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.