When The Jam first came around I didn’t fully get it. I got into them a little later in life.
Coming from a suburban Queens, New York rock background, I guess the early punk bands that I got into were the Ramones and The Clash – they were like my Beatles and Stones. But by the time I discovered them they were already trying to have hits and change their format. The Clash were getting funky and the Ramones were trying to be power pop. It was a weird time.
Pre-hardcore, I went to CBGB’s for an audition with my band but they told us that we missed it, that it was over, and we should try something new. We were 12 and they told us, “Try something new, like rockabilly or New Romantic.” What, dress up like a pirate? I don’t think so.
But I walked down Avenue A and saw flyers for bands like The Stimulators and Bad Brains, and I realised that some people were still doing raw music. Then I heard about Black Flag and Dead Kennedys out west, and that led me to my band Heart Attack, which I did until I was 16. We did three records and the last one [Subliminal Seduction, 1984] came out over here on a label called Rat Cage, which was the label that Agnostic Front and Beastie Boys were on.
Soon after that, I felt like the whole scene became too conformist and everything that it was against, and the spirit became very macho and heavy metal. That’s when I dropped out and started to look for other music, like Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska.
It was around that time that I started to listen to The Jam, even though they had just broken up. I was drinking in a bar called Downtown Beirut when I first heard Going Underground and That’s Entertainment, and I went out and bought all their records.
They really got me interested in writing music that was outside of the hardcore thing. Weller had so much to say on the system and society, and class and individualism and general oppression, but the music was also really stylish and tight, and soulful and melodic.
My favourite period would be the mid-period, from All Mod Cons through to Sound Affects. I love The Gift, but I feel it’s the other side of the mountain, and I think the first two records are great but they’re really just ramping up for those three in the middle: All Mod Cons, Setting Sons and Sound Affects.
I’m going to talk about my top 11 songs – that I picked on the train ride from Manchester to London – and I’m going to see if I can remember them without looking at my list. Here goes…
WASTELAND (Settings Sons, 1979)
Setting Sons was the first album by The Jam that I really got into, and to me this song was the perfect closer to the first side of the record. It’s about wanting the solitude of a place to go and meet somebody or walk around, but that place turning into a disgusting wasteland of what people throw away and pollute the earth with. It’s about the impermanence of life, and how somebody’s beautiful smile might not be there the next day – you might have to hold on to a memory to keep it in your mind. There’s a picturesque, dream-like quality to this song even though it’s set in the debris of a fucked up place, and I think that’s a great statement on the world, and how there’s beauty in garbage sometimes. Glitter in the gutter, man.
MAN IN THE CORNER SHOP (Sound Affects, 1980)
This song has a great rainy day sound to it, the way the drums just roll in. As a kid, I’d see these guys that were lifers, and they just worked away in these shops their entire lives. These people weren’t into music or movies or art or anything like that, they just worked and worked, and whenever I hear this song I think of the faces I’d see on those guys every morning when I went to get my coffee and a newspaper. It’s about being stuck in the class system and how hard it is to break out of that, and as much as they could write cinematic and romantic songs, there was always a consciousness to The Jam that spoke to me on a political level as well. This song is a reminder to do something with your life, because if you don’t listen to your heart then you’re going to end up some ugly angry fuck stuck in a shop.
BOY ABOUT TOWN (Sound Affects, 1980)
This is a just a fun pop song. The band sound great, and Paul knows how to write those cool songs that celebrate being young, sneaking around the city at night and getting into trouble. The excitement of this songs reminds me of being 17 and running around my city of Manhattan, having my night of fun no matter what anybody said at home.
STRANGE TOWN (Single, 1979)
I love being a stranger in towns. I love travelling and walking around, that’s how I get ideas for songs. I never go to A-Z guidebooks or the iPhone. I like to walk and let things happen. Sometimes you go into a bar and you learn more about that town than going anywhere else. People really tell you the truth in those dark cathedrals called pubs. This is a song about being an outsider, and being a musician that tours the world I can really relate to that. It’s got a great guitar solo too, and I love all the chanting at the end where they shout, ‘Break it up, break it up!’
DOWN IN THE TUBE STATION AT MIDNIGHT (All Mod Cons, 1978)
This is another very cinematic song, with a great bass line as the story unfolds. The line that always got me as a kid was, ‘Cos they took the keys – and she’ll think it’s me.’ It’s a song about a guy that gets attacked on his way home from the pub, and I saw a lot of that pack mentality when I growing up in New York; I got singled out and chased at times for looking different. The lyrics about this guy lying on the floor because he’s all beaten up, watching all this bullshit consumerist stuff go past him are so evocative, and that line about the keys always fucked me up. Weller really knows how to write those big choruses, too.
CARNATION (The Gift, 1982)
I love the production on this song and the way the drums roll in. I love the piano, too. It’s another great angry song with a pretty melody, and I can relate to it because I’ve had a lot of trouble with relationships in the past. I believe in love and romance, but I tend to fuck things up, and this is kind of an anthem and a warning for new love. It’s a cynical, but it’s truthful as well, and I like how dark this song is.
THAT’S ENTERTAINMENT (Sound Affects, 1980)
This is a very cinematic song with lots of flashing images: ‘Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes’, ‘An electric train and a ripped up phone book’… It just goes by like a movie of life. It’s got great acoustic guitars too – real folky, Beatles-esque stuff – and it’s a song that I’ll never tire of hearing. It’s a haunting masterpiece.
GOING UNDERGROUND (Single, 1980)
This song was always on the jukebox in Downtown Beirut, and the sound of it with the stabs and the modulation at the end was always so powerful to me. At that point I still believed in the underground as well. Now we live in a mainstream, computer generated, gentrified globe, but I guess there’s still pockets where you can get into trouble and I enjoy visiting those sneaky spots. This was a song about music being a new movement, and something that couldn’t be stopped. The Jam were always aware of youth and excitement and I love the line, ‘Well, let the brass bands play and feet start to pound’ which almost reminds me of Eve of Destruction by Barry McGuire.
THE PLACE I LOVE (All Mod Cons, 1978)
There’s a great line in this song about ‘only animals that love’, and it’s all about yearning for something outside of your world that you dream of or read about in a book or a poem, and striving to find that place of peace and serenity. I think we all kind of look for that at certain times in our life, and that’s what this song says to me. It has a great sad but celebratory melody as well.
TOWN CALLED MALICE (The Gift, 1982)
Number two would be the big hit, Town Called Malice, but I guess this is in no particular order. There’s a saying, ‘Good ones copy and great ones steal’, which I put in one of my songs. Weller just grabs it and puts it right in your face and doesn’t disguise it, like this bass line from The Supremes. There’s that great line in the bridge that always stood out to me, ‘To either cut down on beer or the kid’s new gear / It’s a big decision in a town called Malice’. Even though I grew up in the States and that was written about an English town, I can relate to that town. I’ve been to that town all over America many times – too many times, in fact. It’s just a great dance song as well, and I always like songs that can disguise a message in a poppy ditty, but be really fucking angry and pointed, and Weller’s great at that.
BURNING SKY (Settings Sons, 1979)
This was one of the first songs that I heard by The Jam, and I used to listen to it whilst reading the lyric sheet from Setting Sons. I could really relate to it because I’d just left high school and I thought I was this big adult, and I was reminiscing about someone that I grew up with that had punk rock values like mine, but suddenly had to sell out to the mainstream and cash in and get a regular job. I thought it was really cool how you could write a song that was like a letter too, and the way it opens that side of the record is great. ‘How are things in your little world?’ It was right there, and it really paints a picture of what a lot of my friends started to do after they got out of music and started to fade into mainstream society. There’s an anger and a sadness to it, but it’s a very catchy song with great drums and a great bass line, and the burning sky is a great metaphor as well. So that would be number one!
Listen to Jesse’s playlist on Spotify.
Jesse Malin’s new album Outsiders is out now, via One Little Indian. He was talking to Matt Stocks.