David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 40: The Jam (Town Called Malice)

June 5, 2020

It's weird the places you can find the influence of Motown music. Even in Margaret Thatcher's England in the throes of post-punk, Motown influenced the music scene. Of course the relationship of American blues and soul music to British music has always been bizarre.  British bands picked up on these American sounds, made them popular with the British Invasion, then American bands appropriated the British Invasion styles that had been appropriated from American blues and soul, then the Brits appropriated what the Americans were now doing and so forth and so forth.

Yikes, American and British pop music resemble an incestuous relationship. Luckily, it often resulted in something more beautiful and better.  That doesn't mean it always made sense, though, especially in terms of popularity.

Take The Jam. Emerging out of the wake that was The Sex Pistols in Great Britain, they embraced, literally, the styles of early 1960's rock and roll, especially The Who and The Kinks, both visually and musically.  Songs were short, true to punk and early rock and roll, as well as full of biting anger and satire, true of British punk, while still reminiscent of early Who and Kinks songs.  After 5 albums exploring this territory, the band expanded to American soul and Motown styles with The Gift, which included "Town Called Malice."

"Town Called Malice," despite having a bit of a bad pun of a name (the novel A Town Called Alice was fairly well known at the time), is a blistering song, tearing apart all the fake fabric that covered Margaret Thatcher's England in 1982. However, you would have been forgiven for not really noticing, because from the opening bass line by Bruce Foxton, you would have thought you were in the middle of some classic Motown hit, especially The Supremes' "You Can't Hurry Love," which the band openly admits was an influence.

Whereas at least on their first two albums, the ones I owned, The Jam musically represented a chain saw, especially in the slashing guitars also indicative of Gang of Four, with "Town Called Malice" the melody is chirpy, breath-taking in its pace, and punctuated by snapping fingers.  This was no "My Generation," let alone no "Anarchy In The U.K."  The keyboard and guitars skip along with crisp drumming by Rick Buckler.  We are even given a "ba-ba-ba-ba-ba" vocal interlude between the the second verse and third verse. Later the band even adds some "ooooos" in the background.  It was destined to have people on their feet and dancing.

Then, the lyrics undercut everything. Songwriter, singer, and guitarist, Paul Weller, as opposed to many of his contemporaries, did come from the lower working class background that gave credence to his lyrics, always smart, sharp and memorable. Is there a better aphorism for our era than "time is short/life is cruel/but it's up to us to change/this town called malice"?

Weller's lyrical strength meant he could move away from bumper sticker motto to something much more metaphorical, as with "Struggle after struggle/year after year/the atmosphere's a fine blend of ice/I'm almost stone cold dead/in a town called malice."

Or, he could reduce the scene to a simple narrative: "To either cut down on beer/or the kid's new gear/it's a big decision/in a town called malice."

Even beyond these direct lines that are hardly subtle, Weller captures some wonderful imagery that could have come from a Charles Dickens' novel: "Rows and rows of disused milk floats stand dying in the dairy yard/and a hundred lonely housewives clutch empty milk bottles to their hearts/hanging out their old love letters on the line to dry/it's enough to make you stop believing when tears come fast and furious/in a town called malice."

"Town Called Malice" hit #1 in England immediately. It went nowhere in America, unless you count the "mainstream rock tracks" at #31. That makes a little sense given its masquerade as classic Motown. Still, what was it with the American public that a song that sounded wonderfully like "You Can't Hurry Love," with a delicious lyrical subtext, couldn't chart on the pop hit charts in January of 1982, yet a stylistically-absent cover version of "You Can't Hurry Love," by Phil Collins, could hit #10 just 10 months later?

Americans? Go figure. Of course, in doing a little research about The Jam for this blog, I found out that they first toured the United States as an opening act for Blue Oyster Cult. Really?  Who thought that was a good idea? At what point, did the audience boo Weller and his 2 1/2 minute songs? Look, I am a huge Blue Oyster Cult fan, but I am sure if I attended one of those concerts I, too, would have wondered where the 8-minute guitar solos were. 

"Town Called Malice." The Jam. The Gift. Polydor. 1982. Link here.

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Day 41: Tom Waits "I Don't Wanna Grow Up." ->

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