The Jam

‘ANYONE FOR THE PAUL WELLER HEADBANDS ?’

‘Anyone for the Paul Weller headbands ?’ was an in-joke that often popped the air at the twin desks in RTÉ Cork that once constituted the No Disco production office. I heard this question put one night by a hawker outside The City Hall in Cork and, juveniles that we were, would deflect to it whenever we felt harassed by pluggers, chuggers, colleagues and life itself. The thought of anyone in a Paul Weller headband was so preposterous that it could dilute any situation. 

But there’s always a side-story. One of the more memorable inserts aired during the first season of the No Disco music television series in 1993/94 was an interview with Weller, the former Jam and Style Council frontman and song-writer who’d roared back to life with a couple of cracking solo elpees. I don’t recall that exchange as particularly revelatory or ground-breaking but it certainly struck a chord because, at the time, Paul wasn’t doing a lot of media. Just to get him in front of a camera was the first achievement and anything after that was a bonus.

The success of Paul’s first, self-titled solo album had confounded many seasoned industry-watchers. Difficult to credit it now given the career he’s enjoyed since but, after the demise of The Style Council in 1989, and still in his early-30s, Weller was thought by many to be a beaten docket. Little wonder that, in the spring of 1994, he had the music weeklies in his cross-hairs.

Paul was on the road with a terrific live band touring a second solo album, ‘Wild Wood’, into which Donal Dineen – the No Disco chairman – and myself had fallen head-first. Enthusiastic students of all points from Traffic and Van Morrison to Nick Drake and Neil Young, we were smitten by the pastoral vibes that sprinkled it, and played some of its key cuts from to a thread on the series. 

Like many contemporary male novelists, I too have parked a series of pivotal Top of the Pops memories, among which The Jam – Weller’s first group – blasting through ‘Going Underground’ in the BBC Studios one Thursday night, is among the most enduring. The spiky three-piece he led from 1973 to 1982, is easily among the finest British bands in popular music history. Indeed, alongside The Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Buzzcocks, The Smiths and New Order, I mark The Jam as one of the best post-Beatles British singles bands of all time. Channelling my inner and outer, Alan Partridge, the double album best-of, ‘Snap’, should be in every self-respecting music collection. It was certainly very prominent in mine and, once I’d played it to a crisp and devoured the sleeve notes, I worked my way backwards into the mighty Jam albums that under-pinned it, ‘Setting Sons’, ‘All Mod Cons’ and ‘Sound Effects’ especially.  

[As an aside, The Jam regularly surface on lists of the best and most influential three-piece groups of the last sixty years. It was maybe pre-determined, therefore, that, years later, Weller found himself sharing a label with my own all-time favourite three-piece, The Frank and Walters].

It was because of Paul Weller that I went full septic and re-shaped my bowl-cut, wearing my do for several years like he does on the front of ‘Snap’, with a canyon-wide centre-parting lashed into shape using two combs. The centre-parting was a popular look for feens in Cork during the 70s and 80s: in most instances more a spotty face look than a Small Faces one. 

I had to explain this to the progressive, denim-doused rockers in another-worldly barbershop on Paul Street called ‘Heads Only’, where I’d started to go as soon as I was allowed to have my hair cut without parental supervision. ‘Heads Only’ was sound-tracked by the double-album indulgences of Pink Floyd and Genesis, the walls lined with Roger Dean pastiches and the ceiling splattered with painted-on planets and stars. Had I asked them for a Roger Waters or a Steve Howe look, it’s unlikely I’d have had to go into such detail.   

In much the same stylistic vein, an influential Irish promoter, Pat Egan, opened a couple of record shops in Cork during the late 1970s and I was a regular nuisance around the bargain bins inside Rainbow Records, at the top of Patrick Street, next to The Swan and Cygnet pub. Pat didn’t just deal in vinyl and wax: Rainbow’s narrow body was lined with groovy badges, tee-shirts and life-sized posters of young wans who were so eager to get out onto the tennis courts that they neglected to pull on their drawers. Every week the staff would take a print-out of the week’s Top Forty singles and albums from Music Week magazine and sellotape it onto the counter. Many’s the hour I idled away in there poring over the detail, noting the names of the various bands, writers, producers and record labels listed on those charts. It was on that counter that I first encountered the name Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, The Jam’s long-time producer who, I later learned, and to no little disappointment, had actually been working with the band for years using his real name, Vic Smith.

I bought my first ever record – ‘Shine A Little Love’ by Electric Light Orchestra – in Rainbow Records and, just as importantly, my first ever skinny-tie, on which The Who’s logo was printed half way down. I’d only ever heard one of their songs, ‘My Generation’, but read that Weller regarded them highly. I wore that tie proudly for several years thereafter and, much later, decided to finally investigate The Who more fully. I thought they were average. 

 I was in from the get-go with Weller’s next operation, The Style Council, who were a poppier, bulkier and marvellously grandiose concern. I gathered up as much of their material as I could – and there was an awful lot of it, some even sung in French – and lost myself in the over-blown sleeve notes and the magnificent packaging, marvelling again at how and where popular music might take a fella. A year previously, The Jam were documenting the daily soap opera of life for suburban Britain’s working classes: months later, Weller was lounging, bare-chested, on a gondola, his unkempt mop-top now swept back and creamed-up. The video clip for the band’s third single, ‘Long Hot Summer’, was a study in homo-erotica, had any of us been clued in enough to appreciate it. 

Apart entirely from the music, The Style Council personified what  some of us were aspiring to from our desolate perches in Blackpool and Saint Mary’s Road. They were pretentious, engaged, politically in tune and sharp, and Weller was magnificently turned out. On the band’s inconsistent debut album, ‘Café Bleu’ and, later, on the mighty ‘Our Favourite Shop’ – which came in the most affected sleeve I’d seen – they were both outside the curve and firmly in the moment. On one level, they were the antithesis to my other favourite bands of the period – The Smiths, Prefab Sprout and R.E.M. – all of whom traded more in substance than sass and looked like they were togged out in dead navvies’ gear. 

The Style Council aspired to look good in order to play good but were an important musical counterpoint too: they dabbled freely and with more abandon than most, often with woejesus results. But they opened the door for us also to stuff that might otherwise have been lost in a welter of jangly guitars. 

I loved ‘Money Go ‘Round’ for all its clumsiness and, despite its student thesis, even ‘Soul Deep’ – released as The Council Collective – with its funky synths, percussion and shared soul vocals. ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ even began with the line ‘You don’t have to take this crap’ which, as opening gambits go, is certainly on the braver side: I just found it impossible to take issue with them. And, in one key respect, how could I have ? All that had really changed was the wrapping and much of that early Style Council material wasn’t too far removed from where The Jam had left off. From ‘The Bitterest Pill’ and ‘Beat Surrender’ to ‘Speak Like A Child’ is no distance at all, really, and that beefed-up sound had been a feature of The Jam’s lengthy last tour, where the three-piece core was augmented by brass, keyboards and backing vocals. 

The Style Council took off at a ferocious gallop altogether; Weller sounded like he was in a real hurry and it’s been regularly argued – not least of all by our hero – that he just felt increasingly restricted by the limits of the three-piece, guitar-led line-up. No harm reminding ourselves here that, when he announced he was breaking up The Jam, Paul was twenty-four years old.

After a sterling five years, The Style Council just ran out of puff. I will, if pushed, make a case for the band’s third album, ‘The Cost of Loving’, the weakest of its five elpees, even if it certainly sounds like the work of tired hands. Failing to crack the Top Ten with a fourth album, ‘Confessions of a Pop Group’ – a rare occurrence during what had been, by any standards, a spectacular and prodigious fifteen years – the band was dropped by it’s label and the main man disappeared for air off-Broadway. Weller had started the 1980s with The Jam’s terrific ‘Setting Sons’ album in the British Top Ten and ended the decade without a record deal for the first time in his adult life.

Once a regular cover-star across all of the different weekly music magazines, there was a spell during the early 1990s when Weller’s appearances in the inkies were confined to small box ads in the listings sections towards the back of Melody Maker and New Music Express. Those low-key classifieds were promoting new solo material, like the singles ‘Uh Huh, Oh Yeah’ and ‘Into Tomorrow’, which were available on his own label, Freedom High Records, the name of which told its own story. The success of the first solo album that followed saw him quickly back in harness at Go Discs, the label founded and run by Andy MacDonald that, at the time, boasted a small but spectacular roster. On which resided The Las, The Beautiful South, Billy Bragg, Beats International, The Stairs, Portishead, Trashcan Sinatras and also one of our own: The Franks.  

‘Wild Wood’ was produced by Paul with Brendan Lynch and picked up where the first solo elpee left off: two of the central themes are the natural world and Paul’s reflections on his own writing. The politics and campaigning, which had routinely deflected away from the music and perhaps even de-railed The Style Council a bit, were gone: pared back and spacious, the politics on those early solo albums are purely personal. ‘Wild Wood’ was released during the first urgings of what would becoming a defining British music movement led by Blur, Oasis and Pulp, and repeated an old trick of Paul’s: he was distinctly outside the curve and still central to the moment. 

As part of the tour to promote that album, Weller played a live show at The City Hall in Cork on Sunday, February 27th, 1994. I was there, lost in the spread of velvet bleachers up in the balcony during the late afternoon while the formidable band, featuring Yolanda Charles, Steve White, Helen Turner and Steve Craddock, went through it’s sound-check. After which Paul joined us on a small, pre-lit perch where we’d set up our gear, accompanied by a couple of record company handlers and the formidable presence of his father, John, his career-long manager, replete in a fashionable polo shirt and leather jacket. Despite the heads-up I’d been given, he talked freely and at length about his music, politics and creative freedom. About fifteen seconds into his first answer he brought up Red Wedge, socialism, the British left and the value of protest songs. We could have gone on talking all night and he needed little or no prompting: he was terrific company.  

The cameraman on that shoot, and on many of the other first No Disco set-pieces, was Joe McCarthy, one of the real greats – and earliest innovators – of Irish film and television. Among his many other talents, Joe was an award-winning director, a fine technician and an outstanding story-teller. He recognised John Weller’s name – and then his face – having seen him box at amateur level for England during the 1950s, and the pair of them were off.

As we wrapped up the interview, and Paul was shuffled away and out of the venue, Joe and Paul Weller’s old man were still locked into a fervent conversation about an amateur bout somewhere from years earlier. I can’t remember a single note of Weller’s show later that night but I can recall the important things. 

NEW ORDER IN IRELAND

peace together

Picture courtesy of Pat O’Mahony

 

A few of us, caught in Nick Hornby’s slipstream, would while the time away drawing up lists of our own favourite music, making tapes and throwing shapes. It was harmless enough stuff, portable pub-games to backdrop those empty afternoons, decades ago, in O’Neills on Pearse Street and the balmy, mad nights everywhere else. But it was out of those sessions that we resolutely determined that the best, most consistent British singles bands of our generation were, in no real order ;- Buzzcocks, The Smiths, New Order, The Jam, Madness and The Pet Shop Boys. In the same way that all self-respecting football fans knew that Arsenal enjoyed the longest run in the top flight of English football without being relegated, or that Notts County were the oldest professional football club in the world, the names of the masters of the shorter form were instantly to hand whenever the great singles came up for discussion.

 

When it came to the not insignificant matters of Joy Division and New Order, my late friend, Philip Kennedy was, as usual, quickly out of the traps. Years earlier, he’d taken a punt on the ground-breaking singles, ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘Confusion’ and, thereafter, canvassed vigorously on behalf of both bands. A few hundred yards down Redemption Road and right down the hill at Seminary Road, another neighbour of mine, Paul Daly, introduced me to ‘Ceremony’, which he’d brought home from London and which he too shared freely, proselytising. I adored it from the off and, even now, find it easier to take than the Arthur Baker/New York infused material, marvellous and all as it is. In school, a handful of us would marvel at the Peter Saville-designed art-work and, with set-squares and protractors that we had yet to de-commission, would work up imaginary designs for our make-believe bands on the back of Buntús Bitheolaíocht.

 

 

Paul Daly, who was a few years older than me and a couple of classes ahead of me in every respect, was among those who fetched up at New Order’s show at The Savoy in Cork in April, 1983 and, with his Walkman stuffed inside his belt-line, recorded the night’s events, as he’d often do at venues all over the city. On the evidence of his tape which, quickly thereafter, went through the hands of the alickadoos, it was a freakishly bad show for everyone concerned, the band stop-starting it’s way through a shambolic set as the crowd grew more impatient and rowdier. And, in respect of many of New Order’s earliest shows in Ireland, this pattern seems to have repeated itself routinely.

 

New Order were back in Cork again in January, 1986, this time at Connolly Hall, and they were just as disappointing. From my usual sport to the left of the sound desk, I found their inability to trigger the loops and tapes which, even then, scaffolded a serious spread of their sound, just ridiculous. On record, New Order were far removed from the tuneless, joyless d-i-y set and yet, on the live stage, were just as patchy as the worst of them. And from what I can remember, the band also lost themselves in a petty stand-off with some of the local gobdaws, one of whom threw what could have been a bottle or a glass towards the stage. Unlike The Smiths, who walked off in The Savoy a couple of years previously after similar eejitry from the front rows, New Order at least hung around to complete their set, patchy as it was.

 

But on record, they were a far more formidable force, a sparklesome outfit capable of real invention and no little magic and we gorged for ages on ‘Movement’, ‘Power, Corruption and Lies’ and ‘Low Life’. And the more that New Order developed their sound – and, I guess, the more technically proficient they became in so doing – the more they cemented their hand-prints in our gallery of favourites. And to this day, one of the most set-upon records in my collection is ‘New Order – Singles’ ;- side one, especially, is a mighty, almost perfect fifteen-track beast, from ‘Ceremony’ to ‘Touched By The Hand Of God’.

 

New Order hadn’t played live for several years when, surprisingly, they were named as one of several top-line acts due to perform at an ambitious, three-pronged live event planned for May, 1993, in support of an All-Ireland charity called Peace Together. Founded a year earlier and co-ordinated, in the spirit of Live Aid, by Stiff Little Fingers’ bassist Ali McMordie and Robert Hamilton, the drummer with The Fat Lady Sings, Peace Together was a curious, if undoubtedly well-intentioned project, a charitable trust ‘dedicated to the promotion of reconciliation between the people of Northern Ireland through music’. During a period in the long-running peace talks process that was ripe with optimism for a genuine breakthrough , the charity planned three, large-scale concerts that would go live simultaneously in Dublin, Belfast and London, billed as ‘1 day 2 help 3 cities 4 Peace’. Among the others originally confirmed to take part were Sinéad O’Connor, Peter Gabriel, Del Amitri, The Orb and a slew of notables ;- BBC Radio One was even planning to take live coverage of the Belfast leg, such was the scale and extent of the line-up.

 

But as with many such events, the theory and the practice soon collided head-on. The Belfast concert was cancelled at short notice after the hotel in which all of acts, including headliner Peter Gabriel, were billeted, was bombed. The scheduled London show had already fallen, apathy and general indifference the reasons cited by the organisers. Indeed the Dublin show too looked, for a while, as if it too wasn’t going to fly. Sinéad O’Connor was a late – and controversial – withdrawal and, for all of Hamilton and McMordie’s good intentions and impressive connections, the show, which took place weeks later than first announced, was a hard sell. So that when the event’s compere, Pat O’Mahony, formally opened proceedings in The Point Theatre on Saturday evening, June 5th, 1993, the revised line-up looked as if it had been scrambled together randomly and not even the presence of New Order half-way up the bill was enough to stem the bleed. The vast hall was half-empty on the night and the air had long been sucked from Peace Together ;- the eventual cast, featuring the likes of The Stunning and Liam Ó’Maónlaoí, could have been lifted directly from the previous year’s People In Need Telethon.

 

A couple of months previously, Suede had released their magnificent first album and, four weeks before the Peace Together show in Dublin, another Manchester band, Oasis, signed to Creation Records. New Order had just issued it’s first album of the 1990’s, ‘Republic’ and, four years since ‘Technique’, the ground had moved and the goal-posts had been moved. And so it was against this back-drop that I walked the quay down to Peace Together to renew acquaintances with them ;- New Order, as always, appeared to be utterly out of synch with the sound of the underground. And although I was greatly unconvinced by Peace Together and absolutely confused about it’s outright ambition, I really wanted the Dublin show to work.

 

I’d long tried to advance the cause of The Fat Lady Sings, the fine Dublin pop group I first saw play to a loose handful in The Buckingham in Cork years earlier ;- I’ve written previously about that show as part of a much longer piece on Cork’s venues, and that’s available here. I’d briefly met Robert Hamilton at a couple of their early shows ;- one of his off-stage tasks was to collect names and contacts after gigs for the band’s mailing list and I found him gracious, decent and generous with his time. A good scout. And it was easy to see exactly how himself and McBrodie attracted such high-profile names to the Peace Together project even if, from early, I suspected they may both have been in over their heads in respect of the live shows. And even though the charity’s legacy also included a small, community-focused recording studio in Belfast and a compilation album of suitably targeted cover versions by the likes of U2, Therapy, My Bloody Valentine, Therapy? and The Fatima Mansions, my concerns for the concerts proved to be well-founded.

 

My review of New Order’s performance, re-printed below, was originally published in the issue of Melody Maker magazine dated June 19th, 1993. Donal Murphy, a terrific photographer from Charleville, in North Cork and a central cog in the DropOut magazine machine, took a terrific snap of Peter Hook’s crotch to accompany the piece and went to almighty lengths to get the stills across to London over-night to make the production dead-line. It really was another world then.

 

thumbnail_peacetogether

Picture courtesy of Daniel Harrison

NEW ORDER,

PEACE TOGETHER, POINT THEATRE,

DUBLIN

 

They couldn’t really have picked something and somewhere more auspicious. It’s been four years and here are New Order, one of pop’s most wonderful treasures, sandwiched on this peace show thing that has long since become a complete irrelevance. They’re up there on a line-up that’s so weak that most of it, I imagine, is later helped from the stage into a fleet of waiting wheelchairs.

 

There are lots of very apparent spaces in this vast railway hall ; the peace connection and a town filled with apathy have quite obviously thrown everyone. A quick vox-pop in the foyer tell us that the kids, almost one year on, know nothing about Peace Together, it’s origins, it’s intentions and it’s background. Fewer still actually care any.

 

So it’s with some half-relief then that, after what seems like an age, New Order finally ramble on. And they’re completely dreadful, basically. But then again, who can really blame them ?

 

They haven’t played for years, they’re doing this, quite obviously, out of necessity and they’ve stood on the touchlines and watched this peace shambles fall into splinters around their very feet. It’s when Bernard asks, ‘Is there anyone here from Dublin ?’ and he’s hit back with ‘Manchester, tra-la-la’ that it finally dawns on us how failed this whole thing has been. Up front there are, perhaps, 500 hard Manchester lads, lots of United’s rather unseemly blue and black away shirt and loads of that silly bag-fashion we’d all thought had actually died with The Farm. We obviously thought wrong. The locals have stayed well clear of this and that’s for sure.

 

It nearly falls apart for New Order right at the start. Barely into ‘Regret’ and all of the tapes and machines and sequenced techno stuff go loopy for some seconds. Bernard stumbles, the band look all around them and they just about hang on for life. That was the portent. New Order, like the rest of us, never ever got into this at all.

 

For a start, all of that rambling stuff from ‘Brotherhood’ sounds as mundane and awkward now as it did then, and the band are making some curious choices. At least they do the quite alluring ‘World’, with it’s compelling little choruses, but despite Hook’s clenched fists and his desperate impatience to get anywhere near the front, New Order quite clearly don’t want to be here.

 

There’s some manner of clarity and half-baked grace in the middle when they do ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ and ‘True Faith’ back-to-back, with Hook flailing like a tulip in a gust. This is very much his show, but then you all knew that anyway. He still for all of the best cock-rock poses and at least has the good sense to treat this as nothing more than the piss-laugh it’s long since become.

 

Gillian hands us a snigger when she straps on a guitar and poses for four minutes without ever touching it. A surreal moment among many, that. And then Bernard stops to apologise for such a short stay telling us the band hasn’t really had the time to rehearse, but we smelt than an hour ago. After they encore ‘Blue Monday’, Bernard walks off in a different direction to everyone else, knowing in his heart that this was one great waste of time and space. He’s not alone. And I keep thinking about The Pet Shop Boys, for some reason.

 

Later, as Peace Together falls even flatter on it’s arse, New Order become some very distant memory. They may indeed be one of our finest singles bands ever, a curious pop-pearl among swine, but tonight they had as much presence as a string of abandoned and burnt-out cars. This should have been an evening to treasure, something to talk about tomorrow, something to swap notes on, to from which to eek out the bootlegs. It wasn’t.

Forgettable seems like too soft an adjective.