Desert Island Poem: A Town Called Malice By The Jam

By: Dave Bidini

Desert Island Poem: A Town Called Malice By The Jam
Photo: courtesy of the artist
The Jam

August 13, 2009 – Toronto, Canada

You graduate to pills. It’s just the way it is. One minute, you think that smoking dope means you’re going to hell. The next minute, you’re smoking dope. The minute after that, you’re keeping an amphetamine scorecard in pencil on The Doors poster that’s revealed when you close your bedroom door. Fifty trips, said Dale. You’re halfway there, but it isn’t easy. Good thing the drumming is so fast: Violent Femmes, Tonio K, Look Sharp! album cuts, ska that accelerates like reggae at 78, and "Driver’s Seat", which hinted at the California popwave revolution of The Reds and The Plimsouls but was trivialized by X’s "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts", celebrating a revolution of its own, or lack thereof. The New Wave got shittier, but the pills kept it fresh. My girlfriend stole them from the pharmacy where she worked—yellow jackets, black beauties, valium—and we fed them into our mouths while sitting in the Delta 88 on Friday night before heading downtown to a show or a party or a videodanceshowparty listening to the radio, rock 'n' roll radio, New Wave radio, the Live Earl Jive playing The Psychedelic Furs, because Richard Butler was our Bowie, having made two good albums, but still.

If we weren’t listening to New Wave, we were listening to Motown, a young pill addict’s vinyl street thesis. This was before "The Big Chill"; before "My Girl" supplanted "Yesterday" as the most ruined song of all-time; and before Boomer nostalgia boxed set regret devoured '80s popular culture. To feel the rot of popular music in the late '70s was to presage Motown. It was to understand how, unlike Epic or EMI or CBS, Motown was a street, a sound, a neighbourhood, a low-ceiling’ed house where Stevie Wonder had to stoop to get in. If Stiff or Slash or Sub Pop pushed youth, Motown never put a number to it. In photos, the musicians looked grown-up, the singers mature. Little Eva wasn’t so little. Drummers were murdered, shot by girlfriends. Marvin Gaye died at the hands of his father. We discovered these things with our fists plunged into red milk crates, standing over sidewalk boxes spilling with sleeveless records and 45s laid over carpets. The Contours' "Do You Love Me?"

Yes.

I met my girlfriend at a Jam concert in 1980. At the show, kids chanted: "We are the Mods!" Paul Weller answered: "We are the exploited." It wasn’t until 1983 that the band returned, riding another Live Earl Jive classic, "Town Called Malice", from The Gift. Like "Start"—the opening cut of Sound Affects—"Town Called Malice" was a callous ripoff, stolen from Martha and The Vandellas' "(Love is Like A) Heatwave" just as "Start" had been stolen from The Beatles' "Taxman". Critics slapped their foreheads and expressed bewilderment and disdain that one of the great English New Wave/Mod bands had stooped to such pilfery in lieu of any new kind of creativity, but to me and my friends, the twinning of Motown with The Jam was a marriage overdue. The Clash had tried the same thing with "Hitsville (UK)" from Sandinista, but they’d buried the track. "Town Called Malice" was the album's marquee song, which tells you how idealess the New Wave was becoming.

But if "Town Called Malice" lacked the heat and politics of "This is the Modern World" or "In the City" or even "That’s Entertainment", it didn’t matter. If '80s progressive pop was about anything, it was about nothing. Even the period’s great Talking Heads or Police or Pere Ubu records weren’t about much, nor did they aspire to be. The idea behind "Town Called Malice" was better than the song itself, which was certainly better than "The Long Run" by The Eagles or "Footloose" or whatever else your mom was listening to on the radio. In my neighbourhood, kids might have walked around and pretended to be anarchists, but nobody ever spat blood in Principal Winfield’s face. Nobody ever pipebombed the Albion Mall or wrote BEWARE THE CLOTH OF AUTHORITY in our Transfiguration Church prayer book. And because the New Wave was about green shoes and calypso spacemen and Flock of Seagulls rather than gutting the class system or reading Nietzsche, it fit suburban pill freaks like a glove. The music's moral and artistic neutrality drove punks and hippies crazy, but we didn’t care, slumming around Tinko's parents' pool chewing black beauties when we should have been out working shoe factory jobs. Tinko's parents would come home and we thought about grabbing our beers and going to sit in wasteful desolation at the edge of the river. But we almost never did. The pool was nice and the music was fine.


Dave Bidini is an award-winning author and filmmaker and currently fronts Bidiniband. Before that he spent more than 25 years as a songwriter and guitarist for legendary Canadian rock band The Rheostatics. You can find his second column here.


Video: "A Town Called Malice" by The Jam

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