[21 October 2012]
PopMatters Features Editor
While the Sex Pistols remain the phlegm-encrusted embodiment of late ‘70s punk, the Jam are better known for sharp suits and smart pop. But back in 1977, when both bands released their first albums, punk was yet to be so strictly defined. For a few exciting months at least, it seemed like the field was wide open—any band in London with an with aggressive and energetic approach to rock ‘n’ roll could have been considered punk at the time, and the Jam was right there in the thick of it.
It wasn’t planned that way. While the Sex Pistols were specifically designed to cause havoc, the Jam started as a community hall dance band, doing watered-down Beatles covers and Motown standards for disinterested pub-goers and overboozed wedding guests. For years, they played small gigs in their hometown of Woking, Surrey, earning a pittance and growing more frustrated by the day at the moribund state of English rock and roll. Paul Weller’s vision for the band was to mix Quadrophenia-era Who with the R&B attack of Essex pub-rockers Dr. Feelgood. The problem was, the geezers the Jam played for weren’t interested in Weller and Co.’s mod affectations, and the young audience the band was searching for was still into Zeppelin and disco.
But they wouldn’t be for long—the Sex Pistols saw to that. In ’76, Weller and other members of the Jam attended a Pistols show at London’s Lyceum Theatre, and like every other young, disaffected kid who saw the band that year, they left with a completely different idea of what rock and roll was supposed to be. Watching Johnny Rotten snarl and swagger his way through an early Pistols set including the Who-ish “Did You No Wrong” and a Small Faces cover (“Watcha Gonna Do About It?”) was a revelation to the 18-year-old Weller.
“It was brilliant,” he later told biographer Paolo Hewitt. “The whole experience swung it for me. There was a scene going on and I wanted to be a part of it.” *
While Weller would always remain a mod at heart, he, like millions of other English kids that year, was shaken and roused by the energy and bombast of what the media had begun to call Punk Rock.
“The Sex Pistols completely changed my attitude toward music” Weller would go on to write. “This led me to see The Clash in ’76 as well and it was the first time I was exposed to political music and the importance of lyrics.” *
Weller was deeply affected by the protest message inherent in punk, and his lyrics began to show it. Yet he was also smart enough to see punk for the career opportunity that it was. Nothing if not ambitious (and lacking any other aptitude), Weller had always wanted to be a pop star, and it soon became obvious that any band who missed the punk wave was destined to drown beneath it.
Owing partly to the tenacious management skills of John Weller (Paul’s dad) and partly to a cagey DIY publicity campaign, the Jam began sharing bills with bands like Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Buzzcocks, Subway Sect and other punk upstarts. Soon enough, they were signed in a major-label feeding frenzy by Chris Parry from Polydor records, who was desperate to add a punk act to his roster after letting the Clash slip away to CBS.
The Jam’s first LP, In The City, was released in April 1977, six months before the Sex Pistols’ ferocious Never Mind the Bollocks. The two records differ greatly in both their interpretation of rock and in the effect they had on popular music. But they are alike in just as many ways. While punks liked to pretend they were wiping the slate clean and creating a completely new style of music, the reality was that most punk acts were mining a claim that was opened by ‘50s artists like Little Richard, worked over by ‘60s acts like MC5 and abandoned by ‘70s chartbusters like Rod Stewart.
Listening to the Jam’s and the Pistols’ debut albums back to back, one hears many common influences. But there are two songs which beg to be compared directly, seeing as they are built around the same chord progression: The Jam’s “In the City” and the Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun”. (The Jam had theirs out first and have claimed that the Pistols stole it from them.) The main riff for both songs is a descent down the major scale, a half-step and two whole steps, like a drunk rolling down a staircase. While Steve Jones blurs the chords into one another, Weller chops his off aprubtly, so that the aforementioned drunk bounces roughly down the stairs while Jones’ slides down, oblivious.
Over the riff, Rotten slides in with the oblique tease, “A cheap holiday in other people’s misery,” while Weller and Jam bassist Bruce Foxton step directly into the song with, “In the city there’s a thousand things I wanna say to you…” The opposite approaches of each band, even working with similar material, create a kaleidoscope of small ironies when viewed side by side. While one song is about escaping the city, the other is about being drawn to it. Where Rotten is bitchy and theatrical, Weller is straightforward and plainspoken. Yet both songs exemplify different aspects of the same frustration—that young people are being walled in, ignored, forcibly pacified. Somehow both bands reach that same conclusion by travelling in opposite directions.
The image I get when listening to these songs side-by-side is of a tattered and safety-pinned Johnny Rotten being hauled in front of a bewigged, monarchist judge to answer for some minor indecency. Asked to defend himself to the court, Rotten launches into an obscene and devastating tirade that manages to insult everyone present. He is about to be tied up and tossed into the Thames when his barrister rushes in wearing brothel creepers and a white, three-button blazer.
“Squire Weller,” bellows the judge, “What have you to say about your client’s disgraceful actions?”
“Your Honor,” Weller begins, “There’s a thousand things this man and I want to say to you. But whenever we approach you, you make us look a fool…” From there, Weller lays out a carefully constructed case as to why English youth are in revolt, how young men like Rotten “want to tell you about the young ideas, but you turn them into fears. Your honor, in the city, there’s a thousand faces shining bright, and those golden faces are under 25. And in the city there’s a thousand men in uniform, and I hear they now have the right to kill a man. We want to say, we want to tell you about the young idea. And if it don’t work, at least we tried.”
The judge is impressed by the young barrister, though he orders that Rotten be tossed in the river anyway. Nonplussed, the Modfather brushes his lapels, exits the courtroom and goes on to become one of the most celebrated English songwriters alive.
The Jam, with their mod suits and jangly guitars, were not universally loved by English punks of the day. Sniffin’ Glue fanzine editor Mark Perry has said he considered the band “A bit of a joke. I just thought it was ridiculous that these guys, dressing in suits and having all these Mod-ish moves, would try to latch onto punk. When you compared them to the Pistols, they seemed opposite to what punk was supposed to be about.”* Still, as Perry has admitted, the Jam were just too great of a band to write off as poseurs. Films of early performances attest to that.
As they matured, their music became less guitar-centric and more soul and gospel-influenced. Yet Weller never lost his lyrical bite or his social conscience. Even the soft, acoustic swell of 1980’s “That’s Entertainment” has a cynical, raw quality, with lyrics like “A smash of glass and the rumble of boots / Electric train and a ripped-up phone booth / Paint-splattered walls and the cry of a Tomcat / Lights going out and a kick in the balls…”
Sounds pretty damn punk to me.
* As quoted in John Reed’s Paul Weller: My Ever Changing Moods
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A treasure trove of articles and interviews on the early years of the Jam can be found here.