Just back from a week’s travels in Sussex, seeking out MidCentury ‘stuff’, but I’m going to work backwards with a plug for a couple of venues we took in as we came back through London, and in doing so stretch my ‘MidCentury’ credentials to the limit – but for good reason.
“The Jam: About the Young Idea” at Somerset House probably isn’t the first thing you’d think of as fitting comfortably alongside an obsession with MidCentury culture, but the resonance is strong. For me, Paul Weller epitomises the youth of the 1970s, heavily influenced by the style of Mod culture of what was then just a decade and half ago but was still, in popular fashion terms, a world away from the Glam Rock/Disco/Heavy Rock styles dominating the era. Rather than slavishly imitate, though, he took the look and feel of Mod and made it relevant to the times. Infinitely more musically articulate than the nihilism of punk, Weller and his fellow band members created a sound that flared brightly – and then had the courage to snuff it out after just five years by breaking up the band. One of his famous quotes sums up the dilemma of drawing on the past for cultural inspiration: “How can I be a f***ing revivalist when I’m only eighteen”, and in there is the nub of a good evening’s debate over a few drinks. Are we in and around the so-called ‘vintage’ scene attempting to recreate a past that never actually happened? For a start, no fifties teenager ever had access to a fraction of the music at our fingertips, even when it was actually being recorded. Or are we trying to live our own lives in our own time, but influenced by what we chose, not what is foist upon us by the media and fashion-diktats? I know my answer, but we each need to have our own stance.
This kind of in-depth analysis of what pop culture stands for isn’t sparked by any kind of over-intellectualised academic approach by the exhibition, but by access to just some of the massive archive of material collected by Paul’s sister, Nicky, organiser of the Jam Fan Club, with contributions from Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. The attention to detail and willingness to keep even the most trivial of items is both awesome and a tribute to the band’s respect for their fans – how many others would have bothered keeping the letters that accompanied damaged copies of the 7-inch flimsy returned by disappointed fan club members? There are cabinets full of hand written lyrics, original stage outfits, personal photographs and footage, unreleased music videos, early scrapbooks, letters and postcards, posters and fanzines, the band’s instruments and – of course – copies of all the singles and albums, plus a number of the original acetates. What’s particularly touching is how much of a Weller family enterprise the Jam was, with sister Nicky running the fan club and dad John dedicating himself to managing the band with no previous experience. It’s the little things that bring it home – like the bill for the recording session for a classic seminal album addressed to The Jam, 44 Stanley Road, Woking – this was genuinely the sound of the suburbs (oops – sorry, wrong band…)
Fear not, I’m not about to turn this blog into a regular reflection on New Wave music of the late 70s, but the music of the Jam was as much a part of the soundtrack of my youth as the rock’n’roll I chose to listen to. And though the Jam fans were amongst the many who queued up to pick fights with the proto-Teddy Boy, the passionate musical tribalism that represented is something that we shared and has shaped our willingness to dedicate ourselves to a look and a sound that stands apart.
From there, and firmly back to something approaching the milieu with a day dedicated to the cult of the King on the 38th anniversary of the passing of Elvis Aaron Presley. The Strongroom in Curtain Road is in the heart of Shoreditch’s Hipsterland but runs a very varied programme of music in concert with the Heavy Sugar team, in this case a succession of jumping DJs, including our pal Dale Deluxe (aka Dale Easthope, now occasionally drumming behind the Caezars), Presley-themed food (not recommended for the pure in digestion) and, topping the bill, Barking’s Bollywood answer to the King, Rocker Sal Bashir. Sal’s a top bloke – giving a fun performance that takes Elvis seriously with a great voice and all the right moves, but not himself. A nice way to bring the week to a close – and, in true Presley generosity style, all for free.
So, it’s back to the real world, but with lots to talk about and a few acts to look out for. If you’re around on the last weekend of August, the Strongroom is offering a couple of tempting nights. On Saturday 29th, it’s the Junkshop Disco, featuring ‘the coolest cuts of cheapo vinyl from the last 60 years of popular music – no Cats Protection League left unforaged’, whilst on Sunday 30th, it’s another afternoon/evening gig of Sunday 7’s – ‘finest rare soul, 50s, 60s, Rhythm & Blues, Rock & Roll, Ska, Funk and Popcorn on 7 inchers’. Got to be something good in there but you can check for yourself on their website!
The Jam: About the Young Idea has been extended to run to 27 September.