Monday, 3 December 2018

FROM THE JAM, Open, Norwich, 1 December 2018 review

Mod revivalists The Jam may split up in 1982, but thanks to bassist Bruce Foxton (below) their musical legacy is in rude health.

Will they do ‘Eton Rifles’, Lurch?” “They’ll do ‘Eton Rifles’, Rob.”

On the way to Norwich, myself and my friend Lurch had a lively discussion. Namely, the appalling state of the Brexit negotiations and how, as apparently one of the richest countries in the world, we now have an alarming amount of people living on the street, and a National Health Service – particularly in the mental health sector – on the verge of disintegration. Paul Weller of The Jam’s lyric, “You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns”, could easily be amended to “You’ll see kidney machines replaced by Brexit and no fun, delivering a political statement as contemporary as the original was in 1980.

I bang on about it a lot, but 1) a lot of the pop music I grew up listening to in the late 1970s and early 1980s was political – punk, New Wave, 2-Tone, Billy Bragg – and 2) back then, our social lives mostly revolved around dancing to, making and/or watching live music.

40 years later it still does. Walking to the rather brilliant new-ish venue the Open up Norwich’s party capital Prince of Wales Road, where the Saturday night city beat had already started and maybe the punks and the corner boys still sprang into action, we were here for the 40th anniversary tour of The Jam’s third LP, 1978’s All Mod Cons. It was the album that finally made people sit up and take notice of the three Mod punks, confirming the early promise of the band’s formative singles ‘In the City’ and ‘All Around the World’.

Supporting are speed-rhythm-and-blues outfit Nine Below Zero, fronted by ace face Dennis Greaves who, back in the day, used to do hand stands across the stage; these days, as he fields lead guitar, he endearingly looks more like Alfred Burke from Public Eye playing Ronnie Lane. Backed up by harmonica maestro Mark Feltham, who’s worked with everyone from Joe Cocker to Oasis, Greaves and co. – it’s Greaves junior on drums now, with “young man” Ben Willis on bass – rip through a short but urgent set, with ‘Johnny Weekend’, ‘Homework’ and, of course, ‘11+11’ the highlights. Afterwards, the appealingly geezerish Greaves is good enough to sign the shirt of a young Mod in the front row.

With the headliners imminent, the front rows are starting to get packed. From what I could see looking out over the predominantly grey heads of the audience, there were roughly twenty people in the Open under 50. No wonder the female bouncer who faced us during From The Jam’s set looked vaguely alarmed throughout. She was probably estimating the amount of potential coronaries in the mosh pit.

Where do you start with The Jam? In Paul Weller, they were fronted by a Woking youngster who had a literate, polemical cynicism beyond his years, and pretty much monopolised the UK singles chart from 1978 until their split in 1982. What’s less well known is that Weller could write glorious romantic numbers like ‘Fly’, ‘It’s Too Bad’, ‘English Rose’ and ‘That’s Entertainment’ that captured the first, adolescent rush of passion in a relationship, together with the singular, prosaic nature of love in a cold English climate: “Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume… Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away.”

Three of the above songs are on All Mod Cons and, tonight, From The Jam play all four to an ecstatic reception. In some ways, the band are a curious live proposition: one step away from a brilliant tribute band, with guitarist and vocalist Russell Hastings (left) resembling a slightly shorter Weller, they’re awarded legitimacy by the presence of original Jam bassist Bruce Foxton. He was there when these songs were written, and together with original drummer Rick Buckler was instrumental in their musical arrangements. You can’t get more official that that, and it’s a sign of The Jam set-up’s ongoing integrity that the title of Foxton’s ensemble acknowledges his musical heritage, while at the same time distinguishing the band from the original.

My favourite Jam album is Setting Sons (1979), but All Mod Cons is notable for the flowering maturity of Weller’s lyrical vision, by turns scathing about the vacuous nature of the entertainment industry and overnight fame (‘All Mod Cons’, ‘To Be Someone’), the grim state of the UK (‘Mr Clean’, ‘A Bomb in Wardour Street’, ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’), together with an introspective look at the nature of modern life (‘In the Crowd’, ‘The Place I Love’). It’s all played at a frantic pace that suggested the band had just worked out what their instruments were really for and weren’t going to waste a second.

Foxton and Hastings, backed up by drummer Mike Randon and keyboard player Andy Fairclough (no relation, sadly) play with the same fire as the original line up. I saw From The Jam at The Waterfront a few years ago, but they seem much more comfortable and assured tonight. From All Mod Cons, they move on to deliver classics such as ‘A Town Called Malice’, ‘News of the World’, ‘Start!’ and ‘Smithers-Jones’. God, they still sound good.

My all time favourite song is left to the encore. The instrumental cascade at the beginning of The Eton Rifles’ really does sound like a row going on down near Slough. As it’s such a special song – Weller came up with the lyric “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” when he was 20, defining generations of class war in Britain in one line – I try for my one-song-mosh per gig, but things are just a bit too boisterous this time. I retreat for some lone grooving.

Rifles’ with ‘Going Underground’, at the end of the evening From The Jam group together at the front of the stage for a touchingly old fashioned, appreciative bow. Foxton, a man of few words during a gig, is moved to affirm the show as “a great night.”

As we walk back to the car park, Prince of Wales Road looks like a scene from
That’s Entertainment’. If you’re a musician who writes about universal constants like day to day living, being young and broke and love and loss, your songs will always be relevant, but it’s doubly amazing how pertinent The Jam’s political numbers, principally The Eton Rifles’, Going Underground’ and ‘A Town Called Malice’ still are. I sincerely wish they weren’t.

While going to see musical heroes from your distant youth in 2018 is something of a welcome dream mixed with nostalgia, as a middle aged man I’ll continue to rage against the dying of the light to the inspiring, radical soundtrack of The Jam (among others). It’s no exaggeration to say that music this good and this timeless helps keep me alive.

Hello, hurrah...

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