Monday, May 23, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob:
Week 107 - The Jam

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

The Jam come from the punk movement, but they aren't necessarily of the punk movement. Rather, while the Clash and the Sex Pistols were tearing down everything that came before and declaring a new beginning to musical history, the Jam were consciously looking back to the past, both musically and historically. In fact, they did a lot to prove that they weren't your average punks, from dressing nicer to voting for the Conservative Party (though the band is on record stating that this was a marketing gimmick cooked up by their record label, and they didn't mean it). 

The Jam are also thoroughly British, and not the anti-establishment disaffected, angry British of the other punk groups. They're more of the mild-mannered, well-spoken classic British stereotype, and their music reflects less of an anger at the current state of Britain and more of a melancholy at the whole state of things. "What ever happened to the British empire?" Paul Weller asks in "Time for Truth," a question that sounds sincere and a question that, say, the Sex Pistols wouldn't be caught dead asking. 

Because while there are definite punk elements to the Jam's music, I see them more in the vein of the Kinks - a band that willingly combines old-fashioned rock'n'roll with a softer, more melodic kind of pop (the Jam even covers the Kinks' "David Watts"). A lot of the Jam's most memorable pieces are more poppy than rock, and a lot of them are quieter than anything by the Clash or the Sex Pistols. They have the ability to write quite a striking melody. 

In short, the Jam don't easily fit into a single genre, which is part of the reason why I enjoyed them so much. They're a band that can spin out a fast and furious punk number just as easily as a soft ballad. They could almost be considered the softer side of punk. 

WEEK 107


WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: "That's Entertainment" had come on Pandora or something like that, and the melody caught my ear, so I decided to delve deeper. 

MY LISTENING: I listened to All Mod Cons (1978) every day this week. I also listened to Sound Affects (1980) three times, In The City (1977) twice, and Setting Sons (1979) once. 


A lot of what the Jam are doing fits perfectly into a "punk" template - many of their songs consist of a simple structure, a few chords, and some politically charged or divisively iconoclastic lyrics. However, something about the Jam's sound is a little more refined than a standard punk outfit. As someone who is easily put off by a lot of punk music from this time period, I appreciated this. For example, "Set The House Ablaze" is a song that could be pure punk noise in the hands of another band, but the Jam instead provide a more streamlined take, and I think the song is better for it. See also "The Place I Love" as another potential riotous punk song that shows a little more restraint. 

But some of my favorite songs this week eschewed the punk aesthetic entirely, and instead went for old-fashioned lyricism. "English Rose" is a beautiful romantic ballad, and "That's Entertainment" somehow sums up a remarkably evocative portrait of British life with just a few select words applied to some wonderfully effective melodies. I could appreciate the Jam's punk leanings because they had this other side of them, and thus their albums were able to swing back and forth between the noisier stuff and the soft pop. 

But lest anyone say that I didn't appreciate the political message of the Jam's music, I did like "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," a musical narrative about a young man attacked by violent right-wingers in a subway station. It doesn't sound like the stuff that good songs are made of, but again we have some particularly evocative lyrical phrases, and a great sense of musical suspense, as the song mounts and builds to its tragic conclusion. 

Finally, on their first album, the Jam covered the Batman theme. The Batman theme! Surely a band that does this must be worth listening to!


There wasn't really any element of the Jam that I found inherently distasteful, though I did like some of their stuff better than others. Out of the four albums I listened to, In The City probably skewed the most toward straight punk, without the softer stuff that I liked to break up the monotony. They're all still good songs, but by the time I got to "Bricks and Mortar" at the end of the album, I was ready for a change. 

Setting Sons also felt less unified. Whether it was from the annoying sound effects on "Girl on the Phone," or the jarring string arrangement on "Smithers-Jones," a noble experiment gone wrong, I'm not sure, but the album did less for me than the others. 

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: This Is The Modern World (1977) is largely considered a rehash of In The City, rushed out after the first album's success. As such, I'm not really interested in getting a hold of it. I'd rather listen to The Gift (1982), which is one of their highest-charting albums in Britain, even if it lost of the critics in the process. I'm curious to see what the Jam sounded like when they hit the big time. 

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "That's Entertainment"


NEXT WEEK'S ARTIST: Sly and the Family Stone