Before I begin, let’s go back in time. I’m not talking about the day Paul Weller and Steve Brookes first stepped on to a stage at Woking’s Working Men’s Club in November 1972, nor the May 1974 milestone (yes, 39 years ago) when Bruce Foxton left progressive garage band Rita to join Weller, Brookes and Rick Buckler’s quest.
Similarly, this is not about the mid-1975 chain of events that finally saw The Jam – without Brookes – become a trio, the April 1977 release of their first single In The City, or the band’s emotional live finale at the Brighton Centre in December 1982.
My story starts just over four years after that, when the initial Captains Log fanzine was published, with Foxton my very first ‘proper’ interviewee – albeit by post!
At that point, Bruce (I’ll go for first-name terms from here – it just seems right) was reflecting on his first proper solo project, which peaked with the 1984 release of Touch Sensitive on Arista, something that by the time I caught up with him he admitted was just a little too rushed in the wake of the post—Jam success of debut solo single Freak.
It would be easy to write off Touch Sensitive here, but I was 16 when that came out and I loved it. And perhaps that nostalgia for the time ensures I still like that album all these years on.
It’s fair to say Bruce and Rick were left embittered by Paul’s decision to finish The Jam when he did, although in time perhaps it became clear that was the right thing to do – the main man going off and steering off in a totally different direction. It was hard on his fellow band members, maybe, but left a great band ‘untainted and fresh’, as this teenage fan wrote at the time.
While The Style Council made their own way, Rick formed Time UK with the Tom Robinson Band’s Danny Kustow, while Bruce saw immediate success in the summer of ’83 with Freak, but soon (as I put it in Captains Log) ‘the TOTP audience turned away’, and there was a perhaps harsh ‘luke warm reception’ to the subsequent long player. Yet I remained a believer and told my readers (ok, that sounds grandiose, but there were quite a few!), ‘I am sure the best is yet to come’.
In my original interview, Bruce said of Touch Sensitive that the ‘company pushed me too hard too soon’. But he remained committed to carrying on in some form or other, his love for the music business uncowed by those recent hard knocks. He was by his own admission just at the beginning of his solo career.
Between the time of our interview and the publication of edition one of Captains Log in early ‘87, Bruce had re-joined Rick in Sharp (‘more of a banner, a studio project’ than a band, he said), and a single followed. Then came a new solo 45, and pretty soon a further live project – One Hundred Men (actually a four-piece!).
While Paul continued with The Style Council and subsequently found his richest vein of form as a solo artist from 1990 onwards, Bruce joined forces with Rick to co-write The Jam – Our Story (Castle Communications, 1993), a bid to try and redress the balance of Paolo Hewitt’s official The Jam – A Beat Concerto biography (Omnibus Press, 1983).
As it turned out, Bruce replaced Ali McMordie in Stiff Little Fingers (having worked with front-man Jake Burns before) and enjoyed 15 years and recorded five albums with the Ulstermen – even managing them for a while – before Ali rejoined.
By 2001 there was a Cherry Red Records reissue of Touch Sensitive, and by 2006 Bruce was touring with The Casbah Club, where his bandmates included Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki. The following year, Bruce joined Rick on stage with Jam tribute act The Gift, with Russell Hastings in Weller’s role and Dave Moore on keyboards. And before we knew it, he’d decided to join full time, the band re-dubbed From The Jam.
I first caught From The Jam at the end of 2007 at Preston’s 53 Degrees, and was suitably impressed. It wasn’t just a case of pure nostalgia – although there was plenty of that – and shaking the dust off a few storming songs. Russ (Hastings) looked and played the part to perfection, and this was so much more than just a karaoke version of the Woking trio they emulated. Furthermore, I was lucky enough to get to talk to Bruce and Rick backstage after that gig.
From The Jam remained a live force, with a string of successful worldwide shows up to 2008, and the first signs that an album of new material might follow. But things soon changed, a time of personal lows for Bruce becoming public with the passing of his wife Pat after her fight against breast cancer.
I guess that out of every low comes a positive, and in a year when Paul Weller’s dad John – The Jam’s high-profile manager – also died, it at least brought those two old mates together again, brief encounters elsewhere leading to Bruce guesting on Paul’s Wake Up the Nation album, and even performing live with his illustrious cohort.
Perhaps partly due to that rekindled friendship between Bruce and Paul, but maybe also because Rick was – when I last spoke to him – a little tired of the whole touring aspect, then came the news that Rick had quit From The Jam.
That said, Bruce’s rekindled friendship with Paul proved nothing less than a positive force, and by the end of 2012 we had Back in the Room, Bruce’s first (kind of) solo album in 28 years, recorded at Paul’s Black Barn Studios in Ripley, Surrey – less than five miles from The Jam’s old Sheerwater roots.
And it was a winning return as far as this scribe in concerned, with Bruce – primarily aided by Russ (Hastings) and also Mark (Brzezicki) – producing with Paul’s chief engineer Charles Rees a superb collection of Foxton-Hastings songs, and to a fair weight of critical acclaim.
That about brings us up to date, although I’ve slotted my writewyattuk review of Back in the Room on the end of this late May 2013 interview with Bruce. And – 26 years after that first interview with me – this time it’s not been done by post, but via phone between Bruce’s home near Farnham, Surrey, and my sister’s in nearby Guildford. So here goes:
I take it I’m catching you between rehearsals for the next string of From The Jam gigs?
“Not really. We’ve been on the road since January, so we’re on top of it all at the moment. Our agent, Peter Barton (of Rock Artist Management) provides work all year round save for holidays, so it’s pretty much full on. At the moment we have about three weeks off, but come June we’re back on the road and remain so pretty much until Christmas and beyond, which is great. I need to work, I want to work, and I love playing those fantastic Jam songs. Most importantly, there’s still a huge demand for people wanting to hear them. As long as that’s the case and as long as I can do it, so it will be.
I get the impression you wouldn’t have taken the bait if this was just some kind of karaoke Jam tribute act. You didn’t get into it all lightly, did you?
Back in 2006 I did a couple of shows with Rick (Buckler), and from 2007 it’s been under the From The Jam name. I went into those rehearsals and found it was great playing with Rick again after all those years. Russell (Hastings) was part of The Gift, a tribute band with Rick and Dave Moore, I did a couple of guest shows with them in 2006 and by the following year we just said come on, let’s go out there. And I only did that because I felt we were doing those songs justice. If it sounded cabaret or like cruise ship stuff, I’d have said no, it’s not for me. Russ does a great job as front man. He’s a good singer and songwriter and guitarist, and I though he was just perfect for the job.
I have to say I was mightily impressed with the album. I only have one criticism, and that’s only that I felt Russ deserves his name on the front cover too.
It was very much a joint effort between Russ and myself, and obviously we spoke about that issue. But he was cool with it going out just under my name. It sounds conceited, but at the moment my name is more recognisable than Russell Hastings’, but slowly the balance is being adjusted. He’s always treated his position with … well, he’d say it was an honour, and he’s endeared himself to the fans. He’s really been accepted by everyone now. There might be the odd person that thinks it ain’t the same. Of course it isn’t, that’s why we called it From The Jam. We’re not trying to pull wool over anyone’s eyes. But who knows on the next album we’re half-way through getting ideas for. I might bear it in mind, put it in brackets … small or something (laughs). In terms of writing and royalties they’re 50/50 though – there’s no problem with that!
So, after a few months to reflect, what are your thoughts on Back in the Room? Were you happy with the finished product?
We are so pleased with the album, and that’s one I’ll be proud of ‘til I pop me clogs! It did well for us in terms of press and raised awareness that I was still out there doing it and writing new material. That’s what we hoped to achieve, not just to play all those Jam classics, but as we progress through the year we’ll be slotting in a few more tunes from the album.
Sometimes it is difficult to do that when you have a band with such a formidable back catalogue, and your audience might be more reticent to hear new songs.
We joke about it, but the new stuff does blend in. Even in The Jam days, say when we’d toured The Modern World then we came up with All Mod Cons and were wondered just how are they going to like these songs. There’s always that trepidation, wondering how songs are going to be received. But tracks we’ve already slotted in like Find My Way Home, Window Shopping and Number Six go down great live and don’t stand out like sore thumbs.
There’s a really good feel to the album, and I was so pleased that was the case. It’s somewhere along the lines of All Mod Cons or Sound Affects in parts – my favourite Jam albums.
In terms of the vibe I described recording the album as very much like when we recorded All Mod Cons with Mickie Most in St John’s Wood. He was a top producer in the ‘70s, with a huge catalogue of hits, very successful. His studio had a very good feeling. The control room had daylight, you could see into the streets. It wasn’t like you were shut away in a box room. I got the same feeling with Back in the Room at Paul Weller’s studio (Black Barn Studios). It was the same vibe as we got all those years ago. It just felt really good. It was a very relaxed atmosphere, and I think the proof is in the pudding. I just love all 12 tracks. I don’t play it every day, but it’s in my car and when I do stick it on … well, we did a great job, basically!
Looking back at that first interview I did with you back in 1987, not long after Touch Sensitive, there’s a rather prophetic sign-off to say ‘for those who have enjoyed my music so far, thanks, hang on in there, there’s better to come’. Well, you’ve finally proved that right, Bruce – it’s just that maybe I hadn’t expected to wait 26 years for the next solo album!
Well, better late than never, eh! What can I say? The best is yet to come! I’m permanently optimistic with what I’m doing. I think that’s what keeps you going. If I wasn’t I’d just think what’s the point. Some of the new ideas we’ve got kicking around I’m very up on, but as we touched on before, with the band being so busy with live shows it’s just getting time to fit in a bit of recording. Hopefully in June and July we’re have a bit of time and we’ll get in the studio as soon as we can and hopefully get another album out next March or April. You always tend to get excited about the latest thing you’ve got going and for obvious reasons it’s fresh I suppose.
Are you and Russ a pen and notepad kind of songwriting partnership? How does it work between you?
Mainly, the lyrics I leave to Russ and with technology as it is you don’t really need a notebook now – just speak it into your phone or whatever. Russ lives in Bognor so a lot of Back in the Room’s original ideas involved a riff or something we’d recorded on a phone and sent to each other. I’ve got a really basic little recording studio – well, that’s a bit of an over-statement! – but it works and I put Russ’s riff down, add to it, put some basslines out, and you don’t even need to get together initially. If we have something we think ok, we can build on that. We’ve got a lot of half-baked ideas at the moment, all on our phones and my PC, then we get together and think we can shake this into something now.
Back in 1987 you told me you had plans to produce your own material one day and get your ‘feet back under the table’. That’s happened here, the album’s production credits going to you, Russ and Charles Rees. How did you get to work with Charles?
Charles works at Paul’s studios, where he’s the house engineer – and I don’t mean to do him an injustice by saying that. I recorded bass lines for Paul’s Wake up the Nation album, so got to know all the guys that worked with Paul during those sessions. Charles was knocking about then, we got on great, and he’s got some great ideas. He proved invaluable and he’s so diligent – he works his arse off at the studio, and this album wouldn’t have been possible without him. It was a great little unit – Russ, myself, Mark (Brzezicki) on drums and Charles, and anyone else that stumbled into the studio that could play, we said ‘do you want to have a go at this track?’ Tom (Van Heel), who’s playing drums with us as Mark’s away with Big Country, is also a multi-instrumentalist. He’s not a jack of all trades – he is very good, great on drums and plays other stuff too. When we do acoustic shows when we don’t have a drum kit, he switches to keys. That’s what I meant about a relaxed atmosphere. You accidentally bump into someone, have a chat and a cup of tea, and when it comes up that they play piano or something, we say ‘would you mind having a go on that?’
There are some impressive guest roles too – not least Stax guitar legend Steve Cropper. How did that come about?
A couple of years ago, Pete, our agent, was fronting The Animals in a project where Steve was involved. He got up and played with them on stage, doing some Animals tunes then some of his own greatest hits, Blues Brothers stuff, and so on. Pete said he’d get him to play on my album. I said great, but hearing and seeing is believing. Time ran out and he was back off to the States, so we thought we missed our chance. But Peter’s like a dog with a bone and said he was going to get in touch. He did and said Steve was up for it – just send him the files over. There’s that new technology again! We sent him Don’t Waste My Time, he put his guitar on, and it was fucking great! It fitted so well. But I wanted to meet the guy, and it was only this January when he was over again that we managed that at Paul’s studio in Cranleigh. We were doing a video for that track, so got him in that. He had time for everyone – not just me and Russ, but all the guys in the studio. A lot of people are big fans. He’s a legend. When people call me a legend, I don’t really agree. But Steve Cropper’s a real legend. And he was a lovely guy.
Then of course there was Spandau Ballet saxophonist Steve Norman. How long have you known Steve?
Last year I was involved with a company called Super Channel that does corporate shows, for bands playing at racecourse meetings and so on, and Morrison’s food chain were going to do a festival – their first venture into music – at Harewood House, near Leeds. It was going to be a big event, and the director in charge got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in being a spokesperson, saying Steve Norman was already up for it. So we fronted that campaign, and it was all going well until the weather intervened. It decided to piss it down and the venue was waterlogged, and sadly went down the tube, despite all the acts being booked. But Steve and I became really good friends from that. So when we were doing Don’t Waste My Time and The Wide Open Road instrumental I said do you fancy coming along and having a blow. It was great. It was all so casual, really relaxed. He came down, having worked out some parts, and we put him in the studio with his sax.
There are a lot more contributions on there, some of which you can’t obviously tell who’s played them. Were others involved?
Paul (Weller) played glockenspiel, guitars, keys, Hammond organ, piano and probably any other instrument where you can’t fathom out who’s playing, it’s down to Paul basically, because he’s well … he’s proven himself. His track record speaks for itself. He’s a really talented guy and he gave it his all. He didn’t just pop in and say ‘I can only spend an hour on it, Bruce, that’ll have to do’. He stayed there experimenting and trying things out, treating it with as much pride as he does his own stuff. And that’s fantastic.
It’s good to see the two of you back together, after all those years.
It is. We’re just good mates really. I haven’t seen him for a while, but our paths cross now and again, and when we get round to going back into Paul’s studio he invariably pops down at some point to do some personal business. Again it’s just a very laid back situation. Maybe he’ll ask me to play on something of his in the near future – nothing is planned or set in stone. If it happens, it happens.
I guess you’ve learned over the years not to wait for Paul to ring you?
He knows where I am, and vice versa. We get on great, and there’s not a problem. We’re mates, and we’ll meet again. We’ll probably do something again at some point, but I’ve no idea when.
That leads me neatly on to the Rick Buckler situation. I spoke to both of you at Preston’s 53 Degrees the last time you played there in late 2007, and had a great chinwag. But within a year and a bit he’d moved on. What’s the score there now?
Well, in 2009 he threw in the towel, in fact he just sent us an email, and didn’t even call me or Russ about it. He just said with some regret I’m leaving the band, and that was it. It’s a real shame. But what can I say? That’s Rick’s decision. As we touched upon, I always wanted to carry on playing those Jam songs and continue, so we just thought we’d do that. I don’t know what he’s up to now, although I know he’s been playing with some members of Sham 69, although I don’t think that’s come to much. I did hear he was managing a folk artist, but it’s really vague – maybe he’s just helping someone out. It is a shame. We mended bridges between Paul and myself and now there’s another one that’s fallen by the wayside – with Rick and myself. I don’t know, but I don’t bear any grudge or have any bad feeling with Rick. It’s just that he pulled the plug on us.
There do seem to have been a few problems between Paul and Rick, judging by some of the comments Paul made in the press about him in recent years.
Yes. Perhaps they caught Paul on a bad day. Some of that was very venomous, and I don’t really know why that is, and why there is so much animosity between them. But there you go.
On the other hand, I guess it was that energy that helped ignite that creative spark in the first place with The Jam?
And now you’re missing another drummer, with Mark (Brzezicki) not with the band at present?
Mark’s off with Big Country for the time being, and I think they’re in Europe at the moment, with Mike Peters from The Alarm fronting the band. Mark’s always considered Big Country as his main act, and when he comes back if he’s interested in doing some drumming for us at some point, maybe. But we’ve got this young guy – Tom (Van Heel) – who’s stepped in, and is doing a great job. As far as we’re concerned he’s our drummer. Yet I think he’s 23 and he’s got his own band and is recording at the moment, so I’m sure there’ll come a time when he wants to go off and do that. I’ve just got to be a bit flexible and play it by ear. But for now the line-up is Russ, myself and Tom, but that might change later in the year depending on people’s commitments and other projects.
The last track on the album is a little Big Country-esque, I felt.
That’s just Mark’s style of drumming. There’s Jam-esque basslines too, but it’s not intentional to write in that style. That’s just me, and the same goes for Mark really –that’s just his style.
It’s now 20 years since you published The Jam – Our Story with Rick (Buckler), which in itself was 10 years after the band split. I know in some respects that was a late response to Paolo Hewitt’s The Jam – A Beat Concerto, which appeared not long after the split. Any regrets about Our Story now?
No regrets really, although I suppose you could sit on the loo and read it! Since then I’ve learned that the real Jam fans had realised it was very much a three-way thing, and without Rick and myself it wouldn’t have been the same. I think at the time we wanted to justify our positions in the band, but on reflection I don’t think that was necessary.
Now it’s 30 years since Paul finished the band to start The Style Council, is it time for another book – charting your life in music? A lot’s happened since.
I doubt it … maybe at a later date.
Of course, an integral part of The Jam was Paul’s dad, John Weller. And I think it was partly his passing that led to your reconciliation with Paul. Is that right?
It was unique to have Paul’s dad manage us, and John was a nice guy, and looking back he gave up a lot of his time to try and turn our career, from getting us gigs in working men’s clubs onwards, to beg, borrow or steal equipment, and everything. We really couldn’t have done it without him, and for me the year he died – 2009 – was a horrendous year. I also lost my wife Pat, and then we lost John.
At that point, my tape ran out (none of that new-fangled technology for me!), and it was time for Bruce to fit in another interview. But he did briefly mention how he’d got involved with the Rainbow Trust charity through his wife’s influence, helping out terminally-ill kids, and spoke briefly about the ‘terrible disease’ that took his beloved wife, something that in turn led to a charity gig at the Red House pub in Woking and other charity shows with hospice in 2010, Wake up Woking.
And with that we wrapped things up, Bruce telling me as we said our goodbyes that we shouldn’t wait another 25 years until our next interview together!
* For further details of From The Jam gigs and all the latest news (including Russell’s own pages) head to http://www.fromthejam.co.uk/
* You can also check out Bruce’s website via http://brucefoxton.com/
* For more details of From The Jam’s Preston 53 Degrees show on June 21st, supported by Deadwood Dog, head to http://www.53degrees.net/listings/fromthejam2012.php
* Interview arranged with thanks to Mark Charlesworth at 53 Degrees, Preston, and Dave Hill at Tenacity Music PR (http://www.tenacitymusicpr.co.uk/)
* Meanwhile, the writewyattuk review of Bruce’s Back in the Room album is here