So Bruce Foxton has a top-40 hit, 33 years after he last troubled the charts with debut solo single, Freak. In at No.31, pop-pickers, thanks largely to the 21st-century phenomenon of crowd-funding pre-orders, with new LP Smash the Clock his first studio album to chart since The Jam reached No.1 with The Gift in 1982.
I’ve said it before, but I still have a soft spot for Bruce’s first lone venture, 1984’s Touch Sensitive. The production’s dated in places, and maybe it’s partly nostalgia on my part, but there are fine moments on what seemed for many years like it would be his sole album outside the band that made his name.
That changed however when 2012’s Back in the Room saw the light of day, a new batch of songs having taken shape between From The Jam live engagements, Bruce joining forces with his main band cohort, Russell Hastings, the results lovingly put together at Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Surrey.
What a great return that proved, including several contributions from Weller himself, with Charles Rees producing/engineering. Rees and his studio boss are key to the latest record too. And while in a sense Smash the Clock is Back in the Room Again, that’s a positive – it’s another record Bruce can be rightly proud of. It’s about much more than just those exquisite driving bass riffs and inventive guitar parts.
Again, the core of the album involves ‘Foxton & Hastings’, as the retro clock on the cover suggests (if not the name on the spine – Bruce taking the credit on that count), with major contributions – as last time – from Big Country drummer Mark Brzezicki plus session player and occasional FTJ keyboard warrior Tom Heel too.
As a Pledge Music crowd-funder for all this, I was thrilled to hear the ‘thunk’ on the doormat last weekend as my signed CD turned up, and from the stylish CD booklet to the music stored on the disc within the jewel case, it’s a winning investment. In fact, I’m jealous of those who splashed out for the vinyl now (and I should add that Smash the Clock entered the vinyl chart at number 7, and the independent album chart at number 4, pop kids).
Because of the history behind that Foxton & Hastings partnership, I guess there’s always going to be a slight ‘retro’ feel to proceedings. But no way does that taint the finished package. In fact, there are indications here – diehard fans of the Woking trio take note – of what The Jam might have been like all these years on if Buckler, Foxton and Weller had reconvened. So while Bruce has been busy this past week doing the media rounds, reminding reporter after reporter that a full reunion’s not likely to happen, his LP suggests it’s kind of already has.
Russell told me in an interview two years ago (with a link here) that Weller once told him, ‘I thought you’d be one of those look-a-likies’. That was delivered in the sense that Paul clearly realised Hastings was someone with far too much respect and understanding for the original material to contemplate cheap karaoke renditions. And if further evidence was needed of that (for anyone who hasn’t seen From The Jam live or heard the last Foxton album) it’s here on Smash the Clock.
We certainly get off to a fantastic start with the brassy, breezy Now The Time Has Come, the horns bringing to mind Absolute Beginners and Boys About Town. But as with every track on this album, the emphasis is on that first word ‘now’. The subject matter may be more about facing up to responsibilities, but there’s a youthful air that belies the artists’ ages. Sure, there are occasional signs of Bruce slowing down the pace across these 13 tracks, but there’s enough energy to suggest the old spirit remains intact. Part of that’s down to the Stone Foundation horn section (trumpet, sax and baritone sax), but a lot’s down to the song-craft. This is no identi-kit Jam record, and while Russell has clearly immersed himself in Weller’s words and music for many years, he’s used it to good effect, soaking it all up and learning how to write great songs. What’s more, he works well with Bruce, and his more famous cohort creatively thrives off his association with Russ. Add to that the studio craft imparted and inspired by Team Weller in Ripley, and you’re always going to be in for a treat.
I half-mentioned the LP cover, and will enlarge on that, mentioning Bruce’s Fender Precision bass smashing through that artisan Foxton & Hastings timepiece (’Made in England’, no less), the acknowledged suggestion of that title theme being that good music is ageless and timeless. And this record is a sum of various influences, from the ‘60s bands that inspired the artists to the late ‘70s and early ‘80s vibe The Jam cultivated, and beyond. By way of example, there’s a Stone Roses vibe to track two, Round & Round, but also hints of solo Weller on a song slower but reminiscent of 1982’s Precious.
Altering the pace again, the evocative Pictures & Diamonds suggests something more rooted in the 1960s, Heel’s prominent organ (so to speak) bringing to mind The Doors and The Zombies while Weller’s guitar suggests Space Oddity-era Bowie. Our Paul also returns for the next track, Louder, this time on piano, and again there’s a ‘60s thing going on, Russ’s more mellow vocal bringing to mind Justin Hayward in Moody Blues days on a perfect song for a sunny summer afternoon.
We get a more upbeat swing on Sunday Morning, and this time I’m reminded of later, less-nutty Madness. In fact, imagine for a minute Suggs delivering Russell’s lines, and it all fits into place. And then that first half (yep, even without the vinyl, that’s still how I roll) finishes in style on Full Circle. And while last time Bruce had Stax legend Steve Cropper among his special guests, this time there’s a homegrown guitar-master in the form of the wonderful Wilko Johnson. That said, while his chops are unmistakable they’re subtle too, with this very much a band project rather than a call for heroic solos. Talking of legends, Manfred Mann and Blues Band singer Paul Jones supplies harmonica, giving this r’n’b stormer something of a Nine Below Zero taste as well as a down’n’dirty Dr Feelgood flavour.
The second half of proceedings gets off to a quality start as Bruce delivers title track Smash the Clock. And as with arguably his most memorable Jam moment, Smithers-Jones, the lead singer’s additions help take it to another level, Foxton & Hastings again sounding so good together. I guess you could say this is part two of the Smithers-Jones story, but with the ‘punch the clock’ sentiment of the original (partly alluding to Bruce’s father’s working toils) supplanted by a fresh twist on the tale. What’s more, the melody takes me back to another of my favourite albums, New Clear Days by fellow Surrey boys The Vapors. Added to all that there’s Tony ‘Rico’ Richardson’s emotionally-charged sax, helping take us to a whole new strata. Put simply, Bruce and co. have created a mighty sub-three minute cut expertly fusing nostalgia and that alluded to now spirit.
There’s little time for reflection though, Bruce’s near-neighbour Paul Jones back in the mix with his mouth organ on Back Street, Dead Street for a good old-fashioned r’n’b jam bridging the gap towards the less frenetic Writing on the Wall (not to be confused with Touch Sensitive’s Writing’s on the Wall), a further showcase for Russ’s vocal aptitude and that afore-mentioned song-craft, this artist clearly growing in stature, the heady influences around him definitely rubbing off.
Bruce takes on a similar theme with the pensive and (I’m guessing) autobiographical There are Times (To Make Me Happy), melancholic and reflective, but ultimately uplifting. Personal, but stirringly soulful with it. And then we have Alright Now, punctuated by Heel’s Hammond, the band building steadily towards the album’s climax, gathering momentum as they head towards the penultimate cut, a celebratory in the circumstances Running Away From You, this time with more recent FTJ recruit Mike Randon in Brzezicki’s drum-seat.
And then we’re away, 50 Yards Down Sandy Lane to be precise, and not so far away from the setting of Mr Weller’s 22 Dreams, Rico adding flute this time, like a pied piper leading Bruce and co. away from Black Barn, the hard graft done … and to a highly-commendable, durable standard I might add. In short, this album’s a delight.
- Word has it that in late 2016 From The Jam will launch their ‘As and Bs’ tour, including rare tracks from The Jam’s back-catalogue. For news of that, other dates, and how to get hold of Smash the Clock, check out www.brucefoxton.com.
- You can also keep right up to date with From The Jam via their Facebook and Twitter links too.
- To catch up with this blog’s most recent feature/interview with Bruce (from January 2016), try the following link, which will also nudge you to previous From The Jam and The Jam related pieces on here.