Mar 09

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

FT + Popular57 comments • 7,051 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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  1. 31
    SteveM on 9 Mar 2009 #

    I’ve always really loved this (without having to think much about it) – the uptempo rhythm and generally strong execution. Oh it’s about something? Yes, towns can be bad, sure… ‘Precious’ is also great but bladhy hell ‘Papa’s Got A Brand New Precious Pigbag’ more like.

  2. 32
    wichita lineman on 9 Mar 2009 #

    I’m wondering if the obvious Pigbag cop by Funkless Foxton led to Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag finally charting – a year after it first came out – in April, peaking at no.3. It had the chance of becoming the 1000th number one… but we’ll cross that peaceful bridge soon enough.

  3. 33
    LondonLee on 9 Mar 2009 #

    As no one else has I guess I should mention the title is a pun on the novel “A Town Called Alice” by Nevil Shute. Anyone ever read that? I read his “On The Beach” last year and wasn’t that impressed.

  4. 34
    Tom on 9 Mar 2009 #

    I only realised about 20 minutes before writing the entry that the title was a Carter-style pun.

    My Mum had the book on her shelves – I will ask if it was any good or not.

  5. 35
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 Mar 2009 #

    shute’s heyday was the late 50s, early 60s i think, but seems to have dated badly (not that i’ve read a page myself, i just mean no one talks about him these days) — my mum and dad had paperbacks of both the above (and something else, possibly with sky in the title), presumably because “everyone” was reading them at the time… “on the beach” is atomic-apocalypse-exploitation, isn’t it?

  6. 36
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 9 Mar 2009 #

    actually he died in 1960 so i guess the early 60s not so much a heyday for him :(

  7. 37
    Erithian on 9 Mar 2009 #

    I can confirm Doc C’s guess at #23 that this is great on the dancefloor – unless, like me , you go to your school reunion a couple of years later, give it some welly when this comes on and fail to notice the pool of spilt lager in the vicinity of a table of drinks…

    Strange to see people lukewarm about this, since it’s one of my very favourites. And I’m not alone. When I marked the 1000th number one by carrying out a poll amongst those of my colleagues who entered my Christmas music quizzes, “Town Called Malice” finished a surprising second behind “House of the Rising Sun” and ahead of “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Granted, those polled were for the most part not unlike me – white, male, born in the 60s – but it was an impressive result. I love the energy, the pace, the fury with which the “too many words” are channelled.

    And yes you can hear its influences – the first review I ever read of the single dubbed it “Motown Called, Alice” by Martha and the Vanwellas – but it wears them lightly and uses them effectively. (Can anyone else hear “Judy In Disguise” by John Fred in the organ riff?) For me it’s the best of their number ones and gave 1982 a real kickstart. I don’t mind “Precious” either…

    I read “A Town Like Alice” at school – a fine romance between an English woman and an Australian soldier in Japanese PoW camps in Malaya. Worth a read, or look out for the Virginia McKenna/Peter Finch film.

    (BTW Wichita at #32, you mean the 500th number one, not the 1000th.)

  8. 38
    LondonLee on 9 Mar 2009 #

    ‘On The Beach’ is about nothing less than the slow extinction of the human race following a nuclear war. Problem with it is everyone insists on being frightfully proper and doing the decent thing all the time, even to the point of not having sex with each other because that would just be bad form. It’s like ‘Threads’ written by Noel Coward.

  9. 39
    peter goodlaws on 9 Mar 2009 #

    # 38 – I suppose, Lee, with no sex on the beach they were bloody thirsty too.

  10. 40
    Mark M on 9 Mar 2009 #

    My feeling is that this is The Jam’s biggest song on the other side of the Atlantic: from what I can discover, it got nowhere near the US charts, but I certainly remember seeing it on MTV quite a few times, something I couldn’t say for any other Jam song.

  11. 41
    Dan R on 9 Mar 2009 #

    I see what Tom and others mean in seeing something slightly meretricious in this song but I have to say honestly that I found it about as exciting a #1 as I can remember from my childhood. There’s a number one coming up at the end of the year by a British act that tries to ‘do’ Motown with lamentable results. This is faithful but the fidelity is a labour of love.

    I think Billy’s comparison of this with Orwell is very exact, and from there I think you can also trace a poetic fascination with ‘ordinary lives’ through Mass Observation, to the early cultural studies books like The Uses of Literacy and the amazing verite documentaries that Lindsay Anderson and others did in the 1960s with the BFI, on into the Angry Young Men novels and movies: Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, Room at the Top, Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner and the unbelievably gloomy A Kind of Loving. (Billy Elliott was going for some of that). The housewives clutching the milk bottles to their hearts could have been in any of those books and films.

    For me astonishing thing about this song is Paul Weller’s voice on it. It’s all antimonies: it’s both tightly focused, angry and driving, but also wildly free. Listen to that ‘and’ that takes us into ‘stop apologising for the things you never done’. It’s a moment of almost yelping celebration crammed in the tiny gap between words. The hundreds of words that he crams into the song is part of the appeal; it’s the articulacy of someone bursting out of their constraints (‘I could go on for hours and I probably will’). The middle eight – well in fact only half the middle eight – gives us a moment of decline, regret and defeat before the battle is joined again. I also love what his accent sounds like: both strong London accent and vaguely transatlantic – and again I think that’s about the play between constraint and freedom. For all these reasons the song is just a sensational performance: moving and exhilarating and recklessly joyfully articulate. It never fails to make me feel happy, despite the despair in the lyrics. It’s a profoundly generous record.

  12. 42
    Dan R on 9 Mar 2009 #

    Oh and I find I have a cover of this on my iPod by McFly. (Honestly officer, I have no idea how that got there.) It’s a very very straight and unexciting copy, but where they just sound like they’re copying Weller, Weller sounds like he’s singing new words. Which confirms my sense that the original may be the work of a Motown devotee but he’s using the form to do his own thing.

  13. 43
    Tom on 9 Mar 2009 #

    I remember rather enjoying the McFly copy, partly because they sounded like they hadn’t thought for two seconds what the words might have meant and just played it as an out and out party song.

  14. 44
    LondonLee on 9 Mar 2009 #

    ‘That’s Entertainment!’ has the same impressionistic, snapshot-taking lyrics but Weller really trips up with the “two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight” line on that one, almost destroys the whole song for me. But on this he doesn’t put a foot wrong, sometimes I think he threw in “I could go on for hours and I probably will” as a last-minute edit for something equally bad.

  15. 45
    wichita lineman on 10 Mar 2009 #

    Re 41: Really good call on Weller’s performance. His uptight, Surrey terrier bark on most Jam records – think of Start – is what has always stopped me loving The Jam. Vocally, this is a perfect midpoint between his first two groups; it never spills into the creamy (“no matter what i do”) or growly (“WOWLS!!!”) pastiches of the Style Council, and sounds – for once – like he’s undone his top button. I’d like to think he came out of the studio and thought ‘I’ve done my best’.

    In spite of their barren 1981, this sounded like a dead cert no.1 on first listen.

    Re 37: 500th, yes, of course… I’m so very old.

  16. 46
    Anticomplacencyleaguebaby on 11 Mar 2009 #

    I don’t see how it gets tired after the second verse, this song is all youth, energy, fire and skill. I love Motown, I love soul and I love this derivative. I’m still clicking my fingers in the break and then that ghost of a steam train echoes round my track. The juxtapositions throughout the record that Dan R has outlined are nailed on. I will be out in my own Town called Malice again this Friday night and grooving to this satirical masterpiece once more. Its a song to dance to, you pick up choice lines in the maelstrom and it no doubt becomes ‘impressionistic’ but that’s all it needs, its about the moment, the will to change – the joyous impetus of early life. Lost laughter on the breeze, housewives hanging out their old love letters? They’re as lost and forlorn as some of you lot, escape the rut while you can or be doomed forever.

  17. 47
    Snif on 12 Mar 2009 #

    Neville Shute’s “On The Beach” was filmed in Melbourne in 1959, and achieved some small notoriety when Ava Gardner was quoted as saying “If they’re going to make a film about the end of the world, Melbourne is the ideal place to do it.”

    (and if anyone sees the film, please note that Australians never, to my knowledge, indulge in rousing singalongs of “Waltzing Matilda” at social functions)

  18. 48
    MikeMCSG on 17 Jul 2009 #

    37 – Erithian, the review you recall was from Record Mirror an ultra-rare witticism (perhaps a colleague suggested it) from the tiresome and opinionated Sunie who was given the Singles page for a whole year in 1981-2. Her biases became so obvious it prompted a great letter along the lines of
    “We’re a young Scottish band playing pop-funk with acoustic guitars on Ze records produced by Trevor Horn. Do you think Sunie will give us Single of The Week ?”

    For all the snipes at Bruce on Precious earlier on the thread were any of Weller’s subsequent attempts at funk more successful ? Is Money Go Round a better song than Precious ? Clue: the answer isn’t yes.

  19. 49
    Malice Cooper on 17 Jul 2009 #

    Of course any song that includes the world “Malice” is going to appeal to me. I always thought Paul Weller was at his best in the Jam before he started nicking 70s novelty tunes for the Style Council. These 2 are clearly the same song !



  20. 50
    LondonLee on 17 Jul 2009 #

    I can’t even remember who played bass on that, but I guess Steve White was a more ‘nimble’ drummer than Buckler.

  21. 51
    wichita lineman on 17 Jul 2009 #

    Re 48: Money-Go-Round was to Rick Dees & His Cast Of Idiots what Precious was to Pigbag – it sounds so much like Disco Duck it’s beyond a coincidence. I’m guessing it wasn’t a conscious steal.

    Always liked Sunie, who helped me form my ideas on the borders of New Pop – she was big on the Nolans for starters.

  22. 52
    thefatgit on 13 Nov 2009 #

    Re;”On The Beach” Last night, I saw a clip of that on The Culture Show, where Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode analyse various movie genres. I was curious to notice Fred Astaire starred in it. Not having seen the film, I now need to find a copy. Then I can say I’ve seen “The 3 Ages of Fred Astaire”.

    1, Top Hat- Debonair, stick-thin hoofer
    2, On The Beach- World-weary, stick-thin curmudgeon
    3, The Towering Inferno- Befuddled, stick-thin dinosaur

    Well…it keeps me off the streets!

  23. 53
    Nick on 17 Mar 2010 #

    Although there are elements of “You Can’t Hurry Love,” the main bass riff is a straight nick from Martha & The Vandellas “Ready For Love.”

    “It worked with ‘Start’, why not do it again?” thinks our Paul.

  24. 54
    seekenee on 25 Sep 2011 #

    I believe Weller changed some lines in recent(ish) renditons to “Wanna cut down on gear or the kids’new beer” re: alcopops etc .

    At the time this was exciting, straight in at number one and somewhat unexpected and not like 81’s Funeral Pyre or Riverbank, both of which are my most-played Jam songs since 1982.
    I wouldn’t put on TCM but it does wear well in its Peter Wilson and Weller’s new clothes production, v evocative of pool halls, space invader machines, misty factory yellow lamp dark streets, takes me right back. I’d give it 8.

  25. 55
    punctum on 10 Jul 2013 #

    Emotionally this was a difficult TPL piece for me to write, but I have to he honest: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/the-jam-gift.html

  26. 56
    hectorthebat on 21 Oct 2014 #

    Critic watch:


    1,001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010) 1002
    Michaelangelo Matos (USA) – Top 100 Singles of the 1980s (2001) 101
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    Pitchfork (USA) – The Pitchfork 500 (2008)
    Treble (USA) – The Top 200 Songs of the 80s (2011) 116
    Woxy.com (USA) – Modern Rock 500 Songs of All Time (combined rank 1989-2009) 137
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 100
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1980s (2008)
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 86
    NME (UK) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2014) 453
    Q (UK) – 50 Years of Great British Music, 10 Tracks per Decade (2008)
    XFM (UK) – The Top 1000 Songs of All Time (2010)
    Panorama (Norway) – The 30 Best Singles of the Year 1970-98 (1999) 3
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 8
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    New Musical Express (UK) – Singles of the Year 4
    Sounds (UK) – Singles of the Year 13
    Schlager (Sweden) – Singles of the Year 4

  27. 57
    Gareth Parker on 25 May 2021 #

    A rollicking single that rattles along superbly. 9/10 in my view.

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