The three paramount British bands of 1977 stood out among one another by emphasizing an individual aspect of the punk movement more than its peers did. The Sex Pistols focused on anger to a greater extent than politics. The Clash put politics just a notch above anger. The Jam, meanwhile, incorporated pop and R&B–i.e., mod–elements into its social and political commentary.
In the City is the least revered of the debut albums by these groups. However, it established its creators’ punk credentials every bit as much as Never Mind the Bullocks and The Clash’s debut did for their creators. The Jam was not as angry or overtly political as the Pistols or The Clash, but were enough of each such that, when it stirred in sharp pop hooks and R&B grooves, the result was just as much of a tinderbox.
The Jam (l-r): Bruce Foxton, Rick Buckler, Paul Weller
Among the dozen songs on The Jam’s debut are 10 originals by the still 18-year-old Paul Weller, who was two years younger than Johnny Rotten and six years Joe Strummer’s junior. His youth manifests itself mostly for better throughout the record. People who might compare In the City unfavorably to other punk albums cannot legitimately reduce its alleged inferiority to the fact that Weller was a mere pup at the time.
The songs on In the City can be grouped three or four at a time into the categories of punk, mod, and rock. An example of each of these is presented on the first “side” of the album. “Art School” kicks down the door with as much brains, brawn, and urgency as can be found on a late 70s punk album. It is driven by Pete Townshend-inspired riffs that define The Jam’s early sound. “I’ve Changed My Address,” however, emphasizes a mod-loving R&B groove made punky by Rick Buckler’s steady drum beats and Bruce Foxton’s funky bass lines. It kind of sounds like a lost R&B nugget, and lyrically recalls The Who’s “A Legal Matter.” “Away From the Numbers” is a more straight-ahead rocker with thoughtful if not profound lyrics. The tempo is slower on this catchy tune, which has an almost Beach Boys-like “oooh-oooh” interlude.
“In The City” is the album’s literal and figurative centerpiece. While it stands out because it was The Jam’s first single, it is really just another one of many great songs on the album. An equally proportional pop/punk mix and an infectious riff stolen by The Sex Pistols make it a worthy inclusion among the defining songs of the punk era.
The second half of the record–including the title track and its B-side, “Time For Truth”–reinforces the elements introduced in first half. “Sounds From the Street” is the album’s catchiest rock song, and includes a shout out to the band’s hometown: “I know I come from Woking/And you say I’m a fraud/But my heart’s in the city/Where it belongs.”
In addition to Weller’s 10 originals, In the City includes two covers. The first is a punked-up version of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down,” which had also been done by The Beatles. The second is “Batman Theme,” which accounts for the album’s one truly unforgivable dud. This is the earliest instance in which Weller’s love of The Who counts against him a bit. It is one of a few songs that were covered by The Who and then by The Jam, in addition to the Who originals that The Jam covered. Plus, The Who had a song called “In The City,” which I cannot say for sure was the source this album’s title.
Part of me wants to think that The Jam’s lack of success in America can be explained by a sentiment expressed in “Art School”: “Fools only laugh `cause they envy you.” This probably isn’t fair. The fact is that The Jam was simply not marketed effectively in the States. That they were the opening act for Blue Oyster Cult on an early American tour suffices to make that obvious.
No worries though, as The Jam was the most popular band in England during its six-year existence. Unlike The Sex Pistols, Paul Weller’s band was able to survive for long enough to record more than one album. Unlike Joe Strummer or Mick Jones, Paul Weller knew that it was time to hang it up before his band began to look ridiculous.
(“Look ridiculous is exactly what he did in The Style Council,” you say? Maybe, but that is an argument for another review.)
Before I had the honor of writing about music and nonfiction for actual publications, I posted reviews of my favorite albums on Amazon.com. I have reposted some of them on this sadly negelected blog in the categories of Amazon Flashback and Amazon Reviews. Inspired by Pitchfork’s Sunday review feature, I have decided to begin reposting my Amazon reviews on a regular basis. Since Pitchfork’s selection was Something Else by The Kinks this past Sunday, I figured that I would make it mine today. (Save for edits for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and factual accuracy, the pieces will appear exactly as they originally did.)
Britpop Ground Zero
In late 1960s, rock ‘n roll began to outgrow “Satisfaction,” “Love Me Do,” and “You Really Got Me.” Not only did bands become more socially and politically aware, they became more ambitious and eager to experiment. For their trouble, many of the great bands from this era–such as The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, and The Beach Boys–were rewarded with not only a secure musical legacy, but healthy financial benefits as well. The Kinks, who were banned from the US between the crucial years of 1965 and 1969, received neither. They had a handful of successful singles, but their LPs went almost completely unnoticed by record buyers.
Fortunately, the pendulum has swung, and The Kinks are now recognized as a major influence on subsequent generations of British rockers. To quote Mick Jones of The Clash, “As far as The Beatles, The Stones, and The Who are concerned, we don’t really hear that much about The Kinks. But they’re just as important, you know.”While the influence of The Beatles and The Stones spreads across the entire spectrum of popular music, that of The Kinks and The Who is most obvious in the punk (British and American) of the late 70s and the Britpop of the early 90s. Like Newton and Leibniz’s independent but nearly simultaneous invention of calculus, the fuzzy power chords of these bands’ 1964-5 singles laid the groundwork for punk, while assertions like Pete Townshend’s “hope I die before I get old” and Ray Davies’ “I’m Not Like Everybody Else”–a B-side that appeared 10 years before The Ramones’ debut–were philosophical proto-punk manifestos.
In the late 60s and early 70s, both bands turned toward catchy, melodic pop songs whose influence would be heard in everyone from The Jam and XTC to Blur and Pulp. And the career trajectory similarities don’t stop there: The Kinks and The Who could also be credited–or, if you prefer, blamed–for inventing the rock opera/concept album with their 1969 releases Arthur and Tommy (although The Pretty Things’ S.F. Sorrow was released a year earlier than both). In the late 70s and early 90s, British groups would be inspired to sound like these British bands who had influenced them, rather than like the American artists who had influenced the British bands of the 60s.
Something Else by The Kinks was arguably the first full-length instance of what would be called Britpop a quarter-century later. (Or maybe it was Face To Face. Take your pick.) The proto-punk and American R&B elements of their first records were less salient on this record, having been replaced by a “distinctly British” blend of marching drums, slow to mid-tempo rockers and ballads, and primarily acoustic–but nonetheless rocking– guitars. Furthermore, the themes moved beyond boy loves girl to musical snapshots of schoolyard jealousy, sibling rivalry, disappointed in-laws, bittersweet solitude and, of course, underachieving circus folk.
It is one thing for a record to culminate in a one-two punch or trio of great songs, but quite another for it to start off with a right, left, and uppercut. That is what we get on Something Else. With the Stonesy thump of “David Watts” (later covered in a faithful if perfunctory manner by The Jam), the quirky, melancholy folk of “Death of a Clown,” and the thinly veiled allegory “Two Sisters,” this record wastes no time getting started. And it is hardly on cruise control before closing with “Waterloo Sunset,” a feather in the cap–if not jewel in the crown–of 60s British pop.
After the 1-2-3 punch that opens the record, things slow down a bit with “No Return,” which, like the similarly hazy and dreamlike “Lazy Old Sun,” shows that while the Kinks were not a psychedelic band or a bunch of hippies, they were clearly not impervious to the atmosphere of Swinging London. The same can be said of the hilarious “Harry Rag,” which humorously mocks the idea that anything is bearable if you’ve got the right stuff to take your mind off of it. “End of the Season,” sung by Ray in a mock lounge singer voice, is another highlight, and the music hall ditties “Tin Soldier Man” and “Situation Vacant” contribute significant personality to the record.
Then there are Dave Davies’ songs. I am a great fan of underdogs and unsung heroes, and I think that it can be said that Dave wrote at least one great song for every dozen or so that Ray did (see Dave’s The Album That Never Was for examples). The absurd folk of “Death of a Clown,” which reached #3 in the UK, is proof enough: “The trainer of insects is crouched on his knees/And frantically looking for runaway fleas.”
But Dave also contributes the steady rockers “Love Me Till the Sun Shines” and “Funny Face.” Hence, Something Else was for Dave what Revolver was for George Harrison. (The weakest track on the record is probably Ray’s “Afternoon Tea.” While its subject is quintessentially English, it hardly makes for compelling listening in this case.) And it would be a travesty to not give props to Nicky Hopkins for his superb piano and harpsichord work.
The bonus tracks on the 2000 reissue are far from the throwaways meant to entice completists that such tracks often are. First of all, Dave rears his underrated head with “Lincoln County” and the excellent “Susannah’s Still Alive,” which was a hit single in its own right. And Ray’s songs–especially “Autumn Almanac,” “Wonderboy,” “Polly,” and “There’s No Life Without Love”–are as good as anything to be found on this or any other Kinks record of the era.
It may be a bit unfortunate that this rerelease is in mono, for it is tempting to say that the stereo version packs more punch. But that is ultimately a matter of taste, and the fact is that this is a fascinating collection of songs, sounding very much like a product of its time–perhaps somewhat charmingly dated–and yet still unlike albums by the band’s peers. These elements combine to create a precious gem of the British Invasion, one which would itself spawn the gems of future British Invasions.
Peter Hook & The Light will be at The Sinclair in Cambridge, MA, on Saturday, November 26. Here is the interview that I did with him following the publication of his book Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division. (Originally published on DigBoston.com, February 4, 2013)
“The Joy Division book is about boys chasing a dream, you know, coming from punk, not sullied by money or excess, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll.”
As a member of the English bands Joy Division in the 1970s and New Order in the 1980s, bassist Peter Hook helped to – in his words – “change the world of music not once but twice.” Now 56 years old, he tours with his new band The Light, delighting audiences with performances of his previous bands’ songs. Having first become a published author in 2010, he is currently appearing in bookstores across the US to promote his second book, Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division, which was published by It Books (a division of HarperCollins) on January 29.
“Hooky” recently spoke to me by phone from his room at the Prescott Hotel in San Francisco.
Do you still really not care if you, as you write on page 203, “piss off any journalist”?
(laughs) I’ve had journalists be wonderful and I’ve had journalists be awful. It doesn’t stop you really. You do have to learn to cope with that. You’ve got to trust what you’re doing, and believe in what you’re doing yourself.
As long as enough people like it so that you can carry on performing, that’s all that matters.
I was surprised to read that you and Bernard Sumner (Joy Division and New Order’s guitarist) had Santana stickers on your scooters when you were teenagers.
I’m still a great fan of Santana. I think you realize that there’s a place for everything in your head, isn’t there? Santana and that album in particular [1970′s Abraxas] reminds me of being 16-17 and just discovering life. I still have a great love for it, a great fondness.
I did love Deep Purple, you know. That idea of getting rid of all the old musicians and sweeping them away like sort of to create a new world was such a young and naïve way of thinking. It was actually quite weird because as a 56-year-old old fart, I wanted to get rid of myself, which is quite scary. I’m so glad I didn’t, because I enjoy being a musician just as much now as I did when I was 21, so I’m very glad I didn’t get my own way, to say the least.
Did you interact with Morrissey or Mark E. Smith (later of The Fall) at the Sex Pistols show in Manchester on June 4, 1976?
No. They were all strangers to us. There were very few people there, only about forty. The venue must have held three or four hundred. Once the The Sex Pistols came on…you were literally in awe. It wasn’t the magnificence of it. It wasn’t like seeing Led Zeppelin do “Stairway To Heaven” or anything like that. It touched a raw nerve in your body.
I walked into that Sex Pistols gig a normal kid, 9-to-5 job, and walked out a musician. It changed a lot of people’s lives who were in that room at the time.
Ian Curtis, Bernard Sumner, Stephen Morris, Peter Hook
After that gig, you said that the the band that you were starting would have two rules: “Act like The Sex Pistols [and] look like The Sex Pistols.” However, Joy Division never sounded like The Sex Pistols.
Never. Within six months we were writing songs that you’re going to be proud of all of your life. Bernard and I, while we didn’t sound like The Sex Pistols, we still felt like The Sex Pistols. But the songs we were writing were nothing like them. They were much more adult. They were much more mature, much more long-lasting, much classier songs.
The art is picking an inspiration, using it, and then not sounding like it. We were very good at that. There were a lot of bands that weren’t that great at it.
Throughout the book, you make it clear that you were very proud of Joy Division’s music as well as the fact that you “managed to stay cool, credible, and independent.” Were there any bands that you considered to be worthy adversaries in terms of creativity and integrity?
Psychedelic Furs, Siouxsie & the Banshees, Gang of Four. They all made fantastic, fantastic first records. Siouxsie were to me the closest thing to Joy Division. On the second album, when they got the proper guitarist and the proper bass player, to me they went a bit more normal, shall we say.
What about The Fall?
I’ve always had a very, very strange relationship with [Fall lead singer and songwriter] Mark E. Smith. I am so competitive. Because he was in Manchester, he was sort of too close and too much in competition to ever be friends. Whilst I like some of The Fall’s music, I think he’s a really clever geezer, [we] don’t have great relationship.
It took me years, actually, to admit to liking The Smiths. Until [their 1986 album] The Queen is Dead, I fucking hated them, for no other reason than that they were in competition with New Order. Morrissey was always very outspoken in his distaste for Joy Division. He thought they were miserable and gloomy, and shit basically. You sort of learn to live together. When I got to The Queen Is Dead, I heard that LP, I thought, ‘Ah shit, I can’t pretend I don’t like ‘em anymore!’ I had to give in. It’s a great record.
You name your favorite Joy Division song in the book. I won’t give it away, but I will quote you as writing, “I mean, it might change tomorrow.” Have you changed your mind since the book came out?
I did! (laughs)
New Order: Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, Stephen Morris, Gillian Gilbert
Do you plan to write a book about New Order specifically, or do you consider The Hacienda, your previous work, to be that book?
I’m going to write a New Order book specifically. The Joy Division book is about boys chasing a dream, you know, coming from punk, not sullied by money or excess, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll. Once we got to New Order…it was a lot about sex and drugs and rock ‘n roll, so it’s a completely different story.