This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their list, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
KEXP: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #426: “Going Underground” by The Jam.
About fifty songs ago, I talked about a Clash song called, “White Man (at Hammersmith Palais)”. In that song, I spoke of the members of The Clash losing a bit of their idealism when it came to their hope of uniting the races through music. That loss of idealism took two routes: 1- as a white man (even an ally), Joe Strummer didn’t feel welcome at the predominantly black Reggae concert and, 2- he looked at other “white” bands like his and viewed some of them as being co-opted by “the System”. Addressing the latter, Strummer wrote the following lyrics:
“The new groups are not concerned with what there is to be learned.
They got Burton suits,
Huh, you think its funny,
Turning rebellion into money.”
The new group Strummer was referring to most was The Jam.
The Jam were led by lead singer, Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton on guitar and Rick Buckler on drums. The Jam had many hits during their tenure atop the Charts in the UK, including, “Start”, “The Eton Rifles”, “Going Underground”, “Down in a Tube Station at Midnight” and, perhaps, their biggest hit, “Town Called Malice”. To label The Jam as “sell-outs”, as punk bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols did, is a bit unfair. Unlike the other Punk bands, who wanted to strip music and British society down to the studs, The Jam took a more image-conscious and influence-laden approach to their protestations. It is true that the members of The Jam all wore suits on stage. Paul Weller, in particular, was heavily influenced by UK groups like The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones who, in their early days, all wore suits, too. But, make no mistake, The Jam released songs like, “Going Underground” that took direct aim at topics such as the Conservative rule of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the economic stratification of British society. They just did it in ways that were a little easier for the general public to swallow. One music critic described them as playing “protest songs suitable for the top of the charts”.
Protesting the status quo is always tricky business. Do you attack from within or from the outside? Bands like The Clash took pride in their outsider status while bands like The Jam thought it more prudent to work from within. This distinction was not just limited to music groups. Around the same time as The Jam and The Clash were in their prime, Northern Ireland was being torn apart by violence as the Irish sought to send British troops back to England. As for the Irish Republican Army, they broke into two factions: one faction that sought to tear down British rule through violent means and a second group (lead by Gerry Adams) that sought to achieve independence through political means. One worked within the system and the other from the outside. There is neither “right” nor “wrong” in these situations. In Music, as with Politics, achieving one’s goals “by any means necessary” is usually the correct path in the end. For The Clash and The Jam, both bands had something to say about life in England and both wanted to affect change. They simply chose different paths to follow.
The song, “Going Underground”, was the first song by The Jam to reach #1 on the charts. It stayed at #1 for three consecutive weeks. Its’ lyrics were concerned with political corruption and the problem of voter apathy as being one reason why things never seemed change in Britain when it came to government policies and the betterment of life for working class people. Eventually, in the mid-80s, The Jam broke up and Paul Weller formed a new group that achieved modest success, called, “Style Council”. Weller went on have a solid solo career after Style Council, too. In their wake, The Jam have left behind a musical catalogue of protest-laden songs that rank among the most important and influential of their time. They did so in natty suits and cool haircuts but, just the same, their music was heard by vast swaths of British society which was, after all, the goal. Did they make the difference that they were aiming for? I will leave that for you to decide. What I do know is that they made good music. Here is The Jam with “Going Underground”. Enjoy.
PS: We will hear “Town Called Malice” later on in this countdown so, Jam fans, stand down.
The link to the music video for Going Underground by The Jam can be found here.
The Jam have a website that can be accessed by clicking on the link here.
Thanks to KEXP for helping to inspire the writing of this post. A link to their website can be found here.