I’ve suggested before now that if I had any problem with Bruce Foxton’s impressive 2012 comeback LP Back in the Room, it was the fact that –despite clearly being a collaborative effort – it only carried his name on the spine.
I understand exactly why he did it. It was Bruce’s name that sold the units, and his profile that was higher. Fair play. Besides, this legendary bassist remains a hero to me – long after I first thrilled to The Jam.
Yet this album was as much about Bruce’s co-writer, From the Jam guitarist/vocalist Russell Hastings. If Back in the Room was a statement of intent reminding us Bruce could still write damn good songs, it was also an affirmation that his creative partner was no karaoke Paul Weller stand-in.
In short, I felt Foxton & Hastings might have been a more accurate band handle, confirming Russ was behind many of the album’s finest moments. Unsurprisingly though, Russ wouldn’t be drawn on that though when I caught up with him recently.
The closest I got was when he mentioned how two of the songs from that album had since made their way into the regular set of From the Jam, the more-than-a-tribute band he helped form with Jam drummer Rick Buckler, Dave Moore and (later) Bruce too.
These days that band involves a core of Russ and Bruce together with a drummer, in recent times alternating between Big Country’s Mark Brzezicki, Weller cohort Tom van Heel and most recent addition Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard.
Talking about Back in the Room, I mentioned how the first song that hit me was Number Six, which the dad of 15 and 10-year-old boys told me was written about the South Coast house where he brought up his family.
“I live in No.6, where I’m speaking to you at the moment, the house I bought and where my kids grew up.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen like that, but I got the musical project together, bumped into Rick in 2001, it grew from there, and my circumstances changed.
“I’m just about to sell it now, but wrote in that song about the love of the house, which is not something I would normally be sentimental about.
“We’re also playing Drifting Dreams in our acoustic set, which is great as far as I’m concerned. I’d proudly stand by any of those songs.
“Drifting Dreams is again quite personal, about a love affair and dipping into the past and all those emotions that creep up.
“That album also works because of the period in which we wrote those songs. It was a happy time in our lives.
“Bruce had remarried, moved into his new house, and things were going well after all the traumas of the last few years.
“It was approaching summer, and we were left well alone at the studio. It was a magical time though, and Paul would often pop his head in and see how things were going …”
Hang on, did he say Paul? Of course he did, because Back in the Room was recorded at Mr Weller’s Black Barn Studios. And it doesn’t take a genius to hear an unmistakable Weller footprint across the recordings.
“True. He wouldn’t stick his oar in, but would have a listen, say what he liked. And I guess a bit of that rubbed off.”
In fact, I’m led to believe hat anything you can’t work out who’s playing it on the album is probably supplied by Paul.
“Yes. I remember one day Paul was in there with a drumstick on a ride cymbal doing over-crashes, then he picked up the xylophone … the glockenspiel … the tambourine.
“That’s the way he works. He’s pretty mad. I was playing guitar and he was at the piano and would transpose the chords I was playing, like on Coming on Strong, on which he played Hammond organ.”
It sounds like Bruce and Russ had a blast recording, with impressive results. So with all this time on the road, can they fit in any studio time and get the next album out?
“We’re back in there soon, with a shed-load of ideas to put down, having just got back from a holiday together in the Caribbean.”
“I took my acoustic with me and we were playing a bit of golf and talking about work but from a different perspective. It was nice to be away, out from under the microscope, what with all the travelling and how busy it gets.
“You see your lives in little blocks of gigs sometimes, and this was a chance to get away from that, on holiday with our families, with time for a laugh and a bit of fun.
“We wrote a couple of new songs too, really uplifting, which capture that summer mood. I like things like that, things that make me smile. Sometimes you need to be cheered up from all of that.”
When it comes to dream jobs, Russ admits he occasionally has trouble getting his head around the fact that he’s truly living the dream.
“Sometimes I have trouble differentiating between me a few years ago, there to see Paul, Bruce and Rick coming out of the Brighton Centre, and now, in a situation where I’m handing Bruce a towel in the back of a boat, or out on a golf course together!
“It’s mental, and so surreal. But I will claim Bruce as my best and dearest friend, and we just have a relationship where I know exactly what he’s thinking at a certain time.”
Having gone from a starry-eyed Jam fan to heading a successful band with Bruce (and previously Rick too), and recording with Paul at his studio, must be pretty special.
I suggested it must be like the famous George Best anecdote involving wads of cash on a hotel bed, champagne, a Miss World, and a waiter asking ‘where did it all go wrong?’
“Exactly! Actually, I have to tell you this. While we were away, I pulled up by jet-ski on this beach, and Bruce pulled up alongside me on the sand and shouted ‘Russ! Where did it all go wrong?’ He’s a man of the people!”
So had Russ ever envisaged when he formed Jam tribute band, The Gift, that would lead to a chance meeting with Rick and subsequent invite to join forces, later with Bruce too?
“Not at all. But about that time, if someone told me a UFO had landed on the green opposite my road I’d have gone to have a look. You never know what’s around the corner. It’s become so surreal, yet that has become my reality!”
(I’m guessing he means joining forces with his old heroes has become a reality, rather than being beamed up by spaceman from one of those alien craft, to paraphrase Strange Town)
I note From the Jam have a few gigs this year on the wider reunion circuit, among notable ’80s acts. But it’s never been karaoke with Bruce and Russ, has it?
“Definitely not. I don’t know why though. We can’t be too choosy about what comes your way, and I guess each and every one of those acts has their own fan-base.
“Someone commented the other night what it would be like to share the same stage as Jason Donovan. But it doesn’t bother me. I just feel ‘good luck to him’.
“It doesn’t bother me. If people want to come and see us, that’s great. They’re going to have a great time.”
I mention my love of The Undertones, and – although Feargal Sharkey was an integral part of the original five-piece – how it works well with Paul McCloone these days, a new vocalist somehow enriching the band. Is it a similar tale with From the Jam?
“Yeah, that’s exactly the way I look at it. I’m just one of the cogs in the wheel, hoping to play the songs the way they were written, and for Bruce to be able to do his bit.
“He was never a front-man, but played a massive part with The Jam, and the vocals were always double lines with Paul and Bruce.
“Once people got over that in the early days, that was fine. There was nothing where we were trying to hoodwink people.”
Famously, Paul always said no to the idea of reforming The Jam, something most fans accept now. But in Paul’s absence, Russ is a perfect front-man. And at times on Back in the Room it’s difficult to differentiate his vocals from Paul’s.
“Well, I come from the same area and my accent is similar to Paul’s. And I only know one way to sing! I just open my mouth and … talk-sing.”
It’s strange to think The Jam were only together for a decade and enjoyed just five years as recording artists.
But they made a massive impact all around the world (sorry), and continue to do so more than 30 years after their demise.
When Paul quit to form The Style Council – going on to another half-dozen years of hits before a fantastic solo career – it was unfinished business as far as Bruce and Rick were concerned.
In time, Rick, Russ and David Moore started The Gift, playing Jam songs, and by 2006 had Bruce in tow and had renamed themselves From the Jam.
Dave and Rick have since moved on, but Russ remains the best of buddies with Bruce, and they’ve a lot of dates coming up this year, alternating between a That’s Entertainment acoustic set and two full band sets, the The Public Gets What the Public Wants tour and the Setting Sons 35th anniversary tour later this year.
We spoke the day after the acoustic tour started in Milton Keynes. So was it a promising opener?
“It was. It’s always a nervous first night, especially with an acoustic tour in sit-down theatres, with people all sat round watching. It’s a very different vibe, and not something myself or Bruce are used to.
“But once you overcome that and realise everyone’s having a really great time, despite not jumping up and down, there’s something civilised about it.
“It’s looking at it at a more adult level, I guess! There’s always a few that get up though, which is always welcome. It was a great night.”
It’s the tour that never stops in one sense, with dates right up to Christmas.
“Absolutely, and we’re lucky we can keep doing that and keep filling places. So I guess we’ll just keep that going as much as we can.”
After that first night, I asked Russ about Tom van Heel’s involvement (I must admit, I didn’t know about Steve Barnard’s role at the time).
“Tom has played drums with us in the past. He plays with Leah Weller and also Paul. We met ‘young Tom’ down at Paul’s studio in 2011 doing the album.
“He’s one of those likeable guys you meet in life and instantly get on with – a quiet, reserved talented musician who has so many strings to his bow.
“Tom plays great piano, guitar and drums, and he’s a songwriter, with his own band too, Monroze. He offered to join us on the acoustic tour, and we said we’d be delighted. He’s such good fun to be around, and picks things up very quickly.
“Besides, his dad was a big Jam fan, so he grew up on that material. It was second nature to him to hear the songs and understand what it was we were requiring of him.”
It does seem that it’s the next generation coming through now, appreciating the band and that rich back-catalogue.
“I know. That even surprises me. We see people at our gigs who we know weren’t even alive when The Jam split up, yet can be so passionate about the band.
“They understand the lyrics too. And I suppose it gives an understanding of what the politics were all about back then.
“I was asked the other day, when I sing the songs, do I feel the passion the way Paul did at the time. I didn’t want to get into politics there and then on stage, but you can’t help but feel that. I said to my youngest son how political it was around that time.
“I’m 49 this year and grew up through the early ‘70s and remember the power strikes that were going on. It was very extreme from left and right then.”
That politics certainly shines through, yet never seems jingoistic or dated. I share a story of how I recently re-discovered 1982’s The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong, seeing parallels with housing issues today.
“What a great song, and there are so many. Yesterday, Tom said, ‘how did Paul go about writing songs like When You’re Young when he was only 21 himself?’ I guess that’s where you’re gifted, writing stuff like that.
“Like you say, Planner’s Dream has such incredible lyrics. I was lucky enough to see them do that in a soundcheck at Portsmouth and Brighton in early ’82.
“It’s well advanced, that. You’d really struggle if you were in your mid-40s writing that. I know I would!”
From the Jam have served up a few surprises on tour, with some unexpected song choices and other touches, plus occasional Q&A sessions with the audience.
“There are some good talking points. I’m very familiar with all the stories from over the years, so can steer it form the stage, so we’re open to questions.
“Last night I was asked what it was like when Going Underground went straight in at No.1, and Bruce told how they were in America and John Weller, (Paul’s late dad, the band’s manager) said ‘let’s fly back’. So they all jumped on Concorde!
“Stories like that and everything else make for an interesting evening, and it’s great fun.”
Russ also gets a chance to break down the old songs and try out acoustic versions – inevitably leading to insight from Bruce. That must make him feel like he’s a biographer of the band at times.
“Absolutely. It’s really interesting to do that, and sometimes I think that while Paul was no rocket scientist when he was that age with regards to playing guitar, that’s what makes the songs so magically fantastic.
“His musical genius was in-built, but there’s nothing fancy in there, and the chord structures are pretty straight-forward.
“Something came up in the studio last week, while looking at Life From a Window, which we’re doing live, and I just said ‘where did he call that out from?’ It’s pure genius.
“When we did our In the City tour, we looked back at those early gigs at the 100 Club and The Greyhound, when the band were playing Back In My Arms Again and Slow Down.
“Then you bring that a year on and think ‘is that the same person?’ Just two years before that, they were doing the demos Bruce has since played me, and they were very sweet, very Hollies.”
“So yes, you do get an insight. Around the time of Setting Sons and Sound Affects they would go in and kick a little idea and guitar riff around, and Bruce often tells me how a bass line came about.
“Paul was a young guy at that time and wouldn’t go about anything complicated, but it’s that simplicity that makes it so fantastic.”
So what’s The Public Gets What the Public Wants tour about?
“Those will be with the full band, with a big mixture of the whole catalogue. We’ve been touring an album each year, starting with In The City then All Mod Cons, but this time we’ll pull out a few of the gems that got left off the albums, something from each era.”
“All Mod Cons, Setting Sons and Sound Affects are my favourite albums, and I can’t decide which one’s best – so it has to be all three of them!”
I suggest that if this album anniversary tour policy carries on, he should get to The Gift then break it to Bruce that he can’t carry on, saying he’s given it lots of thought, and will instead form From The Style Council – just to see Bruce’s reaction.
“Actually, that would be quite a good joke to pull on him. Yes, I might get me coat for that one though!”
Simon Townsend was the special guest on the last tour, the younger brother of The Who legend Peter Townsend proving a gifted singer-songwriter in his own right.
“He’s on most of the acoustic dates, opening for us. Simon’s an amazing performer and has a big role with The Who now, playing most of the guitar Pete doesn’t, doing a lot of the vocals as well. He’s also visited the States with Roger (Daltrey), replacing Pete really.
“It’s very much like watching his brother, and Bruce said it’s like being on stage with Pete. Simon’s a really nice guy, and he pulls out a few Who tracks as well.”
Russ also hinted that Simon might join them on stage for a certain cover version. Such covers were an important part of The Jam’s set, and we got talking about Weller’s love of Northern Soul, with a date in Wigan (The Kaff, Friday, May 9) in mind.
“Some of the Northern Soul I love, and I guess my musical taste goes right across the spectrum.
“I’ve no shame in listening to The Best of The Carpenters, appreciating the amazing songwriting ability and the voice of an angel really.
“The older you get the easier it is to admit these things!”
Russ also told a tale about meeting Paul at the Holiday Inn, Fratton, Portsmouth, where he was shown an image of Small Faces on Ready Steady Go and the similarity between Paul’s vocal delivery and Steve Marriott’s.
“I guess it’s that same vocal trait – he’s got that soul that crept into Paul’s voice.”
That took me on to Russ’ days watching The Jam, telling me his first gig was when he was 12, at the Locarno in Portsmouth in late 1977.
He was there for the last shows in 1982 too, aged 17 – two nights at Wembley, one at Guildford Civic, then the finale at Brighton Centre.
Seeing as I missed out, I attempt to out-do him – the only way I can – asking if he saw Bruce on his Touch Sensitive tour in 1983.
“I didn’t. I really wish I had though.”
I told him how – as a paperboy on a low wage – I wasn’t quick enough to buy tickets for those later Jam shows, but at least got to see Bruce in his shiny suit that following year.
“I know exactly the suit you’re talking about. In fact, I think he’s still got it!”
Is Russ enjoying Paul’s recent output, as he continues to craft great songs, while stretching boundaries.
“That’s a good way of describing his material. There’s some great songs in there, and while we were in the studio Paul played us a couple of tracks, one being The Attic.
“I love to hear what he’s up to, and the great thing about Paul – and he’s said it himself – is he thinks if people like it, great, and if they don’t, so what. He just does his own thing.”
Has Paul ever spoken to Russ about From the Jam?
“He hasn’t, but did say it was nice to meet me. Actually, he said, ‘I thought you’d be one of those look-a-likies’. That was a nice thing to say, really.
“I just said ‘no, I’ve a bit more respect than that’. I also told him ‘thanks so much for doing what you’re doing’. And it’s a pleasure to see him and Bruce having a good laugh again.
“He was on his own patch and relaxed. I thought he was very comical, and a decent, nice bloke really.”
Is there still no word between Russ, Bruce and Rick after the latter left From the Jam?
“No one’s heard anything. I know for a fact it was nothing to do with Bruce playing on Paul’s album though. I think it was just a case of differences of opinion over management.
“Me and Bruce didn’t want management, Rick did. Things got heated, as they do in those times.
“I’m hoping one day Rick will see the sense Paul and Bruce did in making up again, because there was never a big fall-out. I have a lot of time for Rick too.”
To look back at a writewyattuk interview with Bruce Foxton from May 31st, 2013, head here.
And for full details of From the Jam dates and other band news, head to their official Facebook page here.
This is a revised and expanded version of a Malcolm Wyatt feature for the Lancashire Evening Post. The online version – published May 1st – is here.