The Album List: #45 The Jam “All Mod Cons”

U.K. version. Always the U.K. version. Billy Hunt all the way, baby.

This might be a clever way to get more Ray Davies on the list.

See, a lot of British bands cover the lesser known, but better, Kinks songs released post “All the Day and All of the Night”. I mean, so massive and definitive are those first Kinks singles that one might forgive the lack of attention paid to their genius.

This is the excuse of idiots. But that’ll come.

The Jam cover the Kinks classic “David Watts” on All Mod Cons. The little ditty B-side is a bouncy little thing, with a “fa fa fa fa fa” hook and Brit pop guitars before Brit pop existed when the Kinks did it. While mirroring the original, the Jam’s cover has a hint of acidity that even the great Ray Davies couldn’t quite muster. It is simply one of the best covers of all time. Cleaner, clearer, and spiteful. Bruce Foxton was cranky.

In the very brief period where the Jam existed, between the time of the Sex Pistols and Duran Duran, they were the other best band in the U.K. After Paul Weller dissolved the trio and formed Style Council (never as good, in my opinion), a dearth of horror and terror would follow, with one noticeable bright spot (again, they’ll appear later).  I think they are criminally underrated in North America, much like many of my favourite British bands of the last thirty years. They remain a cult act in North America.

The Jam came to me when I was fourteen. It wasn’t a song on this album. It was “A Town Called Malice” on 1982’s swan song The Gift. It’s an enormously catchy song, with a “ba ba ba da ba da ba” lyrical interlude, and loaded with lyrical images of Woking, the band’s hometown. The song lead me to this album, though. And I picked this because of “David Watts” when shuffling through the library bins. Fortunately, I chose right. The best and most realized of the Jam’s record, it begins with a brief, staccato slap to the face of the music business and ends with a terrifying account of modern decay and violence that itself has no definitive ending in its own right.

The album closer, “Down in A Tube Station at Midnight” plays to the darkest parts of ourselves, but surrounds it with a rather bouncy tune.Thugs beat up our protagonist, stealing even the keys to his home, and the injured narrator lays, broken, alone, when he realizes that they have access to his home and wife. Written in response to the Right-wing xenophobic movement that swept Britain in the late 1970s, Weller tells just the facts. There is no happy ending here.

The thing about the Jam is that they were the better, more clever band than the Police, but somehow the Police became international success stories while the Jam remained an after thought outside of their homeland. Foxton was certainly a better bassist than Sting, as the gorgeous, thudding, grounded bass lines on songs like “Mr Clean” and “Billy Hunt” show. And the lyrics- those wonderful, Davies-esque lyrics. Sharp, humourous examinations of  youth in South East England, snide comments about late Seventies culture,  the songs themselves are self-contained stories about British life, much along the same lines as their predecessors the Kinks and direct descendents Blur. Even then, Weller manages to slip in something so beautiful and heartbreaking like “English Rose”.  Whether it’s about a girl or England, it remains the most honest and perfect creation the Jam ever put together.

The title track relays a tale of delusion of sycophants and hangers-on, “A Bomb on Wardour Street” matches the Clash’s “London Calling” in an apocalyptic future, “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have A Nice Time)” tells of life after the party ends. Even the less bitter pills are still plenty reflective.- “In The Crowd” is about the loss of individualism in the modern world. Weller would have some fine moments later with Style Council and solo. But truth be told, he was at his best here, telling simple tales of ordinary people, with a killer rhythm section and a young mans fearlessness.

And still one of the best Kinks covers in all of music.


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