Top 10 Songs by The Jam

The Jam Songs

Photo: By maccosta [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

There are few bands as distinctly British as the Jam. While the actual meaning of that is somewhat obscure, it sounds plausible enough. It could be why their superstar status is relegated mainly to the U.K. Born in Woking from the initial punk explosion that spawned the Sex Pistols, The Clash, and the Buzzcocks, the Jam started by revitalizing the sixties’ mod subculture but infused their sixties influences with the generic chord mashing of punk on their first single In the City in 1977. However, instead then burning out in the dead end of punk, like the Sex Pistols or the Adverts, the Jam’s punk noise, but not their lyrics, became more subdued, allowing for strains of soul and new wave to become more prevalent in their music, which allowed them to survive until 1982.

The driving three-piece consisted of Paul Weller, lead vocalist, guitarist, and lyricist, supported by Bruce Foxton on bass and Rick Buckler on drums. Together they managed to release 18 Top 40 singles in the U.K. Though the three haven’t played together since 1982, the Jam still remains one of the most popular bands from the late seventies and is remembered for forging the mod revival movement and playing with a professionalism contrary to the DYI zeitgeist of safety-pinned Britain. Now, to introduce you to the Jam, we shall look at 10 of the best Jam Songs

# 10 – In the City

We begin, as the Jam began, with their debut single in 1977, “In The City,” which was also the title track for their first album released in the same year and their first Top 40 hit. With a straightforward arrangement for the instruments to thrash their way through, “In the City,” sounds like most punk songs from 1977, but actually played well.

It captures the Jam’s early enthusiasm for punk, the young idea that the song seems so desperate to tell people about. Combining the somewhat optimistic approach of the bright young faces with the threat of men given the right to kill, Weller’s words burn with the spirit of the city. It comes across as a debut single in the most positive way possible.

# 9 – The Butterfly Collector

There’s a radical stylistic change as we move to the next song on our top 10 best of The Jam Songs list, “The Butterfly Collector,” which was found on the B-side for “Strange Town.” Bubbling through layers of new wave production, Weller’s anger surfaces, though, like other post-punk sounds of the time, it’s kept in check, frothing weakly but with a steady glare. With some acoustic work and a soft bass underpinning, his fury boils until the chorus, in which it bursts slightly with the band, enough to feel a sting but not going for the entire assault. The sting, though, still devastates.

Weller’s target for the charge of being a butterfly collector, a person who only snatches and pins down beautiful things, is an unnamed parasite –presumably a groupie. Compared to other smack downs like “Complete Control,” and “Little Bitch,” the lyrics, as well as the song’s heavy production show the Jam’s attempt to capture that sense of professionalism, leaving garage-land for the mods of the modern world.

# 8 – The Modern World

“The Modern World” was recorded and released in 1977, two years before “The Butterfly Collector.” We have another “pure” punk rock song on the list, and Weller’s just as angry as with “In the City.” Purity in this case just means simple and energetic instrumentation serving as a platform for giving out various obscene gestures to condescending authority figures.

But, as is also the case with “In the City,” ” The Modern World” is a lot of fun. If fun is not the right word, then perhaps compellingly adolescent is. The emphatic statement that this is the modern world and the cathartic assertion that we no longer need to be patronized, though possibly juvenile, are things to which we can relate and are expressions into which we can funnel our frustrations.

# 7 – English Rose

The song “English Rose,” from their third album, All Mod Cons in 1978, is a sentimental ballad. Whether it refers to a beautiful English woman, for which English Rose is an epithet, or to England herself, the acoustic guitar played above recorded waves and wind whistling moves away from the yells and grime of traditional punk rock.

“English Rose” is also a great song in itself. Sailing through the usual tropes of seas and mountain peaks you could find in many places, the song turns, expanding through time and space and then contracting again to the mundane but strikingly modern image of taking the train home. It is sincere, like punk, but it is also soft and, if taken to be about England, unusually loving for a punk band.

# 6 – Mr Clean

Also on All Mod Cons, “Mr Clean,” is quite different from our previous entry – this is a bit of a theme. The modishness of the Mod Revival finally appears on this list, as even though the instrumentation does not break out into full psychedelia, it bears the sound of the British Invasion across to the late seventies.

The song itself can be seen as a reworking of the Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man.” Following another well-groomed middle-class man about, the narrator paints a new sardonic picture of respectability. This time, however, the Punks inform the Mods, as threats of violence and class warfare accompany the satire. The picture created is excellently written, briefly showing the life of the scorned man.

# 5 – The Eton Rifles

Now, we have one of David Cameron’s favorite songs, “The Eton Rifles,” the only single to be released from Setting Sons, pumps along, offering an almost irresistible invitation to join in the “Hello-hurray,” and the echoed “Eton Rifles.” However, it isn’t meant to be a rousing pub song, as it is a protest responding to a fight between Estonian schoolboys and the residents of Slough.

That said, it excels as a song, especially a punk one. Feedback and distortion snarl from the start, leading to the lyrics that grab and force you through the stark reality of class privilege. Unlike the more giant punk anthems that sneer and pose, “The Eton Rifles” produces something to be genuinely angry about. It should not be surprising then that “The Eton Rifles” was the Jam’s first top ten hit, placing at number three, and that, more recently, NME crowned it as the track of 1979.

That David Cameron, an Estonian, declared “The Eton Rifles” one of his favorites should be confusing. Paul Weller certainly did not understand this choice. “The Eton Rifles” has the Jam giving their finest example of punk rock, explicitly setting themselves against public school boys like David Cameron, and he likes it without any self-awareness – honestly, what?

# 4 – Town Called Malice

Unsurprisingly, the Mod Revival band pulls from prior styles, and with “Town Called Malice,” we catch the Jam experimenting with soul, an interest Paul Weller would continue with his next band, Style Council. There is, for instance, the addictive bass line. While I made a weird connection and heard “Lust For Life” in the opening measures, others on the internet have picked out a James Jamerson bass line and “I’m Ready for Love” by Martha and the Vandellas. So, Foxton managed to recreate a convincing soul bass line with that, along with the tambourine, percussion, the ba-ba-ba’s, and the Hammond organ, the Jam as a whole pulled off the stylistic change.

While similar to other songs they released in the early eighties, the heavy soul feel does sit strangely in this list, though lyrically, “Town Called Malice” bears the most substantial similarities. Although the incorporated influences from the sixties, they were still a punk band, and so they, especially Paul Weller, were often angry.

Anger, however, is not the emotion of “Town Called Malice.” In this infectious tune, Weller fashions a town rusted by years and apathy. The romances between milkmen and housewives have aged away, the choice is now between taking care of one’s children and drinking, and the ghosts of disused trains go roundabout but never actually go forwards; it’s all quite grey. That’s the punk point. The song, though, dwells not on the potential nihilism but instead lets out an idealistic call, saying that it’s possible to change and to change is preferable to continual whinging like another punk song would.

# 3 –  Going Underground

The Jam’s first number one single, “Going Underground,” is the song people tend to YouTube when introducing someone to the Jam. It is also the first song by them you would find if you search “The Jam” on YouTube. It’s their “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” and I think it suffers from the same problem, i.e., overexposure. “Going Underground” warrants this overexposure.

After “Town Called Malice,” we return to a more traditional punk style. The verses bark out guitar chords with a cantering bass and drum stumbling in between. At the chorus, the guitar picks up, producing a solid and classic punk blend of sound. The song’s punk, but the kind of classic punk holds up well.

Musically speaking, there is no reason why people should go so gaga over this song in particular. It’s a great song, but the Jam’s a great band. So, presumably, people still find the lyrics rather resonant. Starting with “Some people might say my life is in a rut” and continuing till the final “tomorrow,” Weller’s vocal delivery matches the force of his chords. Each line carries its accusation against a government and populace more invested in the arms race than welfare, like sheep buying into the idea of a slaughterhouse. The song is fed up and ready to give up on the madness. It was, and is, the Jam’s punk anthem.

# 2 – That’s Entertainment

While not overtly punk like “Going Underground,” the song “That’s Entertainment” embodies the grimy ethos in its subdued way. Tailored with an acoustic guitar, a gently pulsing bass, and light percussion, the song flows melodically along. The dreamy air of the song is accentuated by the soft la-la-las that follow the sign “That’s Entertainment” and the brief introduction of a played-back guitar during the penultimate verse.

The song’s wispy tone didn’t force it to go gentle, though, as it is one of the highest-selling import singles in the U.K. This is partly due to the music. It’s gorgeous. Buckler’s contribution adds an ingenious calm that starkly contrasts the mess occurring in the lyrics. With a world soundtrack of sirens, screaming, and glasses, one potter about That’s Entertainment contemplating the scent of petrol and stale perfume, wishing they were far away and reflecting with a sarcastic chorus, “That’s Entertainment.” Life sucks, but we suck it up anyway. While the song may disguise itself as another Kink’s predecessor, the view given in the song is much grimmer than anything found in the sixties; it’s punk.

# 1 – Down in the Tube Station at Midnight

Landing at number one in our top 10 The Jam Songs list is the excellent track “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight.” We are fortunate that Vic Coppersmith-Heaven more or less forced Paul Weller into continuing with it when he just wanted to bin it.

Foxton and Buckler make the song with their work on bass and drums. After the initial recorded underground racket, Foxton lays down a brilliant syncopated bass line while Buckler’s hissing percussion permeates. Together, the two weave an effect of claustrophobia and tension. Amid this, Weller’s choppy lines further the tension by repeatedly prolonging the events.

The power of this punk song is due to its narrative quality, the clichéd show-don’t-tell. Unlike, say, “Going Underground” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” forge a perspective rather than a lecture or a rant, which leads to this immediate experience of a pointless racist attack – presumed from the too many right-wing meetings, i.e., skinheads. Lyrically, this tussles with “That’s Entertainment” to be the most exciting song on this list. It wins out only because of the layers of lyrical textures that are woven with the various rhythms laid down by Buckler and Foxton, making the experience of following a man beaten, robbed, and left with fading consciousness worrying about his wife breath-taking. It is the Jam mixing their mod and punk elements perfectly.

Updated March 5, 2024

 Top 10 Songs by The Jam article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2024

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