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The Kids Were All Wrong 

The Jam/The Jam Collection/(Polydor)

The Jam

The Jam Collection

(Polydor)

By J.R. Jones

Paul Weller was 15 when he formed the Jam, and for some time to come the outsize emotions of youth would supply both the fuel and the subject matter for his feverish rave-ups. "Life is a drink and you get drunk / When you're young," he declared on one of the band's later anthems. By the time the British power trio landed a contract with Polydor in 1977, Weller was obsessed by the 60s ideal of youth culture as a social and political force, and the Jam's initial clumsy embrace of the Who's mod mythology--power chords, two-tone shoes, Union Jacks draped over their amps--sprang from Weller's sincere ambition to unite his own g-g-generation against England's fossilized class system.

The Jam's first two albums burn with such utopian sentiments, but its greatest records--All Mod Cons (1978), Setting Sons (1979), and Sound Affects (1980)--chronicle Weller's increasing bitterness as the punk movement dissipated and his mod community proved to be united by little more than a clothing fad. In 1982--coincidentally the year the Who hit rock bottom with It's Hard--Weller disbanded the Jam, telling his fans, "I want all we have achieved to count for something, and most of all I'd hate us to end up old and embarrassing like so many other groups do." He was pushing 25.

Weller spent the rest of the 80s making an ass of himself with Style Council, a puerile blend of white soul, sanctimonious Marxism, and tony Euro-fashion, before coming to his senses in 1994 with the folk-influenced solo record Wild Wood. And even as contemporaries like the Clash and the Sex Pistols find a new audience among Green Day punks, the Jam has faded from memory. Not even WXRT can bring itself to spin "Town Called Malice" anymore.

The Jam Collection (whose cover photo and title both suggest a fashion spread) is the latest attempt to revive the band's reputation, and for hard-core fans, the most superfluous: unlike the rarities collection Extras (1992), the concert memento Live Jam (1993), and even the singles roundup Greatest Hits (1991), it contains no rare or unreleased material, drawing most of its 25 tracks from albums or B sides already available on CD. It's a fine retrospective nonetheless, showcasing lesser-known gems and highlighting the Jam's energy, melody, and tight, minimalistic playing. It also paints a distinct portrait of a talented songwriter growing up in public--and for 30-ish mods who can no longer fit into their striped trousers, it may serve as a reminder that youth isn't all it's cracked up to be. Weller was a passionate, romantic, idealistic, and truthful young man. He was also arrogant, humorless, pitiless, and tiresomely self-righteous--sometimes listening to a drunk is no fun at all.

Ray Davies was another of Weller's mod heroes, and in "Mr. Clean," a Collection track from All Mod Cons, Weller reworks the Kinks' "A Well Respected Man." Like that song, "Mr. Clean" follows a Tory businessman through the routine of breakfast, commuter train, and office. But the playful satire in Davies's third-person song ("He plays at stocks and shares / And he goes to the regatta / He adores the girl next door / 'Cause he's dying to get at her") is nowhere to be found in Weller's uncompromisingly venomous rewrite. "I hate you and your wife," he spits, "and if I get the chance I'll fuck up your life!" On a visceral level, the song's blind hatred is more riveting than Davies's detached irony, but where Davies manages to make his subject seem ludicrous, Weller's is barely discernible through his disgust.

Setting Sons grew from a cycle of songs about three friends who grow up and apart, and while the concept never panned out, many of the songs reveal Weller's frustration with the creeping compromises of adulthood. In "Thick as Thieves," one of the lads reflects: "Something came along that changed our minds / I don't know what and I don't know why / But we seemed to grow up in a flash of time / While we watched our ideals helplessly unwind." The song's final chorus is a bitter pun: "We're no longer as thick as thieves, no / We're not as thick as we used to be."

Bleaker still is "Private Hell," from the same record, in which an aging wife and mother barely survives a lonely day of household chores. Her husband ignores her, her children have moved out, her letters go unanswered. She could be a character out of a Doris Lessing novel, but Weller's observations are coldly clinical. A dropped teacup shatters: "Inside you crack / You can't go on, but you sweep it up / Safe at last inside your private hell / Sanity at last inside your private hell." Weller draws his damned housewife more precisely than he does "Mr. Clean," but his lack of empathy is chilling; he seems almost to be gloating.

By the time Sound Affects appeared the following year, Weller had shifted his musical focus to the psychedelia of Syd Barrett and the Revolver-era Beatles. He was still pompous enough to quote Shelley on the sleeve, but the songs reveal a maturity absent from Weller's earlier work. "Man in the Corner Shop" recounts a series of encounters between a shop owner and his customers. The first customer, who toils at a nearby factory, walks home envying the shop owner's independence. In the next verse, the shop owner sells cigars to the factory boss, envying the boss's financial security. The shift in perspective is startling for a songwriter previously inclined to easier judgments.

In the last verse of the song, all three pray together in church. "Here they are all one," Weller declares, "for God created all men equal." A few years earlier, he would have denounced organized religion as the opiate of the masses, but the relativism of "Man in the Corner Shop" speaks to an unfortunate truth of growing up. Real, lasting community has nothing to do with the commercial machinations of any so-called youth culture. It requires us to tolerate people who don't wear the same clothes or listen to the same records or espouse the same ideas. It requires us to turn down the music when the neighbor's child is sleeping instead of cranking it up to validate our autonomy. It requires us to become adults.

"Shopping," the last song on The Jam Collection, was a B side of the band's valedictory Beat Surrender EP. The previous album, The Gift (1982), had ventured into Stax-Volt territory with mostly disastrous results: bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler were too stiff to pull off Weller's new groove-oriented material. But on "Shopping" they prove dexterous enough to handle a jazz ballad, accompanied by trumpet and flute solos--musically it's the least Jam-like track the Jam ever recorded. Lyrically Weller reflects on the mod culture that had so disappointed him: he wanders around London looking for new clothes, but it's an empty, alienating experience. "It's not like the adverts all make out," he sings, "and there's no one to greet you as a friend."

When Weller split the Jam, his decision seemed impulsive, premature, but in retrospect his instincts were right on target. In England, its last seven singles had charted in the top five, and sooner or later it would have cracked the American market. Had Weller stuck it out, the Jam likely would have become another U2: a huge, international rock act prone to grand, heroic, and ultimately blank gestures. Instead, Weller sealed the Jam in amber, ensuring that, like the Beatles, his band would always represent rock's limitless possibilities. Nothing makes youth seem more attractive than leaving it behind.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Album cover.

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