Sound Affects was the fifth studio album by British mod-revival group The Jam. Released during 1980 at the height of the band’s career, a career that would include a run of eighteen consecutive top 40 singles in the UK charts, many deem Sound Affects to be The Jam’s best album and at the very least their most musically interesting. With an overall sound that stuck to their traditional 60s beat influences, but that also branched out to include splashes of R&B and psychedelic rock, this is probably an accurate assessment of one of the 80s most underrated albums but best surprises.
Paul Weller, the band’s front man described Sound Affects as a cross between Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall and The Beatles Revolver, a description that certainly holds true on listening. The sound on the album combines a strong emphasis on rhythm and a prominent rhythm section with pop melodies and the occasional punk rage. The Off the Wall influence comes in the form of the excellent rhythm playing of Bruce Foxton on bass and Rick Buckler on drums, whose pounding bass and drum lines dominates across the album. Their playing is very much a Motown-inspired style and both the drums and bass sound so good on here (a very clean sound) to the point that they often take centre stage as lead instruments, whilst also being an essential part of the overall Jam sound. Paul Weller’s guitar playing, vocals and compositional skills bring in the 60s Beatles influences, punk, as well as a hint of psychedelia. His vocals flow between punk aggression and a mellower pop style similar to mid-60s Beatles, while his guitar playing is a mix of jangly chimes and a heavy distorted drive. On some of the tracks Weller also experiments both with guitar distortion and feedback, as well as the odd sound affect here and there, including a fly buzzing at the beginning of “Music for the Last Couple” and some French audio on the outro of “Scrape Away”.
The tracks on Sound Affects are generally of a high standard all and all, and despite a couple of somewhat lesser tracks most of the material is interesting and diverse. There is melody driven Beatles-like pop in the form of “Monday” and “Man in the Corner Shop”, while “That’s Entertainment”, probably the band’s most well known song is an acoustic mod anthem that forms the basis of a commentary on the drudgery and dreariness of English working class life. The Beatles influence becomes remarkably close on “Start” which includes an exact copy of the bass line and guitar riff from classic Revolver track “Taxman”, while also incorporating subtle R&B influences with a great rhythm track and a backing horn section. Then there are the more up-tempo ferocious punk anthems such as opening track “Pretty Green” with its pounding bass line and “But I’m Different Now with its heavily charged punk guitar. Experimental psychedelic rock also appears with the anthemic distortion driven “Set the House Ablaze” and album closer “Scrape Away”. On this note I would say that psychedelia was just a slight influence on the material here and was more used in an experimental capacity without playing a central role. With this in mind the influence of psychedelic rock and in particular The Beatles Revolver came mainly in the use of studio affects and heavy guitar distortion and echo. Finally, there are also hints at The Jam’s and Weller’s future direction with subtle splashes of R&B here and there. This is evident especially in the rhythm playing right across the album as I have already mentioned, but also on particular songs such as “Boy About Town” and “Start”, of which both contain horn parts and heavy funk-inspired bass and drum fills.
Overall, Sound Affects is a fantastic collection of infectious early-80s pop songs that are dotted with little bits and pieces from all sorts of different musical areas, which although feature do not compromise The Jam’s 60’s pop sound and overall punk ethos. Apart from the general catchiness of the songs and their cleverly crafted pop nature, as well as the interesting experimentation with different sounds and textures, the definite standout of Sound Affects is the rhythm section of Buckler and Foxton, who’s playing make these songs that extra special. Their playing to me is made even more remarkable considering the 80s would become dominated by drum machines and synths, and how also technology often came to overshadow the musical abilities of the people making the music. On listening to this album it is just nice to hear a proper rhythm section made up of proper players playing an essential part to the overall sound on display, of which without whose input the music would be half as good. Weller’s song-writing craft, aggressive vocals, and lead rhythm playing is simply the icing on the cake in what is overall a great 80s album, all be it an overlooked and underrated one at that.