The Jam – Sound Affects – Classic Music Review

In a brazen display of multi-generational marketing, Paul Weller described Sound Affects as “a mixture between Revolver and Michael Jackson’s Off The Wall.” Valerie Siebert of The Quietus and I disagree:

As a matter of fact – and speaking strictly musically and not negatively – it’s arguably the least soulful Paul Weller record there is. Setting Sons would likely be up for the title if it weren’t for the casual inclusion of Vandella’s cover ‘Heatwave’ tacked on the end. But soul music, as a universal language, is probably the least offensive and least criticized form of pop. It does wade into political waters, but it’s never apocalyptic, aggressively confrontational and angry as tunes on this record are.

Perhaps Weller was engaging in a bit of prognostication, as the argument for a Michael Jackson connection is a bit stronger on The Jam’s final album, The Gift (though the soul on that album is more 60’s Motown than peak-period MJ). Siebert’s claim that post-punk bands like Joy Division and Gang of Four had a greater influence on Sound Affects than the King of Pop is much more plausible.

The influence of Revolver, on the other hand, is quite obvious, and Sound Affects generally maintains the connection to the mod-oriented rock played by The Jam on their two previous albums. You can find further evidence in support of that continuity on the 2010 Deluxe Edition, which features demos of The Beatles’ “Rain” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” The Kinks’ “Dead End Street” and “Waterloo Sunset,” and Small Faces’ “Get Yourself Together.” And as Ms. Siebert points out, Sound Affects is full of those delightful Wellerian bursts of righteous anger he displayed consistently on Setting Sons.

Sales pitch overreach aside, 1980 was a great year for Jam fans, who were not only treated to some great music but had the satisfaction of seeing their heroes rise to the upper reaches of the British charts. Early in the year, the twin single “Going Underground”/”Dreams of Children” became the band’s first #1 single; they’d top the charts again a few months later with the lead-in single “Start.” Sound Affects made it all the way to #2, blocked from reaching the summit by ABBA’s Super Trouper, 1980’s best-selling album in the U.K.

Oh, for fuck’s sake. I never got ABBA, have no plans to get ABBA and if I ever show any symptoms of ABBA, I will insist on a no resuscitation order.

Sound Affects opens with the song that the geniuses at Polydor wanted as the lead-in single, “Pretty Green.” I’m pretty sure that their thinking had something to do with the not inaccurate perception that the socio-cultural criticism featured in “Pretty Green” was “on brand,” consistent with the image the band had cultivated on All Mod Cons and Setting Sons. Stuck in their give-the-people-what-they-want mindset, they ignored the obvious flaw in “Pretty Green” that should have made it a non-starter—the song lacks a strong hook. Sure, “I’ve got a pocket full of pretty green” is repeated several times as the first line of the verses, but it’s neither a particularly catchy phrase nor a nugget of faux wisdom you can recall to wrap up a conversation, like “You can’t always get what you want” or, more to the point, “And what you give is what you get.” There are only two likely responses to someone who comes up to you and says, “Hey, guess what? I’ve got a pocket full of pretty green!”

  • “Put your hands up.” Reaches into pocket and takes all the pretty green.
  • “Good. Buy me a drink.”

“Pretty Green” is a strong album-opening song, reassuring fans that Weller hadn’t sold his soul to Thatcherism with his complete rejection of the money = power equation. That formula is one of the most basic assumptions in a capitalist society and Weller was right to call it into question. Why should immoral losers like Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have so much influence just because they made a lot of money? Why should inherited wealth give you more power than an artist who creates beauty or a nurse who cares for the sick or a social worker trying to address lingering social ills? Why the fuck are the Kardashians on television? “I’m going to be rich someday” is a profoundly pathetic desire, as all it confirms is that you’re a selfish asshole willing to sacrifice any sense of moral responsibility in the pursuit of purchasing power and/or influence.

Alas, it’s the way the game is played, and those who aren’t selfish or lack talent in the art of manipulation can look forward to a lifetime of feeding on trickle-down crumbs:

I’ve got a pocket full of pretty green
I’m gonna give it to the man behind the counter
He’s gonna give me food and water
I’m gonna eat that and look for more

This is the pretty green, this is society
You can’t do nothing, unless it’s in the pocket

“Pretty Green” may come across as an astonishingly simple song, but the simplest messages often contain more truth than the longest speeches, poems or novels:

And they didn’t teach me that in school
It’s something that I learnt on my own
That power is measured by the pound or the fist
It’s as clear as this

The most noticeable aspect of the music to “Pretty Green” (and the rest of the album) is the nod to “new wave” recording techniques, most apparent in the extra reverb applied to Rick Buckler’s drums and the removal of low-end frequencies from Bruce Foxton’s bass. Thankfully, the engineers didn’t go full 1980s on us, leaving the band’s essential power intact.

“Monday” feels like it could have fit nicely on The Kinks’ Something Else, a first-person narrative character sketch of a guy who’s sweet on a girl he met at work but lacks the confidence to do much about it, meekly living in the hope of seeing her again after a long, lonely weekend. Our hero has a touch of the poet in his soul, but as an introverted personality in a world that assumes that introverts don’t have much to offer, he suffers from low self-esteem that solidifies his introversion:

Tortured winds that blew me over
When I start to think that I’m something special
They tell me that I’m not
And they’re right and I’m glad and I’m not
I will never be embarrassed about that again.

The harmonies on the song reflect the baroque phase of rock circa 1966-1967 and Paul Weller’s piano fills are so George Martin that you can’t help but think “Revolver.”

Though I get where she’s coming from, I don’t entirely agree with Siebert’s identification of the similarities between “But I’m Different Now” and “Doctor Robert,” as the number of songs with two-chord riffs must be astronomical and The Jam are combining two straight chords (B/E) as opposed to Lennon’s more clever A7/Asus4 combination. I also don’t get the “modicum of soul influence” she heard—to me, this is The Jam kicking ass, end of discussion. This dramatic monologue creates interest through the implications in the lyrics rather than the lyrics themselves, as the story of a guy who admits he has “done some things that I never should have done, but I’m different now” sounds like the same old bullshit peddled by every wife-beater who ever lived. Though the meaning is ambiguous, the music is not—The Jam confirm their status as one of the tightest rock groups ever with a ripping lead guitar from Weller, thumping and nimble bass runs from Coxton and a thrilling performance from Buckler on skins and hi-hat.

The Jam keep bashing away in the anti-National Front rant “Set the House Ablaze,” a song I would recommend to the prosecutors who have been tasked with convicting the sick bastards who stormed the U. S. Capitol . . . but alas, the engineering crew didn’t do a very good job of isolating Paul Weller’s voice when he shifts to narrative delivery and most of his words are lost in the mayhem. Too bad, because you can make out the words “It has nothing to do with democracy” if you’re wearing headphones, but taking the time to pass out headphones to the jurors would kill prosecutorial momentum. Love the energy, ADORE the whistling, but you’d have to have the hearing acuity of a moth to understand all the lyrics.

Do you know where I learned that moths have the best hearing of any animal on the planet? Snapple bottle caps. I wonder what title they give to the person who comes up with those essential bits of knowledge. Man, I would love that job.

Placing my fantasy career goals aside for the moment, we will now consider “Start,” the song that beat out “Pretty Green” in the singles competition and shot to the toppermost of the poppermost. “Start” also messes with the classic formula by featuring a hook that is not part of the title, which probably led thousands of wannabe buyers to ask the record store clerk for a copy of “And What You Give Is What You Get.” Truly discerning buyers with a knowledge of music history would have dispensed with the lyrical reference and asked the clerk, “I want a copy of the new Jam record that sounds like ‘Taxman.'” The bass run is indeed lifted from the opening track to Revolver and both rhythm and lead guitar parts echo “Taxman” as well. The only possible explanation for the absence of a lawsuit is that George Harrison may have been in deep meditation during this period and wanted nothing to do with . . . the material world.

Despite the thievery, the song has an undeniable freshness about it, and the bass part was close enough to funk to please contemporary tastes. It also deals with a problem common to every human being on the planet: human communication. Having likely been subject to plenty of miscommunication even at the ripe old age of twenty-two, Weller sets a pretty low bar for success in this endeavor:

It’s not important for you to know my name –
Nor I to know yours
If we communicate for two minutes only
It will be enough

For knowing that someone in this world
Feels as desperate as me –
And what you give is what you get.

It doesn’t matter if we never meet again,
What we have said will always remain.
If we get through for two minutes only,
It will be a start!

I’m not sure if this is realism or sarcasm, but whatever it is, it works!

Side one ends with “That’s Entertainment,” a song Paul Weller wrote in ten minutes after getting pissed at a pub, pissed off by the damp on the walls of his flat and disgusted at the squalor of working-class neighborhoods in London:

A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing and stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

A smash of glass and a rumble of boots
An electric train and a ripped up ‘phone booth
Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat
Lights going out and a kick in the balls
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

I really don’t get where Valerie Siebert was coming from when she described the song as “a piece of urban art in league with Banksy – about finding beauty in the little-noticed and sometimes maligned details of the grey mood and mundane routines of city life.” All six verses paint a pretty bleak picture of working-class existence—and though the last two verses depict displays of affection, the environment is far from romantic:

Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude
Getting a cab and traveling on buses
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment

I don’t think “wishing you were far away” qualifies as “finding beauty,” and I find that characterization rather condescending, in my always-humble opinion. Critical disagreement aside, I think “That’s Entertainment” contains some of Paul Weller’s best poetry. The language is a deliberate assault on the senses—you can smell the petrol, hear the shattering of glass, and feel the cold rain—but I think the intent behind the imagery was to inspire the listener to say “Enough!” and do something about the sorry state of lower-class existence. The music is ironically light, the harmonies providing stark contrast to Weller’s tone of disgust (and features a bit of backward guitar to remind us again of the Revolver influence).

Our success at knowing how to flip a disc to side two is confirmed immediately by the backward guitar and choral overture that create the dreamscape that opens “Dream Time.” Since this is Paul Weller’s dream, the serene passage to REM sleep ends in a burst of electric guitar, bass and drums. We find Paul in that all-too-familiar dream state where you try to run from some sort of danger but the wires get crossed in your brain so you try to move your real legs, but HEY STUPID, YOU CAN’T RUN IN YOUR BED! With his feet “glued” and tongue tied, our hero is unable to escape from a superficially pleasant experience beneath which lurks . . . danger!

I saw the lights and the pretty girls
And I thought to myself what a pretty world
But there’s something else here that puts me off
And I’m so scared dear, my love comes in frozen packs
Bought in a supermarket

I have no idea what the “frozen packs” are, but if they have any connection to my favorite part of the male anatomy, Paul is in a heap of trouble.

Things get worse as he runs “through wind and rain, around this place amongst streaming sunshine,” then gets all sweaty-and-yuck while his “bowels turn to water.” Soon he feels “hot breath whisper in my ear,” and the dreamscape changes to Vandella-land where there’s nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. He tries closing his eyes but “This feeling’s much too real to ever disappear.” In response to the horror around him, he starts to chant a sort of mantra: “But it’s a tough, tough world and you’ve got to be tough with it.” That mantra tells me that the dream is no dream at all, but the fake “pretty world” of daily existence, which can be a very scary place indeed. “Dream Time” is an unusual song but I have to give Weller tons of credit for re-creating a nightmare world that many of us have experienced as our brains try to process the confusing messages we get from real life.

Before I get to the meat of the very Kinks-like “Man in the Corner Shop,” I’d like to express my deepest appreciation for Bruce Foxton’s outstanding bass part, a masterful mix of melodic counterpart and rhythmic thrust, a “side” contribution that is so damned good that I often tune out the rest of the song to focus solely on what Bruce is up to (kinda like what I do when I tune out the motley crew on early ELO records and just listen to Bev Bevan’s drum parts). This one is right at the top of the list of favorite bass parts along with Entwistle’s performance on “The Real Me.”

As for the song that Bruce supports, it’s a 60’s baroque pop number that features the signature sound of a Rickenbacker, vocals spiced with splashes of harmony and a nice, easy beat. The lyrics deal with class distinction, particularly the endless desire to raise one’s status no matter how high up you are on the human food chain. The guy at the factory envies the guy who owns the corner shop because he gets to be his own boss; the guy at the corner shop sells cigars to the factory guy’s boss who isn’t satisfied with low-level supervision and wants to own a factory someday. All involved are reassured and given hope via the sacred notion that “God created all men equal,” which the characters take to mean that they have a legitimate shot at rising to a status higher than someone else. “Man in the Corner Shop” is a brilliant and succinct indictment of a system that claims to support equality but instead instills the desire to one-up the competition.

I have no idea what the boys were thinking with the largely instrumental “Music for the Last Couple,” but it doesn’t seem to me like they weren’t thinking at all. The song feels out of place musically and thematically, sort of like a primitive version of off-night Devo. Skip it and move on to “Boy About Town,” a bouncy little number with a nifty horn arrangement about a boy who desires to go with the flow of life rather than trying “to be somebody,” rather like John Lennon in “I’m Only Sleeping.” But while Lennon luxuriates in privacy, this boy has to deal with the crowds who view his fancies with utter disdain:

Oh like paper caught in wind
I glide upstreet, I glide downstreet
Oh and it won’t let you go
‘Til you finally come to rest and someone picks you up
Upstreet downstreet and puts you in the bin

The boy responds with similar disdain, reflecting Lennon’s take on the insanity of modern existence: “Everybody seems to think I’m lazy/I don’t mind, I think they’re crazy/Running everywhere at such a speed/’Till they find there’s no need”:

Oh I’m sitting watching rainbows
Sitting here watching the people go crazy
Oh please leave me aside
I want to do what I want to do and
I want to live how I want to live

Let me say right here that the obvious echoes of Revolver in Sound Affects don’t bother me in the least. Revolver was a great album that should have spawned dozens of Revolvers. Kudos to The Jam for absorbing that influence, refusing to apologize for it and offering a fresh take on mid-60’s pop rock.

Sound Affects does not end with anything resembling “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but a vigorous defense of idealism and hope combined with an equally vigorous attack on the cynical attitude pedaled by John Lydon of Sex Pistols fame. The dark soundscape of “Scrape Away” is marked by an ominous bass riff from Foxton and excellent rhythmic management from Buckler, who punctuates the song’s stuttery beats with plenty of rim shots. In a tone that brooks no denial, Weller condemns those who believe life is a Dantean hell and live by the motto, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

Your twisted cynicism – makes me feel sick –
Your open disgust for ‘Idealistic naive’
You’ve given up hope you’re jaded and ill
The trouble is your thought’s a catching disease . . .

What makes once young minds get in this state
Is it age or just the social climate
You’re talking like some fucking hardened MP
You’re saying power’s all!
And it’s power you NEED!

The fade features the voice of one Laurent Locher, bass player of Les Lords, a band of punks-turned-mods from Caen who drew a bit of attention during their brief existence but never really caught fire in La Belle France (or anywhere else, for that matter). Weller brought Locher into the fold to translate the last two lines quoted above into French: “La puissance c’est tout, c’est la puissance dont tu as besoin.” Though it sounds like something Louis XIV could have come up with, I could find no evidence to connect the quote to anyone other than Paul Weller. While some may consider “Scrape Away” kind of a downer ending, I think calling bullshit on cynicism is a beautiful thing indeed.

Sound Affects marked the end of Paul Weller’s love affair with mid-60’s rock. The Gift features a more eclectic approach involving multiple styles, including funk, soul and splashes of jazz. The album found favor with the listening public and became the only Jam album to reach #1. I have no plans to review The Gift because to me it sounds squishy, like most ’80s music . . . squishy like The Police . . . like U2 . . . like mid-stage Elvis Costello and a host of others. The Jam of All Mod Cons, Setting Sons and Sound Affects was the antithesis of squishy—powerful, intentional, exceptionally tight and noticeably spirited.

That’s The Jam I choose to remember, and I don’t want anything or anyone to mess with that memory.

5 responses

  1. […] The Jam – Sound Affects […]

  2. For the Abba policy alone I’m voting for you in the next election

  3. Another terrific review of another terrific Jam album. Sound Affects has always been my favorite because of its musical and lyrical consistency (with one glaring exception, which you note and dismiss as appropriate) and the brighter production is a good choice for an album referencing Revolver — which is my favorite album by anyone ever. The denser production of Setting Sons wouldn’t have worked as well here. I would give a bit more credit to Set the House Ablaze, probably the most propulsively angry anti-fascism song ever recorded, but you are right that Weller’s vocals do get a bit buried in the mayhem. He is much easier to understand in the equally fiery live version on Dig the New Breed.

    You are also correct that The Gift is much less consistent in music and production — it’s a lot like the Clash’s Sandinista in that it wanders too far afield from what the Jam were best at — but it does have some terrific individual songs, such as Running on the Spot, Carnation, Ghosts, and of course, A Town Called Malice. Even a middling Jam album beats most other music of that period, hands down.

  4. Another great piece of writing about one of the best bands ever. Can’t argue with anything you say here. I remember when this album was released and feeling a bit let down by it, especially since it followed the amazing Setting Sons. I also recall being disappointed with Start’s obvious Taxman ripoff. Still, there are some excellent songs on this album as you point out. I was fortunate to see them live shortly after this album was released and it remains the best concert I ever saw – absolutely amazing music.

    I agree with you about The Gift too, though I do love Ghost Dance.

  5. Antonio De Sarno | Reply

    Great review (as usual!), spot on!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: