It’s been 42 years since The Jam’s anthem Going Underground hit the UK number one spot. To this day, letters from the US and Canada still reach the band’s former fan club manager, Nicky Weller, sister of the lead singer, Paul. She recalls naming the band over a family dinner conversation. ‘We’d had bands called ‘Cream’, ‘Bread’, ‘Marmalade’, ‘What about The Jam?’ she suggested humorously. The name choice, however, was in keeping with reductionist foodstuffs but outwitted them with its musical double entendre. So vital would Paul Weller’s contribution to music be that he became known as ‘The Mod Father’ for his role in the 1970s Mod movement, the gentler and better-behaved cousin of contemporaneous Punk.

Confronting Reality

This summer, Nicky Weller has been busy curating This Is The Modern World exhibition all about the six years her brother’s three-piece spent on the music scene. I’ve been able to communicate with her via email to submit some artefacts for the display — a step up from the days before typewriters when she and her mum would write to fans individually and by hand. The newsletters, filled with fan art, were printed in the band’s hometown of Woking and distributed to the — at one point — 10,000 members. Today, the favour is returned. A fan has sent her ‘Paul’s ripped trousers from In The City,’ for inclusion in the exhibition. Other loaners vividly recall communicating with ‘The Mod Auntie’ through the fan club 45 years later.

It’s fair to say that The Jam caused an earthquake with aftershocks still felt today. Yet, more than once, I’ve heard music aficionados complain that they ‘cannot find a tune’ in The Jam’s ‘plain’ (to their ears) songs. That’s because ‘The Punk Beatles’ did not seek to write music that’s especially beautiful to distract from reality. They set out to confront and expose it, sometimes mercilessly so. To really appreciate The Jam, you need a sense of the context their work is set against: the turbulent-yet-sluggish Britain of the late 1970s and early ‘80s.

A series of strikes in the 1970s came to a head in October 1978, when a strike over pay broke out at the Ford motoring company. Far from being an isolated incident, it set a precedent that would define the rest of the year. Other Unions and blue-collar professions followed suit. Strikes by coal miners, dockers, refuse collectors and even grave diggers left the UK unable to function. Unable to even bury the dead.

The lorry drivers’ strike left the country with the very probable prospect of food shortages. Protesters laid out animal carcasses in the open to demonstrate how a lack of supplies would harm farming. Photographs of ‘TEMPORARY REFUSE RECEPTION CENTRES’ infested with rats dominated the newspapers. London’s streets became a giant rubbish tip during this period, known as the Winter of Discontent — a name drawn from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

The Jam’s music is charged with this exact grey and gritty, dismal atmosphere. It is this climate that their songs take issue with, tease and subvert. Like a collage from the debris lining the streets, it’s the vision behind their music that prevails over the senses. The Jam’s topical songs take us through a labyrinth of interconnected socio-economic problems of their and, arguably, our day. Each individual track is part of a manifesto on reasons to oppose the status quo.

False Freedom

Though unpleasant and Dickensian, the industrial action of that winter was experienced equally throughout the population. Trade unionist Arthur Scargill, ‘campaigned for Unions not to accept their workers’ profit-sharing,’ arguing that ‘it will make the workers like Capitalism and we will never defeat it.’

Labourers were left with an extremely harsh reality: hard work simply does not pay enough even following a Labour movement. According to one striker: ‘it was the workers what earned that money,’ but it wasn’t them that benefitted from its large amounts. In the year 1978, up to the autumn, Ford celebrated a ‘258 million profit for shareholders and 80% rise for the managing director.’ When a pay rise for workers of 5 per cent was suggested it was, unsurprisingly, met with frustration and disdain.

Undercompensated employees is a theme central to The Jam’s repertoire — notably in ‘Smithers-Jones.’ Written by bassist Bruce Foxton in 1979, the song recounts not only the unfair dismissal (or possibly shock redundancy) of the protagonist but the dream he has been sold; the dangling carrot of success and promotion he has been chasing. There is a cutting irony in the early lyric which says, ‘You’re a part of a production line.’ Yes, but not in the hopeful and contributory way Smithers-Jones thinks. He is disposable and his sacking in favour of a lower-paid replacement will drive profits more than his nine-to-five labour. The ‘smiling suntanned boss’ of the song only sees his workers as pawns in his own ideology, from which only he will benefit. With The Jam, there is no Left-wing and Right- wing. The band is simply a mouthpiece for anyone who is not ‘so hopelessly imprisoned that they falsely believe they are free.’

Thatcher Time

One of the most notable stops on our Jam-led voyage through rundown Britain is home to ‘rows and rows of disused milk floats’ in the song ‘Town Called Malice.’ It’s also home to the ‘hundred lonely housewives [who] clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts,’ since their lovers are now participating in the infamous lorry drivers’ strikes. The wry and mournful lyric also evokes a child’s empty milk bottle and the women’s treasured memories of early motherhood; a time full of new life and hope, now replaced by ‘Struggle after struggle, year after year.’ At the time of the song’s release, the empty milk bottle served as an omen of what was to come; Margaret Thatcher — the real ‘milk snatcher’ who notoriously removed free milk for seven-year-olds. Eventually, The Winter of Discontent was replaced by a toppling of the Unions, which divided the nation into post-industrial poor and the better-off who benefitted from the heavy privatisation of state services.

It is no secret that ‘Town Called Malice’ is ‘partly about Woking.’ Its substitute place-name (Malice) summarises the track Mr. Clean. The malevolent, haunting lyrics describe the nouveau riche conforming to corporate greed and no longer fighting the corner of the working class. At first glance, the song’s intimidating lyrics flow from the resentful narrator himself: ‘If you see me in the street, look away, ‘Cause I don’t ever want to catch you looking at me, Mr. Clean.’ On second reading, the speaker may be quoting threats made by ‘Mr. Clean’ himself, now protected by new and powerful connections. The lyrics evoke longstanding enmity exacerbated by the widening gap between rich and poor – something that would become more pronounced after the song’s release.

Standing for Justice

The subject of The Jam’s most flattering portrait is social outcast Liza Radley in the song of the same name. It’s intimate because it relays a clandestine meeting with the song’s heroine. It’s flattering because it uncovers the reason for her exile: an unusual intelligence and take on life. Through her unconventional intellect, Radley is able to rise above anything. While others strive for an idealised future under determinism, Radley is wise to its impossibility à la the story recounted in ‘Smithers-Jones’ and refuses to take life seriously. Far from chasing shadows, Radley lives in the moment and delights in the smaller things. Unlike her counterparts who are swayed by ambition and materialism, she soberly knows that ‘their dream of life they won’t ever find.’

Each Jam song, in its deliciously dark drabness, feels like a private exchange with an outwardly unassuming savant. Listening to them is like stumbling upon private letters or a parent’s damning school report. The whole experience feels uneasy; a bit like clandestine enlightenment that leaves you feeling slightly stung. Their songs make you want to work against the grain, but not because they romanticise what it’s like to be poor or on the wrong side of change. Rather, it’s simply because there is much to oppose and take issue with.

The Jam’s work is a social polemic, the band’s members educators. Their insight empowers us to emotionally separate from the status quo à la Liza Radley. Jam songs are a non-violent call to action, encouraging opposition to the system by dropping out or ‘Going Underground’ — the least confrontational way to challenge anything; by walking away.

Recent political developments (Brexit and Corbyn, to name just two), have been labelled ‘a cult’ innumerable times. But The Jam’s distinctive message is that you don’t need a leader or a movement to oppose a status quo, as long as you stand for justice.

The Jam exhibition: ‘This Is The Modern World’ runs at Brighton Valley Gardens until August 29.

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Image By: Dr. Russell Hall

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