When a 1,500kg truck bomb was detonated in central Manchester in June 1996, the collateral damage included a vast collection of vinyl rarities belonging to Den Davis, collector and avid fan of The Jam.
A few weeks passed before Den was allowed anywhere near the Corn Exchange building where his records were on display, and as it turned out, what the IRA hadn’t managed to destroy fell victim to the subsequent emergency operation.
“My mate Paul Ladley owns Clampdown Records, and I’d bought loads of things from him over the years. We had loads in common, kids of a similar age, the music and being Man United fans, following them home and away.
“We were hosting the European Championships that summer, and Paul wanted to do something different with his shop, which was in the basement of the Corn Exchange. I agreed to display my vinyl collection, acetates and all. Thankfully I left my memorabilia safely at home.
“None of us believed there was a bomb and we were really slow to evacuate the building. If I’d known what was about to happen, I’d have grabbed all those acetates. We never got back in as the building was condemned, and the vinyl was lost forever. By the time we got back, it had all been bulldozed. The only thing left was my Union flag, that we’d ‘rescued’ from the rooftop of the Arndale a few years earlier. I still have it now.”
It was the biggest bomb detonated in Great Britain since the Second World War, targeting the city’s infrastructure and economy and causing damage estimated by insurers at £700m. The IRA sent telephoned warnings 90 minutes before the blast, with at least 75,000 people evacuated from the area, the bomb squad unable to defuse the device in time. More than 200 people were injured but thankfully there were no fatalities from a Saturday morning blast the day before Germany took on Russia at nearby Old Trafford.
For Den it certainly marked the end of an era, the biggest collection of Jam memorabilia lost to the world, its owner distraught and initially despondent. But come the year 2000 he’d started again, and over time his collection grew bigger than ever before. So was that the spark that made him start collecting again? A new millennium’s resolution?
“Yeah that’s all it was, I just decided that the 20 years I had spent building it in the first place shouldn’t be wasted.”
That resultant new collection was the cornerstone over the last two summers of an exhibition of Jam-related memorabilia on display at Somerset House in London and then the Cunard Building in Liverpool, with plans to run another this year too.
Den, based in Stalybridge, had collected records and other memorabilia related to his favourite band for around 15 years at the time of that initial blow, an obsession that grew out of hearing The Jam’s records and knowing instinctively this was his band.
He first got to see Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler live at the Apollo in Ardwick in 1979, another defining moment, and was soon collecting anything he could related to the band. And by the time he’d splashed out on a US promo single of The Butterfly Collector on yellow vinyl, snapped up from a record fair at the back of Piccadilly Records in his home city, he was hooked.
“There’s a picture of me from the summer of ’78, aged 11, wearing my first Jam t-shirt. My brother was 16 and had got into going into Manchester with his mates, and the whole punk thing had taken off. He got into The Jam, and once All Mod Cons came out I couldn’t wait for him to go out as I’d be playing it to death in our bedroom.
“I was a half-decent footballer and played a couple of years up, so was welcomed by the older lads, and my brother reluctantly let me go along to see The Jam on their Setting Sons tour in November 1979. I managed to crawl my way to the front against the stage, the night Paul Weller wore that infamous black and white suit. I just remember not being able to breath. I couldn’t wait until the end of the show when the mass of bodies moved back. A gig’s simply not the same if you’re not among it all at the front and I still do that to this day.
“I saw The Jam 39 times between then and the end in December ’82. Having different groups of mates, inevitably there was always someone to go with, further afield. We’d get the coach from Aytoun Street in Manchester. I then followed The Style Council, seeing them 52 times. I’ve seen Weller more than 100 times in the last 25 years.”
Did he get to meet the band and their manager (Paul’s dad) John Weller around then?
“I first met the band in the summer of ’81 at Bingley Hall, when we got into a soundcheck. I met them all many more times after that and stayed in touch after the split. I started The Jam Tapes Collection service in April 1982, which kept me involved long after they went their separate ways. John Weller was always key to gaining access.”
The second of three children to a Mum and Dad he described as ‘rock’n’rollers’, Den’s the same age as this scribe. And while my Sound of the Suburbs emanated from Surrey – land of The Members, The Stranglers, The Vapors and a certain three-piece from Woking – there was plenty going on in his own sweet suburbia too, not least Buzzcocks and all who followed in their wake.
His passion for The Jam has clearly never left him, but what about his day-job over the years? Is Nicetime Productions, the company responsible for About the Young Idea, and his work with the Universal Music Group (as archivist for The Jam) a full-time vocation now?
“I got into my own band in 1983 and have always stayed involved in music, production and management. I have a large residential studio set-up near Manchester. I used to keep diaries and that led me to writing a film script and book that got all this started. I went to see Universal in 2009 to discuss all the ideas I had and it went from there.
“I’m also a UEFA-licensed football consultant. Football and Music, that’s it. And that’s the way it was always going to be, ever since I heard To Be Someone.”
A few months after the doors finally closed on the exhibition at the Cunard Building in Liverpool, can Den sum up the experience for himself and the rest of the About the Young Idea team?
“We wanted to offer a real ‘fans’ experience’ in Liverpool. Somerset House was very different and I think we really made it extra special this year. The feedback was amazing and we’re really happy we could help so many people relive their youth one more time.”
Any particular highlights spring to mind?
“The Q&A’s were great, but every day brought something new. The opening night in London was really special, but after that it was their exhibition really, whereas this was very much ours.”
The Cunard exhibition opened to the public on July 1st, 2016, but I’m guessing he was there putting things together a lot earlier.
Not really, it was really rushed in the end due to delays with Liverpool City Council. We actually only got the money five weeks before we opened and it all had to be built from scratch.”
As a Manchester lad (and a United fan), did it stick in your craw a little that the exhibition went to Liverpool? Or was that the obvious choice with the Beatles link and so on?
“It was my choice, and it had to be Liverpool. I’ve got loads of musical Scouse mates. Though it wasn’t like that back in Deeside Leisure Centre watching The Jam. It was more a football mentality back then.
“And if you look at the school books on show, you can see how much of an influence The Beatles were on Paul.”
There was clearly a lot of planning. Could he ever have imagined how much was involved?
“I spent six years cataloguing and thinking about the layout, the tube tunnel and the re-creation of the final show’s equipment, so that part wasn’t hard. It was just the man hours available to build it for opening day. Thanks to a great team though we did manage it.”
For much of the Liverpool run, he was lift-sharing with neighbour, fellow Jam devotee, exhibition helper and lead singer of The Transmitters, Dave Lees. But how many hours does Den reckon he’s devoted to the exhibition and tie-in events over the last two years? And has his family understood that devotion?
“Countless hours, and it’s been pretty constant for the last six years. But I balance it out well. My lads are older now and we’re all involved together.”
Incidentally, talking of his lads, both followed Den’s lead into the music industry, with Chez 23 and lead singer of a band called Y.O.U.N.G and his eldest, Louis, 28 and a pro drummer who’s ‘turned his hand to innovative tech development’.
How many visitors came to the Liverpool exhibition, and how did that compare to the numbers for Somerset House?
“Overall it was around half of what came to London. The press didn’t pick up at all that Liverpool was a totally different and much better exhibition. I think because we kept the same name they just thought it had already been done. That really did us no favours. Thankfully the people that did come really got to see something special.”
I got the idea from a previous conversation with Paul’s sister, Nicky Weller, that as co-curators you had a lot more say in what went where than at Somerset House, and could change the exhibits as you went along.
“Yeah, this was totally our exhibition, full control from start to finish.”
She also told me last August, ‘Fingers crossed it makes a bit of profit, otherwise me, Russ (Reader, her partner) and Den are going to be doing this for nothing’. So did they break even?
“We didn’t do this for the money anyway. And we didn’t make any, no.”
Some big names showed up, from all three band members through to Blondie drummer Clem Burke. Who else springs to mind, and did he get to have a chinwag?
“So many, from pretty much every Liverpool band and all the northern-based indie bands. Nick Heyward was such a nice guy and his connection to The Jam really surprised me. I ended up giving him a big poster of himself, which had The Jam on the back of it.”
What about the end of run celebration concert? How was that experience, and what were your personal highlights on the night?
“The night was great in the end but the politics of pulling something like that together are better left alone.”
In talking to visitors, what seemed to go down best with them?
“The sheer scale blew people away. You had to spend two days in there to take it all in. I think everyone got something different out of it. Everyone I spoke to really loved it.”
In the BBC’s Inside Out feature, former Brookside actor Simon O’Brien, visiting the Liverpool exhibition, introduced Den as the owner of the largest collection of Jam memorabilia. So what percentage of the exhibits was down to him this time?
“Pretty much all of it after the Stanley Road and John Weller rooms, as they were family items. All the stage was mine, though most of the guitars still belong to Paul and Bruce. We also selected a handful of fans to show a few of their prized items. Even with all that space I could only show about half of what I’ve got. So next time I’ll try and make it different again.”
As he suggests there, more pieces were provided by the Weller camp this time. Was that exciting for him, seeing some of those items for the first time, such as Paul’s school exercise book jottings.
“Amazing, yeah, just like any family they had boxes stored in places they’d forgotten about. Going through them for any fan would be special but it was a real journey for the family too.”
Quite a few items were sold off after the exhibition. What fetched the most?
“Bruce wanted to sell of his things as he has no children to pass them on to. To make the auction worthwhile I decided I’d gather all my spares up as I’ve never really sold anything. The posters surprised me, how much they went for. I went straight to another auction the week after and replaced anything I’d sold. There were a few things I let go just because the time was right for me too. Bruce’s Town Called Malice bass was the highest sale.”
From his own collection, are there specific items he couldn’t bear to be parted from?
“I find it hard to part with anything; I’ve kept it all so long and in such great condition. There’s so many items, but my autographed Skegness train ticket from 1981 is a fave of mine. There will be a time I let it go though, as my kids don’t want to inherit it from me. Nothing against The Jam, they’re just not into collecting and nostalgia.”
Some of the items on display couldn’t have been easy to transport, such as the All Mod Cons target feature. Did any end up going home with him and cause his better half to give him grief for taking up too much space?
“The big items stay in my studio and there’s plenty of space at home for the vinyl.”
As a collector, are there items out there that he still has his heart set on tracking down?
“I’ve been cataloguing everything to create a true definitive guide. Retrospective is miles away from what I’ve collected now. I hope to make that available in a digital format sometime soon. I don’t think there’s anything I haven’t got now, but you never know. Things do surface even now that no one has ever known about.”
And was this exhibition a good way of proving to the world it’s all been for good reason?
“It certainly proved The Jam really have left a legacy to be proud of. And it proved to Universal that The Jam’s back-catalogue still means something.”
Looking forward, have they decided as a team where’s next for the exhibition? There was talk of overseas offers from Nicky Weller. And would it ever be on the same scale again?
“I’d like to see it in Brighton on a large scale. As for anywhere else I can’t think it will ever be shown on the scale of Liverpool. Logistics and costs will always outweigh the demand sadly in any overseas venues.”
For the writewyattuk verdict on 2016’s About the Young Idea at the Cunard Building in Liverpool and this site’s feature/interview with Nicky Weller, try here.
Furthermore, for a number of past Jam-related features on this website – including two interviews with Bruce Foxton and others with Rick Buckler and From the Jam’s Russell Hastings – just type The Jam in search, top right of the page.