I’ve been listening to a lot of the British band The Jam lately. The Jam were a great band, mixing punk and new wave in their brief career. Paul Weller was the lead singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter in the band, with Bruce Foxton on bass and Rick Buckler on drums. Foxton’s bass playing was amazing, and it frequently provided the main melody for The Jam’s songs. The Jam never made much of a commercial impression in the United States, but in England they were very successful, with many top ten singles to their credit.
One of The Jam’s greatest songs is “That’s Entertainment,” from their 1980 album “Sound Affects.” It’s not to be confused with the song of the same name by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz from the 1953 Fred Astaire musical “The Band Wagon.” The Jam’s “That’s Entertainment” was written by Paul Weller in 10 minutes after coming home from the pub drunk. (That’s according to Weller, at least.) “That’s Entertainment” was never released as a single in the U.K., but amazingly enough, it charted as an import single, making #21 in the charts in early 1981.
“That’s Entertainment” is a great example of the power of music to communicate emotion. The melody, chords, and progression contain such emotion that you would know the feeling of the song even if you didn’t understand the words that Weller was singing. The song builds tension all through the verses before releasing some of that tension in the chorus. “That’s Entertainment” begins with a catchy guitar riff before Foxton’s bass line enters and provides a neat compliment to the main melody of the guitar. Then the guitar riff gets doubled and gets louder. Then Weller’s vocal enters and he sings the first verse:
“A police car and a screaming siren
A pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete
A baby wailing and stray dog howling
The screech of brakes and lamp light blinking”
Then the chorus, which is simply:
“That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment”
The verses all follow this pattern, seemingly disconnected images of everyday life. The only thread that connects the lyrics is their stark bleakness. In Weller’s lyrics here there is little happiness or pleasure, only bad things and images of urban decay. Weller’s voice is forceful and angry as he sings the verses, and it lightens somewhat as he sings the chorus. The words in the first verse tell us that this is not a happy landscape, the siren is “screaming,” the baby is “wailing,” the stray dog is “howling,” all images that set us on edge right from the beginning.
The second verse isn’t any happier, and it ends with:
“Lights going out and a kick in the balls”
Again, not a very happy image. But the second time through the chorus, after the second “That’s Entertainment,” Weller reaches up for a high “Ah, la la la la la,” giving the music a tremendous lift. The “la la la la la” melody then becomes a backing vocal behind the third verse, providing a kind of ironic counterpoint to Weller’s lyrics about “slow time Mondays” and “boring Wednesdays.” (I’m not sure if the backing vocal is sung by Weller or by Bruce Foxton.) The fourth verse provides a really terrible image:
“Waking up at 6AM on a cool warm morning
Opening the windows and breathing in petrol”
Ugh, what a terrible way to start the day. The beauty and tranquility of an early morning is shattered by the intrusive smell of gasoline. Nature is spoiled by man’s inventions. I’m not quite sure what a “cool warm morning” is, but it’s a nice turn of phrase. At the end of the verse Weller gives us the only escape so far from this stagnation and decay:
“Watching the telly and thinking ‘bout your holidays”
Which isn’t too uplifting. As the fifth verse begins, the only new sound in the record is introduced, a brief backwards guitar part that plays as Weller sings the verse. It’s unobtrusive enough that I didn’t even notice it the first few times I listened to the song. The fifth verse has one of my favorite lines:
“A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac”
Which isn’t that deep or anything, but I love the way it sounds. Everyone knows what a day is like when it’s so hot that the fresh tar on the roads bubbles up. And I love all the c’s and k’s in “sticky black tarmac.” It just wouldn’t be the same if Weller had written “sticky black asphalt.”
The sixth, and final, verse starts with the lines:
“Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude”
This is simply great writing. In the first line Weller has subverted the usual romantic notions of kissing at midnight, which is usually thought to be the height of romance. But here midnight is not romantic at all, it screams. The next line further explodes the romantic notion of lovers being together. In Weller’s song the lovers aren’t happy that they are together, they are wishing for the other person to leave so they could be alone. In this song there is truly no escape from the harsh brutality of the world. So why do I keep listening to this song? Why does it draw me in? It’s the music that pushes the song forward and makes that chorus so powerful. The chorus is a release from the brutality of the verses, in the same way that entertainment is a release from the brutality of everyday life. Which may be Weller’s point. But maybe not, maybe the point is that we think entertainment is an escape, but it’s only a temporary forgetting of our problems, it doesn’t make our problems go away. “That’s Entertainment” is a truly great song that intrigues me a lot and keeps me listening to it over and over. It’s a great mix of a terrific melody and interesting lyrics. After the sixth verse and chorus, the song slowly fades out as the “la la la la la” section repeats again and again. And then I have to listen to this song again.