While it shared the “angry young man” outlook and fast tempo of the contemporary mid-1970s’ British punk rock movement, in contrast with it the band wore smartly tailored suits reminiscent of English pop-bands in the early 1960s, and incorporated mainstream 1960s rock and R&B influences into its sound, particularly from The Who‘s work of that period, and also drew influence from the work of the Kinks and the music of American Motown. This placed the act at the forefront of the 1970s/1980s nascent Mod Revival movement.
The band released 18 consecutive Top 40 singles in the United Kingdom, from their debut in 1977 to their break-up in December 1982, including four number one hits. As of 2007, “That’s Entertainment” and “Just Who Is the 5 O’Clock Hero?” remained the best-selling import singles of all time in the UK. They released one live album and six studio albums, the last of which, The Gift, hit number one on the UK Albums Chart. When the group disbanded in 1982, their first 15 singles were re-released and all placed within the top 100.
The band drew upon a variety of stylistic influences over the course of their career, including 1960s beat music, soul, rhythm and blues and psychedelic rock, as well as 1970s punk and new wave. The trio were known for their melodic pop songs, their distinctly English flavour and their mod image. The band launched the career of Paul Weller, who went on to form The Style Council and later had a successful solo career. Weller wrote and sang most of the Jam’s original compositions, and he played lead guitar, using a Rickenbacker 330. Bruce Foxton provided backing vocals and prominent basslines, which were the foundation of many of the band’s songs, including the hits “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight“, “The Eton Rifles“, “Going Underground” and “Town Called Malice” mainly using a Rickenbacker 4001 or a Fender Precision Bass, as well as, on rare occasions, an Epiphone Rivoli.
Jam biographer Sean Egan said of The Jam that they “took social protest and cultural authenticity to the top of the charts.
The Jam formed in Woking, Surrey, England, in 1972. The line-up was fluid at this stage, consisting of Paul Weller on bass and lead vocals together with various friends at Sheerwater Secondary School. They played their first gigs at Michael’s, a local club. The line-up began to solidify in the mid-1970s with Weller, guitarist Steve Brookes and drummer Rick Buckler. In their early years, their sets consisted of covers of early American rock and roll songs by the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. They continued in this vein until Weller discovered the Who‘s debut album My Generation and became fascinated with Mod music and lifestyle. As he said later, “I saw that through becoming a Mod it would give me a base and an angle to write from, and this we eventually did. We went out and bought suits and started playing Motown, Stax and Atlantic covers. I bought a Rickenbacker guitar, a Lambretta GP 150 and tried to style my hair like Steve Marriott‘s circa ’66.” Eventually Brookes left the band, and was not replaced. Up to this point Weller had been playing bass and Foxton had been the band’s second guitar player; he persuaded Foxton to take over bass duties and developed a combined lead/rhythm guitar style influenced by the Who’s Pete Townshend as well as Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. The line-up of Weller, Foxton, and Buckler would persist until the end of The Jam’s career.
Throughout, the band were managed by Weller’s father, John Weller, who then managed Paul’s career until John died in 2009.
In the following two years, the Jam gained a small following around London from playing minor gigs, becoming one of the new lights on the nascent punk scene. In many ways, however, they stood out from their punk peers. Though they shared an “angry young men” outlook, short hair, crushing volume and lightning-fast tempos, the Jam wore neatly tailored suits where others wore ripped clothes, played professionally where others were defiantly amateurish, and displayed clear 1960s rock influences where others were disdainful (at least ostensibly) of such music (which had been a major influence on the “stadium rock” and “prog rock” of the 1970s). Indeed, the band were tagged by some journalists as “revivalists”. They were signed to Polydor Records by Chris Parry in early 1977.
Following two successful and critically acclaimed non-LP singles, “Strange Town” and “When You’re Young“, the band released “The Eton Rifles” in advance of their new album. It became their first top 10, rising to No. 3 on the UK charts. November 1979 saw the release of the Setting Sons album, another UK hit, and their first chart entry in the US, albeit at 137 on the Billboard 200. The album began life as a concept album about three childhood friends, though in the end many of the songs did not relate to this theme. Many of the songs had political overtones; “The Eton Rifles” was inspired by skirmishes between demonstrators on a Right to Work March – a campaign initiated by the left-wing Socialist Workers Party – and pupils from Eton College; “Little Boy Soldiers” was an anti-war multi-movement piece in the vein of Ray Davies. Another notable song from the album was Bruce Foxton’s “Smithers-Jones”, originally a b-side to “When You’re Young“. The song is almost unanimously considered to be his greatest contribution to The Jam. Recorded with electric rock instrumentation for the single release, “Smithers-Jones” was given a complete makeover for the Setting Sons album with a string arrangement.
The band’s first single of 1980 was intended to be “Dreams of Children“, which combined bleak lyrics lamenting the loss of childhood optimism with hard-edged, psychedelic instrumental backing and production. Due to a labelling error, however, the A- and B-sides of the single were reversed, resulting in the more conventional “Going Underground“, the single’s planned flipside, getting much more airplay and attention. As a result, only “Going Underground” was initially listed on the charts, although the single was eventually officially recognised (and listed) as a double A-side by the time the release reached No. 1 in the UK. When promoting the album in the United States, the group appeared on American Bandstand, performing “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave“, a cover of the hit song by the Motown girl group Martha and the Vandellas. They also appeared on the short-lived American sketch comedy series Fridays, playing the song “Private Hell”.
Sound Affects was released in November 1980. Paul Weller said that he was influenced by The Beatles‘ Revolver and Michael Jackson‘s Off the Wall also. Indeed, several of the songs recall Revolver-era swirling psychedelia, such as “Monday”, “Man in the Corner Shop”, and the acoustic “That’s Entertainment“. According to Weller he wrote “That’s Entertainment”, a bitter slice-of-life commentary on the drudgery of modern working-class life, in around 15 minutes upon returning inebriated from the pub. Despite being only available as an import single, it peaked at No. 21 on the UK charts, an unprecedented feat. It is now arguably The Jam’s most celebrated song. Despite the group’s lack of commercial success in America, it even made American magazine Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
“Start!“, released before the album, became another No. 1 single. It had a very similar bass line, rhythm guitar and guitar solo to The Beatles’ Revolver cut “Taxman“, but was arranged as an otherwise completely different song. Some contemporary American R&B influence, including Michael Jackson, show up in Buckler’s driving beats that power the album (such as on “But I’m Different Now”), and most obviously in Foxton’s funk-influenced bassline in “Pretty Green”. The album also reveals influences of post-punk groups such as Wire, XTC, Joy Division, and Gang of Four. The album was a No. 2 hit in the UK and peaked at No. 72 on the US Billboard charts, their most successful American album.
Two non-LP singles, “Funeral Pyre” and “Absolute Beginners“, abandoned the psychedelic pop of Sound Affects; “Absolute Beginners” (named after a cult novel of the same title) had a more R&B-flavoured sound, and “Funeral Pyre” was influenced by new wave music. “Funeral Pyre” is built around Buckler’s drumming, and aside from the Sound Affects track “Music for the Last Couple”, is the only song in the group’s catalogue that carries a joint Buckler/Foxton/Weller writing credit. (“Funeral Pyre” and “Music for the Last Couple” are the only songs for which Buckler receives any writing credit).
The 1982 release The Gift – the band’s final studio LP – was a massive commercial success, peaking at No. 1 on the UK charts. It featured several soul, funk, and R&B-stylised songs; most notably the No. 1 hit “Town Called Malice“, which boasts a Motown-style bassline somewhat reminiscent of The Supremes‘ “You Can’t Hurry Love”. The song included work by Keith Thomas and Steve Nichol, who later became well known as members of the R&B groups Legacy and Loose Ends respectively. “Town Called Malice”, a reality-based tale about dealing with hardship in a small, downtrodden English town, is one of a handful of Jam songs Weller still performs (along with “That’s Entertainment“, “Man in the Corner Shop”, “Strange Town”, “Art School”, “Start!” and “In the Crowd”). When “Town Called Malice” reached number one the group had the honour of performing both it and its double A-side, “Precious” on Top of the Pops – the only other band to be accorded this honour being the Beatles. After the string-laden soul ballad “The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow)” peaked at No. 2, the band followed with their finale and another No. 1, “Beat Surrender“. Both singles featured Tracie Young on vocals; a few months later, she also guested on The Style Council‘s debut single “Speak Like a Child“.
To universal surprise, on 30 October 1982 Weller announced his intention to disband The Jam after a short concert tour of the UK had been completed. They also made their final appearances on Top of the Pops and The Tube to promote “Beat Surrender”. The tour included five consecutive nights at the Wembley Arena, all of which sold out within twenty minutes of tickets becoming available. The last date on the original itinerary had been scheduled for 10 December 1982 at Guildford Civic Hall, close to the band’s hometown of Woking. However, due to ticket demand, an additional date was added at the Brighton Conference Centre on 11 December 1982 for their last performance.
The decision to split was solely Weller’s. Explaining at the time that he disliked the idea of continuing for as long as possible simply because they were successful, he later told the Daily Mirror in advance of a 2015 Sky documentary on the band, “I wanted to end it to see what else I was capable of, and I’m still sure we stopped at the right time. I’m proud of what we did but I didn’t want to dilute it, or for us to get embarrassing by trying to go on forever. We finished at our peak. I think we had achieved all we wanted or needed to, both commercially and artistically.” Weller’s decision to move on, announced by his father, the band’s manager, at an extraordinary band meeting in the summer of 1982, “came as a shock” to Buckler and Foxton, who wanted to keep the band together. Buckler told the Woking News and Mail in 2012: “It was like we were going to be driving over a cliff at the end of the year, and you keep thinking ‘Well, maybe he’ll change his mind’’.” Both Buckler and Foxton described the experience as bitter, but in later years both expressed understanding, if not complete acceptance.
Following the split, Foxton did not speak to Weller for over 20 years, and Buckler said in 2015 that he still had not spoken to Weller since, despite repeated attempts by Buckler and Foxton in 1983 and 1984 to meet up with and talk to Weller. As the farewell tour neared its end, Polydor released a live album titled Dig the New Breed, a collection of songs from various concert performances over the band’s five-year career which, while commercially successful, met with mixed reviews. The month after the final concert in Brighton, Polydor predictably re-released all sixteen of the band’s singles, nine of which re-entered the UK charts on 22 January 1983.
In early 1983, Weller announced the formation of a new band, The Style Council, a duo with keyboard player Mick Talbot, formerly of the minor mod revival band The Merton Parkas. They would eventually split in 1989. He subsequently embarked on a successful career as a solo artist.