Someone should do a longitudinal study on the applicability of the phrase “third time’s the charm” to rock albums, starting with the hypothesis that it takes three albums for rockers to truly come into their own.
The third time was certainly the charm for The Rolling Stones (Out of Our Heads), The Who (The Who Sell Out), The Clash (London Calling), Blur (Parklife) and Radiohead (OK Computer). You could certainly make a credible argument that A Hard Day’s Night represented the artistic and energetic height of Beatlemania and add the Fab Four to the list. It’s debatable if the formula applies to David Bowie or Jethro Tull, but it certainly doesn’t apply to Oasis (whose third album was the definition of “disaster”). Top-of-the-head calculations like these won’t do the trick, though—we need someone who can design a large and complex database that connects albums to record sales and critical consensus while developing a sensible algorithm that gives appropriate weight to subjective and objective data.
In other words, someone with no life and no prospects of ever having one.
While we wait for that one person out of 7.3 billion willing to take on the task, we’ll consider whether or not The Jam’s third album fits the theory. As 80% of my reading audience hail from the United States, where The Jam and Paul Weller are virtual unknowns, permit me a few moments for a brief introduction.
The Jam first entered the public eye in 1977 as the media-designated leaders of something called the “Mod Revival.” They dressed in the tailored suits of the British Invasion while producing music reminiscent of a high wattage punk version of The Who Sings My Generation. The frontman of this three-piece ensemble was a young gent by the name of Paul Weller, who handled guitar, most of the lead vocals and nearly all of the songwriting duties; Bruce Foxton supplied the unusually powerful bass and supporting vocals while a fellow named Rick Buckler pounded the skins. The first album (In the City) showed promise, more than a little spunk and definitive proof the band could kick serious ass while handling the high velocities demanded by punk. This Is the Modern World (also released in 1977) was In the City redux and really didn’t add much to their legacy.
The problem they faced at this juncture was one of identity. Though The Jam had proved themselves more than capable of handling the back-to-basics aspect of punk rock—and while Paul Weller could certainly do the angry young man bit when the situation called for it—it simply wasn’t in them to fully embrace either the inherent nihilism (Sex Pistols) or the socio-political emphasis (The Clash) of early punk. The band’s temperament and talents fit better with the more diverse ethos of the Mod Revival, but to survive in that mode, they needed to figure out a way to distinguish themselves from the original mod rockers (The Who, The Kinks, Small Faces) and place their own stamp on the genre. Independent of artistic objectives, the pressure needle hovered in the red zone—the label had rejected their initial offerings for the third album, largely because Paul Weller was curiously detached and suffering from what amounted to writer’s block.
Only one way to get past that, mate: get off your bloody arse!
Modern World was a low point. You make your first album – basically, it’s your live set. It took about 10 days to record. All of a sudden, we’d used our 10 songs and you’ve been out on the road and you’ve got to sit down and write another album. Which we did, the same year – and it shows. But it didn’t happen. It was . . . what’s the word I’m looking for? ‘Shit! It was shit.’ I thought, ‘Am I going to let this slide or fight against it?’ My back was against the wall. It was a matter of self-pride. I had to prove my worth, sort of, ‘This is it.’
—Paul Weller, Interview with Uncut.
The result was All Mod Cons (a British idiom for “all modern conveniences”), one more piece of solid evidence supporting the third-time’s-the-charm theory. The seeds for success were planted a year before during a less-than-successful tour of the USA where Paul Weller managed to pick up several Kinks albums from the Golden Period, albums then unavailable in the UK (!). That bit of serendipity would not only result in one of the best Kinks’ cover songs ever but a way past his writer’s block. While Weller had dabbled in the socio-political arena on songs like “Bricks and Mortar” and “Time for Truth,” the approach was more meat cleaver than scalpel, little more than us-against-them. At his best, Ray Davies is the master of translating major socio-political issues into the real-life everyday experiences of living, breathing human beings. It’s one thing to talk about “urban renewal” or “displacement,” but when you hear someone sing, “They’ll move me up to Muswell Hill tomorrow/Photographs and souvenirs are all I’ve got/They’re gonna try and make me change my way of living/But they’ll never make me something that I’m not,” you begin to fully appreciate the human impact and the knock-on problems spawned by the people in grey and their inconsiderate policies. Weller’s work on All Mod Cons reflects this crucial shift in perspective, but it also helped that Ray Davies didn’t limit himself to socio-political themes and that the two songwriters shared a deep love for their country, its traditions and its culture. If nothing else, rescuing those old Kinks albums from the bargain bins likely helped Paul Weller realize that his potential playing field was much larger than either the punk or Mod Revival movements.
The title track kicks things off with a quick burst of exuberance and a reminder that Ray Davies wasn’t the only 60’s rocker to influence The Jam’s sound. Though the speed is decidedly within punk parameters, the melodies and harmonies reflect Pete Townshend’s compositional style. Townshend’s guitar attack clearly influenced the sound of their early works, but at this point The Jam has moved on from My Generation to The Who Sell Out, minus the whimsy of that masterwork. What is equally apparent is the band’s stunning tightness as they move through this stutter-stop piece with due precision. Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler form an exciting rhythmic duo, with Foxton also providing crucial thematic support and a brief bass solo. The lyrics deal directly with the troubles they were having with their once-adoring label masters and the pressure to produce profits or get tossed out on their bums:
And all the time we’re getting rich
You hang around to help me out
But when we’re skint, oh God forbid!
You drop us like hot bricks
Artistic freedom, do what you want
But just make sure that the money ain’t gone
I love that word . . . skint. It calls up images of a sallow-faced bloke in a worn tweed cap politely asking someone to stand him a pint. So much more evocative than the American “broke.”
Further indications of The Who’s influence appear in “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time),” where at certain points I could swear that Roger Daltrey has dropped in for a cameo. A delightful mix of melody, harmony and pure rock power with varying rhythms and dynamics, the story plays out in a first-person dramatic monologue with an unusual but meaningfully imbalanced structure, “To Be Someone” continues the theme of “If you ain’t got the money, you ain’t shit,” expanding the discussion to how our sick modern cultures demand you show evidence of success before you are granted an identity:
To be someone must be a wonderful thing
A famous footballer a rock singer
Or a big film star, yes I think I would like that
To be rich and have lots of fans
Have lots of girls to prove that I’m a man
And be No. 1, and liked by everyone
We can now officially change the lyrics of “You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You” to “You’re Nobody If You’re Not on the Screen, And That Means You—Teachers, Carpenters, Plumbers and Nurses.” An extended instrumental passage featuring a fabulous arpeggiated guitar and bass duet follows these opening verses, as if Weller decided we needed a few moments to fully digest the magnitude of our hero’s insecurity.
The break also allows Weller to fast-forward the film, where lo and behold, our hero has earned the identity of his dreams: “Getting drugged up with my trendy friends/They really dig me, man, and I dig them.” Hooray—-no, hold that hooray and get your accountant on the phone, pronto:
And the bread I spend, is like my fame, it’s quickly diminished
And there’s no more swimming in a guitar shaped pool
No more reporters at my beck and cool
No more cocaine it’s only ground chalk
No more taxis now we’ll have to walk
While it’s odd that our hero would follow in Webb Pierce’s footsteps with a guitar-shaped pool, what’s truly odd is that his first reaction is to make-believe that the roller coaster ride was worth it:
But didn’t we have a nice time,
Didn’t we have a nice time
Oh wasn’t it such a fine time
The first two lines are sung in unison with loud bravado, but on the third line Paul Weller drops off and allows Bruce Foxton to take it, a clear sign of second thoughts. The following passage is quite Who-like, the sweet but sad sound of a boy lost in the big, bad world:
I realize I should have stuck to my guns
Instead shit out to be one of the bastard sons
He gives the “didn’t we have a nice time” masquerade one more shot before ending the song right where he started: “To be someone must be a wonderful thing.” I hope “To Be Somebody” was the moment when first-time listeners back in the fall of 1978 realized, “Hey, these guys have really upped their game.” It’s a musical gas and a brilliant lyrical composition that clocks in at just under two-and-a-half minutes, economic rock poetry at its best.
“Mr. Clean” is an even more complex composition, featuring two key changes that also reflect changes in the narrator’s mood. The dominant opening passages dominated by an eerily quiet and dark Dm/Am combination reflect the have-not narrator’s rancid bitterness towards one of the haves, suddenly and explosively expressed in the lines, “‘Cause I hate you and your wife/And if I get the chance I’ll fuck up your life.” This passage is reminiscent of Jarvis Cocker’s revenge fantasy in “I Spy,” though Cocker’s plans for revenge are much more elaborate and sophisticated. The second passage opens with Em7 but resolves to the C chord root of the third passage. These passages describe British class dynamics—a curious mix of resentment, acceptance of one’s lot in life and a sense of latent systemic danger:
Surround yourself with dreams
Of pretty young girls, and anyone you want, but
Please don’t forget me or any of my kind
‘Cause I’ll make you think again
When I stick your face in the grind
Rather than call for revolution, though, the lower classes find comfort in poking fun at the loathsome habits of the uppers, just as the uppers find solace in their disdain for the lowers:
Getting pissed at the annual office do
Smart blue suit and you went to Cambridge too
You miss Page 3, but the Times is right for you
And mum and dad are very proud of you
The snob may or may not take a peep at the tits on Page 3 of The Sun, but such things are not spoken of in polite company. “Mr. Clean” should have been served as a warning bell that classism in the U. K. was metastasizing into a cancer, but the British do cherish their traditions and decided to let Maggie Thatcher run the show the following year.
The Jam’s version of “David Watts” takes that Davies classic and imbues it with greater rock sensibility by giving the guitar the lead position in the opening passage and balancing the piano in the verses with a stronger and more assertive bass. Performed to a slightly higher tempo than the original, the Jam’s decision to give Foxton the lead vocals on the verses and Weller the lead vocal on the bridges adds to the obvious excitement the band brought to this number. While The Jam add a few embellishments, this is a faithful and (dare I say) loving tribute to the original—and one of the strongest rockers on the album.
You could make a good argument that the most important song on the album is “English Rose,” an acoustic ballad that was not listed on the album cover. Some sources say Paul Weller had it whacked from the cover because he was embarrassed by its emotional honesty; others claim he left it off because the words didn’t make sense without the music. An interview with Mojo in 2010 pretty much settled that debate:
It was me emotionally naked, speaking openly about being in love. I was aware it was something that blokes from my background didn’t do. They didn’t reveal their feelings, their sensitive side.
What puzzles me is that he had to have known that people would hear the song when listening to the album . . . so . . . what was the point?
Guys are so complicated.
The song lends itself to both patriotic and romantic interpretations, and though the quote above argues strongly for the latter, the latent sentiment for Jolly Olde England certainly didn’t hurt the song’s acceptance in the home country. As a seafaring empire, long separations between man and love interest were common occurrences over the centuries, so the longings of a rock musician for his girl while on tour in the USA likely evoked sentiments deeply embedded in cultural history.
Paul Weller certainly did not betray his origins by writing the song in a rustic style, a lyrical choice most vividly demonstrated by the use of the female subject pronoun where proper grammar demands the object: “I will return to my English rose/For no bonds can ever keep me from she.” Whether it was his intent to elevate woman from object to subject is unknown, but as a human being who has spent most of her life living under the stigma of objectification, I deeply appreciate his choice.
Girls are so sensitive.
However you choose to interpret “English Rose,” it is a tender and touching song expressing emotional humility and human fragility. While there are a billion songs with the line “I need you,” I’ve rarely heard a song that expresses the need for another as sincerely as this one. Although he seemed loth to accept it, writing the song allowed Paul Weller to access his sensitive side, further expanding his songwriting possibilities.
“In the Crowd” starts as a breezy little number filled with echoes of both The Kinks and The Who. The melody and chord structure of the transitional verses (the first is marked by a shift to G and begins with the line “And everyone seems just like me”) bears more than a striking resemblance to the transitional passages in “Johnny Thunder,” and the power chords in the extended jam at the end of the song are pure Townshend. The lyrics are in the form of a semi-conscious meditation on the automation of routine life occasioned by Paul Weller taking a spin through the supermarket. Feeling alienated by the regimentation of the modern shopping experience, he imagines a common bond with his fellow shoppers:
And everyone seems just like me,
They struggle hard to set themselves free
And they’re waiting for the change
Remember that double entendre—yes, they’re standing in line waiting for the clerk to give them their change, but Weller also opines that they’re longing for comprehensive social change as well. As he proceeds blindly past the “walls of ice cream,” still lost in meditation about social conditions, he realizes that the challenge is far greater than he imagined:
And everyone seems that they’re acting a dream
Cause they’re just not thinking about each other
And they’re taking orders, which are media-spawned
And they should know better, now you have been warned
And don’t forget you saw it here first
The tragic impact of this massive brainwashing effort is communicated through the change of a single consonant as Weller realizes that his fellow shoppers have no stomach for shaking up the routine:
And life just simply moves along
In simple houses, simple jobs
And no one’s wanting for the change
Though more than a little derivative, the very pleasant music fits nicely with the theme of induced happiness, and the melody is one of the catchiest on the album. Kudos to the band for this full version with the extended fade, which exceeds the arbitrary three-minute barrier of early punk dogma by a solid two-and-a-half. It sounds fucking great.
Paul Weller argued that “Billy Hunt” would make a great single; Polydor disagreed; hooray for Polydor. While I appreciate the exposure of the “nobody messes with me” chip-on-the-shoulder that many young men in subordinate positions carry with them on their journey through life–and the clever integration of the “superhero-wish” manifested in Billy claiming the power of Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man—-the repetitive onslaught of “Billy Hunt, Billy Hunt, Billy Billy Billy” drives me fucking insane. I find suitable relief in the classic mod number “It’s Too Bad,” a mid-60’s boy-has-problem-with-girl tune that might have hit the Top 30 back in ’64 or ’65 (though Bruce Foxton’s marvelously powerful bass runs would have blown out the speakers on the transistor radios of the era).
“Fly” is a more complex expression of love for a woman, though the soft-LOUD dynamic weakens the intimacy of the piece. I’m somewhat befuddled by the couplet “Let’s disappear love, let’s fly away/Into the demi-monde, into the twilight zone.” Whoa, wait a minute there, sonny! The demi-monde “refers to a group of people who live hedonistic lifestyles, usually in a flagrant and conspicuous manner,” while the twilight zone is one weird place with Martians running diners and hiding their third eye under a chevron cap. As a hedonist, I am seriously wounded and deeply offended by this juxtaposition! If they’d dropped that couplet and stuck to an acoustic arrangement, I would have given the song a thumbs-up.
“The Place I Love” could have been subtitled “The Refuge of the Introvert” or “My World and Stay the Hell Out of It,” as the song deals with the search for a private world separate from the competitive, back-stabbing universe of modern existence. Holding onto one’s identity in a world that constantly attempts to shape it into standard issue is a challenge for introverts and extroverts alike; here the refuge isn’t the loving relationship sought in many a rock song, nor is it a return to nature, strictly speaking. The safe house where the narrator makes “a stand against the world” is instead one where nature encroaches on the trappings of civilization, a place where people aren’t so manic about imposing order but instead seek to peacefully integrate human presence with the natural environment:
The place I love is overgrown now
With beautiful moss and colorful flowers
And goldfish that swim in a pool, there’s a small brick wall
With neon lighting controlled by lightning
The introductory riff seems to have been borrowed and modified by Blur (albeit with more notes and greater speed) in the song “Bank Holiday,” and I hope they acknowledged the influence as honestly as The Jam acknowledged theirs.
“‘A’ Bomb on Wardour Street” may have taken its cue from the discovery of a WWII bomb on the day when The Jam were to sign their contract with Polydor, but if so, it’s merely a starting point for a full-frontal assault on British hooliganism. Since discovering a buried Nazi A-bomb is a historical impossibility, it follows that Weller used the term “A-Bomb” to identify a destructive force that spreads beyond the initial point of detonation, i. e., hooliganism. While Wardour Street was the home to the British film industry and a few recording companies, it also hosted the punk venue The Vortex Club during the punk heyday, where violence was part of the show:
I’m stranded on the Vortex floor
My head’s been kicked in and blood’s started to pour
Through the haze I can see my girl
Fifteen geezers got her pinned to the door
I try to reach her but fall back to the floor
‘A’ bomb in Wardour Street
It’s blown up the West End, now it’s spreading throughout the city
Waller sings this piece in an early Joe Strummer sneering growl over a straightforward rock riff integrating distorted guitar, thumping bass and steady drums (though they do throw in some Townshend-esque power chords and mod riffs). The anger comes through as righteous rather than frothing, balancing outrage with reason. The passage that rang most true for me involves the linking of violence to a loss of freedom—something the gun nuts in the States are too stupid to comprehend. What the fuck good is freedom if you’re dead?
Law and order takes a turn for the worst
In the shape of a size ten boot
Rape and murder throughout the land
And they tell you that you’re still a free man
If this is freedom I don’t understand
‘Cause it seems like madness to me
To seal the deal, Waller closes the circle by linking the thirst for violence to football hooliganism with the reference to “Dr. Martens’ A-P-O-C-A-L-Y-P-S-E,” the favorite shoes of sodden football fanatics. Dismissed by Stuart Mason of AllMusic as “the sound of a band saying goodbye to an ill-fitting suit of clothes,” I would suggest that the listener look beyond the punk trappings and view the song as a timeless protest about a recurring human problem that remains unresolved.
Any doubt that Paul Weller had taken his songwriting to a higher level is completely obliterated by the experience of “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” The power of this horrifying story of a man of a different color brutally attacked in the Underground by a pack of skinheads lies in the choice to present the tale as a first-person narrative from the victim’s point of view. This device serves to give the poet some distance from the subject matter, reducing the possibility that the poet will be tempted to shape the story or introduce their own emotional baggage. It also humanizes the experience to the nth degree.
The story begins with the man headed for the subway around midnight, probably a guy who has just finished the late shift at a restaurant or similar service establishment. On his way down to the tube he notices the day’s refuse, in particular a stale morning paper filled with “Headlines of death and sorrow, they tell of tomorrow/Madmen on the rampage.” When he recites the closing line of the verse, “And I’m down in the tube station at midnight,” we automatically connect his situation to the headlines and share his sense of foreboding. Still, he proceeds through the turnstile, probably telling himself that he’s made the trip hundreds of times before without incident.
I fumble for change, and pull out the Queen
I put in the money and pull out a plum
Whispers in the shadows, gruff blazing voices
“Hey boy” they shout, “have you got any money?”
And I said, “I’ve a little money and a takeaway curry
I’m on my way home to my wife
She’ll be lining up the cutlery, you know she’s expecting me
Polishing the glasses and pulling out the cork”
His innocent response seems to be an attempt to find common ground with his likely attackers by sharing a common human experience, thereby presenting himself as harmless. It doesn’t work; it was never going to work.
I first felt a fist, and then a kick
I could now smell their breath
They smelt of pubs and wormwood scrubs
And too many right-wing meetings
My life swam around me
It took a look and drowned me in its own existence
Once they’ve had their fun, he struggles to maintain awareness of his surroundings, storing memories that will later seem absurdly trivial before realizing that these thugs may go after the person he loves most and there is nothing he can do to protect her:
The last thing that I saw as I lay there on the floor
Was “Jesus saves” painted by an atheist nutter
And a British rail poster read, “Have an away day, a cheap holiday Do it today.”
I glanced back on my life, and thought about my wife
‘Cause they took the keys, and she’ll think it’s me
The music has an ironically breezy urban feel to it, a soundtrack that seems weirdly dissonant and weirdly appropriate at the same time–as if to remind us that life goes on, lah-dee-dah, another gruesome tale for the headlines, now get back to the daily grind. Since right-wing thugs have made a comeback in Europe and the USA, “Down in the Tube at Midnight” has tragically earned status as a timeless piece of art, but I’m absolutely positive that Paul Weller would have traded that honor in exchange for an end to such brutality.
p. s. Fuck the BBC for banning this song and fuck Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn for complaining that, “It’s disgusting the way punks sing about violence. Why can’t they sing about trees and flowers?” It’s that kind of idiotic denial that allows the twin cancers of racism and hate to flourish.
With a hot songwriter leading the way, The Jam would go on to produce a series of successful albums before Paul Weller decided to move in a different direction with a new band called The Style Council. Eventually he would embark on a solo career that further cemented his status as one of Britain’s leading songwriters. While I think Weller would have found a way to the forefront even if The Jam had collapsed before the recording of All Mod Cons, his moment of truth paved the way for one of the most engaging listening experiences of the era. The third time was definitely the charm for The Jam.
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I think that the sophomore slump is largely a myth, although it certain applies to a bunch of acts from that era – acts like The Jam, XTC, and Kate Bush had to rush a second album out without having much material.
Generally, I think bands tended to peak around their 3rd, 4th, and 5th albums as they’ve gained confidence in the studio and become more diverse, but hadn’t yet run out of ideas or hit their 30s and got distracted with families and other grown up pressures.
That’s my sense, too. The problem now is that debut albums are over-hyped, setting up unreasonable expectations for a band still trying to find their way.
Time frames have obviously changed as well – groups that started in the early 1960s, like The Beach Boys and Stones, put out a lot of covers heavy albums and didn’t peak until 10-12 albums in. While a modern major label act might only put out an album every 2-3 years, and will be getting old and boring before they’ve built a very big catalogue.
I think you’re on to something with that “third time’s a charm” theory. But I think that theory applies mostly to monster bands like the ones you mentioned. I think there needs to be another theory describing bands that peaked with album one or two and went downhill from there. Ratt is a great example. Or the Violent Femmes. Maybe The Alarm.
I’m on it!
American ignorance about The Jam is stunning. They were one of the best bands on the planet, ever. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is a joke of course — come to think of it, I guess it’s a museum — but when I consider the knuckleheads they’ve admitted while The Jam are ignored…. you’ve blown all your credibility, Rock Hall. (Johnny Rotten was right: “Next to the Sex Pistols rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain.”) Now let’s all listen to “That’s Entertainment.”
I am so with you regarding the HOF. I posted a chick riff on the subject one year where I blasted the premise, politics and fundamental corruption of that bullshit place.
[…] The Jam – All Mod Cons […]
Id first heard the Jam as “In the City” – My pal said, hey youve got to listen to this – and as the chords to Art School Rang out my ’77 clinging to old buddy Holly records was changed. If The Jam were regurgitating the 60s with a punk tempo i couldn’t see it. The Who Were bloated and unrecognisable, the Beatles, yes i’ll say it were simply “passe” The 60s were just too close to be cool. Now Buddy, Jerry et-al, they were just far enough away to be on the money. Except that money was foriegn. The Jam spoke to me, reflected my life – A 16 year old who tried to “paint on the smell of soap” on a friday night. 18 months later, i’m growing, the music grows with me, All Mod Cons soundtracked my coming of age, the truths – the threat of casual violance on a night out, the prospect of love, the awareness of class. The cold of that November in ’78.
A great album, and one that, when the time is right, i’ll dim the lights and play the original vinyl start to finish and remind myself of who I am.
Didnt we have a nice time indeed.