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Fire & Skill: the Songs of the Jam

(Epic)

Rolling Stone gave this puppy three and a half stars and Entertainment Weekly dolled out a B+, which just goes to show how weak the mainstream U.S. media’s memory of The Jam is. The pretenders to the throne on this collection don’t come close to matching The Jam’s ferocious talent (at least on this material). I doubt the ratings would have been that high had the critics in question actually listened to the Jam within the last decade. Fire & Skill was almost universally-panned in England, where the Jam were THE biggest group of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s and are still beloved, and with good reason.


Part of the problem is the material—Paul Weller’s songs are a bit too idiosyncratic to make for good cover fodder. With Weller’s Jam material, the songs drew their force from the singular combination of Weller’s choppy Rickenbacker guitar and exaggerated working class singing voice, Bruce Foxton’s underrated, simultaneously rhythmic and melodic bass, and Rick Buckler’s terribly reliable drumming.


The few shining moments come from the three genuine Weller/Jam worshippers in the bunch: Noel and Liam Gallagher and Steve Cradock (Ocean Colour Scene). Liam’s “Carnation” is rather affecting (though certainly not brilliant). So is Noel’s slowed-down-but-true-to-the-spirit “To Be Someone,” where he actually manages to wring out the melancholy that was always hiding, even in the upbeat Jam version. Silver Sun’s “Art School” is one of the better picks of the litter. Hell, I’m just glad to see this joyful Beach Boy-esque power pop band getting some exposure in the States. Though you could pick up the Shooting Fish soundtrack and get their signature song, “Golden Skin.”


Bad moments: plenty, mate.


Everything But the Girl’s “English Rose” is mind-numbingly morose and manages to lose every trace of the beauty that positively gushed out of Weller’s original version. Ben Harper singing “The Modern World”—seldom has a singer been more poorly matched with cover material. There’s nothing even remotely punk about Harper and “The Modern World” isn’t exactly Weller’s greatest material—it really only works when full of spit and rage. Gene is a wonderful band, criminally ignored here in the States and more and more unappreciated in their native England, but they are ill-suited to the Motown-esque “Town Called Malice.” Martin Rossiter’s emotive voice would have been ideally suited to something a bit more melodramatic and ballad-like such as “The Bitterest Pill” (and that’s not a bad thing, incidentally). Rolling Stone draws special attention to Reef, one of the most embarrassingly atrocious British groups of the ‘90s, asserting that they rise to the occasion. Trust me, there’s nothing in Gary Stringer’s whine that adds anything to these tunes. Rather, it sends me scuttling for the forward button on my CD player.



Rolling Stone even makes the mistake of labeling the Jam’s songs “mod anthems.” There were hordes of retro mod bands toiling in the London clubs while The Jam racked up gold records and were on the cover of NME every time you turned around. No, they were far more than “mod anthems”—they were the songs of everyday, contemporary British life. Unlike the Clash, whose blend of punk, reggae, and old fashioned rock ‘n’ roll was couched in a very American frontier swagger and exotic foreign imagery, the Jam’s music was thoroughly rooted in the ordinary, not the extraordinary.


“Saturday’s Kids” is the prototypical Jam song, not talking about looking cool and having the right records as real “mod anthems” do, but painting a picture of dreary working class English life where pleasures are small and its protagonists never have the luxuries of worrying about Sandanistas or dreamin’ about rockin’ something as a exotic as a Casbah. “Saturday’s kids live in council houses / Wear V-neck shirts and baggy trousers.” Or “Wallpaper lives, ‘cause they all die of cancer.”


Or the songs that were my teenage anthems and meant everything to me in high school and, miraculously, still do:


“Going Underground,” the perfect song of both teenage angst and middle aged world-weariness. “Public wants what the public gets / but I don’t get what this society wants / I’m going underground.”


“The Eton Rifles,” mocking the fake revolutionary sentiments spouted by upper class poseurs. “Thought you were clever when / You lit the fuse / Tore down the House of Commons / In your brand new shoes. Composed a revolutionary / Symphony Then went to bed with a / Charming young thing.”



“Man in the Corner Shop,” with its optimistic pronouncement that “God created all men equal” and that the poor souls who toil away working for others have simple, but glorious dreams like working for themselves one day and seizing control of their own existence. “Walks off home does the last customer / He is jealous of the man in the corner shop / He is sick of struggling so hard / Says it must be nice to own a factory.”


Do these say “mod anthems” to you? Hardly. In fact, what it says to me, is that despite the undeniable greatness of The Clash (and they are one of the greatest rock bands ever), Paul Weller’s tunes have aged better than Joe Strummer’s and Mick Jones’ because the lyrics are more timeless and more relevant to the way people all of us know actually live.


About the only thing making Fire & Skill worth the bucks for hardcore Weller/Jam fans is the hidden Weller track at the end of the disc (“No One in the World”). Folks unfamiliar with this brilliant band need to look elsewhere. Pick up the remastered British imports of All Mod Cons (Polydor, 1978), Setting Sons (Polydor, 1979) and Sound Affects (Polydor, 1980), and Live Jam (Polydor, 1993) and be done with it. They’ll prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Clash wasn’t “the only band that mattered.” *



* This is, of course, a reference to Rolling Stone‘s often-repeated assertion that the Clash were “the only band that matters”—a preposterous statement by any stretch of the imagination, and one I like to attack whenever given the chance. And yet, I must confess, I am a passionate Clash fan as well and fully recognize their monumental place in the rock pantheon, so this is not meant as an effort to slag them off.

Rating:

Sarah Zupko founded PopMatters, one of the largest independent cultural criticism magazines on the web, back in the Internet's early days of 1999. Zupko is a former Executive Producer for Tribune Media Services, the media syndication arm of the Tribune Company, and a 10-year veteran of Tribune. Her other pursuits involve writing historical fiction and research in the fields of Slavic and German history, as well as general European cultural and intellectual history. Zupko studied musicology, film, and drama at the University of Chicago and media theory at the University of Texas, where she received her M.A.


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