Somerset House has opened the first comprehensive exhibition about The Jam, the iconic band who not only had 18 consecutive UK top 40 singles and over 14 million global album sales, but who also immortalised life for many of Britain’s disenchanted youth during the late 1970s and early 1980s through their music and lyrics.
The Jam: About the Young Idea, to give this show its full title, has been curated by Paul Weller’s sister, Nicky, who also ran the band’s fan club (a position, the exhibition explains, was rather put upon her, at the time, as the band became overwhelmed with fan mail).
Nicky though has pulled together a terrific exhibition; a result from unprecedented access to both the band’s and fan archives. For the very first time, all three members of the band – Paul Weller, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton – the Weller family and music archivist Den Davis have agreed to open up their collections and the result is fantastic.
Live concert footage runs on loop, music blaring out across rooms filled with some of the band’s jackets, vintage concert fly posters and an impressive display of the band’s guitars (a particularly touching one being Paul’s fireglow Rickenbacker 330 with ‘I Am Nobody’ scratched into it).
There are also the band’s vinyl releases, tour merchandise, concert reviews (including one written by a certain Neil Tennant of their last show at Wembley Arena) and an interview with Paul especially recorded for the exhibition.
The effort that has been put into curating this exhibition is exciting but it is its emotional impact that is most impressive. You really get under the skin of the band, walk in their shoes and see the world they grew up in through their eyes.
I can’t deny that this exhibition held a certain draw for me in that Woking is my hometown, and Woking was, of course, the birthplace of The Jam. Prior to The Jam, nothing impressive ever came out of Woking. It was a dead-end suburb, a stop-off on the main train line from London.
In the 1970s the town was a scene of much social strife caused by the economic recession. An increasingly disgruntled working class governed by an insanely wealthy and very right-wing Tory MP (Woking remains one of the safest Tory seats in the House) was not a great combination and from this agitation, The Jam was born.
That world of 1970s Woking, of Stanley Road, Sheerwater Secondary School and working men’s clubs, is vividly brought to life with a wonderful array of black and white photos, vintage street maps, and old copies of the Woking News and Mail.
This was very much a moment in time. So much of the Woking you see in the photographs and in the paper cuttings has been bulldozed away, covered with cement and replaced with Paperchases, Café Rouges, and a Wetherspoons, a fact emphasised by a video tour of the town today running on loop in one of the galleries.
In the early days there was a lot of fluctuation in the band’s line-up and the early photos brought together include Steve Brookes, Neil Harris and Dave Waller before they left to go their own ways. Through these photos, handwritten lyrics and stage suits, the show demonstrates how the band developed its settled line-up and its distinct image.
The politicisation of the British music industry in the 1970s and early 1980s was profound, with punk music very much at the fore so The Jam, with their sharp suits, stylised Mod image and well-crafted music found themselves criticised by many in the punk scene who craved anarchy.
Yet The Jam found their niche and their fans, though it was only a brief moment in the sun as the band suddenly split in 1982, at the height of their popularity. But as this exhibition proves, The Jam shone very brightly in those few years.
Yes, this exhibition will delight the hardcore fans – the memorabilia and exhibits are superb – but this is also a fantastic study in the rise and development of one of the most influential bands in British music history. A powerfully evocative exhibition that any music enthusiast will enjoy.
Somerset House, London to August 31, 2015
- Photo © Neal Preston Corbis, Members of The Jam
2, 3, 4. Installation images © Mary Turner/Getty Images for Somerset House