I could go on for hours and I probably will about The Jam. Anyone who knows me knows how vital, important, sacred this band was to me. Next to The Who, The Jam helped shape and point my way as a musician and more importantly as a songwriter. I spent a good portion of my teen years doing a reasonable imitation of Paul Weller (so much so that to this day, I am still referred to by many friends as “The Modfather”.). It took a lot to retire my Rickenbacker, but everyone has to grow and change and certainly, by the time The Style Council released “Shout To The Top”, I was pretty much moving towards my R.E.M. obsessions.
But let me not digress. I’ve written about The Jam before; in an off-the-top-of-my-head in 15 minutes, I wrote (what was supposed to be a review) a 10 page article about the 1997 boxset “Direction, Reaction, Creation” for Suburban Voice. So you know that when I start going on about The Jam, you should sit down and pay attention. This isn’t some fan wistfully reminiscing. This is someone who got it. And at times didn’t fucking like it.
So it was and still is with The Gift. Time has not been kind to this album – unlike Sound Affects or even All Mod Cons (not a favorite, but it has aged better than Setting Sons). I won’t go into the details of The Gift‘s conception and the pains Weller experienced in making this album; they’ve been well and oft-documented enough. This is my revisit and review:
When I bought the album on that Friday in March 1982, I had my trepidations. Upon the first listen of “Absolute Beginners” in October ’81, my immediate response was “they sound like fucking Genesis now” and then I thought “no, he’s ripped off The Teardrop Explodes”. It was a clumsy, trying-to-be funk single that didn’t really work (although it grew on me later). When “Town Called Malice” c/w “Precious” came out, I felt very uneasy. Side A is a re-write of “You Can’t Hurry Love” and side B was a shitty disco song (Editor’s note: I’m writing from the 17-year old’s perspective; I actually like quite a lot of disco.). The packaging on the album seemed so-so; I was ready for a let-down after the life-changing “Sound Affects” and well, I was.
“Happy Together” is “standard Jam” – a strong, well-structured opener about love and communication with a memorable melody and singalong chorus. A good start. “Ghosts” was an okay number – slow and steady but maintaining The Jam feel. “Precious” was next and I didn’t need to hear it then and I admit, I skip it now. “Just Who Is The Five O’Clock Hero” has a galloping pattern and is one of the album’s better tracks, although it was starting to become evident that the horns were going to be used into overkill. “Trans-Global Express” is a mess. It is a note-for-note rewrite of World Column’s “So Is The Sun” and aside from being a very bad copy, the spoken lyrics aren’t audible. If this was Weller’s attempt at a rap, he missed the mark completely.
Side 2 starts with some redemption via “Running On The Spot”, although some of the lyrics are ponderous. “Circus” is a Bruce Foxton instrumental and is, frankly, forgettable. “The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong” is where it all falls apart. This calypso-driven Socialist observation is questionable at best, unlistenable at worst. But “Carnation” is the album’s masterpiece and one of Weller’s finest songs ever. “Malice” follows and “The Gift” closes the album; a poorly-executed attempt at writing a Northern Soul-styled stomper.
The overall problems with this album are: first, The Jam stopped being good at being what they were good at to be something else. I understand, applaud and wholeheartedly support an artist’s/band’s need to grow and change and stretch their boundaries. But this band of white English guys trying to be a black American soul-based band was not a well-informed decision. And Weller knew it was a mistake (and in many ways, so was his next venture, The Style Council). Second, the songs themselves. The album should have included “Absolute Beginners”, its b-side, “Tales From The Riverbank”; it should have had “Walking In Heaven’s Sunshine” (a very strong, transititional-Jam oriented track that was not included) and I may even concede that their first version of Edwin Starr’s “War” could have fit as well (there were two versions of this released; the second (as part of the “Beat Surrender” single package) was a weak, drum-machine version with female backup singers).
This package now includes the singles and ther B-sides released from The Gift and after – “The Bitterest Pill” and “Beat Surrender” are here as is their very good rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up”. The one standout from the late-period Jam, “Shopping” is also here, both in original and demo form. The one true curiosity here is the original demo of “Absolute Beginners”, which went under the working title of “Skirt”. It’s even more funky and yet seems full.
Polydor has even seen fit to release a 4-disc “super deluxe” edition with hardcover books, more demos, etc. In reality, it’s only recommended for hardcore, die-hard completists – and even I’ve grown past that stage. Plus, I still have all my old Jam records and my tour programme.
The Gift is no more nor less than a “yes, I remember that album” kind of revisit. It only evokes memories of the obvious closing chapter of an incredible band that had gone as far as they could go.