Graded on a Curve:
The Jam,
In the City

In the year punk broke, 1977, The Jam carried with them a whiff of a year far past, namely 1965. Paul Weller brought punk’s jacked-up velocity and coiled tension to the band’s debut LP, In the City, but the LP is also steeped in the spirit of Pete Townshend and The Who.

Call the Jam Mod revivalists, then, but make no mistake–the music on In the City is most definitely punk. No Mod ever took enough leapers to keep such a frenetic, breakneck pace. Paul Weller sounds a lot like Elvis Costello, but unlike Elvis he never slows things down–you won’t find a “Watching the Detectives” on In the City, much less an “Alison.” The song “Slow Down,” appropriately enough, goes by in a sonic blur.

Weller’s Who fetish wasn’t the only thing that set The Jam apart from the punk pack. They eschewed safety pins for tailored suits, said no thanks to anarchy in the U.K. and Clash/Mekons-style left-wing polemics, and even tossed in some conventional lyrics about, you know, girls and stuff.

And then there’s Weller’s voice. Rotten’s savage snarl, studied put-on or not, was pure punk, the barbaric yawp of a street-smart yob whose idea of a good time was ripping the antenna off your car. Weller sounds like a full-grown man.

Paradoxically, it was Weller’s backwards-looking glance to the days of “My Generation” that helped make The Jam something so defiantly, brazenly new. His “back to the future shtick” bears ripe fruit. “Art School” opens just like a Who song–for three seconds or so you’re sure the next thing you’ll hear is Roger Daltrey. But The Jam then proceeds to kick into hyperdrive, and you’re rocketed from yesterday to tomorrow in a rocket fuel flash.

Pretty much the same thing happens on the excellent “Away from the Numbers,” except that the spirit of The Who lingers in the form of Weller’s power chords and Rick Butler’s cymbal crash. You can practically see the wasted shade of Keith Moon smiling on. Which is odd, because Moonie was still very much alive when The Jam put this baby out.

A few other songs bear overt traces of The Who–“Sounds from the Street” is all Mod cons right down to its oddly mono sound and pretty “The Kids Are Alright” melody; worth noting are its rather silly lyrics (“Young bands playing/Young kids digging, and I dig them””), which betray an idealism totally alien to the spirit of punk.

LP closer “Bricks and Mortar” also has that classic Who feel, but bears a political message (why are we tearing down houses to build car parks, etc.) that is every bit as naive and idealistic as that of “Sounds from the Street.” Did punk really need its own answer song to Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”?

Weller is fully capable of transcending his Mod fetish. I hear nary a trace of The Who in “I’ve Changed My Address,” a galloping mess that sounds like it was recorded in one take following the ingestion of unhealthy amounts of French Blues and Black Bombers. And that goes double for the frenzied “Slow Down,” on which a desperate Weller begs a girl to just slow down for a minute and give him the time of day.

The title track’s the best tune on the LP–all muscle and adrenalin OD, it captures the manic excitement of London town circa 1977. That said, his quaint talk about “young ideas” has a decidedly 1965 feel to it, and just what are these “young ideas” I wonder? I doubt they’re the Sex Pistols’ young ideas. In fact I doubt whether Weller could tell you what he means by young ideas. It’s not just the Mod fixation that makes Weller sound so out of place in the year of there’s no future for you. He had no real message, other than his music, and his music is message enough.

His clumsiness when it comes to politics is readily apparent in “Time for Truth,” with its “Why don’t you just fuck off?” and “What ever happened to the great empire?/You bastards have turned it into manure.” It’s as angry a punk tune as any, but he comes off sounding like a conservative. England’s “great empire”–and I don’t think he’s being sarcastic when he uses the term–was built on conquest and injustice. Does he want that back? How far are we from “Make England Great Again”?

Weller’s on more solid ground when he eschews politics altogether, and they (fortunately) play no part in his high-energy paean to Northern Soul, “Non-Stop Dancing.” Let’s call it what it is, a very self-conscious nod to The Who’s “The Kids Are Alright”–just compare Weller’s “I don’t even mind guys trying to compete” (for his girl, natch) to Townshend’s “I don’t mind other guys dancing with my girl.”

The pulsating and careening “Takin’ My Love” owes a debt to Weller’s love for first generation rock’n’roll, as does “Slow Down” for that matter; on both numbers he shouts, rattles and rolls like he’s wearing blue suede shoes, and you can practically smell Jerry Lee Lewis’ burning piano.

The Jam were one of the more conventional flavors on proffer in English punk’s rookie year. Their very appearance didn’t inspire fear and loathing in parents, and they were anything but foul-mouthed harbingers of the apocalypse. Indeed, “Time for Truth”’s lyrics led some to tag them as conservatives. But make no mistake–their jacked-up songs capture the true spirit of 1977 as any put out by the Sex Pistols or the Clash. London calling indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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