The Jam were a very British phenomenon who by 1981 had firmly established themselves in the hearts and minds of a generation. Their albums, such as ‘Sound Affects’ and ‘The Gift’, offered sharply observed vignettes of a recession hit Britain in the early 1980s. I came to the band late, I remember recording their Radio 1 Studio B15 live session on my cassette player in October 1981. It was the first time the band had unveiled their horn section, comprising Keith Thomas and Steve Nicol, live on national radio. I’d already been hooked by their brass infused ‘Absolute Beginners’ single and their session rendition of Arthur Conley’s 1967 classic ‘Sweet Soul Music’ just sealed the deal.
In the midst of recording their final studio album, ‘The Gift’, The Jam announced four Christmas gigs in London to support the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND). The first two of these concerts were promoted without the usual 18 plus entry requirement, which meant as a 15 year old I didn’t have to blag my way in. Having put a cheque for £5.00 in the post, together with the obligatory stamped addressed envelope, my ticket duly arrived.
The gig took place in the Michael Sobell Sports Centre located off the Hornsey Road in what was then a deprived area of Islington. It’s a cavernous place, at the time it was the largest sports hall in Europe, covering 16 badminton courts. The venue’s a ten minute walk from Finsbury Park tube, the exit to which is directly opposite the Rainbow Theatre. Playing the Rainbow that night were The Exploited supported by Black Flag. Dressed in my best Fred Perry polo shirt, green US GI trench coat and desert boots I was easily identifiable as a Mod. The skinheads milling around outside the Rainbow soon spotted me and my cousin. To quote Eddie Piller, founder of Acid Jazz Records, “It was nothing out of the ordinary if you were going to see The Jam to be attacked by skinheads. It was a very difficult time”. With snow on the ground we had to make a swift getaway, whilst trying not to slip over on the ice, to evade a beating by the knuckle heads.
The show took the form of a 1960’s soul revue, showcasing new acts, with a DJ spinning various Northern Soul classics between them. First up were Bananarama. Looking back, they weren’t that much older than me. They performed three songs over a backing tape including ‘Aie A Mwana’, their debut single sung in Swahili, which, in 2010, would be repurposed by Velile and Safri Duo as the official song of the 2010 football World Cup in South Africa. The Jam’s audiences often gave the support acts short thrift. Suffice to say Bananarama didn’t go down well. A few plastic bottles and coins were thrown. There was little indication that the trio would go on to have a listing in the Guinness Book of World Records as the all-female group with the most chart entries in the world.
The Questions, a jazz-funk, soul band, Weller had just signed to his newly formed Respond label, were next on the bill. They received only a slightly warmer response than Bananarama. A few years later their lead singer Paul Barry would find success writing, amongst others, ‘Believe’ for Cher and ‘Hero’ for Enrique Iglesias.
The final support act, Department S, went down rather better with the crowd. They’d had a hit the previous year with ‘Is Vic There?’ which, when played, got the crowd going. Their lead singer Vaughan Toulouse later appeared on the cover of The Jam’s penultimate single ‘The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow)’ and played a part in the 1984 Weller-driven, Council Collective’s song ‘Soul Deep’, recorded to raise money for the striking miners. Toulouse tragically died at the age of just 32 in 1991.
Eventually, The Jam arrived on stage and the place went absolutely bonkers, it really was pogo agogo, one of the most intense gigs I’ve ever been to. Listening back to a bootleg of the concert it’s evident that this is a band at the height of their powers. Their confidence was such that the 22 song set comprised five songs from ‘The Gift’, which wouldn’t see the light of day for another three months, their latest B side and a soul classic from the 1970s, which the band only ever played once.
Crowd favourites such as ‘Start’ and ‘Man In The Corner Shop’ were greeted with massive roars; however, Weller’s introduction of ‘A Town Called Malice’ was met with total silence. That was because it was the first time it had ever been played live. Weller now rightly views it as having “entered the realms of being a great folk song”. Half way through the gig, Weller and Foxton announced that, “This is the John Williams slot, Bob Dylan eat yer ‘eart out”, as they both strapped on acoustic guitars to perform a resplendent version of ‘That’s Entertainment’. Weller implored us to “grab a leaflet” from the CND stall before launching into a thunderous, horn aided, ‘Going Underground’. The gig then came to a climax with an excellent version of Chairman Of The Board’s ‘Give Me Just A Little More Time’ which highlighted Keith Thomas and Steve Nicol’s superb brass playing. At the very end Weller ordered us to “bear this one in mind” before playing ‘When You’re Young’, with it’s cynical take on life, ‘The world’s your oyster but your future’s a clam’. I duly took note.
Back at the Rainbow, The Exploited’s demented front man, Wattie, had declared war on the Mods during their set, resulting in a pitched battle outside the venue as The Jam’s fans made their way back to the tube. Fortunately my kindly mother and father, concerned for my welfare, had driven all the way up from South London to pick me and my cousin up. Helped by a sympathetic member of The Jam’s road crew, they found the venue just as we were being expelled into the cold night air. It really wasn’t an occasion when you wanted to be ‘Down In The Tube Station At Midnight’.
It was a fantastic first gig to attend. At the time I didn’t think it could be bettered which meant that I didn’t go to another concert for almost 12 months and that was to see The Jam on their farewell tour at Wembley Arena. Since then my musical tastes have broadened and to have a voluntary, one-year gap between going to a gig is almost inconceivable; live music, now that’s entertainment.
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