Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Song of the Week: 'Going Underground', The Jam

A couple of weeks ago I was leaning against a pool table in a loud music venue drinking some Dale's Pale Ale and listening to the Austin-based group, The Band of Heathens, cover their second Bob Dylan song of the night. My friend, Roger, and I began talking about the prolific writing of Dylan, the elusive nature of writing hit songs and how so few people can do it with regularity. I'm not talking about just writing a great song (as we highlighted last week). Truth-be-told, great songs are as abundant as paparazzi at another Britney Spears meltdown. I'm talking about writing a hit. And not just once, but hit after hit. Not many have been able to do it: the aforementioned Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Gershwin, Hank Williams and Willie Dixon immediately jump to mind.

Should someone like Paul Weller be on this list? Some may ask, who? Paul Weller, unlike the others already mentioned, remains largely unknown in the United States but was hugely prolific in his native England. For five all-too-brief years from '77-'82, Paul Weller's band, The Jam, dominated the airwaves in England with 18 consecutive top-40 hits, including 4 number one hits. Only the Beatles, The Stones and the German Luftwaffe had ever dominated the air over Britain more than did the Jam. But in the U.S., Paul Weller and The Jam were as common as a juggling platypus. Even as The Jam's competitors -- namely Elvis Costello, the Sex Pistols and the Clash - made inroads with the provincial United States record-buying public of the day, The Jam were nowhere to be found on FM radio.

Why? It wasn't for lack of quality songwriting or performance ability, that's for sure. The Jam exceeded in both categories. The answer lies more in a mix of cultures, I believe. The Jam were a VERY British band. Unlike someone like Mick Jagger who often affected an American accent when he sang, Weller sang with a thick British accent about peculiarly British experiences. Evidence Down In the Tube Station At Midnight. How the hell was a kid from suburban Phoenix supposed to relate to a song about being mugged on a subway by skinheads who "smelt like pubs and wormwood scrubs and too many right wing meetings"? And that is if the kid can understand what the heck Weller was saying! And unlike the Sex Pistols or the Clash, whose singers also sang proudly with working class accents, the Jam didn't offer a visual curiosity that demanded attention (even if it was only scorn). Neatly trimmed in their black and white mod suits, paisley scarves and bowling shoes, the band's visual approach came across to Americans as little more than Euro-square.

But back home, The Jam were chart-toppers. Perhaps the pinnacle of that run of 18 consecutive top 40 hits for The Jam occurred with their first release of 1980, a stunning double A-side single of Going Underground b/w Dreams of Children. The single went to number 1 and cemented the trio as the darlings of the press and the undisputed rulers of the charts. Weller's rousing anti-Thatcher/Reagan era Underground was a political screed that questioned the public's thirst for war ("the public gets what the public wants/but I don't get what this society wants") while delivering a rousing musical score of rising power chords and pounding bass that barely give Weller time to breathe between verses. The song hits her crescendo at 2:19 as the over-driven Richenbacker pulls the song out of a staccato rhythm-section interlude. Weller parallels the guitar's melody as he venomously barks out "braying sheep on my TV screen/make this boy shout! Make this boy Scream!"

It's hard not to get your heart pumping on this one. I hope you enjoy.


  1. Boy, reading your blog is a serendipitous experience. I just went through a little "Jam phase" a couple of months ago after not listening to them for a few years. I think I appreciate them even more now than I did as a teenager, probably 'cause after years of listening I can finally understand a small portion of the lyrics. And funny enough, "Going Underground" was the standout track for me.

    Once again, another finely executed blog.

  2. The Jam were off my playlist for years as well. In some regards they were too closely aligned with my misbegotten youth and thus fell into a "nostalgia" category for me. I was digitizing records the other day and put Sound Affects on. I clearly needed to put the lads from Woking a new category as they stood the test of time.

  3. How are things in your little world, I hope they're going well and you are too.
    Do you still see the same old crowd, the ones who used to meet every Friday.
    I'm really sorry that I can't be there but work comes first, I'm sure you'll understand.
    Things are really taking off for me business is thriving and I'm showing a profit and.
    And in any case it wouldn't be the same, 'cause we've all grown up and we've got our lives
    and the values that we had once upon a time, seem stupid now 'cause the rent must be paid
    and some bonds severed and others made.

    Now I don't want you to get me wrong, ideals are fine when you are young and I must admit
    we had a laugh, but that's all it was and ever will be, 'cause the Burning Sky keeps
    burning bright. And as long as it does (and it always will), there's no time for dreams
    when commerce calls. And the taxman's shouting 'cause he wants his dough and the wheels of
    finance won't begin to slow.

    And it's only us realists who are gonna come through 'cause there's only one power higher
    than that of truth and that's the Burning Sky.

    Oh and by the way I must tell you, before I sign off, that I've got a meeting next week,
    with the head of a big corporate I can't disclose who but I'm sure you'll know it and.
    And the Burning Sky - keeps burning bright. And it won't turn off til it's had enough,
    it's the greedy bastard who won't give up, and you're just a dreamer if you don't realize,
    and the sooner you do will be the better for you, then we'll all be happy and we'll all be
    wise and all bow down to the Burning Sky.

    Then we'll all be happy and we'll all be wise and together we will live beneath the
    Burning Sky.-"Burning Sky"

    Pretty wise and prescient for a 21 year old. What seemed like a warning back then has now become a reality.

    Paul Weller has continued his chart dominance in the UK with his post-Jam band, the soul/jazzy duo The Style Council (mixed bag there,but I still stand by the early singles and some of the things from the first two albums)and his more trad rock (in a Traffic, late Small Faces sort of vein)solo career, which has been going on since about 1990.

    The Jam racked up 18 UK Top 40 singles, The Style Council 15 such hits, and his solo career has 31 more for a grand total of 64 dating back to 1977's "In The City" and all the way up to a pair of hits from his 2008 album, "22 Dreams".

    F.Y.I.- Since 2007, Rick and Bruce from The Jam have been performing as a sort-of tribute band called From The Jam. They have a stand-in for Weller and utilize another guy on second guitar and keyboards. They do all classic Jam songs. I saw them here in L.A. this year and-though it's not really The Jam without Weller--it was a really great show. Go see them if you can.