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The Story Behind the Song: The Jam's furious introduction 'In The City'

The Yorkshire Pudding, Union Jack and Fish and Chips are all deemed as being quintessentially “British”, and rightly so. They are hallmarks of this strange, idiosyncratic nation that has always been a mesh of people’s values and cultures. Consequently, in 1972, a band would form in Woking, Surrey, that can also be placed in the same category.

The Jam, comprised of school friends, vocalist and guitarist Paul Weller, bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler, would go on to embody the essence of this tiny nation within their contemporary times. In terms of embodiment, we do not mean in the typically “quaint” British way that the outside world, particularly our transatlantic cousins would regard us. We mean the anger felt by the working-class at the time and the ointment of wit. Inherently British hallmarks that also characterised the nascent punk movement. 

Spearheaded by frontman Paul Weller, this socially aware and politically acute trio stood apart from their punk peers. Indeed, they were influenced by contemporaries Sex Pistols and The Clash, and even toured with the latter. They also shared the “angry young man” outlook and fast songs. However, The Jam wore tailored suits that were reminiscent of the pop bands of the early ’60s, aesthetically sticking out from the crowd.

Furthermore, the band incorporated mainstream ‘60s rock and R&B influences into their sound, massively influenced by The Who’s early work, The Kinks and American Motown. Although punk at the core, The Jam were hailed as the vanguard of the incipient ‘Mod Revival’. All three members were technically proficient musicians, and in conjunction with their suits and Rickenbacker guitars, this added to their perceived divergence from the punk standards. Weller and Foxton would also develop a symbiotic relationship between the guitar and bass, forming a lead/rhythm style reminiscent of the Who and legendary pub rockers Dr. Feelgood.

Many of the band’s lyrics were concerned with working-class life and the social turmoil of the ‘70s. The Jam biographer, Sean Egan, commented that they “took social protest and cultural authenticity to the top of the charts.” Weller was an avid reader, taking huge influence from thinkers such as George Orwell – particularly the 1984 author’s time in Barcelona.

Concurrently, Weller was greatly influenced by his own working-class background. He also knew that life is not black and white and is full of contradictions. Whilst he had little personal exposure to the daily grind of low-paid work, the future ‘Modfather’ came to brilliantly articulate every facet of working-class life across the country. This was astonishing as the band were so young. By the time they split in 1982, Weller was only 23.

The band marked their entrance onto the scene with their debut single ‘In the City’ on 29th April 1977. It remains a furious reflection of the band’s intent, augmented by the fact Weller was eighteen at the time of release. Yes, it may be said that The Jam’s early releases can be regarded as ill-focused, gung-ho attempts at political commentary, but this was undoubtedly a product of their youth. ‘In the City’ confirmed the trajectory the band would follow in the coming years and reached number 40 in the UK singles chart. It was the first of many of their singles to hit.

Musically, ‘In the City’ encapsulates the band’s first album. It is a straight-up mod/punk mash where the influence of The Who’s early music is as prevalent as well as that of punk. The song also comes with a gritty music video, where the band are performing in front of black and white photographs displaying facets of British life in the ‘70s.

Typical of The Jam, the song borrowed its name from an obscure Who song of the same name, which was a 1966 B-side to ‘I’m a Boy’. Showing the song’s pioneering impact, the Sex Pistols’ smash ‘Holidays in the Sun’ took its main descending refrain from The Jam’s debut single. Ironic, as it is hard to imagine the Pistols being inspired by three Surrey mods. This culminated in a literal clash between Weller and Sid Vicious at The Speakeasy Club later that year.

To boot, Weller’s guitar, I dare say, was as punk sounding as anything coming out of the scene at the time. ‘In the City’ also massively influenced The Undertones, without whom we wouldn’t have iconic punk anthem ‘Teenage Kicks’, and The Libertines, whose music carried The Jam’s lantern into the early noughties.

Lyrically, the song is a celebration of youth in the big city and Weller’s optimism for what he called the “young idea”. This idea, which was ultimately the punk ethos, was key to a lot of The Jam’s early work. The Jam and the punk generation were rebelling against the boredom of the time and the socio-political status quo. They felt society had entered a dormant state, maintained by capitalism and politicians who didn’t represent ordinary people. Sound familiar?

In accordance with this, ‘In The City’ directly challenges the state and its perceived instruments of oppression: “In the city, there’s a thousand men in uniform and I hear they now have the right to kill a man.” 

‘In the City’ is an iconic debut single. There is no arguing with it being hailed as one of the best debut singles of all time. It catapulted The Jam into the public consciousness and was the start of a relatively short but highly influential musical career for the Woking trio.

The band managed to embody contemporary British culture by taking from a wide range of different sources, culminating in their iconoclastic stature. Without this single, and the eponymous debut album, British music would not be the same, and there would be no Blur or Parklife. The Jam managed to perfectly capture a way of life that is no more, but one we can still learn many lessons from today.