You can dock About the Young Idea a point for its lack of marketing vision, but the Jam were as good as three-and-a-half minutes or less gets.
London’s Somerset House, a cultural center housed in a neo-classical building located along the Thames where it bends by Covent Garden, is currently hosting an exhibition called "The Jam: About the Young Idea". Running through the end of September, the show presents memorabilia dug out from the closets of all three Jam members. It presents a wide variety of the band’s distinct and colorful merchandise, along with photographs, artwork, music videos, guitars, posters, correspondence, scrapbooks, fanzines, and even some of their original stage outfits. Anything and everything one could think of, basically. This limited edition CD, released in the UK to complement the exhibition, is similarly chock-full, determined to be as completist as a single best-of compilation can be.
The title of the exhibition and the CD is taken from the lyrics of the Jam’s first single, “In the City”, but it isn’t simply a convenient lift. The Jam were very much about being young, and “In the City” was their first call to arms for the kids, an intentional mission statement. Paul Weller himself was a month away from his 19th birthday when the 30-second radio spot for the single which opens this compilation (a delightful bit of nostalgia in a world where both radio and physical singles are now anachronisms) was running on British airwaves. As Daniel Rachel put it in his book of interviews with notable musicians, The Art of Noise, "Jam lyrics spoke directly to teenage anxieties. They defined feelings and attitudes that legitimized disaffection with society and the growing pains of dead-end routines and broken relationships."
Weller had actually started The Jam five years earlier, when he was a pupil at Sheerwater Secondary School. After rotating through various classmates, the line-up with bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler settled into place in the mid-‘70s. Time was still very much on their side when their first record ever cracked the Top 40. The Jam courted the youth audience, but not in a cynical way. The cheerleading could get a little over-the-top at times, such as Weller’s shout of “youth explosion!” in "All Around the World", but it was always genuine. Full of fire as they were, early on their brand of punk rock -- addressing police brutality in “In the City”, asking “what’s the point in saying destroy?” in “All Around the World” -- often sought to spark a more constructive discourse.
The band felt a responsibility to their audience, which was primarily composed of teenagers not much younger than themselves. To that audience, Weller was something of a wiser older brother; someone who seemed to have life figured out beyond what his age should allow. The full picture of the sway that Weller and the Jam had over young rock ‘n’ roll fans in late ‘70s Britain can be found in music writer Tony Fletcher’s memoir, Boy About Town . Fletcher was all of 14 years old when, as the editor of the then-fledgling fanzine Jamming, he went to interview Weller at RAK Studios in St John's Wood, where the band were recording All Mod Cons. Not only did Fletcher get his interview that day, he also got to dine on a fried egg sandwich with his new hero and, later, also hear songs from the new album before it was released. This was the kind of access most professional music journalists long to obtain. Fletcher was a schoolboy on his fifth issue of Jamming, and it was that interview which started him and his zine on the path to wider notoriety.
Weller didn’t forget about Fletcher, either. For years after, he was a regular fixture on the Jam’s guest list, and at one point, after the Jam broke up, Weller even enlisted him to help with starting a record label (a project that ultimately complicated their relationship). Indeed, from the beginning to the end of the Jam’s lifespan – a stunning 5-year creative evolution, much like the one the Smiths went on to have soon after – they never really lost sight of their core fan base. With each album, they brought their audience along with them into new territory, and as they grew as musicians and songwriters, that audience only got bigger.
The Jam have never really left the public consciousness of Britain since their break-up in 1982. Their first greatest hits album, Snap!, was released only a year after the split. Because it finally brought together all of the band’s crucial singles together with beloved album tracks in one collection, it was a must-have. US fans will be more familiar with Greatest Hits, the 1991 singles compilation. In fact, a 1999 collection put out by Polydor and still available in the UK already made the claim to be The Very Best of The Jam. Add to that Extras, as well as their BBC and live recordings, and it is clear that there is really no shortage of Jam collections out there. So what does About the Young Idea bring to the table?
Material-wise, not much: the advert for “In the City”, and a demo of “Takin’ My Love”. Had it focused solely on the earlier half of their career and their more fast and furious material, it might have made a stronger claim to keeping in the spirit of its chosen title. Disc One certainly seems to focus on ‘youthful energy’ for the most part (“English Rose” and the acoustic demo of “Burning Sky” aside), but because this spans the Jam’s entire career, adhering to its own titular premise proves a bit difficult. At 47 tracks, its mass sits somewhere between the 19 tracks of Greatest Hits (or 29 of Snap!), and the sum 68 tracks of their six studio albums plus the many non-album singles and B-sides.
The album that About the Young Idea culls from the most is All Mod Cons, with seven of its twelve songs making an appearance, though technically you might count it as six because this version of the Kinks’ “David Watts” is the single mix. Still a youthful album in many ways, All Mod Cons was also the band’s first artistic leap, showing they could comfortably mature and retain their vital elements at the same time. From Sound Affects, the record where they loosened their ties and started to experiment with funk and post-punk, six of eleven songs make the cut on About the Young Idea, along with half of Setting Sons (only because it uses the single version of “Smithers-Jones” (always rightly cited as Foxton’s finest songwriting contribution), not the string version from the album), and five of eleven from their swan song, The Gift.
In fact, About the Young Idea is so all-inclusive that it’s hard not to start questioning why certain album tracks got picked over others. It represents In the City well with “Art School” and “Away From the Numbers”, but, bravely wedged in between their heretofore undivided on any compilation ‘World’ singles trilogy, “In the Street Today” is nonetheless a safe, repetitive pick. The hastily thrown together This Is the Modern World may be the least loved Jam album, but it has its fans. Notable among them is Fletcher, for whom the record came around at just the right time in his life. His ardent defense of that album’s “Life from a Window” ("...a song that built up from nowhere, and which lacked a chorus, but had the most amazing middle eight…and which elevated the conversation with a poetic reference to painting a grey sky 'teenage blue'") is a fine argument for its place here.
As hard as it is to argue with the selections from All Mod Cons, “Fly” might have made for a more dynamic choice in place of, say, “Billy Hunt”, which, for all its vigor, falls flat with a chorus that just repeats the name ‘Billy Hunt’ over and over again. British audiences, with their greater appetite for ‘character sketch’ songs, would likely quibble with that point. To that end, it’s worth pointing out that “Billy Hunt” was swapped out for “The Butterfly Collector” (also included here) on the original US edition of the album. Apparently their US label thought America would relate to a dour character sketch of a fame-seeking rock 'n' roll groupie more than one of a man with odd revenge fantasies.
The nitpicking doesn’t have to end there. Though it is for the better that they left of the undercooked prog of “Little Boy Soldiers” and their last-minute cover of “Heatwave”, in the place of “Private Hell” (speaking of dour) might have stepped in the breezily charismatic “Wasteland” from Setting Sons. Also, if we’re going as deep into Sound Affects as “Monday”, perhaps some room could have also been made for “Scrape Away”, the record’s surging final attack?
About the Young Idea’s size and scope is, in a way, an admission that if owning one of the basic greatest hits collections isn’t enough for you, you should probably go ahead and pick up the studio albums – at least All Mod Cons through Sound Affects, arguably their most defining period. “In later years Weller would say that [Setting Sons] was too slick for his liking”, recalls music writer Paulo Hewitt, one of Weller’s closest friends since their teenage years, in his book Paul Weller: The Changing Man, “but most people rightly view this and Cons as the essence of the band.”
The question of who the target audience for this release is also looms over it. It doesn’t seem designed to serve old school fans, who surely have all these songs already. As a thorough introduction to the many facets of one of the tightest and melodically gifted (even with their many borrows, their talent for making those borrows their own was peerless) bands of the ‘70s, or any generation of rock ‘n’ roll, it would be well-suited for the current generation of the youth market it seemingly celebrates. That is, except for one fact: it is, currently at least, only available as a limited edition CD in the UK. Without actual demographic statistics to back the claim up, it’s still probably not that risky to suggest that it would have a better chance of being heard by the under-25 crowd were it to be available for download.
What’s more, this CD is only available on import in the US, a market that they never conquered like they should have. The Jam were too English to fully translate to American, perhaps. They wrote about universal subjects and emotions, but the stories Weller told with his lyrics were often peppered with details and references that weren’t going to resonate as strongly outside the British Isles: the double entendre of “all mod cons”, Wardour Street and Wormwood Scrubs, Eton and A-Z Guides. More so than many of their peers, the Jam's music captures something unique about their era in their country. Even from the lesser-known album tracks -- the ones that made the cut here, and the ones that didn’t -- one can glean at least a little something about the character of late '70s and early ‘80s Britain.
An opportunity shot, then, to properly introduce one of the best power trios there ever was to Millennials across the pond, at least for now. You can dock About the Young Idea a point for its lack of marketing vision, but otherwise this is as good as three-and-a-half minutes or less gets. Their run of classic singles, taut and poetic, from “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” onward, remains stunning. Their first number one hit, “Going Underground”, was meant to be the B-side of “Dreams of Children”, but wound up one of two A-sides due to an error at the pressing plant. No one blinked. That is the level they were operating at when the ‘80s rolled in, the three of them barely into their 20s.