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40 years of The Jam's ultimate anthem 'A Town Called Malice'

“Better stop dreaming of the quiet life, ’cause it’s the one we’ll never know”, is one of the most iconic opening lines of a song ever released in British music. If you’re not familiar with the line, it comes from The Jam’s classic single ‘A Town Called Malice’. Released on January 29th, 1982, it remains one of the band’s most enduring songs.

An exploration of the horrors of modern British existence, the material spoke directly to the feelings of many in the younger generation at the time. It argues that Britain was a stagnant island, kept afloat by its old industries and that the routine that their parents were so keen on their children following was not the route to happiness and was actually the way to a miserable life. In many ways, it was a proto ‘Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now’, just with a much more universal slant. 

Frontman Paul Weller’s lyrics in the song rank among his very best. His discussions of “lonely housewives” and “struggle after struggle, year after year” paint a vivid picture of the bleak outlook that many in Weller’s generation held. They had grown up amidst the mustard and brown inertia of the ’70s, and with the advent of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in 1979, the future looked even more barren than it did a few years prior, even with all the electrical blackouts and waste piling up in the streets.

By the time ‘A Town Called Malice’ was released, the then 24-year-old Paul Weller had already long established himself as one of Britain’s best lyricists and songwriters. He consistently spoke to his generation with perceptive lyrics, something that many in the post-punk movement could only have dreamed of achieving. His uber-realistic songwriting set a precedent for the likes of The Smiths, Oasis, Blur and The Libertines in the future. Without ‘A Town Called Malice’ and other Jam songs, British indie as we know it may have been a very different beast entirely. 

‘A Town Called Malice’ with its bleak lyrics set to a Northern Soul inspired groove provided a sonic juxtaposition that reflected the confusion that many felt at the time. Sure they lived in Great Britain, but it was only great in name. Furthermore, the upbeat music provided something of a foil to Weller’s tirade, alluding to the point that although it was easy to get weighed down by the socio-political mire that the country found itself in, there might also be a brighter future, but it was one that wasn’t going to come off its own accord. It was up to Weller’s generation to change the future and save themselves from the endless repetition of their parent’s generation. 

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Famously, the song was a pun on the title of Nevil Shute’s 1950 novel, A Town Like Alice. The idea for the name and the song came when Weller’s friend Dave Waller described the nature of urban life. Discussing the song’s position as a statement about unemployment, amongst other things, Weller explained: “It could have been written about any suburban town, but it was in fact written about my hometown of Woking.”

Interestingly, Weller‘s lyrics are still as pertinent today as they were 40 years ago. Although Britain has changed markedly, we’re still faced with many of the same issues that Weller took to task in his career’s defining anthem. The reasons for this are manifold and rather depressing, so we’ll save you the burden of weighing into that already overworn subject.

However, this is the opportunity to celebrate the ultimate anthem to the peculiarities of modern British life in all their bleak glory. Happy 40th, ‘A Town Called Malice’.

Listen to the classic track below.