By David Iozzia
Bruce Foxton is a British musician best known as the bass guitarist in punk/new wave bands The Jam and Stiff Little Fingers, as well as the rock band Casbah Club. Bruce also discovered and managed a British new wave band called The Vapors.
Many of the punk rock bands of the 70s wore short hair and ripped clothing. The songs were fast tempoed and loud. The Jam wore stylish suits instead and were more "mod" than "punk." Here in the United States, where some of us categorized music without all the sub-categories, The Jam were simply a U.K. punk band; they didn't get any better than this band. And Bruce Foxton was an integral part of the bands success formula. Sometimes fast and aggressive, other times slower and more melodic, The Jam knew and played a few more chords than their peers. I always felt that their songwriting, in addition to emotion and passion instead of anger, set them apart from all the other U.K. bands. That includes the Sex Pistols and The Clash, who were both inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I won't debate their lack of recognition and Hall of Fame snub in this interview, but The Jam did have 18 consecutive Top 40 singles in the U.K., including four number ones. In 2002, Virgin Radio's list of the "Top 100 British Music Artists of All Time" listed The Jam at number 5. Here in the United States, The Jam were not as popular or successful on the charts, yet Rolling Stone Magazine's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time" lists their song "That's Entertainment" at number 306.
Stiff Little Fingers, a punk band from Belfast, Northern Ireland, formed in 1977, disbanded in 1982, re-formed in 1987, and despite numerous personnel changes, continue to tour and record in the 21st century. Bruce Foxton joined Stiff Little Fingers in 1991 and amicably split from the band in 2006.
The Vapors, active between 1979 and 1981, charted in 1980 at #3 on the U.K. Singles Chart and #36 on the U.S Billboard Hot 100 with their signature song "Turning Japanese." The number 36 reared its head again when VH-1, on its television segment titled "100 Greatest One Hit Wonders" filled that spot in their countdown with The Vapors and "Turning Japanese."
Casbah Club, which formed in 2004, features Bruce Foxton on bass guitar, two original members of the Scottish band Big Country (guitarist Bruce Watson and drummer Mark Brzezicki), and vocalist/guitarist Simon Townsend. The latter is not only a touring member of The Who, he's also the younger brother of Who guitarist Pete Townsend.
On a cold January night in New Jersey, I was honored to be given an opportunity to do a quick phone interview with Bruce Foxton. He was in his San Francisco hotel room relaxing and preparing for a show later that night with his latest musical project, a band called From The Jam. In the late 70s and early 80s, The Jam were one of my favorite bands. Despite owning all of their records, I only had one opportunity to see the band perform live. Seated, or should I say standing, in the front row with my younger brother Joey at New York city's Palladium, The Jam "set the house ablaze" that night, leaving a permanent musical imprint in our hearts and on our brains. Now in 2008, nearly 30 years later, Bruce Foxton and original Jam drummer Rick Buckler are back playing their classic material with two new bandmates in From The Jam. Admittedly nervous, I dialed the telephone, waiting for one of my musical heroes to answer. I was not only looking forward to our chat, but I couldn't wait to attend their New York City concert a week and a half later.
Dave: Hello Bruce and thank you for letting me do this interview. How and when did you and original Jam drummer Rick Buckler decide to join forces and tour as "From The Jam"?
BRUCE: It all goes back to early 2006. Rick and our current bandmates, Russell Hastings and Dave Moore, were in a band called The Gift. I was in Casbah Club and the two bands were on the same bill. Earlier in the day, I was asked to consider coming back on stage to do a few Jam songs with Rick and his band after Casbah Club finished our set. That was nerve-wracking because I hadn't played on stage with Rick for more than 25 years. At the soundcheck, we ran through a couple songs including "Smithers Jones" and "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight." The crowd loved it, and I loved being back on stage with Rick. We gelled together straight away. It was a good vibe, a good buzz, but it was very much a one-off because we just happened to be on the same bill. It was great fun, but we shared our goodbyes and wished each other good luck. Then we parted company. Near the end of 2006, Rick called me and said they had a few shows coming up. He asked if I wanted to come along as a "special guest" and play a few more songs. I had time to think about the first show, which was such great fun, and I said "of course, brilliant, I'd love to do it." After Christmas, we got back together. We talked about what a ball it was up on stage and how fantastic it was playing the Jam songs again. The audiences were enjoying it as much as us. We talked about doing it a little more seriously and getting a proper tour together. We came up with From The Jam and a May 2007 tour in the U.K. sold out weeks in advance. It kind of evolved naturally.
Dave: Is it safe to say that Rick's band The Gift was a Jam "tribute band"?
Bruce: No, I don't think it is really. Rick can only be a tribute to himself. He was entitled to play those songs, and he had a couple of new guys in to help him out. If you can say that you can say the same thing about Rick and myself. I do not consider From The Jam a tribute band.
Dave: Punk rock music is still flourishing today, and The Jam's songs of 30 years ago, especially those with social and political undertones, are so relevant in today's world climate. Was that part of Rick's or your thought process?
BRUCE: It was more coincidental than calculated Dave, but it's sad and unfortunate that many of the songs are relevant today lyrically. Musically though, they still sound contemporary when you hear them on the radio. That's flattering and that speaks to the song's quality and to The Jam's songwriting and playing on those songs. Doing it again was a combination of many things but it was more from the angle that these songs deserved to be played live again by the original band members. We had such a great time playing those songs, and the audience was having so much fun. We couldn't find a reason not to play them again.
Dave: What musicians join you and Rick in the current line-up?
BRUCE: Russell Hastings plays lead guitar and sings lead vocals. David Moore plays second guitar and keyboards.
Dave: Following your 13-city U.S. tour, what other plans do you have for From The Jam in 2008?
BRUCE: After we finish up in America, we head back home for a couple of weeks. Then we're touring in Australia. I'm very excited about that as well because The Jam never got there. We're really looking forward to that. Then, we'll have a bit of time to recover, and we'll head in to rehearsals trying to write new material. We have quite a few good ideas coming along. Spring presents a good window of time to formulate those ideas and shape them into a song or two. Developing the writing side of things is this band's next logical step.
Dave: Are you recording or filming any of the U.S. shows for a future CD or DVD?
BRUCE: Not this time around. We played two shows in London just before Christmas, and one of those was filmed for a DVD we hope to release later this year.
Dave: The music of The Jam has been kept alive in the United Kingdom by other bands. I can't think of a U.S. tribute band playing the music of The Jam so, for the most part, American audiences are hearing those incredible songs played live again for the first time in almost 30 years. Please comment on the fan reaction you've received so far.
BRUCE: We've only done three shows so far Dave, but it's gotten bigger and better. We started in San Diego, then we played in Anaheim and Los Angeles. We flew up yesterday, and we're playing San Francisco tonight. The reaction, especially in Los Angeles, has been phenomenal and not dissimilar to the U.K. audiences. They went kind of crazy and they thoroughly enjoyed our show.
Dave: Most U.S. cities have higher drinking ages now than in the late 70s, and most clubs and venues are smoke-free. Are those changes noticeable when you're up onstage?
BRUCE: The smoking side of it is definitely noticeable. It's the same in the U.K. where you can't smoke in any of the live venues anymore. From a non-smoker's point of view it's great. It's hard as it is because you're already playing in a hot, packed gig. If the front of the crowd is smoking cigarettes and blowing the smoke up on stage it's hard to breathe sometimes. If you ask Rick, who smokes, he's coping but it's a pain to have to go outside to have a cigarette. For me, it's refreshing. Going into a bar where the air is now fresher is a healthy thing, but I'm biased. The gigs we're playing are in reasonably small venues. If there's a decent audience, it gets real hot and sweaty. It becomes hard to breathe further into the set. Not having smoke in the atmosphere definitely helps, especially for the guys singing. We have a younger audience in the U.K. where parents my age have children attending our gigs who weren't born the first time The Jam were around. That's healthy and real encouraging to see. It's frustrating here in the U.S. playing some venues where the kids can't get in until they're 21.
Dave: I'm sure that given the absence of Paul Weller, the media and concert promoters originally took a wait-and-see attitude with From The Jam.
BRUCE: Totally. Our American booking agent believed in the band and took a chance on the tour. He thought it would work, and he's been proven correct. A lot of the promoters in the U.K. for the May 2007 tour sat on the fence, waiting to see if we would sink or swim. Thankfully, we're swimming. A lot more promoters are now coming out of the woodwork wanting to book the band.
Dave: What type of feedback are you now receiving from the press?
BRUCE: We've been fortunate so far; 99 percent of it has been very positive.
Dave: Is it necessary for From The Jam to dig back into your extensive back catalog to play a few rarities or songs never played live by The Jam to avoid being labeled a "greatest hits" type of band?
BRUCE: Yes, and we are Dave. Obviously a lot of the hit singles are in the set. But we've added a few of the album tracks that were hardly ever played live by The Jam. There's a real good cross section of our songs in the current set. That makes it more interesting and challenging for the band as well. From The Jam is contracted to play either a 90-minute set or a 75-minute set. We have a wealth of material to choose from. You can't fit your entire catalog into that short a set, but we're varying it when we can. There will come a point where we can add one or two new songs into the set to freshen it up a wee bit.
Dave: Today's music industry has been both helped and hurt by computer technology. One of the positives is that bands can post song clips and videos at their websites and MySpace pages. Is the audio and video at your sites new "From The Jam" versions?
BRUCE: To be honest with you, I'd have to check on the audio clips. We do have some live recordings. If we haven't posted them yet, there will be a time in the immediate future where we'll post audio clips of From The Jam. The YouTube videos are new From The Jam versions that we've gotten from people that attended our recent shows.
Dave: You mentioned earlier that May 2008 will present a window of time for From The Jam to write new material. From your perspective, what are the positives of writing and recording new songs?
BRUCE: As a band playing The Jam's classic material everything has been fantastic so far, but I sense that most of the fans are looking forward to some new songs. Writing new material is always exciting and interesting. The biggest positive for me is looking forward to see what direction the new material will develop. It'll be real interesting and there will be a big learning curve.
Dave: Looking past the lyrics, as a songwriter, what steps will you have to take to recapture the passion and emotion of songs written by The Jam?
BRUCE: I don't think that I'll have to take any steps. I'm still quite passionate about a few things so I won't be stuck to come up with a subject. A lot has happened in my life, and I'm sure that will come out on the next few tracks that I write. I have a lot of thoughts lyrically and about song titles. But it's still "wait and see" until we get into a studio.
Dave: Two other positives of today's computer technology is that you can communicate more intimately with your fans, and that you can market and advertise your shows directly to your online fan base. In your personal case, does the time you spend on the computer interfere with the creative process of writing music?
BRUCE: I haven't gone down that route myself. I'd agree with you Dave that any musical artist spending hours on the computer is interfering with his creative process. As far as my new personal website, it's only been up and running for a few months. I have somebody who looks after it for me. I wouldn't want to be up all hours of the night updating my website. That's time-consuming. We also have someone who speaks to the online fans almost on our behalf. I'm not a big fan of chatrooms where you can get bogged down sometimes. But they do present a nice opportunity for our fans to communicate with each other to talk about our shows.
Dave: This is my final question Bruce so let's have a bit of fun with it. Since The Jam covered The Kinks' song "David Watts," let's have Ray and Dave Davies return the favor and cover a Jam song on their eventual reformation tour. I'll pick "To Be Someone." What Jam song could you envision The Kinks doing a cover of?
BRUCE: That's a pretty good choice Dave. Ray Davies is a great raconteur and storyteller. I'll pick "That's Entertainment."
Dave: Thanks again for the interview Bruce. Feel free to add any closing comments for your fans.
BRUCE: Thanks for keeping the faith in us!
Prior to my interview with Bruce, From The Jam's publicist limited our chat to 15 minutes. Instead of asking about their concerts and setlist, I decided to document my own observations from the New York City concert within the text of our interview.
As I walked from New York's Penn Station to the Blender Theatre, I couldn't help but flashback to the only Jam concert I attended almost 30 years prior. That night was magical and it wouldn't be fair to ask From The Jam to recreate that magic. All I wanted was to hear classic songs from my youth being performed again live and to stay open-minded about the original member missing from the line-up.
Rarely do I arrive at a show early enough to hear the opening bands, but on this night I'm glad that I did. Standing in line prior to the doors opening, many fans were lamenting the absence of Jam guitarist and vocalist Paul Weller. Others mistakenly thought that Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell was a member of From The Jam. Hugh instead was opening the show with his power trio, playing his new material and some Stranglers classics.
Once From The Jam hit the stage running, it was easy to forget all of the years that had passed or that the band lineup was different. From The Jam honored and respected the classic material by not trying to re-invent or re-interpret those songs. They played the material with enough passion and intensity to dispel any doubts. From The Jam created their own magic as the crowd rocked, pogo danced, and serenaded the band throughout the set, which opened with "In The City."
Drummer Rick Buckler was in perfect form; his style is more about precision than power. Dave Moore, one of the "new guys," added second guitar and keyboards. He sounded great on the little bit of keys he did play, especially on the opening to one of my favorites and the show's finale, "Town Called Malice." The other newcomer, Russell Hastings, filled in for Paul Weller without trying to be Paul Weller. He sang and played with plenty of emotion and energy. He introduced the songs when necessary, effectively fronting the band without grabbing the spotlight. Russell had big shoes to fill, and he did an admirable job. The band's decision to be a four-piece was an ingenious game plan; Russell wasn't pressured to be Paul Weller's replacement. With Russell standing stage-right and Dave Moore standing stage-left, I focused on what was there instead of what was missing.
Bruce Foxton, on the other hand, got to be Bruce Foxton. His lead vocals on The Kinks' cover "David Watts" and two songs that he wrote, "Smithers Jones" and "News of the World," were top-notch. Bruce harmonized well with Russell on some of the other songs, and he looked real nimble jumping around on stage. Yet it was his signature bass lines on many of the songs that impressed me the most. After all of the years that passed, I had forgotten what an incredible live bass guitarist Bruce Foxton is.
The setlist was balanced with most of the hits and a few album tracks. If forced to pick a favorite, twist my arm and I'll pick "All Mod Cons/To Be Someone." I was hoping they'd play "Beat Surrender" or "Precious," but a band choosing from a back catalog as deep as The Jam's can't play them all. I found myself wondering if there's a Jam song that has never been performed live and it that would have been an appropriate choice for From The Jam to attempt.
No matter how I slice and dice the setlist, or how much I analyze the band's performance, there are two bottom lines for this music fan and concertgoer. One, From The Jam is relevant in 2008 and, if they choose to keep the band afloat, they can be a musical force that has to be reckoned with. They are much more than a "tribute band." Maybe the new material they plan on writing that Bruce alluded to will help shed them of the baggage and stigma associated with the word "tribute." Secondly, no matter which musical direction they choose, it was awesome to hear many of the songs from the soundtrack to my youth being performed again live. Thanks fellas and hurry back soon!