Paul Weller is practically royalty in England, but still somewhat unheard of in America. Only a few of the Jam’s singles actually got radio play here, and still fewer of his solo outings. That doesn’t make the material any less potent, with six albums and numerous collections having hit the record shelves over the years, not to mention the post-Jam work. After two “mod” albums including the brilliant breakthrough of the then 18-year-old Paul Weller, In the City, and the follow-up This is the Modern World, the band of Weller, Bruce Foxton on bass and Rick Buckler on drums began trying to piece together what would ultimately be their third album. The problem was, Weller was having a severe case of writer’s block, which makes the resulting album, All Mod Cons even more fantastic.
How do you conquer writer’s block? Well, according to Paul Weller, you stop trying to rip off old Who riffs and come up with something completely new. That’s just what he did in the writing of All Mod Cons, both a nod to the band’s musical past with the word “mod” and the British newspaper ad abbreviation for “All the Modern Conveniences,” (i.e. dishwasher, laundry, etc.), which in itself was a dig, as are some of the songs, to life in our modern and advanced society. The title track in particular and its successor, the magnificent “To Be Someone (Didn’t We Have a Nice Time)” mock the rock and roll lifestyle, the first about a record executive who basically bilks all of their money, and the second about the hollow and empty life of a star, supposedly written after a horrible tour pairing in America with Blue Oyster Cult. In an apt and slightly ironic twist, Weller follower and popularity surpasser Noel Gallagher covered the song for the Jam tribute album, slowed down and delicately played. He even throws a twist into the song when he sings at the close, “I can’t remember if I had a nice time.”
One gets the sense, if you actually follow the Jam and Weller, that this is the album when Weller finally became comfortable with his own voice, particularly in the song “Mr. Clean” in which the bridge features vocals that resemble what would be his signature sound for years to come. The one throwback to the mod past is their cover of the Kinks’ “David Watts,” the Jam actually making the song more popular than the Davies brothers did. One can’t help but wonder how the Stones didn’t sue either band for plagiarism as the opening and choruses are pretty much “Let’s Spend the Night Together” rehashed. It’s still a great song though. If “English Rose” is the result of writer’s block, then I would wish the affliction on myself more often. The song is superb, exhibiting intimacy, delicateness and sparseness. So too is the later song “Fly.” The two ballads on the album didn’t signal an end to the high intensity rock however as Weller proved he could still rock he Rickenbacker displayed on the back of the album.
The final two songs on the album are the best, and both now will be possibly viewed differently due to recent events. It saddened me to know that there were some people in America who didn’t even realize that an attack on mass transit had occurred in London. It displayed both the insular selfishness of this country, and the stunning resilience of Englanders. I surmise that it comes from not only having lived through the Blitz, but also having to experience IRA terrorism for so long, and being near enough to other European countries to feel more a part of the world community. Either way, everyone was back at work the next day, braving the world, as if nothing had happened at all. Bravo. But now, “`A’ Bomb in Wardour Street” and “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” have taken on a completely different meaning for me. Whereas song violence has always seemed punk and energetic, when it is linked with a real event, it becomes sad and causes much reflection. The latter song is one of the best the Jam had ever recorded, beginning with the song of the actual tube train, then rolling into the Foxton bassline. The song perfectly blends the new wave sound with Clash-like punk (Weller even sounding like Joe Strummer at times) and Motown vocals and beats which they would perfect in “A Town Called Malice.” “Tube Station”‘s lyrics are chilling to the bone, however, as he depicts the narrator going down into the station and being beaten to death by hoodlums, only to discover in his last thoughts that the hoodlums took his keys and are heading off to his wife. This and the Cure’s “Subway Song” are enough to make me swear off mass transit forever. Yet again, if this song’s brilliant storytelling lyrics are a result of writer’s block, bless me with this curse.
All Mod Cons is the most celebrated Jam album in England. It certainly has the lion’s share of the band’s great songs and was the perfect blend of styles at a midway point in the band’s career. At only twenty years of age, Weller and his two older mates had made what would influence bands for years to come including the Smiths (who nicked the whole in/out sound at the end of “Tube Station”) and more recently the Kaiser Chiefs. If you’re one of those people who hadn’t heard of the Jam, start with this one.