The year 1981 was a relatively quiet one for The Jam, a group who had released five albums and 11 top 40 singles (including two consecutive number ones), many of which were exclusive to the 45 format and featured similarly exclusive b-sides, in the space of just three years. With no new album and only three singles (including a release of “That’s Entertainment”, taken from Sound Affects) issued in 1981, it may have appeared that they were slowing down. Yet they were still touring the globe furiously, and chief songwriter, Paul Weller, was writing songs just as furiously for the group’s next album, an album he hoped would be the perfect album.
It didn’t quite turn out that way, as Weller himself readily admits in the foreword to the beautiful book that accompanies the Super Deluxe Edition of the recently reissued album, The Gift: “I think apart from a couple of turkeys (not gonna say which–you work it out!) it’s a great album.”
Yes, 2012 meant many different things to different people, but for fans of The Jam, it marked the thirtieth anniversary of the band’s split–and the thirtieth anniversary of what turned out to be the band’s final album, The Gift. Universal, thankfully, also remembered and repackaged the album as both a double-disc deluxe edition and a Super Deluxe Edition, which includes the original album, non-album singles and b-sides, a disc of previously unreleased demos and alternate takes, the full audio of the band’s December 3 show at Wembley Arena, a DVD of performances and promo clips, a replica of the original tour program and postcards, and an absolutely stunning 72-page hardcover book, featuring new interviews with Paul Weller and an insightful essay on the album by John Harris.
Unfortunately, the latter edition was also considerably more expensive–overpriced, even, some might say. But I bought it anyway. ‘Cos, in case you forgot, Paul Weller has stolen my soul, and I’m never, ever serious about the New Year’s resolution where I resolve to finally get it back from him.
Is this not the most beautiful sight your precious little eyes have ever beheld (excepting Paul Weller himself, of course)? It’s even more beautiful than I could have ever possibly imagined. Definitely justified my drooling excessively at the thought of it every single day for the past six months.
There is nothing new on the first disc, all the non-album singles and b-sides previously made available elsewhere, but there are a few treasures on the demo and alternate takes disc, notably the demos of “Running on the Spot” and “Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?”, which I fell in love with on first listen when it accompanied the November issue of MOJO. The live show offers proof of the band’s passion and power, as do the clips provided on the DVD, exempting Top of the Pops, where Weller half-heartedly mimes along. (Too bad the full Birmingham show isn’t included, though. Every Jam fans know it exists! Come on, Universal.) My favorite part about this package, though, has to be the 72-page hardcover book, which is skillfully written and designed. The pages are not only filled with striking designs and fresh analysis but also facsimiles of original press clippings and memorabilia. My favorite has to be the “See Bruce Jump” craft taken from the NME. You can create your own pop-up of Bruce Foxton jumping around like a fox terrier! Oh, and there’s also this photo:
Oh yeah. Look at this pin-up. This adorable, blind pin-up.
Anyway. Moving on.
The album itself unleashes mixed emotions. I don’t think it’s really anyone’s favorite Jam album (Sound Affects or go home, ya’ll). Tainted by the group’s split and a few “turkeys,” as Weller calls them, it is not the perfect album he aimed to create, yet it still contains some of Weller’s finest and (sadly still) most relevant lyrics. In his essay about the album, John Harris details the social and historical context of the album, specifically the rise of Margaret Thatcher and how, by the winter of 1981, unemployment in Britain was nearing three million, manufacturing had lost a fifth of its capacity, and the nation itself was becoming quite literally a series of ghost towns, hence the rise of The Specials’ “Ghost Town” to the top of the charts in 1981. Weller vented his feelings about the state of the nation in his new compositions.
“I was trying to capture a sense of the anger that I felt–that a lot of people felt–about Thatcherism and the way that she and the Tory party were trying to dismantle the communities and the working classes. Attacks on the trade unions, small businesses disappearing, and so many of aspects of English life being closed down to people…I was trying to reflect the frustration and despair that sprang out of all that,” says Weller in the accompanying book.
Yet, Harris is apt to point out, these were not the finger-pointin’ songs of Bob Dylan. Oh, no. (But don’t worry, The Style Council, replete with explicit attacks on Margaret Thatcher and, of course, aesthetically offensive haircuts, is coming!) These were songs that “ran the gamut of feelings and emotions, sounding notes by turns sad, angry, wistful, and sometimes almost desperate. They key point was that it never let go of a perspective that is focused on people rather than the cold stuff of ideology, something reflected in both its eye for everyday detail and the sense that most of its songs were actually less about any political problems than the human condition.”
Take, for instance, “Town Called Malice”: “Better stop dreaming of the quiet life–‘cos it’s the one we’ll never know/And quit running for that runaway bus–‘cos those rosey days are few/And stop apologizing for the things you’ve never done/’Cos time is short and life is cruel–but it’s up to us to change/This town called malice.” Or “Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?”, an earnest, straightforward ode to the working man: “Alright then love so I’ll be off now/It’s back to the lunchbox and worker-management rows/There’s gotta be more to this old life than this/Scrimping and saving and cross off lists.”
The album’s most enduring sentiments are found in “Running On the Spot,” a song Weller has recently reinstated into his set lists. It is a song, as its title indicates, about halted progress (if there ever was any to begin with), and this idea is fittingly reflected in how its sentiments and statements are still relevant, depressingly so: “I was hoping we’d make real progress/But it seems we have lost the power/Any tiny step of advancement/Is like a raindrop falling into the ocean/We’re running on the spot–always have–always will/We’re just the next generation of emotionally crippled.”
Not every song on the album is politically charged, however. “Happy Together” and “Precious” are intense and complex love songs, each expressing an overwhelming need to be with the singer’s loved one and brimming with the energy so closely associated with The Jam, epitomized by bass player Bruce Foxton’s desperate scream at the start of “Happy Together”: “Baaaaaaby!”
The album’s crowning moment, though, has to be “Ghosts.” Or at least it has to be for me. This is quite possibly my favorite song in the entire world, barring none except perhaps The Beatles. John Harris describes the song as two minutes of “near-perfection” in his essay. He’s wrong. This is two minutes (and ten seconds!) of absolute perfection. Weller often introduced the song in concerts as a song about “the power inside you”: “Why are you frightened–can’t you see that it’s you?/That ain’t no ghost–it’s a reflection of you/Why do you turn away–an’ keep it out of sight?/Oh, don’t live up to your given roles/There’s more inside you that you won’t show.” Uplifting and lyrically flawless, I could listen to nothing but this song every day for the rest of my life. (Unfortunately, we only get an instrumental demo of this song on the demos disc. I really, really, really hope no one is hoarding any demos or alternate takes of this song from me.)
In stark contrast to “Ghosts” stands “Carnation,” a song equal to “Ghosts” in its lyrical power and imagery. The song depicts the coldness of someone’s–indeed, anyone’s–heart, perfectly reflected in the image of the crushed petals of a carnation: “If you gave me a fresh carnation/I would only crush its tender petals.” If “Ghosts” describes the “good” power inside you, then “Carnation” paints quite the opposite: “And if you’re wondering by now who I am/Look no further than the mirror/Because I am the Greed and Fear/And every ounce of Hate in you.” Liam Gallagher once uttered the most succinct and perfect description of the song, with a flash of what I can only presume was intended to be devil horns: “It’s proper Lucifer, innit?” (Watch the brief interview and cover of “Carnation” here. Cute keyboard player, by the way!)
“He looks younger than me in that thing. I look terrible! Really massive bags under me eyes.” — Paul Weller
Weller worked incredibly hard on the album, so hard that he contracted shingles, a rare illness for a 23-year-old, and had a mini-panic attack, both induced by stress. He also met Paul McCartney, resulting in the above photo snapped by McCartney’s wife, Linda. Weller later recalled: “We was in the same studio, right, in Air. We was in Number One and he was in Number Two or something. They just started talking to us. They knew all about us. Linda really liked The Jam, knew most of the songs, and he’d heard some of the new stuff, which was The Gift at the time. If I’d met him 12 years ago I would have been really knocked out–‘cos I used to really like him then–but now he just seems like a really ordinary geezer. Seemed really nice and straight. She had, like, a backdrop set up in the studio and she was taking photos all day of, like, him and the kids and she just got me in there and sat me down and done it. He looks younger than me in that thing. I look terrible! Really massive bags under me eyes.”
Terrible? Someone obviously forgot about THIS photo:
With so much hard work and so many outstanding songs, Weller was still disappointed with the results, writing in the tour program, “Cracking up over The Gift LP, I wanted it perfect, but settled for good, oh well!” Oh, if only more bands could release “good” albums like The Gift!
Seven months following the album’s release, Weller announced the split of the group. With the band at the height of their commercial and, arguably, critical peak, it was a bold move. At the time, Weller stated, “The longer a group continues, the more frightening the thought of ever ending it becomes. That’s why so many of them carry on until they become meaningless.”
This was not to be the case for The Jam, a band whose meaning has, if anything, only increased with time, uncontaminated by mediocrity and nostalgic reunion tours. Their honesty, passion, fire and skill still resonate, as they did so brilliantly on The Gift, which we are allowed to re-experience in this remarkable, if slightly overpriced, Super Deluxe Box Set.
Yeah, this will never get old.