Paul Weller – circa 1980
“Even in school I felt quite sure / That I would be on top / And I’d look down upon the map / The teachers who said I’d be nothing” – ‘This Is The Modern World’ (Paul Weller)
The schoolboy scribbles on his books. Like many another young scholar, he etches the names of his favourite bands on the covers of his classroom texts. The names inscribed include The Beatles, The Who and The Jam. The odd thing about this is that the last named combo, The Jam, doesn’t exist. They will in the future – but only after they make the transition from the daydream of an idle youth to a flesh-and-blood band. It will be up to this schoolboy to create The Jam himself. His name is Paul Weller.
Born 25 May 1958 in Sheerwater, a town near Woking in Surrey, England, Paul Weller comes from a solidly working-class family. His father, John Weller, is, at different times, a taxi-driver and a brick-layer. Paul’s mother is a cleaner. The youngster grows up to attend Sheerwater County Secondary School. It is at this institution that Paul’s dreams of The Jam are birthed and it is also here that they become reality.
In 1975 Paul Weller forms The Jam with three school friends. In the parlance of musicians, a ‘jam’ is an unstructured method of playing, involving multiple musicians. It may use a recognisable song as a starting point, but then expands through improvisation. It is a mode pioneered in jazz but also adopted by some rock acts, most noticeably the late 1960s hippie era performers. Paul Weller’s Jam proves to have no real proclivity for jamming. It probably just sounds like a cool name to the young schoolboy.
Taking the role of vocalist and bassist in The Jam for himself, Paul Weller is joined by: Steve Brookes (guitar), Bruce Foxton (guitar) (born 1 September 1955) and Rick Buckler (born Paul Richard Buckler, 6 December 1955). For unknown reasons – that are probably best left to the imagination – Buckler is nicknamed Pube. The quartet begins playing rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues at local youth clubs and social gatherings. Steve Brookes drops out relatively quickly. His departure necessitates a reshuffle that sees Paul Weller switch to vocals and guitar while Bruce Foxton takes over on bass. The Jam remains a trio consisting of Weller, Foxton and Buckler for the rest of their career.
The Jam make their London debut at the 100 Club in summer 1976. They first draw attention because the clothes they wear are reminiscent of the mods. In the mid-1960s, mods (short for ‘moderns’) were carefully groomed youths who sported parkas, pop art designs, winkle-picker shoes and travelled about on motor scooters. The Who, one of the bands young Paul Weller idolised, were closely identified with the mod movement. The Jam are described as ‘the new Who’ because they owe a debt to that band musically as well as visually. Almost coincidentally, the advent of The Jam coincides with the rise of punk rock. Punk espouses a harsher aesthetic, but its emphasis on youth, revolutionary politics, and a do-it-yourself approach appeals to The Jam and they are co-opted into the movement. They become seen as punks as much as mod revivalists.
On 25 February 1977 The Jam are signed to Polydor Records. The label missed out on putting earlier punk bands like The Sex Pistols and The Clash under contract, so The Jam are their attempt to get a slice of the punk market. John Weller, Paul’s father, acts as the group’s manager and will retain that post throughout their career. He is influential also in his son’s political and social views. The Jam lean towards a left-wing, working man’s view of the community.
Paul Weller is the central figure in The Jam. As singer, guitarist and main songwriter, his position is dominant. Bruce Foxton supplies the occasional song and lead vocal, but it is Weller’s show. Although The Jam do nothing to disabuse those who see them as a punk band, because their influences delve back to The Who and The Beatles, there is always a bit more to them than frothing at the mouth punk proselytisers.
The Jam’s debut single, ‘In The City’ (UK no. 40), is released on 29 April 1977. It’s a thrashing ball of energy in which Paul Weller insists “I wanna tell you / About the young idea.” He skids his plectrum down the guitar string, producing a shredding effect in keeping with the torn-paper graphics beloved by punk acts. ‘In The City’ is included on the debut album released in May, ‘In The City’ (1977) (UK no. 20). The album also includes ‘Away From The Numbers’, a plea for a life removed from the commercial dictates of metropolitan existence. This ‘excellent’ album is recorded in a mere eleven days.
Like all but The Jam’s final effort, this album is co-produced by Chris Parry and Vic Smith. The latter becomes better known as Vic Coppersmith-Heaven from 1978 and produces album number four on his own.
On 1 May 1977 The Clash kick off their ‘White Riot’ tour of the U.K. They are supported by other, newer punk rock acts like The Buzzcocks and, on some dates, The Jam.
‘All Around The World’ (UK no. 13) is a single by The Jam released on 23 July 1977. With its cries of “Oi!” and “youth explosion!” it’s a battering assault – which may be its appeal.
In the wake of this single, The Jam embark on their own full-scale British tour.
On 15 Ocrober 1977 The Jam release the single ‘The Modern World’ (UK no. 36). Paul Weller expresses his frustration with being saddled with the reputation of being a mod revivalist: “What kind of fool do you think I am? / To think I know nothing of the modern world.” The arrangement is neater and stronger than the band’s previous outings. The namesake album, ‘This Is The Modern World’ (1977) (UK no. 22, US no. 201) is released in November.
Also in November 1977, The Jam undertake their first shows in the United States of America. It is a brief outing that is ‘not successful’ and leaves ‘bitter memories of the U.S. in the minds of the band.’
Things may be more profitable for The Jam in the U.K. but scarcely more pleasant. While headlining their own tour, they get into a scuffle with some rugby players in a hotel in Leeds. Paul Weller breaks several of his opponents’ bones and is charged with assault. Eventually, the Leeds Crown Court acquits him of the charge.
Bruce Foxton’s ‘News Of The World’ (UK no. 27) is a shot at the press: “Little men tapping things out / Points of view / Remember their views are not the gospel truth.” This single is released in March 1978.
On 16 March 1978 The Jam begin a second U.S. tour, but it is as unsuccessful as the first.
The Jam perform at the Reading Festival in the U.K. in August 1978.
On 20 August 1978 the band releases the single ‘David Watts’ backed with ‘A-Bomb in Wardour Street’ (UK no. 25). ‘David Watts’ is a cover of a song by British band The Kinks, peers of The Who. More interesting is the flipside. “The streets are filled with blood / Cataclysmic overtones,” prophesies Paul Weller in this vision of urban mayhem. The tense atmosphere of the song is punctuated with a hand-clap rhythm and a strangled guitar part that almost resembles an Indian sitar.
Around this time punk makes way for new wave, a more mild-mannered cousin. The Jam are simply reclassified from punk to new wave without any fuss or bother.
The nightmare of modern life remains Paul Weller’s theme with ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ (UK no. 15). This tale of violence on a railway platform offers a chilling and disturbing account: “I first felt a fist / And then a kick / I couldn’t help smell their breath / They smelled of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs [a U.K. prison] / And too many right-wing meetings.” The bass line spasms along with the victimised narrator. This single is issued on 21 October 1978.
‘David Watts’, ‘A-Bomb In Wardour Street’ and ‘Down In The Tube Stations At Midnight’ are all included on The Jam’s third album, ‘All Mod Cons’ (1978) (UK no. 6, US no. 204), released in November. The title is real estate jargon for ‘all modern conveniences’, but also plays on The Jam’s reputation, warranted or not, of being a latter-day mod band. The album boasts a series of well-drawn portraits. There is the venomous barb directed at ‘Mr Clean’: “I hate you / And your wife / And If I get the chance, I’ll f*** up your life.” ‘Billy Hunt’ is a similarly angry young man: “No one pushes Billy Hunt around / Well they do, but not for long.” The U.S. edition of ‘All Mod Cons’ omits ‘Billy Hunt’ in favour of ‘The Butterfly Collector’. The story of a sort of high-rent groupie, ‘The Butterfly Collector’ is decried with the words “There’s tarts and whores / But you’re much more / You’re a different kind / ‘Cos you want their minds.” Paul Weller proves capable of gentler sentiments with the acoustic ballad ‘English Rose’. ‘All Mod Cons’ is seen as ‘a turning point’ with Weller’s compositions becoming ‘more melodic, complex and lyrically incisive.’
The single ‘Strange Town’ (UK no. 15), released on 17 March 1979, finds a person unfamiliar with London “tryin’ to find a friend in Oxford Street.” Appropriately, the song is carried by a marching rhythm.
Paul Weller (still only 21 at the time) returns to the theme of youth from ‘In The City’ and ‘All Around The World’ for The Jam’s next single. In ‘When You’re Young’ (UK no. 17), issued on 25 August 1979, Weller sagely observes “Life is a drink and you get drunk when you’re young.”
‘The Eton Rifles’ (UK no. 3, AUS no. 50) is The Jam’s best song. This single, released on 3 November 1979, finds the narrator urging some working class lads to “Sup up your beer / And collect your fags” and join in a physical manifestation of Britain’s ancestral class war. “We come out of it naturally the worst,” admits the singer, “We were no match for your untamed wit / But some of the lads said they’ll be back next week.” Paul Weller’s feedback-drenched guitar conjures up a sonic depiction of the battlefield. ‘The Eton Rifles’ is included on the album released the same month, ‘Setting Sons’ (1979) (UK no. 4, US no. 137). This is, loosely, a concept album. Three songs in particular chronicle the history of three friends (and are performed by a three piece band). They start out ‘Thick As Thieves’ in difficult days (“Times were so tough / But not as tough as they are now”); go to war in ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ (“Better to take your shots and drop down dead / They send you home in a pine overcoat with a letter to your Mum / Saying ‘Find enclosed one son, one medal and a note-to-say-we-won”); and wind up at the mercy of “the wheels of commerce” under a ‘Burning Sun’ (“I’m really sorry that I can’t be there / But work comes first, I’m sure you understand”). ‘Setting Sons’ finds room for a song about an overly ardent fan (‘Girl On The Phone’), a troubled housewife (‘Private Hell’), a put-upon office drone (‘Smithers-Jones’ – a Bruce Foxton piece) and suburban youths (‘Saturday’s Kids’). This album is the apex of The Jam’s career.
‘Going Underground’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 50) b/w ‘Dreams Of Children’ is released on 10 March 1980. ‘Going Underground’ is powered by The Jam’s characteristic dry surge. “Something’s happening here today / A show of strength with your boy’s brigade,” notes Paul Weller, but there is a subtle shift in stance. Where previously ‘The Eton Rifles’ portrayed (albeit sarcastically) fighting in the streets, now “This boy shouts / This boy screams” and advocates dropping out of a society from which he feels alienated. On the flipside, Weller looks to the innocence of the ‘Dreams Of Children’, but wakes up to “this modern nightmare.” Musically, with what sounds like backwards-playing guitarwork, the track harks back to the psychedelic Sixties, an era that would be congruent with Weller’s own childhood. This single is the first since Gary Glitter’s ‘I Love You Love Me Love’ in 1973 to enter the U.K. singles charts at number one. Such an achievement confirms The Jam ‘as full-fledged rock stars in Britain.’
‘Start’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 50), released on 11 August 1980, heralds The Jam’s next album, ‘Sound Affects’ (1980) (UK no. 2, US no. 72), in November. Included on that disc, ‘Start’, at least in musical terms, is very similar to The Beatles’ song, ‘Taxman’, from 1966. The Jam’s effort is actually a plea for communication amongst the increasingly isolated citizens of the twentieth century: “If we get through for two minutes only / It will be a start.” The other single from the album is ‘That’s Entertainment’ (UK no. 21, AUS no. 50). Released on 7 February 1981, this dour catalogue of urban misery depicts such events as “Lights going out and a kick in the b***s” as what passes for diversion amongst the human wreckage. A light acoustic guitar strum does nothing to lessen the impact of the song. Other tracks on this album include the ode to cold, hard cash, ‘Pretty Green’; the romantic ‘Monday’; a shot at neo-fascists who ‘Set The House Ablaze’; and a musing over inequality in society as embodied by the ‘Man In The Corner Shop’ and those with whom he comes into contact. ‘Sound Affects’ is deemed to be an ‘ambitious’ album.
Fittingly enough, ‘Funeral Pyre’ (UK no. 4, AUS no. 72), released on 6 June 1981, denotes an ending of sorts. Over some persistent drum beats from Rick Buckler, Paul Weller urges “Shed your tears / And lose your guilt” while bemoaning “The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger.” By this time, new wave is beginning to wind down. This is perhaps the last single by The Jam that fits under the banner of new wave.
From this point on, The Jam seem to want to emulate rhythm and blues songs or soul acts from the 1960s. The mods, on whom The Jam were originally modelled, were also fans of these musical styles, so there is a certain logic to the progression. Increasingly, The Jam are augmented by additional musicians. Although keyboard touches had been used in a number of songs from ‘The Eton Rifles’ onwards, there is now not only keyboards, but brass, string sections and female backing vocals. Additionally, Paul Weller seems to step back a bit as a guitarist, concentrating on his vocals and letting the extra instruments carry the weight.
The first fruit of this modified approach is the single ‘Absolute Beginners’ (UK no. 4), issued on 24 October 1981. It’s all about the brass on this song with massed trumpets blowing up a storm.
By contrast, a throaty organ dominates the A-side of the single issued on 29 January 1982, ‘A Town Called Malice’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 15) b/w ‘Precious’. A funky bass and a hand-clapping rhythm gives ‘A Town Called Malice’ a compulsive groove, against which the lyrics stand out in stark relief: “A hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts / Hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry.” Paul Weller states in an interview that, “’A Town Called Malice’ was about the U.K. under [conservative Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher.” And, as the chorus puts it, “It’s up to us to change a town called Malice.” ‘Precious’, the other side of the single is pseudo funk with Weller’s guitar mouthwash swirling past gnashing horn lines. Both these songs are contained on ‘The Gift’ (1982) (UK no. 1, US no. 82), released in March. Another track, ‘Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero’ (UK no. 8), is released as a single on 3 July 1982. This album uses a new producer, Peter Wilson, perhaps because the band’s new musical style requires a new set of ears in the control booth of the recording studio.
The single ‘The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)’ (UK no. 2, AUS no. 91) depicts a thwarted lover witnessing the object of his affection getting married to another man. It’s a stately piece with strident female backing vocals, banks of violins and what sounds almost like church bells. This single is put out on 10 September 1982.
On 30 October 1982 Paul Weller announces The Jam will disband at the end of the year. “It really dawned on me,” he explains, “how secure the situation was, the fact that we could go on for the next ten years, making records, getting hit records, getting bigger and bigger and all the rest of it. That frightened me because I realised we were going to end up the same, like the rest of them.” By this, he means acts like The Rolling Stones and The Who, bands whom Weller considers to have “overstayed their welcome.” John Weller, the band’s manager (and Paul’s father), thinks his son is ‘bonkers’. Bruce Foxton feels betrayed. Rick Buckler accepts the situation philosophically.
The Jam’s farewell single, ‘Beat Surrender’ (UK no. 1, AUS no. 35), closes the book on 26 November 1982. “All the things I care about / Are packed into one punch / All the things I’m not sure about / Are sorted out at once,” sings Paul Weller. The band’s latter-day style is maintained here with female backing vocals and plentiful keyboards.
“I didn’t shed a tear at the final gig,” claims Paul Weller. “I felt a sense of relief.”
The Jam, like Paul Weller’s early idols The Beatles, never reunite. Paul Weller forms a new act, The Style Council (1983 – 1990) to more fully explore his interest in rhythm and blues and soul. He then goes on to a solo career. In later years, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler work together again. Taking their name from The Jam’s final album, Rick Buckler forms a band called The Gift in November 2005 with Russell Hastings (vocals, guitar) and Dave Moore (bass). When Bruce Foxton joins on bass in 2007, Dave Moore moves to guitar and keyboards and the group name is changed to From The Jam. They relive The Jam’s hits for audiences old and new until Rick Buckler quits on 16 September 2009 and the enterprise collapses.
So that is the story of The Jam: eight years (1975 – 1982), six albums, and a clutch of stand-alone singles. The group moved from punk (‘In The City’ through ‘News Of The World’) to new wave (‘A-Bomb In Wardour Street’ through ‘Funeral Pyre’) to neo-soul (‘Absolute Beginners’ through ‘Beat Surrender’). A constant through these musical changes was Paul Weller’s lyrical concerns: a left-wing political view, urban nightmares, and a celebration of youth. Along the way The Jam probably inspired many young listeners. Another generation of schoolboys scribbled the name of their favourite bands on their textbooks, including among those bands The Jam, an outfit that were not just the dream of a schoolkid, but a flesh-and-blood entity…and one worthy of being remembered. The Jam was ‘one of the most important bands in the U.K. in the 1980s.’ ‘As The Jam grew more popular and musically accessible, [Paul] Weller became more insistent and stubborn about his beliefs.’
- wikipedia.org as at 18 March 2013
- allmusic.com, ‘The Jam’ by Stephen Thomas Erlewine as at 23 august 2001
- ‘The Illustrated Rock Handbook’ edited by Roxanne Streeter, Ray Bonds (Salamander Books, 1983) p. 110
- ‘The Illustrated New Musical Express Encyclopedia of Rock’ by Nick Logan, Bob Woffinden (Salamander Books, 1978) p. 116
- ‘Rolling Stone Rock Almanac’ by the Editors of ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine (Papermac, 1984) p. 267, 270, 282, 310, 345
- huffingtonpost.co.uk, Paul Weller interview dated 5 November 2012
- ‘New Musical Express’, Paul Weller interview quoted in (5) (above) p. 345
Song lyrics copyright C. Control with the exception of ‘Funeral Pyre’ (Warner Chappell)
Last revised 26 August 2014