How The Jam almost didn't record one of their biggest hits
3 November 2020, 21:01
Down In The Tube Station At Midnight was almost "thrown in the bin" during the recording of the band's All Mod Cons album.
The Jam's All Mod Cons is one of the classic albums of the late 1970s. A defining moment in the "Mod revival", it stands as an excellent example of post-punk and marks the first major leap forward in Paul Weller's songwriting career.
But one of the most innovative songs in The Jam's new set of songs almost didn't make it onto the album: Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. In fact, as bassist Bruce Foxton remembered it, "Paul actually discarded the song and threw it in the bin at the studio."
All Mod Cons, released on 3 November 1978, was the Woking band's third full-length album and includes so many great moments: the rallying call of 'A' Bomb In Wardour Street, the frenetic Billy Hunt and the gentle English Rose... and their lively cover of The Kinks' David Watts.
However, the making of the album wasn't all plain sailing for The Jam. The trio had received poor reviews for their second album This Is The Modern World (1977) and frontman and chief songwriter Paul Weller wasn't feeling inspired.
Having come off the back of a disastrous US tour with heavy rock act Blue Oyster Cult, Weller and his bandmates Bruce Foxton (bass) and Rick Buckler (drums) found their demos for the third album being rejected by their associate producer and A&R man Chris Parry.
"Initially we were annoyed and hurt that our songs were panned by the label," Foxton told Mojo magazine in 2013. "On reflection it was a healthy thing to have an 'outside-the-bubble' objective view. It made us re-think our approach and we raised the bar."
Heading back to his hometown of Woking, Weller started to work on songs that reflected his new perspective. While the main criticism of This Is The Modern World was that it hadn't repeated the energy of the band's debut, Weller was looking beyond the insular world of punk and started to write lyrics with a deeper meaning.
"Class issues were very important to me at that time" Weller told The Guardian in 2009. "Woking has a bit of a stockbroker belt on its outskirts. So I had those images – people catching the train to Waterloo to go to the city."
English Rose was a ballad that was a far cry from the angry punk thrash that had made their name and To Be Someone (Didn't We Have A Nice Time) reflected on how precarious success could be, musing: "The bread I spend - is like my fame - it's quickly diminished".
However, Down In The Tube Station At Midnight was a song that was almost rejected by Weller. In fact, it was only through producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven's powers of persuasion that The Jam recorded it at all.
The song is a vivid description of a mugging at a London Underground station late one evening. The protagonist is on his way home with a takeaway meal, when he's accosted by a group of thugs who "smelt of pubs and Wormwood Scrubs / And too many right wing meetings".
A suburbanite's worst nightmare of the big city the song is given urgency by Weller's tense vocal, Foxton's scurrying bass and Buckler's busy drumming. "It’s really from Paul's view of how volatile the streets of big cities can be sometimes," said Foxton.
But Weller wasn't convinced that the song had any potential. When he first brought the song to Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, it was little more than a poem.
"I brought that song in, in a very rough state," Weller recalled in the documentary The Making Of All Mod Cons, "and I almost bottled out of doing it."
"He rejected it largely because the arrangement hadn't developed during the recording session," Coppersmith-Heaven told Sound On Sound in 2007. "I said, 'Hang on, I haven't even read the lyrics yet!"
Once the producer had seen what Weller had been working on, he encouraged the young songwriter - then still only 20 years old - to think again: "I was insistent on him reviving it, and once the band got involved and we developed the sound it turned into an absolutely brilliant track, a classic."
Together with Foxton and Buckler, the trio knuckled down at London's RAK studios to work on the song. "Maybe we would have come around to recording it later on in the project," added Coppersmith-Heaven, "but he'd just reached that point of 'Oh bollocks, this isn't working, it's a load of crap'."
Thanks to his producer's faith, Down In The Tube Station At Midnight was released as a teaser for the All Mod Cons album on 13 October 1978, making its way to Number 15 in the UK charts. It was the beginning of a run of chart hits for the group, which was to include three Number 1s - including the classic Going Underground in 1980.
Not everyone was a fan, however, as Weller later recalled. "Tony Blackburn in his infinite wisdom slated Tube Station on his daytime Radio 1 show.
"He said, Why can't these people write about beautiful things, like flowers and trees? Which is probably what I've started doing in recent years. I did take your advice, Tone!"