Sound effects: Patterns of energy, conducted through air, that are the product or response to some prior action. Passive.
Sound Affects: A statement. The acknowledgement that patterns of energy, once produced, can travel through air and produce new patterns — ideally, in people. Active.
Clever guy, that Paul Weller. Along with the rest of The Jam, he created sound effects that have lasted 20 years after the fact. Look at the bands spiraling out of the pop machine today, derived from their nifty mod look and pumping out angular rhythms that punk fans in the ’80s seem to recall well. On a related note, Weller had quite a lot to do with bringing “post-punk” to our lips, a term music journalists now keep sacks of next to their desks, tossing them into their writing like cheap seasoning.
But Sound Affects, the Jam’s 1980 release, trumps those achievements in its ambition. Many a hippie music teacher has rambled about uniting the world through song, and in choosing the title he did, Weller, in his own misanthropic way, was praising music’s ability to make an emotional connection with its listeners. Appropriately, the song the band pushed as its single was “Start!”, about having a flash of connection with another person. It’s well-referenced that Revolver was a major inspiration for this record, with Weller even going so far as nicking the bass line from “Taxman” for “Start!” It’s also a testament to the nods to psychedelia running throughout the album, from the dreamy feel of “Monday” to reverb echoes on a variety of songs. It’s to their credit that one of the Jam’s last albums presents not only a departure from their previous sound, but from any band of the period. Though they reach for homage, the music is clearly their own.
And while punk railed against authority and celebrated revolt, songs like “Start!” are about understanding human nature, as indicated in the chorus: “What you give is what you get / It doesn’t matter if we never meet again / What we have said will always remain / If we get through for two minutes only / It will be a start!” It’s upbeat without being saccharine, and undeniably catchy as well.
The two priceless gems on Affects, “Man in the Corner Shop” and “That’s Entertainment,” have a bitter empathy of the same class. “Man” is a character study, juxtaposing two inner dialogues: One from an office worker, enslaved by a wage and frowning over his coffee, envious of the luncheon owner who’s his own boss. The second, ironically, is the owner, silently cursing the office worker, with the financial freedom to dress well and take exciting vacations. Both men’s hopes seem absurd in the end; they only exchange trivialities with one another, but they exchange worlds with us.
“That’s Entertainment” trades interesting characters for an interesting setting—a busy English street, and the barrage of sound and distractions happening on any given day. You can almost hear Weller’s thoughts when the sarcastic title came to mind: “This is what we have to look forward to? Sticky hot tarmacs and pneumatic drills? Horrid weather and cold tea? Relationships that are almost perfect, or at least better than nothing?”
It is, and we do, Paul—but you already knew that. It’s a grey kaleidoscope filled with slices of life, all of them too drab to be anything but real life. At the same time, I think it’s a songwriter’s way of sighing in acceptance, and even having a starving man’s laugh. In southern California, this song could be rewritten about a mall, any mall— they’re all filled with bored teenagers and people buying away their problems with consumer goods. There’s something sad, funny, and beautiful about the whole thing, and Weller gets it across in a mere pop song.