To misquote A Town Called Malice, I’ll start by apologising for the things I’ve never done. On a family taxi duty the Sunday before last, I cut my eldest daughter short as she told me what she’d been up to that afternoon, so I could hear the radio. Then, 10 minutes later, my better half’s mum got similar short shrift on the next shuttle service, all social enquiries met with monosyllabic responses. But it’s Rick Buckler’s fault. Honest.
Rick was on BBC Radio 2, chatting to Johnnie Walker on Sounds of the 70s about his new book and halcyon days with The Jam, between some cracking selections from such a rich era for music. It was on the iPlayer later (still is, if you’re quick enough, via this BBC link), so I couldn’t really moan, but I just wanted to listen in live, hear one of my musical heroes.
The Jam were a big influence on me in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and remain so 35 years after front-man Paul pulled the plug. I’m not alone in that thinking. So many of us grew up with the band and other great acts from those punk, new wave and post-punk years, including Rick’s co-writer and previous writewyattuk interviewee Ian Snowball, who previously helped the legendary drummer with 2015’s That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam. There was crowd-funded 2017 illustrated novel, The Jam: The Start to ’77 too, and now a further great read, The Dead Straight Guide to The Jam. And Rick’s rightly proud of it.
The morning after his radio appearance, I told Rick (who previously featured on these pages in April 2015, with a link here) I enjoyed his radio guest slot, and it was nice to hear a presenter play less obvious choices, like 1977’s Batman Theme and Non-Stop Dancing and 1979’s The Butterfly Collector.
“I’m of the same mind. I very much like A Town Called Malice and all those tracks, but it’s great to hear others like Liza Radley, Ghosts, The Butterfly Collector … still fabulous. Of course, I would say that though, wouldn’t I!”
They’re just so evocative of that whole era.
“Yeah, to me they’re almost like old friends. You think, ‘Crikey, I haven’t heard this in such a long time!’ Like the Batman Theme.”
It was nice to hear your own choices too – Ian Dury, T-Rex, and XTC, who I’ve recently started listening to again, both them and psychedelic offshoot, The Dukes of Stratosphear. I always got the feeling that, as with bands like Wire, they were seen as too clever for that initial punk scene.
“I was in a van one say and on the radio they were asking, ‘Do you know who this band is, and I’m going, ‘I know! I know!’ It was The Dukes of Stratophear. But it was one of those phone-in competitions, and by the time I’d had chance to phone it was too late. But that was a very strange offshoot for them.
“But yeah, I always felt an affinity with XTC. They weren’t really punk but were a great talent and some of the things they did were very innovative, very creative. They wrote for themselves. I thought that was a fabulous stance, especially where record companies were pushing everybody towards chart music, where the money is. I got on with them really well. They were from Swindon, and I’ve got family from there. My wife’s sister lives down there. I got into them with Drums and Wires, their third album, and met them on a couple of occasions, at Townhouse Studios.”
Of course, where The Jam recorded Setting Sons (1979) and Sound Affects (1980), just two of their four consecutive top-10 LPs, th last one, The Gift, a UK No.1. Then there were the 18 straight top-40 singles, including four No.1s, and so much more. And that’s just part of the story told by Rick and ‘Snowy’ in the new book – from the band’s Woking roots right through, including an 80-plus page ‘Jamology’.
But hang on. Another Jam book? Even before Paolo Hewitt’s A Beat Concerto in 1983, there was a lot written about The Jam. Is this Rick’s chance to set the record straight on a few of those, from someone who was actually there? Don’t get me wroing, it’s certainly a worthy accompaniment to Rick’s 2015 memoir, That’s Entertainment – My Life in The Jam.
“I know from experience there are some bad books about The Jam, written by people just doing it so they can make a fast buck, and it comes across like that when you read some of them. I know one guy who wrote one who never went to a Jam show yet writes about us as if he was there. It’s infuriating, because if people don’t know these things then pick up the book they think some of it’s true. I suppose I shouldn’t get annoyed, but I do, and I’m sure it annoys a lot of other people when things are said and written about that get proliferated, like Chinese whispers.
“One of the reasons I thought this would be nice to do was because the autobiography was about my story from the inside, so I didn’t get into facts and figures, why things were recorded, dates, tours, and all that. It was really more of a personal experience, an inside story of The Jam. So to be given the chance to put some of the stuff right from some of the other books that have come out … We did have some information put forward to include, lifted from Wikipedia, and we were like, ‘hang on, are you really suggesting that?”
There’s also an element of mythology about The Jam and other key bands from that era, which seems to have become accepted over the years as truth.
“There are a couple of dangers I come across, and one is people rewriting history to suit their situation now rather than talking about what was actually happening at the time. One thing that people who would like to read about this would like to see is stuff they feel is correct and not too much of an opinion, but not so wide of the mark.”
“Well, yeah. That wasn’t the main reason, but it’s in the back of your mind when you’ve heard a story over and over again. Even the silly one about why The Jam got their name, this silly story about it coming from a pot of jam one morning, which is ridiculously wrong but often bandied about.
“We’ve tried very hard to get things factually right as much as we possibly can, even though it’s all a long time ago. I also don’t think it’s a good idea to put a political or personal agenda for the righting of any wrongs. It’s just a matter of trying to get it right. That was the main agenda, and Snowy was great in checking a lot of the facts.”
I have to give you full credit for, in That’s Entertainment (which I hadn’t had a chance to read before my last feature/interview with Rick), trying to avoid anything too detrimental about your relationship with (fellow ex-bandmates) Paul (Weller) and Bruce (Foxton). It’s as if the music press is out to goad the three of you sometimes, feeding an appetite for a perceived, public war of words.
“Well, you could rub your hands together, think, ‘Now’s me chance!’ But I have to tap myself on the shoulder, have a word with myself, say, ‘Come on!’ The relationship might not be really close with Paul and might not be really close with Bruce, but back in the day it was very close, and I think the fans like to hear it without any encumbrances, shall we say.
“I look back with very fond memories, how we managed to do really good things, achieve a great deal. All the bickering and court cases, that sort of stuff happened after. It was a real shame it did, but it had nothing to do with what people actually remember about The Jam or what actually put us on the road to where we are. So I try and stay away from all that.”
You see it a lot with successful bands, with people cut out from someone’s past, and it often takes a long time for old wounds to heal. You seem to have remained fairly grounded though. On the kiss-and-make-up front, we haven’t quite got there with The Jam, but maybe Paul’s never been the sort to publicly acknowledge all aspects of his past. He’s always appears to be more about looking forward, not dwelling on what’s gone.
“Well, that’s always been his attitude, and it’s a real shame, talking to the fans. I think a lot of them don’t like the idea that he was in denial about The Jam for a long time, and when he was with The Style Council he wouldn’t play the songs, he wouldn’t talk about it. It was almost as if it didn’t exist and it wasn’t the reason why he was where he was. A lot of Jam fans don’t like that attitude.
“I think fame has its pressures though, which sometimes people don’t realise unless you’re in that situation. It’s easy to isolate yourself from the world – that’s the easy way out. This may sound a bit crazy, but from a very early age I never liked pop stars, and I mean that in the most derogatory term! People who might think, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ It turns me off completely.”
Perhaps that’s why the initial punk scene appealed to you, Paul and Bruce – that whole ‘year zero’ mentality, starting on an equal plane.
“Yeah, it was something that brought everything together – that attitude of not needing big record companies and this mega-arena rock attitude. That was very strong. People starting fanzines, saying they could do all this themselves – create our own audiences, make our own magazines. There was that ethos, which was fabulous.”
At that point, we went off-subject, reminiscing about our mutual Surrey history, not least respective links to Woking, our fathers and their days as postmen and working on the railway before that, plus links to the town’s James Walker factory, where both my Grandad Wyatt and Paul’s dad John Weller (who managed The Jam) worked. Rick lives on the outskirts of his hometown these days. Does he ever wander around town? His namesake, Status Quo guitar legend Rick Parfitt, let on that he’d often sit in a car outside key locations around Woking and reminisce about his youth. How about this Rick?
“I do go into Woking. There isn’t very much of it left though! Even as we speak, they’ve knocked down another part, putting something else up. Some of the bits I remember as a child are simply not there anymore. The place is a different town altogether.”
As I’m transcribing all this, Weller’s lines, ‘The Place I Love is a million miles away’ and ‘Found myself in a Strange Town’ spring to mind. Then again, I’ve plenty of great Jam quotes floating around my head most days.
“It is a shame. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of housing, and Church Street (where his first family home was) was a very long road. I don’t know how the Germans managed to miss it! It should have been demolished a long time ago. When we were living there, they were absolutely dreadful, those houses. So I don’t really hanker after those days in that respect.
“My Mum’s still alive. She’s 97 and doesn’t talk much about the war, but it became such a big part of everybody’s lives, with no say-so in it. A real life-changer for everybody. Of course, that James Walker factory’s all gone now.”
At this point, Rick recounts a story told in That’s Entertainment about the day John Weller, in his Teddy Boy days, ran out of Brylcreem so applied butter to his DA quiff with his comb to keep it in place, then fell asleep on the factory roof one sunny day after working on some repairs, waking up to the smell of burning popcorn in his hair.
We soon get on to the subject of great bands from that era doing the rounds again, not least friends of The Jam like The Vapors (with interviews with Dave Fenton and Ed Bazalgette elsewhere on this site, plus a late 2016 review from Liverpool Arts Club). Then of course, there’s From the Jam, Rick having left after four years in 2009, but with founder members Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings still out there, and recording too. Those two bands, and fellow Surrey lads The Stranglers have proved it doesn’t just have to be a heritage nostalgia thing.
“I think so. I’m in two minds about some bands getting back together. I did it because I wanted to revisit the songs. Which we did, and I thought that was absolutely fabulous.”
And you didn’t really get that chance before, with the band splitting when they did in late ’82. I get the feeling Bruce has really enjoyed revisiting all those songs live. As you did … to to an extent.
“Yeah. In the same way, a lot of the Modern World songs got passed over, for all sorts of reasons. But after a while it is very disheartening to just keep playing the same old stuff. A band mustn’t become boring. Once you get into that state of doing it over and over again … It’s nice to do it for the fans, but it can be soul-destroying.”
I did get that vibe from your That’s Entertainment book, but that’s something Bruce and Russell seem to have moved on from. Which is a kind of a shame from your point of view, because I know you wanted to go down that road – writing songs again, something they’ve done since. Very good ones too.
“Yeah, it’s a shame Bruce didn’t pick up on that at the time, because … It was a dilemma, because people came to see us to hear Jam songs, and Dave Moore (with From The Jam at the beginning, but leaving in the same year as Rick) had written songs. Bruce wasn’t a prolific writer. That’s not really his thing, so we had some new material, but it just wasn’t going to be entertained.
“It was a bit of a choice – do we bite the hand that feeds us by not playing so much Jam stuff and trying to move on? Bruce wasn’t really into that, at all. But he must have come around to it since.”
Away from the writing, and with your band days seemingly behind you, are you still involved with band management and consultancy?
“I’m not doing anything with anyone at the moment. The last thing I did was with a young band. Most of the time I got involved because I’ve liked what I’ve seen in them and I’ve thought I could help, getting them shows. But it’s very frustrating that you can’t approach record companies, because they’re simply not interested these days. It’s all so media-driven. It’s not quite the same, but from a ground level it’s nice to give a band a hand.
“The Brompton Mix were the band I last had something to do with. They found it very difficult to get gigs outside Woking, and were running out of places to play in that area. I at least got them supports with The UK Subs and The Blockheads and Stiff Little Fingers, and as far afield as Southampton and going up North. That was good, but it was the usual problems with bands – keeping it all together with girlfriends, jobs, peer pressure … Unfortunately, they fell apart at the seams eventually – an old story as far as bands are concerned.”
Thinking back to your own formative days with The Jam, did Chris Parry (who signed them to Polydor) look after the three of you?
“He did, yeah. He was a good man to have on your side. He was obviously a conduit to the record company, but was a drummer himself, a New Zealander who’d come over to make his way in the world, in the industry. He had a lot of empathy with what we were doing and I think he was genuinely excited about the band and what was happening in London.
“At that time, I remember mostly that we’d like seeing him because he’d take us out to spend record company money on a free lunch! You were expected to work all day and most of the night in a recording studio, so to have somebody there who could take you out and know where some of these restaurants and burger bars were … well, it made us feel that there was somebody on our side.”
“Not at all. They’re doing okay though. My son works in online credit card security, and is good with computers. He’s doing well for himself, while my daughter’s in events management. She worked at the Ritz until recently and now works for another London company. Well, I keep calling them children, but my son’s 32 and my daughter’s 25!”
Time flies. And am I right in saying it’s 40 years with your better half, Lesley, this year? That’s a long stretch, something to be proud of.
“Yes! We were living together a long time before we married. You get less for murder. Ha! No, I shouldn’t say things like that. It’s amazing and I suppose in this day and age that (amount of time) seems unusual.”
Getting back to the book, it includes a ‘top 50’ of Jam tracks compiled by you and Snowy, with in-depth detail. That’s no easy task, surely – trying to choose which to include.
“It wasn’t really. We had to go for more obvious choices, then look at other singles, key album tracks, then found we had a few left and could think about songs I felt were under-heard, take that route.
“I enjoyed going through the process of why songs were recorded, how they came about. There’s this school of thought that Paul wrote everything. I’m not taking anything away from Paul. He did write a lot of lyrics and come in with a lot of ideas, but so did we.
“Start, for instance, was from a bassline that Bruce was playing around with, so you could argue that he wrote that and Paul added lyrics. But that’s not the way it’s credited, and there’s a lot of that.”
Well, I think of Funeral Pyre, which seemed to be was built around your drumming.
“Well, yeah, and I think by that time someone had to have a word. By that time it was blatantly unfair. But the point I’m making is … we worked together, put songs together, rehearsed together. How we were going to play and present and how they were written was very much a band process.”
Talking of which, and you touched on this with Johnnie Walker, it was such an impressive noise you made, despite only being a three-piece. I get the impression there’s nowhere to hide as a trio.
“There is no place to hide, and we learned that quite early on. I think we were struggling to be a four-piece, so really felt we had to work hard, and that alone justified what the band were about. I think that’s why we were so powerful on stage – the fact that everybody’s pulling their weight and filling all those gaps with interesting things. We were big fans of cutting out the rubbish. If we thought it was getting boring or irrelevant, we’d drop it straight away – cut straight to the chase.”
The Dead Straight Guide to The Jam by Rick Buckler & Ian Snowball is available now, priced £14.99, in store at HMV, or online via Amazon and through this Red Planet link.
Furthermore, my conversation with Rick included his recollections and thoughts on The Jam’s relationship with late ’70s / early ’80s rivals, The Clash. But you’ll have to wait for that, for when The Dead Straight Guide to The Clash is published this Spring. Keep checking back for details.
Meanwhile, Ian Snowball has just completed The Last Black Angel (New Haven Publishing) with co-writer Pete McKenna, set around the New York punk scene. For more details check out Snowy’s Facebook writer’s page.