Pete Townshend on The Jam
Time Out Magazine - Pete Townshend on The Jam Heroes And Junkies - March 12-18 1982
With The Jam's star on the ascendant, Pete Townshend of The Who asks if success will spoil Paul Weller
The last time I met Paul Weller was in a now defunct nightclub called Club for Heroes. It's partly because he was there that I'm not embarrassed to tell you about it. Steve Strange had dimmed the lights and a bunch of bedraggled rock stars huddled around a table attempting to form sentences while people rushed around getting us all drinks. About an hour later I woke up in hospital, discovering that I had over-imbibed to the extent of nearly killing myself.
I am sitting here wondering whether Paul Weller was there, among hairdressers and art students, on a kind of reconnaissance or really trying to take part. I felt strangely sympathetic towards him. I knew that London nightlife had no appeal to him, and yet I suspected he was lonely. That much as he would love to sit at the bar of his local, he probably couldn't. Paul Weller is a Hero, a British Hero.
The Jam's last two singles and albums have jumped straight to number one in Britain's charts. Their list of achievements chart-wise is staggering. And yet this success isn't like that of The Beatles in the 1960s when every record they made shot straight to the top. Jam fans are thinkers and musical reactionists, who tend to reject all politicians pretty much out of hand. They choose to dress in the rather sober style of the mid-1960s rather than adopt the peacock styles of the avant garde and they listen very earnestly to the words written by their spokesman. There is no bitterness in Weller's writing that isn't fully shared by his fans. Everything that is wrong with the world is someone else's fault. God is not in his heaven, and if he is then he isn't doing a very good job of handling the population explosion, political corruption and global disintegration.
I read recently that Paul Weller has given up night-clubs, booze and drugs, and I suppose they do all go hand in hand. He is quite clearly a man of principle, but isn't he rejecting the only group of people who can really understand his frustrations? Has a musician ever changed any part of the world? Weller seems willing to deal only with Britain at this stage; he leaves America to the Americans and is apparently so disdainful of the States that it causes him pain to even talk about the place.
But what is happening in Britain that Weller, or anyone who writes `pop songs', can affect? The incredible response of young record buyers to the serious and pessimistic work of The Jam suggests an answer. Weller and The Jam, like many others who choose the music world as their channel for expression, have to get used to the fact that they can only really effectively reach the young. `Youth', Weller calls it. He wants to see life and vigour pervading the hordes of kids faced with dole queues and thick-skinned capitalists. His audience want to share his dream.
If anything it is this response to Weller's typically British sardonicism that raises my hopes for Britain's future. Weller faces the grimness of the world without fear, but also without mercy; and yet he is a musician. He enjoys being in the public eye, suffers from it to an extent I'm sure, but clearly loves making music, being in a band and getting people dancing. Below the surface of Weller's writing is a sense of irony and gritty sarcasm that makes the listener think twice before taking a stance on what they have heard. Making anyone think twice is especially valuable today.
The Jam also represent an antidote to London's volatile Art-Rock scene. There has never been for instance, a Club for Heroes in Newcastle, while Birmingham's Rum Runner (which has connections with Duran Duran) is the closest provincial equivalent. The Jam appeal to British youth on a national level. They encourage kids to stop worrying about the global wobble and start dealing with affairs at home. London is full of no-hopers who have turned to a type of artistically inclined decadence that Europe hasn't seen since pre-war Berlin. While the `lucky' few snort cocaine, kinds in Toxteth and Brixton are struggling to scrape together the money to buy glue. Yet both groups of people are fighting boredom and futility in their own way. Weller quite consciously tries to represent a kind of Being that manages to be aloof and proud in the middle of ennui. He is also very aware that he is under a microscope. I have never come across any other artist or writer so afraid of appearing hypocritical; he is genuinely concerned that anyone who identifies with his feelings should not be let down. He has no large expensive car, shuns large houses and, I suspect, attempts to use his money wisely (if he knows how to do it I wish he'd write a song about it - it would do us all a world of good). But he is a Star. He himself carefully engineers what kind of Star and in what kind of stratosphere he shines; never too grand, never too remote.
Most of all, The Jam are concerned to remain energetic. There is theatrical energy in Adam & The Ants; but theatre is not the theatre of The Jam. Weller is scathing of much current pop music because of its preoccupation with theatrical mannerisms. He hates anyone who does anything only for money, and I think this might explain why he hates America so much: their worship of the dollar is still a national secular obsession.
Meanwhile I wonder what Paul is wearing today? Does he still get his shirts made for five quid by Susan from Manchester? Has he ever been into Ebony and tried on shot silk trousers? I know he hasn't got a big car, but does his father have a big car? Is he happy with his girlfriend, will they get married? (She buys a great round of drinks I must say. Having been on the wagon myself for a few months I'm feeling very trendy in the exalted tea total company of Paul Weller. But Adam Ant doesn't drink either? Does that spoil everything?)
It's the fact that no-one seems capable of facing life without writing off half the human race as assholes that worries me. Weller does this microcosmically when he writes off half the music business as wimps. Every society has a few wimps. There are even faggots in Australia. When I was a vitriolic public speaker, denouncing this faction and that politician, Abbie Hoffman called me `fascist', a word that's become distorted since the war to mean anyone who chooses to align themselves to one group of people to the exclusion of all others. And yet spiritually each of us comes to realise that we have to deal with ourselves before we can deal with our difficulties with others. It's an uncomfortable enigma that I believe troubles Weller and The Jam as they develop spiritual aspirations. Do they feel sympathy for the American girl I met this year who said that she had been made so unwelcome in Britain that she tried to pretend she was German? Here again, lumping people into categories is dangerous. Incredible as it seems, Weller is suffering from the same problems endured by politicians, social workers and policemen; as soon as you start to deal with the problems of those you can really help, you are accused of neglecting those you can't.
More wanderings: in the absence of an updated conversation with Weller, I find myself musing whether he's read `Das Kapital' or `The Thoughts Of Chairman Mao'. Does he believe in God? Does he know where the Dalai Lama is living? Perhaps it's a good thing I haven't spoken to him recently.
An interesting thing just happened. My publicist sent me over some biographical stuff on the Jam from their office, so I get their ages right, etc. Apparently their manager, Weller's dad, who I must admit seemed a very good bloke when I met him, does not approve of my doing this article. They don't `need me to write an article'. I know that chaps. You've got a number one record. You've got power. It's so easy to fall into the trap. To be fair, my manager has to look like a thug every now and then to protect my interests and privacy. I don't suppose he like doing it any more than Father Weller, but they shouldn't worry, The Jam are in no danger of making me rich. I am one of the fools who has actually tried to put into practice some of the altruistic schemes The Jam suggested establishment rock artists should take on when they did their first major interviews in 1977.
The whole band have evened out a lot since then. Paul Weller does believe in God. Foxton and Buckler are actually looking forward to a tour of the States this year and I hope to (his own) God Weller doesn't say Boo to the wrong giant over there. Most of them are friendly, but there are exceptions. I still believe that The Jam are vital as a key to the rejuvenation of the American music scene. The Clash have tried and as far as I can see are in difficulty, apart from in the smoky cities. The Jam can get hits there, big hits. If they don't know what to do with the money there are plenty of new upstarts who'll be glad to tell them, but with the exciting musical approach aired on their new album, they are poised to break the production line pop rock that controls the charts there.
I predict that LA (not New York) will crack first under the weight of boring pre- programmed drivel delivered up every day on the radio in the States. If The Jam are around they will stoop, no doubt, but they will inevitably conquer.
When Weller and I met for the first time there was guarded mutual respect, not much else. We differed greatly on the importance of American music audiences. I have never seen The Jam live and don't listen to their records all the time. Weller only likes early Who stuff. From my point of view it's peculiar because I still feel as angry as I ever did, as unhappy about the exploitation of the individual by the difficult-to-pin-down `system'. People like me don't give up being angry, but they start to channel their aggressive frustrations into hard, defined arenas. You don't talk politics in The Embassy Club. You don't arrive in a Bentley when visiting a mate on the dole in Hull. I am not suggesting that the anger of The Jam is futile, nor that Weller will ultimately feel castrated, I am suggesting that as I approach my forties I find it harder to give my time to the proudly independent desperation of the young. I tend to think hard before committing myself in a song or an interview the way Weller does without fail. And yet he feels old at 24. Will it happen to him too?
Weller is so full of pent-up energy that when he writes he sometimes streams ideas on to a record. He rarely uses controlled metre and never bothers to rhyme a line. The words of his songs laid out in naked print appear art school self conscious but are actually far from it. Weller is a slasher. He cuts and mauls. He drags you from complacency. He buttonholes you so you feel an urge to defend yourself, then you are opened up and weakened. The the attack touches your heart and you realise that the purpose of The Jam is Revolution. Both Weller and Buckler sing with the vengeance of men cornered. Their threat is that if you approach you will feel the full force of their anger: stay at a distance and you will hear their venomous condemnation of your cowardice. There is a fully fledged taunt in `Eton Rifles'. A totally sweeping derision in `In The Street Today'. In both cases there is also the thread of merciless self-analysis; so typically British. I keep coming back to this, The Jam are so fucking British.
There is another inconsistent facet to The Jam, however. They are soulful individuals, concerned with a passionate but innocent resignation to a concrete world that reminds me of John Lee Hooker's blues. From London to the cotton fields. Their stance is not a show of `stiff-upper-lip', its an almost spiritual surrender to the inevitable. On their first album they ask: `Where is the Great Empire?' No one I know seems to give a shit. The question is asked with cynicism but it's asked nonetheless. Its almost as though they are saying: `Your badly run society fucks us up but it hasn't made the leader's lives any better either.' The Jam are a new kind of blues band.
I'm putting words into their mouth. But there's a lot of powder flowing in high places, a lot of intelligent people who should know better swaying in futility and unable to think clearly. Strangely, many of Weller's songs include lines that are addressed to the wealthy aristocratic families, to Lords and Ladies, to officers in the Guards, to peers of the realm and to all their spoon-fed offspring. Heroes and Junkies.
Weller takes on the whole of British society without a blink. The Jam are a small army dedicated to the awakening of a sleeping nation. It sounds a bit pretentious to say this, but I think it's true, The Jam actually do give a shit about the downtrodden soul bereft of spirit and direction, whether they are on the dole or living on handouts from decaying country estates.
The Jam are ostensibly Britain's top band. They figure prominently in all our polls and their shows sell out rapidly. Alongside UB40 they might not appear too successful as an alternative co-operative kick back at commercial record companies; alongside The Associates they might appear a little reactionary, but alongside The Who, a band I can just about speak for today, they represent everything that is vitally important in rock. No one likes musical categories, but The Jam are a great rock band in the old tradition. They have listened to the music that created the roots of the great bands of the 1960s and kept clear of the evolutionary demise of those groups. Weller's love of early Who stuff has never, for example, been affected by my own disenchantment with the 1960s. He has his own gripes. But he has listened to The Who and to all the music we used to love: blues, Motown, reggae (blue-beat as it was called then). I am probably the most musically open minded person I know: if it has a few notes in it I like it. Yet despite their well-watered roots The Jam distress me musically. Weller strives hard as a composer; his yearning to be a great musician cuts through even his most scathing material. It's this that niggles at me. I feel a terrifying frustration there. It's a frustration I used to feel at his age (I had to start getting condescending and patronising somewhere!). Anyway, it is all part of The Jam's power.
Now if Weller didn't have any ethical restraints, what car would he drive? Hasn't he even got anything small that He is attached to in his house? Does he really think the Russians will listen to him with the kind of attention Americans do? Did he get anything for Christmas he really wanted?
George is up already and making plans to tour his elite circuit and show off a new shipment of No.4 Heroin. In makeshift meeting places in Mayfair and Holland Park, rich, spoiled junkies lie shivering. A few of them lie in red-hot baths, the only place they can feel warm. In Canning Town on a Saturday morning a few ten-year-old kids are breathing from a bag full of Cow Gum. One of them is sick, and another is afraid, but they all crash on toward oblivion.
Paul, buy yourself a big car mate. You're one of the few people in this country who deserves one.