Going Underground, A Town Called Malice, Eton Rifles, That’s Entertainment and my favourite The Bitterest Pill – all songs by The Jam who are the subject of this new exhibition at Somerset House. It charts the history and legacy of a band that formed in 1972, did the usual rounds of playing the Working Men’s Clubs and other small gigs before eventually releasing a series of much loved hits between 1977 and 1982 when they called it a day at the height of their success. London has played host to a number of music exhibitions in recent years including Kylie and David Bowie at the V&A, but none have had quite the same intimate feel as this exhibition co-curated by Paul Weller’s sister Nicky who, back in its heyday, ran The Jam fan club. What emerges therefore is a show that plays down the glamour, giving instead a sense of the real people and most importantly the music.
My own love of The Jam started at university more than twenty years after most of their songs had been released, introduced by friend who even then knew far more about music than I ever will, and while I can’t claim to have the same kind of understanding of the times in which their songs were written, they have become very much part of my London soundtrack. At least one Jam song will shuffle onto my ipod every day referencing familiar London things such as Wardour Street, Tube Stations (at midnight), the Waterloo (& City) Line, so, although the memorabilia on display may have added meaning for original fans – who certainly made up the majority of the attendees on the first weekend – it’s still a fascinating insight into the world of The Jam for those who’ve joined the party somewhat later.
After walking through a stage set with the bands guitars and drums, this very human story begins with schooldays and home-life with photos of the lads growing up as well as school reports, early artworks and newspaper articles. Far from the crystal clear digital images we’re used to seeing at exhibitions, this is full of those wonderful 70s and 80s photos that have fuzzy exposure and crinkled edges. It really adds something to this story to see the real photos that the Weller family has kept in albums and attics for decades. From the beginning it’s clear that this is a family affair and the role of John Weller (to whom the exhibition is dedicated), former boxer and cabbie, is affectionately emphasised in managing the band during their years of fame.
Into the next room and the focus is on their early gigs, many of which only cost £1 (!) so the walls are pasted with flyers and posters as they made their way up the billing. This is accompanied by some performance photographs and difficult tours of America, all of which went in to creating their distinctive sound influenced by Mod styles and early Punk. But it wasn’t just the music that became distinctive and the exhibition demonstrates how their sartorial style of 60s-esque smart black suits and white shoes evolved into more colourful looks as their success grew. Interesting too that some suppliers of their replicable look (including Shelleys shoes, Fred Perry jackets and Ben Sherman shirts) began advertising their clothes ‘as worn by’, to increase sales among fans. Happily a number of recognisable items are on display including a trunk of clothes from one of their tours.
One of the most interesting sections focuses on the band’s engagement with fans, which was of first importance to the group. Run by Paul’s mum Ann, and sister Nicky there are lots of letters on display from fans engaging with the Fan Club which have been carefully kept for more than 30 years. It’s sweet to read them, suggesting a more innocent time when all fans wanted to do was meet their idols for a cup of tea. It makes for an interesting contrast with today when in some cases celebrities only want the fame and forget the fans that put them there. Again emphasising the family connection, there are some lovely stories about Weller’s family making fans cups of tea when they turned up on their doorsteps or giving them money for accommodation instead of sleeping by the stage door. It’s these kinds of insight that add real warmth to this exhibition and explains why The Jam continues to be so beloved by their fans.
There are some interesting videos with tributes to John Weller which are worth watching offering some nice anecdotes about the history of the band as well as interviews with Paul, Nicky and Ann Weller, as well as Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. In another side room is an old-school music wall made up of multiple screens showing the music videos as well as displaying the guitars and quotes from later musicians on why they still love The Jam. In the final section, the role of the record company comes under examination and the uneasy relationship the band had with their expectations and demands. Here there are copies of all the albums and singles in chronological order so you can appreciate the artwork over the years, as well as alternative versions from around the world including Japan and Spain. Then suddenly it’s all over and with a heavy heart you’re reading some newspaper coverage of the unexpected split and a wall high shot of the final gig.
About the Young Idea is a great tribute to the story of one of Britain’s finest bands. Curated by Tony Turk, Nicky Weller and Russell Reader, its success lies in the pure focus on the music and its effects rather than unnecessary forays into the band’s private lives and subsequent careers. A critic of the Alexander McQueen exhibition complained that there wasn’t enough biography, just the clothes, but when you create something for public consumption, the artist(s) behind it is only a part of the picture, so the decision here to tell the story of The Jam rather than the individuals is the right one, although in places a little extra context on life in the 70s and 80s Britain would be useful for younger visitors.
The only criticism is actually for Somerset House who has misjudged the entry level to these rooms and it appeared enormously overbooked. This may be a first weekend phenomenon but turning up on time and having to wait in a 25 minute queue for my timeslot is excessive and the first couple of rooms are so small that you queue around those too, until things finally open up later on. It’s annoying and some people did leave before they saw anything, so my advice is to absolutely book ahead (no tickets were available on the day) especially for a weekend, and turn up early so at least you’ll be near the front of your timeslot group. It may even out over the run but hopefully Somerset House will reduce the ticket to timeslot ratio to solve the problem.
Don’t let that put you off though, The Jam: About the Young Idea feels as fresh and exciting as the band themselves must have done in 1977. Judging by the extraordinary interest from original fans and the next generation, many of whom are still sporting that distinctive Jam style, this is the must see exhibition of the summer, and at £9.50 for adults actually very good value. You’ll definitely want to rush home and start playing the music all over again. And tomorrow when another song comes onto my ipod I’ll be able to marvel at how three young men in their early twenties created a lasting legacy.
The Jam. About the Young Idea is at Somerset House until 31 August. Tickets are £9.50 for adults, £7 for concessions, but do book in advance and be prepared for some queuing.