In November, Universal Records are bring out a limited edition vinyl box set featuring all six of The Jam’s studio albums, plus two extra L.P.s covering non-album singles and B-sides. So to mark the occasion, I’ve been digging out my old vinyl, and giving them a bit of a re-assessment. We’re now up to 1979. By this time, Margaret Thatcher had been voted in as Britain’s first woman Prime Minister and we’ve endured the winter of discontent. The Jam’s fortunes were on the upturn following the respectable performance of “All Mod Cons” in the LP charts in 1978. Two strong singles had been released during the year (“Strange Town” and “When You’re Young” - both of which made the top 30) but Paul Weller & co now had the unenviable task of trying to maintain that momentum.
Weller’s original idea was to record a concept album, telling the story of three friends and their individual journeys through life. However, that idea fell by the wayside, but instead, we were presented with a mixed collection of songs, some of which would have worked well within the original concept.
…(Phone’s ringing!) Well, not quite - this is actually the opening track called “Girl On The Phone” About a character who appears to know the narrator so well, even down to his most intimate details. Could this be an early reference to stalking? Just saying. “Thick As Thieves” is next, recounting a group of friends who promise to stay together through thick and thin, but eventually drift apart. (Oh well, such is life…) A theme which the trio return to on “Wastelands” and “Burning Sky” but we’ll cover those songs shortly.
In the meantime, “Private Hell”, which is probably one of the best tracks on the album focuses on a woman’s struggle with day to day living. The husband not at home as often as she would like, “working late as usual”. The children having moved on with their own lives. “Little Boy Soldiers” is a bit of a departure from the usual format. Here, the song’s broken into sections, almost like movements in a symphony. The band even throw in a bit of cello and timpani for dramatic effect. Even a recorder gets used in “Wastelands” where the three friends meet up and discover that things appear to have changed, but not for the better.
Onto side two which opens up with “Burning Sky” in which one of the friends writes a letter to his companions, all of whom have now seemingly gone their separate ways for good. The next number “Smithers-Jones” (which, by the way has been cited as Bruce Foxton’s best composition) first appeared on the B-side of “When You’re Young”, but for the album version, is re-arranged for string quartet (as suggested by Rick Buckler). The story tells of the loyal employee who’s hoping for that promotion he’s been promised, only to find that he’s not seen as part of his boss’ future plans.
The next track, “Saturday’s Kids” paints a vivid picture of suburban life, with the girls working in the local department store while the boys are thinking about “lots of beer and half-time results“. (well, it’s a scenario you could see in any town centre I suppose.)
Then we get the trump card in the form of “The Eton Rifles” (apparently one of David Cameron’s favourite songs.). Crashing in on a combination of power chords, feedback, rapid-fire drum fills and a bass line which has you hooked in a matter of seconds, the song sorts itself out into a classic pop form. Recounting the story of a “Right To Work” march which passes one of the major English public schools, the schoolboys jeering as the march passes by. Weller summed it up in a radio interview once as “the privileged and the underprivileged clash”. which to me is a pretty accurate assessment which holds true even today. Anyway, released as a single a few weeks before the LP came out, “The Eton Rifles” became their first top ten hit, and set the standard for the next three years, when they would be a near-permanent fixture at the top end of the UK singles charts.
The album closes with “Heatwave”, another nod to their earlier soul and Motown influences. This time a cover of the old Martha & The Vandellas classic, staying faithful to the original, but with that signature guitar sound just prominent enough to make the song their own.
On the whole, it’s a good album, but it would have been interesting to see how it would have developed had Weller persevered with the original concept. Besides Weller, Foxton’s and Buckler’s contributions are as solid as ever, and with the occasional guest thrown in for good measure (including future Style Councillor Mick Talbot on keyboards - billed here as “Merton Mick”) the album does bear repeated listening.
So The Jam ended the 70s on something of a high note, but few would have predicted how 1980 would have started for the band…