It’s been 30 years since The Jam departed, leaving this gift as their final album. Paul Weller went onto make music for lads in polo shirts who hang out in snooker halls and suffer from vitamin d deficiency, and influence a generation of blinding dull homage acts as the Modfather, all somehow missing what may have been the salient point all along, that when they rip off Weller, they’re doing a facsimile of a facsimile. By the time The Gift came out, a mere five years on from their debut, The Jam, and indeed the musical cosmos, were much changed. The agitated aggression and local politics of their early singles was replaced by a soulful swagger, and phalanx of trumpets. Weller was now a songwriter bored with a mere three chords. Although lyrically he retained much of his sardonic disdain for everyday life, it seems to have been tempered by sympathy for the plight of the little people, trapped in their little lives. Much of The Gift, and the associated tracks gathered together here on this compilation, play out like kitchen sink dramas, narratives built around the lives of the ordinary.
While bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler are as insistent as ever, zipping about with that barely contained aggression, the addition of many horn sections, organs and other sundries dilutes the overall power. The steel drum of ‘The Planner’s Dream Went Wrong’ is all wrong, where as the instrumental ‘Circus’ adds nothing to proceedings. The singles (‘Precious’, ‘Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero?’, ‘A Town Called Malice’) are all great, of course, but that does nothing to dispel the notion that the Jam were a terrific singles band, if you had that notion.
Deluxe editions, all the rage these days, need padding, and this is, of course, no exception. Although the 1,467 extras are all given credence by the simple inclusion of ‘Beat Surrender’, The Jam’s last, and best, single. Yet that track, for all its finery, can’t detract from the horror that is the version of Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’, or the humdrumity of their cover of Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ or Edwin Starr’s ‘War’. Among the superfluous filler, tracks that failed to make the cut the first time around and a 12” version of ‘Precious’, there’s ‘Shopping’, a twee electric folk number, complete with a flute solo, and a song called ‘Stoned Out of My Mind’, sort of reggae-lite, sung in falsetto. It’s dire. There’s a smattering of demos, some with the full band. ‘Skirt’, the song that would become ‘Absolute Beginners’ is rough, the horns replaced by synth. There’s also a hornless version of 5 O’clock Hero. As an insight into the writing and recording process, it’s more interesting than reductive cover versions, although a steel-drum less sketch of the already poor ‘The Planner’s Dream’ is still pretty awful.
As a valediction, The Gift is an uneven affair. The pounding snare and high ended attack of the bass may have been an attempt by the rhythm section to reign in Weller’s desire to go all MOR, and ditch the punk ethos upon which the band were built. Of course, by ‘82 no one was doing punk any more, not like they did in the old days, but Weller’s vision was clearly focussed on a Northern Soul bent. Apparently this deviation from their roots led to the internal tensions that tore the Jam asunder, but one imagines, listening to this, that Weller would have gone on his own way anyway, in order to make the kind of music he subsequently made.
Buckler and Foxton weren’t ever going to play along with ‘You’re The Best Thing’, were they? Slick-haired easy listening for braces-snapping Thatcherites in pin striped suits. Without the two angry haircuts in the background, furiously pounding away like it was ’77, Weller lost the edge, the very edge that is The Gift’s saving grace. In the Style Council, Mick Talbot’s wasn’t going to push him to the same extent. Mick, who once tickled ivories in Dexy’s, a band with real Northern Soul chops, always seemed happy to sit there and let Weller wallow in his own self regard, like some hapless serf plucked from herding goats to help with a crusade to discover the middle of the road clad only in a dodgy pullover.
Ultimately with an album so influenced it’s hard to know now whether or not The Gift has been itself influential. The Jam were a perfect storm of ability and circumstance, back in the day, and while Weller’s song writing skills have long been lauded, the other two brought much to the table. In much the same way as the Smiths wouldn’t have been half as good with the funk-punk backing of Rourke and Joyce, The Jam were saved from mediocrity on many occasions by the twitchy dynamism the bass and drums brought to the table. The Gift doesn’t represent The Jam’s best work, but it’s still more urgent than anything Weller’s done since.