Saturday, 22 December 2012

This Is The Modern World

The Jam's second lp, released in late 1977, was seen at the time as a commercial failure, rushed, presaging Weller's 'drying up' in early '78 that would precipitate the crisis over All Mod Cons (where producer Chris Parry told the band that a batch of recorded demons weren't good enough). But it would be wrong to see This Is The Modern World as a re-hashing of In The City, and despite its poor reputation, it's an album of genuine interest, with some very good tracks. It is very inconsistent, though. In it, as I suggested about the 1981 Jam tracks and the 'other Gift' lp, one can see the potential for a different inheritance of the 1960s, one inflected by psychedelia rather than either The Who, The Kinks (All Mod Cons) or The Beatles (Sound Affects). The guitars are toned down on The Is The Modern World, and one can even hear an acoustic guitar on one track. An 'I Need You' is a jangly, persuasive love song. So much for 1977.

The debt to the who is immediately obvious in the first few tracks. 'The Modern World', a single, nicks the riff from 'Pictures of Lily'; 'Standards', one of Weller's Orwell-influenced songs that channel anxiety about conformity but lacking the subtlety of the later 'In the Crowd' , is a variation on 'I Can't Explain'. 'The Modern World' is a punk teenage shout  - 'I don't give two fucks about your review' maybe protests too much - as is 'In the Street, Today', a song from Weller's back pages, co-written with former friend and erstwhile band member Dave Waller. Neither song is very impressive, the latter's line 'the kids want some action/ and who can fucking blame them now' indicating the level of sophistication at work. It's clear that punk, as Weller's 'inspiration drive', is running out on This Is The Modern World, and the overpass and tower blocks on the cover point towards a different articulation of anomie and angst rather than punk energy and action. 'London Girl' signifies an emergent trend in Weller's writing, description- or character-based songs that would provide much of the best of his lyrics later in The Jam's career, but here it's embryonic, a bit of a reach.

Squeezed between the two Who-inspired songs on side 1 is Foxton's 'London Traffic', one of two compositions on the lp. Neither are much cop, to be honest, and the best that Foxton himself says about the 1978 single 'News of the World' on Don Lett's (rather uninformative) documentary The Making of All Mod Cons is that it 'tided them over' between the punk period and the mature phase signalled by All Mod Cons. 'London Traffic' is very slight, built around a Foxton bass riff and enlivened by Weller's jangly Rickenbacker figure that takes us back to beat groups c.1965; his other song, 'Don't Tell Them You're Sane', which closes side 1, is clumsy musically and lyrically. (There's an awkwardness, a lack of melodic phrasing, about most Foxton songs; at his best, in 'Smithers Jones', he was capable of fine writing, but these were few and far between.)

Considering how poor the album is thought to be, there's a core of songs on This Is The Modern World which indicate that (as with many Jam albums) that with more time and attention, this could have been a lot stronger as an lp. 'The Combine' is another 'when you're in the crowd' song (looking back to 'Away from the Numbers' and ahead to 'In the Crowd' and many others), referencing Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and energised by Foxton's propulsive bass line and a catchy bridge to a jangly outro section. It was my favourite song on the album when I first bought it. Three songs - 'Life from a Window', 'I Need You' and 'Tonight at Noon' - are melodic, occasionally soaring mid-tempo numbers which engage Weller's minor mode, the 'dream' pastoral or 'psychedelic' flavourings of Ray Davies in particular. 'Just dreaming', Weller sings on 'Life from a Window', connecting it to later dream-songs like 'Dream Time' from Sound Affects, 'Dream of Children' or 'Tales from the Riverbank' ('true it's a dream, mixed with nostalgia/ but it's a dream that I always hang on to, that I always run to'). These songs are the jam's inflections of the kind of psyche-pastoral that Rob Young identifies in Electric Eden, and bespeak Weller's particular English imaginary. 'Tonight at Noon's surreal title and autumnal flavour makes it the ur-song for this mode in The Jam's catalogue, and remains affecting. 'I Need You', which has a lovely melodic bridge , and is the first Jam love song (a fact for which Weller had to apologise at gigs in '77); while not as heartfelt or directly romantic as the half-hidden 'English Rose' on All Mod Cons, demonstrates a broadened emotional range and songwriting ambition. This song is neither wistful, nor demonstrates the urgency of desire, nor (late-60s like) posits love as a kind of counter to power. Instead, it's personal, and innocent, in a way, in its representation of feeling. 

The album's inner sleeve features pen-and-ink illustrations by Conny Jude, and in one (the largest) Weller is depicted as a spike-haired romantic, drooping sensitively over a desk or fence, 'dreaming' or contemplating (the teenage poet, perhaps). It's that note, a signal departure from the black suit and ties of In The City, which is at the core of This Is The Modern World's best songs, and the softer drums and guitars (and occasional use of an acoustic guitar) mark the album as a musical progression from the first album. Its commercial failure, and the problems in the run-up to All Mod Cons meant the Jam ultimately went in another direction than the one that can be glimpsed here, the tough, streamlined guitar pop of the next 3 albums. This Is The Modern World has to many weaker songs, and lacks a clarity of vision, to make it a true album rather than just a collection of tracks, and it fails as a calling-card for a psyche-pastoral Jam future. But still, is has its moments.     

Thursday, 8 November 2012

OMD: Electro-nerd-pop

OMD's Architecture and Morality was one of the first lps I ever bought, and is the only one today that still gets a regular listen. At the time, I thought they were a bit uncool (not realising that the cut-out lp sleeve had been designed by Peter Saville with the ultra-hip Factory connection) even though I liked the music. I had bought a 7" single of 'Joan of Arc' prior to buying the album, so it wasn't just a whim. I remember playing the first side to friends and taking the needle off the record after the first three songs - I didn't think they'd like the long, electronic 'Sealand'. I was probably right.

I now know that OMD hail from the Wirral, and that Sealand is a place near Chester. (That takes away the mystique somehow.) But I still like the album a lot.

The album begins with a clatter. After a scraping noise and a hiss of white noise, an electronic bass pulse kicks in, then a frantically scrubbed electric guitar on a two chord riff. Andy McCluskey's vocals are slightly discordant, verging on a shout. Stabs of analogue synth pierce the noise, and then a melody emerges, always battling the cacophony. Arpeggiated plinks add to, rather than resolve the racket.The track bangs away for two and a half minutes then fades out, and a rather uplifting ascending three-note bass riff comes to the fore, combining with the arpeggios to form a harmonious close. And this is electro-pop?

The second track, like the third, turns to the hallmark OMD sound found on the singles: mid-tempo, acoustic drums and bass, syncopated synth pulses, luminous pads, choral mellotrons, soaring melodies. The second track is 'She's Leaving' and the third 'Souvenir' (the latter sung, unusually, by Paul Humphreys in a delicate near-falsetto), but at this distance it's difficult to tell which one's the single. 'She's Leaving' has a rudimentary drum machine underpinning the live drums, but this sounds like a band rather than electronics experts tinkering with circuits.

Then comes 'Sealand'. What can you do with that? A reedy synth line, followed by a bass pad that has little melodic connection with the first, then an electronic bass drum like a beating heart and the tick of a hi-hat. The melody, when it does come, is melancholic, but memorable, catherdral, soaring; for all that, though, this is closer to Kraftwerk than OMD's electro-pop contemporaries. And it goes on for 7 minutes.

So is Architecture and Morality electro-pop for the masses or electronic esoterica for the cognoscenti (or the nerds)?

Both, of course. The second side balances the two once more: the Jeanne d'Arc singles 'Joan of Arc' and 'Maid of Orleans' kick off the side. Both have strong pop structures underpinning the atmospheric choral work and mellotrons (and in 'Joan of Arc', a rather lovely xylophone part), and both climbed the charts in the UK (both making the top 5). 'Maid of Orleans' is a kind of waltz, with almost bagpipe-like synths playing the top melody line; I prefer the other, more subtle song.

These are followed by 'Architecture and Morality', a song of pops, clicks, shifting silences and spaces, unsettling choral tones. It's a breather but an uncanny one, like a  rest taken in a graveyard. I like the song a lot - it's on the verge of atonality, collage-like, a testament to the electronic avant-garde that Humphreys and McCluskey also claimed as a heritage.

The last two songs are 'Georgia', an uptempo 4/4 electro-pop song (for a long time my favourite on the album), and closing with 'The Beginning and the End', which, like the first track, features argeggiated guitar textures as well as keyboards. As the title of the song suggests, the album comes full circle, returning to a more contemplative place than the edgy 'New Stone Age', but offering a different sensibility. The song is simple and itself circular or iterative, built around a descending chord structure on the mellotron and McCluskey's impassioned vocal.

Pop music for nerds? Not quite. But Architecture and Morality does pull off the trick of being at once experimental and with genuine pop hits, is of a particular and definitive sensibility and sound, and is a remarkably durable record. I'm still playing it 31 years later.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

For a long while, Setting Sons was my most-played Jam lp. I think I bought it second, after The Gift, and curiously enough, Setting Sons has some things in common with their last album. For a start, it's a bit of a bodge job. It began life as, curiously, a 'concept album', that late 60s/ 70s album format which was largely spawned by The Who's Tommy (1969), and (for me) synonymous with the gatefold-sleeve excesses of 70s rock and particularly prog. Why the hell were The Jam making a concept album?

Well, it's clearly down to The Who. If Pete did it in Tommy and Quadrophenia then it must be all right. But as a concept album, Setting Sons is incomplete, largely, I think, because Weller simply doesn't write songs with the grand (or grandiose) visions of a Townshend or a Bowie. Setting Sons was meant to be about three friends who grow up and apart, the album narrating what happens to them. The title's multiple puns indicate that this has a particularly British context: as the front cover and inner sleeve indicate, the story is in part indebted to British involvement in two world wars, and the Empire upon which the sun was never meant to set. The album came out in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, but the album isn't nostalgic for some kind of lost glory, the Empire dreams which still haunt British culture and the British polis. Instead, the central themes of the album are disappointment and betrayal: betrayal of self, betrayal of one's friends, betrayal of ones ideals and causes you believe in.

The highly ironic use of the Union Jack on the back cover and inner sleeve - it adorns a deckchair on what appears to be Brighton beach - is a reference as much to the Mod past as to notions of Britishness, but I don't think the album is a repudiation of either. 1979 was the year of the 'Mod revival' (and the release of the film of Quadrophenia) and such bands as Secret Affair and the Merton Parkas, whose keyboard player was Mick Talbot, who plays piano on Setting Sons and would form The Style Council with Weller in 1983. Though at the time I remember Weller distancing himself from the revival, the rather ambivalent gesture on Setting Sons is markedly different to the homage to the Mod heritage The Jam presented on the previous lp, 1978's All Mod Cons. The sound of Setting Sons itself a development, reining back the top end of the Rickenbacker's brittle overdriven clang to achieve a thick, bassy, rhythm-oriented effect (although 'The Eton Rifles' does feature loud, squalling feedback over its intro and extended outro riff).

But it's the sequencing of the album, just as with The Gift, that is the real puzzle. Setting Sons begins with 'Girl on the Phone' (which, on original pressings, I believe did not appear on the lyric sheet), and ends with an almost entirely redundant cover of Martha and the Vandella's 'Heatwave'. Why, then, begin the lp with the most inconsequential track, and end it with filler? Just as The Gift opened with the bog-standard 'Happy Together' (rather than a single or crucial track 'Ghosts'), Setting Sons bookends the central tracks with a 'wrapper' of less juicy material. that's not to say that 'Girl on the Phone' is weak; it's catchy, very tightly played, uptempo and light, but it's almost as though the band are warming themselves and the audience up for more significant material.

Then comes along the second track, 'Thick as Thieves', and like the side closer 'Wasteland' it's a melodic, mid-tempo track that articulates the key themes and ideas of the 'three friends' concept. 'Thick as Thieves' as introduces the sense of loss - 'we're no longer as thick as thieves' - that dominates the fragmented 'story'. Friendship is central here, the personal dimension that Weller connected in a more abstract but effective means to change and politics in Sound Affects. Friendship here cannot withstand the effects of war or the 'burning sky', the 'greedy bastard who won't give up', capitalism itself. The sense of loss in these two tracks finds a different register in 'Burning Sky', the first track on side two, whose lyrics are set down as a letter from one old friend to another. The persona reveals himself to have given in, to have 'bowed down' to the Burning Sky and its dictates, and the loss of youthful innocence is cast as a kind of betrayal: 'Now I don't want you to get me wrong, Ideals are fine when you are young/ And I must admit we had a laugh, but that's all it was and ever will [be]'. The re-writing of personal history to accommodate the betrayal of principles (and trading career success for friendship) makes this loss a much more bitter one. 'Burning Sky' I now find to be the central track, thematically: it countermands any wistfulness, and indicts a world that demands obedience and destroys resistance.

The sense of the 'system' destroying peoples' lives is also present in 'Saturdays Kids' (who 'shop in Tesco and Woolworth [...] wear cheap perfume cause it's all they can afford'), but the exuberance of the track and its leavening humour ('Ford Cortina, fur trim dashboard/ Stains on the seats - in the back of course!') indicates that life, of a kind, goes on in spite of the system. The song ironizes resistance in the chant 'It's the system, hate the system, what's the system?' but annotates the paltry share of the nation's wealth afforded to the working class in post-Imperial, post-industrial Britain. The horrors of middle-class anomie, and in particular the deadening existence of the middle-class housewife is the focus of 'Private Hell', a strident rocker that bangs away on one chord for most of the verse, and whose refrain of 'Private Hell' is so dislocated from melody that Weller sings it in an indeterminate pitch, almost a groan. The lyrics address the housewife as 'you', furthering the sense of alienation, but indicates that this is the common condition: 'they're all going through their own /Private Hell', and privacy or isolation is a central component of, and compounder of the misery.

The single that preceded the album was 'The Eton Rifles', which cracked the top three in the UK. It's an extraordinarily British song. The opening lines run: 'Sup up your beer and collect your fags/ there's a row going on, down near Slough'; for any non-British listener, this must appear nearly incomprehensible. The song is, of course, about class, and privilege, and about Britain (and Empire) run by the rich, for the rich. In the days of Cameron and the Bullingdon club, 'The Eton Rifles' seems as caustic as ever. On the b-side of the single was a Foxton song (his best), 'Smithers-Jones', arranged for the three-piece band. On the album, the song appears with an orchestral arrangement, as suggested by drummer Rick Buckler. This treatment is highly effective, setting the story of the office drone, Smithers-Jones, laid off from his job, in a sound-scape which suggests cosiness and 'culture'. This is no protection; as Weller sings in the bitter coda, 'It's time to relax now you've worked your arse off/ The only one smiling is the suntanned boss/ Work and work and work and work 'til you die/ There's plenty more fish in the sea to fry.'

In a sense, Setting Sons is Weller's attempt at a 'condition-of-England' narrative, using the story of three friends to examine what Britain was like at the end of the 1970s. 'Little Boy Soldiers', a three-movement and highly ambitious song about the friends involved in war, is equally caustic about such overseas adventures ('I'll tell a tale of how goodness prevailed/ We killed and robbed the fucking lot/ But we don't feel bad / It was done beneath the flag of democracy'), but was apparently originally designed in three separate pieces, to appear, in concept-album fashion, at key parts in the song-cycle. Stitched together, they're effective enough, and shows how a bodge can reap dividends.

Setting Sons had a different running order when released in the US and Canada, including another 1979 single 'Strange Town' and its b-side, one of The Jam's very best songs, 'The Butterfly Collector', with its rather misanthropic and bitter psychedelia. Why this, or another single 'When You're Young' (which might have fitted the concept) wasn't included on the album is a mystery, as they would have strengthened it a great deal. Perhaps Weller was ethically invested (as on later Style Council lps) in not having albums mined for endless singles, asking fans to pay for multiple product, but this does occasionally make Jam albums less strong than they might be. 1978's All Mod Cons, has three tracks to appear on singles (two a double-A side), and it's no coincidence that it's the best and most consistent Jam lp.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A short excursion with Trout Mask Replica

I've been reading Lester Bangs' Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste, in which he interviews Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. Inspired by this article, I dug out Trout Mask Replica, his 1969 double album, which I hadn't listened to in quite some time. It's a 28-track pandemonium, and I put it on during the drive to work. It saw me neatly from leaving the petrol station near home to the turn-off of the M6.

Listening to Trout Mask Replica again was a bit like listening to the audiobook of Joyce's Finnegans Wake that I'd had in the car a week or two ago. From the primal gumbo of sound would emerge clarity, phrases (musical or verbal) that suddenly pierced the surface and seemed all the clearer set against the texture of the whole. Because, in places, like on 'Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish', Trout Mask Replica sounds for all the world like a tin box of kitchen utensils being kicked fitfully down a fire escape. With rhyme, but seemingly no reason, Trout Mask Replica is an aural assault, and makes you think: what the hell is going on?

On some tracks, like 'China Pig', an improvised blues recorded on a cassette, Van Vliet's voice takes command, a growly blues shout that anticipates the later Tom Waits, and the guitar accompaniment renders a direct Delta blues; on 'Orange Claw Hammer', a capella, he carries the whole song with a shanty tale that is pure Melvillean Americana. As I listened, I realised that what is so challenging about  Trout Mask Replica is rhythm. It's a long way from a rock 4/4 or the beat of blues; only the first half of the final track, 'Veteran's Day Poppy', a thumping r'n'b, or the jalopy rumble of 'Pachuco Cadaver', or the stomping 'Fallin' Ditch' (which has a lovely melodic electric bass line) have much in the way of recognisable and sustained metrical regularity. It sounds like chaos, but isn't: legend has it that Van Vliet locked the band in a house for months, rehearsing 14 hours a day, drilling them over and over and over, and finally recorded all the instrumental tracks in an 8-hour burst. The spiky, shifting, clattering structures are designed that way, are not the product of 'play' (like the 'Old Fart' in the title of the penultimate song) but of hard work, and lots of it.Van Vliet was as driven as Keith Richards, in a way, to drive the band on, to achieve the desired sound through repetitive work.

(I've recently thought that the Romantic image of Keef, the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' outlaw, is wrong. Keith doesn't create through bursts of inspiration, but through repetition, jamming, work. Heroin and cocaine facilitated the work/ crash cycle, where Keith would be up 3 days straight. Richards isn't known as the 'riff machine' for nothing.)

The Stones song that comes closest to the feel and angular playing of Trout Mask Replica is 'Ventilator Blues' from Exile on Main Street (1972), with its harsh slide guitar figure and halting gait; but Charlie Watts would have had to have been on L-Dopa to to achieve the ticcy, convulsed rhythms of Trout Mask Replica, and the Stones' organic groove is diametrically opposed to Beefheart's bolted-together constructions. (I'm also reminded of the figure of 'witty, ticcy Ray, the Parkinson's sufferer in Oliver Sacks's wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, who translated his tics into expressive jazz drumming.) The only out and out rock drummer to move so extensively around 4/4 rhythms was Keith Moon. In a recent documentary on Quadrophenia, Townshend said that he didn't rate Moon as a drummer, and complained that instead of playing 'boom-tish-boom-tish' Moon would play 'boom-bip-bop-tiddle-iddle-be-bop-boom-tish', and Townshend himself would have to keep time with his guitar: 'someone had to'. It's an odd complaint. You only have to compare a Keith Moon version of the most driven of Who songs, 'Won't Get Fooled Again', with the live cut included on the 2006 Endless Wire cd to realise just how important Moon's polyrhythmic drumming was to The Who's sound. Pete is, I confess, a bit of an old crank these days, bless him, so I can forgive him this indiscretion.

It's the absence of a rock 4/4, that regular thump that anchors the wildest 60s psychedelic rock freak-out, that makes Trout Mask Replica such an uncomfortable (and downright weird) listen. In most songs, the rhythm is agitated, unsteady, revealing the way the songs were written, in pieces, then spliced together; hi-hats aren't where they should be; it's as if the drum kit had been assembled by someone who'd never seen one before, and then played them blindfolded. To reiterate, though, this has nothing to do with incompetence, and everything to do with intention: the music and lyrics are of a piece, an expression of the very singular landscapes of Don Van Vliet's imagination. (As a child, according to Bangs's article, Van Vliet built sculptures and refused to go to school; Trout Mask Replica's songs are ramshackle sculptures themselves.)

While not exactly pre-musical, the sound of tiny tots banging tin cups together in a play pen, there is a gleeful, whirligig energy to Trout Mask Replica's pandemonium that can be found as easily in the lyrics as in the music: 'A squid, eating dough, in a polyethylene bag, is fast and bulbous. Get me?' Where Joyce's Finnegans Wake attempted to represent a language so fluid that it reached a pre-Babel glossolalia, there is something if not quite primal about Trout Mask Replica's sonic and linguistic sculptures, then prior to the factory-floor regularity of rock and pop's post-war rhythms. It's awkward, yes, but it's the uncomfortable energy of beings that haven't yet learned to adopt the patterns of the workaday world. Trout Mask Replica might be the product of hard work, but it resists, or precedes, modernity's discipline.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Sound Affects

Sound Affects was one of the last Jam albums I bought, this one second-hand, from a school friend. (I suspect that it came from his Mum and Dad’s vinyl collection, and, in retrospect, I’m dubious that he had a proper right to sell it to me.) But ever since, it has been my favourite Jam lp, from the ‘Mask of Anarchy’ quotation on the back cover, to the dawn photo on the inner sleeve, to the hard, tight, spare music locked into the black grooves.

In some ways, the sound of Sound Affects is very un-like the sound of the preceding single, ‘Going Underground’ (though it has more affinities with the double-a side, ‘Dreams of Children). ‘Going Underground’ starts with a thudding Foxton riff, which is then doubled an octave higher by Weller’s guitar: this is the signature ‘underground’ sound, thick, bassy, compressed, and airless. It’s an extension and completion of the sound of 1979’s Setting Sons, and the lyrics are an urgent and punkish kiss-off: ‘I want nothing this society’s got’. The expressed desire to escape, to go underground, signposts the unfinished pastoral or psychedelic musical road that led, ultimately, to the failed rave-up renewal of The Gift. ‘Dreams of Children’ more overtly turns to psychedelia, with its backwards intro, a motif repeated in Sound Affects’ side 2 opener, ‘Dreamtime’; the language of dreams, and the psychedelic style, is repeated in ‘Tales from the Riverbank’, with its chorus ‘True, it’s a dream, mixed with nostalgia/ But it’s a dream that I’ll always hang on to, that I’ll always run to’, but by then it’s more wistful.

Sound Affects begins, like ‘Going Underground’, with a Foxton riff, a five-pulse figure on one note that ends in a pause, a pause that will be filled on the second time round with Buckler’s crisp, reverbed snare snap. This introduces sixteenths on the hi-hat and Weller’s swooping, trebly guitar stabs: ‘I’ve got a pocket full of pretty green.’ Pretty, a word repeated in ‘Dreamtime’, signifies delusive appearances in Sound Affects: here, money glisters but is not gold. The tight, funky sound of the verse is interrupted by an ascending riff in the chorus with a chiming guitar solo in the bridge, but the marker ‘Pretty Green’ lays down is the angular New Wave sound of XTC or Gang of Four (or, conceivably, early Talking Heads, taking the prominence of the Foxton/ Weymouth bass). Instrumentation is sparse, the guitar works in arpeggios or tight, circular figures rather than power-chords. Repetition is key. It’s a long way from Setting Sons.

The crucial idea ‘Pretty Green’ introduces, that will recur throughout the album, is power. Weller sings: ‘They didn’t teach me this is school/ It’s something that I learnt on my own/ That power is measured by the pound or the fist/ It’s as clear as this’. Power as money; power as violence. Power inflicted upon the everyday lives of ordinary people. At its most powerful expression, in ‘Set the House Ablaze’, power is almost like Orwell’s boot stamping upon the human face forever, and indeed the rhythm of the verses in that song is martial, the sound of marching feet. I’ve read reviews of the lp which suggest that ‘Set the House Ablaze’ is out of place, such as in this BBCreview; that it sounds like something from Setting Sons. I disagree. While its chorus is expansive, more so than other tracks (though others do use a tight/ expansive dynamic, including ‘Pretty Green’), it’s a thematically central song. Lyrically, it begins with a report that a mutual friend has ‘seen you in the uniform’ and the leather belt and black boots suggests not the Armey, but the police or Nazi stormtroopers. The lyric then explores a theme of self-betrayal, of buckling under to power, of becoming an instrument of ‘indoctrination’. The final word is ‘mechanical’, and the construction of the song enforces this through its coiling guitar figure and tight rhythm section. The album closer, ‘Scrape Away’, a companion piece, is built in similar fashion, and also indicts giving in to cynicism and despair: ‘Your twisted cynicism makes me feel sick/ Your open disgust for “Idealistic naive”/ You’ve given up hope, you’re jaded and ill/ The problem is you’ve got a catching disease’. ‘Scrape Away’, with its machinic hardness, seems a bitter note on which to end the album, but its message is of resolute realism: ‘you’re saying power’s all, but it’s power you need!’ The revolutionary aspect of this is more overt in the upbeat, expansive chorus of ‘Set the House Ablaze’, which is literally incendiary.

Opposed to power is vision. In ‘Set the House Ablaze’, a consistent use is made of metaphors of vision: the uniformed friend is as if ‘by someone blinded’, and a middle section makes the idea overt: ‘I think we’ve lost our perception/ I think we’ve lost sight of the goals we should be working for/ I think we’ve lost our reason/ We stumble blindly and that vision must be restored!’. There’s no collapse to cynicism. Instead, the lyrical keynote, reflecting Shelley’s call for lions to awaken from slumber and to cast off their chains, is a kind of Romantic revolution, one in which vision is crucial. Although several times the lyrics assert that absence of power is dispossession – ‘You’ve got nothing unless it’s in the pocket’ (‘Pretty Green’) – vision is in itself a power, in a metaphysical sense. For although Sound Affects is a very material album, solid and physical and dynamic rather than airy or mythic, it is in its songs of personal change, including the mid-tempo ‘Monday’ and the uptempo rocker ‘But I’m Different Now’, that the album suggest a possible agency at odds with the cynicism identified in ‘Scrape Away’. In ‘Boy About Town’, Weller sings about strolling the streets ‘like paper blown in wind/ I fly up street, I fly down street’, but it’s the centrality of hope and love (for humanity) that informs the album as a whole. In ‘Monday’, he sings ‘I will never be embarrassed about love again’ (as Weller had been about ‘English Rose’ on All Mod Cons, left off of the track listing and lyric sheet, omitted because he felt the sentiments were ‘too personal’); in Sound Affects, the personal becomes political, either negatively (‘Set the House Ablaze’) or positively (‘But I’m Different Now’). Love, and hope for change, counteract cynicism and despair.  

The importance of the personal songs isn’t to say that Sound Affects is devoid of the observational song-writing that characterises many of Weller’s best work in The Jam (a mode he was largely to abandon in The Style Council). Here, both ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ and ‘That’s Entertainment’, regarded as two of the very best Jam songs, are at the heart of the lp, second on side 2 and closing side 1 respectively. Both demonstrate Weller’s straightforward sympathy for and engagement with commonplace lives, but also demonstrate a lyricism that avoids sentimentality in concrete details (‘Lights going out and a kick in the balls’). ‘That’s Entertainment’ is a simple, strummed guitar song, verse-chorus, piling up material details of everyday life, good and bad: ‘Cuddling a warm girl, and smelling stale perfume ... a freezing cold flat, and damp on the walls’. That simplicity is hard-won, however. Apparently the band weren’t happy with the track as it appears on Sound Affects, though it charted when released as an import single. On the post-break-up collection Snap!, the album version was replaced by the demo, which feature drums; in a later collection, Gold, the version omits Foxton’s bass. I like the album version best, in retrospect: its clear, ringing acoustic guitars are the perfect counterpoint to Weller’s vocal. ‘Man in the Corner Shop’, reportedly written by Weller on the spot in the studio, with a lilting and melodic vocal line, itself offers a countermanding vision of Albion to one of mechanical ‘indoctrination’. The first verse takes the point of view of a corner-shop owner, the second a customer, the third a factory boss: all yearn for something else in their lives. In the fourth verse, the people come together to pray, where they ‘are all one’. While the community gathered in church might seem a conservative image of society, in truth it’s a romantic vision of socialism, all ‘men’ not only ‘created’ equal, but equal in material fact. (I should say that Sound Affects is a very masculine album and The Jam a very masculine band.)

The community of spirit signified by the church scene points towards Weller’s later interest in black American music, I feel. While The Gift isn’t exactly flavoured with gospel, the sense of positivity and communal transcendence (through music) offered by the church roots of soul and R’n’B seems crucial to this period of Weller’s politics. It’s little wonder that Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ is such an effective cover come 1982, with its imprecation to ‘Remember your dreams/ are your only schemes’ and to ‘keep on pushing’. ‘Move’ and ‘up’ become leitmotifs of early-80s Weller: the song ‘The Gift’ repeats ‘move’ as an encouragement to dance, but to become active, to embrace ‘the gift of life’, to ‘shout from the mountain top’ (The Style Council’s seventh single was ‘Shout to the Top’). The sense of willed uplift and positivity becomes the overriding tenor of the period 1981-3 for Weller’s songs.
Though still New Wave and very English, Sound Affects demonstrates a considerable imaginative advance in ‘Man in the Corner Shop’, where the black-and-white understanding of arbitrary power vs. the common people of ‘Standards’ or the curio ‘Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong’ is replaced by a more perceptive understanding that all social classes are (de-)formed by power and ideology. The fanfare brass of ‘Boy About Town’, and the use of a horn section on the single version of ‘Start!’ and on ‘Dreamtime’ also suggests a musical advance, pointing the way towards ‘Absolute Beginners’ and The Gift. In Sound Affects, Weller counterposes hope and love against despair, hate and cynicism; vision against blindness; humanity against the mechanical; and the need for change against the stultifying Thatcher's Britain of 1980, not ‘going underground’ but actively working for a better life for all. Weller is cast as a Romantic revolutionary, and the lyrical and musical consistency of the album in pursuit of this vision of Albion makes this the best Jam long-player. 

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

An Introduction


On this blog I'll be writing about some of my favourite albums, in particular looking backwards at sequences of lps. I'm starting with The Jam, and will work backwards from The Gift to In the City. Upcoming: Julian Cope 1990-1980; The Smiths; Pixies; The Jesus and Mary Chain. Hopefully.

The Gift

The first album by The Jam I bought was their last studio lp, The Gift, from a market stall on Canvey island. (I bought my first ever lp, Adam and the Ants’ Kings of the Wild Frontier, in the Canvey Woolies about a year before. The only reason I can think of for this is that my grandparents had moved there for a short time; otherwise I tended to avoid the place.) In 1981, I was just starting to develop a proper interest in pop music – I’d got the Ants’ Prince Charming, Madness’s 7 and OMD’s Architecture and Morality that year (the latter is the only one that’s lasted), and remember pondering whether to lay out some saved-up pocket money on The Human league’s Dare. (I didn’t.) The Gift, though, was a game-changer, the beginning of fandom proper, and over the next year I bought all of their studio lps, several imports (singles and mini-albums), and all the singles re-released after their break-up. They’re still at my parent’s house, in a small unrecovered cache of vinyl. I just checked, though, and I have the first Style Council 7” singles with me still, for some reason. At school, I must have been pegged as an out-and-out Jam fan, as I remember clearly someone asking me what I felt about them breaking up on the way to a Chemistry lesson. (Not being a reader of the music press at this point, I had no idea.) I have no older brother who might have imparted the news, unlike my good friend Matt, whose elder brother’s Jam fandom put mine in the shade, and who considered his bedroom a ‘shrine’ to the band.

I’d liked the band since ‘Gong Underground’ (and had been thrilled when 2000AD had printed the first Nemesis the Warlock story, ‘theTerror Tube’, with an explicit nod to the song). I’d also loved the ‘Start!’ video, still sharp as a tack. But The Gift was the first Jam record I bought (there hadn’t been an album in 1981, a ‘horrible year for songs’ according to the sleeve notes on the back of the post-demise live album, Dig the New Breed). In retrospect, The Gift is patchy, but then most jam albums are, really, even the good ones. Playing the album again, it’s clear how bored Weller must have become with the ‘Jam sound’: brittle, overdriven Rickenbacker guitar, Buckler’s diamond-hard drums, Foxton’s dynamic bass playing high in the mix. The Gift is an album in which Weller searches for new styles, ways of opening up the sound. In the main, he turns to an alternative 60s sound to the Who/ Kinks/ Small Faces/Beatles influences and heritage of previous albums: Motown, Stax, and proto-funk. This turn away from the very English Mod only half-takes, though, and I think there’s a failure of nerve to really do something different (or perhaps the power-trio format was too much of a straightjacket, despite the addition of horns and organ).

I also think there’s another, spectral Gift that never got made, one which might have developed out of the Kinks’ later romanticism, and can be found in the tinges of psychedelia that can be heard on Jam records in 1980-81, particularly on b-sides. ‘The Dreams of Children’, the double-A side (much less well known) to ‘Going Underground’, mixes the compressed heavy bass sound of its twin with a backwards into, dream-imagery lyrics and other psychedelic stylings; ‘Liza Radley’, B-side to ‘Start!’ all chiming/ plucked acoustic guitars and accordion, is a bitter, misanthropic pastoral; ‘Tales from the Riverbank’, b-side to ‘Absolute Beginners’, is a lovely, airy mid-tempo stroll flavoured with chorused guitars and feedback; and even the clattering ‘Funeral Pyre’ has a wintry, bleak beauty.

The 1981 hiatus, and stories suggesting that Weller was so pressed for time that he ended up writing songs in the studio (such as ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ from Sound Affects, 1980), perhaps indicates that Weller wasn’t that prolific a songwriter, or wrote in bursts; he ‘dried up’ in 1978, which resulted in producer Chris Parry scrapping songs he thought sub-standard for the All Mod Cons recordings. Given more time, perhaps, rather than the album-a-year and heavy touring schedule that seems the product of a bygone age, The Jam might have produced something unusually melancholic and partly psychedelic. But instead we have The Gift.

The turn to soul and funk produced major dividends in the big double-A side number 1 single, ‘Town Called Malice’ and ‘Precious’. ‘Malice’, with its Motown bassline and Hammond organ hook, is justly one of The Jam’s best known (and considered one of the best) songs: propulsive, angry pop, you can dance to it, and you can sing along with the kitchen-sink politics of the lyrics. It’s a perfect 3-odd minutes. ‘Precious’ is a funk groove, coming in at near 5 minutes, with swirls of wah-wah guitar, brass fills, a sax solo, and a repertoire of James Brown-style grunts and hollers. The suppression of Buckler’s drums in the mix – Weller apparently complained that Buckler’s drumming had ‘ruined’ the final cut of ‘Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?’ – looks forward to the soul covers on the double-pack and 12” versions of the final single ‘Beat Surrender’, where a cover of the Chi-Lites ‘Stoned Out of My Mind’ has a shuffling gait unlike nearly every other Jam song and Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ is re-tooled (like ‘David Watts’) as a proper Jam song. ‘Precious’ does sound like The Jam, but a different one – what Weller was aiming for, I suppose.

The Stax influence is most evident on the side one closer, ‘Trans-Global Express’, a pumping, on-the-one workout, which this time buries Weller’s vocal in the mix, even though the lyrics are given one side of the inner sleeve on their own, suggesting their importance. Did Weller mistrust his own hard, punk-born vocals by this stage? Was there, as a reviewer suggested, a failure of nerve? The song certainly suffers from the lyrical awkwardness that afflicts some of Weller’s later sloganeering (The Style Council’s ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ springs to mind), but it’s powerfully done. Certainly, on other tracks from 1982, such as the jazzy b-side ‘Shopping’ Weller experiments with a much more soulful and tender vocal delivery. Here, as elsewhere, The Gift doesn’t really go all the way. You can see a Stax influence too on the title track, the album closer, which matches a 60s soul looseness with a live garage-band vibe, complete with Hammond and a great instrumental breakdown.

Other parts of the album are perfunctory, mis-steps, or even filler, as in the case of Foxton’s ‘Circus’ (which with a bit more twang might have made it as a surf- or even Shadows-style instrumental). The opener, ‘Happy Together’, despite its deeply ironic title, is standard Jam, no more nor less, despite its spoken lead-in ‘for those listening in black and white, this one’s in technicolour’. The aforementioned ‘Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?’ is crisp, and reprises the ‘little man’ territory of ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ or Foxton’s ‘Smithers-Jones’ from Setting Sons, but one wonders just how Weller really wanted it to sound. The side 2 opener, ‘Running on the Spot’ is a lively on-the-one 60s pop song with ‘ba-ba-ba-ba-ba’ vocal hooks and effective, chiming guitars on the chorus.  

But the real mis-step is ‘The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong’, styled with steel drums as a kind of calypso (though at least Weller didn’t essay a Sting-style cod-Jamaican patois). This track, one of the oddest in The Jam’s repertoire, shows the ends to which Weller had been driven to renew, to find newness, and perhaps the extent of his boredom with the standard Jam sound is most in evidence in this track. In the end, it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the album, or anywhere else.

The sequencing of the album has one of its stand-out tracks, ‘Ghosts’, a simple mid-tempo tapper with rim-shot drums, acoustic guitar and brass fills, as the second track on the first side. ‘Ghosts’ has one of Weller’s most affecting melodies, and it might have been used effectively as the opening track: ‘Happy Together’ is the conservative choice. ‘Ghosts’ also points towards that other Gift, a more melancholy and introspective one, which gave way to uptempo soul. On the second side, the middle always seemed to sag for me, with ‘Planners’ followed by ‘Carnation’, holding back the tempo until the double-blast of ‘Malice’ and ‘The Gift’. I never really liked ‘carnation’ as a 13-year-old, but it now seems one of the best songs on the lp, a bitter ballad in which the singer confesses that all he touches turns to poison. The simplicity of the arrangement, with strummed guitars, piano break and lots of air in the production, places it in a continuum with ‘Tales from the Riverbank’ (or before that, the misanthropic ‘The Butterfly Collector’).

In the end, perhaps, The Gift suffers from over-production and over-thinking, as in the arrangement for ‘Planners’ or the production trickery on ‘Trans-Global Express’. A simpler Gift might have also found room for ‘The Bitterest Pill’, the other great anomaly in The Jam catalogue, and which does not even feature in Greatest Hits collections these days. ‘The Bitterest Pill’, pitched by Weller at the time as an ‘overblown’ half-parody, clearly points towards a different mode of song-writing, more heartfelt and with more range, but as with The Gift, only half-grasped, and botched. (The revealing b-sides, ‘Pity Poor Alfie’ and a cover of ‘Fever’, like ‘Shopping’, reveal jazz to be the direction Weller was going as well as soul).

On the sleeve notes to Dig the New Breed, Weller says that he ‘cracked up’ over The Gift, wanting it to be ‘great’ but settling for ‘good’. It’s neither, really, a curate’s egg of an album by a band, and song-writer, pretty much at the end of their tether. The soul influence is still more marked on ‘Beat Surrender’ and the unreleased alternate single ‘A Solid Bond in Your Heart’ (which would appear as The Style Council’s fourth single in near-identical arrangement), but it’s not Stax, but Northern soul that is the touchstone. In all, you can take the soul-influenced tracks of 1981-83, with ringing brass sections and uptempo arrangements, from ‘Absolute Beginners’ through to ‘Speak Like a Child’, as a piece, and ignore The Jam’s demise. In a sense, for that period, Weller was negotiating himself out of the language of English Mod and into American and European soul and jazz (A Paris, Cafe Bleu). Ultimately, even that didn’t really suit. But I still think of that alternate Gift revealed by the b-sides, psychedelic and melancholy, that might have been the great Jam lp.