Simply put, the Jam were quite possibly the greatest band that America ever missed out on. Coming as part of the first wave of British punk, the Jam went on to become the most popular of the original groups in their homeland, surpassing even the Clash in terms of popularity. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, it was a very different story. Their record label deemed them too British to be a viable commodity in the States, and bandleader Paul Weller’s unusual indifference to mounting a serious conquest here consigned his work to cutout bins and to the record collections of a few lucky fans. In the years since Weller pulled the plug on the Jam in 1982 to launch the Style Council, Jam albums have surfaced only intermittently in American record stores, frustrating the converted and cheating others out of a chance to discover a fantastic band.
When punk turned 25, the reissues and new collections began rolling in for its brightest lights, and the Jam has turned out to be no exception. The Sound of the Jam has now arrived and serves as the third serious attempt to cull together the best moments of the group. Snap! came first and won eternal devotion for its magnificent song selection and inclusion of a couple choice rarities. As the album itself became a rarity, a greatest hits collection came along and functioned as a passable imitation. Neither one really broke the band into American consciousness, so perhaps this made the people behind The Sound of the Jam wonder if they should try a different route.
Since the Jam had such a canonical list of singles, it’s tempting to simply put those together for a project like this, but Sound eschews this approach and delves into some nontraditional cuts like “Away From the Numbers”, “Mr. Clean”, and “Pretty Green”. On top of this, it tosses some rarities like “Liza Radley”, the fan club version of “Tales From the Riverbank”, and lost gem “The Butterfly Collector”. On the one hand, it’s an admirable move, especially since the Jam’s albums tend to be criminally overlooked in favor of their singles. “English Rose”, for example, is as deserving of a place on a retrospective as any other track, so it’s heartening to find it here. Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that Sound is trying to have it both ways, functioning as a best-of CD for the uninitiated and a rarities album to milk a few extra dollars or pounds out of the completists. It works much better as the former, offering a new and equally valid picture of the Jam. As the former, it hits and misses. While all the unearthed treasures are fine, they don’t unearth enough of them, sticking to the album versions of songs like “Start!” that were presented in superior form as singles. It would’ve been easy enough to include those, as it would’ve been to follow the lead of Snap! and use the spectacular demo version of “That’s Entertainment” instead the comparatively overwrought final cut.
Besides that, aficionados will mourn the absence of “All Around the World”, “A-Bomb in Wardour Street”, “Strange Town”, “Smithers-Jones”, “Absolute Beginners”, and the exhilarating “Funeral Pyre”, and while that’s a massive list for an album claiming to sum up the Jam, Sound does give much-needed credit to the band’s quieter side. It also is smart enough to present their work in chronological order. Changing as much as they did over the course of their brief career, the Jam works wonderfully in an anthology format. As Sound plays, you are able to hear Weller’s muse first ground him in mod-indebted punk, then teach him the lessons of Pete Townshend and Ray Davies, and lastly inject a little bit of soul into the mix. Despite the clear influences, Weller and his unsung partners Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler left behind a body of work that was wholly their own, one that shows off the fierce integrity of its authors. If The Sound of the Jam falters somewhat in packaging this, it at least takes a valiant stab at maintaining its rightful presence in the world as it turns a quarter-century old.