The Jam’s 1977 sophomore album was hastily put together and even more hastily received. After the release of their debut, In The City, The Jam needed to keep the punk train running, so they shovelled in as much coal as they could and shut the hatch. Three chords and the truth, that would see them through. Except, on release, This Is The Modern World felt more like three chords and a picture of a cat scrawled on the pack of a cereal packet.
The issue, in my ever-so-humble opinion, is that the original reviews of The Jam’s follow-up record aren’t to be trusted. There was far too much pressure on the band to live up to the standard they’d supposedly set themselves with In The City, and I think even if they’d replaced ‘London Traffic’ with ‘That’s Entertainment’, the record would still have been torn to shreds. So, who does the album hold up with a little bit of distance put between it and The Jam’s debut?
This Is The Modern World had a lot to live up to. With their debut, The Jam had managed to galvanise the followers of a burgeoning mod revival in the midst of the punk era. Their follow-up, however, felt like a ramshackle collection of punk knock-offs, containing none of the songwriting prowess that had won Paul Weller comparisons to The Kink’s Ray Davies. Instead, tracks like ‘London Girl’ and ‘Standards’ sounded too formulaic, as though Weller had stumbled across a man selling punk songs from the back of a van and decided to grab himself a bargain.
Looking back, This Is The Modern World seems to exist firmly within the realms of tired punk cliche, despite the fact that the genre was only just beginning to flourish. “We don’t need anyone to tell us what is right and what is wrong,” Weller yells, although slightly as though he’s reading from a pocket-size book titled Naughty Things To Say For The Punks Of Today. But I think the real tragedy is that the songs aren’t actually all that bad; they’ve just been stuffed into an ill-fitting zoot suit. Tracks such as ‘Life From A Window’ are surprisingly melodic and harmonically complex but haven’t been allowed to rest in their true form. Instead, they’ve been forced to adhere to formulas created not in the studio but in cramped pub venues.
But – and it’s a big but – I think This Is The Modern World, on the whole, has more going for it than In The City ever did. In terms of variety, The Jam’s debut suffers from a serious case of tunnel vision. Their second, however, contains shades of soul, R&B, punk, and Byrds-era psychedelia. While the songs that makeup In The City know exactly what they are, I think that’s largely because they are products of a writing style that belongs not to Weller but to The Who. At least This Is The Modern World sees The Jam attempting to formulate a style of their own.
Whatever you make of This is The Modern World it was an essential stepping stone that led The Jam towards some of their best-loved hits. All the benefit of hindsight, I suppose. Those original reviews obviously weren’t to know what was around the corner, but looking back it seems blindingly obvious that without tracks like ‘Tonight At Noon’ and ‘Life From A Window’, they wouldn’t have written ‘That’s Entertainment’ or ‘Pretty Green’ later down the line.