The Jam - Biography
While they are not regarded in America as highly as the Sex Pistols or the Clash, the Jam were one of the most influential punk bands to come out of the late seventies, and reached towering heights of rock super-stardom in their native UK. Singer and guitarist Paul Weller, like Joe Strummer, matured as a songwriter very quickly and was able to blend social commentary with vivid story-telling by the group's third album. The Jam was most definitely Weller's band, and the rhythm section was constantly at the mercy of his musical whims, which eventually resulted in the band sounding much more like an R&B group than a punk band. Ultimately, Weller's ambitions moved so far away from punk that he realized he couldn't attain the sounds he wanted with his then-bandmates, and soon broke up the group to form the ill-fated Style Council. Today, he enjoys a solid solo career, but neither he nor his two former colleagues have since come anywhere close to the sway they held together over popular music in Britain.
The Jam began in 1975 when its members were still high school students in the town of Woking, located in Surrey, England. Weller teamed up with bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler. A second guitarist, Steve Brookes, left the band shortly after its formation and rather than replace him, it was decided that they'd carry on as a trio. The group began playing London shows and built up credibility by gaining a local following. In February of 1977, Polydor Records signed the band to a contract and a couple of months later, they already had a single out; “In the City” came out in April and broke the Top 40 in the UK. One month after that, the debut album of the same name was released. In the City (1977 Polydor) was recorded in eleven days and is now a classic album of the punk era. Weller was obviously more R&B-influenced than his peers, but all the aggression and discontentment of punk was present in the debut.
A second non-album single, “All Around the World,” very nearly broke the Top 10, and the group went on a British tour of considerable success. Over the summer of 1977, they recorded their second album, This is the Modern World, which was released toward the end of the year on Polydor. This is the Modern World was well-received, peaking at number 22 on the UK charts, but it was panned by some in that it showed no songwriting strides from Weller and was too much like the debut. This criticism is justifiable, in that the frontman already sounds disillusioned and bored with the punk rock aesthetic on these recordings. However, had the album not been rush-recorded to capitalize on the band's initial success, he surely would have begun to make the artistic strides that would come one album later. The lead-off single, “The Modern World,” cracked into the top 40 right as the group were embarking on their first American tour. The excursion, albeit brief, was something of a failure for the band, and left them feeling unenthusiastic about future US trips. A British tour began after this in which they were headliners, but the whole thing was stopped short thanks to the events that transpired in a Leeds hotel; the band got into quite a row with a team of rugby players, resulting in several broken bones for Weller as well as an assault charge. He was later acquitted by the Leeds Crown Court.
In March of 1978, the Jam decided to give America another try. Backing Blue Oyster Cult on the new tour was probably the wrong move, however, as fans of that band understandably failed to gravitate towards the sounds of the Jam. In Britain, though, they were hotter than ever. Imitators of the band were now popping up, copying not only the sound but the mod fashion sense. The group performed at the Reading Festival in August and in 1978, they released All Mod Cons (Polydor), a huge leap forward from This is the Modern World in terms of Weller's songwriting. Weller demonstrated that he was not limited to the confinements of writing punk songs. Here, he showed lyrical expertise as well as melodic improvements on par with Ray Davies of the Kinks, and the present cover of “David Watts” might be Weller's message that he had entered a new level of sophistication in his own writing. And indeed, songs such as “Fly” and “English Rose” could have arguably shown up on Beatles albums, and would have felt tremendously out of place on either of the Jam's first two releases. Their sound had been increasingly more concentrated on pop and less on punk, but the energy of the latter genre was still present, as exemplified in “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” This third album was an official blockbuster, peaking at number 6 on the charts. Of course, it failed to chart in the US at all.
Every single they released after that charted in the top 20 at home, and “The Eton Rifles,” a new single from the impending fourth album, became their first top ten hit in November 1979, peaking at number 3. Setting Sons (Polydor) came out at the end of 1979 and hit number 4 in the UK. What began for Weller as an ambitious concept album in the vein of Tommy was not seen due to a strict recording schedule, so the album is half conceptual and half unrelated songs, including a cover of “Heat Wave.” Obviously, it was a smash nevertheless and they even charted in the US for once, reaching 137 in the spring of 1980. By now, they were total rock stars in every sense of the word in Britain, and they carried this status into a new decade with one of the greatest singles of their career, “Going Underground,” which entered the charts at number one. The band recorded the rest of their fifth album that summer, and released the single, “Start,” (whose bass line was a blatant lift from the Beatles' “Taxman,”) in August, which also went straight to number one. The finished work, Sound Affects (1980, Polydor), ended up as the band's most ambitious collection, and went to number two on the British charts by the end of 1980. Also, they never did better in the US than with this album, hitting number 72 on the Billboard 200. “That's Entertainment” also charted at number 21 in the UK, which was impressive considering it was only available as an import single.
Sound Affects was more committed to punk than its predecessor had been, but Weller's adoration for R&B and soul had grown exponentially. After the 1981 summer release of non-album single “Funeral Pyre,” a darkly rollicking piece of post-punk, came the drastically different, horn-infused bounce of “Absolute Beginners,” also unavailable on a proper album. That single hit number 4 in the fall, and the Jam set about recording an entire album of songs in a similar vein. During the process, Weller suffered a nervous breakdown and vowed to stay away from alcohol. In February of 1982, they released the “Town Called Malice”/ “Precious” single, the first taste of the LP to come. The undeniably catchy “Town Called Malice” was an instant success and the band soon became the first since the Beatles to play two songs on Top of the Pops. In March of 1982, they released The Gift (Polydor) and it became their first number one album in the UK. “Just Who Is the 5 O'Clock Hero?” went to number 8 in July and became the group's second import single to chart in the US.
The Jam's popularity was stronger than ever, but Weller, who had grown sick of the group's sound and direction, broke up the band. After the release of the hit “The Bitterest Pill” they announced the decision in October of 1982. A farewell tour followed and the last single they would ever release, “Beat Surrender,” went into the charts at number one. A compilation of live tracks called Dig the New Breed (1982 Polydor) entered the charts at number 2 in December of that year. Bruce Foxton came out with a solo album, Touch Sensitive, in 1984 while Rick Buckler played with the Time UK. But success was hard to find for the rhythm players in their post-Jam days.
As for Weller himself, had he retired after the Jam, he would be a mythic legend by now. But instead, he decided to taint his credibility and form the Style Council with Mick Talbot immediately after the Jam broke up. Talbot had played with the Merton Parkas, a mod-revivalist group inspired by none other than Weller's old band. After some initial success, the Style Council proved to be a washout, and Weller struggled to stay vital as critics and fans turned against him. He broke up the Council by the end of the 80's, and went solo in 1990. His solo albums did well with critics and fans, and soon enough, he had made his comeback. It was only a matter of time for this compelling and intelligent one-time punk pioneer who, though his band did sell millions and give inspiration to Oasis and the Smiths, remains criminally under-heard in the US.