In 1978, to a backdrop of tribal youth cultures and economic crisis, The Jam answered years of snobbish disregard from the London-based punk elite when their aggressive and melodic sound, previously sneered at by the capital’s hip art school set, came of age with the release of their third album, ‘All Mod Cons’.
By 1978 The Jam had released two albums of R&B-infused teenage punk to transient acclaim. Their debut ‘In The City’ had hit a real nerve with the new wave of mod kids, however their weak second album, ‘This Is The Modern World’ was met with a frosty reception by the music press. This scathing reaction shook main man Paul Weller and sent the band into a period of severe creative drought. Hoping the location would provide inspiration, Polydor hired an isolated country house to record the third album. Unfortunately the fresh air left little impression on the cappuccino-loving Weller and the new material drew a blank with the label.
Taking the opinion of Polydor to heart and realising that the glamorous mythology of London perhaps wasn’t all that great, Weller, the band’s principal songwriter and spokesman, left the buzz of London for his hometown of Woking to ponder their next step. The unchanged landscape recalled the life he had left behind; crumbling brick walls and empty chip shops, romantic teenage lovers under streetlights, the pouring of rain and the missing of buses. In the face of the transparency of the London scene these places and memories, although only half-formed, seemed real and true. This hazy nostalgia added a touch of whimsy to Weller’s songwriting, which referenced directly the innocence of English psychedelia.
Reunited with engineer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven the band progressed from their early Who arrangements, delving deeper into their beloved Sixties and finding massive resonance with the innovative recording techniques pioneered by George Martin and The Beatles. Coppersmith-Heaven introduced the band to double-tracking and phasing, adding to the psychedelic feel of the lyrics on the tender ode to love ‘It’s Too Bad’. This dreamy sentimentality is continued on ‘English Rose’. With its opening sounds of a tugboat and the tide splashing against the sand, it is a stripped-down acoustic track using finger-picking to accompany a personal and tender lyric that demonstrates the depth of feeling and maturity to Weller’s thoughts at the time. This level of reflection enabled him to look inward, adding depth, pathos and luxury to his songwriting.
As a consequence the lyrics became more like narratives, telling fly on the wall stories laced with emotion about the unnoticed subtleties of life. Influenced by The Kinks’ Ray Davies, Weller developed a third person commentary, honing a talent for narrative and storytelling. ‘All Mod Cons’ advances this notion in its creation of nameless characters moulded in the current issues of the day. In ‘Mr. Clean’ Weller mockingly parodies the rat race and capitalism backed by a tight rhythm section flirting with psychedelic phasing. Equally as studied, ‘Billy Hunt’ is a small-town reactionary pissed off with low-wages, shit pubs, and the limitations of a working class boy in Thatcher’s Britain.
Weller’s position as a suburban misfit made The Jam accessible to kids stranded in provincial nightmares. He was a cultured, articulate teenager but his small-town base grounded him, distancing him from the rock star life he was commenting on. This outsider perspective suggested the narrator existed outside of the action, looking with wide eyes through a steamed up window and articulating his involvement through fantasy. This third person introspection is utilised superbly on the scathing satire on fame and the London set, ‘To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have A Nice Time)’. As the track builds the lament shifts to a bitter indictment of the perils of fame. The narrator demonstrates his disgust at the transparency he encountered when ‘being someone’ on the music scene.
The album’s masterpiece though, and arguably the best thing The Jam ever recorded, is tragi-comic vignette ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’, the track which finally confirmed Weller’s arrival as a major lyrical talent. The lyric, which tells the story of a young man attacked on the underground, managed to tap superbly into the violent tension of the times. A heady mix of scathing resentment and fluctuating harmonies, the vocal, which feels as though it may go off the rails at any minute, is restricted by the tight musical arrangement until, doubling in speed, the track careers out of control toward a shambolic crescendo of emotion.
From its Sixties-influenced inner sleeve to the beauty of effects-drenched compositions like ‘The In Crowd’ and the lyrical perfection of ‘The Place I Love’, ‘All Mod Cons’ was the starting point in a journey that would see The Jam become one of the most revered bands of all time. The albums that were released in its wake saw Weller take the band on a diverse route to the very top of the music industry that he so despised. Petrified of complacency and always applying the mod ethos of never looking back and always progressing, Weller presented a new sound or idea for each further album before breaking up the band at the very peak of their powers, amid mass media hysteria and fans dependant on their mythology tearfully grieving their loss.
Although their ideas strengthened in its wake, never again were they as tight, incisive and fresh as on ‘All Mod Cons’, the album for which they will always be remembered and whose influence is plastered all over the sound of this decade.
Words: Shane Gladstone
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