A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.
Today’s subject: 1977 debut album by British Mod-punk band. A Top 20 album in the U.K.; title track scraped into the U.K. Top 40 at Number 40; album and song did not chart in the States.
And here’s why I like it:
1. It still has that new-song smell. As an adult, I periodically run into music that would have lit up my life when I was younger. (I’ve stopped just short of retroactively inserting the first couple Cheap Trick albums into my high school memories. They so richly belong there.)
The positive side of discovering music later in life, though, is that you don’t get as sick of it.
For instance, I had my fill long ago of “My Generation,” the Who’s chesty youth anthem and title track; I don’t ever have to hear it again. But “In the City,” the Jam’s chesty youth anthem and title track, didn’t become part of my life until much later. (Well after my chesty youth, in fact.)
So I still like hearing it, sometimes again and again … even if Paul Weller’s invocations of “the young idea” make me think of North Korea’s Juche Idea, and even if the last line sounds to my aging ears to be something like “And every town worker needs a sale, Jack!”
(I could Google it. Couldn’t do that during my chesty youth. But knowing the real words would be no fun.)
2. Heart of gold. Every scrappy young pop/punk band’s first record needs to have a reflective, melodic number on it somewhere, and if it stakes out a deeply personal message, so much the better.
In the City‘s big heartfelt ten-dollar singalong, “Away From the Numbers,” bundles up In the City’s theme of determined youthful independence in a great big chorus, accompanied eventually by some background oooh-oooh-ooohs. (They’re one of the few nods to fancy production on this bare-bones album.)
The ending chant of “Reality’s so hard” is a nice counterpoint to Weller’s braggadocio throughout most of the rest of the album. As best I can understand, it is one of the few points at which his hard-nosed narrator concedes that being a rock and an island is maybe not so easy, no matter how determined he is.
3. Non-stop. Revisiting that point about bare-bones production: I don’t believe there are any other instruments on In the City besides Weller’s barking Rickenbacker guitar, Bruce Foxton’s Rick bass and Rick Buckler’s drums. No tasteful Hammond, no haunted Rhodes, no horns, no strings, no guiro. This does get old from time to time, as you can imagine.
“Non-Stop Dancing” draws a fair amount of its charm from this minimalist approach, staying fresh even as some of the other songs start to blur. What it is, essentially, is a three-man band looking at each other and saying, “We love Motown and soul but we don’t have the tools to copy it. How can we get that vibe with three instruments?”
It’s not a cover of anything. It’s not a we’ll-play-the-horn-lines-on-overdubbed-guitar copy job. It’s just a song that combines punk directness with soul spirit and energy, in a way that feels unforced.
4. It mattered, really. “Sounds From the Street,” another love song to London, has a great, defensive line that speaks volumes about the 18-year-old who wrote and sang it. Weller sings, “I know I come from Woking / And you say I’m a fraud / But my heart is in the city where it belongs.”
I love that he saw the need to write that into a song and record it — that it was that important to him that he both publicly acknowledge and renounce his suburban roots.
Given Weller’s recurring theme of independence, and his outspoken and sometimes profane dismissals of his critics (check, for instance, this verse of “The Modern World,” released later in 1977), this sticks out. It’s like he’s actually — gasp — trying to win someone over.
I wonder who?
(“Sounds from the Street” has another great pair of lines that I won’t go too deeply into, but will call out briefly: “The USA’s got the sea / yeah, but the British kids have got the streets.” It wouldn’t be a Britpunk album without a slam at the Rebel Colonies, I guess. I wonder what the hell 18-year-old Paul Weller thought he knew about the U.S.A.?)
5. Slow down. Only intermittently does In the City hint at the kind of headfirst powerhouse the Jam were capable of being onstage.
One of those moments is the band’s cover of Larry Williams’ “Slow Down.” This choice of tunes served the dual purpose of nodding to the band’s Sixties pop predecessors (you might have heard another Limey band’s version) while simultaneously declaring the Jam’s intention to blow them off the stage.
(There’s also an unintentionally funny version of the “Batman” theme, but we won’t go into that here.)
For however long it lasts before it’s disappeared, here’s a clip of the young Jam around the time of In the City, working up a sweat onstage.