Dig the Old Breed
Since Paul Weller broke up the band over 20 years ago, there's been a relatively steady stream of Jam re-issues and compilations, but no video collections since 1983's Video Snap. Bundling Video Snap in its entirety with a wealth of additional material, this generous double DVD set goes some way toward redressing the balance.
Although The Complete Jam is by no means complete, it certainly provides a solid overview of the group's musical evolution – from their nervous television debut in 1977 as relative unknowns on Marc Bolan's short-lived show to their final appearance as self-assured pop stars on The Tube in 1982. The intervening years are chronicled with numerous TV appearances, videos for many of the band's singles, concert footage, and interview snippets.
As anyone who was fortunate enough to see the Jam will confirm, they were the consummate live band, bringing a level of energy and passion to songs that often made their recorded counterparts sound rather staid.
The live footage collected on this release from various points in their career underscores that notion. Whether they were performing to a sweaty, sardine-tin crowd at Manchester's Electric Circus in the heyday of punk, to a ballroom full of uninterested middle-aged Swedes eating dinner, or to a packed house at the Newcastle City Hall, Weller, Foxton, and Buckler played every song as if it were their last.
But it's not just the power of these performances that's striking, it's the quality. As the band's earliest promo materials proclaimed, the Jam delivered their songs with "fire and skill," and that skill really stands out here. They could certainly play and their performances were remarkably tight, something that went against the grain of punk's ethos. Few punk bands could play well and their live acts were shambolic. Of course, that was the point – virtuosity and musicianship were dirty words, they were precisely what was wrong with music. You didn't need to be Rick Wakeman. All you needed was spontaneity, energy, attitude, and those mythical three chords.
But then the Jam always had an ambivalent relationship with punk. Despite being initially catalyzed by the Pistols and the energy of the original scene, they soon began to distance themselves from it. The smart Mod suits always set them apart but their identity was more about the music: Weller didn't disguise the fact that he valued "a good tune" and competent musicianship, and he wasn't as keen to break with the past as punk claimed it was.
Punks aligned themselves with Britain's dispossessed black youth and reggae, while the Jam looked to American soul and R&B of the 1960s, plus British Mod bands of the same era like the Who and the Kinks. To the more politically conscious faction within punk, this fascination with Motown and a previous generation's rock came across as a concern with style over political substance. The major rift came when Weller's seemingly conservative attitude translated to a very specific political allegiance as he infamously declared to Sniffin' Glue fanzine that he would vote for the Conservative party (this was said whilst on tour with the Clash!). Weller later claimed it was said naively, for the shock value. Whatever the reason, it backfired. As did his penchant for draping a Union Jack over his speaker cabinet on stage at a time when such displays of the flag were particularly tainted with extreme right-wing connotations. The Clash's response would come in 1978 on "White Man in Hammersmith Palais," when Joe Strummer sang: "They got Burton suits / Huh, you think it's funny? / Turning rebellion into money."
Nevertheless, the Jam were part of the cultural break of the late '70s and the earliest TV appearances collected here yield some great archaeological material attesting to that. Indeed, there are a couple of particularly bizarre moments documented here when you can almost see the cultural paradigm of the period shifting before your eyes.
Take the band's first-ever in-studio appearance on Bolan's Granada TV show Marc. At this time, Bolan was attempting to give himself a measure of renewed credibility by aligning himself with punk and proclaiming himself the godfather of the movement. There may have been an element of truth to such claims, but with his flowing locks, chest-exposing leopardskin bodysuit, and affected pose, he looks sadly anachronistic. Worse, he comes across as insincere introducing "an amazing group called Jam" – with which he's surely unfamiliar – by awkwardly reading their name from a badge in his hand. Cut to the Jam and their slightly fraught version of "All Around the World" and we're in a different era. (The added irony here, of course, is that Bolan was an original Mod in the early '60s.)
The band's appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test, the BBC's premier show for quality music back in the '70s, affords a similar glimpse of the yawning chasm between the old and the new. Granted, important and innovative artists had featured on the show regularly. The likes of Tim Buckley, Captain Beefheart, John Martyn, the Wailers, and even proto-punks like the New York Dolls all made memorable appearances, but by the time of punk, the program's bearded, middle-aged presenter "Whispering" Bob Harris was looking well past his sell-by date. Introducing the Jam from a comfy white-leather swivel chair, sporting a dress shirt and pin-striped waistcoat, he's at his avuncular best (or worst, depending on your perspective). Viewing this 25 years later, you could be forgiven for thinking that you were watching a parody of an aging muso being completely irrelevant, only that's exactly what it is. The Jam's storming performance of "Billy Hunt" that follows asserts that we're definitely not in 1975 any more.
In addition to featuring some landmark TV and concert footage, this collection also includes a number of Jam promo videos. Several of these are of limited interest inasmuch as they show the band simply miming on various thinly disguised studio sets and in random locations (a Victorian bandstand, a forest, a children's playground) and don't display any particularly riveting stylistic or narrative elements. Which isn't surprising since their career essentially pre-dated the development of promo video as a genre.
Although it's conspicuous for some dodgy lip-synching, the clip for Foxton's "News of the World" does have an interesting dimension. Shot in front of London's Battersea Power Station, the video symbolically takes back the famous landmark from the arch nemesis of punk and New Wave, Pink Floyd.
At the same time, there are a couple of clips that are more engaging in visual terms. The video for one of the Jam's early tracks, "Art School," finds the band performing, while behind them a trio of pseudo-artists indulge in a spot of action painting. Their labors amount to little more than childlike scribbling on top of crucial words like "NOW" and "WHY?" but the idea was admirable in that it showed a primitive attempt to have the visual imagery resonate with the song in some way. "Absolute Beginners" is more successful. Despite the fact that the band members spend a fair amount of the video sprinting up and down streets for no apparent reason, the clip emphasizes Weller's knowing sense of retro style with its fleeting incorporation of Lichtenstein-like pop art canvases.
The video for the "The Bitterest Pill" is the most ambitious of the clips and the only one to make a stab at a developed narrative. It's the best of the bunch, but only because it's so hilariously bad. For most of the video, Weller wanders around dark, deserted streets looking forlorn in a white raincoat, as dry ice billows around him (a lot of that went on in the '80s). Best of all, we get to feel his pain as flashback sequences provide a potted history of a romance gone pear-shaped.
There's a fair bit of attempted acting here, which enhances the video's unintentional comic value no end. Especially memorable are scenes involving the unhappy couple seated at an outdoor café (over a cappuccino no doubt) that document Weller's reaction to being told by his bride-to-be that it's all over. Attempting to "do angry," Weller pounds his fist unconvincingly on the table; then he gets really mad and breaks all the crockery.
Back in the present, he continues to walk the streets pining for his lost love. He ends up outside a window. Inside, we see his ex and the horrible truth becomes apparent. She's dumped him for….the frighteningly mulleted Bruce Foxton. It's a cozy scene. The lights are turned down low and there's a roaring fire and a sofa on which the happy couple snog. Incomprehensibly, Rick Buckler is also in the room, sitting alongside the pair in a comfy armchair, smirking as they canoodle. Not only that, for no reason he presents the lucky woman with a giant bunch of chrysanthemums after she's been necking with Bruce. At the end of the video, a doleful Weller in a woolly red cardigan does his best Miss Havisham impression, standing alone by a wedding cake covered in cobwebs.
For Jam trainspotters there is a sort of logic to all of this, albeit after the fact. When this video came out in conjunction with the single, Weller was a few months away from splitting up the band. Buckler would cut his losses and start up his own furniture business; Foxton would make an unsuccessful attempt at a solo career and eventually hook up with the reformed Stiff Little Fingers. (A considerable amount of acrimony would ensue over royalties.) Although Weller emerged intact after the demise of the Jam and went on to greater things, he now has to suffer the symbolic vengeance, for posterity, of losing his fictional bird to Bruce Foxton, of all people.
The extra bits and pieces included here are a little disappointing. Among other things, there's a poor documentary narrated by the irritatingly laddish Gary Crowley and an interview with three young Mods who talk earnestly about music and are, no doubt, now ruing the day they allowed themselves to be filmed.
Sadly, there's nothing particularly interesting from the band members themselves. It would have made a nice addition to have them talk in retrospect about the group. But that's only a minor quibble really since The Complete Jam offers an absolute treasure trove of footage for fans.
One vexing question remains though: what on earth possessed Bruce Foxton to keep that hairstyle for the best part of seven years?
By Wilson Neate