Home late. Top of the Pops on the TV in the front room. Amid the dross and the odd pearl, there was the swaggering, the sharp but above all, our band, my band, the band, The Jam, and this week of all weeks they’d made the top ten with the Eton Rifles. I knew of course. 35 years on I’d known for a very long time, but back in 1979 this was it, the breakthrough. They’d made it into the top ten after eight previous singles had had got to various positions in the top forty despite being better than 99% of the dross that was being churned out. These were dark, dark days; punk might have happened in '77 but there were a lot of musical zombies walking the scorched musical earth. More than anything else, the charts mattered, 'your' band mattered.
I turned 17 in the summer of 1979. In the September I headed into the "upper sixth", ready to take my A levels and face the future as the words of "When You're Young" rang out; "the world is your oyster but your future's a clam". Although I'd seen punk, liked it/loved it, I was just that bit too young to be an actual part of it in while this trio from Surrey were the constant that I saw, related to and, I thought, understood something of my life.
In the late 1970's the charts worked like this. My music worked like this...
Tuesday lunchtime, after Newsbeat on Radio One, was when the new charts were revealed with Paul Burnett. Top of the Pops then went out on the Thursday and the chart show was on Radios 1 and 2 FM 5-7 pm on the Sunday teatime with the master, Simon Bates (Radio 1 didn't have its own FM frequency, most programmes were on 275/285 medium wave). Downloads? Streaming? Any record ever made at the touch of a browser? No, we had to work for our music. We had to find out about it and track it down. The rush to the newsagent to get the NME on a Thursday, to be read and re-read at school, listening to/taping John Peel. Looking for key influences? Many records from the sixties were out of print, I 'borrowed' a load of Kinks 45's from my uncle Mick as I'd read in the NME how good the B sides were. It took until CD reissues to get them in any other form...and he is still without his 45's. Sorry about that Mick...at least I gave you your Stones LP's back...
It was all about saving up pocket/paper round money to buy 45's and 33's from Downtown Records in Gravesend Market on a Saturday (before afternoon tea at the lite-a-bite), Chris' Records in Windmill Street or the odd trip to the record shop in Chatham where several later-to-be Prisoners/Milkshakes 'worked'; that was how I consumed music. There was the odd trip up to the bright lights of the big city, going off to Carnaby Cavern to peer into the shop that advertised it made suits for The Jam before dodging the 'find the lady' merchants on Oxford Street and checking out "Rocks Off" second hand shop in Hanway Street round the back of the Virgin Megastore. If you were lucky an incoherent bloke with bad teeth and a bit of his ear missing would scour you with his eyes before deciding whether you were worthy of serving or not; thank you, Shane McGowan for deigning to stop kicking the busted carpet sweeper and selling me a copy of Gabrielle by The Nips. It was in the best interests of us both.
So that's the "how" but what about the "why"? I guess a sociologist would call it identity, and they'd probably be right. All the stuff you read now about Weller and his rather expensive clothing line, how it's influenced by the mod clothes he saw as a working class kid in Woking; I have no doubt it's true. Getting a Fred Perry out of your auntie's catalogue and paying up weekly was a rite of passage. Your first pair of DM's and the kicking that followed, a decent pair of Levis, a Harrington, a dodgy pair of sta-prest. Being out and approached by a bloke off a building site "ask your mum whether she'd like to buy you a nice pair of monkey boots?" (I was 13, she did, they were the business), your first Mr Byrite suit...get the picture? It's one of a class and culture that saw the first series of Only Fools and Horses as a documentary and Quadrophenia as a manual... When I first saw The Jam on the TV doing In the City in Burtons suits (a few steps up from Mr Byrite), I didn't think it was "funny", nor turning rebellion into money, they just looked...familiar. I worked out why soon enough. They weren't from some untouchable, unapproachable netherworld that the likes of The Clash seemed to inhabit. They were from Woking, at the other end of the Green Line bus route, and they went to a comprehensive school. Don't get me wrong, I loved and still love The Clash but there was something about them, something unrelateable for all the 'Nan's flat' and 'up and down the Westway'. Maybe they should have done TOTP...
So when The Jam released "The Eton Rifles" I was nervous. It was a big one for my team. "When You're Young" had disappointed and stalled outside the top ten and the Quo-loving denim clad hordes might have the last laugh for the 70's. When it broke through, and stayed there, we'd won; it might be hard to comprehend now how much a TV programme counted, but the TOTP appearance really was the icing on the cake, the thing that put it all into place and cemented what you'd heard on the Tuesday chart rundown into reality; standing, peering through the fug of my mum’s Embassy regal smoke (and I remember I was standing, I was just back in from playing football, under streetlights in the rec. Yes, that sort of thing really happened. It was the 70’s), it all fitted together. The forces of latterday modernism had triumphed.
The bigger shock was just before Christmas 2014, coming in late from work , I looked at the TV and there they were, in the top ten and all of a sudden it meant as much now as it did then. Weller's shades - I still want them. The feedback at the start of the song - how did that get in the top ten? The lyrics - still resonant. Our band in the top ten and one in the eye for the trendy lot who sneered at us in our Harrington jackets.
Again I was standing, I hadn't even taken my coat off, now in my fifties and wearing a crombie, sharp three button narrow lapel suit (not from Mr Byrite) with a button down collar, brogues and suitably narrow tie, it is very much the modern world that I'd learned about. Like Weller, the greying hair won't do quite what I'd like it to these days. Unlike him, I don't try to make it do as much. I've stayed with the principles I had then, I'll leave it to you to decide on what he's done with his.
Was it all just a simple longing for my youth? It'd be daft to deny that wasn't part of it, a flashback to the days when I could play football under streetlights or any light. But it meant more than that. Releasing vacuous boxed sets hasn't done the legacy much good while The Clash have done wondrous things with theirs, but The Jam mattered in a way that seized everything I took from hearing The Who's 'Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy' compilation and tried to find the next step of my own. There they were, three lads from Woking, people like me, up there, looking sharp, talking about what mattered and in the charts for us. No amount of dodgy demo's, 'undiscovered' live recordings and essays by esteemed writers can take that away. They can still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and the rage seethe through. It still matters.
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