A Big Decision in a Town Called Malice: Ranking The Jam’s Albums
“At the end of this year, The Jam will be officially splitting up,” Paul Weller wrote in October 1982, “as I feel we have achieved all we can together as a group. I mean this both musically and commercially”. Although this statement preceded my existence by nine years, as well as my discovery of the band by about twenty five years, the words still conjure a numbing hammer blow to my deepest gut.
For me, The Jam are the greatest British band, challenged only by the majestic melancholy of Morrissey and The Smiths. In their relatively short existence, a mere six recording years, The Jam produced a remarkable body of work that included six albums and over a 100 tracks in the process. Influenced by American Blues and the threatening pub rock of Dr Feelgood, The Jam (Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler) cut their teeth during the explosive culture leveller that was Punk, yet right from the start it was clear they were different from their safety pin impaled peers.
Firstly, The Jam hailed from the unfashionable Surrey suburb of Woking, far removed from the elitist Art School heart of Punk, and secondly the band were heavily influenced by 60s Mod culture, a style, which in light of Punk’s DIY aesthetic, looked alarmingly square and nostalgic. Weller and co shunned the tide and wore their sharp suit led style firmly on, and as part of, their sleeves allowing them to differentiate themselves from the abundance of three cord wonders that were swarming the country.
Fellow Mod and pioneer of The Who, Pete Townshend, once remarked ‘The Jam are so fucking British’. That brief comment hits the nail firmly on the head. The Jam were unashamedly British and all the better for it. Hailing from the tedious anonymity of small town England The Jam captured the essence of what it was to be young, angry and English. Weller’s lyrics, delivered in a sharp, snarling manner, were a faultless commentary of England. Corner Shops, Tube stations, Woolworths and Eton were just a few of the intrinsically English institutions that Weller called on and elevated beyond their rather mundane face value.
I’ve yet to hear a band that quite so accurately gave a voice to this country, The Kinks are probably the closest run contenders but Weller managed to usurp his hero Ray Davies with The Jam. The band’s direct live performances, unabashed Mod heritage and lyrical content didn’t endear them to America meaning they remain a relatively unknown entity across the pond. America’s loss was of course England’s gain.
For all the Jam’s success, which was considerable by 1982 with four number one singles and a number one album, Weller was crumbling under increased pressure that came with such chart topping triumphs. The nation’s youth had nominated Weller to be the spokesperson for their generation, a role he was unwillingly and unable to fulfill.
So at the ripe age of 24 Weller abandoned The Jam reiterating his fears of selling out; “I’d hate us to end up old and embarrassing like so many other groups”. Weller was a man of unwavering principles and The Jam’s youthful exuberance and aggression didn’t seem authentic to him at this age. The nation mourned, the fans begged a reprise and rest of the band sat shell-shocked but Weller would not budge. The group’s last single and album, ‘Beat Surrender’ and ‘The Gift’ respectively, shot to number one and they ended their spell at the top fittingly with a final performance in Mod stronghold Brighton.
To celebrate The Jam’s wonderful legacy I thought I’d rank their albums in order of greatness. It’s sure to be a contentious old list, but here it goes:
6. This is the Modern World (1977)
The definition of the ‘difficult second album’. The Jam followed up their blistering debut, In the City, with This is the Modern World. It’s not that the album is a travesty or unmitigated disaster, it’s just that there’s little truly memorable amongst its twelve tracks. The titular opener, ‘The Modern World’, is a real fiery start, and album highpoint, filled with Punk’s aggressive and scathing eye that follows on seamlessly from their prior album. Yet as the album ventures on in the form of short, sharp, up tempo R&B the tracks blend into one another. Most songs begin with Foxton’s swiftly driven bass line before merging into a succinct drum roll from Buckler, an approach that becomes hackneyed rapidly. Third track ‘Standards’ opens with guitar riff unsurprisingly similar to The Who’s ‘I Can’t Explain’, in fact the whole albums feels like a watered down homage to The Who’s debut album My Generation.
If it weren’t for In The City then This is the Modern World would air as a perfectly decent album, but in the shadow of their electric predecessor it all seems terribly mediocre. Bar the blistering ‘In The Street Today’, which flashes by in one minute thirty, there’s not enough in either Weller’s writing or compositions to grip you. Throughout the record you can feel Weller’s uncertainty in the wake of Punk’s twilight – stick or twist, evolve or stagnate. Punk or Pop? This is the Modern World is mostly indecision.
5. The Gift (1982)
The odd thing about The Gift is that despite being the band’s only album to reach number one it sounds the least like The Jam as we know them. While Weller was still months away from leaving the band, the warning signs are present on The Gift in the form of jazz infusions, Northern Soul adaptations and saxophone solos – soon to be tropes of his new band The Style Council. Songs like ‘Precious’, ‘Trans-Global Express’ and ‘The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong’ lapse into funky jamming sessions with little of The Jam’s inimitable sound, the latter a particularly naff Caribbean ensemble of steel drums and horns. These moments point to Weller’s increasing desire to expand his musical horizons, much to the detriment of The Gift’s continuity.
Despite The Gift’s peculiar experimentation the album does include some of the band’s greatest tracks. The obvious calling card is ‘A Town Called Malice’. Foxton’s baseline, lifted from ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’ demands the listener to get up off their feet and join in Weller’s rallying cry to Thatcher’s nation, lonely housewives and all. Elsewhere ‘Ghost’ and ‘Carnation’ are tender touches that swap musical complexity for nuanced delivery. The album’s peak is with ‘Just Who Is The 5 O’clock Hero ?’ which demonstrates all of Weller’s lyrical talents as he describes the “aches and pains” of the working everyman.
For avid Weller aficionados The Gift stands as the perfect blend of The Jam and The Style Council, but for those less enamoured with the latter’s output the album is a painful reminder of The Jam’s demise. At least fans could take solace in the fact Weller followed his own advice on anthemic opener ‘Happy Together’, “And that I would let you/Walk away without at least goodbye”, by giving his devoted following a proper send-off…bar the steel drums.
4. In The City (1977)
In the vitriolic filth and fury of Punk, where everyone and their gran formed a band, The Jam were always outsiders and In The City signposted an early detour from their peers. The group’s suburban heritage, Mod aesthetics and lack of an art school education positioned them as quite a different beast. Weller confronts the band’s unique position off the bat, as well as championing the youthful air of new possibilities, with ‘Art School’ singing “Wear any clothes just as long as they’re bright/Say what you want, ‘cos this is a new art school/Do what you want, ‘cos this is the new art school”.
Unlike much of Punk, The Jam seemed capable of channelling the movement’s hostility into a style beyond loud and fast. For all 100 mile an hour intensity of ‘In The City’, ‘Slow Down’ and ‘Takin’ My Love’ there’s a clear R&B influence that elevates them beyond mosh-able crowd pleasers. The appearance of menacing ‘Batman Theme’ cover was a clear indicator of them taking direct influence from ‘60s R&B masters The Who and The Kinks.
Even in their rawest form The Jam were capable of slowing the tempo and mixing up their repertoire. ‘Time for Truth’ and ‘Away From the Numbers’ are indicators that The Jam were never going to be limited by the Punk’s limited, nihilistic outlook. In fact, the latter track is Weller’s message to the masses that he wasn’t going to let The Jam be just another Punk band born today, dead tomorrow. In The City might not have complexity and ingenuity of later recordings but it makes up for it via sheer primal vigour – just check out their frenzied live performances from the time.
3. All Mod Cons (1978)
After This is the Modern World The Jam were a mess; Weller had fallen into a deep rooted musical apathy, Foxton’s album demos were panned by Polydor and critics were labelling the band one hit wonders like so much of Punk’s limited legions. Yet somehow through his mounting pressure and criticism The Jam responded with the remarkable All Mods Cons, an album that cemented the band’s status the most important group since The Beatles.
The album’s biggest success is Weller’s evolution as a songwriter. Taking cues from Ray Davies of The Kinks Weller began to draw heavily on the world around him to create character driven narratives. All Mod Cons features a cover of The Kink’s David Watts, an ode to an infallible school boy, which sets the template for Weller’s future material. ‘To Be Someone’ takes up the perspective of a broken superstar; “And the bread I spend – is like my fame – its quickly diminished” he laments. On ‘Mr. Clean’ Weller takes aim at the privileged face of capitalism on his daily commute over a Motown inspired melody. The track also reminds us of Weller’s simmering anger when he belts “’Cause I hate you and your wife/And if I get the chance I’ll fuck up your life”.
The album, and perhaps The Jam’s, highlight is closing track “Down in The Tube Station at Midnight”. Perfectly encapsulating The Jam’s brilliance, the song finds all three members on outstanding form; Weller’s narrative of a run in with right-wing thugs, Foxton’s vital leading bass line and Buckler’s drummer crescendo that mirrors a hurtling train. It’s simply a faultless piece of music.
All Mod Cons is a joyous record and one that firmly planted The Jam in the hearts and charts of England. From the soft acoustic balled of ‘English Rose’ to the foot stomping delight of ‘It’s Too Bad’, all the way the Clash-esq abrasiveness of ‘’A’ Bomb on Wardour Street’, All Mod Cons was a revolutionary step forward.
2. Sound Affects (1980)
At the time of writing Sound Affects Paul Weller had a peculiar obsession with electricity pylons. Bar their tangible appearance on the album cover montage, the idea of pylons, a roundabout British institution, seems totally fitting once you hear Sound Affects.
While The Jam were always quintessentially English, Sound Affects seemed to encapsulate the country effortlessly in one fell swoop. ‘That’s Entertainment’, apparently written in under half an hour after a trip to the pub, ‘Man in The Corner Shop’ and ‘Monday’ are rooted in realism and observation of Weller’s quite ordinary suburban world. Despite the seemingly banal subject matter Weller’s words paint a gloriously vivid picture that’s oddly uplifting. It’s a testament to Weller’s lyrical prowess that he can turn the soul crushing Monday commute to work into a story of unrequited love.
The Jam’s key influences are joined by The Beatles, specifically Revolver, and post punk peers like Joy Division. While the latter’s dark influence appears in subtle stripping back, Weller’s time spent with Revolver is glaringly apparent via ‘Start!’ having its melody lifted straight off ‘Taxman’. Elsewhere the serene rewind intro for ‘Dream Time’ and layered vocals that drift through the album point towards a creeping psychedelia.
For all innovation on the record there are still a host of typically stirring tracks. ‘But I’m Different Now’ and ‘Set the House Ablaze’ demonstrate The Jam’s ability to simply create great, exciting, rock n’ roll. Where Sound Affects appeal lies in its ability to conjure a sense of time and place over an increasingly diverse sound. It may well be the band’s most rounded release.
And if you need any more convincing about Sound Affects’ merits just ask Paul Weller, it’s his favourite Jam recording and he should know.
1. Setting Sons (1979)
The great thing about working your way through The Jam’s back catalogue is that there’s not one album that clearly stands head and shoulders above the rest. Bar This is the Modern World, any of their other five albums could be claimed to be their best – for me Setting Sons is their absolute peak.
Setting Sons embryonic state was as a concept album about three best friends growing up only to be divided by the effects of war. The intriguing premise never quite took off with Weller running out of ideas and latterly labelling it “a bit of a half-baked concept”. Nevertheless, Weller still managed to salvage the wreckage and craft eight songs of impeccable class and guile.
The best place to start with Setting Sons is with the songs that bookend its running order – the two weakest tracks of the album. Opener ‘Girl on The Phone’ is an adequate, albeit safe, opener that despite a catchy hook and some inspired bass playing doesn’t have the punch to start us off. The album’s finale is a filler cover of Martha and the Vandella’s Motown classic ‘Heatwave’. A fantastic song in its own right but befitting of a B-side rather as the climax to end Setting Sons.
Those are the weak points, and even they are nothing worse than ordinary, which means the rest of the album is near perfect. If Sound Affects was a snapshot of everyday English life then Setting Sons is an exploration of tension, alienation and anger simmering within its noble citizens. This is Weller at the absolute peak of his lyrical powers, rather than focusing on setting scenes he’s crafting full blown narratives in under four minutes. The Jam started all about the young idea, yet by Setting Sons they’ve promoted themselves to voice of a nation.
The soldiers’ plight is cleverly and scathingly depicted through Weller’s sarcastic patriotism on ‘Little Boy Soldiers. “We killed and robbed/The fucking lot – but we don’t feel bad./It was done beneath the flag of democracy!” he mocks over a military drum roll. Closer to home the thumping ‘Private Hell’ takes the point of view of a housewife reflecting on a wasted life and ‘Smithers-Jones’, Foxton’s best lyrical contribution, shows the callous nature of capitalism over a rare string arrangement. Despite the group’s maturing outlook they still show their understanding of the country’s yoof on the rebel rousing energy of ‘Saturday’s Kids’.
Of all the tracks on Setting Sons there’s one that immediately stands out – ‘Eton Rifles’. Taking inspiration from a real life clash over Etonians and Right to Work protesters, Weller’s acerbic wit shines as he targets both sides. The chorus “Hello-Hurrah – what a nice day for the Eton Rifles” is the pumping focal point, but lines like “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest/What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” shows brilliance below the surface.
Setting Sons is like an album of singles. Weller’s passive aggressive lyrics and loud catchy choruses coupled with the music’s irrepressible high tempo energy are an unbeatable combination. The Jam are often noted as a great singles band, and for good reason but that’s a whole other debate, however with their albums they took the best of their 45 rpm releases to create a literary level quality of short stories – never better than on Setting Sons.