Excerpt: In Echoed Steps: The Jam and a Vision of Albion
By Simon Wells.
For me, Paul Weller remains the poet of his generation, following in a lineage populated by such luminaries as Blake, Shelley, Orwell and Lennon. Weller’s lyrics transcend the formulaic and predictable songwriting skills of many of his peers, and while I see some echoes with Ray Davies and Pete Townshend, he has created his own genre – a reality that has displayed a far sharper clarity on the existence of life, more than any other writer of his time.
Paul Weller’s songs of the period 1978-1982 are the most believable reflection of Britain at street level that has been committed to song. While the history books will document, in fairly mundane style, what occurred during those years, Weller imbued his songs with an emotional and cogent insight that left all of his contemporaries way behind.
It is no surprise to me that Weller adored Geoffrey Ashe’s book Camelot And A Vision Of Albion; the book detailing how the potential glory of humanity has been lost over the centuries. Similarly, Weller’s writing of the period displays a sharp and fierce patriotism, a love for his homeland which is continually frustrated at how Britain has never fulfilled the potential as set down by its celebrated visionaries.
On a clear ascendancy, Weller would draw on his creative energies for The Jam’s next set of releases. Their popularity growing throughout the country, their March 1980 single ‘Going Underground’ would articulate Weller’s growing political awareness. Concise and direct, he’d verbalise the anger and dismay shared by many of political systems that favoured military hardware over human wellbeing. At a time of immense global unrest and the potential for nuclear war, it was a pertinent statement to make.
The ferocious sound of ‘Going Underground’ finding massive favour with its audience, it still resonated with the familiar “Jam Sound”. The single’s flip-side, ‘The Dreams Of Children’, was a far more complex and textured piece of work. The song’s title may well have been inspired by a line from a Clive Barker short story entitled ‘The Forbidden’; a horror yarn where the protagonist – the evil “Candyman” – would preserve his dominance by haunting “The Dreams of Children”.
Whatever the inspiration, the song played brilliantly into the sort of bleak and unforgiving landscapes that Weller and moreover, Dave Waller, had been expressing through their poetic work. The psychedelic angle to the music was partly inspired by a revisiting of The Beatles’ Revolver album and other LSD inspired songs of the 1960s. Weller had previously dabbled with backwards guitar effects on ‘In The Crowd’ from All Mod Cons, but this was far more inventive and intrinsic to the song’s atmosphere. While Weller had forsaken LSD and other psychedelics after his ill-fated experience back in 1974, he was still enchanted by the sounds and imagery the drug spawned – especially on music’s community.
‘Dreams Of Children’ was evidently reflecting the sound of several bands of the moment who were experimenting with a brutal and stark delivery. The Jam had famously appeared alongside Joy Division on the BBC’s Something Else programme the previous year, and it’s clear that Weller was impressed with their sound and approach. With similar dystopian sounds coming from the likes of Gang of Four and Wire, ‘Dreams of Children’ tapped into this new breed of acerbic Psychedelia. While the public was lapping up the fury of ‘Going Underground’, the clue to The Jam’s new direction was to be found on ‘Dreams Of Children’.
The success of ‘Going Underground’ would inevitably pull on Weller and co. for more touring and further releases. Such was the band’s dictum to ensure the greatest possible quality control, they retreated to the studio for intermittent recording throughout the summer and autumn– the idea to allow the album to germinate more organically than the rush that had accompanied Setting Sons. This relatively relaxed approach allowed Paul the chance to take stock and similarly concentrate on a few other projects that had been burbling away in his fertile mind.
One new avenue he’d explore was Respond Records, a label that would preview several bands that Weller felt would benefit in being given a platform. The other project was Riot Stories, a publishing wing with a sharp focus on poetry. The first release was a Dave Waller anthology entitled Notes From Hostile Street. Close to The Jam’s orbit, Paul Weller had already given his friend several moments within the group’s output, but the book would offer a far more exclusive platform for his verse. Waller’s graphic depiction of urban decay mixed alongside more pastoral verse was illuminating to students of the sort of landscape that informed Weller’s lyrics. With The Jam’s front man acting as editor to Waller’s work, it was abundantly clear that they were honing their art together.
While Riot Stories would preview several unpublished writers, Weller’s own poetry would find space within some of the publications. Such was his prolific output, he clearly saw a need to park his observational musings that couldn’t be employed within his songwriting.
The first Riot Stories publication to host Weller’s poetry would be the first issue of December’s Child. Weller had already utilised the back pages of the songbook for All Mod Cons to host some of his poetry, and with the burgeoning market for poetry fanzines in an ascendancy, he’d already contributed a few poems to several publications. While adept in imbuing his songs with his poetic words, it was clear that a lot of his verse would benefit from a far wider canvas.
Weller’s poem, ‘In the Summer Months’, displayed a beautiful, pastoral innocence, its stanzas talking about “butterfly catching without nets”, and “boating on a lazy river”. A line about holding up hands “to see the sun and see through ourselves” was beautifully transcendental, hinting at the sort of psychedelic theme he was exploring in his music. ‘Icons’ would reveal the sort of suburban landscape he’d already explored in All Mod Cons and Setting Sons, while ‘Re-Birth’ would revisit the nostalgia of Wasteland and Tonight at Noon, its lines talking about “country lanes”, “glistening sunshine”, set against the “volatile world of yesterday”.
‘Ten Times Something Else’ was as close to an Adrian Henri poem as was possible. Chock full of analogising, the final verse detailing “like a Sussex, summer field, with tall wheat” set on a “country road, walking lonely but carefree” was redolent of the sort of bucolic landscape Weller enjoyed losing himself in. Other imagery such as “your face against the window of a passing train, bound for Waterloo” would appear drawn from his own musings from Woking station. The closing lines of ‘Ten Times Something Else’ would describe the protagonist reaching a crossroads that would chillingly read, “like something very empty”.
While he’d dedicate three pages of December’s Child to a rambling, monologue entitled ‘The Ode To The Girl In The Typing Pool’, he’d elevate his own writing to new realms with the poem ‘In The Land That Lies Between Us’, an extraordinary statement of his own standing in the universe.
The space in which I move. Calculated space that it is
The space in which we walk together
Uncalculated though it is.
It’s nevertheless a distance designed by ourselves
The limitations laid down with our own hands and thoughts.
Despite Weller’s celebrity, his poetry would find only a small audience. However, his literary prowess on record would be further confirmed by the release of The Jam’s November 1980 single, ‘Start’. Initially entitled ‘Two Minutes’, the lyrics were simplistic, economic and direct. Predictably, it would be Start’s sound that would cause most ripples, its close similarity to the Beatles’ Revolver track ‘Taxman’ dominating debate. Nonetheless, Beatle associations aside, ‘Start’ served to elevate the band out of the wall of sound they’d become most identifiable with. Weller’s current brief to be concise and direct, would be verbalised in ‘Start!’ Despite its minimal language, communication, especially through the medium of music, was a key component in Weller’s mindset at the time.
“Music is all fragmented and everything,” he’d tell the NME, “but it’s really exciting because it’s what happens when it’s all put together, the force that counts. It’s inspiring to think to think how much music there is and how much music can do – music can break through any barrier and reach all kinds of people, and there’s the challenge and that’s what makes it exciting.”
As was fast becoming a formality, ‘Start’s flipside was far more complex and enigmatic. While on Setting Sons Weller’s detached sensitivity had been largely sidelined in favour of more direct and bombastic lyrics, ‘Liza Radley’ would be a joyous immersion into a pastoral and ethereal world.
While Weller had talked of entering a demi-monde on ‘Fly’ from All Mod Cons, ‘Liza Radley’ was a deeper exploration of aloof romanticism. Detailing an outsider in a small town, the characterisation within the song is far clearer than Weller’s previous romantic muses. Furthermore, it asserted the sense of loneliness as empowering. With tales of being “not quite right” and unable to fit in within a “small town”, it could easily have been a Polaroid of the young Paul Weller roaming around Woking during the early 1970s. Nonetheless, with the protagonist kissing the face of the onlooker and declaring that “life means nothing at all”, it took the song off into a far more ethereal direction.
Given Weller’s broad reading matter at the time, he may well have come across Alfred Byron’s poem ‘She Walks In Beauty’ as a source of inspiration for ‘Liza Radley’.
She Walks in Beauty
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies
With a few intermittent dates, the relative break from The Jam’s schedule would allow Weller’s literary and political worldview to expand. Moving in a community of sharp and informed minds, he was being exposed to all manner of literature, films and music. Several books would begin to make a profound effect on his consciousness, both literary and politically. Paul Foot’s Red Shelley was one, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trouser Philanthropists another. The wider work of George Orwell would also invade his receptive mind, especially Homage To Catalonia, Keep the Aspidistra Flying and British-focused essays such as The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius.
The work of Alan Sillitoe was still clearly an influence, especially his peerless classic The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner. The book’s protagonist – the recalcitrant ‘Smith’ – would often verbalise the sort of landscape that was driving Weller.
“The character in Saturday Night, Sunday Morning,’ recalled Weller in 1979. “He knows that everything is going against him and he realises there is nothing you can do about it, but there’s obviously something inside him that says they’re never going to make me change and I’ll always think this way and that’s all you can do – and that’s pretty much how I feel.”
Another book that would fall into his orbit was Generation X.
Despite its rarity, Generation X, was a groundbreaking book from the early 1960s; its vox pop of voices displaying an unbridled honesty amongst the young that mirrored the thoughts and the 1980s generation. Weller clearly found favour with the poem ‘Message From An Asylum’, while a line from the book, “Some Nights I Just Sit And Rot In Coffee Bars”, would excite him enough to want to write a song around its vivid imagery.
Weller’s poetry library already congested with all manner of contemporary verse, he’d collide with many classical pieces that held a particular resonance with modern times. Poet and visionary William Blake was one. A trademark of his work was an unashamed love for Britain, a passion that Blake had seen masked by the forces of oppression. While renowned for the patriotism within ‘Jerusalem’, Blake’s revolutionary and spiritual texts were revered within literary and political circles, much of it informing the early manifesto of Socialism.
What is the price of Experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy
And in the wither’d field where the farmer ploughs for bread in vain
Less ethereal than Blake (but no less potent) would be the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley. While a Romantic on many levels, Shelley housed an alert, political and social worldview that set him worlds apart from his peers. Like George Orwell, Shelley was an old Etonian and was able to view the machinations of the ruling classes from behind Establishment doors. While prolific in many disciplines, Shelley’s most controversial work was ‘The Mask Of Anarchy’. Its stirring call to resistance (albeit via non-violent means) had held a strong continuum over the years, with many citing it as the greatest piece of political verse ever written. With Weller exploring all manner of revolutionary tracts, the poem connected with his views on resistance, and it became a dominant influence.
Men of England, heirs of Glory,
Heroes of unwritten story,
Nurslings of one mighty Mother,
Hopes of her, and one another,
‘Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to Earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few
“I tell you the stuff I really like is some of things I have read by Shelley and Blake,” said Weller during 1980. “They were always into that thing of stirring the people up; this emotional stirring. I like that a lot. It’s quite a romantic notion, possibly a bit naïve. But I think it’s really powerful.”
Elsewhere, Weller was devouring a mass of visual media. While years before DVD and internet films were freely available, by dint of living in London, he was able to catch profound pieces of theatre and cinema across London. Already a fan of the likes of Lindsay Anderson and Ken Loach, he’d reference other films from the 1960s. Poor Cow, Up The Junction, The Leather Boys and A Clockwork Orange were just some of many he’d claim were big influences on him.
The mass of profound influences pouring into Weller’s head at this point, he’d be able to further personalise his new material with what he was hearing, reading and experiencing. Still inhabiting the pages of teen magazines such as Smash Hits and Flexipop, it was clear that Weller was Pop’s most literate and incisive personality, light years away from the fickle and transient of the world of the industry he inhabited.
Sometimes the mass of information pouring into this fertile and yet sensitive mind would be too much. Even by 1980, he’d still be plagued by his overly receptive consciousness. “I did appear to be a bit deep,” he told Flexipop magazine in 1981. “I still am deep actually. I sometimes think about the whole world in one go – it drives me crazy sometimes.”
The Jam in the studio during the late-summer of 1980, Weller and co were in no mood to repeat the rush that had accelerated the completion of Setting Sons. With only had a handful of completed songs, much of the material was conjured up in the studio – a costly exercise, running up a bill that ultimately exceeded £120,000.
During sessions for the album, the group – very much in Pet Sounds territory – had spent hours working on many free-form instrumental and avant-garde pieces. A poem that had first seen light on Weller’s December’s Child fanzine would later be set to music and recorded during these sessions. Entitled ‘Pop Art Poem’, the track was a broad melange of sounds, underpinned by a driving bass and drums. While never officially released, it would surface on a flexi-disc via Flexipop magazine the following year.
Nonetheless, despite the time spent on the album, the band wanted to delay the album’s release beyond the Christmas 1980 release (a market Polydor records was desperate to exploit). For the album eventually called Sound Affects, Weller felt the need to simplify his lyrics, but equally, make his message more direct.
“The lyrics have been developing as well up to Setting Sons”, he told the NME in March 1980. “But now I want to make a departure from that style, just for this LP, really, just to try writing in a more simplified manner, and not have to be sort of concise. I mean, I don’t want to get all arty-farty and abstract but…. You get to the stage where you think you’ve got to make a statement all the time, and sometimes you don’t really want to.”
The production brief to be equally focused and stark, the album’s eleven songs redrew The Jam’s sound, elevating the band beyond the relatively parochial approach of their previous work. Mixing responses to love, capitalism and authoritarianism with deeper and profound insights into life, Sound Affects was beautifully measured.
The album’s opener, ‘Pretty Green’, a sharp treatise on the power of money, was initially a contender for the album’s lead single, and yet ‘Start!’ would ultimately win out. ‘Monday’ was a classic romantic Weller song, with beautiful lyrics backed with an equally haunting tune. While ‘But I’m Different Now’ would prove a more abrasive paean to romance, the following track ‘Set The House Ablaze’ would be drawn from far deeper and profound realms.
A song that had no previous resonance with Weller’s previous output, ‘Set The House Ablaze’ was a truly extraordinary piece of work. The metre of the lyrics barely contained by the framework of the song, it was a terse dispatch from the front of Weller’s fertile and alert mind. Momentarily, Weller’s muse had left the streets and tenements of forlorn Britain to enter into the psyche of humanity, questioning the nature of existence and purpose. Utilising the device of reportage, the song acts like a conversation where Weller acts as a guide. The story of a “mutual friend” who’d witnessed the transformation of a person into a fascist, the song went deep into how someone can be so easily perverted, both politically and emotionally.
Later, he’d state that he felt that humanity had lost its direction, its vision and its perception, and how that the goals of existence could so easily be corrupted by darker forces. Ultimately, it was Weller’s most profound and direct message to date. While his library of literature was expansive, several books clearly were inspirational for the song. While it’s possible that George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia provided the physical landscape, Aldous Huxley’s essay on spiritualism and purpose, The Doors of Perception was more pertinent to the soul of the track. However, as Weller would later admit, the main inspiration behind ‘Set The House Ablaze’ would be Geoffrey Ashe’s book Camelot And A Vision Of Albion.
Published in 1977, Ashe’s book was not a bestseller, nor something that was referenced freely other than in fairly erudite circles. Ashe, a noted authority on Arthurian history, had drawn a line with noted English poets and visionaries through the centuries who’d attempted to decode the human condition – a continuum that had been stemmed from King Arthur’s vision of Albion. Assessing the quandaries that beset humanity over the ages, Ashe concluded that humanity had lost sight of its goals and had had its perception obscured and distracted via political or material obstacles, as Ashe would conclude.
Somehow human beings must recapture the lost glory in themselves, must transcend their present state if they are to change the world.
Weller had come upon the book through the good services of his wide coterie of informed friends, and it clearly had a profound effect on him.
“The ideas behind the Sound Affects lyrics were influenced by Ashe’s book,” recalled Weller to the NME. “Which were we had lost sight of our goal as human beings, that material goals had hid the spiritual ones that had clouded our perception. There was also religious overtones. I suppose, on reflection, that the ideas are quite “heady” and “hippyish” but it was just a phase I was going through basically because of the books I was reading. Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley was another – because they were concerned with mysticism and raising the spiritual and intellectual level of people.”
With such heady ambitions, the music that underpinned it had to be similarly extraordinary. Musically, the song was terse and complex, and their most significant departure from their sound to date. All three players at the peak of their abilities, it was a masterful piece of work. Sequenced at track four of Sound Affects, it was an early climax to an album that would push the boundaries of not just The Jam, but the music of the period.
In the years following the release, an alternate take has since been released. The ending radically different to what was on the initial album, it would have taken the song into a completely new direction. Heavy with dub and ear-splitting sonics, it has strong echoes with much of the material found on the Gang Of Four’s first album Entertainment. Much like what was on offer on Sound Affects, the band radically mixed the stark landscape of Joy Division and Public Image Ltd with a strong political ethos. In interviews of the time, it is clear that Weller was heavily inspired by Andy Gill’s abrasive and terse guitar playing, and was equally moved by the band fusing a dub sensibility into a post-punk framework.
Further gems would occur in the collection. ‘That’s Entertainment’ would be another radical departure. Full of Weller’s observations, the form of the poem would be liberally inspired by a poem sent to “Riot Stories” publishing collective, similarly entitled ‘That’s Entertainment’. The writer, one Paul Drew, had submitted the poem for publication in December’s Child. In among the mass of material that was wending its way into Weller and Waller’s in – tray, the title stuck with Weller, and after asking permission to rework the theme and title into the song, it became his and The Jam’s own.
While having none of the more identifiable objects in Weller’s take, its metre has more than a ring to Drew’s original, as evidenced by this excerpt.
A dead body on the hour,” one, six nine or ten – that’s entertainment
A rape before the Horlicks, a simulated Orgasm before the Bovril,
NOTHING IS FUNNY ANYMORE.
Mixing everyday moments, both profound and trivial, clearly found favour with Weller, although his targets and observations were far more identifiable than Drew’s slightly free-range musings. With the tune completed after a night in the pub in his tiny Pimlico flat (reportedly “freezing” and with “damp on the walls”) Weller had created one of his most identifiable pieces of work – ironic as it sat outside of anything he’d done before. The songs later release as a single (on import) enshrined its anthemic status within the fan base – who royally soaked up the sentiments embodied in the song.
While never earmarked by the band as a single in the UK, demand for a German release ensured that the song would enter the British charts on import – a feat only matched by The Beatles in their heyday.
‘Dreamtime’ was another dispatch from the world that Weller had already glimpsed at in ‘In the Crowd’ and ‘Private Hell’. Far more detached and ethereal in approach, the song (originally called ‘Supermarkets’) was beautifully matched within Sound Affects – the observation regarding love and hate found “in frozen” packs all part of the duality of existence.
‘Dreamtime’s introduction was a beautiful melange of backwards guitars and other ethereal elements, giving more than a hint that the album owed an enormous debt to Psychedelia. While its sound was evidently in the 1960s, the lyrics were clearly drawn from the immediacy of 1980.
Delving further into the fabric and functions of society, ‘Man In The Corner Shop’ tackled class role assignations against the hypocrisy of so-called religious egalitarianism. Again manoeuvring skillfully within the perimeters of a three-minute song, Weller took yet another Polaroid of the sort of landscape that was familiar to millions.
“It keeps coming back to the man in the corner shop,” Weller recalled to Daniel Rachel in 2012. “The person underneath who’s jealous because he thinks he’s making all the money, but the man in the corner shop’s struggling and the boss in the factory also gets his cigarettes from the corner shop. So it becomes a central focus people come back to, but then they’re all equal in the eyes of the Lord, the church.”
The album’s nadir was the largely instrumental, ‘Music for the Last Couple’, at best probably far too ambitious to be anything more than an interlude for the more profound subjects on offer. ‘Boy About Town’ was a harmonious romp within the pop framework, and while embodying nothing lyrically heavy, the song would prove to be a live favourite. The album’s closer ‘Scrape Away’ had echoes with ‘Set The House Ablaze’ in terms of sound, and it unnervingly chips away at the sort of cynicism that was polluting the music scene at the time. Not a momentous ending perhaps, but it didn’t detract one iota from the most profound collection The Jam had made at that point. If ever a point needed to be made, at the time of the album’s release Paul Weller was just 22.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is an exclusive extract from In Echoed Steps: The Jam And A Vision Of Albion, to be published in May 2017. Artwork is by Paul Skellett and photographs from the estate of Derek D’Souza.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, March 13th, 2017.