Better stop dreaming of the quiet life
‘Cos it’s the one we’ll never know
– The Jam: A Town Called Malice, 1982
Gritty urban realism. Recession.
That’s how it was then, and this is how it sounded. The Jam captured the mood of Britain at the start of the eighties. The loss of hope and the mindlessly brutal banality of an existence with no glimpse of economic rescue or absolution.
It all began not far away from here, in Woking. And that’s where it began for me, too, when I came back to Britain in 1991, in the depths of John Major’s recession which purged the middle classes of the 1986 loadsamoney boom.
But 1980 was different, and on a different scale of hardship entirely. The start of Margaret Thatcher’s reign. The time of her doomed obsession with monetarism.
Labour isn’t working read her famous election poster, decrying the one and a half million unemployed at the end of the 1979 Winter of Discontent. And just two years later, she had successfully doubled that figure.
The manufacturing heart of this country, long battered by industrial disputes throughout the seventies, simply folded. Within just a few years, the car industry in the Midlands was destroyed.
Coventry had become The Specials’ Ghost Town and with jobless totals rising to 10%, the reggae band UB40 (the group itself named after the serial number of the unemployment benefit form) proudly proclaimed I am a One in Ten.
Thirty years on, after a decade and more of prosperity under a Labour government, we’ve almost forgotten what economic hardship is.
But thanks to The Jam, we can still remember exactly what it sounds like.
Whilst America’s industrial desolation played out through the bleak longing of Springsteen, so we sang to the bloody-minded strains of social resignation and youth unrest which poured from the post-punk ironic urgency of The Jam.
London was a city of scarcely-suppressed urban strife then. An economic desert.
It’s hard to imagine now. Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia may be long forgotten, yet the optimism, the belief and the relentless regeneration of the capital has endured long enough since then to make us believe that it could go on for ever.
But there’s a cold wind blowing through the British economy today. The credit crunch has finally and belatedly pulled the trigger on our long-extended property boom. A massively bloated construction sector, living off borrowed money, is shedding jobs across the country.
London today has a GDP larger than Sweden and Switzerland. The financial sector in the City has powered the nation’s economy for years. But now the paymaster of prosperity is choking off outward investment, whilst begging chastened shareholders for more cash to stuff down its corporate plugholes.
Property prices are in freefall, on their way towards a drop of 30% or worse. Unemployment is rising faster than at any time in the past sixteen years. The signs are bright and flashing neon: we’re going to have to dust off that old recession hymn sheet, and sing it one more time with feeling.
Three decades later, The Jam’s following has fattened out a bit. Two of the three original band members are playing, but the absence of frontman Paul Weller means we’re watching ‘From the Jam’ rather than the definitive article.
But it doesn’t matter – since they’re as good as they ever were. Bruce Foxton beats out the bass whilst still doing that splits thing in mid-air. Rick Buckler builds the drums as menacingly as he always did.
They’re not even headlining today, but opening with the sharp satire of This is the Modern World and Strange Town, it doesn’t take long to grab the crowd.
As the set warms up, the merits and social documentary of tracks such as That’s Entertainment, Going Underground, A Town Called Malice and Down in the Tube Station at Midnight can’t be denied, and neither is the energy that’s put into them on this showery Sunday afternoon in Guildford.
The band has moved just six miles down the road to get here. A fifteen minute journey spanning three decades and the gulf between an angry youth of suburban deprivation and a contented middle age, deep in the stockbroker belt.
But standing here in the pouring rain, suddenly it’s undeniable. This is the sound of a recession in England.
And just for a moment, nothing has changed at all.
126. A new England
148. Farewell to Tony Blair
95. Going underground – the 7/7 attacks on London
39. Woking – from Necropolis to Technology Junction
121. Hot in the city – Billy Idol at Guilfest