In ’77, Polydor snapped them up, having missed out on the Pistols and the Stranglers, and were rewarded in spades. The debut single In The City (FF 1978 #44), a condemnation of police brutality (a fairly common theme) promulgated a riff that would be borrowed by others (the Sex Pistols’ Holidays In The Sun, to mention just one) and two and a half minutes of scorching brilliance. The ensuing album laid bare the group’s debt to the Sixties, with covers of Larry Williams and even Neal Hefti’s Batman Theme, but was also the beginning of Paul Weller’s unmatched songwriting talent, and his obsession with themes such as urban alienation and decay. The band were vilifed for committing three cardinal sins: a) they were popular, b) they looked smart, and c) they could really play. As Tony Wilson so rightly scoffed, ‘elitists’. This was the real deal: Weller’s metallic chords melded with Bruce Foxton’s prominent basslines and Rick Buckler’s arresting drumming, the whole making a powerful assault on the senses that thrust home the songs’ messages and their very Englishness. That Englishness permeates Away From The Numbers (FF 1977 #46), and hints at the balladic, softer side to the band that would bring us immortal numbers such as Smithers-Jones and English Rose.
Feeling set apart from their compatriots, for wearing suits and ties instead of half-mast ripped jeans, strides and mohicans, The Jam sought ways to communicate their apartness, their singularity, and found the hitherto esoteric method of assuming the persona of an outsider to society, while being thoroughly rooted in the hinterland of the capital. While the Pet Shop Boys would embrace street culture and immerse themselves in the night, these lads showed how it felt to not be one of the crowd. Down In The Tube Station At Midnight (FF 1978 #24, 1979 #4, 1980 #4, 1981 #13, and All-Time 1982 #11) assumes the identity of an unassuming man on his way home to his wife, who is mugged and beaten up by a gang of thugs who ‘smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs and too many right-wing meetings’, all to a tune that still chills and elevates while the lyrics are telling a frightening and all too real story.
Strange Town (FF 1979 #27) is another side of the same coin: an alien lands in London and finds it impossible to integrate: ‘I look in the mirror and I can’t be seen/Just a thin clean layer of a Mr. Sheen/looking back at me’.
Based on a true story, Eton Rifles (FF 1979 #19 and 1980 #59) contrasts the public school elite with the mob mentality and finds neither side the superior. It was about this time that the group made the ill-judged decision to announce they would be voting Conservative in the next election. And we all know where that got us: more than a decade under the iron fist of T******r. Weller seems to have acknowledged his wrong thinking and redressed the balance in Town Called Malice (FF 1982 #11), a bouncy and exciting beat backed by some of the most trenchant and biting words to come out of a pop song (‘It’s enough to make you stop believing, but the tears come fast and furious in a town called malice’). I still can’t hear this without thinking about Billy Elliott kicking the door of the bog down.
Going Underground (FF 1980 #13, 1981 #23, All-Time 1982 #17, and All-Time 2000 #35) I find to be a curious song: Weller seems to agree with his critics, and yet to criticise them for wanting too much out of life (‘What you see is what you get/You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it’). The song finally ends with a note of optimism that shot through their final album, The Gift, a classic example of a group going out while still on top. Jam ballads never normally made it to the A-side, but The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow) (FF 1982 #32) is the shining jewel in their soft-hearted crown: love and regret and the knowledge of the fact that he’ll never get over it are what makes this so unforgettable.
There are undoubtedly many Jam songs that should have made the Festive Fifty, and it would be a hard person who said that the examples seen here did not deserve every one of their placings. Peel gave them three sessions to showcase their live energy, but was somewhat bitter about their change of style towards the end of their career (he reluctantly spun Funeral Pyre and then stated that he was glad to be the last person on Radio One to play it). Nevertheless, their legacy is one of a band who soundtracked the end of the British Empire like no other, and still gave us room for hope.