One by one they fell. One by one they changed. One by one you watched your classmates step out of their childhood.
They changed in the way they spoke and in the things that they spoke about. They changed the way they wore their school uniform, applying rebellious alterations where they could. The standard school tie was jettisoned for one of a much slender appearance. Expensive brogues replaced standard “back to school” shoes bought cheaply from a local factory outlet. Grey socks were swapped for white.
My classmates even changed the way they walked. They walked with a swagger now and there was an arrogance about the way obligatory Adidas bags were carried over the shoulder. The younger kids always held their bags down by their side, the older kids never did that. The younger kids tended to hurry along the corridors, the older kids never did that.
The most obvious change was always the hair, which went from being haphazardly cut one day to being impeccably styled the next. A short layered cut, razor sharp with a straight back was the one to get. It suited some faces more than others.
The coolest kids wore their new haircuts and therefore their new adulthood with confidence and talked with relish of the thrill of meeting girls in the park, of buying cigarettes and of the pleasures of masturbation. Moths were becoming butterflies. New allegiances were formed. Where once school friendships tended to flourish between those at similar ability levels, now packs formed based on when the puberty bomb went off. Some who had heretofore kept a low profile suddenly strove forward. They flourished, their grades rose with their confidence, they excelled on the sports field, they were among the first to get girlfriends. Others who had previously performed well now dropped back, having achieved good grades all the way through, they grew bored and with their newly found confidence came a desire for excitement away from the classroom. It was a time of change.
Fearing adulthood, I held back and my friendships changed a great deal during this period. Two of my closest friends gave up on school, failed to show up more and more and when they did turn up they increasingly struggled with what they felt were the suffocating confines of school life. If they could have gone to work on turning thirteen they would have gladly done so. Chimney sweeping? No problem. Their childhood was over and they didn’t miss it, so I lost them.
I found new friends, and for a while, rather than becoming part of a pack I moved between various tribes, not wanting to commit, not wanting to take those first steps on the path of becoming grown up. A few hairs were starting to sprout from my chin, but I ignored them. One day, however, the inevitable happened. Adulthood tapped me on the shoulder and I sat down and wrote on my pencil case what the cool kids, the puberty pioneers had done many, many months before. I wrote “The Jam”.
The Jam were, like no other band, a rite of passage. They were the band that signalled that one’s teenage years had well and truly arrived. Music had already dominated our lives for a number of years by this point and different allegiances had already been formed. Many had fallen for the charms of Blondie, the Two-Tone led ska revival had proved massively popular and The Police had plenty of adherents as well. But The Jam remained aloof to us. Until we were ready for them that is and then they suddenly somersaulted their way into prime position. No other band had that quite that effect. One by one, when the time was right, we fell.
The Jam were serious. The guys in Madness, for example, gave themselves playful names like Suggs, Monsieur Barso and Bedders. Not so The Jam. Paul, Bruce, Rick. The Jam were direct. They didn’t pussyfoot around. Their songs were about the here and now, about life on the crumbling streets of Britain. (In a review of their second album, Record Mirror writer Barry Cain observed that Weller had a “cracked pavement voice”.) This is the world in which you live, they said, and it’s shit, they said, but you’re better than this. You’ve got this sussed. The Jam spoke to us individually. They guided our journey into adulthood and gave us a framework on which to hang our new identities. For the first cigarette, the first kiss, the first wank, The Jam were there telling us we were right. No wonder some never climbed out from under their spell. I see them still. Old classmates with that same haircut, first worn second term 1981.
But by the time I was ready it was almost all over. Paul Weller appeared on Nationwide in November 1982 and told us that The Jam were finished. The final gig of that tour, in Brighton, would be their last. There would be a final television performance on The Tube, (a brand new show on a brand new channel), and one final record – an anthem on which to bow out. Come on boys. Come on girls. Succumb to the beat surrender.
And so The Jam’s last became my first. I hurried home from my paper round to see that final TV performance on a cold Friday evening in November and I bought the 12 inch single version of Beat Surrender. And I discovered what most of my friends had known for a long time. The Jam were fucking brilliant.
It was clear from the first moment I put that record on that it was in a class of its own. Although it was not intended as such when it was written, Beat Surrender was a perfect ending. It was a song about music, about the power that music can unleash if you let it in, if you succumb to it, if you surrender to it, and so it was therefore a song about The Jam. “We’ve tried our best,” the song seemed to say, “and now it’s time for you to follow your own journeys.”
It was big deal that record. A final declaration of intent from the most important band in our lives. Strange then that it’s no longer one of The Jam’s most remembered tunes. Going Underground, That’s Entertainment and Town Called Malice still live a breathe in the present day, but Beat Surrender somehow got marooned in the 80s. Maybe it was too attached to a specific moment in time. The Jam stopped in 1982. Beat Surrender marked that stop.
The song that replaced Beat Surrender at the top of the U.K. charts was Renee and Renato’s Save Your Love. Jeez! We needed saving all right. We needed saving from stuff like that. What was Weller thinking, leaving us alone in a world like this? No more Jam was unthinkable. What were we to do? We responded by going Jam mad.
By February 1983, all of The Jam’s previous 15 official UK singles were back in the Top 100. A re-issue of That’s Entertainment, not officially released in the UK back in the day, gave them a sixteenth entry in the chart as well. For a while it wasn’t a question as to which record I was going to buy that week, instead it was which Jam record I was going to buy that week. My small home town had two independent record shops at that point and both had to keep their Jam records on the counter because desperate fans kept trying to steal them.
What made us this way? Why did my classmates feel the need to stencil the name of this band on the back of their jackets and to spray paint it on the back of every bus shelter in town? Why did we connect with The Jam as much as we did?
My theory is that it was their authenticity. With some music it’s the craftsmanship that counts, the joy of watching a virtuoso perform magic on their chosen instrument. But pop music thrives on simplicity, so what makes a great pop record? I think it needs to be authentic. We need to believe in it. Take your average Northern Soul record, for example. These are often simple tunes with simple lyrics, but when we hear one of those singers saying how depressed they are because their lover has left them, we totally believe it. We believe in their unfulfilled dreams, their lousy jobs and their brief moments of joy as they forget their woes when the music plays. Great pop music talks directly to us and it tells us the truth. The fakers might get away with it for a while, but ultimately they always fall by the wayside.
The Jam were a no-nonsense, no-bullshit band. Authenticity was in their DNA. When Paul Weller first encountered punk, he believed in it and it shows. When the initial ethos of punk fell away, Weller became disillusioned and it shows. Weller wore his heart on his sleeve and through his pen we got a clearer view of ourselves. Wallpaper lives, stains on seats and all. Lonely housewives, the Co-Op, police cars and screaming sirens. Here was the world in which we lived painted more vividly than we had ever seen it. Here were songs written by somebody who truly understood who we were. Here were songs that truly articulated how we felt.
For years afterwards The Jam had a profound impact. Before sport took over Britain’s pubs, music reigned supreme and nothing galvanised a pub crowd more than a Jam song suddenly playing on the juke box. Pints would be put down as everyone in the pub would sing every word and mean every bit of it with every fibre of their being. It was both a shared experience and an individual one as well, as we each sang as loud as we could. Weller had wanted to show us the power of music and here we were years later once again experiencing that power first hand. Come on boys. Come on girls. Succumb to the beat surrender.