What is it you don’t touch? The past, like live electrical wires, is always a dangerous thing to attempt to unravel with your bare hands. The memories of your youth are always sacred, troubled, misplaced, blurred round the edges and bound up with everything else. You need to anchor them to something, something you can return to, that remains unchanged even after all these years, music, i don’t know, films, something special perhaps.
But still you listen with care, with absolute focus and certainty, not wanting to let a single note go astray, not wanting to break the spell. With the Jam you had everything all in one place. The making of the English working class. There right in front of you, in 3 minute bursts.
And the music you loved, the very personal, the very pivotal, an intense, unspoken, inexplicable connection you had with each single, each song, each note, the kind of internal joy that gets you where you are today, yet it’s a thing that you had to share with a generation of surly, sulky youngsters growing up at the same time, being thrown headlong into the 80s, the Thatcher years. It’s incredible we ever made it through, us surly, sulky 80s kids, battered to fuck for nothing more than being born at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And with the Jam it was always going to be shared – number one records that had no place being there, wedged between the grinning showbiz crimes and choreographed dance routines, and in amongst these things you still treasure, 35 years on, those moments, simple really, the meaning that never went away.
This is what i think about when i think about my youth. Nothing magical, except for these tiny pieces of priceless memories that you can’t shake free from. They travel with you, your memories, but like all important journeys you have to travel with them alone. So what happened after 1982? I barely know except for the music i listen to is all somehow shaped, drawn from or been touched by the combined nervous system of a three piece pop band wired together then torn apart before i turned 15.
Three more amps explode in his arm
So where can you go with the Jam now? Are you forever that 14 year old boy shocked into silence by the very outside world, unknowing and utterly in love with the shape of a red Rickenbacker guitar hung across a pair of whippet thin shoulder blades, a jittery menace of a voice barking back “a cheap holiday, i’ll do it today”
Where does it take you? First proper book i ever read – Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes original edition borrowed from Longsight library – that was the Jam. The Co-op, that instant jolt of recognition, my world, dull and small and uneventful but someone with a number one hit record is singing about the Co-op, just like the one round the corner for us.The reference points remained throughout concise, compact and crystal clear. If we were going to be the creatures that time has forgot, we knew at least one band who would acknowledge our existence, document our passing, give us a thought.
When the Jam split up i went and bought, with the sort of pathological fervour only a poor northern working class boy could muster, all the re-issued singles. From Sifters record shop when it was still up on Mauldeth road. (He didn’t have a copy of Start! and to this day i have never owned a copy of the Start! single). I still have the badges, the tour programmes, the scarf, the imports, the ticket stubs, the softback biographies, the playing cards, each item in its own way a record of how far you get to travel. I don’t know what it means to be a Jam fan i only know what this all meant. How we pace our lives against the records we own and place ourselves completely in amongst the trivia of release dates and live performances, song structures and chord changes.
And that heartbreaking moment when you realise you’re never going to ever write songs as good as this. And in the quiet moments you think – where the fuck did that come from!? I have never felt more alive than when listening with intense concentration to the sound of a social conscience battling for the right to exist in a simple pop song. And we let the brass bands play, we did that much at least.
Over the next couple of months London’s Somerset House (a magnificent museum building for idiosyncratic art projects) is holding an exhibition of Jam archive material. Stuff from those days, someone else’s memories attached to all kinds of artefacts. In fact many people’s memories brought together under the guidance of Nicky Weller, sister of Paul and who used to run the Jam fan club. The blurb promises “unseen material and fan memorabilia” and has been endorsed by all three members of the band.
Who is all this for and what exactly is it are we remembering? Somebody else’s career path or our own lives reflected back at us through a thin clean layer… perhaps both, together. Maybe this is what makes this kind of thing real – at some point we have more memories than we have expectations. Is that when we start putting things behind glass?
And yes sometimes the burning sensation stops and i realise i have no greater authority over my memories of the Jam than any other Jam fan. They were all there, they all experienced it. The Jam meant that much. So let them call it jazz, i think, and let them play it wrong, that won’t make no difference to the song i heard.
The Jam: About the Young Idea
26 June – 31 August 2015
Open daily 10am – 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)
East Wing Galleries
London WC2R 1LA
Exhibition Ticket £9.50, concessions £7.00