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Mar 09

THE JAM – “A Town Called Malice”/”Precious”

FT + Popular56 comments • 6,355 views

#495, 13th February 1982

Almost everyone agrees that 60s Motown is good, but Motown-esque records are far from a stylistic sure thing. This is only partly because most bands don’t have the Funk Brothers as a rhythm section: despite the directness of their formula, Motown songs often come at you obliquely. They cover a hefty emotional punch in gloves of charm, sweetness, melodic nuance or wit. The elemental force of the mighty mid-60s Four Tops hits was so effective because it was an exception, a glimpse of the storm beneath the skin.

More recent imitations of Motown, though, often miss the way it counterbalanced the delicate and the immediate: they start in yer face and they stay there. It can be invigorating. It can be exhausting. “A Town Called Malice” just about stays on the former side, but it’s a close thing – Paul Weller’s determination to cram half a lyric book into one song pushes the record’s intensity needles too high into the red and by the second half I don’t care what he’s singing about. “Stop dreaming of the quiet life – it’s the one you’ll never know” is a great opening line that the rest of the song doesn’t really live up to. (Though “Malice” is far less of a mess than the sulky “Precious”, a B-Side given ideas well above its station).

Luckily, the “You Can’t Hurry Love” bass riff carries us through, and in the first verse or two Weller’s hectoring helps drive the record not stifle it. “A Town Called Malice” shows that even if you love soul music, it’s not always playing to your strengths to make some – an idea Paul Weller was to spend a long time testing.

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Comments

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  1. 1
    wichita lineman on 6 Mar 2009 #

    Was this the first time someone got to play both sides of their single on TOTP? Precious did just seem like showing off, though, and was never on equal ground with A Town Called Malice, which has some of Weller’s best monochrome suburban imagery. Housewives clutching milk bottles to their hearts, love letters hung out to dry… none of which makes an enormous amount of sense, but does sound like one of Shena Mackay’s early novellas set to Billy Ocean’s Love Really Hurts Without You – clearly a rather good notion. Even Foxton’s famously funkless fingers didn’t let the side down.

  2. 2
    Conrad on 6 Mar 2009 #

    You going to cut down on beer –
    Or the kids’ new gear?
    Its a big decision in a Town Called Malice…

    is a great line, one of my very favourite of Weller’s.

    As for the track itself, I think you are absolutely right Tom. It is very intense and very wearing. An arrangement and performance with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer cracking a nut. It’s also a pretty dull tune.

    A big part of that draining intensity is the drum part. The four-on-the-snare is not used that much in rock music, as it’s a bugger to work around – just when do you take your foot off the gas? Do you keep the four-on-the-snare running through the chorus? The Stone Roses’ “I Am The Resurrection” does a pretty fine job – although it’s helped by a great chord sequence which Malice doesn’t have, and it shifts gear half way through of course.

    “I Wanna Take You Higher” does it better still.

    5 at a push.

  3. 3
    Kat but logged out innit on 6 Mar 2009 #

    Yaaaaaaay I am BORN! Where’s that stork icon…

    (The song’s not bad either, but I decided that before I found out its personal relevance to me.)

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 6 Mar 2009 #

    I think that a veil should be discreetly drawn over ‘Precious’ in discussions of this single…

    The only previous act to have played both sides of a single on TOTP before the Jam to my knowledge were The Beatles with Paperback Writer/ Rain. The BBC didn’t think to keep a copy.

  5. 5
    Billy Smart on 6 Mar 2009 #

    Number 2 watch. More 1977 veterans, with two weeks of The Stranglers’ ‘Golden Brown’.

  6. 6
    Tom on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Second best ever song about toast!

  7. 7
    peter goodlaws on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Shit! Pink!

    Unless I’m mistaken, this came straight in at the top, sending our Bosh friends flying in panic. For me, “Malice” was one of The Jam’s finest. I can’t agree with the point that Weller tries to do too much, but yes, Tom, “You Can’t Hurry Love”, I see that now. Ultimately, though, either one accepts that the track is in your face or you simply leave it alone. My own opinion is that you could not apply surgery to this without killing the patient. As Mozart was accused by his jealous critics of using too many notes, so the suggestion that Weller is cramming too many words into “Malice” is a curious stance to adopt. I personally think that it is great but would flinch at making the “geezer music” point again, as it is self-evident in the same way that “Catch 22” was always a geezer (well, guy) book. I can’t imagine girlies having much to do with either.

    5 + 6 – “When thing’s are down, That Scottish clown’s, Never around, Gordon Brown…”

  8. 8
    Tom on 7 Mar 2009 #

    The too many words point is also, as you’ll see with a later 1982 song, very much a double standard on my part.

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 7 Mar 2009 #

    the Motown rhythm combined with a very English, hectoring drabness means I find myself tapping my foot while feeling slightly irritated.
    there are hints here of what was to come with The Smiths – although Morrissey could usually be relied on for a more waspish wit than Weller’s kitchen sink grimness

  10. 10
    Adam 1.0 on 7 Mar 2009 #

    I can understand why people aren’t for it, but I quite like Precious.

  11. 11
    will on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Agreed. There’s a case to be argued that Precious is in fact the first baggy record. It certainly anticipates Fool’s Gold and that ’89-’91 era when white boys with guitars were trying to grapple with the funk.

    Both sides of this record were played endlessly at the church youth club I frequented around 1982-3. Time hasn’t withered either in my eyes. 9 from me.

  12. 12
    Tom on 7 Mar 2009 #

    #11 I see your point Will, unfortunately it sounds to me more like it anticipates “One Love” than “Fool’s Gold” ;)

  13. 13
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 7 Mar 2009 #

    nice photo for the sleeve but the typeface is weirdly awful

    i was in a brief phase of wanting to like the jam at this point and was baffled by this: weller’s passion probem is that (i) i have no doubt he feels it, and (ii) he is aware of work that has made him feel it in others, but (c) when he co-opts the techniques of that work he does it in a strangely blunt and feelingless way, like someone saying “happy valentine, take my buying you chocolates and flowers as read” — you know he knows what the thing is he’s meat to be doing, and you know he connects it with the intention, but he or some reason often skips a step or three in the execution

    (interestingly i seem currently to be ina phase where i want to like him: possibly because he’s as old as me and we giffers must stick together)

  14. 14
    Alan on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Catch 22 was (perhaps still is) my mum’s fave nov.

    Kat – type stork-girl inside square brackets!

  15. 15
    Kat but logged out innit on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Like this?

    Although I’ve known the song since, er, my birthday, I now strongly associate it with Billy Elliot tap dancing down a street somewhere in the Grim North while his dad’s crossing the miners’ picket line. The whole scene doesn’t seem quite right somehow?

    The combination of the Motown cheeriness and the bassline on the verse definitely bump it up to around the 7/10 mark for me.

  16. 16
    Kat but logged out innit on 7 Mar 2009 #

    #6 – is the first best song about toast by Des’ree by any chance?

  17. 17
    blameitontheboogie on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Surely it was “Toast” by the Street Band … ?

  18. 18
    Tom on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Yes, the record Kat is thinking of is in the Hauntology Top Ten instead.

  19. 19
    thevisitor on 7 Mar 2009 #

    I love that “too many words” thing more as the years go by. In his own way, Paul Weller between 79 and 81 reminds me of Bob Dylan in the mid-60s and Eminem on his first two albums. One day, you wake up and not only do you have something to say about everything, but you can word it effortlessly in pop lyrics that spew out at a greater velocity than even you can understand.

    As you get older, I don’t think it’s viable to sustain that feeling that you’ve got it All Worked Out – certainty is more the domain of youth anyway – but A Town Called Malice sounds to me like the work of someone who could zoom in on any part of his worldview like the way you might zoom in when you’re using Google Maps or Google Earth and know that there would be something there that he could turn into a song.

    At some point, of course, you realise that a worldview isn’t the same as having a view on the world based on prolonged exposure to it. It’s interesting that Paul Weller only got out of his post-Style Council slough by learning to express self-doubt as well as he once expressed absolute certainty.

    Btw I think Precious probably sounded far better in Weller’s head than it did on the record. Rick Buckler seems to have no understanding of what’s expected of him on it. It would have been enough to make anyone want to form The Style Council.

  20. 20
    Izzy on 7 Mar 2009 #

    #13 makes an excellent point. It reminds me of the 90s sneer about how ‘Americans don’t get irony’, thereby justifying any number of pedestrian records by britpop bands too scared to try for real feeling and risk embarrassment in the process

  21. 21
    Billy Smart on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Right, I think that Town Called Malice is a triumph. Let’s see if I can work out why!

    Taken as a double A-side, this is like an illustration of how white rock bands should and should not attempt to work from largely black source musics. The funk of Precious is a lumpen thing that seems to serve no purpose – it certainly doesn’t sound nimble or tense or sexual as funk generally does, but there doesn’t seem to be any point to the gap between the source music and the playing. To take a couple of contemporaneous examples of acts working from soul sources, as cover versions neither Robert Wyatt’s version of ‘At Last I Am Free’ nor Orange Juice’s version of ‘LOVE’ work in the same honeyed way as their divine sources, but a similar rapture is achieved through their patent sincerity and acknowledgement that the singers come from a different world.

    The relationship between ‘Town Called Malice’ and Northern Soul works in a similar way for me. God, that organ opens out the sound of The Jam. All of the musical virtues of the band are retained (the taughtness, concision and riffiness) but work when moved into a slightly different idiom, too. I find this as exciting as Northern Soul, but Weller’s customary Woking sound of the suburbs concerns added on top of it makes it feel compellingly disorientating, even though its a very familiar song. A hapless JoBoxers-style homage this mercifully isn’t.

    Its easy to laugh at the young Weller’s autodidact lyrics and imagary – and probably the correct response in his lesser songs (sometime Popular contributer Taylor Parkes has written hilarious close readings) – but the pell-mell and muffled delivery of this jumble really works in its favour here. When you really have to work to pick up stray phrases this song does convey backstreet suburban disapointment, especially as experienced in your early twenties. Set down as verse its not such an impressive experience, but then few experienced the song like that in 1982 (Smash Hits songwords notwithstanding). Although this is as stirring a call-arms as ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’, something of the imageristic quality of this had got lost by that stage. Simon Reynolds’ dismissal of The Style Council as “soulcialism” doesn’t quite apply so well to the late Jam.

    DJ Taylor has spoken quite interestingly about Weller’s debt to Orwell in these songs, not the allegorical model, but the Clergyman’s Daughter/ Aspidistra/ Coming Up for Air version, in presenting songs about a landscape of English constraint realised through stray details (That’s Entertainment), and searched for glimpses of the pastoral (particularly pertinant to coming from the home counties) and memories of lost childhood (Tales From the Riverbank). It’s an exciting approach to pop music, I think, and more distictive to The Jam alone than you might initially think.

  22. 22
    Billy Smart on 7 Mar 2009 #

    Oh, my nine year old self liked this a lot more than any of The Jam’s 1981 singles, by the way, though Precious sounded as alien and tuneless to me as Funeral Pyre had.

  23. 23
    Doctor Casino on 8 Mar 2009 #

    Listening to this for the first time this week and I have no complaints! I guess if I was trying to notice it I’d admit it maybe goes on thirty seconds too long or so, but really, this is some basic ass-kicking rock and roll (arse-kicking to y’all), hitting on all four cylinders and always gearing up again for that rattling pile-on into the hook. Gives me the same kind of jolt as, I dunno, “Make Out Club” by Unrest although not as relentlessly. This must be great on the dancefloor!

  24. 24
    vinylscot on 8 Mar 2009 #

    Is this where they jumped the shark?

    I would say yes, if Weller wanted to do this sort of stuff at this point, he should have formed the Style Council a little earlier, and not sullied the Jam’s copybook with this and their future, currently bunny-embargoed #1.

    I absolutely agree with the “too many words” comments, and also that the track (Malice) was an obvious lads’ foot-stomper; but that doesn’t make it good. 5, should do better.

    Incidentally, in the olden days, before downloads counted (and made b-sides irrelevant), many double A-sides are released because “Someone” isn’t 100% confident with the natural A-side, and feel it may not do enough on its own. Even enough sales to get “Precious” to #10 or so would safeguard against the possibility of Malice only hitting #2 or #3. I believe that happened here.

  25. 25
    LondonLee on 8 Mar 2009 #

    Will at #11

    A lot of white boys were grappling with funk in the late 70s/early 80s – Gang of Four, A Certain Ratio, Pigbag etc. – I always thought of ‘Precious’ as Weller trying to jump on that wagon but Rick and Bruce were a bit too heavy-handed to really do it right. I wonder if this was the first time Paul thought to himself that they were holding him back.

  26. 26
    LondonLee on 8 Mar 2009 #

    I think this is the Jam song that has almost been killed by overexposure. I saw Weller play it in Boston a few years ago and the crowd went nuts and I groaned. But it’s still one of his best moments, and despite Rick and Bruce’s problems with ‘Precious’ they perform brilliantly, I especially love the drums which hammer rat-a-tat-tat with the same cracking pistol fire the lyrics have. I’m firmly down on the side of thinking the “too many words” lyric works very well (though I’d never thought of it as such before), it adds urgency as if the anger is just spilling out of Weller.

  27. 27
    Doctor Casino on 8 Mar 2009 #

    Also, have to say this makes a really interesting pair with “Ghost Town,” in which the good old days of the boom town are rotting on the vine in flashback – “Malice” sketches out a similar portrait of a run-down world, but much as Weller wallows in the details of misery he would “rather put some joy back” in the place. Presumably, they’ll dance and sing, and the music will play… and they’ll be no fighting on the dance floor.

    Another reference point: “My Little Town,” the reunion single by Simon & Garfunkel.

  28. 28
    peter goodlaws on 9 Mar 2009 #

    # 27 – I’m right with you, Doc. Nothing but the dead and dying…

  29. 29
    Billy Smart on 9 Mar 2009 #

    TOTPWatch: The Jam performed ‘Town Called Malice’ on Top of the Pops twice (on the second occasion, they also performed ‘Precious’);

    11 February 1982. Also in the studio that week were; The Fun Boy 3 & Bananarama, Bow Wow Wow, Adrian Gurvitz, Hall & Oates, Depeche Mode, Modern Romance, Elkie Brooks and Haircut 100. Tommy Vance was the host.

    18 February 1982. Also in the studio that week were; Madness, George Benson, UB40, ABC, The Jets, Robert Palmer, Tight Fit and Toni Basil. Mike Read was the host.

  30. 30
    John on 9 Mar 2009 #

    Superlative rousing Motown swansong, but, no, not their best. But about as good as you could hope for.

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