Monday, 5 October 2020

The Jam - Thick As Thieves (1979-1982)












Photo © Simon Wells

Setting Sons (1979)



Girl On The Phone/Thick As Thieves/Private Hell/Little Boy Soldiers/Wasteland/Burning Sky/Smithers-Jones/Saturday's Kids/The Eton RiflesHeat Wave 

"I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to" - David Cameron 
                                                 
The Jam released Setting Sons in late 1979, a year after they had conquered all before them with All Mod Cons, which took them from being (supposed) punks to champions of the “new wave”. It was talked up as being a (dreaded) “concept album”, ostensibly about three friends who grow up, get jobs, go to war then ummm..well...errr. That was that. No concept really, was there? Time for a Motown cover....

That said, Setting Sons was/is a great album. Kicking off with the infectious tongue-in-cheek fun of Girl On The Phone, which sees Weller talking about an obsessed fan who knows everything about him, even "my leg measurement and the size of my cock...". 

Next up is a Jam classic in Thick As Thieves, which is all pumping bass runs, thumping, resonant drums and choppy guitar, Paul Weller spitting out invective on the way. It is possibly the best track on the album. 

Private Hell is stark and somewhat depressing, concerning a depressed housewife, similar to The Rolling StonesMother's Little Helper and the mood is not improved any in the tale of wartime waste of life in Little Boy Soldiers. Having said that, nobody expected The Jam to be a barrel of laughs though, did they? 

Wasteland is a breezy, tuneful slice of social comment, featuring (I think) a recorder, and Burning Sky is one of the only songs that relates to the “concept” thing, along with Thick As Thieves.

 

Next up is an orchestrated version of the b side of the single When You’re Young in Smithers-Jones. To be honest, I greatly prefer the “full band” version. The version present here is somewhat wishy-washy. It covers the story of a long-serving office worker who is made redundant and is by far Bruce Foxton's best song composed for The Jam.

The riffy and catchy, vaguely Stonesy Saturday's Kids restores the venom, however, and The Eton Rifles takes it to the max with ex-Prime Minister David Cameron’s favourite song. “There’s a row going on down near Slough” indeed. At times Weller’s lyrics reflected the early twenty-something that he was, on other occasions they showed the insight and wisdom of a much older man. It is fair to say, though, that these days I do not hang on his every word as I did back in 1979. The song is a classic fist-pumper, however, with its "hello hooray" chorus. Perfect for an audience full of lads. 

Back to the album. Incongruously, it finishes before time with a frenetic cover of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ Heat Wave. All done too soon. Bands still got away with 30 minutes and not much more in those days.

   

Contrary to the tinny, sparse remaster offered to this album’s follow-up, Sound Affects, the remaster here is not bad at all. I like a warm, bassy remaster and this is almost that. Not quite but 90% there. Perfectly acceptable. Certainly much better than the 1997 remaster. Much bolder, much bassier, much fuller. Use Girl On The Phone and Thick As Thieves as examples.

  

The live from The Rainbow third CD is rough and ready, but if, as I did, you attended live shows in the 1979 show it will take you back to those great nights in an instant.

** The non-album material either side of this album's release included the September 1979 single When You're Young, which was a vibrant, new wave-ish and catchy number featuring a first for The Jam - a piece of cod dub reggae in the bridge. 

Its b side was by far Bruce Foxton's best song for The Jam - the afore-mentioned Smithers-Jones - played here in the full band version, as opposed to the strangely orchestrated string-backed version that appears on Setting Sons. As I said earlier, it is a sad tale of an office worker who is made redundant. 

The 'b' side to the Eton Rifles singles was See-Saw, typical Jam rocker that somehow never really caught on with me. It has that instantly recognisable Jam guitar sound but has a vagueness, both musically and lyrically. Although a Weller song, it has always sounded like a Foxton one to me and of all the Jam "rarities" is is the one I have paid the least attention to. 

One of the first songs recorded on the sessions for Setting Sons was Bruce Foxton's Best Of Both Worlds, an enjoyable, rocky but typically Bruce Foxton number that would possibly have still fitted on the album and not sounded too out of place. Or in place of Heat Wave. It has that Foxton lyrical clumsiness and drawn-out repeated vowel sounds ("wor-huh-hurlds..") that his songs always had but it is actually not a bad effort, to be fair. 

Also from the time was the electric guitar solo demo performed by Weller of Along The Grove, which I am sure morphed into Liza Radley, at least melodically. It is a track that remains unconvincing and pretty inessential. Weller growls with frustration at the end of it. More impressive is the genuine rare nugget of Simon - a Kinks/Small Faces-ish character-driven number. 

In the March of 1980 came the world-conquering straight in at number one single Going Underground, which was a chaotic, visceral condemnation of the nuclear arms race that was perfect for its era. Its b side was the psychedelic, freakbeat-ish throwback of Dreams Of Children, which was a definite diversification for the group. It was totally unlike anything they had done before.


 

Sound Affects (1980)


Pretty Green/Monday/But I'm Different Now/Set The House Ablaze/Start!/That's Entertainment/Dream Time/Man In The Corner Shop/Music For The Last Couple/Boy About Town/Scrape Away

"It's a cross between 'Off The Wall' and 'Revolver'" - Paul Weller

Sound Affects was released in late 1980, with The Jam now at the height of their powers. Going Underground went straight to number one the previous March. In summer the lead-off single from this album, the Taxman-influenced Start! did likewise. The band were untouchable now, masters of ex-punk chart pop.

Paul Weller, much in admiration of The Beatles’ Revolver, seemed to want to produce a similar album - sparse, tinny, guitar-driven with some cutting lyrics scattered around for good measure. I have to admit that it is a bit of a difficult album to categorise - the old sixties influences are very much to the fore - the afore-mentioned Beatles, The Small Faces, sixties psychedelic pop. It is not an album that builds on the Jam sound crafted on All Mod Cons and Setting Sons, though, it strips things down. The sound is more minimalist, trebly and succinct and, by the old "side two" there is a bit of a lack of cohesion. This is where it gets a bit patchy. 

So, back in late 1980, this album was received like the second coming. My memories of my first few listens at the time are those of a slightly underwhelming nature, and an unwillingness to face up to the fact that I preferred the previous two offerings. I clung on to that guitar break in Pretty Green, the hooky appeal of Man In The Corner Shop and the magnificent atmosphere of That's Entertainment as great moments to help me overlook other more ordinary songs like the short But I'm Different Now, the vague Dream Time and the throwaway instrumental, Music For The Last Couple. Anyway, here are those pocketfuls of pretty green....

Pretty Green kicked things off as we all hurriedly put this on our turntables to hear Bruce Foxton’s rumbling bass let us know our favourite lads' band were back. 

Monday saw Weller going all romantic, with his accent to the fore - “rainclouds came to cloud my funder”, then it is on to the breakneck, punky But I'm Different Now with its typically Jam “aye-aye-aye” chorus.

Next up is the anti-fascist put-down Set The House Ablaze. More “la la las”. Those choruses can sometimes sound a bit "naff" but at other times they seem to fit perfectly. Nobody else used them as much as The Jam did. The song has a mysterious, dense, almost claustrophobic feel to it, though, similar to the following year's non-album single, Funeral Pyre

   

Start! was an odd, short song for a single, but it has a quirky, staccato appeal. Just check out Bruce Foxton's huge bass sound on it too. The very essence of The Jam. The interplay between him and drummer Rick Buckler was integral to their sound..

Thats Entertainment is a pure Jam classic. Written by a semi-drunken Weller late one night in fifteen minutes, sung against a stark acoustic guitar backing, it is a slice of late 70s urban British life in three minutes. Magnificent stuff. An alternate version exists with Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler on bass and drums which is more powerful buts lacks the plaintive bleakness of the original. 

Dream Time is a touch of Beatles-esque sixties psychedelia and Man In The Corner Shop is  another singalong semi-tragic Jam social conscience anthem. There is a stark melodiousness to the song that is quite captivating. It is my favourite cut from the album. 

  

The instrumental Music For The Last Couple is a bit of a waste, considering some of the great tracks left off the album but it all ends strongly with the Small Faces-ish Boy About Town and the dense, introspective Scrape Away, which has become one of my favourites from the album in later years. Initially, however, it didn't do much for me. Ones tastes change over the years. The same applies to Set The House Ablaze.

Now, on to the remastering. I have to say it is dreadfully tinny and does the album something of an injustice. The 1997 remasters and the one used on the Direction Reaction Creation box set are both much better. What is bizarre, however, is that the extra tracks on disc two are remastered to a much higher standard, warmer and bassier. 



Also present on disc two are the quality extras in Liza Radley, the plaintive All Mod Cons-ish No-One In The World - that proved once and for all that the group had left their punk/r 'n'b roots a long  way back - Dreams Of Children and the Beatles cover And Your Bird Can Sing. Any of those could, and possibly should have made it on to the album. The same could have been said for a storming cover of The Small Faces' Get Yourself Together. I guess the presence of a couple of covers would have attracted accusations of having run out of material (which wasn't actually the case). 

Still worthy of owning, but the remastering could have been better. I am currently playing it on a better system than I have in the past and it sounds a bit better, so all is not lost.

For many, this is considered to be The Jam's best album, rather as many prefer The Beatles' Revolver to Sgt. Pepper. I can sort of see why, but the tinny sound and some patchy parts on the album's second side will always place it below both All Mod Cons and Setting Sons for me.

** The non-album material from this period included the afore-mentioned melodic and strangely bucolic Liza Radley, which was another new direction for The Jam. In May 1981 came the dense, psychedelic-ish grunge of Funeral Pyre which was backed with an appealing, jangly cover of The Who's Disguises

In October of the same year we saw another change in direction on the brassy, punchy Absolute Beginners, a song that I have never particularly taken to. I didn't quite get what Weller was aiming at with this tinny number urging us all to have "love in our hearts". It was all a bit vaguely hippy. The 'b' side was a great one, though, in the rustic but solid beat of Tales From The Riverbank. It is track full of atmosphere and provided a very early hint as to Weller's solo material that he would put out ten years or so later. There was also a "flexi-disc" giveaway alternate version of the song that has a slightly more percussive ending. The track was also re-written with different lyrics as We've Only Started.

Weller's plaintive No-One In The World was a tender, romantic ballad backed only by guitar while Hey Mister, a short piano-backed number dated, I believe from around 1979. It has an unfinished feel about it and never got beyond the demo stage.

Also from the album's sessions were a convincing, psychedelic-ish cover of The BeatlesRain and the Madness-ish piano-driven cover of The KinksDead End Street. Perhaps suitably considering their sixties pre-occupsations, the band also covered The KinksWaterloo Sunset, acceptably. Weller's brief throwaway spoke word bit of fun, Pop Art Poem, was just that, a bit of fun.


 

 

The Gift (1982)


Happy Together/Ghosts/Precious/Just Who Is The 5 O'Clock Hero?/Trans-Global Express/Running On The Spot/Circus/The Planners' Dream Gone Wrong/Carnation/A Town Called Malice/The Gift

"I feel we have achieved all we can together as a group. I mean this both musically and commercially" - Paul Weller

Released in March 1982, this album signalled the beginning of the end for The Jam as Paul Weller was no doubt hatching his Style Council project in his mind. Weller used horn players on this album as his Motown/Stax influences grew stronger. The traditional Bruce Foxton (bass) and Rick Buckler (drums) rhythm section seemed less integral to The Jam's sound on this one, despite some high points - Foxton's Town Called Malice intro for one. 

The album also suffered from a modicum of self-importance, presented as it was in a candy-striped paper bag (does anyone still have their copy of that, I wonder?), proclaiming that this was, indeed, a "gift". Somehow it made you feel as if we should be grateful for this offering. All marketing hype, of course, but when an altruistic, honest band like The Jam fell prey to such things...

The Northern Soul dancer image on the inner cover was a good choice, though. This album had considerable Northern Soul influence. 

The afore-mentioned Motown-influenced A Town Called Malice was, of course, a huge chart topping single. Its B side, Precious, a worthy first stab at funk that left some early punky fans of the band a bit in two minds. 

   

Carnation and, in particular, the beguiling, steady beat of Ghosts were beautiful Weller "slowies" and Happy Together was a reasonable, vibrant and upbeat opener. 

Trans Global Express continued the funk experimentation, its hook directly lifted from the Northern Soul obscurity So Is The Sun by World Column. Its vocals are, unfortunately, so low down in the mix as to be almost buried. If it is was deliberate, and one can only presume it was, or it would have been changed, it was an odd move. Pertinently, when it was played live, the vocals came across loud and clear, so there you go. 

Running On The Spot is also lively enough, and suitably breathless, but to be brutal, it is nothing special. 

Just Who Is the 5 O'Clock Hero? is better, a quirky, drum-driven number with cynical lyrics about the regular grind of the working life and The Gift is a sort of energetic rock meets Northern Soul dense rock/soul groove. The latter two are reasonable tracks, but not ones that make you really sit up and take notice - I can take or leave them.

The Planners' Dream Gone Wrong was a bit of a calypso-influenced mess, let's be honest - not one of The Jam's better efforts - while Foxton's Pigbag-esque and contemporarily fashionable instrumental Circus was somewhat inessential considering that the excellent A Solid Bond In Your Heart (later to be recorded by The Style Council) was not included (it appears in the bonus tracks). 

The remastering on this is, a bit like that used for Sound Affects a bit to tinny for my liking. The best remasters of this material can be found on the Direction Creation Reaction box set. As with Sound Affects though, the extras are remastered in a much more bassy, appealing fashion which is equally perplexing.



So that was it, after a couple more great singles in the afore-mentioned The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow) and Beat Surrender Paul Weller pulled the plug on The Jam, leaving poor old Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler high and dry. Buckler took it the hardest, it is said. One could see which direction Paul Weller was going here, with the music on this final album. What was amazing, however, was that he called the whole thing to a halt virtually overnight. Five great years. Maybe, like The BeatlesThe ClashFawlty Towers and The Office, he was right. The Jam left a great musical legacy. We will never know what would have become of them. Would they have become The Style Council anyway? What is clear was that Weller wanted to diversify considerably in ways that the other two did not. He was still comparatively young and his life was just growing in a a different direction. It happens to all of us. 

** The non-album material from this period included September 1982's soul-influenced and distinctly un-Jam-like The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow) and the band's poppy final single, Beat Surrender

On that single were some ill-considered soul covers in Edwin Starr's War (two versions exist, the "first version", which is twice as long, is much better), Curtis Mayfield's Move On Up and The Chi-LitesStoned Out Of My Mind (with a pretty dreadful Weller falsetto vocal), together with an odd, short, plodding but weirdly atmospheric number called Shopping, about just that, going shopping "with clothes at the top of my list...". The soul material gave a huge hint as to what was floating Weller's boat at the time, along with  the non-album rarity, the afore-mentioned Jam version of A Solid Bond In Your Heart.

Another noteworthy thing is the cover of that single (shown below) which prototyped what would be the instantly recognisable Style Council artwork and graphic style.

The 'b' side of Just Who Is The 5 O' Clock Hero? was the underrated, catchy mid-pace rock/soul of The Great Depression

The Bitterest Pill had a great 'b' side too in Pity Poor Alfie/Fever - the latter was a cover of the Peggy Lee number that is better than you would have imagined it to be, and there was also a "swing version" of Pity Poor Alfie, full of brass breaks, which is superb.

Also knocking around from the time were covers of Ben E. King's Stand By Me and Brenda Holloway's Every Little Bit Hurts as Weller's soul obsession burgeoned. They are both ok, but somehow not what one felt The Jam were meant to be. The latter actually dated from August 1981 and was one of the first signs of a change in direction. I have mentioned it here along with the rest of the soul covers, however. Interestingly, it was also covered by The Clash.

Also presumed from the sessions for The Gift was Weller's brassy, upbeat Walking In Heaven's Sunshine, a track that certainly should have made the album at the expense of either Circus or The Planner's Dream Gone Wrong or if not just added anyway. It is a song typical of The Jam's soully, horn-powered direction of the era,


 

 

 

Dig The New Breed (1982)


In The City/All Mod Cons/To Be Someone/It's Too Bad/Start!/Big Bird/Set The House Ablaze/Ghosts/Standards/In The Crowd/Going Underground/The Dreams Of Children/That's Entertainment/Private Hell                                   

The importance of this live album from The Jam has lessened over the years. In 1982 when it was released it was received like the Holy Grail because there was simply no other Jam live material available and we craved it. Now, there is the fantastic Fire And Skill six gig box set; the Jam At The BBC live sessions; various live gig extras as part of the “deluxe” remaster series and the Live Jam release which plays like a full live set, even though it might not be one.

  

Dig The New Breed, however, is a 14 song collection derived from live gigs between 1977 and 1982. The quality is variable but we were grateful at the time for anything that captured that feeling of being at a Jam gig. I was lucky enough to be at ten of them. It would have made more sense at the time to have released a full gig, but this was how the band chose to reward their legions of loyal fans. At the time, nobody complained. They really didn’t. Everything was lapped up.

I remember at the time, though, being slightly underwhelmed by the album, feeling that indeed it did not reflect the true thrill of being at a Jam gig and that the tracks chosen were not the best either. I would have liked to have seen Tube Station, Strange Town or Wardour Street on there, along with maybe Life From A Window or Here Comes The Weekend from the earlier days.

As it is, is it good to hear In The CityTo Be Someone and It's Too Bad.  Big Bird is an interesting inclusion but sonically it is a mess and not a patch on the original. The take of Going Underground on here is somewhat clumsy too.


The Jam: Extras

 

Dreams Of Children (double 'a' side with Going Underground)/Tales From The Riverbank ("b" side to Absolute Beginners)/Liza Radley (solo acoustic demo of 'b' side of Start!)/Move On Up ('b' side to Beat Surrender, a Curtis Mayfield cover)/Shopping ('b' side to Beat Surrender)/Smithers-Jones (full band version) ('b' side to When You're Young)/Pop Art Poem/Boy About Town (alternate version)/A Solid Bond In Your Heart/No-One In The World/And Your Bird Can Sing (Beatles cover)/Burning Sky (acoustic demo)/Thick As Thieves (solo electric demo)/Disguises ('b' side to Funeral Pyre, a Who cover)/Get Yourself Together (Small Faces cover)/The Butterfly Collector ('b' side to Strange Town)/The Great Depression ('b' side to Just Who Is The 5 O'Clock Hero?)/Stoned Out Of My Mind ('b' side to Beat Surrender, a Chi-Lites cover)/Pity Poor Alfie/Fever ('b' side to The Bitterest Pill)/But I'm Different Now (alternate version)/I Got You (I Feel Good) (James Brown cover)/Hey Mister/Saturday's Kids (solo electric demo)/We've Only Started/So Sad About Us ('b' side to Down In The Tube Station At Midnight, a Who cover)/The Eton Rifles (solo electric demo)

This was the first compilation of Jam rarities, and at the time it was most welcome. It was hardly comprehensive, however, and cherry picks its material, all of which is from the 1979 Setting Sons era an onwards.

The notable inclusions are the full band version of Bruce Foxton's Smithers-Jones, which was infinitely superior to the odd strings-backed one that appeared on Setting Sons; the quirky, short spoken voice oddity of Pop Art Poem; the brassy Jam version of what would later become The Style Council's A Solid Bond In Your Heart; two fine, abrasive covers in The BeatlesAnd Your Bird Can Sing and The Small FacesGet Yourself Together; the plaintive but appealing No-One In The World; the similarly bleak, piano-driven Hey Mister and the re-write of Tales From The Riverbank in We've Only Started.

  

The remainder of the tracks are stand-alone 'b' sides and demo versions of tracks that appeared on albums. Some of those "b' sides are high quality, like The Great Depression, Tales From The Riverbank, Pity Poor Alfie/Fever, The Butterfly Collector, Liza Radley, Shopping and two Who covers in Disguises and So Sad About Us. The covers of Peggy Lee's Fever and James Brown's I Got You (I Feel Good) are examples of the group's diversification towards the end of their career. The latter is surprisingly good. with a great Foxton bass line.

While the "alternate versions" are fine, the demo versions are superfluous and pretty much unlistenable, particularly the poor sound quality and feedback-drenched sound of Thick As Thieves. A handy trick in the age of digital music is to take these out when you play the album.



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