Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Jam As "Bourgeois Revolutionaries"

When I was in college, one of my history professors explained to us that the American Revolution was a "bourgeois revolution": that is, a movement for colonial independence instigated and fueled primarily by the propertied classes here in the colonies.  Though influenced and inspired by many ideas from the Enlightenment, there was for many of the Founding Fathers the equally powerful economic freedoms and enticements that independence would bring - freedom from creditors and regulation being near the top.  This was earth shattering news coming from a professor who did not enjoy a reputation as a "standard issue" left-leaning academic*.  More importantly, this ran counter to my ideas that the war for American independence was about ideas - things like equality, greater social mobility, and self determinism.  While it may have been about those things as well, I have come to believe it is naive to ignore or underestimate the bourgeois influence on the American Revolution.

These thoughts came back to me as I watched a documentary about one of my favorite bands:  the Jam.  According to "The Jam: Punk Icons", Jam guitarist/leader Paul Weller knew he was going to be a musician from the first time he saw the Beatles on television at the age of 5.  The impression made by bands like the Kinks, the Who and the Small Faces left an indelible mark on Weller, who never moved beyond his obsession with the modernism of the 1960s.  Later, after experiencing the anger and energy of the Sex Pistols' live show in 1977, the two pillars on which the Jam were formed were in place.  Their live sets featured high energy, angry songs that were short and sharp.  Dressed in smart suits and black ties and cultivating the Mod image that fell out of favor at the close of the 1960s, it seems a small miracle that the Jam were embraced by fans who were just as excited about scrappy urban bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols (though, unlike the Clash and the Sex Pistols, the Jam's popularity was minimal outside of the UK).

I say "small miracle" because at least on the surface, the Jam appear to be bourgeois rebels.  They were stylish and carefully coiffed, a stark contrast to the many of their punk contemporaries that were creating their own style from repurposed thrift store clothing.  The "do it yourself" ethic of the punk movement that was born of both necessity and pride seemed to be lost on the Jam and their fans.  If that sent up some flags for punks, the band had once even announced in an interview with NME that they'd be voting conservative, earning them the bile of the Clash, with whom they were touring at that time.  (Joe Strummer's dig at the Jam can be found in the lyrics of "(White Man) In Hammersmith Palais".)  One of the Jam's biggest hits ("Eton Rifles") - despite Weller's insistence to the contrary - is regarded by many as a conservative anthem.  David Cameron has even said it is one of his favorite songs.  These factors alone seem to be enough to place the Jame squarely in the corner of the wealthy ruling class.

I think, however, when you consider the body of the Jam's music as a whole, "the Jam as bourgeois revolutionaries" isn't as easy a conclusion to come to as one might think.  Take for instance "Smithers-Jones", about a man who is chewed up and spit out by the corporate world. Indeed, there are large chunks of the Jam's catalog that are above the liberal/conservative fray because they are so intimate - songs like "Wasteland", "Private Hell", "That's Entertainment".  Some tunes would even seem to directly counter the "conservative" label.  Hell, they even did a song that's a full on blue collar fantasy.  As for "Eton Rifles", I never took it as an endorsement of any sort of rich, entitled lifestyle.  I have understood it as more satire than anything else.

For me, the Jam was more about railing against the mundane, the ordinary and the cliche.  There seemed to be a very life affirming message to much of their music, even when Weller was at his most cynical.  They bristled at the whole notion of the "stiff upper lip"; they relished the simple, beautiful things.  However, my notions about their music are now the same as my thoughts on the American Revolution:  there is an undeniable bourgeois element to the Jam's body of work.  This doesn't tarnish them too much for me, but it's something I can't deny either.

* - This prof was a huge Christopher Columbus scholar/apologist; a historical figure no self respecting lefty would leave alone without criticism.

2 comments:

  1. Nice post.

    I would say that the Jam still count as bourgeois rebels because, although they documented the alienation of capitalism, they never took on the system itself. They never moved from a critique of the affects of capitalism to a critique of capitalism itself.

    BTW, you need to go find Marc Maron's interview of Billy Bragg. It is on his WTF podcast. Bragg has some pretty hilarious things to say about the Clash, and he does a few songs too.

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    1. That is actually fine - and correct - distinction to make. They dealt with the effects of capitalism without taking on the source.

      Am checking out the BB interview now. That's a pretty hot tip. That dude ranks up there with Watt as one of my heroes.

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