Thick As Thieves: Jam fans tell their story

Two years back, while in Britain on a lengthy research trip for my Smiths biography, I went to Brighton for a Paul Weller concert (my first time seeing the Modfather in the flesh in over a decade, before you jump to conclusions), and found myself having a pre-match drink with Weller/Madness biographer John Reed and his mate Stuart Deabill. With Reed’s tip-off, I got talking to Deabill about my work-in-progress; it turned out that Stuart had been a major Smiths fan, following them around the British Isles even as he hung with the Chelsea casuals and got in more than his share of territorial scraps.

I ended up talking to Stuart in more detail for A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga of The Smiths; I found his story, along with that of Man City fan (and fanzine editor) Phil Gatenby, to be of great interest, an aspect of the Smiths’ fan-base that has been historically ignored in favor of the more clichéd vision of the angst-ridden, sexually insecure, physically intimidated teenager. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Stuart for one of the more memorably uncouth lines in my biography: “The train journeys with my football pals were littered with [comments like], “You still wanking off over that miserable northern poof?”’

In turn, Stuart contacted me a year or so ago and asked me to contribute to a book he was putting together with Ian Snowball entitled Thick As Thieves, a series of first person fan accounts about The Jam. I initially agreed to take part, but found myself so completely immersed in writing my Smiths biography that I missed the deadline. That’s unlike me, but at the same time, I’m fine with my exclusion: my forthcoming memoir, Boy About Town, deals with that very subject (along with many others) in exquisite detail, and it might have been hard for me to tell the same story in different words.

Anyway, it’s hardly as if they needed my humble memories to complete their own project. For, hot on the heels of A Light That Never Goes Out’s publication, Thick As Thieves: Personal Situations with The Jam has just hit the UK bookstores and appears (at Amazon, at least) to be selling extraordinarily well. This success may be in no small part due to the endorsement (and a written foreword) from Weller himself; it may also have been aided by modernist lifestyle website ZANI collaborating with the authors and many of the book’s contributors to produce an accompanying 25-minute documentary.

Featured on-screen faces in the above docunmentary include The Jam’s A&R Man Dennis Munday, sleeve designer Bill Smith, and mouthpiece Garry Bushell. But there are also plenty of everyday hardcore fans offering up their memories, some of whom I got to know personally from traveling up and down the country in pursuit of the Jam (e.g. Derek D’Souza, Grant Fleming), others with whom I probably rubbed shoulders out on the floor but don’t know by name (Mark Baxter, Neil Sheasby), and others still (Daisy Bowes, Billy Sullivan) who were too young to see the Jam in the flesh but subsequently became as smitten as any of us who were fortunate enough to consider the group our contemporaries. I particularly like that the documentary refuses to follow Weller’s own revisionism and allows fans to celebrate the much-maligned This Is The Modern World LP; as with Anita Hill, I thought, upon hearing it, that ‘I Need You’ was the best love song I was ever going to hear in my life. (Fourteen years later my opinion had not changed much: I had our wedding band perform it.)

If you watch more than a few minutes of the documentary, you may be tempted to conclude that the Jam’s audience was almost entirely male (of the 25-odd people on film, only three are female), predominantly Caucasian, entirely British, none too fond of the Queen’s English and, down to the last man (and token woman), a mod revivalist. Much in the way that Stuart Deabill himself contradicted the media’s lazy perception of Smiths fans, I know of plenty Jam fans who did not subscribe to the above demographics, and it’s a shame that the authors (and/or film-makers) could not have gone out and found some for themselves.

Be that as it may. The book is, apparently (for I don’t yet have a copy), full not just of first person accounts, but photographic souvenirs of ticket stubs, backstage passes and the other paraphernalia that appears to gain greater credence as the years go by. Given the genuine lack of definitive Jam literature, perhaps a fan-based approach, alternating personal memories with physical memorabilia, is the way to go. As for my own absence from the project, well it appears not to have caused any bad feelings: scroll through to the 23rd minute for evidence.

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