Paul Weller: The gigs that gave birth to a legend

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They ended up as big as any band since The Beatles, but you would never have guessed it had you been inside London's Marquee Club one evening in January 1977. The Jam were supporting a band called Bearded Lady, and they were having difficulty rousing a laid-back audience who, as was often the way back then, were happy to sit cross-legged on the floor. Frustrated at the lack of crowd reaction, singer Paul Weller threw everything into his performance. At 18, he was a gutsy, aggressive front man who barked out his clipped, gruff vocal lines while flailing energetically at the strings of a red Rickenbacker in the style of one of his heroes, the Who guitarist Pete Townshend. All this, though, was to little avail. The cross-legged crowd remained resolutely rooted to the spot.

In desperation, Paul gestured in my direction. I had first seen The Jam a few months earlier at the nearby 100 Club and had gone along to the Marquee with a couple of friends, Shane and Claudio, whom I had met at punk concerts in the capital. As The Jam rushed towards the end of their set, the three of us were ushered onstage by Paul, where we, too, played our part in trying to liven up the evening. I can't remember exactly how we danced (it must have been some unholy cross between the punk-rock pogo and Sixties-style gogo), but I do recall the jeers that came from the still-seated hordes on the floor, the "disgusted Marquee hippies" as Paul would call them years later on the sleeve-notes to The Jam's posthumous live album, Dig The New Breed.

The incident was typical of a time when The Jam were trying to make inroads on the London live circuit. With punk rock already making its unruly presence felt, there was a generation of young fans lurking around the corner for the trio from Woking in Surrey. At the start of 1977, though, the band - Paul, bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler - had yet to find it. We Jam fans numbered about a dozen. Another show from the same period, at Ronnie Scott's, sticks out, too. As relative unknowns, The Jam did not get to play the famous ground floor jazz parlour, but a smaller, less salubrious room upstairs. Apart from the arrival of a long-haired intruder who gatecrashed the stage and tried to add a harmonica solo to the band's anthem, "In The City", the gig was notable for the manner in which Paul - whose nervous, pent-up energy was never merely a pose - got so carried away that he trashed a guitar by ramming it repeatedly into his amplifier.

"The way that he smashed up that guitar was inspiring," said Shane as we made our way back out into Frith Street. Some years later, Shane (surname: MacGowan) would develop into a first-rate front man in his own right with The Pogues. My immediate future, though, lay in writing, initially through the stapled, xeroxed pages of my own "fanzine", 48 Thrills, and then at New Musical Express. As a teenage escapee from the new town of Stevenage, 30 miles outside London, my suburban roots mirrored Paul Weller's satellite-town origins perfectly and, looking back, it was no surprise that he and I struck up a bond, allowing me to chronicle, first-hand, the ups and downs of The Jam over the remaining six years of their illustrious career.

A friendship with the youthful Weller was a rewarding yet never cosy experience. Appreciably younger than his supposed peers in The Clash and Sex Pistols, Paul took punk's anti-star, anti-complacency attitude to heart. And sometimes to extremes. Pete Townshend once said that he has never met a musician as wary of sell-out or hypocrisy as Weller. And while this made the lean, callow Surrey teenager unnecessarily hard on himself at times, it also led him to demand high standards from those around him. Once, when he felt that 48 Thrills had slipped from its usual level, he dashed off a letter, quoting reggae legend Bob Marley, instructing me to "lively up yourself".

My initial impressions of The Jam, however, were entirely favourable. My earliest review of the trio babbled excitedly about their "clean, Sixties-influenced sound" and Paul's uncanny ability to play lead and rhythm simultaneously. I bemoaned, however, the fact that they seemed unable to attract a young following. This, of course, stemmed partly from Weller's ambivalent attitude to punk, which he saw not as an artistic Year Zero, but as an extension of Mod. Having discovered the Sixties youth cult after hearing The Who's "My Generation" on a soundtrack, he'd immersed himself in its sharp ephemera, wearing mohair suits, playing his Rickenbacker, learning Motown and Stax standards and covering his bedroom wall with pictures of The Beatles. When The Jam eventually began gigging, they did so under the banner "most rock'n'roll, maximum rhythm'n'blues", lifted from an old Who poster.

Despite Weller's unyielding fondness for the Sixties, The Jam, in 1977, were rivalled as a live act only by the punkier Clash. And while the latter quartet really had two front men, The Jam, as a threesome, relied on one man to provide the input of both Joe Strummer (gritty, no-nonsense fulcrum) and Mick Jones (melodic, romantic foil). It was something that Paul did with aplomb. And while London's fashion-conscious punk cognoscenti shunned the group, there were others who appreciated them, too. One was dark-haired Gill Price, from Bromley, who would later become Paul's first serious girlfriend. Another was Polydor A&R manager Chris Parry, who gave them a record deal while other labels dithered.

When The Jam's first single, "In The City", arrived in April 1977, their audience finally began to grow. A four-week residency at the Red Cow, a Hammersmith pub, told its own story. A cramped, L-shaped venue, it was half-full for the band's first date there. By the fourth week, the queues stretched around the block into Hammersmith Road. At one show, I almost ended up onstage once again after Rick Buckler, on a call of nature, went missing just as they were about to play the Batman theme as their encore. With an excitable crowd baying for music, and the pub's 11pm curfew approaching, Paul suggested that I "sat in" and thumped out an elementary beat so they could race through the song (a loose and ramshackle affair anyway) before closing time. Despite never having drummed, I took my place behind Rick's kit, only to be relieved of my duties after a few bars when a frantic Buckler, having heard the onstage commotion, emerged from the gents. Heady days.

As The Jam moved on to bigger venues and headline tours between 1977 and 1979, and I moved on to NME, my relationship with Paul inevitably began to become slightly more formal. Onstage, though, with the first hints of chart success doing little to dampen Weller's bravura, the band still brought out the fan in me. Musically, they were now spreading their wings, adding greater texture and depth to their sound without sacrificing any of their old drive or commitment. But while Paul was also developing an interest in poetry and literature - he once thrust a copy of Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest into my hand and insisted I read it - he shied away from setting himself up as a spokesman for anyone other than himself. He was certainly an unwilling figurehead for the 1979 "Mod revival", a spurious movement which reached its apogee in May of that year when the group climaxed a UK tour at Finsbury Park's Rainbow Theatre in front of an audience that seemed to consist almost entirely of fans in uniforms of dull green parka coats and Fred Perry shirts. It was shortly after this that Paul, ridiculing such sheepish followers of fashion, appeared on Top of the Pops wearing a plastic apron.

At the start of 1980, while breaking the news that the band had swept all before them in that year's NME readers' poll, I was given some insight into how they worked in the studio when I sat in on the Townhouse sessions for "Going Underground", a song which would provide the band with the first of their four No.1 singles. With Vic Smith in the producer's chair, things were done quickly yet effectively. "Going Underground", like most Jam songs, was more or less nailed in two takes, with only the overdubs taking a little longer. Arduous, late-night sessions had no place in the Jam's urgent scheme of things.

Far from softening as he matured, Paul's approach to the music business only hardened as The Jam embarked on a phase of their career that would ultimately see them become the country's biggest band. Having once said that he just wanted to be a pop star, someone who could write a good tune, he now took a different line. "We're not a fun band, you know," he told me on the tour-bus ride away from a gig in Brighton. "We're not like the Boomtown Rats, who are just having a laugh. I think it's important for bands to take themselves seriously."

Paul's attitude also contrasted starkly with the new British bands of the early Eighties, such as Spandau Ballet, ABC and Haircut 100, who shunned social realism and guitars in favour of more escapist lyrics and synthesised, dance-orientated rhythms. He had no time, either, for the emerging London club scene, once referring to me, with typical bluntness, as an "NME cocktail-set wanker". Despite this, Paul was starting to harbour doubts about the long-term future of The Jam. And while I was taken to task for some unflattering lines in an account of a 1981 gig ("the band are in a rut and it's going to take all of Weller's flair to get them out of it"), Paul himself also knew that the trio were beginning to drift. Typically, he wasted little time in rectifying that, and The Jam ended their career, in 1982, in a blaze of glory.

I did my final interview with the band that same year, just after they had played a blistering set on the opening programme of the Tyne Tees pop series The Tube. Knowing that their days together were now numbered, the split having already been announced, the band played with a fury that made my carping criticisms of the previous year seem irrelevant. Delivering eight songs with typically taut commitment, Paul, Bruce and Rick treated the Tube studio as if it were a real concert hall as they ran through "Town Called Malice", "The Modern World" and other Jam standards. Even after the live broadcast had gone off-air, they played on, adding "David Watts" and Edwin Starr's "War" to the mix. Weller later admitted to me that the intensity of the occasion was down to nerves: his desire to make the band's last TV appearance a memorable one had got the better of him.

We may get more of the same next Wednesday, at Earl's Court, when Paul plays The Brits after picking up a prize for his Outstanding Contribution to Music. I should be there cheering him on, too. This time around, though, I won't be dancing onstage.

The writer is the music critic for the 'Daily Mail'


On reforming The Jam

That will never, ever happen. Me and my children would have to be destitute and starving in the gutter before I'd even consider that, and I don't think that'll happen anyway. I'd get a job working on a van or with the builders. I'm against all bands reforming - I think it's really sad.

On internet fan sites

It's all a bit weird. I love bands but I don't really want to know what they had for breakfast. I've never understood all that internet world anyway - where's the art of conversation?

On today's music

My two eldest kids are just mad for music and it's great to see another generation who are passionate about music, especially after all those fallow years of Westlife and reality bollocks. I don't get Coldplay and James Blunt, though. They bore the shit out of me. I've met Chris Martin and I don't want to slag him off because he's a lovely lad, but his music is too fucking bland.

On punk's legacy

I don't think it had one. Pink Floyd are still the biggest band in the world, along with the Rolling Stones. So what's changed?

On being working class

Years and years ago, when I was still married, we had some friends over and they said: "Isn't it funny how we've all ended up middle class?" And I said: "Speak for your fucking selves, because I'm not." I might have a nice house but just because I've got money, doesn't mean I'm middle class. I'm not having it.

On giving up music for gardening

I was going to do it with Andrew Innes from Primal Scream. He wanted to concrete over Phil Collins' garden.

On homosexuality

I went through my "confused sexuality" time in The Style Council. But it never went further than me and Mick Talbot stroking each other's ear lobes in a video. The truth is I don't really fancy blokes.

On being a Mod

I still love the whole look, the music, the imagery, the attitude, even the scooters. It will always be in my heart

On Tony Blair

I wouldn't vote for Labour now. How can anyone that says they like music go off and bomb people? It doesn't make sense to me.

On celebrity

I hate that whole celebrity culture thing, that thing where you can be famous for getting your tits out or going on some fucking reality TV show. It's a sad message to send out to the young generation. When I was growing up, everybody who was supposedly famous was in that position for being good at something. I don't regard myself as any sort of celebrity; people know me because I've been around for 28 years.

On his Brit lifetime achievement award

I've never been offered it before, so I've probably got old enough to receive it. Apparently, it was between me and Macca. I thought Macca should have it, but Macca wasn't arsed, so it fell to me.

On U2, winners in 2001

Never liked them. That whole thing of Bono becoming the Pope, what the fuck's that all about? Pseudo-American rubbish.

On jamming with James Blunt at the Brits

I'd rather eat my own shit.