The Jam’s anti-racism anthem ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ epitomised exactly everything that Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler stood for. A song released with a message as strong as this one in 1978, a time when racism was shockingly accepted in society, was remarkably met with a staggering level of criticism because of it’s a powerful message, including from the BBC who thought that the track wasn’t acceptable to play on the radio and, subsequently, chose to ban it.
Weller is one of the few British songwriting icons who is still preaching the staunch anti-authority, anti-hate messages of his songs over 40 years later, his voice still shining a light on societal issues just as much now as ever. “When I see headlines with ‘15,000 immigrants’ — or whatever it is — ‘coming your way’, is that really fucking true?,” he said in a 2019 interview with The Times. “I think that’s racism, whipping up hysteria and fear, which drags us back into the Dark Ages again. England has changed and the face of England and the colour of England. But that’s a good thing,” he added.
The Jam knew that making ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ as a single would be a bold move, one which would anger some quarters who simply wanted the music to be lovey-dovey and, in truth, not to reflect back at societal issues—a pivotal reason why they released it. The anti-racism track tells of a first-person narrative about a brutal mugging by jackbooted right-wing thugs in London.
The song starts with the atmospheric sounds of a London Underground station, then a tense, syncopated beat carried by the bass guitar. The lyrics are sentimental, contrasting the warmth of home and domestic life with the dangers of 1970s London’s urban decay and casual late-night violence. Tension is heightened by a heartbeat audio effect in the left stereo channel at points during the song. The track was met by hostility when BBC Radio 1 DJ Tony Blackburn complained that it was “disgusting the way punks sing about violence. Why can’t they sing about trees and flowers?”
This comment reads as down-right ridiculous in 2020 but, if it wasn’t for bands like The Jam and The Clash showing that music should also shove a mirror up to society, material which actively challenge the listener, the force for change would be significantly weaker. Blackburn was not alone in the BBC as a figure who hated everything about the song and the broadcaster decided, at the time, that they had no choice but to ban the track from receiving airplay due to its “disturbing nature”.
The Jam were three albums in and had become an unstoppable force of nature so, if the BBC thought that there ban would nullify the message, they were wrong as it became their second UK Top 20 hit, much to the delight of Tony Blackburn no doubt.
Looking back at the track over 40 years on proves that The Jam were on the right side of history. The fact that the song wasn’t what the bosses at the BBC deemed acceptable in 1978 proves just how important ‘Down in the Tube Station’ was and why it was necessary for Weller to write a song that detailed this kind of atrocity which was all too common.