It was a quarter of a century ago this summer, but I can remember with piercing clarity the moment when I first set eyes on them. A weekday afternoon, back from school, TV tuned to The Marc Bolan Show, our corkscrew-curled host sashaying on, clad, as it may have been, in a leopardskin leotard, to announce in that curiously nancyfied cockney that he had a groop for us to ponder, who were in addition a noo groop. And then a cataclysmic blast of noise – primed by a guitar that sounded as if it could strip paint off walls – courtesy of an ensemble of whirling figures in subfusc suits and two-tone shoes, culminating in the vision of a tall, rodent-faced boy hollering about "youth explosions" and that all around the world he'd been looking for you. "Wham bam", as the New Musical Express headlined the band's first cover piece, "Here Comes the Jam".
The Jam. Even for me to write those words on a piece of paper is to be transported back into a luminous late-Seventies landscape made up of target T-shirts, Union Jack blazers and parka-clad hordes chanting "We Are the Mods", a little chunk of lost time that seems as remote as the Abdication or the General Strike. Investigation revealed that there were three of them: Paul (Weller), the rat-boy on jangly Rickenbacker guitar and vocals; Bruce (Foxton), the panting, acrobatic bass player; and Rick (Buckler) on route-march drums. It also disclosed that their first single, "In the City" (re-released last week in celebration of their silver jubilee, at the original price of 75p – and expected to chart this week, along with a new compilation, The Sound of the Jam), had been and gone and that an album of the same name was reposing in the charts. Sixteen years old, and hitherto vastly disapproving of this punk stuff, I was hooked, transformed and blown away.
As one or two younger readers may need reminding, between 1977 and 1982 The Jam were the most successful of those English pop groups – not a limitless number – whom it was possible to respect. Of the 18 singles they released during this period, four got to number one. Four of their six studio albums made the top three. More to the point they had a coherence, a sense of conviction, that rival musical street-gangs altogether lacked. The Sex Pistols were the artificial creation of a pop svengali, as manipulable as the system they affected to undermine; the Clash (I thought) were a band of art school pinheads who rationalised their nastiness as "constructive violence". Somehow the Jam – Paul, Bruce and Rick – never fell into these snares, never released a heavy metal album or collaborated with train robbers. Of all the survivors of the punk explosion of 1976 they were the ones who stayed closest to its founding ideals, and – arguably – the ones who left the strongest legacy. Listening to the latest best-of, Bruce Foxton declares himself impressed, "pleased that stuff like 'The Butterfly Collector' [a haunting B-side from 1979] hasn't dated at all". Still living in that Woking hinterland where the Jam coalesced, with his wife Pat, he sounds exactly the same as in those radio chat sessions from the early Eighties: patient, earnest, modestly delighted by the bouquets that admirers continue to fling at him half a lifetime after it happened.
But there was more to it than this, more than the ability to knock out some of the greatest three-minute singles ("Down in the Tube Station at Midnight", "When You're Young", "Going Underground") in pop history. For a period of perhaps four years, from late adolescence to early twenties, The Jam were My Group: a fierce, proselytising attachment that brooked no interference or rebuke. I bought their records on the morning they came out. I Sellotaped posters of them on to the antique panelling of my Oxford college rooms. At one point I even made a more or less serious attempt to dress like Paul, which meant investing in dark jackets, white silk scarves and parting one's hair in the middle. And on the day when Weller, tiring of the restrictions of the form and, we inferred, his less glamorous sidesmen, broke up the band I experienced something like an actual physical pang of loss.
Any attempt to rationalise this lavish, unyielding fixation – far greater than any directed at another human being during this time – instantly founders in a mire of retrospect. Liking pop music, in the last resort, is about immediacy: how things felt then. The rest, you imagine, is merely faded vinyl album covers and nostalgia of a rather suspect sort. Lurking beneath this, though, is the idea of a pop sociology, cultural gaze, rootedness and connection. Morrissey's complaint about the pop DJs of the 1980s (in the Smiths' "Panic") was "The music that they constantly play/Says nothing to me about my life"). What did Paul Weller, frontman and chief songwriter (Bruce being confined to B-sides and album fillers) have to say to me about my life? Twenty-five years later, Foxton stresses the boys' working-class roots in down-town Woking, "connecting with our audience, playing songs that had some relation to their lives". But I was an Oxford history undergrad, and the world evoked in a song like "Saturday's Kids" ("Saturday's live with insults/Drink lots of beer and watch the half-time results/Afternoon tea in the Lite-a-Bite/Chat up the girls – they dig it") was light years away from mine. I didn't chat up girls in the Lite-a-Bite; I had earnest conversations with them about literature in the college library.
Perhaps, then, it was what the group's bass player now marks down as the "sheer energy" of the mimesis, that colossal visual oomph the three of them produced. And yet, further research revealed, Weller was saying something to me, or at any rate appealing very strongly to a certain imperfectly concealed part of this late-teen consciousness. When it came down to it, why did I like the Jam? Curiously enough, despite élitist attitudes towards every other variety of contemporary art – the bestseller, the popular film – I liked Paul, Bruce and Rick because lots of other people liked them. They were a boys' band – in five years I never met a girl who cared for them – and liking them was on a par with supporting a football club, joining a kind of spiritual boys' brigade where, thankfully, you didn't have to talk to any of the other recruits. At the same time, as well as conciliating this communality – even now Bruce talks fondly of the bond forged between band and followers – Weller was also capable of sharply exposing it. Some of his best numbers, in fact, were about solitude, the face in the crowd and the place I love. And then, of course, there was his famous gloom, an emotional fatalism and sexual pessimism worthy of Housman at his most woeful. The girl was always going to fall for someone else. The dream was always going to shatter. There was something tremendously comforting in all this anti-romantic romanticism, just as there had been in the first surge of youthful high spirits. Nothing appeals to a sensitive 19-year-old more than misery. Staged misery, that is.
Increasingly, this obsession began to focus on the grim, bony, saturnine figure of Paul. Inarticulately sincere, or sincerely inarticulate, Weller was a terrible interviewee: dogged, moody and incendiary by turns. Somehow, faced with the discipline of four verses plus choruses plus middle eight, this deep uneasiness in the realm of language metamorphosed into pop poetry. Even now, nearly 24 years later, I can remember the words to "Tube Station" – a bleak but darkly lyrical account of a man being kicked to death by a group of fascist thugs – by heart: "They smelt of pubs/And Wormwood Scrubs/And too many right-wing meetings"
The mention of "right-wing meetings" betrays another aspect of Weller's appeal to the average late-adolescent at the fag end of the 1970s: politics. The Jam started off as confirmed trend-buckers. "We'll be voting Conservative at the next election," they briskly informed the wide-eyed NME scribe in that first interview: a remark that this particular ex-Young Conservative took at face value. Having succeeded in annoying his rival musicians, not to mention outraged pundits such as Julie Burchill, Weller settled down, abetted by George Orwell's essays, in the pursuit of a kind of Mod Socialism. This realised many a sharp vignette from the barricades of the early 1980s. To particularise, I can remember watching them playing "The Eton Rifles" (a song inspired by a "Right to Work" march which, passing by Eton College, had been loudly disparaged by some of the young gentlemen within) on Top of the Pops in the college junior common room one winter night in 1979, and hearing the peacock voice of a well-bred girl named Kathy Shipsey exclaim "Gosh, Hamish, you were at Eton. Whatever are these chappies on about?" What Hamish said in reply was lost in the rousing chorus ("Hello, hurray I hope rain stops play, for the Eton Rifles") but the point was made. Class, never absent from the dappled lawns of Oxford, came capering ominously through the autumn mists.
Quite how long this fixation would have gone on, had not Paul decided to flee the coop in the autumn of 1982, I don't know. Weller went off to form the Style Council (quieter and with less guitar) which I tried my best to like, before reinventing himself as the grand old man of British blues rock. He remains famously tight-lipped about these spangled early days, and hasn't spoken to his old sidekicks for nearly 20 years ("I glean what I know about Paul from journalists," admits Bruce, eternally bewildered, and, one suspects, long traumatised by this throwing-over).
Bruce and Rick are now, respectively, the bass player for punk veterans Stiff Little Fingers and a website designer ("He was always a bit of a techie," the bass player reveals of his former rhythm partner.) For years, though, the aura of this romance hung around me, and as late as 1988, asked to pontificate on who was my "hero" I hesitated between makeweights such as Martin Amis and Peter Ackroyd before doling out the name of Paul Weller. Twenty-five years on from that day in front of The Marc Bolan Show, Paul, Bruce and Rick have a collective age of 130-plus, and I probably wouldn't stir myself to watch Paul in action if he plugged in at the bottom of the garden – yet the row of singles in their brightly coloured sleeves seems as integral to my late adolescence as, I don't know, George Gissing's novels or the fog hanging over the South Parks Road. Paul, Bruce and Rick. They were the last of my teenage enthusiasms, the last time music mattered, and I knew that in their absence nothing in pop music, and in a queer way life itself, could ever be the same again.
'The Sound of the Jam' is released on Polydor tomorrowReuse content