Mike Atkinson

Interview: Bruce Foxton (From The Jam)

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on December 5, 2008

When you started the “From The Jam” project in 2007, how much of a risk did you think you were taking?

As some people already know, I played a couple of times with [original Jam drummer] Rick Buckler’s band The Gift in 2006, which was basically the line-up that we have now. I knew that Russell Hastings was doing a fantastic job of lead vocals and guitar, and having Dave Moore as the second guitarist and keyboard player added to the sound. So I just gatecrashed the band, really. Obviously there was an element of risk, but I knew we could perform those songs as well as we ever have done, and do them justice.

But of course, we couldn’t take anything for granted. When we announced the first From The Jam tour in May 2007, obviously we were all a little bit apprehensive: wondering what the Jam fans would make of it, and would they actually come to see the band, and so on. But then the tour sold out within days, so obviously they voted by buying a ticket.

The fans seem to have accepted the line-up, and accepted Russell and Dave with open arms. So any apprehension or fears were soon dismissed, because the reaction we got up and down the country has been phenomenal.

I imagine that within the first two or three dates, you must have realised that the risk had paid off.

Yeah – it’s all right selling the tickets, and the shows selling out in advance, but you’ve still got to come up with the goods. On that side of it, I didn’t have any doubts, because we’d had rehearsals beforehand. I knew the band were sounding great, so it’s nice that what you feel and what you hope for comes off – and it has done.

Before that, you were in Stiff Little Fingers for fifteen years. During that time, did you ever publicly perform any Jam songs?

I joined Stiff Little Fingers around 1990, when I spoke with Jake Burns. He said that Ali McMordie was leaving the band, and would I like to come in. I think we did play Smithers-Jones on the first tour that I did with them, but that was it. It was just an introduction to me to joining Stiff Little Fingers, and it was fun to play that one Jam song. But the From The Jam tour of May last year was the first time that I’ve played all those songs in a long, long while.

Was there a time when you thought you’d never play the Jam stuff again? Or had you always got it in the back of your mind as a possible option?

I didn’t think I’d be playing them again, to be perfectly honest. Over the years, Paul [Weller] had mentioned that he wouldn’t want to reform the band, and I was quite happy being in Stiff Little Fingers. It is a cliché, but I’ll say it anyway: you don’t know what’s around the corner.

We stumbled into forming From The Jam, just from doing a couple of numbers with Rick’s band in 2006. It kind of snowballed from there, and now here we are in 2008, with a winter tour of the UK, and having pretty much toured the world earlier this year.

So nothing was pre-meditated, and I didn’t really know. I’d occasionally hear a Jam song on the radio and was still very proud to hear it, because the actual production on the records still sounds very contemporary.

You struck lucky with Russell, who does a fine job as lead singer and guitarist. What makes him such a successful front man?

Russell was a big Jam fan. He was a young lad when the Jam were going, and he was at the last concert that the band performed in Brighton in 1982. He loved the music and the image and the whole package. And so we were very lucky. He was just a natural, to step in and take lead vocal.

I like the way that he’s able to channel the spirit of the songs, without ever coming across as some kind of impersonation.

Exactly. I’m glad you said that. He doesn’t try to emulate Paul. The tone of his voice is similar to Paul. If you close your eyes and listen to some of the vocal sounds, you think: that’s Paul, isn’t it? Then it’s just slightly different phrasings here and there, and he brings quite a lot to the table. He’s his own man. He was obviously very nervous about stepping into the role, but the fans have really taken to him. I do think he deserves it, because he’s a great front man, and he performs those songs with all his heart.

At your first Nottingham show at the Rescue Rooms, the old “We are the mods” chant made a comeback – and then about four numbers in, the chant changed to “Who needs Weller?” I’m sure they were just being cheeky, but that’s when I thought: Russell’s cracked it!

(Laughs) It may have settled the nerves a bit. But we wouldn’t be doing anything now without those great songs, of which Paul wrote the majority. I’m still very friendly with Paul, and so that’s their opinion, and in a way it was cheeky – but it caused a wry smile. It was quite amusing at the time, and obviously for Russell he probably thought, yeah, I seem to have fitted in OK here!

Does he have a full and equal say when you’re deciding on your set list?

Yeah, it’s very much a four-way thing. It’s difficult, because of the great wealth of songs that we’ve got to choose from. For the set that we’re playing in December, most of the singles will be there, and they probably will be forever – but it’s really difficult to choose the album tracks.

We all draw up a list beforehand of what we would like to play individually. There are obviously common denominators in there. There are certain songs where you go: oh, you want to play that one as well, great, OK! But we can’t possibly play them all, so we just get into rehearsals and go through each number. Some will sound better than others, so we’ll say: OK, that’s made the decision; we’ll play that one instead of that one. But it’s a nice sort of problem to have.

And will there be any new compositions?

Yeah, we’ve been saying this since we first got together! (Laughs) But we’ve had a bit more time recently to concentrate on the new material. There will probably be a couple of new songs in the set, which we’re very pleased with. We’ve only got to the demo stage, so we’ll see what the audience make of them.

Who wrote the new songs?

Again, it’s all four ways. You live and learn! (Laughs) With The Jam, it was whoever came up with the initial idea, and that was usually Paul. But it was very much a three-piece band, all those years ago, and the fairest way of doing things in 2008 is to split the songs four ways.

Is any physical product coming out to accompany the tour?

There’s a double DVD, which was released in November. The first DVD is a live concert that we did at The Forum in Kentish Town in December of last year. The second DVD is a series of interviews with the band. From my point of view, it’s really interesting to listen to Russell and Dave chat about how they feel about being part of From The Jam, because we hadn’t really spoken about it that much. Gary Crowley [DJ and radio presenter] also chats to Rick and myself. We go through all the Jam albums and chat about what we can remember about recording each one of them.

When the original Jam split up in 1982, you ended on a real high. Did you split at the right time?

I don’t think it was the right time. Like you said, The Jam were riding the crest of a wave. It’s what every band aims for, and the quality of the music was still there. I don’t think we’d dried up, or that we’d taken it as far as we could musically.

As you must be aware, Paul decided he wanted to leave the band. We tried to talk him out of it and we suggested other alternatives, such having a break for six months and taking a rest. There was a lot of pressure on all of us, and in particular Paul, because of the record company saying that they needed another Number One album and another Number One single. But Paul had obviously made up his mind and that was the end of it.

Maybe he just felt weighed down with the whole “spokesman for a generation” tag. After The Jam, he took a real step back from those “state of the nation” songs.

Well yeah, he went off to do the Style Council. If Paul knew that’s what he was going to do, he kept it a very closely guarded secret. Maybe he thought: well, I’m going to go off in this musical direction and I want to use different players.

When I heard the Style Council, it really wasn’t my cup of tea. So it made a bit more sense. Having heard what he wanted to do, I don’t think my heart would have been in that particular musical direction. Having said that, with the later stuff and with what he’s doing now, I really personally love it.

The new album is his best work in years, I think.

It’s a great album. Paul and I have renewed our friendship, and we’re talking a lot more these days. We’re on good terms, and that’s very nice to have as well, so what more could you want? We’re not playing together, but we may do in the future. But it’s nice to have him as a friend again.

If the three of you ever did get back together again, it would be a totally different gig. You’d be on the arena circuit, and I think that something might get lost along the way. Whereas it’s great to hear The Jam’s music in these smaller venues.

I don’t think the three of us will ever get together again, but there might be a possibility that I do something totally new with Paul at some point. I don’t know if or when. But as for The Jam, don’t hold your breath! (Laughs)

And I think you’re right – it may get blown out of all proportion and lose a lot of what the Jam were about, if Paul did join. If he came back to the band and it was arenas, it probably wouldn’t work. It would work financially! (Laughs) But it would lose everything else of what we were about, really.

That’s all my main questions, but I have got a couple of cheeky extras for you, because I can’t resist the opportunity to take you to task over some of the lyrics of Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. It is one of your greatest songs, and I know you didn’t write it, but I’ve always found some of the lyrics a bit puzzling. 

Firstly, there’s the moment when the man in the song uses a vending machine, and the line goes “I put in the money and pull out a plum”. Now, even in 1978, I don’t remember seeing vending machines that sold fresh fruit! Was that a metaphor?

(Laughs) You’ve got me there! I think you’d best ask Paul about that. That’s one that has bemused me for a while.

And then we meet his assailants, who “smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs and too many right wing meetings”. What is the maximum quota of right wing meetings that you might reasonably attend, before being tainted by their characteristic odour?

Well, I wouldn’t want to go to one! They were cheeky questions, you’re right.

And right at the end of the end of the song, when he’s lying semi-conscious on the platform, he says “the wine will be flat and the curry’s gone cold”. Now then, sparkling wine with curry? These people were fancy…

Now, I can answer that one. It could go off, couldn’t it? I’m not sure what wine he was drinking, but it may have been a Lambrusco or something! (Laughs)

She would have done better to have left the cork in until he got home – but thanks for clearing that up.

You’ve made me think about those other couple. I’ll put my thinking cap on. But it was a pleasure, anyway!

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