Graded on a Curve:
The Jam,
Sound Affects

I missed most of England’s post-punk music—was too busy doing my taxes or drugs or something—and what I did hear (New Order, er, New Order) simply confirmed me in my mad conviction that I wasn’t missing much. What can I say? As a great man once said, Youth is wasted on the young.

The Jam are one of the many bands I snubbed back in the day. Why? Because I heard “Town Called Malice” exactly once and thought it was bouncy pop tripe, that’s why. It’s a piss-poor reason to write off a great band, but that’s the way I am. I was in an ugly mood back then and I needed ugly music to put me in the proper ugly frame of mind to think ugly thoughts about all the ugly things in the world. It was an ugly time.

The sad thing is I missed a lot of excellent music. The good thing is I’m getting a second chance to catch up, and what better way to catch up than by basking in the brilliant pop glow of 1980’s tres smart and musically adventurous Sound Affects?

I used to smirk when people called Paul Weller a genius. Mark E. Smith—now there’s a genius, I would say to myself. And I will always prefer Smith to Weller, if only because I prefer off-kilter rock cranks with odd ideas on how to build songs to pop savants, Elton John and Eric Carmen excepted. But Weller is a Wunderkind no matter how you cut the liverwurst, and on the Jam’s fifth studio LP he outdoes himself.

Weller—who has gone on record as saying he thinks Sound Affects is the Jam’s best LP—cited the Beatles’ Revolver and Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as key inspirations. I certainly hear the Beatles; Jackson not so much. Okay, so I suppose I do hear Jacko in the funky bass line that harbors “Pretty Money,” and on the heavy funk bass and drums that propel the altogether strange (the band basically natters away the first minute before launching into a herky-jerky ska beat) “Music for the Last Couple.” As for the Beatles, they’re all over “Start!” And amongst the unreleased tracks from the Sound Affects sessions are covers of “Rain” and “And Your Bird Can Sing.” The unreleased “Liza Radley” and “Dead End Street” both have Paul McCartney’s fingerprints all over them as well.

I love two things about Sound Affects. One, it has muscle. The guitar that propels “But I’m Different Now” comes at you like a chain saw, and “Set the House Ablaze” is all whistling menace. Meanwhile, Bruce Foxton’s bass lines are both throbbing and funky, and on songs such as the great “Pretty Green” he unites with Weller’s guitar to produce the perfect snarling counterpoint to Weller’s ironically “pretty” vocals. And the twosome’s cop of “Tax Man” on “Start!” is both pushy and brilliant. And speaking of brilliant, Weller’s solo on “Start!” is both a stellar example of wiry savagery and a salute to the great George Harrison. Why, even the horns have punch. And I love the way “Scrape Away” relentlessly scrapes away at the listener; it’s one long ear pummeling with a great bass line and a bit of dub tossed in, along with some swell Beatles vocal harmonies.

I also love Weller’s knack for using irony to turn a sweet melody on its head. “Pretty Green” is a taut denunciation of filthy lucre, while the tone perfect “That’s Entertainment”—I count it, along with “Pretty Green,” amongst the best songs of the eighties—counterpoises a lushly strummed guitar and an innocuous title against a set of lyrics that scathingly delineate the dreary and ugly realities of English life to produce the perfect ironic thumb of the nose to the whole notion of England as a green and pleasant land. Meanwhile, the complex pop tune “Monday” juxtaposes a lovely melody with a lyric (“Tortured winds that blew me over/When I start to think that I’m something special/They tell me that I’m not”) to beautiful effect.

Even the songs that I listen to least are keepers. “Dream Time” is a power pop thrill, while the echoing vocals on “Man in the Corner Shop” remind me of the Smiths at their best. And “Boy About Town”—and “Pretty Green” and “But I’m Different Now”—all bring to mind Robert Pollard, who seems to have copped the entirety of his vast repertoire of hooks from the Jam. But that’s okay Bob—I still love ya!

I may not thrill to the more AOR sound Weller and the Jam adopted on 1982’s parting shot The Gift, but that’s okay. It boasts songs I adore, such as the blatant “Dear Prudence” rip that is “Running on the Spot.” At their best the Jam had smarts and snarl, as even the most casual listen to songs like “Non-Stop Dancing” and “Art School” will attest. I’ve been wrong about so many things in this life. But when it comes to the Jam, I really outdid myself.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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