I hate the idea of the blog completely closing down, but at the same time I recognise that the number of visitors drops off substantially at the end of December and beginning of January, so it’s something of a waste of time to churn out original stuff. Last year, I dug deep into the archives for the daily posting, but I want to do something different this time round. It’s kind of been inspired by what proved to be a short-lived series earlier this year when I posted a review of album from 1999 and then offered up my own thoughts on it from a current day perspective. But what I’m going to do is post an original review from back in the day of some albums that I’ve always had a lot of time for, playing them to death when they were first released and returning to them occasionally nowadays
Here’s the first of them:-
Album : All Mod Cons by The Jam
Review : NME, 28 October 1978
Author : Charles Shaar Murray
Third albums generally mean that it’s shut-up-or-get-cut-up time: when an act’s original momentum has drained away and they’ve got to cover the distance from a standing start, when you’ve got to cross “naive charm” off your list of assets.
For The Jam, it seemed as if the Third Album Syndrome hit with their second album. This Is The Modern World was dull and confused, lacking both the raging, one-dimensional attack of their first album and any kind of newly-won maturity. A couple of vaguely duff singles followed and, in the wake of a general disillusionment with the Brave New Wave World, it seemed as if Paul Weller and his team were about to be swept under the carpet.
Well, it just goes to show you never can tell. All Mod Cons is the third Jam album to be released (it’s actually the fourth Jam album to be recorded; the actual third Jam album was judged, found wanting and scrapped) and it’s not only several light years ahead of anything they’ve done before but also the album that’s going to catapult The Jam right into the front rank of international rock and roll; one of the handful of truly essential rock albums of the last few years.
The title is more than Grade B punning or a clever-clever linkup with the nostalgibuzz packaging (like the target design on the label, the Swinging London trinketry, the Lambretta diagram or the Immediate-style lettering); it’s a direct reference to both the broadening of musical idiom and Weller’s reaffirmation of a specific Mod consciousness.
Remember the Mod ideal: it was a lower-middle and working-class consciousness that stressed independence, fun and fashion without loss of integrity or descent into elitism or consumerism; unselfconscious solidarity and a dollop of non-sectarian concern for others. Weller has transcended his original naivety without becoming cynical about anything other than the music business.
Mod became hippies and we know that didn’t work; the more exploratory end of Mod rock became psychedelia. Just as Weller’s Mod ideal has abandoned the modern equivalent of beach-fighting and competitive posing, his Mod musical values have moved from ’65 to ’66: the intoxicating period between pilled-up guitar-strangling and Sergeant Pepper. Reference points: Rubber Soul and A Quick One rather than Small Faces and My Generation.
Still, though Weller’s blends of acoustic and electric 6 and 12-string guitars, sound effects, overdubs and more careful structuring and arranging of songs (not to mention a quantum leap in standard of composition) may cause frissons of delight over at the likes of Bomp, Trouser Press and other covens of aging Yankee Anglophiles, All Mod Cons is an album based firmly in 1978 and looking forward.
This is the modern world: ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’ is a fair indication of what Weller’s up to on this album, as was ‘A-Bomb In Wardour Street’ (I can’t help thinking that he’s given more hard clear-eyed consideration to the implications of the Sham Army than Jimmy Pursey has), but they don’t remotely tell the whole story. For one thing, Weller has the almost unique ability to write love songs that convince the listener that the singer is really in love. Whether he’s describing an affair that’s going well or badly, he writes with a penetrating, committed insight that rings perfectly, utterly true.
Weller writes lovingly and (choke on it) sensitively without ever descending to the patented sentimentality that is the stock-in-trade of the emotionally bankrupt. That sentimentality is but the reverse side of the macho coin, and both sides spell lovelessness. The inclusion of ‘English Rose’ (a one-man pick’n’croon acoustic number backed only by a tape of the sea) is both a musical and emotional finger in the eye for everyone who still clings to the old punk tough-guy stereotype and is prepared to call The Jam out for not doing likewise.
Weller is – like Bruce Springsteen – tough enough not to feel he needs to prove it any more, strong enough to break down his own defences, secure enough to make himself vulnerable. The consciousness of All Mod Cons is the most admirable in all of British rock and roll, and one that most of his one-time peers could do well to study.
Through the album, then: the brief, brusque title track and its immediate successor (‘To Be Someone’) examine the rock business first in a tart V-sign to some entrepreneurial type who wishes to squeeze the singer dry and then throw him away, and second in a cuttingly ironic track about a superstar who lost touch with the kids and blew his career. Weller is, by implication, assuring his listeners that no way is that going to happen to him: but the song is so well thought out and so convincing that it chokes back the instinctive “Oh yeah?” that a less honest song in the same vein would elicit from a less honest band.
From there we’re into ‘Mr Clean’, an attack on the complacent middle-aged “professional classes.” The extreme violence of its language (the nearest this album comes to an orthodox punk stance, in fact) is matched with music that combines delicacy and aggression with an astonishing command of dynamics. This is as good a place as any to point out that bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler are more than equal to the new demands that Weller is making on them: the vitality, empathy and resourcefulness that they display throughout the album makes All Mod Cons a collective triumph for The Jam as well as a personal triumph for Weller.
‘David Watts’ follows (written by Ray Davies, sung by Foxton and a re-recorded improvement on the 45) with ‘English Rose’ in hot pursuit. The side ends with ‘In The Crowd’, which places Weller dazed and confused in the supermarket. It bears a superficial thematic resemblance to ‘The Combine’ (from the previous album) in that it places its protagonist in a crowd and examines his reactions to the situation, but its musical and lyrical sophistication smashes ‘The Combine’ straight back to the stone age. It ends with a lengthy, hallucinatory backward guitar solo which sounds as fresh and new as anything George Harrison or Pete Townshend did a dozen years ago, and a reference back to ‘Away From The Numbers’.
‘Billy Hunt’, whom we meet at the beginning of the second side, is not a visible envy-focus like Davies’ ‘David Watts’, but the protagonist’s faintly ludicrous all-powerful fantasy self: what he projects in the day dreams that see him through his crappy job. The deliberate naivety of this fantasy is caught and projected by Weller with a skill that is nothing short of marvellous.
A brace of love songs follow: ‘It’s Too Bad’ is a song of regret for a couple’s mutual inability to save a relationship which they both know is infinitely worth saving. Musically, it’s deliriously, wonderfully ’66 Beat Groupish in a way that represents exactly what all those tinpot powerpop bands were aiming for but couldn’t manage. Lyrically, even if this sort of song was Weller’s only lick, he’d still be giving Pete Shelley and all his New Romance fandangos a real run for his money.
‘Fly’ is an exquisite electric/acoustic construction, a real lovers’ song, but from there on in the mood changes for the “Doctor Marten’s Apocalypse” of ‘A-Bomb In Wardour Street’ and ‘Tube Station’. In both these songs, Weller depicts himself as the victim who doesn’t know why he’s getting trashed at the hands of people who don’t know why they feel they have to hand out the aggro.
We’ve heard a lot of stupid, destructive songs about the alleged joys of violence lately and they all stink: if these songs are listened to in the spirit in which they were written then maybe we’ll see a few less pictures of kids getting carried off the terraces with darts in their skulls. And if these songs mean that one less meaningless street fight gets started then we’ll all owe Paul Weller a favour.
The Jam brought us The Sound Of ’65 in 1976, and now in 1978 they bring us the sound of ’66. Again, they’ve done it such a way that even though you can still hear The Who here and there and a few distinct Beatleisms in those ornate decending 12-string chord sequences, it all sounds fresher and newer than anything else this year. All Mod Cons is the album that’ll make Bob Harris‘ ears bleed the next time he asks what has Britain produced lately; more important, it’ll be the album that makes The Jam real contenders for the crown.
Look out, all you rock and rollers: as of now The Jam are the ones you have to beat.
JC adds : A review that captures exactly how I felt about this record back in 1978/79 and how I feel about now. I think that if pushed to name my all time favourite album, it would be this one.
21 more old reviews to follow!