Wednesday 10 July 2013

The JAM: The Gift

(#260: 20 March 1982, 1 week)

Track listing: Happy Together/Ghosts/Precious/Just Who Is The 5 O'Clock Hero?/Trans-Global Express/Running On The Spot/Circus/The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong/Carnation/Town Called Malice/The Gift

Currently, on the Popular subsection of the Freaky Trigger website, there are at least three pained discussions going on about Britpop, and specifically about Blur and Oasis; the number one singles project has reached the late summer of 1995, but this tale is as yet thirteen years behind, and so I cannot realistically contribute anything to these discussions as I have my own things to say, and at length, about all three phenomena. Nevertheless, the talk has got me pondering about the nature of tribalism in British popular music, the overwhelming maleness underlying the core beliefs of so much British rock and perhaps the futility of trying to rank or categorise anything, least of all an art form so dependent on the subjective response of the individual (and its subsequent conflict or concordance with the needs of a group, or demographic). In the context of a tale which is based on records which sold more (and were therefore better?) than other ones, I recognise the potential failure of these gestures.

And if Oasis and Blur have a common ancestor, then it must be The Jam, for no group in early eighties Britain spoke more specifically about, and to, young people (especially young men). If you attempted a crude aesthetic separation between the two nineties bands, then Oasis would represent the stubborn Weller, always a Mod, always respectful of the past, of the Rock Footprint, and mindful of the need not to violate it (and, by extension, not to make it interesting in any useful new way), whereas Blur would stand for the anxious, impatient 1982 Paul Weller, hearing all these old records, all this (to him) new music, wanting to move on and loudly desperate to break away and cut himself free.

Both of these Wellers are at work throughout The Gift – in six studio, non-compilation attempts, the only Jam album to make number one, as well as the sixth – and I am not convinced that one Weller isn’t constantly fighting to overturn the other, even though the record’s two exercises in what sounds like self-examination – “Ghosts” and “Carnation” – are ultimately, as with the rest of the album, aimed directly at the listener. Yet I know that the words sung or shouted here are as relevant, maybe never more relevant, now - the scenarios of “Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero?” and “Running On The Spot” are startlingly fresh in their three-decade-old observations – and also that, in 1982 Britain, nobody else would have been prepared to express them. If you wonder why Springsteen didn’t break through commercially in Britain until 1985, it could be that Weller and The Jam fulfilled Springsteen’s speaking-to-his-constituency role, and that references to Sunday’s roast beef and the Co-Op hit harder to this home than there not being any jobs now, on account of the economy (even though “The River” and “Town Called Malice” are essentially saying the same thing). It wasn’t disadvantageous that Weller was nearly nine years Springsteen’s junior – i.e. the same age, or near enough, as his audience – and came without the American history that is so essential to understanding Springsteen’s early work.

In the NME writers’ album poll of 1978, All Mod Cons finished second behind Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and I don’t consider that an unreasonable result. Both records look at slowly disintegrating communities – and, by extension, countries - in fairly unsparing detail. But Springsteen’s is the greater record because of its maturity borne out of decades of painful patience; “Badlands” doesn’t possess the nihilism of “’A’ Bomb In Wardour Street,” “Prove It All Night” is “English Rose” stripped of its idealistic, and ultimately fatal, daydreaming.

If All Mod Cons works best, out of all The Jam’s albums, as an album, it is because great care was evidently taken to make its songs work as a unified whole; the angry narrator of “Mr Clean” may be the same person who puts the boot in on “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight,” while the latter song’s hapless, and probably quite stupid, protagonist can be believed to be the na├»ve narrator of “English Rose” (“I scoured the whole universe/And caught the last train home”). It is unclear whether the subject of “Tube Station” dies at the end of the song or merely slips into confusion and unconsciousness, but the song proves a pitiless ending to a particularly brutal record, whose punning title underlines the fact that 1978 London could be as unforgiving a shithole as in any other time in its history.

But to be unified, forthright and angry doesn’t necessarily translate into a great record, and so I have to go for “Racing In The Street” over “Tube Station” because, although its setting is equally empty and aimless, its emotional procession is more considered, better thought through, and, above all, the song’s closing minutes offer the essential ingredients of consolation, consolidation, determination and hope. We can, the song seems to suggest, make something new out of this ruination.

Listening to The Gift, with its endless exhortations to “keep moving,” suggests that Weller might have come to a similar conclusion. And yet – as both the proto-jogging album cover and its original Northern Soul all-nighter depicting inner sleeve imply – any movement here feels frenetic, forced, static.

Perhaps this is down to The Jam being, beyond question, one of Britain’s great singles bands – and the younger Gallaghers in particular (one of whom would later make the top ten with a cover version of “Carnation”) must have had their attention drawn to the importance that the group invested in the single, from packaging to intent (“Start!,” now unbelievably a number one in 1980, goes so far as to debate with its listener what a pop single might be for, and that it might actually be a stepping stone in helping people get along and bond better) – and simultaneously never really cutting it with their albums. In the context of a 45 rpm record, furious blasts like “Strange Town” and “All Around The World” make absolute sense; but 1979’s Setting Sons, for instance, is muddled and vague about its central thematic concept, and the impact of a killer finale in “The Eton Rifles” – in which the oppressed finally and bloodily learn that what doesn’t kill Mr Clean makes him stronger, especially in numbers – is thrown away in favour of a lacklustre reading of “Heatwave.” 1980’s Sound Affects moved closer to Weller’s notion of The Jam not really being The Jam any more, but is still a collection of great moments – “That’s Entertainment” is a canvas worthy of Larkin, “Music For The Last Couple” and “Scrape Away” dare to suggest that Unknown Pleasures, Off The Wall and 154 can coexist before the world dissolves  - isolated in a morass of the routine.

Neither record had the impact of 1981’s brutal pair of stand-alone singles, “Funeral Pyre” and “Absolute Beginners,” in which Weller appeared intent on testing his group, let alone his audience, to the point of destruction. Indeed, on “Funeral Pyre” the group appear to be in the throes of shaking themselves to pieces, where all that is left are Weller’s feel so old/young murmurs and Rick Buckler’s affronted drum tattoos. Whereas the double-header – or it should have been – of “Absolute Beginners” and “Tales From The Riverbank” hardly seems to have been made by “The Jam”; Teardrop Explodes trumpets, “love is in our hearts” and, on the B-side, psychedelia softened to the point of near-MBV wooziness.

So when the single of “Town Called Malice/Precious” came out in early, snowy 1982, it must have felt to many that “their Jam,” the Paul Weller “they” knew, was back, and it gave them their first number one (and a double performance on Top Of The Pops) in eighteen months. That and Polydor’s marketing, which was as astute as the label had once been with Slade; studio “Malice” and edited “Precious” on a picture sleeve 7-inch, live “Malice” and full-length “Precious” on the 12-inch – and many fans, myself included, bought both. Similarly, initial copies of The Gift came packaged in a pink-and-white-striped paper shopping bag, with the legend “A GIFT…” marked at its top; these are now collectors’ items, but I recall seeing copies still in the racks in 1983.

Hence it is time to come to The Gift, a record I have known, from first word (or howl) to last note for the last thirty-one years. It is also time to come to a dreading realisation about myself, and about time, since this is a record which once meant “everything” to me, and not just to me either. I am acutely aware that I am in danger of trampling on memories, including the memories of people who are no longer around to give their side of the story. Thoughts of concerts at the Michael Sobell Leisure Centre, of forgotten fanzines, and everything else, are thoughts not available to the contour of this tale; they remain too private, too personal, for public consumption.

But I also have to face up to the fact that I must address these records in terms of how I feel about them now, not how I used to feel about them in the past. And, essaying this lamentable attempt at objectivity, I have to say that, for a record which talks so rabidly of escape, movement and renewal, The Gift is musically as epileptic as anything The Jam ever recorded.

The problem with The Jam for me now is to do with their music and its delivery. What works over three minutes on a single can sound strained over album length, even one as constricted and concise as this one (The Gift lasts just over thirty-two minutes). Too often The Jam floundered, sounded clenched, oxygen-deprived, with Weller’s noble savage vocals actually pushing away the outside listener, as though obliged to jog in a limbo between 1964 and 1977. As I have suggested, they never made a great album – but at the same time, they never made an album which wasn’t worth listening to, at least once (even This Is The Modern World has “Tonight At Noon”).

Still, I am not sure whether I would be moved to listen to The Gift again. “Happy Together” opens with a faded-in shout, as though Weller had just run into the studio out of the pouring rain, or the apocalypse, and its declarations of love, though attractive enough to move impressionable teenagers to think of this as “our tune” (“We’re happy together now…/Happy till the end of time” etc.), are not exactly reassuring; note how Weller yells out the final “NOW!” as though the future has already been forfeited.

The album’s problems, and clearly the group’s own problems, are epitomised by “Precious,” Weller’s attempt at all-out Britfunk. But he misses out the deceptive delicacy of Light Of The World and Central Line; frequently he sounds like a stampeding hippopotamus wanting to know why he can’t be loved. And while Foxton and Buckler could do a lot of things as a rhythm section, being funky wasn’t one of them; their beats sound joyless and forced. They sound as though Weller is leaving them behind, which is exactly what was happening. Moreover, for a song which more or less owes its base structure to “Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag,” one has to say that the contributions of horn players Steve Nichol (trumpet) and Keith Thomas (soprano sax) are cautious, conservative and timid; they do not erupt loose like the Bristol players (or Rip Rig & Panic or Maximum Joy for that matter) and the group as a whole certainly does not demonstrate the same, if any, joy (one only has to go to the horn players’ anaemic and mercifully brief attempts at “free form” playing on “Trans-Global Express”  for proof that this just wasn’t in their blood – elsewhere the horns are mixed so poorly that they sound like a melodica or seventies toy keyboard). And while the 12-inch version of “Precious” does have some cumulative, moderately cathartic merit, the album version is ruined by the needless overdubbed vocal harmonies at its end.

“5 O’Clock Hero” works better because it is simpler, with a shuffle beat which bridges “Metal Guru” and “Sheila Take A Bow,” and also because, unlike earlier similar Jam efforts, it does not patronise or condemn the ordinary worker, instead tries to look inside his head. And I have no problem with the tick-tock 1970 Traffic minimalism of “Ghosts,” another plea to the listener to stop listening, get up off their backside, go out and change something, and a musical framework which Weller would later revisit on “Broken Stones.”

But the conflict at the heart of The Gift – and I am sure that the record has a very big heart – is the music getting in the way of the message, or the message being too banal not to require music. “Running On The Spot” and the title track do not do much more than beat themselves up in the middle of a gym with their feet nailed to the floor. With “Trans-Global Express” you can hear what Weller is hearing in his head and how he is trying to translate that into music and art – you can tell he’s been listening to World Column’s “So Is The Sun” as he himself acknowledges – but he doesn’t, with The Jam, have the means to do it; there is a telling moment midway through the song when the group robotically lurch into their “In The City” default setting, as if they are doomed always to end up back in Stanley Road. Whereas “The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong” feels like pamphleteering and cod liver oil (take your socialist medicine) which Russ Henderson’s cheery steel drums do not sufficiently counteract (and it should be noted that Trinidadian Henderson stands as one of the most important figures in British music over the last sixty years or so; he was a crucial figure in getting the Notting Hill Carnival started up and, with Sterling Betancourt, set up Britain’s first steel band; both men turn up to surprising but great effect on the first, calypso-themed side of John Surman’s eponymous 1968 debut album. At the time of writing, he remains an active musician at the age of eighty-nine). “Circus,” an immediately forgettable (as Weller’s impatient guitar slash halfway through demonstrates) Bruce Foxton instrumental, plays like a western theme, perhaps with Reagan in mind.

This leaves the record’s two most successful songs. “Carnation” is one of the best and most frightening songs Weller has yet written, frightening because it is so restlessly quiet, yet also indicates a learning of some of Springsteen’s way with patience. Yes, the song says, and as Patrick McGoohan said fourteen years earlier, your own worst enemy is yourself, or the hate and evil within you. But the careful piano, the naturally beautiful chord changes, are so inevitable and so right that they provide their own form of hope (and are a clear influence on the more thoughtful “Talk Tonight” Noel Gallagher). One almost forgets that Foxton and Buckler are on the song.

And, finally (but not the album’s final track), “Malice,” the big hit, the splicing of “Heatwave” with a double-speed “Time Is Tight,” an outraged response to “Ghost Town.” If Dammers’ masterpiece was a mural – a Coventry (via Glasgow, and Ellington’s idea of East St Louis) Guernica – then “Malice” is a carefully assembled book of photographic snapshots; the ghosts in “Ghost Town” become real people, all with their own concerns. But the song ultimately says “NO!” to this being any kind of an end – both musically and lyrically; even with the help of producer Peter Wilson’s Hammond organ, this is one of the most compact of Jam performances  - with Weller admitting that he could go on describing this misery for hours and hours but would much rather set to bringing some joy back into the not yet dead town. With this, he addresses and challenges the listener as firmly as Kevin Rowland would do on his own album, some five months later; the song falls, or rises, on the side of life.

It also meant the systematic running-down of The Jam. Best to quit while we’re still on top, Weller said when the split became official at the end of 1982, but he was clearly coming to terms with the dilemmas which I have described above. There were only so many ways that a “gang” aesthetic could keep “rock” alive before the musicians became desperate to flee their own confines. After The Gift there were three more hit singles; one was a Dutch import of “5 O’Clock Hero,” mostly bought because of the otherwise unavailable joint B-side “The Great Depression” which runs into many of the same problems as the album. The other two were huge hits and sound nothing like The Jam and everything like a Style Council in waiting. But for Weller it was about not wanting to cheat his fans by doing the same old stuff – in these final Jam records he sounds as though asking his fans, are you brave enough to get out of here and come along with me? – and about not putting himself above his listeners and not painting himself as an infallible messiah. 1982? New Pop? Well, some of The Gift was recorded at AIR studios in Oxford Circus, in concomitance with McCartney’s Tug Of War (of which latter, more imminently), and Weller hung out and played pool with Paul and Linda, while not pushing himself to the point of collapse. Oh no; he meant all of this, and impressionable teenagers in Burnage, Colchester and Blackwood were taking note. The Gift, in truth, really isn’t very good, and perhaps serves as a warning to people wanting to take musicians as their talismen in life. But we will be revisiting Weller at regular intervals, in all stages of his development – including the point where, as he reached the age that Townshend and Davies were in 1982, he decided to let everything go, and gloriously.