After an extended festive break, Bruce Foxton is all set for another punishing year for his band, with 100-plus gigs already arranged and a brand new album on its way.
If anything, the anniversary circuit is old hat for Bruce now, after several commemorative tours celebrating the music of The Jam, the Paul Weller-fronted band he initially joined in 1973.
From 1977 to 1982 this revered three-piece outfit, completed by drummer Rick Buckler, enjoyed massive worldwide success, releasing six studio albums and 18 singles, four of which topped the UK charts and five more made the top-10.
Then it was all over, The Jam’s front-man and chief writer forming The Style Council then later embarking on a stellar solo career. But while Bruce felt let down at first, he bounced back, a brief solo project followed by a lengthy spell in the reformed Stiff Little Fingers before Rick enticed him into guesting with Russell Hastings’ tribute band, in time evolving into From The Jam.
And while several personnel changes followed – not least Rick moving on at the end of 2009 – the inner nucleus of Foxton and Hastings remains, the duo set to release a second studio album this year under Bruce’s name.
Bruce and his songwriting partner clearly have another big year ahead, the diary already fairly full and Smash the Clock ever closer. So, to quote a song from the new LP, Now the Time Has Come.
“Exactly – back on it again! We finished in Brighton on December 19, and I enjoyed having Christmas and New Year off. We needed it really, to get fixed up again and all the aches and pains sorted out. Unfortunately, that’s the price Russ and myself pay. We give it everything … every show, and it takes its toll after a while.
“But we’re reasonably fit again now, so we’re going out again and I think we’ve got around 118 shows this year. It scares me when those words come out but it’ll be great once we get rolling again.”
That’s a lot of bass leaps – photographers somewhat duty-bound to catch Bruce airborne while playing during those shows.
“Well, they’ve got their work cut out – I kind of restrict leaping around these days, having had a couple of cartilage operations on one knee and being advised to not leap about as much. It’s not choreographed anyway. It’s not false or fake. I’m not just doing it so a photographer can snap me. It’s just what I do … when I do it.”
Where are we at with Smash the Clock? I heard it was set for a March 18th release.
“Well, here’s an update for you. We’ve been full on and we’re using Paul Weller’s studio – so when he needs it, he has it. What with that and fitting in studio time to finish it around our commitments, we’ve now knocked it back to late April.
“Not because we haven’t got the material – we just need to do one more lead vocal and backing vocals on a couple of tracks, then mix it. We’re in again in early February to finish it.”
“We kind of figured that all round. We’re really pleased with how it’s sounding, so don’t want to rush the last couple of tracks. In fact, on tour in December Russ came up with this verse which was really good. We knocked it up while we were on the road, and thought we should record it. So every cloud has a silver lining – wait an extra month and you get an extra track!”
Fantastic, and I like the snippets I’ve heard, as a Pledge Music subscriber to the album. Remind us who features on this album other than yourself and Russell.
“Paul (Weller) does. He pulled something completely off the wall and out of the bag, as he does – he’s a talented guy and really added to a couple of songs. Wilko Johnson’s on it as well, and was the first to come in actually, around February last year. It was lovely to see him. The Jam were heavily influenced by Dr Feelgood, and it was nice to see him after his major op, looking so well.”
The legendary guitarist famously overcame the odds recently – having been told to prepare for the worst by medical experts – beating cancer following radical new surgery. In fact, Wilko seems to defy nature.
“Yeah, and long may that continue! We’ve also got Paul Jones, from The Blues Band and Manfred Mann involved. He lives very close to me, which I didn’t know until we got him in the studio, and plays great harmonica on a couple of tracks.
“It’s all sounding great. We’re really pleased with it, and now just want it finished.”
You mention Paul Jones, 73, and only last week I interviewed Colin Blunstone, 70, of The Zombies. Musical heroes like that, still playing and recording, must make 60-year-old Bruce feel young.
“Yeah – there’s hope for everyone! There’s no getting away from it, it’s hard being on the road. My wife ribs me about it, saying, ‘What are you moaning about? You’re in the car five or six hours, and you’re only sitting down’.
“It does gets tiring, but it’s a great way to get out there and earn a living. I’m just glad we’re still able to do it, very grateful – having all those classic songs to perform is a joy.”
From the Jam tend to alternate between band shows and acoustic performances these days. They’ve also taken to anniversary gigs celebrating past Jam albums. Is the Sound Affects 35th anniversary tour still on-going?
“I think there may still be one or two we rescheduled, but while we’re pretty much done there, our greatest hits sets still include tracks off every album.”
Those greatest hits shows – dubbed The Public Gets What the Public Wants in honour of a lyric from Going Underground – include visits to Bridgewater, Blake Hall (Friday, January 22nd), Barnstaple, Factory Petroc (Saturday, January 23rd) and Colne, The Muni (Saturday, January 30th) before the month is out, the latter following a rearranged Sound Affects show at Shrewsbury, The Buttermarket (Friday, January 29th).
And then there are the That’s Entertainment acoustic shows, starting at London’s Under the Bridge (Friday, March 11th).
“Yeah, we’ve got to get our heads around those again – they’re a whole different ball game the way we approach them, with the songs slightly changed as we don’t have a full kit behind us. I think we’ve got Tom (van Heel) on keys for those though.
“When the idea was first suggested, acoustic shows, I was really apprehensive, having been used to having the power of a band behind me. I was so nervous. I get nervous whatever the show, but to go out there acoustic, you’re really exposed. You can hear a pin drop.
“That said, they’ve taken on a life of their own at some venues, as raucous from the audience point of view as anything with a full band. Unbelievable! Again, it’s testament to how great those songs still are. If you can play them on an acoustic guitar and get a reaction, you know you’re on to a winner.”
Seeing as you’ve branded those acoustic gigs your That’s Entertainment shows, I take it you realise it’s 35 years next month since that classic single was released.
“Well … you know more than I do!”
I doubt that very much, but it was February 7, 1980, when the single came out.
“There you go – and that’s what amazes me doing these anniversary celebrations. In a lot of ways it doesn’t feel like that long ago and I never thought I’d be doing it.
“When the Jam split in 1982 I thought that was the end of it. But I’m proud and grateful I can still play those songs, and we still get great crowds.”
For me, Sound Affects and the singles that followed suggest The Jam were on a creative high then.
“Absolutely. It’s a great album. With the Setting Sons and Sound Affects tours I’ve re-learned some of the songs, and it hits home even more how great Paul’s lyrics are. It’s incredible considering how young we all were, to come up with those lyrics. I’ve probably paid more attention to that side of it now.”
Since I last caught From the Jam live – the third time I’d seen them at Preston’s 53 Degrees – they’ve switched personnel again, with Steve ‘Smiley’ Barnard joining Rick Buckler, Big Country’s Mark Brzezicki and Paul Weller studio aide Tom van Heel (who still helps out when he can on keyboards) in the ranks of former From The Jam drummers.
In his place is Mike Randon, a lack of availability for Smiley – who previously featured with Joe Strummer and Robbie Williams, among others – leading to a rethink.
“We just agreed to part company. We’re friends, he came to the Brighton show and we remain in touch. There’s no animosity. It was the practicality, with his band, Archive, away he couldn’t do the run-up to the Sound Affects tour.
“But Russ heard about Mike and he’s just great – he fits the bill and is the closest thing to Rick in his style of drumming we’ve ever had. It’s working really well, he came to Australia with us last year, and we’ve kept him on since. He’s got a lot of detail in his drumming, as Rick has.”
Support at Colne in Lancashire next weekend comes from stalwart blues outfit Nine Below Zero. Is there a good camaraderie between the bands?
“Yeah, they’re no spring chickens either, they’ve been round the block – like I have. They’re no prima donnas either, excellent at what they do, very talented, and gentlemen as well. When we’re backstage, it’s a real nice friendship and vibe. I’m really happy they’re our special guests. It promises to be a great night out.”
Bruce goes back a long way with lead singer Dennis Greaves – who also fronted ‘80s outfit The Truth – and Nine Below Zero are enjoying something of an r’n’b resurgence, thanks to younger acts like The Strypes and older hands like Wilko Johnson.
Meanwhile, there’s plenty of fresh interest in late-‘70s new wave bands judging by Squeeze’s 2015 comeback and continued live success for From The Jam and fellow Surrey outfit The Stranglers.
“Yeah, you can’t get shot of us, can you!”
True, and recently From The Jam played Manchester Academy alongside two more of my favourite old bands, The Undertones and The Beat.
“Yeah – that was good!”
It’s a fair step-up from the dreaded tribute circuit, I put to Bruce, leading to a typically-deadpan response.
“Yeah … I never understood that anyway. I can’t be a tribute to myself! I mean, how great am I? But it’s come on unbelievably since we embarked on it all.
“I think that’s testament to how hard we work and at such a high level. We’re very passionate about those Jam songs and want to perform them to the best of our ability, and I think we do that. The crowds appreciate that, and the numbers are getting bigger and bigger in most towns.”
Back to the new album – explain the title, Smash the Clock.
“Well, it’s a song title, and the outline is that good music is timeless. That sums it up really.”
Is it mostly Russell’s lyrics or both of you this time around?
“It’s probably 75/25.”
Last year was a big one for Bruce’s old band, with a celebratory summer exhibition at Somerset House in London, The Jam: About the Young Idea, attracting large numbers.
“It was unbelievable, and lovely to see people like Barry Cain, who was at Record Mirror all those years ago and was a good friend of my first wife. There was also Paul Cook of the Pistols, and the actor, Martin Freeman. I didn’t realise he was such a big fan.
“More importantly, there was the chance to hang out with Paul, and his sister Nicky again. And I went back a few weeks later, met up with Paul and had a late morning walking around Somerset House, which was a lot calmer.
“It was nice to hang out. Our friendship is as strong as ever. I was very impressed with the actual exhibition too, seeing a lot I hadn’t seen at all or not for many years.”
As it happens, Rick Buckler was also there – although not at the same time as Bruce and Paul – just a couple of months after publishing his autobiography, That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam. Has Bruce read his book?
“I haven’t, but not for any reason. I just haven’t got around to it, and haven’t got a copy. But I’ve always wished him all the best.”
When I spoke to Rick last April he seemed keen to put any past disputes – mostly those played through the press, I might add – behind you all.
“That’s good, but if he really wanted to, he should have come to the preview! That was probably the last chance to get all three of us together for something.
“I was just disappointed he wasn’t there. If you want to let bygones be bygones, that would have been a good time. I haven’t any gripe with Rick. I don’t know about Paul. Either way, it wouldn’t have been brought up at a premiere of that exhibition. It would have been nice to see him and say hello. But the book did really well for him, and I wish him all the best with whatever he’s up to next.”
I should add at this stage that I’ve since understood that Rick was unavailable at such short notice for the preview event, not least as he was doing an In the Crowd fan event just across the river from Somerset House at The Roxy that evening. I also understand that he was ‘gutted’ to miss out. Hopefully though, the three of them will get ‘back in the room’ again one day, even if a performance is extremely unlikely, perhaps rightly so at this stage.
Finally, I put it to Bruce that next March will mark the 35th anniversary of The Jam’s final studio album, The Gift. All being well, will that also inspire a special commemorative tour?
“Yes, like you say, all being well. I haven’t got any wish to hang up the bass guitar as yet. You never know what’s around the corner, but God willing, and all that, I’ll keep going as long as I can, as long as I enjoy it and people still want to keep coming to see us.”
From The Jam and Nine Below Zero play the Muni Theatre, Colne, on Saturday, January 30 (doors 7.30pm, £20 advance, £23 on the night). For tickets call 01282 661234 or head to http://www.themuni.co.uk/.
This is just the latest Jam-related feature on this blog, with links to the previous ones here: