The Jam - Sound Affects

The year is 1980. To celebrate the consolidation of their success with Setting Sons, and their first number one single, Going Underground, Paul Weller grows a beard and starts to listen to his contemporaries; Gang Of Four, Joy Division and Wire in particular. Their influence, as well as that of The Beatles' Revolver, the writing of George Orwell and Geoffrey Ashe's Camelot And The Vision Of Albion shaped their next album - their fifth, Sound Affects.

The album was to be preceded by a single; Polydor wanted the safe option, Pretty Green (which was more or less Jam-by-numbers), whereas the band preferred Start!. Eventually, the label relented, and Paul, Rick and Bruce were justified when Start! went straight to the top of the British singles chart, their second number one in a row.

The album was recorded during the summer of 1980, and the sessions were interspersed with one-off shows; a TV special in Spain, a terribly muddy gig at Loch Lomond in Scotland. The band weren't too keen on recording an album at the time, as Paul hadn't completed too many new songs; they wanted to wait until the new year to release, and perhaps to write and "road test" some songs first, but with a sell out tour of the UK scheduled to start in October, Polydor wanted some new product to sell.

The album cover is kind of muted; it featured 22 panels containing pictures representing the songs, and its concept was based on a BBC sound effects record that Paul had picked up somewhere; indeed, the only difference is the subtle change from "effects" to "affects", and the replacement of the "BBC" with "JAM" in the logo. The inside sleeve features a soft-focus picture of the boys sitting by a river, and also a shot of them playing live, with lots of dry ice in evidence - probably a still from a Top Of the Pops appearance. There's also an excerpt from Mask Of Anarchy by Percy Bysshe Shelley on the sleeve - which is kinda like Blake's Jerusalem in its plea for old England to return.

Sound-wise, Sound Affects was miles away from the lush production values of Setting Sons; the instrumentation was quite simple, for the most part, and the guitar sound was pretty harsh and trebly. When asked, Weller would describe the album as sounding like a cross between The Beatles' Revolver and Michael Jackson's Off The Wall. Although he has since described Sound Affects as his favourite Jam album, Weller was dissatisfied with the production at the time, and, having had to recut the album several times due to the poor quality of the final masters, the band would never work with Vic Coppersmith-Heaven again.

Track Listing

  1. Pretty Green
  2. Monday
  3. But I'm Different Now
  4. Set The House Ablaze
  5. Start!
  6. That's Entertainment
  7. Dream Time
  8. Man In The Corner Shop
  9. Music For The Last Couple (Weller/Foxton/Buckler)
  10. Boy About Town
  11. Scrape Away
Produced by Vic Coppersmith-Heaven and The Jam
All songs written by Paul Weller, unless otherwise indicated.

As a whole, Sound Affects is probably the most "experimental" Jam album; that is, it deviates the most from their modish template. Thematically, most of the songs are less politicised and more about life and hardship in England; in some ways, a lot of the songs are less direct and obvious than the likes of, say, Down In The Tube Station At Midnight or The Eton Rifles. The album kicks off with the aborted single, Pretty Green, which is a typical Jam song; starts with a rumbling bassline, Paul Weller does his Rickenbacker thing, and then goes on about how life is all centered around money nowadays. Not a bad song, but certainly nothing to write home about.

The next song is more interesting - Monday starts off with a subtle bassline (for a change...!), and is quite a low-key, introspective, wistful song. There's even a hint of longing in the lyric - "Oh, baby, I'm dreaming of Monday/Oh, baby, will I see you again". The longing is mingled with a feeling of coming of age, maturity, and acceptance. The theme is continued in the next tune, But I'm Different Now, which is much more upbeat, and more Jam like. Musically, But I'm Different Now would fit in well on All Mod Cons, but lyrically, it's an apology or an excuse - "Mess you 'round and upset you, I hurt you most of all/ But I'm different now and I'm glad that you're my girl". Like the majority of the album, the lyric is fairly slight; most of the songs were worked up in the studio, based on a fragment of a lyric, or a snatch of music.

Track four is Set The House Ablaze, which is an uncharacteristically violent song, musically; the lyric is about youthful idealism being crushed by conformism - "It is called indoctrination/And it happens on all levels". Thematically, Set The House Ablaze would probably have fitted well on Setting Sons - a lot better than the piss-poor cover of Heat Wave, anyway. Next comes the Jam's second number one single, Start!, which is a much happier song; it's about communication ("If we communicate for two minutes only it will be enough"), and it (deliberately, Weller later claimed) completely rips off Taxman by the Beatles, from the very similar guitar sound and riff, to the almost identical bassline.

The next track is one of the Jam's best and most covered songs - That's Entertainment. A lovely accoustic number with a backwards guitar part giving it a psychadelic feel, the lyric is partly ironic, partly nostalgic - ironic, in describing "Paint splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat/Lights going out and a kick in the balls" as entertainment, and nostalgic in the feeling of lower to lower-middle class English life it evokes. The fact that it has been covered by such quintessentially English acts as Morrissey and The Wonder Stuff is a testimony to the accuracy with which Weller describes his subject. That's Entertainment was released as a single in Germany, but, initially, not in the UK; but when import sales of the single broke records, Polydor eventually released it in England.

Dream Time, track seven, is another fairly slight track. The music is good enough, and the lyric is about dreaming of escaping from a small provincial town; but it contains one of Paul Weller's strangest lines - "And I'm so scared dear, my love comes in frozen packs/Bought in a supermarket". Explicate that! The next song, Man In The Corner Shop, is interesting in theory, but equally slight in execution. The lyric compares a man running a corner shop ("He knows it is a hard life/But its nice to be your own boss really") with a man who works in a factory ("Says it must be nice to be your own boss") and the boss of a factory, of whom the man in the corner shop is jealous; the song ends with all of them going to church together, where "All shapes and classes sit and pray together/For here they are all one/For God created all men equal". Interesting, but not all that impressive.

The last three songs are where the experimentation comes into play. Well, apart from track 10. Music For The Last Couple is a mostly instrumental affair, with a prominent bassline, and some ska-ish interludes; after a long intro Paul finally shouts something about "Got to get awa-ah-ah-ah-ay!"; and then the instrumentation continues; it's a bit confusing like that. Boy About town starts off with the sound of someone coughing, but it's a bright and breezy song based on a then-popular girl's magazine called "Girl About Town"; Weller later commented that "It's just me being blown about up and down Oxford Street". The closer, Scrape Away, outdoes even Set The House Ablaze, in its violence and harshness, both musically and lyrically. It's a disgusted look at some petty member or supporter of a political party, it seems - "You're talking like some fucking hardened MP/You're saying power's all!/And it's power you NEED!" - and it's a very effective piece. Weller wonders why the person he's addressing has turned out like this - "What makes once young minds get in this state/Is it age or just the social climate?" - and the song finishes with a strange french voice-over with Weller's ringing, minor key riff repeating in the background. An odd ending to the album, but somehow thrilling.

To sum up; Sound Affects is the Jam's last truly great album. Paul Weller shuffles off his Modfather cloak, and updates his music library somewhat, making Sound Affects quite exciting in places. Despite the slightness of some of the songs, Sound Affects is still a cohesive whole.

References:

  • The sleeve notes to the 1997 remastered version of Sound Affects.
  • My own critical faculties.
Writeup number 100! Hoorah!

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