Absolute Beginners, All Mod Cons, In the City, Paul Weller, Setting Sons, Sound Affects, The Gift, The Jam, This is the Modern World
Today we inaugurate a new feature here at Poprock Record: major artist melody testing. Now let me state at the outset that our trained scienticians observe only the highest testing standards in bringing you the finest quality poprock product. Our new soon-to-be-patented ‘melody testing’ technology never fails to identify superior hooks, hidden jangle, and potentially hair-raising harmonies. Today’s nominated product for testing: the recorded output of The Jam. Our goal – to single out the most melody-drenched cuts you can find on each album, EPs or singles.
Like so many end-of-the-seventies and into-the-1980s punk/new wave bands, I came to The Jam just at the point they were winding down. I’d stumbled across “Town Called Malice” and was absolutely smitten with its driving bass, uber cool organ line and working class lyrics. I couldn’t afford the album it was included on (The Gift) at the time but did pick up a heavily discounted packaging of the band’s last two EPs featuring “The Bitterest Pill (I Had to Swallow)” and “Beat Surrender.” I loved “The Bitterest Pill” with its Bacharachian over-the-top 1960s pop excesses and biting social commentary. Later I would slowly collect all the band’s earlier albums but to be honest I never really listened to them all that carefully. I just didn’t have the whole-album-loving-experience that typified my responses to records from Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, The English Beat or Marshall Crenshaw. So for this post I’m going back to revisit The Jam to see just what I’ve been missing, melody-wise.
The Jam’s 1977 debut In the City was a dramatic guitar-slashing bit of punky rock and roll. The band’s three piece format forced a kind of instrumental austerity on their sound. It was stripped down and straight up rock and roll, with little ornamentation. For the most part “Away From the Numbers” fit this mold, until it enters the chorus and an almost Springsteen-esque turn of melody emerges, later complimented by some ghostly but catchy background ‘oohs’. Follow up long-player This is the Modern World cemented the band’s reputation as the reincarnation of all things early Who and mod. But “I Need You (For Someone)” stands out for its distinctive harmony vocals, reminiscent of the Beatles Rubber Soul period, while “Tonight at Noon” has lead guitar work that is much more George Harrison than Pete Townshend, backed by Beatlesque harmonies. All Mod Cons, despite the title, broke with the type-casting the band had jammed itself into with previous releases, opening up the songwriting and performances to greater variety. You can hear it on ‘It’s Too Bad” where the guitars are toned down from slashing to shimmering in their attack, with some very “Hard Day’s Night” tones here and there.
By 1979 the band had shrugged off the punk sensibility to embrace more of the new wave feel of that year on Setting Sons. Just listen to the lead guitar work on “Thick as Thieves” to hear a new melodic complexity. The Canadian edition of the album contained the beautiful, sonically lush “Butterfly Collector” with its great hooky chorus. 1980s Sound Affects offers up a lot of melodic treats (“That’s Entertainment” obviously), though “Monday” is something special with its somewhat dark melodic feel, original bass lines and jangly lead guitar. In addition to regular albums the band released a host of one-off singles and the occasional EP. “Tales from the River Bank” and “Liza Radley” both appeared on the Absolute Beginners EP in 1981 and demonstrated a new breadth of songwriting, both neo-psychedelic for the former and bit of pop folk on the latter. In retrospect, 1982’s The Gift plays like a concept album, with a thematic story running through the songs. But “Town Called Malice” ended up completely over-defining a record that actually contained multiple styles. Personally I’m drawn to “Carnation” with its McCartney-ish confessional quality.
In the end, it’s clear The Jam could offer up ace melodies crammed into tightly packed, cleverly arranged songs, if they chose to. That they didn’t always do that reflected Paul Weller’s broad tastes, musical restlessness and the band’s mod-rocking DNA. I might have preferred more hooks but who am I to place limits on the artist?
Please note: the contents of this post are completely subjective and unscientific. Individual reader melody testing results will undoubtedly vary.