1 GOING UNDERGROUND
The Jam single (March 1980) Highest chart position: 1
The real sound of the suburbs. Overflowing with melodic twists and turns and with Buckler and Foxton at their dextrous peak, Weller delivers a “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for the Grange Hill generation, a diamond-sharp rejection of politics, fat cats and anyone else who didn’t ‘get it’. The quintessential Jam release.
Paul Weller: I think it’s a great record, man. And I think it’s still relevant. “Kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns” – 27 years later, nothing’s changed. I still hear it being played on the radio at least once a year and I think, ‘Wow, this sounds really powerful.’ I’ve read lots of interpretations of the lyrics, half of which I find a bit baffling. One book says it was written as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which was news to me. I’m not sure I was even aware of that when the song was written. It was more about what was going on in our own country. A response to Thatcherism, which was starting to bite.
I wrote it in my old flat in Pimlico, late at night on an acoustic guitar, aged about 21. I usually write songs while I’m jamming, coming up with random little ideas and then expanding them, stringing them into structured songs. The starting point for “Going Underground” would have been that little introductory riff – the chiming, offbeat guitar chords you hear on the intro. I remember playing that for a while and then stringing together the chord changes. You start singing nonsense and maybe two or three words throw themselves up at you. I remember the “kidney machine” line turning up early in the songwriting process, a really powerful line. And it sounded good, rhythmically. And the phrase “the public gets what the public wants”, that fitted in with the syncopated rhythm.
The song was all pretty much fully formed in my head – guitar, bass, drums, vocal harmonies – when I took it into the studio. Even the key changes at the end, when it shifts up a full tone, that was written into the song from the start. You don’t hear key changes in songs much any more. I’ve always used them a lot – you hear it on stuff like “Headstart For Happiness” – and it gives a sense of excitement, a real forward momentum. It’s one of those structural tricks that I learned from listening to Motown.
“Going Underground” was our first No 1. Everything seemed to be building up to that record. We were getting more and more popular. The record before it was “Eton Rifles”, I think, which was Top 5 , so it was all leading somewhere. It had taken ages for us to get airplay on daytime Radio 1, but we broke through with this. We were so popular by then that they had to play us.
We were on tour in America when we got news that it had topped the chart, so we cancelled the rest of that US tour and fucked off back home to do Top Of The Pops. Perhaps that ruined any chance we had of success in America, but I don’t regret jettisoning that tour. It’s a bit special, isn’t it, your first No 1? And Top Of The Pops was a very big deal. I think we did it like three weeks running…
Having a No 1 meant a lot more then. We sold a 250,000 copies in the first couple of weeks or something ridiculous like that. You’d could be No 1 for 10 years and not sell that many records now!
It was actually a double-A-side with “Dreams Of Children”. We always put a lot of effort into the B-sides, they were always as important to us as the A-side. It also made it good value for money – I seem to remember that there was a live single that came with the package as well. “Going Underground” wasn’t actually released on an album. People often did that until recently. It was the same with The Beatles; some of their best stuff was never released on an album. You’d never get away with that now. Singles are just adverts for the album.
It’s a shame that the single is a dying artform, especially details like the B-side or the record sleeve – this one featured a photograph of the video screen of us being filmed, I seem to remember. I’m sure some good will come from downloading – it’s very liberating – but I do fear that we might have lost something with the death of the single.
Oddly, “Going Underground” isn’t one of the songs I do live any more. I’ve got a big back catalogue to choose from and I’m much more relaxed about picking stuff from all points of my career, but several songs – like this and “Eton Rifles”, for instance – aren’t among them. We have tried rehearsing it, but it just doesn’t seem right. Some songs carry a certain baggage – I just can’t put my finger on it, but it didn’t seem right to play that. But it still sounds great today. I’m proud of it.