Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.
On December 11, 1982, The Jam played its farewell concert, at Brighton’s Conference Centre, ending with an extended version of “The Gift,” the final track—and title track—from the band’s last studio album. Though frontman Paul Weller had tried to keep his decision to dissolve the group a secret until late in its valedictory tour, the news had leaked out long before December, sending The Jam’s longtime fans scrambling for tickets. Three months later, in March 1983, Weller’s new act The Style Council would release its first single, “Speak Like A Child,” a soulful, danceable number that continued in the direction The Jam had been heading with songs like “Absolute Beginners,” “Beat Surrender,” and The Gift’s “Precious” and “Trans-Global Express.” As the song climbed the charts, all the Jam-ophiles who packed into those last shows were asking the question that even Weller’s former bandmates Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton were pondering: Why couldn’t this have been a Jam record?
Author Paolo Hewitt wrote the authorized biography The Jam: A Beat Concerto in 1983, then revised it 1996. In the later edition, even after 13 years of Style Council and Paul Weller solo hits—including the 1995 album Stanley Road, which was a U.K. chart-topper—Hewitt still described the decision to end The Jam as “a source of great wonderment.” Hewitt actually does a fine job of explaining what drove Weller to toss aside a name that had enormous value in Great Britain and a growing cachet abroad. In part, it had to do with the difficulty that The Jam’s drummer Buckler and bassist Foxton experienced in adapting to The Gift’s more complex music, so that Weller had to compromise more than he’d wanted, on their behalf.
Also, the fanatical devotion that The Jam inspired had a dark side that Weller disliked. When the trio exploded out of the 1977 punk scene—with a sound and style that hearkened back to early 1960s British rock and “mod” acts like The Who, The Small Faces, and The Kinks—Weller’s poppy melodies and big hooks made the band commercially successful, while Buckler and Foxton’s swift, aggressive beat made them popular with “the lads.” Those same young, macho fans would sometimes provoke violence at Jam shows, even while sporting fancy clothes and shaggy haircuts. Each one of the old guard seemed to have an opinion about how The Jam should sound, and many seemed unwilling to trust Weller’s developing fascinations with worldbeat and neo-disco.
That may explain why The Gift drew such a mixed reaction when it was released in March 1982. At the time, it had been well over a year since the previous Jam album, 1980’s Sound Affects. In the interim, the band had released two hit singles—the raging “Funeral Pyre” and the horn-stoked “Absolute Beginners”—that had been criticized for being overproduced and bombastic, absent the crispness that had been The Jam’s hallmark in the late ’70s. The Gift drew some raves in the British press, but also more than a few half-hearted notices. In New Musical Express, Graham Lock complained that Weller “seems tired of the old-style Jam music… but knows of no better alternative, so he ends up dabbling,” adding, “The Jam have tried too hard to do too much without really having any stronger foundations than their own desire to ‘keep moving.’”
Longtime fan Hewitt gave a mixed-to-positive breakdown of The Gift’s strengths and weaknesses in the original A Beat Concerto, though in the revised edition he’d admit that in 1983, with The Jam’s breakup still fresh, he undervalued a lot of the band’s subtler songs. American critic Robert Christgau, never a Jam true-believer, wrote of a 1981 U.S.-only EP, “There are two theories about these guys—one that they’re getting better, the other that they’re getting worse. As you might fear, this interim product (‘5 British Hit Singles,’ boasts the sticker, so imagine how excited they are in Britain) proves both—songwriting up, punk excitement gone forever.” His Gift review, meanwhile, is mostly admiring, until this stinging final line: “If [Weller]’s written half a dozen good melodies since he stopped settling for Who hand-me-downs, three of them have passed me by.”
At the cash register though—and on the radio—The Gift became one of The Jam’s most popular albums. Even now, The Jam song most likely to pop up on movie soundtracks and compilations of “’80s music” is The Gift’s “Town Called Malice,” a Motown-inspired pop wonder that showcases the best of what the band could do. A taut, springy number with a memorable tune—but no real chorus aside from the repetition of the title at the end of nearly every verse—“Town Called Malice” is an upbeat song about a downbeat subject. Weller tours a working-class neighborhood that’s being crushed by the Thatcher economy, rallying the listener to his cause with his insistence that’s something’s gone awry in a country that can’t sustain “a whole street’s belief in Sunday’s roast beef.”
The Gift features a few songs every bit as good as “Town Called Malice.” Though it never became a single, the offhanded R&B shuffle “Ghosts” remains a fan-favorite, with its casual vocal and snappy, tinny horns. Weller says he wrote the song in the studio, while improvising with Buckler and Loxton. While at the time he had no plans to dissolve The Jam, anyone looking for cues to Weller’s mindset could read a lot into this “Ghosts” lyric: “There’s more inside you that you haven’t shown.”
The album’s political content is also strong throughout. “Just Who Is The 5 O’Clock Hero?” was never officially released as a single in the U.K., but it became a hit anyway thanks to the sales of an import Dutch 45. It’s another bouncy workingman’s lament, again with no chorus, using its complex horn-line as a hook. It’s a fine companion-piece to The Gift’s side-two opener, “Running On The Spot,” a surging anthem studded with gripes like, “Though we keep piling up the building blocks, the structure never seems to get any higher.” Similar to “Town Called Malice,” these two toe-tapping pop-rock songs cut right to the heart of the blue-collar dissatisfaction overwhelming Weller’s countrymen in the early ’80s.
Weller hits those same themes in “The Planner’s Dream Gone Wrong” and “Trans-Global Express,” but with a different musical approach. The former applies steel drums and island rhythms to a Kinks-like, “only in the U.K.” character sketch. The latter’s harder to describe, layering horns, drums, and dub effects so densely that Weller’s fairly radical call for a worldwide workers’ rebellion becomes effectively inaudible. (The lyrics take up one whole side of the vinyl record’s inner sleeve, to compensate for an intentionally murky mix.)
The Gift song “Precious” really points to the way to how Weller intended to spend the rest of the ’80s. With its wavy funk guitar and polyrhythmic horns, “Precious” plays like a Style Council prequel—albeit with the angry energy of The Jam. It was released as a double A-sided single with “Town Called Malice,” and as such reached No. 1 on the U.K. charts, though it wasn’t in heavy rotation on the radio like its partner. Trends in British pop were angling toward the light and breezy, and while “Precious” could get a dancefloor shaking—with lyrics that weren’t exactly as hard-hitting as the rest of The Gift—the song’s overall intensity was pretty far-removed from Culture Club or Spandau Ballet.
The Gift is just under 33 minutes long, about the average for a Jam LP. Nevertheless, the brevity may have amplified what some less-than-enthusiastic reviewers saw as its faults. With only 11 songs total on the record, relative throwaways like the Foxton-penned instrumental “Circus” and the simple heartbreak ballad “Carnation” don’t shoulder enough of the record’s thematic burden. They mainly add to the overall texture with their bright, busy arrangements.
The same could be said of the album’s opening and closing tracks, “Happy Together” and “The Gift.” Both are muscular and uncomplicated, musically and lyrically; but both also boom out of the speakers, in ways that exemplify The Gift as a whole. “Happy Together” actually suckers the listener, beginning with a soft voice mumbling, “For those of you watching in black-and-white this next one is in technicolor,” before Weller’s voice breaks the silence with an alarming shout. As for “The Gift,” it’s mindlessly and infectiously delirious: the perfect dessert after an album (and a career) full of more serious music.
Could Weller have kept The Jam moving? Absolutely. Even fans of The Style Council can admit how songs like “Shout To The Top” and “My Ever Changing Moods” might’ve been just as good with Foxton and Buckler providing the percussive drive. And while Weller’s solo albums have worked in a moody singer-songwriter vein, there’s nary a one that couldn’t have been a Jam record if Weller had really wanted them to be.
Given that, there are different ways that fans could receive The Gift—some on-track, and some way off-. This album was by no means the last gasp of a worn-out band. The music’s too good, and too vital. Nor was it the first step in the next phase of Weller’s career. The sound is unmistakably The Jam’s. The Gift was really more of a pivot toward a direction that The Jam as a trio never really got the chance to pursue—which can make the record frustrating, at least in comparison to more fully realized releases like All Mod Cons and Sound Affects.
Really though, the best way to think about The Gift is to take its title at face value. We were only ever going to get a finite number of Jam songs. The Gift has 11 of them, to savor and to nitpick—all while wishing Weller had seen fit to allow us to argue about another 11, and then 11 more after that, in perpetuity.