From the moment you turn right at the desk inside the Cunard Building’s The Jam – About the Young Idea exhibition and head down a mock London Underground tunnel lined with promo posters publicising the original records, you’re in for a mighty slice of nostalgia.
At once, you’re Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, these historic Liverpool Pier Head rooms transformed into the capital at the start of a room-to-room ramble, one guiding you through the life of a band that came up through punk and helped kick-start a Mod revival, enjoying five years of major success before going out at the top in late 1982.
From memorabilia collages to the band’s stage gear (clothes and equipment), early hand-written lyrics to guitars (including Paul’s iconic pop-art Rickenbacker), press cuttings to live photos, and with vinyl, fashion and even pots of jam on sale for charity, it’s all there.
You also get a vivid picture of the band’s background and can take a peak through a window display recreating the Weller household in the ‘60s, and another of a mocked-up backstage area. And while the staff are there to ensure you don’t ride on any of the scooters on show, it’s very much interactive, with plenty to listen to and gaze upon in wonder.
I was no Mod, but loved The Jam from the moment I first heard them, this three-piece from a few miles up the road in my native Surrey having a similar effect on at least two generations then, and plenty since. And this winning collection – first housed at London’s Somerset House last year – charting the rise and influence of the band is for three months this summer (until late September) not far from my more recent doorstep in North-West England.
I loved every record Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Bucker made from 1977 onwards, immersing myself in their history and post-Jam careers. But you don’t have to be a big fan to appreciate this show.
It’s every bit as much about the fashion, culture and politics of the era, taking you back to the band members’ ‘60s and early ‘70s roots, with plenty of unearthed, unseen content and exhibits from a group who became the voice of a generation. It’s not what you might expect either, evolving as it goes and evocative for anyone growing up in that era or who has since got the bug for live music and youth culture.
Each room at this grade-II listed building has a theme, whether it involves the formation of the band and the town they sprang from, each album they made, or the legacy they left. Meanwhile, giant screens, TVs and sound systems belt out Jam classics, promo videos, documentaries and films about the band and Britain at the time they reigned supreme. And in what’s thought to be a first, there’s also an interactive element, a free app allowing visitors to engage with the exhibits by scanning VCodes, saving five favourites to a mobile device for later.
Furthermore, my own pilgrimage – a lad with Woking roots despite a move to Lancashire in the ‘90s – was made all the more special by meeting Paul Weller’s sister Nicky in the café at the end of my visit. And the first thing I put to Nicky, staying in Liverpool throughout the run, was what a great event it was, and so much more than you might expect.
“Well, that’s what we wanted to achieve really.”
The sheer amount of items on display is staggering, I tell her. They can’t all be stored in the attic at Weller HQ between exhibitions, surely.
“No! They’ve been in a lock-up since we finished at Somerset House.”
I’m guessing a lot came from you and your Mum’s days helping with The Jam’s fan club.
“Definitely. It’s down to everyone getting stuck in, and along the way people have come to us and said, ‘Look, I’ve found this!’ That’s really nice, and we’re still adding things.”
Even while I was in, a few items were turning up in display cases.
“Every day something is added or comes in and we think, ‘We can’t miss that out!’ It’s nice to be able to do that – we couldn’t at Somerset House.”
I believe some came from Paul’s shed, and your Dad (legendary Jam manager John Weller) was a great collector too.
“Yep, and Mum’s the biggest magpie ever! She kept so much. And it’s great that they have all kept things really.”
I understand that a few of those items hadn’t been looked at since they were first packed away, such as some of the cine footage.
“We didn’t even know some of that existed. Some of the quarter-inch (cartridge tape), like finding Blueberry Rock (a 1973 Paul Weller song).”
It must have been quite emotional, not least with your Dad in mind (John Weller died in 2009, aged 77, having also managed his son in The Style Council and as a solo artist).
“Definitely, me and Mum were sat in the garage going through it all, and it was emotional. We hadn’t unpacked a lot of it since Dad died. It’s been quite therapeutic, I guess.”
It’s nice to see a fair bit about John, including a new documentary playing in a room dedicated to him. It can’t have been easy for you all in recent times. Was this a nice way to pay your own tribute?
“Yeah, such a little part of that story was at Somerset House last year, just due to the lack of space really. This time we wanted to make sure it was properly shown. So it’s much more of a tribute.”
A friend of mine from Woking who saw a lot of the early gigs – including some of those at Michael’s, Sheerwater Youth Club, the YMCA, Westfield Club, and the Liberal Club – said when I posted a photo from the exhibition on social media, ‘Johnny Weller, absolute legend, always very good to us back in the day’. And that’s something I’ve heard a few times.
“Yeah, a lot of people come up and say, ‘I met your Dad. He was really lovely and did this or that, gave us money, let kids in backstage, all that. That’s what he was like.”
Is that right that he was also the amateur boxer on the title credit sequence of Grandstand?
“Yes, he was. I’ve got copies of that. The BBC found it for us and put it on a DVD.”
I’m guessing there was a fair bit of foresight involved in keeping this collection together. I know there was never anything less than 100% belief from Paul and your Dad over finding fame, so perhaps that had an influence. Or were you just hoarders?
“I think we’re natural hoarders – all of us! I still am. My partner Russell is a record collector, and we collect posters and everything. I’m glad we do, but even now I can’t stop. I went to a Buzzcocks gig the other night up here the other night and saw a lovely limited edition Eric’s poster and had to have it. That never leaves you!”
Nicky lives in Maida Vale, London, these days, but plans to stick around in Liverpool throughout the exhibition.
“I’ve been up here since May. I love it. I’m going home tonight for a couple of days for a change of scenery though. Mum’s been telling me, ‘I haven’t seen you for weeks!’”
Among the most evocative displayed items are her brother’s school exercise book jottings and doodles, and it appears he already had the name for the band and the logo then, although The Jam turned out to be far cooler than the group he drew.
“Absolutely! I think that as well. But he obviously always had it in his head … the whole concept.”
From what I’ve heard from your team, and have now seen in person, you’re very much ‘hands on’ when it comes to this exhibition. There’s even talk of you running a vacuum around at closing time.
“Oh definitely. I do everything – the tills, the payroll, the cleaning … but that’s part of being the boss. You’ve got to get stuck in. How can I tell someone they’re not doing something right if I can’t do it myself?”
Are you still on £5 a week, like you were at the age of 14 looking after The Jam’s fan club?
“I’m on nothing a week at the moment, actually! We’ve had backing to do this exhibition from Liverpool City Council, so they have to be paid back first. So fingers crossed it makes a bit of profit – otherwise me, Russ (Reader) and Den (Davis) are going to be doing this for nothing. But we’re enjoying it anyway.”
Thinking of those fan club days, they must have involved a lot of mail, judging by the band’s popularity.
“A hell of a lot of mail – crazy amounts! You sort of forget how big The Jam were really, and how quickly they became so popular. It wasn’t an overnight success either. They worked hard to get there, but it was quite amazing the extent of it.”
After trying to get a few words in with Dave Lees in the café and talking to the girls in the exhibit rooms, it’s clear that Nicky has a dedicated team around her.
“Yeah! You’re lucky you got some words in with Dave! He doesn’t stop – he’s our little mine of information!”
It’s not just about the obvious display items either, great as Paul’s guitars and all those photographs are. There are lots of surprises, and that’s for anyone with an interest in ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s music, fashion and culture.
“Definitely. Even if you weren’t that interested in The Jam, coming to this exhibition, there’s so much social history and a real picture of what was going on at the time. Tourists off the street have told us how great they thought it was and what a good afternoon they’ve spent. That’s what we want to encourage.
“We’ve even got Pokemon in here, for kids in with their Mums and Dads … whatever that means … it’s all bonkers to me!”
Has your brother been along yet?
“He hasn’t yet. He’s coming along at the end of August. He’s with his kids at the moment, enjoying his year off.”
How about Jam bassist (and past writewyattuk interviewee) Bruce Foxton (playing and recording these days with his From the Jam colleague Russell Hastings)?
“Bruce is coming on August 22 for a Q&A session and an acoustic event with Russ. So that’ll be good too.”
And the drummer, Rick Buckler (a fellow past writewyattuk interviewee)?
“Rick came on the opening night and to open the exhibition the next day, and hopefully he’ll come back to do an Q&A and sign his book (2015 Omnibus publication That’s Entertainment – My Life in The Jam, co-written with Ian Snowball).”
Location-wise, the Cunard Building, one of Liverpool’s ‘Three Graces’, is perfectly placed, close to the city and the Mersey waterfront. And when you’re done with the exhibits, you can always admire its part-Italian Renaissance, part-Greek Revival architecture.
There are even ‘four lads who shook the world’ cast in bronze not far behind the building, newly donated to the city by the Cavern Club. So I can see why Liverpool was chosen.
“We looked at lots of places, including Scotland, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham. But when we came to Liverpool we had such a good response from the council. This wasn’t the original building we were going into, so it was all a bit of a rush in the end, but I’m glad we did choose the Cunard. Nothing like this has ever been done in this room, and with the musical history here – The Beatles, Merseybeat, Gerry & The Pacemakers, all those bands – it’s perfect. It’s like a Mecca for music. And if you’re coming here to see The Beatles, you’ve got to come and see The Jam too!”
Jam fans were famously loyal, and there were large number of fan club members in Liverpool, Manchester and throughout the North West.
“Yeah, huge! After London, Liverpool and Scotland, along with Newcastle, Manchester was probably our biggest fan-base.”
Did you ever get out on tour with the band?
“A little … but only through bunking off school! I was a kid, selling badges and so on. I wasn’t as involved though until around the time The Jam broke up, working at Solid Bond Studios for Paul.”
I seem to recall from recollections of friends from Woking that Paul was a Beatles obsessive as a kid. Was that before your time?
“No, he’s only around four years older. I remember him having his Beatles records in his clothes drawers and his shirts in a little neat pile on the floor – that was his pride and joy.”
Do you ever go back to Woking, and what’s left of Stanley Road (the family home has long since been demolished)?
“I do, when I’m at home I make sure I’m down pretty much once a week to see Mum. She was up here for a week with me too, and really enjoyed it.”
I tell Nicky about my own close links to Woking, my great-grandparents moving to the town in the 1890s, a link that continued until my Nan passed away a century later, and with both my Dad and Grandad born and brought up in the same part of town. And then there’s my support of the town’s football team, Woking FC – whose clubhouse memorably features in The Style Council’s A Solid Bond in your Heart video – watching them home and away when I can, despite being based 230 miles away these days.
I get the feeling, I tell Nicky, that Paul never lost that affinity with his Woking roots either – not just via The Jam but also as a solo artist, for example the locations on the video to Uh Huh Oh Yeah.
Growing up, he probably just wanted to be out of there and up to London, but I have the impression he properly appreciates it all a bit more now.
“I think so. Obviously, Paul has his studio near there and whenever he feels like writing he’s there every week, doing something. Mum’s moved nearby as well, so it’s nice to pop by. And it’s so green, isn’t it? When you’re up in London all week it’s only about half an hour’s drive, but you’re back in the middle of the country again.”
Yep, Pretty Green you could say, So, where’s next for the exhibition? Might it be destined for a UK or world tour of its own?
“I’d like it go international. At the moment I can’t even get my head around it, but there are people asking us to move it abroad. We’ll see what happens.”
Among all the exhibits and memorabilia, have you a favourite item, or something most precious to you?
“I think it’s probably Paul’s school books. They’re brilliant. They were the best find really.”
And what items receive the most mentions from visitors?
“I think it’s them, actually. Also the clothes – people really seem to love the way we’ve displayed them this time.
“And I just think there’s so much more to see. It’s a real insight into everything.”
This exhibition ends on September 25, but is changing as it goes. Any more surprises coming?
“All the rooms have different bits and pieces I can think of. Those who only came along on the opening might have missed at least one display. One guy who’s a military collector recreated the whole Setting Sons LP (inside) cover – from the army jacket right down to the little knick-knacks.
“I even had to get a roll of fake dirt to put in the bottom of the tray. He did something for Eton Rifles too. It’s amazing what people come up with. Someone came in the other day with a little Eric’s card, and I felt that had to go straight into that display. Yep, it’s ever evolving!”
The Jam – About the Young Idea is open daily from 10am until 6pm at the Cunard Building, Liverpool Pier Head, until September 25th, with tickets £9.50 at peak times and £5 off-peak and only a limited number sold each day. For further details – including information about a special literary event on September 3rd – head here.
Meanwhile, there’s a whole lot of The Jam-related material on this website, not least interviews with Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, and plenty of reviews too. Just type The Jam, Bruce Foxton, Paul Weller and Rick Buckler into the search section and see what you can find.