Saturday, May 14, 2011

May 14: The Jam, "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight"

Artist: The Jam
Song: "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight"
Album: All Mod Cons
Year: 1978

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When it "exploded" in 1977, many were under the impression that there was no way to modify the punk ethos to bring it closer to the mainstream sound of the day.  In many ways, this exact thought was the complete opposite of everything that it meant to be punk, and yet there were a number of bands that were looking for ways to bring this punk spirit to the masses.  In doing so, these bands found different styles with which they could infuse the punk attitude, and it is largely due to these groups that the punk sound survived.  Though most bands simply found ways to take some of the edge off of the sound, there were groups that looked far deeper into other styles of music, and though they rarely receive the credit they deserve, there are few bands that played a more vital role in the development of music than one finds in the songs of The Jam.  Remaining largely unnoticed outside of their native England, it was The Jam that not only found a new way to fuse together punk and r&b, but one can point to them as the key group in the transition from punk rock to "new wave."  The true brilliance of The Jam was perfectly captured on their 1978 record, All Mod Cons, and to this day, few albums can boast as wide ranging and truly captivating a sound.  It is on this album that one can also find the groups' most important song, as The Jam's status was quickly cemented with the release of their stunning, unnerving 1978 single, "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight."

From the very first moments that the music enters the song, there are a number of aspects that become clear about both the song, as well as the band.  As the fast-paced, almost nervous drum beat kicks in from Rick Buckler, one cannot help but link their sound to The Buzzcocks, as the pace and attitude are quite similar.  However, "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" almost instantly builds a far darker, almost sinister mood than nearly anything else that had been previously recorded by any band, and it is this mood that defines much of the song.  The scattered, unsettling bass from Bruce Foxton is nothing short of perfect, and one can almost feel the protagonists eyes darting around the station nervously as he walks.  It is this sense of movement that sets "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" apart from its peers, and it is a fear which remains largely unmatched to this day.  Guitarist Paul Weller both compliments and contrasts the bass throughout the song, as his sound seems to almost stride along, offering a different cadence than either of the two other band members.  This combined style is where one can see the full transition of The Jam compared to their earlier singles, as they have clearly found the ideal balance within their music.  It is this balance, along with the way in which all of the sounds come together to form one of the most captivating moods in history that makes "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" such a unique moment in music history.

In many ways, the music itself can stand on its own, yet it is the context and tone added by Paul Weller's vocals that truly make "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" a song that stands far above a majority of other recordings.  While the bite and attitude of his earlier songs is still very much intact, on this song, Weller has found a slightly more gentle way to deliver his words, and yet the overall impact is never lost.  This new sense of control serves him well, as instead of filling the song with rageful outbursts, he lets it out slowly, building the tension to an almost unbearable level with every new line.  The fact that he is able to make this song so captivating, whilst simultaneously spinning one of the darkest tales every recorded is the true magic behind "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," and perhaps the reason it hits so hard is how easily anyone can relate to the circumstances.  As the title slightly implies, the song speaks of a man heading home late at night on the London Underground.  Weller paints a brilliantly vivid picture of every aspect of his journey, from the stark appearance of the tube entrance, to the smell of the two men who he finds in the station.  It is the detail of the moments leading up to the attack that are perhaps the most chilling, as the narrator gives a very lifelike description of his wife, waiting for him at home.  Yet it is the final verse of the song that is truly unsettling, as one is left to wonder not only whether the narrator will die, but what is to become of his wife, as, "...'cause they took the keys and she'll think its me..."

This rather chilling narrative hits just as hard today as it did more than thirty years ago, and it is largely due to the straightforward, rough delivery from Weller.  The way in which he clearly understands how to emphasize certain words proves that he was a singer far beyond a majority of his peers, and yet the fact that "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" found moderate commercial success is almost a bit confusing, given the subject matter.  Yet one can also argue that it was the fact that the song was so perfectly crafted, pulling from a number of genres, that made it irresistible to the general public, and one can cite this song as the moment that not only turned The Jam into icons, but also kicked off many of the "post-punk" genres.  It is the way in which Weller's vocals seem so spare, almost desperate, against the bassline of the song that makes it impossible to turn off "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight," and it is this element that also makes the song completely unforgettable.  The vivid picture that Weller paints as the song progresses is also so clear and accurate that even those who have never stood on a subway platform can easily picture and relate to the action of the song.  In many ways, it is this fact that defines "what" makes a truly great song, and it is the way in which all of the elements combine with one another that make it impossible to deny the overall impact and sheer magnificence of The Jam's 1978 single, "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight."

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