Life Is Timeless: From The Jam in New York
“We are a tribute band in a sense, with the advantage that we have two (original) members in our ranks.”
Pete Townshend wrote that, just a couple of weeks back, in an e-mail Question and Answer session with Who fans. But his words could as easily apply to the Who’s greatest offspring, the Jam, and the group currently touring under almost that name. From The Jam are also “a tribute band in a sense” – and they too have the advantage of having two original members, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, in their ranks. Admittedly, the lone missing original member from the line-up happens to have been the old group’s singer, songwriter and spokesman, but for those of us who followed the Jam in our youth, Bruce and Rick were so much more than mere supporting musicians. The Jam were a band in all the ways, and with all the clichés, that such a simple statement invites, and we loved them for it.
It was only after the Jam split that certain parties tried to rewrite the history books, to make out like the group was a one-sided affair dictated from on top. Perhaps, at the end, it was, and perhaps that’s why Paul Weller felt the need to break it up at the height of their fame and acclaim, and get on with doing his own thing. But until 1982, I can tell you that the Jam was very much a three-way musical split, a group blessed not just with Paul Weller as their front man, but with one of the finest rhythm sections in the world. And if you don’t believe me, you may wish to check out Bruce and Rick’s “tribute” band, From The Jam, should they come rolling through your town.
They came rolling through New York’s Gramercy Theater last Saturday night and it was, of course, an emotional evening. The “of course” assumes that you know a little of my history with the Jam. I first saw the group in 1977, when I was 13; I saw them near enough a hundred times before they broke up in 1982, when I was 18. They were the soundtrack to my teens. But that was then, this is now. If Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler were just 21 in 1977, that makes them the far side of fifty now, which gives them every excuse to be rusty, especially given that until recently, they hadn’t played these songs onstage for so long. Yet they were spot on perfect the whole night long, playing as loud, as furious and yet as nimble as ever I recall. They may have slowed down a little, but presumably I have as well, because I really didn’t notice the difference. Musically, it felt like yesterday. Visually, Rick has lost his hair – I know how that feels – and Bruce wisely doesn’t attempt the vertical splits of which he was often freeze-framed by Pennie Smith and her ilk. But that aside, the years have been kind to them: Rick still plays with controlled precision, Bruce can still jump about, reach his vocal harmonies and run his inimitable bass lines. They’re both fit and trim and still look good in suits; Bruce even still has his full head of hair. This is not your reformed bunch of old fat dudes. This is a couple of old punk mods who were once part of the best band on the planet and, well into middle age, are ready to come back out on the road and remind you of as much.
But From The Jam is not just about Bruce and Rick. It’s about the absent founding member, and the person who has dared step into his shoes. In subbing for Paul Weller, Russell Hastings has taken on one of the hardest jobs on the planet, and he carries it off with amazing aplomb. It’s been well-noted that he sings and plays remarkably like Weller; several times Saturday night I closed my eyes and was almost convinced that I was hearing the original band. But he’s so much more – and, significantly, much less – than a Paul Weller impersonator. Russell delivers the notes, but holds back on the delivery. It’s not his star trip, and he’s smart enough to know as much. So there’s no pontificating when he introduces the songs, no claim to ownership. He never slips up and says that a song is from “our second album” or that it was “our first number one.” Nor does he attempt to elaborate on any of the songs as Weller himself once did; they’re not his words to explain. He has to simultaneously be both the front man and avoid being front man, and somehow, he pulls it off.
It helps his cause that he’s a nobody. He’s not Ian Astbury fronting the Doors. He’s not even a member of the Chords, the Purple Hearts or, God help us, the Lambrettas. He’s just another ex-Jam fan and mod revivalist who, twenty five years after his heroes broke up, found himself in a Jam covers band with the band’s original drummer – and then, a few months later, with Foxton on board and a name change, in a group pertaining to be From the Jam. He’s walking a tightrope but he appears to be keeping his balance. The fact he’s a top bloke is surely part of the explanation. (There is also a fourth member, Dave Moore, on second guitar and keyboards; he was competent, he filled out the sound, he rightly stayed right out of the way.)
Oddly, I felt that Paul Weller’s absence only emphasized Paul’s presence, which loomed over the room like a giant aura. Frequently during the set, as I sang along to Weller’s songs, I found myself appreciating his songwriting skills all over again, the remarkable street poetry he brought to the punk movement, the brave love songs he wrote at such a young and hardened age, the maturity and wisdom he developed while still in his early twenties. We can laugh at the lyrics to “Down In The Tube Station At Midnight” when we actually sit down to dissect them, but I still identify with songs as crass as “the Modern World” and “A-Bomb In Wardour Street,” because, when you’re 18-19 years old, you can only call it like you see it. And if Paul Weller is not exactly chuffed that Bruce and Rick have gone on tour with near enough the old band name (reportedly, there have been more than a couple of legal letters headed From The Jam’s way), he should at least be grateful that they’re doing so much to revive the old material, playing it to a new audience and maybe even selling a few more Jam albums along the way.
Songs? Almost exactly what you would expect. The set opened with “In The City” and “The Modern World.” It closed with “Going Underground,” “Down In The Tube Station” and “Town Called Malice.” They played many of the other Jam hits that you would expect, including what was one my all-time anthem, “When You’re Young,” plus “Strange Town,” “David Watts,” “A-Bomb In Wardour Street,” “Start,” “Eton Rifles,” and, seeing as you’re asking, “News Of The World” too. (Notable by their absence: “The Bitterest Pill” and “Beat Surrender.”) A few album tracks of note: “The Gift,” “It’s Too Bad,” “All Mod Cons,” “To Be Someone,” an absolutely astonishingly powerful version of “Private Hell” that may have been the night’s highlight, “Pretty Green,” “Little Boy Soldiers,” and, seeing as you’re asking, “Smithers Jones” but of course. They were careful not to adopt Paul’s most personal songs; perhaps the only time they stepped over that line was with “Ghosts.” That very small aside aside, it was a stellar choice of songs, meticulously – and furiously – performed, with rarely as much as a pause for breath between one number and another.
I must emphasize that I’m really not a big fan of reunions and reformations, and I never go see tribute bands. I’m not big on nostalgia, and most of my life is spent looking ahead. But twenty-five years after the Jam broke up, I was willing to lose myself in my youth: the performance was that convincing, the rhythm section that instantly recognizable, that it was easy to do so. Eyes closed, a couple of beers inside me (like going out for a date with an old girlfriend, I needed some Dutch courage), I found myself back at the Michael Sobell Sports Center in 1981, when they opened the gym doors at the end and the sweat lifted up off the floors and formed a fog through the whole hall. I was at the Marquee in 1978, thirteen years old, standing on Paul’s flight case at the side of the room so as to see over the crowd. I was back at the Marquee less than two years later, for the John’s Boys “secret show”, the night after they played “Eton Rifles” on Top of The Pops wearing red army jackets, and I could never wear mine again without being accused of being a copy cat. I was in France, in Lilles and Rouens (’80? ’81?), getting by on no money, getting attacked by French skinheads, and leading a group of twenty other Brits in a five-mile walk back to the Jam’s hotel in the snow. (And when we got there, one of the band made us buy them a round, at five-star hotel prices. Fortunately the hotel staff let us all sleep in the bar.) I was in Manchester in 1980, aged sixteen, walking the streets of Moss Side with my school-mate Richard Heard waiting for the first bus back to London on Saturday morning. I was singing along to “Boy About Town” when it was dedicated my way a couple of times in London. I was out on the floor in Brighton countless occasions, and on the train platform afterwards with another 500 Jam fans heading back to London. I was in Bath for the end of a Jam tour, 1979, and I think Mark Blakemore came along for the ride, and the group took pity on us and gave us a lift back to London in the tour bus. I was at the Shearwater Youth Club for the group’s “secret shows” at the real height of their first fame (spring of ’80 I believe), when they all got just a little inebriated and fell over on stage several times, Paul even breaking a guitar in the process; how I would love to have a tape of that show. I was singing “Away From The Numbers” every time I got bullied at school. I was singing “Thick as Thieves” with the mates I did have. I was singing “Happy Together” and “Monday” with Francesca when I finally fell in love (and I’ll never embarrassed about that again). I was singing “I Need You” on my wedding day – I had the hired band learn the song for me. I was singing all the Jam B-sides with Catatonia’s manager at a business dinner in New York about ten years ago, much to the rest of our table’s amusement; we worked our way backwards and I don’t believe we missed a single note. And then I was back at the Gramercy, singing along to “Strange Town” – and it turned out I still can’t get the words right to that one. We all have our handicaps.
After the show, Rick shared with me his disappointment that Paul doesn’t want to be part of this reunion. I understand his feelings; they were childhood friends until the day Paul abruptly broke up the band and jettisoned Rick and Bruce from his life. I sympathize with his need for some sort of “closure.” But reforming the Jam with the original three members might not be the way to go about it. For at least now, without Paul Weller, we don’t have to compare From The Jam with precisely how it was, what it could have been, and what it has become. Without Paul up on stage, we don’t have to wonder whether it’s all for the money, or whether there will be the inevitable new album, and how that new album will inevitably pale alongside the old albums. Without Paul, it’s not the Jam, it’s From The Jam. It’s that tribute band with the two original members of which Townshend talks – and just as with the Who, that makes it the best possible tribute band out there. Cheers. Thanks a lot, Ta.