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.