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The Story Behind The Song: The Jam damn the British government with 'Going Underground'

From the jaunty hook to the barrelling bass patterns that cement the track, everything heard on ‘Going Underground’ screams classic. And although it was written by guitarist Paul Weller, the tune holds some of Bruce Foxton’s most inventive bass playing, and Rick Buckler curated some of the most exciting percussion effects in the band’s trajectory.

The single was The Jam’s first UK number one, earning them a success that was largely denied to The Clash during the 1980s. The band were always that little bit too English to break into the American charts, but the British buying public more than compensated, hailing them as the eminent voices of their generation. ‘Going Underground’ proved a densely produced number that found the band calling attention to the failings of the Conservative government, a party the band had previously championed in a fanzine in 1977.

But by the turn of the decade, with the rise of Thatcherism, the band were struggling to salute a government that failed to acknowledge their personal philosophies. Weller was slowly becoming a voice for the working classes and seemed happy to leave a fable to the teenagers frequenting the record stores for his work. But he and the band were savvy enough to infuse the aphorisms with bounce, buoyancy and infectious melodies, to ensure that the work hit as many listeners as possible.

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“It was a shock when we got to number one, otherwise we wouldn’t have been in the States,” drummer Rick Butler recalled.”We knew ‘Going Underground’ would do well. We had a good drink that night. However, everyone wanted to be back in Britain. We made out we had all come down with a virus. We cancelled the rest of the tour of the States. We flew back to Britain on Concorde, to record ‘Going Underground’ on Top of The Pops for the following week.”

The single was notable for its Shakespearian sentiment, beckoning the masses to recognise their collective power against the rise of the hierarchy. Weller takes The Beatles route to lace the work in melody, allowing listeners to hum the tune before letting the power of the words sink in.

The composition is padded with aphorisms, begging listeners to look at their life’s work and to query the value of their government. Backed against the rise of nuclear weapons, the band espoused the virtues of pacificism, particularly when it cost the British taxpayer much of their hard-earned cash. “To buy nuclear textbooks for atomic crimes,” Weller sings, before noting, “And the public gets what the public wants, but I want nothing this society’s got.”

The song is notable for its jaunty guitar hook, bolstered by Foxton’s frenzied bass work. Their collective work was pleasantly reminiscent of The Beatles during their ‘And Your Bird Can Sing’ heyday, but it didn’t sound like a direct rip from the band the way ‘Start!’ did. Indeed, Weller was informed of the similarities between ‘Taxman’ and ‘Start!’ in an interview, but The Jam frontman simply pointed to the hypocrisy that ran through the question. If a Beatle could be accused of lifting material for ‘My Sweet Lord’, then why shouldn’t a punk rocker take advantage of the situation?

Like ‘Going Underground’ before it, ‘Start!’ was an immediate hit with music buyers in England and elsewhere. The band went on to enjoy two further chart-topping hits with ‘Town Called Malice’ and ‘Beat Surrender’, before Weller called time on the group at the peak of their powers. Foxton didn’t entirely agree with the decision, and Buckler insists that the decision to split came from Weller alone. But the guitarist felt compelled to follow his gut and has never regretted the decision to disband the outfit.

Foxton and Buckler did reunite for the offshoot band From The Jam in the 2000s, a band Foxton continues to front with Russell Hastings. Buckler has written books about his time in The Jam, but the guitarist seems unconcerned with committing his memories to tape, preferring to go forward as much as he can.

His solo career has seen a series of highs and lows, as the musician has flitted into the realm of invention, acumen and aspiration in his crusade to furnish and fashion the music that sent him on this quest to musical realisation. In many ways, he didn’t have to. He said it all on ‘Going Underground’, a sparkily produced rock number that only seems to get better with age. For tomorrow, indeed.

Stream the track below.