Mildred: What’re you rebelling against, Johnny?
Johnny: Whaddya got?
Going Underground is the aural equivalent of this quote from The Wild One. I’m not saying that Paul Weller is Marlon Brando, but Going Underground is cliched and as empty as a rabble rousing tune as Brando’s rebel was.
Teenagers are the lifeblood of pop music. They were the primary consumer, the ones with the disposable income, disposable time but most importantly the absolute disposable energy to be passionate about pop music. And it is when people start to learn instruments, form bands, write rubbish songs about endless love that they have not felt because that is what other pop songs are about. Because the truth is teenagers don’t usually make that good pop stars, feckless, directionless, a little too close to their audience*. And this is no bad thing, get your juvenalia out of the way first because you don’t want your early albums to be cluttered with songs about how you hate to tidy your bedroom.
Going Underground is luckily not a song about Paul Weller never putting away his Ernie Ball wrappers, but it could be. What is so startling about it is the inchoate rage that simmers under the surface of the song, but when you scratch away at that surface you realise that it is just the last stabs of teenage angst. Weller has a bunch of half formed things that anger him about the Modern World (cf This Is The Modern World), many of which don’t add up to a coherent political manifesto (it isn’t directly kidney machines that pay for rockets and guns). But who is Weller most angry with. YOU! The public, getting what the public wants, and The Jam want out of that society thank you very much.
Of course the public did get what the public wanted which was a rabble rousing stomp along from Weller. Go straight to number one and do not pass go without being assimilated thank you very much. Leaving a record curiously neutered by its own passion. Because not only is Going Underground a stab at articulating teenage political rage, its also a stab at an empathic narrative about said rage. Which does not work because Weller is no good at getting into character and the driving nature of the song is too good (also fitting too many words in and singing them in the same way doesn’t help**). The voice is taht of a teenager mocking his parents and suggesting that when he gets the vote things will be different. And yet the ambiguity of the opening very (Some people might say my life was in a rut / Me I’m quite happy with what I’ve got) is actually a more accurate representation of teenage apathy than anger.
So there is no surprise that
a) Teenagers bought it in their droves
b) Kids younger than teenagers bought it in their droves (me being one of them)
c) It did not scare the establishment one jot.
*There are numerous counter-examples to this stupid statement, but teen pop stars are usually imbedded in the music business like some sort of teen marketing exocet rather than a “voice of the youth”. HELLO MILEY CYRUS!
**Latterly known as “The Curse Of The Manics”