Friday Flashback: In the City by The Jam

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.

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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.

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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.)