property of every man….
Rising up to break this thing, from family trees the dukes to swing”.
The restrained delivery and mellow guitar backing making the words even more powerful.
That came a year after the political funk of Money Go Round, which included the line, “The brave and the bold are the ones to be fooled, with a diet of lies by the Kipling school”. As he wasn’t talking about cakes, this is just one more example of Weller, the reader, not the yob he sometimes wanted to project.
All the time Weller was exploring new musical directions and was happy to have widened, if not increased his fan base. Having seen both The Jam and TSC I can vouch for the fact that he now had a much more diverse audience who wanted to listen to the music and take in the lyrics.
Political Weller finally culminated in the Our Favourite Shop album, from 1985. By now he had perfected his own version of Mayfield’s mellow rage that he tirelessly directed towards what the Thatcher government was doing to Britain at the time. There are too many powerful lyrics on that LP to quote here, including songs that talk about “war on the poor” and “walls (that) come tumbling down” and the collapse of working class communities (Homebreakers, All Gone Away).
At a time when members of The Clash had stepped aside from political commentary, and the masses were never likely to take to The Gang of Four or The Redskins in serious numbers, Weller was intensifying his attacks on ‘monetarism’, ‘Thatcherism’ and so on. The album reached number one in the charts.
Did Paul Weller go soft with the Style Council? Let’s take a look at these two lyrics:
“Smash the system – what’s the system?”
The Jam, 1979
“Whenever honesty persists – you’ll hear the snap of broken ribs,
Of anyone who’ll take no more of the lying bastards roar,
In Chile, in Poland, Johannesburg, South Yorkshire,
A stone’s throw away from it all.”
The Style Council, 1985
Weller’s eventual schism with overtly political lyrics had a lot to do with his negative experiences with Red Wedge’s campaign to get young people to vote Labour – but since Our Favourite Shop the odd piece of social commentary has slipped through. Maybe there will be more now that he is playing concerts for Jeremy Corbyn, but one of Weller’s greatest strengths that you don’t really know what is coming next.
Like the vastly different Bob Dylan, Weller often gets asked why he doesn’t write political songs these days. This happened most recently in an interview with Mojo magazine. This was his answer:
“I would just write exactly the same f**king things I wrote thirty-odd years ago. Every time they fire a missile in the Middle East, that’s 850,000 pounds, right? And then they talk about the NHS, f**king selling it off or it crumbling. So nothing’s really changed, has it?”