Never mind the Sex's the Jam

Sharps and Flats is a daily music review.

Published July 29, 1996 7:34PM (EDT)

we all know what's been going on with the Sex Pistols lately,
and we all have different thoughts about that. But many of even the most
cynical among us are squarely on their side. It doesn't matter who's
gotten slightly fat, or who's gone all thick-featured and burly, or
who's looking like a guilty-faced train conductor these days, or like a
big monkey. It's the Sex Pistols, after all: The band who saved us back
when alternative rock meant "progressive rock," which meant, at best,
Emerson, Lake and Palmer. We owe them for that. The Sex Pistols opened up
all kinds of doors for artists of all styles and shadings. Their touch
extends into the farthest reaches of pop music, and into everybody's record
collection. Johnny Rotten can eat all the heavy desserts he wants, as far
as some of us are concerned, because without him, where would we be? Yep.
Seeing the Emerson, Lake and Palmer reunion tour.

But there are, in fact, problems with this year's Pistols reunion, not
the least of which is that it's overshadowing a quiet renaissance of
reunion tours and albums, reissues and repackagings, from their
contemporaries and peers. Bands who, while maybe not as important
historically as the Pistols, have greater bodies of work, and are maybe
even more worth listening to on a regular basis. Bands like the Undertones,say. Or the Jam.

We don't honor the Jam as we should. There are no memorials to
the heroic struggles they undertook on our behalf. There are no Mountain
Dew commercials, or MTV press conferences or comic books. But they
worked harder than the Sex Pistols ever worked, and kept at it long
after the Pistols had gone out in a cloud of lawsuits and unfulfilled
contractual obligations. Those of us who remember the Jam from the late
'70s and early '80s -- the post-Pistols years -- remember them as a
bright spot in a firmament blotted dark with Styxes and Foreigners, and as
a band rewarded for their pains by ending up as a chew-toy for cranky rock
critics. We know them as keepers of a guttering aesthetic which has lately
come back into flame (with Pulp, and Oasis), but whose light has yet to
reach the place where lie their neglected bones.

They were far from alone: There were hundreds like them bubbling up
through the import bins, and circulating underground through tiny vanity
labels and Xeroxed fanzines. But they were large among their peers. Only
the Clash were consistently larger, and the Clash fell hard and flat at the
end, while the Jam were still climbing when they met their fate.

The Jam have just had their "All Mod Cons" (1978) and "Sound Affects"
(1980) LPs packaged together in a special 24-karat gold audiophile CD by
Mobile Fidelity. The price isn't steep, and
the sound quality is bone-chilling. Although the Jam never made a
definitive album, they made several great ones, with both "All Mod Cons"
and "Sound Affects" among them. Their hits and rarities have been collected
elsewhere, with the former on "All The Choice Cuts," "Snap!" and "Greatest
Hits," and the latter on "Extras." But there's no other collection as good
as this one in terms of cohesion and nuance. Although they were a singles
band, it was only through their albums that the Jam could really be

The Jam began as backwards teenage mod-revivalists in unfashionable
Woking, Surrey, but were quickly swept up into the rising punk movement.
Like the punk bands around them, the Jam were into short, energetic songs
with gritty guitars and quick, memorable hooks. But unlike anyone else
since before the hippie era, they windmilled Pete Townshend power chords on
vintage Rickenbackers and sported shirts and ties. They had old Vox amps, Steve Marriott bowl haircuts and winkle-picker shoes. And they were
serious about it all. If punk was a reaction to the fallout from the
Aquarius Generation, then the Jam were in denial. But they had their
Swinging London style down cold, and in their hands it became a living
style again. Early Who and Faces songs were never as impassioned, as
electrically charged, as early Jam songs. The Jam were only a three-piece,
but they tore up the stage like a 12-man demolition crew, and nobody dared
laugh at their shoes, ever.

"In The City," their 1977 debut album, is a poor document. On record,
the early Jam could sound flat or tinny. Their Rickenbackers didn't
chime so much as clang, and their machine-tight rhythm section seemed
unable to communicate across studio partitions. Their leader, Paul
Weller, was a studio purist early on; he insisted on recording all the
basic tracks direct-to-tape, and as a result, their first outing tends
to sound small and hurried. Their second album (also 1977), "This Is The
Modern World," is a rounder effort, and its "Life from a Window" was the
first absolutely, unambiguously classic Paul Weller song. But it's still
essentially an attempt by a ferocious live band to cram their sound onto
vinyl unchanged. It wasn't until their third LP, "All Mod Cons," that they
began to work with the recording studio, and not against it.

By this time, the Jam were also learning dynamics and pacing. They had
begun to spread their songs out so that their punch lines didn't pile up
and defuse one another. 'A' Bomb in Wardour Street," the jukebox hit, is
punky and abrupt, with clipped guitar downbeats trading off against naked
snare hits. But the effect is one of iron-firm discipline rather than blank
generation minimalism. 'A' Bomb" moves relentlessly forward, with gear-tight percussion and Weller's Mersey-gone-brutal guitar meeting and rising
in tandem and splitting off again. The tension is so thick that when the
song ends in an explosion, it's anticlimactic.

The critics' choice, "Down In the Tube Station at Midnight," is
an edgy, spooky masterpiece that pulls us by inches toward a brutal
subway mugging. Weller had become a razor-clean lyricist by "All Mod
Cons," and he'd begun to show signs of real importance -- of largeness -- by
giving life to characters and voices that were very different from his
own persona. In "Tube Station," he's a workaday London husband, braving the
subway to bring a curry back home to the wife. He paints the scene
dispassionately, but he plays his part so seamlessly that when the blows
start to rain down, it's hard not to wince.

"Setting Sons," their hard rock album, followed. A cranked-up,
overdriven guitar sound replaced Weller's standard treble attack; the
rhythm section unclenched a bit; the songs concentrated less on hooks and
more on muscle. But as good as "Setting Sons" is, it broke the continuum
between their earlier Swinging London '64 sound and the paisleys-and-shades
pre-psychedelic trip of "Sound Affects" (1980). With the latter, they were
back to making great Jam albums; whatever hard-rock demons they'd exorcised
with "Setting Sons" had left them free to write cleaner pop songs than they
ever had before. Their Swinging London '64 had become Swinging London '65. Which was a different thing entirely.

"Start!," the big hit from "Sound Affects," is a barefaced rip of the
Beatles' "Taxman." But it's a good rip. The Jam's years of outgunning
heavy punk bands on the tour circuit had taught them how to punch a beat
like few bands could, and the details they tossed on top of the mix,
like a restrained horn section, chimes and austere percussion,
made the riff their own. The album widens from "Start!" Piano and
acoustic guitar take over parts that the band would have blown through
with electric guitars a year or so before; the electric guitars are crisp
and varied, horns pop in and out exactly where they belong. The songs
themselves are less tightly written than on "All Mod Cons," but they're
more carefully layered.

"That's Entertainment," the song that everybody makes the
biggest deal over, is a coffeehouse-type acoustic number with ethereal,
multi-tracked backing vocals, handclaps and snatches of backward guitar
winding in and out of the mix. On the album, it's magic; live, it often
fell flat. Indeed, much of the album was tough to pull together live.
"Sound Affects" has a vintage high-tech feel, like a premium BBC Studios
recording from the Beatles' mid-period. The production details are all
finely attuned to the kind of warm, tight, post-Mod sound that the Jam was
reaching toward. But outside the studio, armed with only their Ricks and
Voxes in a boomy club, their earlier songs carried the show.

When they appeared on TV on the "Saturday Night Live" knockoff
"Fridays," they clunked through "Start!" like a cheap cover band, exiting
worry-eyed to polite, cheery applause. When they came back for a second
song, they rolled up their sleeves, cranked their amps up to 12, and
smashed the house to bits with "Private Hell" from "Setting Sons," leaving this time to stunned, open-mouthed silence. It was just that sort of contrast that
made their earlier fans decide that the Jam were becoming something very
different from what they'd wanted them to be. For a hall-packing,
closely watched live band, that sort of thing usually spells danger. It
was the beginning of the Jam's undeserved slide from respectability --
which is another story altogether. But here, on this collection, they're in
their prime with the world at their feet. There are better albums than
these two, but not so very many, and when the trumpets sound on that last
day, we'll all be getting extra points in the ledger for having had the
deluxe audiophile edition.

By Gavin McNett

Gavin McNett is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Gavin McNett

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