Thursday night, I stumbled upon The Jam – About the Young Idea on Showtime OnDemand. It’s an excellent documentary about the English mod rock band that rose from the London suburbs in the late 1970s to become one of the biggest acts of that era in their home country. Wikipedia reports that they scored 18 consecutive Top 40 hits in the U.K., including four No. 1s, and also charted four Top 10 albums, including one – their last, The Gift – that hit the top spot in 1982.
They never broke through in the States, however. One reason: They tackled topical British concerns that just didn’t translate all that well to this side of the pond. Another: They sported thick British accents that made it a bit difficult to decipher the lyrics.
That’s neither here nor there, however, for today’s Top 5. In April 1981, I was 15 years of age, a high-school sophomore and, thanks to my folks, a new subscriber to Rolling Stone. To say that it was appropriate that Ringo Starr, whose 40th birthday was the raison d’être for the article, graced the cover of the first issue I received is an understatement – I was (and remain) a huge Beatles fan.
1) Ringo Starr – “You Can’t Fight Lightning.” At the time of the interview, Ringo was in the midst of recording an album he called Can’t Fight Lightning. It eventually morphed into Stop and Smell the Roses, released at the end of the year; and the planned title track wouldn’t be released until 1994.
This was a pre-sober Starr: “Ringo sits cross-legged on the floor, elbow propped on a coffee table. He takes long sips of brandy and chain-smokes Marlboros. Dark glasses mask bloodshot eyes—souvenirs from an all-night session in the recording studio.” He also offers this bon mot during the chat: “I asked all my friends to help on Can’t Fight Lightning. George did a couple of tracks, Paul’s done a couple of tracks. But the real drag is that there were tracks made for me by John. I won’t use them now, though. Well, I might. You never can tell. But they won’t be on the album. The fun was going to be that we’d play together, you know?”
2) The Jam – “Start!” From a Beatle to a Beatles homage… does it get any better? This three-and-a-half star review of Sound Affects from John Piccarella is the first reference to the Jam that I remember reading. I’m sure that I read about them before, possibly even in Rolling Stone, but they were among dozens of acts that I skipped past at the time – call it (youthful) ignorance at work.
The reason I say I’m sure I saw their names in music magazines prior to this date: They’d made a few forays to the U.S. during the previous few years, appearing on American Bandstand and the SNL clone Fridays, and possibly other shows, but that utter Britishness of theirs kept them from catching on. They also weren’t played on the radio around here – that I know of, at any rate. So it’s this snarky review that introduced me to them. (See the clip the right.) The line that stood out to me, though, was: “In 1980, the Jam placed more singles in the English Top Fifty than anyone since the Beatles, whose record they tied.”
I’d love to say that, inspired by the review, I ran to the Hatboro Music Shop and bought the LP. I can’t. I was intrigued by what I read, true, but also budget-conscious. It wasn’t until the next year, after I saw the video for “A Town Called Malice” on MTV, that I picked up anything by the group. That was The Gift.
3) The Who – “You Better You Bet.” It’s odd what we remember. For instance, I recall listening to WYSP-FM or WMMR-FM one day in early 1981 when the disc jockey announced with great fanfare a new song from the Who – and, with that, “You Better You Bet” kicked in. On the other side, he took an audible deep breath and sighed, somewhat beleaguered.
In the Jam documentary I mentioned in the intro, Paul Weller talks about how listening to the Who’s 1965 debut LP, My Generation, helped cement his vision of the Jam as a three-piece band. Understandable, given the album’s brute power. By 1981, however, the Who were not the same band; Keith Moon was dead, and Townshend – as he explains in his memoir, Who I Am, was over-extended. Face Dances, which “You Better You Bet” hails from, was the first post-Moon Who effort; and, while far from bad, was nowhere near as good as Townshend’s solo Empty Glass from the previous year.
4) Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation.” On the same page as the Jam review is this, my introduction to the former Runaway. The reviewer, one Tom Carson, says: “…though the LP works better as gesture than as music, the music’s still the best this artist has ever made.” Later, he sums things up with: “Unfortunately, Bad Reputation is flawed by its literal-mindedness – the arrangements pump along gamely yet rarely swing or soar – and by some unresourceful material. But in its mood and feel, Joan Jett’s first solo album is a determined retelling of what sometimes seems like the truest rock story there is.”
By the end of the year, both it and the epoch-shattering I Love Rock ’n Roll album – the pre-Christmas version with “Little Drummer Boy” – weren’t just in my vinyl collection, but among the most-played albums in my collection. (They aren’t that, anymore, but I still listen to them a few dozen times a year.) And “Bad Reputation,” the title tune, is one of the best rock anthems ever.
5) Rosanne Cash – “Seven Year Ache.” As I’ve written elsewhere, I didn’t get into Rosanne’s music until 1985 and “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.” Yet, four years earlier, I obviously flipped past this short article, which features a nice Q&A with her about the success of her second album and its title track, “Seven Year Ache,” as well as other matters. One question: Which performers do you like to see? Her answer: “Springsteen. And there are some acts around L.A. that I go to see—the Carl Gant Band, they’re really good. I think the last act I paid to see was Rockpile.”
She also confesses (if that’s the right word): “I’d pay to see Judy Garland right now if she were alive. I love her. She’s my hero. She was an absolute clear channel of emotion through her singing.”