Treading Gently forward – beyond The Jam with Steve Brookes

When I spoke to Steve Brookes earlier this week, he was at home in Camberley, Surrey, having played Thames Side Brewery in Staines that weekend, this accomplished guitarist and singer-songwriter clearly enjoying gigging as much now as five decades ago, when he was just starting out.

He still puts in the miles too, albeit mostly around the South-East these days, his current base 30 miles south-west of central London, best known in music terms as the starting point for The Members – the area for which 1979 punk classic ‘the Sound of the Suburbs’ was written – and, ahem, Bros.

It’s also ’around 10 miles from Woking’, as he put it, his first nod to a legacy of which I have a few questions ready to weave in, about his pre-fame days in The Jam. But I’ll stress from the Start (sorry), Steve is not one to dine out on the past, so don’t expect a ‘my regrets about leaving’ tale.

He was barely 17 in the Summer of ‘75, when he left the band he co-formed with Paul Weller in 1972, in broad terms having few regrets at quitting when he did, big time success not far around the corner for his bandmates. And he certainly never begrudged them their deserved success.

There was an early attempt to get him back onside, an offer from EMI stipulating a four-piece line-up, but though tempted he turned that down, and not long after came the Polydor deal that effectively made them.

The next time he was in touch with Paul, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler was just before the release of second LP, This is the Modern World, a big night following, lots of drink involved. And the old band were back together again in the Spring of ’79 as The Jam officially opened Steve’s music shop in Brookwood, just outside Woking, my interviewee having pulled the plug on his solo career the previous summer, that evening also ending in a night on the pop with Paul.

A few more planned and chance meetings followed as The Jam’s star soared, Steve increasingly doubtful about his old friend and where he perceived he was at. By 1981, his guitar shop venture had folded, proving unviable as market conditions swung, the pair not in touch again until the mid-‘90s, an interview for the Boys About Town fanzine filmed by writer and Jam/Style Council biographer Paolo Hewitt for the Highlights and Hang-Ups documentary leading to Paolo inviting Steve to a surprise 36th birthday party for Paul, just in from Grosvenor House with his Ivor Novello Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection Award, friendships rekindled again.

But all that’s just background. It’s mostly about the future for Steve, not unlike Paul in that respect. And judging by his most recent output, that’s with good reason. What’s more, he’s hardly champing at the bit to record a follow-up to 2021’s winning LP, Tread Gently, telling me, ‘I’ve a few tunes that need to be sort of done, but nothing lined up in the pipeline.’ This interview was more about me wanting to help spread the word about a comparative below the radar act deserving to be heard.

Steve was 50 when he released first LP, Thankful, in 2008, following that with Down the Line, ‘an album of solo acoustic blues’, a year later, the similarly bluesy Snakes and Ladders in 2011 leading to him performing with Blues Band/Manfred Mann singer turned BBC Radio 2 presenter Paul Jones at a show in Cranleigh, Surrey, in December 2012. As word spread, Vintage Troubadour followed in 2014, then Paul Weller contributed to 2017’s Hoodoo Zoo and – post-pandemic lockdowns – Tread Gently, both recorded at Paul’s Black Barn Studios HQ in Ripley, near Woking.  

That latter album for me is neatly characterised by understated, somewhat dreamy opener, ‘A Walk in London’, augmented by Ben Gordelier, best known for The Moons and also a Paul Weller band regular. Ben adds percussion, drums and guitar on several songs, while Paul adds organ, melodica and electric guitar, having added blues harp on one track on Hoodoo Zoo, which also includes lots of contributions from Ben.

It doesn’t necessarily follow that fans of one will love the other, but Steve’s guested on various tracks – slide and electric guitar here and there – across all five Weller LPs since 2015’s Saturns Pattern, plus 2017’s Jawbone film soundtrack, having made his first contributions for his old friend on the 22 Dreams (2008) and Wake up the Nation (2010) albums, Steve also providing additional vocals for the afore-mentioned Members on 2016’s ‘Incident at Surbiton’.

Tread Gently in particular gets plenty of plays from me. If pushed for a comparison, I’d say it was somewhere between John Martyn and Jack Johnson. Think Eric Clapton with added heart. And I was lucky enough to catch Steve live at the Boileroom in my hometown, Guildford, in late 2021, supporting – and appearing with the headliners on a cramped stage for one song – seven-piece soul combo Stone Foundation (with a link to my review here). But it’s not always about his own songs when he performs live.

“To be honest, a lot of the gigs I do are just sort of covers type gigs. They’re not really showcases for your own songs. It’s hard work trying to find gigs that will actually allow you to do that. It’s few and far between, really.”

I don’t doubt that, and even at the Boileroom, Stone Foundation frontman Neil Jones came on before to suggest he was given the courtesy of being listened to rather than talked over, something I’m pleased to say was mostly the case towards the front from a largely discerning audience.

 “Well, yeah, I mean, obviously with a band like Stone Foundation, it’s not that kind of crowd which are coming out to listen to a bloke playing an acoustic guitar, you know. So I try and make as much noise as I can, over the top of it! The problem with acoustic music is that it acquires the space and the gaps, and the quiet bits need to need a quiet audience, but I kind of get it if people are out for drinks and whatever. It’s one of them things.”

It’s a thin line sometimes. I guess you can’t be seen to be precious, coming over as some grumpy sod full of his own importance.

“No, if you go to a folk or a jazz club, the rules are to keep quiet, and everyone tends to respect that, but when you’re in a more mixed environment, it’s not really like that. But beggars can’t be choosers, ha ha!”

Steve became friends with Paul in early 1972, the purchase of his first guitar the previous Christmas leading to a mutual interest that ultimately led to them playing their first engagement at the age of 13 as a duo at their secondary school in Sheerwater, Woking, mics plugged into a record player, the realisation that they mostly had a female audience convincing them they were on the right track.

Dave Waller (guitar) and Neil Harris (drums) soon joined, the latter then making way for fellow Sheerwater pupil Rick Buckler, Dave soon leaving (while not a great guitarist he was a big influence on Paul, a published poet who died from a heroin overdose in 1982, later the subject of The Style Council’s poignant ‘A Man of Great Promise’), with Bruce permanently on board, after an earlier shift, by 1974.

In my most recent interview with Rick, we touched on those days, and it’s fair to say he remembers some of the stories differently, judging by Steve’s splendid (and long since out of print) 1996 memoir, Keeping the Flame. But we are talking upwards of 50 years ago, and clearly a lot happened for Rick with the band after Steve left. Besides, who’s telling who’s right?

“I think the other problem is that distance of the time. I talk to people now, and even when I talk to Paul sometimes, he remembers things I don’t remember, and vice versa, or we remember different versions of the same event. I don’t think you can necessarily say there’s a definitive take on it.”

One memory that struck me from your book – something I forgot until it came up in conversation with Rick – was how you were set to play Guildford on the night of October 1974’s IRA pub bombings. I was coming up to my seventh birthday, but have fairly clear memories of that evening, hearing at least one bomb go off from two miles away. Meanwhile, The Jam were at Bunter’s nightclub, Rick recalling how they set up then went home for tea while Bruce met friends in town, later getting a phone call telling him not to come back. However, Steve reckons he was still at the venue when word came that the band needed to get out quick, police swarming everywhere as they left the venue and their equipment.

“We might have taken the gear up in the afternoon, but were definitely up there, setting up.”

I enjoyed Keeping the Flame, and Steve’s writing makes it. I get the impression he had a smile on his face while putting much of that together.

“The thing was, I didn’t want to come out of it like some sort of sad old twat. We had a lot of fun back in the day when we were doing it. We were young fellas just doing what we loved. I was trying to get that across, really.

“I had a warm-hearted recollection of it all. But I’ve got to be honest, I was inspired to write it when I read Bruce and Rick’s book {1993’s The Jam: Our Story, written with Alex Ogg}. I was written about by this guy that had never met me, never interviewed me, didn’t know anything about me, because they had it ghost-written. I just thought, ‘I’ve got to correct that, got to do something, make that right. There’s people taking away from that, that my role wasn’t what it really was.’”

In fairness, Rick’s later memoir, 2015’s That’s Entertainment: My Life in The Jam addressed much of that. What’s more, perhaps we should ask ourselves how we would write about our experiences of being 13 through to 17 all these years on. How many of the people we knew at that age are we still close to? And how likely is it that our personal recollections would match?

By the same token, there are those who will still think of Steve as that young lad who quit the band just before they were famous, despite all he’s accomplished since. Life moves on, but some people still expect, it would seem, us to be in the same place we left them.

“I still get that, especially if I do a gig around Woking, these people that come out of the woodwork. People you’ve never met in your life come up to you and have these recollections of things {they feel} you were at that they were. They talk to you about it, and you think, ‘You know what, mate, I wasn’t there. You’ve got it all wrong. That was two years after I left the band, and you’re telling me you remember me doing something.’ But I don’t bother correcting them. It’s just too complicated. I’ll just say, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,’ or ‘I don’t remember that, but you’re probably right,’ let them carry on!”

You say in Keeping the Flame you wrote it to stop people asking why you left The Jam …

“And they’re still asking me!”

Would you ever reissue it? There would be grounds to add more, bring the reader up to date, that book somehow now more than a quarter of a century old, and long since hard to find.

“To be honest, I was in two minds about whether to do this with you today. I’ve pretty much done everything I’ve done in terms of talking about The Jam. It’s pretty much all been kicked over a million times. I don’t think there’s much new I can say. When I did the Dan Jennings thing {an August 2021 audio interview for the Paul Weller Fan Podcast} during the lockdown, I think his questions were among the best I’ve ever been asked. That interview sort of summed it up. I was quite pleased with that. I thought it was well done.

“But I read that article you did on the Boileroom show, which I thought was great, and thought, ‘The guy’s on side, yeah, give it a go.”

I certainly appreciate Steve picking up the phone in that respect. And yet, for all that positivity about leaving when he did in his book, I feel I should re-ask a few of those questions. There must surely have been times when he saw The Jam’s success and wondered if he made the right decision, or if he should have stuck it out that little bit longer. Or was that never in his nature?

“I suppose … it’s easy to sort of look back on something like that and think, ‘Maybe if I’d sort of knuckled down and got on with it, there would have been a different outcome. But really, I think it was never meant to be, and that’s the story of it.”

Paul comes over as someone all about the next thing rather than his past, and I’m guessing you’re the same in that respect.

“Yeah, I’m not a great one for looking backwards in my life. I had quite a mixed upbringing when I was a kid, we moved around a lot. You know, I don’t dwell on any of the bad experiences I’ve had, and try not to sort of blame other people. We all get our go round, so just keep going, you know, keep pressing on!”

Steve’s a family man with ‘a couple of grown-up kids.’ Have either of his children followed him down the same path, writing and performing music?

“Not really. They both played piano when they were kids, but they’ve not really taken up any sort of any performing type ideas. They’re not interested in it, and in a way I’m quite pleased about that, because it is a tough old road. When I talk to musicians of my age and look at opportunities for young musicians to make an impression and actually make enough for a living at it, you know, streaming and all that, apart from live performing, there’s not a great deal of money in the whole thing.”

You came through at a time when there were talent contests, but they were local ones in The Jam’s case, rather than X-Factor-style mainstream national telly.

“Yeah, we used to do a few things like that, but it was much more based on … I suppose everyone was after the dream ticket, which everyone still is, but back in the day the dream ticket was the dream ticket, whereas now, just being able to earn a living and make your music is about as good as it gets.”

You stuck at it for a couple of years as a solo artist after leaving The Jam, then came the music shop, then a job in the car business, yeah?

“Yeah, I sort of soldiered on, on my own for a while, but kind of lost my way really. And I’m kind of glad I gave it up. I carried on playing, but … I think it would have just grabbed me down. I would have probably ended up giving it all up together, never playing again, and maybe I might have turned into this bitter, old sort of twat!

“When I started playing again, in the ‘90s, I had a little blues band, going out and doing a few pub gigs, and I was really loving it. Mostly blues covers, really – old rhythm and blues, like the Chess Records catalogue, stuff like that.”

You’ve clearly retained – maybe because you got out when you did – that over-riding love of music.

“I think that’s the big problem with it when you’re doing it for a job. It’s easy for it to, all of a sudden, become a chore. You’ve got to keep that spirit of creativity about it.”

That certainly shows with your solo records. And when I last spoke to Rick Buckler, saying what a great player you were, he said you were from the start.

“That’s really nice of him. And back in the day when we started playing, we were just a three-piece – two guitars and drums, so had to make quite a good noise between us. And yeah, it was different.”

Out of interest, did you ever get any royalties for co-writing ‘Takin’ my Love’, that eventually turning up on the B-side of ‘In the City’ in 1977?

“Ha! No. And I don’t lose too much sleep on that one!”

Fair enough. And I know you say it was quite a slow version in your day, at least by comparison.

“Yeah, it was more of a country blues sort of thing.”

He’s said elsewhere it was based on The Beatles’ ‘One After 909’, which John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote as young teens, rather aptly. And it seems that Paul and Steve’s copy of The Beatles Complete was the foundation upon which their song catalogue came together in those formative years.

While Steve, fresh from London, was living in Byfleet when he met Paul at school, this time 50 years ago he was more or less living in with the Weller family at Stanley Road between weekday stints away at school with his younger brother in West Sussex. He finally moved to the town in Autumn ’74, his mum’s place ‘backing onto the park – a flat near where used to be the Cotteridge Hotel, at the top of the hill there.’

That was no doubt handy for gigs at Woking Football Club, and he’s played a few at Kingfield’s Cardinals Bar in recent times too, the venue used for The Style Council’s ‘Speak Like a Child’ promo video, Paul reminiscing about the dances he once attended there.

That’s no doubt one of those places he plays where locals ask if he remembers them, not least during residencies upstairs at Michael’s (despite The Jam being under-age for the club itself), or dates at The Albion or Woking’s Liberal, Working Men’s and Conservative Clubs, arguably The Jam’s equivalent of The Beatles’ Indra, Kaiserkeller, Top Ten, and Star Club shows in Hamburg.

He also mentioned in Keeping the Flame supporting Thin Lizzy at the Greyhound in Croydon, mentioning The Jam’s set, but not the headliners. Did he catch them that night, or were they busy having a smoke out the back?

“I did, and I was pretty impressed. They were a proper sort of live band, you know. They were good. I wasn’t really a Thin Lizzy fan at the time, but they were pretty impressive.”

Incidentally, after I put down my copy of his book the night before our chat, I saw online an advert for a Secret Affair tour, with support from Squire, The Jam’s ‘70s Woking contemporaries back in his day. But I get the impression that nostalgia kicks don’t appeal to Steve, despite him telling me he thought Squire were great.

“It’s almost like, ‘Why not just let it lie, move on,’ you know. There’s so much nostalgia. For instance, the tribute thing. I really despise it. I think it sucks so much of the lifeblood out of the music scene. And I don’t get why 60-year-olds want to go and watch people pretending to be their favourite band from 40 years ago. It mystifies me. To me, the whole point of getting older is to sort of, you know, sit there with your pipe and cardigan and listen to some of the jazz and Miles Davis and all this stuff you missed out on the first time around!”

Is that what you prefer to listen to now?

“I can’t really say there’s an awful lot of new music that turns me on. It’s mostly sort of delving back into the Blue Note catalogue and things like singer-songwriters from the ‘60s, people like Tim Hardin, because it’s almost like they wrote the blueprint.

“When you go back a long way, you can listen to something and think, ‘They’ve used such and such a blueprint for that. You hear a song and think, ‘That’s a Stones blueprint or a Who blueprint.’ And it feels like not so much a parody but over-influence. They haven’t tried to disguise it. And I just find it a bit self-defeating.

“Even with the little records I make now, they’re nothing special, but in terms of the sound I get, I think principally, if you listen to what I’m doing, it doesn’t sound like me trying to be someone else. It’s my sound. I’m not trying to be somebody else.”

I disagree regarding the ‘nothing special’ line, but he’s right – it is difficult to compartmentalise what he does … a great quality.

“Yeah, it’s not really focused on blues, although I always like to think there’s a little bit of a Beatles thread running through what I do, because they were master songwriters. But even people like Burt Bacharach, and Jim Webb, all those songs from the ‘60s … they’re brilliant and still sound fresh. I heard ‘MacArthur Park’ the other day. I hadn’t heard it for a while, and it was so off the wall. A masterpiece. With all those kinds of songs, I think they’re just such fantastic achievements, in terms of stretching things as far as they could go.”

Steve turns 65 in May, a day after a certain Paul Weller. Is there still a day-job, or is that the music again now?

“I do a bit of property maintenance and stuff, but I’m sort of winding down now. I do a few gigs and a few bits and pieces. I’ll be getting my old-age pension next year!”

I tend to find that those who broke through around the time The Jam did – so many of the bands I love – and are still creating music rather than just regurgitating old hits are doing it for the love of performing and recording – it’s no longer about chasing contracts, big bucks or chart places. And I get the impression that’s Steve too.

“I guess that’s the case, but I was out of it for a long time, and when I came back, it was really just for the love of it.”

There’s a mention in Rick’s most recent book, The Jam: 1982, as previously detailed in his memoir, of Steve climbing on a grand piano during ‘Johnny B. Goode’ in those early days, painting a vivid picture of him being chased around the piano by someone from the venue, Woking Conservative Club. I’m guessing those days are behind him now (not least playing a Tory club).

“Yeah. The thing is though, the night we did New Year’s Eve at that club, if you go down to the bottom of where Stanley Road was, it was on the corner of there and the bottom of Chertsey Road, and I’m pretty sure that when we played there it was the Liberal Club, which later on turned into the Conservative Club.”

I still get down to Kingfield when I can, a Lancashire-based Cards fan – a victim of geography, as Billy Bragg put it – and that Woking skyline changes every time, those skyscrapers getting taller and ever more prominent as I head back towards the park. Then again, I guess there was always something being pulled down in my youth. Arguably, Woking was already a mess.

“Well, it’s a real mess now, isn’t it. It’s all been done piecemeal. You’ve still got loads of crappy old buildings, then you’ve got all these bloody skyscrapers. It’s horrible. It was never a pretty town, but they’ve missed the opportunity to at least improve it, or do something.”

As well as the solo shows, there have been many live highlights in recent years guesting with or supporting Paul Weller, such as June 2010’s Wake up Woking charity gig for Woking and Sam Beare Hospice – Paul’s first in the town since a YMCA charity gig at Sheerwater Youth Club with The Jam in 1980 – and another for the same cause in November 2013, where Bruce Foxton also guested. Then there was the afore-mentioned 2012 date with Paul Jones, his fellow guests including Imelda May, and a guest spot with Paul at Islington’s Union Chapel for George Ezra’s MIND charity gig in late 2018. And Steve also featured in the promo film for the cracking About the Young Idea exhibition.

As for the inevitable trawls through this interview for new insights about The Jam’s formative days, he remains resolute that he has little more to add to the subject.

“It was only like four years of my life. All the stories have sort of been told. People have said to me, ‘Why don’t you re-do the book, update it?’ But it would come across like you’re sort of clutching at this little bit of fame that you could have had.

“Last week, playing somewhere in Camberley, they billed me as a co-founder of The Jam, and I said, ‘Look, before we go any further, I do get people sometimes turning up thinking they’re going to see this bloke with spiky hair, black and white shoes, doing Mod covers … and that ain’t me!’

“That was something that happened 50 years ago, and I’ve made the joke that the good thing about being a ‘never was’ is that no one can ever call you a ‘has been’!”

For more about Steve Brookes and his music, live shows, and more, check out his Reverb Nation site or visit his YouTube channel. You can also check him out via Spotify.

For this website’s most recent Rick Buckler feature/interview, from January 2023, with further links to past interviews, head here. Then, for my January 2016 feature/interview with Bruce Foxton, and links to our past conversations, head here.

And for a link to Dan Jennings’ August 2021 audio interview with Steve Brookes for the Paul Weller Fan Podcast, head here.


About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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