THE JAM – Fire And Skill (Live 1977-1982)

the-jam-fire-and-skillAlthough only a recording unit for just under six years, The Jam left behind a musical legacy that influenced the generations to come; from the whole of the Britpop movement, through to The Libertines, Kaiser Chiefs and so many others, The Jam had, in turn, become as influential as the bands which had influenced them.   The songs penned by the young Paul Weller – whether capturing heartfelt political statements, the anger of youth or an occasional melancholy ballad – set him on the road to being one of Britain’s finest songwriters, a man whose lyrics have really stood the test of time.

For many years, the compilation ‘Dig The New Breed’ – cobbled together from various shows over the previous couple of years – provided fans with the only live record of the band’s incendiary five years at the top.  For the many fans that never experienced the band first-hand, this provided a little consolation.  It was not until over a decade later with the release of the ‘Live Jam’ compilation that fans got to experience more of The Jam’s live work via another official release.  Various bootleg recordings had circulated, of course, which only heightened the feeling that releases like ‘Live Jam’ were merely okay, filling a gap in the market but never really satisfying the hunger of the truest fan.   The release of deluxe set ‘The Jam Live at the BBC’ in 2003 and vastly expanded editions of ‘The Gift’ and ‘Setting Sons’ (in 2012 and 2014, respectively) gave the first proper insights into live shows by issuing complete sets, much to the delight of fans, who were well aware that many of the gigs were recorded for posterity.  In fact, twenty Jam performances were recorded over a five year stretch – so many in such a short time by the standards of the day.  ‘Fire & Skill’, an expansive live anthology from 2015 finally gives those fans more of what they’ve always craved – and in impressive style – by issuing six complete live shows.

Naturally, ‘Fire & Skill’ presents these shows in chronological order. While the fierce touring cycle for ‘In The City’ doesn’t get a look in, we are given two live sets promoting ‘This Is The Modern World’, both of which do a superb job in capturing the raw energy of the young band. Released only six months after ‘In The City’, The Jam’s second LP continues in a similar fashion, channelling hard r ‘n’ b sounds with Townsend-esque crashy guitars and a punky energy.  In comparison to the debut, it suffers a little from “second album” syndrome, sounding a little rushed, fleshed out with material that had been in circulation for some time.  Replacing ‘Don’t Tell Them You’re Sane’, ‘Tonight at Noon’ and a ragged cover of ‘In The Midnight Hour’ with the non-album singles would have made a much stronger set, but as the first disc in this set shows quite clearly in the live setting, the material was stellar.  Listening to the first gig in this box set, recorded at the 100 Club on Oxford Street in September 1977 – about six weeks before ‘TITMW’ hit the shelves – you can almost smell the sweat and feel the crush of the crowd as the Jam tear through a twenty song set in what feels like about half an hour.  Of note, right from the first listen, is how much sharper the cover tunes sound in comparison to their studio counterparts. The version of ‘In The Midnight Hour’, in particular absolutely pisses over the version from the album, with Weller’s rhythm guitar sharply hammering every chord as he and bandmate Bruce Foxton gleefully shout their way through each line.  Likewise, ‘Heatwave’ – a tune unrecorded by The Jam until hastily including it on ‘Setting Sons’ some two years after this performance – literally sounds like the work of a band fit to burst.  The band’s own originals often come across with a similar intensity – the hard and fast rhythm and blues of ‘Takin’ My Love’ comes at breakneck speed, with Foxton’s bass appearing to be absolutely unstoppable and Rick Buckler’s drumming absolutely spot on.

Hammering through a good proportion of the material from those first two albums and associated singles, this is an unmissable set. ‘All Around The World’ is spiky, hinting a little at the purer mod sound just around the corner; ‘I’ve Changed My Address’ and the standard ‘Slow Down’ come across with a genuine vigour, while ‘Bricks & Mortar’ really captures the rawer edge of The Jam’s earliest vocal performances.  Coming back for several encores, the band and audience both seem absolutely invigorated, right to the point where the band runs out of rehearsed material and launches into ‘In The City’ for a second time as an unplanned set closer.  Of particular note for the hardened Jam enthusiast are renditions of early b-side ‘Carnaby Street’ and The Who’s ‘So Sad About Us’, which although much rougher sounding – with the vocal almost inaudible on parts of the former – provide a great insight into the mix of material at the early shows.

In comparison, the second set – recorded at The Music Machine, Camden approximately six months later – appears a little smoother.  This is partly due to the bigger venue, but also partly to do with a slightly more polished sound mix, one which boosts Foxton’s bass and pulls back a touch on the guitar.  Another show promoting ‘…Modern World’, most of the ‘In The City’ material has already been dropped in favour of the newer tracks since the band are more confident with this material.  Some of the same numbers are present and come across with a similar gusto, as is the case with ‘London Traffic’ and ‘In The Street Today’ attacking the audience at frantic speed.  A rendition of the soulful ‘I Need You’ – an addition to the set since the 100 Club show – is decidedly wobbly. Foxton’s bass sounds great, but everything else is…ramshackle at best. Adopting a booming voice, Weller’s delivery never settles, is sometimes very off-key, while some of his guitar work is equally hit and miss.  Reaching the song’s end, he suggests that “something needs sortin’ out”, so it’s obvious – even without experiencing the show in person – he’s unhappy.  A quick fiddle later, ‘The Combine’ – arguably one of ‘…Modern World’s finest tunes – is performed almost flawlessly.  The raw harmonies capture Weller and Foxton is fine form and the generally melodic nature of the track gives the early part of the set a pleasing contrast from the more raucous material.  ‘Standards’ and ‘Carnaby Street’ – in a much finer recording – showcase more great bass playing throughout spiky performances, while the return of ‘In The Midnight Hour’ and ‘Bricks and Mortar’ show how much tighter the trio have become, thanks to near-constant gigging over the previous few months.  Although perhaps not as essential as the 100 Club set due to a couple of technical gremlins [Weller: “We always have problems at bigger gigs…you shoulda been at The Marquee!”], this is still fascinating listening…the sound of a band about to hit the stratosphere.

By the beginning of 1979 – and the gig at Reading University in February, where we next pick up with these live recordings – The Jam’s third album ‘All Mod Cons’ had been out for a short time.  Their first LP to hit the top ten, it drew from a much broader range of influences – this time, most notably The Kinks – and in doing so brought a slightly poppier sound in places. Most importantly, the introduction of more complex arrangements allowed Weller to write in a variety of styles, showing that in addition to having a great energy, he could also pen a great ballad, as evidenced in the album’s acoustic offering, ‘English Rose’.   In the live setting, the band had matured, too.  As evidenced on this recording, regular set opener ‘This Is The Modern World’ comes with a slightly thinner guitar tone and a sound a little closer to the ‘AMC’ album material than before.  There’s still plenty of fire, of course – Weller is in rather aggressive voice, rarely sounding better – while the rhythm section of Foxton and Buckler are more melodic in their approach than the rough ‘n’ ready brilliance of the 100 Club set ever suggested they could – or, indeed, would – be.  Dusting off a couple of other oldies – ‘Sounds From The Street’ and ‘Away From The Numbers’ – the band and audience really warm up, but it’s with the introduction of the (then) brand new material the entertainment really begins.

So many years down the line, it’s hard to imagine – or perhaps even remember – how much of a leap forward ‘All Mod Cons’ presented for The Jam.  In turn, it’s quite a brave move to play five of the album tracks – then barely three months into public circulation – in succession.  Even so, faced with almost half of the new album, the student audience are positively rapturous.  The pairing of ‘All Mod Cons’ and ‘To Be Someone’ – both a sharp dig at record companies and the pressures of fame – have a decidedly tough aura in comparison to the studio recordings. On the former, Weller’s voice and guitar are particularly cutting, while Buckler’s hard rattling drum fills are suitably aggressive in a way the original recordings just don’t convey.  Foxton steals the show here, though, with a loud and overdriven bass sound that powers through everything.  The sixties air of ‘It’s Too Bad’ isn’t always the easiest of listens at this show due to an over-assertive vocal, but in contrast, the spiteful ‘Mr. Clean’ – with it’s sharp edges and sheer vitriol – comes across far better, despite Weller’s insistence on avoiding any of the chorus’s longer notes. Preferring instead to punctuate his delivery with a Lennon-esque seething sound as he inhales, it’s all rather unsettling, but that was possibly the intention.

Sounding like a throwback to the Music Machine gig, the energetic ‘Billy Hunt’ is superb pure power trio fare, with Buckler really smashing at his kit, before ‘In The Street Today’ increases the momentum. Although a basic thrasher if measured by the Jam’s performance standards of 1978, it’s very interesting that by this time they’re obviously keen to improve those earlier recordings, with Weller playing the main riff in a more muted fashion and Foxton dropping in a more complex bassline than at previous shows.  ‘Standards’ seems a little restrained compared to either of the ’77 gigs and ‘Tonight At Noon’ – never one of The Jam’s best tunes – is decidedly ordinary this time around, but it quickly becomes clear, these are in place so the band can prepare themselves for the gig’s show-stopper.  This early outing for the hit single ‘Down In The Tube Station’ is jaw-dropping.  Where there should be punch, it comes like a fist, with Weller spitting each line – each word, even – with a real anger.  With hi-hat work almost good enough to rival Stewart Copeland, Buckler absolutely excels, while Bruce Foxton taps into a hard bass tone that sounds as if it’s just been lifted straight off the recorded version.  This is absolutely bloody amazing stuff.

A rowdy ‘News of The World’ brings Foxton back to the microphone, but the sound levels are so huge on the guitars and Weller’s backing vocal, he sounds as if he’s in the wings, before ‘Here Comes The Weekend’ and ‘Bricks and Mortar’ bring a timely nod to the earlier live sets. ‘Bricks’ sounds better than ever, played with a frightening intensity and rare improvisation, before descending into the ‘Batman’ theme, with some terrifically appalling vocals.  Shouting something incomprehensible before bidding the loud audience “ta-ta!”, Weller’s overall mood suggests this has been a superb show, but the encore brings just as much to enjoy.  ‘The Place I Love’ rattles along like a Who tribute – the live version capturing a sense of energy the album cut merely hints at – before two covers bring the kind of high-spirited feeling that a well thought out encore should.  The Kinks’ ‘David Watts’ (released as a single in the summer of ’78) and Motown classic ‘Heatwave’ lead into ‘A Bomb In Wardour Street’, appearing with a genuine post-punk ferocity.  It seems odd to finish a gig with a new track, but The Jam have judged their audience correctly…and it raises the roof.    It’s odd to think that this performance sat in the archives for so long – it’s arguably one of the classic Jam shows.

In 1979, The Jam released their fourth album, ‘Setting Sons’.  While one of the greatest albums in the history of British recorded music, the tour is not represented on ‘Fire & Skill’, since a show from the tour had only been issued a year previously as part of a four disc ‘Setting Sons’ box set [a second can be sourced from the 2CD reissue].  Instead, the fourth disc marks the first tour of the 80s and a set promoting ‘Sound Affects’ at Newcastle City Hall.  If the Reading University set showed a great musical leap, then the shift here is even greater.  Opening with the brand new ‘Dream Time’, The Jam show an even tighter approach to the performance – by this point becoming a mature and well-oiled machine.  Weller’s guitar tones are cleaner than before, even if his playing still retains a certain raw energy, but throughout this track and the subsequent ‘Thick As Thieves’ – ‘Fire & Skill’s first offering from ‘Setting Sons’ – there’s much more focus.  ‘Boy About Town’ bristles with electricity, sharp and with some top harmonies; shorn of the horn section that fleshes out the album recording, here it can be heard in its most basic form, a track that sounds very cool as part of a live set, kind of like a throwback to the 1979 non-album single ‘Strange Town’.  Announcing “a slow song”, ‘Monday relies more on Weller’s vocal prowess, and while he comes across as possessing a definite power, hitting the right notes doesn’t always seem at the top of his agenda.  The arrival of number one hit ‘Going Underground’ is greeted with a thunderous roar from the crowd, and the thumping version that follows doesn’t disappoint.  Much like the version of ‘The Place I Love’ from the Reading gig on disc three, the live version of ‘Going Underground’ – at least on this occasion – is really edgy, almost derailing itself for the interlude.  At this point, Bruce Foxton deserves a special mention: his backing vocals on this recording are great, the higher register and slight wobble in his voice provide a great counterpoint to Weller’s sheer volume.

‘Pretty Green’, ‘Man In The Corner Shop’ and ‘Set The House Ablaze’ do a reasonable job in representing the yet-to-be-released ‘Sound Affects’ (despite ‘Monday’ being home to some terrible vocals during the end section, ‘Set The House Ablaze’ absolutely crushes its studio counterpart), before ‘Private Hell’ darkens the mood.  Always the most marginal track on ‘Setting Sons’ in terms of all-round appeal, when heard live, this is predictably intense.  Going head to head with Weller’s unfussy guitar work, Foxton’s bass brings a dark, deep rumble almost throughout. It’s down to Buckler’s drumming to drive things forward and, as with the Reading University rendition of ‘Tube Station’, his performance is an absolute belter, shifting between sheer power and jazz-inflected hi-hats with the flick of a wrist.  The fact that The Jam were so keen to evolve is obvious when they reference the first two albums just the once on this night – a workmanlike performance of ‘Modern World’ – preferring instead to give time to non-album cuts, ‘The Dreams of Children’ and ‘Liza Radley’. The second half of the performance brings more hits – ‘Eton Rifles’, ‘When You’re Young’ and ‘Strange Town’, alongside the belated appearance of various tunes from ‘All Mod Cons’.  Although not as fiery as the ’79 gig, this is a good seventy minute set in all, with the ‘Setting Sons’ material, ‘When You’re Young’ and a rather fine rendition of the (then) new ‘But I’m Different Now’ delivering some real highlights.

The two shows promoting ‘The Gift’ – the first, pre-release at Hammersmith in December 1981; the second as part of the farewell tour almost exactly one year on – show such a different band to that from the 100 Club in 1977.  Like all Jam LP’s, ‘The Gift’ is home to some terrific music, but stylistically, it’s so far removed from the band’s beginnings, in many ways ushering the more soulful moods of The Style Council.  At these shows presented within ‘Fire & Skill’, the band are older, wiser, and in some ways road-weary, while Weller’s song writing has certainly matured, incorporating more adult themes. He’s much less the angry young man, more someone comfortable in his shoes as one of the country’s most popular musicians.

From the opening notes of ‘The Gift’ at the beginning of the Hammersmith Palais show. recorded on December 14th 1981, something feels different.  The sound mix is clear enough to hear a rattling tambourine as part of Buckler’s percussion arsenal, and as everything drops away and Foxton rattles out a mean bassline, there’s the sound of a bigger band at play.  With this more mature set-up and vibe, the title track from what was to become The Jam’s swansong sounds majestic – with Weller clearly enjoying the change in style, he sounds more enthused than at parts of the Newcastle show.  The rendition of ‘Down In The Tube Station’ that follows resembles the studio cut far more closely than the hugely aggressive performance from Reading, but cannot be faulted.  Even at this early stage of the gig, there’s the feeling you’re witnessing a special recording – Weller sounds more tuneful than at any of the previous gigs, while the sound quality is astounding: clear enough to hear every single note, but without sounding clinical.

The mellow and minimalist ‘Ghosts’ has a great feel, with Weller’s voice weaving in and out of the stabbing guitar notes – working surprisingly well live – before we experience the extra musicians gathered; in this case, a small horn section plays a distinctive melody, identical to the (then) unreleased studio cut.  The broader musical spectrum continues over the ensuing material, with the horns adding their piercing sounds to a rousing version of ‘Absolute Beginners’ played with flair, and an old-school Hammond Organ washing over a sharp – and slightly faster take – of the soon-to-be-popular ‘A Town Called Malice’.  Looking back, it’s so easy to imagine that some fans who sweated it out to the guitar-driven r ‘n’ b back in ’77 would consider this commercial material a sell out, but it’s so infectious – and in the case of ‘A Town Called Malice’ in particular, it rarely sounded better than it does on this recording.   ‘Happy Together’ and ‘Precious’ are tight and funky, musically faultless in a way the younger Jam never suggested; ‘Tales From The Riverbank’ and ‘That’s Entertainment’ show Weller to have become an absolute master in the live setting by this time – armed with just acoustic guitar, he’s very assured. ‘Set The House Ablaze’, meanwhile, is restrained in comparison to the earlier show, but on the flipside, a speedy ‘David Watts’ stomps over any earlier outings.  ‘Big Bird’ – previously issued on ‘Dig The New Breed’ – heightens the soul direction in which things were moving for the band at the time and assorted tracks from ‘Sound Affects’, now properly road-tested, sound so much than they had a year previously.  Covering so much ground, in so many ways, this Hammersmith show is the ultimate Jam performance. Given the sound quality and the almost faultless performance, it’s hardly surprising that various tracks were selected for the ‘Live Jam’ disc back in 2002.

The Wembley show (2/12/82) has been in circulation among fans for some time, so it’s great to finally have it issued somewhere officially.  The second night of The Jam’s five night run at the venue is a slick affair, as befitting the newest album’s material.  Whereas most bands would have been content with a rigid setlist throughout a particular period, this set here differs substantially from Hammersmith at the start of the touring cycle; it’s certainly different enough in both song choice and overall tone to warrant ‘Fire & Skill’s inclusion of a second show from the same era.  It also makes a great companion to the following night’s show (included as part of the deluxe ‘Gift’ box set).

Looking to the future, Weller appears jovial from the outset, joking “I do like these pub gigs!”, as the band hurtles into a punchy but discordant ‘Start!’ thus setting things off with good intentions.  With the addition of Afrodiziak – a singing duo soon to make their mark on Elvis Costello’s ‘Punch The Clock’ – filling out vocal sections, ‘It’s Too Bad’ looks to both the Jam’s mod past and The Style Council’s soul future in style.  Final single ‘Beat Surrender’ sounds achingly poignant, with Weller and Foxton knowing the end is near, while the horn section and Afrodiziak sounding rather jubilant.  ‘Away From The Numbers’ tips the hat to the Jam’s humble beginnings, but sounds fuller all round, as if it had been recorded during the ‘Sound Affects’ sessions, while set regulars ‘Boy About Town’, ‘Ghosts’ and ‘Tube Station’ have a surprising vitality given the size of the arena.

It maybe the huge venue, it maybe the expanded band, but at these gigs, the ‘All Mod Cons’ material sounds so different – the recording is clear enough to pick up the legendary Wembley echo on the vocal during ‘To Be Someone’ in particular, while simultaneously allowing every minor nuance of the performances to be heard.  Aside from ‘Beat Surrender’, the genuine highlights from these last shows come from the soul tunes: a terrific ‘Get Yourself Together’ and ‘Precious’ both make the guest musicians as important as The Jam themselves, before Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’ gives the whole ensemble a real workout.  Nearing the end of the show, ‘Going Underground’ represents the chaotic sounds of a band having a fantastic time, clearly feeling like they’ve taken on the whole world and won, and ‘Butterfly Collector’ is bittersweet. Hearing it all decades after the event is never going to be the same as ever having been there, but this Wembley gig is a brilliant recording nonetheless.  Like the gig from Reading University, it’s a wonder these Wembley shows hadn’t been issued in their complete form much earlier.  The fan demand was certainly there.

So, is ‘Fire & Skill’ the definitive Jam live release?  Absolutely.  It’s worth the asking price for the 100 Club, Reading University and Hammersmith sets, but the other shows are positively bristling with life, worthy of an ear from a keen fan.  The whole picture feels much more important than these singular shows. From the warts ‘n’ all raw energy of 1977, through to the slicker, brassy Wembley shows in 1982, listening to ‘Fire & Skill’ feels like a real journey. It’s not a journey for the merely curious, though, since there’s so much to digest, and with many songs repeated throughout the years, but rather more a highly covetable item for the more obsessive fan. Box sets can seem like over-priced items for record companies to milk a few bob from archive material, but the historical value of ‘Fire & Skill’ is priceless.  As far as box sets go, this is indispensible – an amazing counterpart to those much-loved, groove-worn studio albums you know inside and out.

August/September 2015