The Jags: Power Goes Pop

jagsLondon power-pop outfit the Jags had a 1979 hit with debut single “Back Of My Hand” but disappeared almost as quickly as they rose to fame. Thirty years later, MAGNET’s Timothy Gassen tells the tale of one of the new-wave era’s seminal acts. (For a history of American power pop, read our 2002 cover story.)

The term “one hit wonder” is often used as cynical criticism, usually by those who have never had even one song of their own climb the charts. What jaded music fans don’t understand is that bands that carry the weight of the “one hit wonder” tag often have a full catalog of other fine work that never reached a larger pop audience. Many pop listeners are just too lazy to search for anything but their spoon-fed top-40. That means many power-pop fans still don’t realize that the Jags remain one of the new-wave era’s most accomplished acts. And that their sound only starts with 1979 smash “Back Of My Hand.”

Record labels and radio in the U.K. were grudgingly forced to allow new-wave and punk sounds to edge onto the airwaves in the late-’70s, long before their U.S. big brothers would even consider such an experiment. The young public’s interest in these startling sounds meant a new breed of U.K. bands needed to be cultivated, signed and promoted—and quickly. The Jags were perfectly suited to seize that moment.

“The Jags started in 1978 when Nick Watkinson (vocals, guitar) and Neil Whittaker (drums) went to Wales to rehearse with John Alder (guitar) and me,” said bassist Steve Prudence in late 2007. Watkinson and Alder were the band’s busy songwriters, with plenty of original pop material to develop together. (The Jags’ John Alder is no relation to the Pink Fairies’ drummer of the same name, who is also known as “Twink.”) “The beginning was really idealistic, rehearsing in the Welsh hills. To me, it’s not so much ‘sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll’—it’s ‘sweat and tears and rock ‘n’ roll.’ I could fill a half pint glass with sweat from my jacket after a gig.”

After moving to London, the band signed to Conspiracy Management and played the London pubs and college gigs. Luck struck them quickly when Island Records honcho Chris Blackwell found the Jags and immediately signed them—a major coup for any new band. Then the problems started. According to published reports from 1979 and from band members in 2008, Blackwell saw the band perform at another show soon after the signing—and Whittaker walked right through his drum set over to Watkinson and punched him so hard that the singer was sent flying off the stage. Thinking their shot at stardom was quickly dashed by such a public disaster, the band was relieved that the Island deal was intact after Whittaker left the band. Solid drummer Alex Baird was installed behind the skins by April 1979, shortly before recording power-pop classic “Back Of My Hand.” 

The Jags’ sound in 1979 was jangly and based around clean, ringing guitar, with slashing rhythms, quick musical changes and expertly precise three-minute arrangements. Their original songs were upbeat, full of hooks, elegant melodies and guttural rock energy: a perfect model of power-pop/new-wave fun. They claimed their favorite bands included Rockpile and Thin Lizzy, while Beatles references also creep into their press clippings. A close listen reveals all of these influences in the band’s original output, especially a healthy dose of ’60s-styled pop sensibilities. This mixture wasn’t a target for early criticism, but the U.K. press corps had a much deadlier poison in their pens: They quickly tagged the band as “Elvis Costello imitators,” an unfair, simplistic and damaging accusation the band would never shake. Bassist Prudence, who counted Paul McCartney as a major influence, commented about the critics to journalist Shirley Stulf in 1979: “If the Beatles re-formed and started playing ’60s-type music again, they’d get slagged off, too.”

One positive constant of the band’s early press coverage is the assertion they were one of the most professional, musically tight and entertaining live acts on the U.K. new-wave/punk-pop circuit. Great rock ‘n’ roll lives onstage; by all accounts the Jags were a great live band. It should be also explained to American readers that the U.K. music press has the deserved reputation in some circles as being vicious and just plain arbitrary. Then, as now, they can saddle a band either as a “next big thing” or as unworthy of any attention—and then hammer the public relentlessly with their pontification. By 1979, Costello had been anointed by the U.K. music press as a pop savior, with all others to be seen as unworthy of even attempting his singular style. The Jags were easy targets as industry newcomers.

But Costello hadn’t begun to make a dent in the U.S., and Jags frontman Watkinson slyly told the Record Mirror in 1979, “We’ve got to make it over there (the U.S.) before Costello does. Then everybody will say he’s copying us!” Police guitarist Andy Summers was announced as the Jags’ audio producer in that same issue of the Record Mirror, but he wasn’t in the studio to direct the band’s initial sessions. They recorded at Olympic studios in London with producers John Astley  and Phil Chapman. Those initial sessions would become the band’s debut release: a four-song 12-inch vinyl EP in July 1979 containing “Back Of My Hand,” “Single Vision” (both later on the debut album in different versions) and two tracks only available on the EP, “Double Vision” and “What Can I Do.”

Island certainly sensed that the Jags’ “Back Of My Hand” would be the band’s breakout hit and released three significantly different versions of the track. The 12-inch EP version was also released as a 45 (with similar cover art) in the U.K. and has the first mix, which is very dry and the most basic. A completely re-recorded version is on the U.K. version of debut album Evening Standards, and it has more of a live-in-the-studio feel to it. Finally, an extremely different mix of the EP recording is on the U.S. version of the album and was also released in the U.K. and the U.S. as the single that would hit the charts. The last version of “Back Of My Hand,” mixed by the Buggles’ Trevor Horn and Geoff Downes, is the best, with a slight synth addition to the open and a fuller, more reverb-laden production style. It is 1979 power-pop production at its best.

“I don’t think any of the band was aware that the U.S. album contained the ‘Buggles mix’ of ‘Back Of My Hand,’” Baird said in 2007 after I informed him of the switch. “I wonder who made the decision to swap that track for the one we did on the U.K. album. And I agree that the ‘Buggles remix’ was indeed superior to the others.”

The “Buggles version” of “Back Of My Hand” was a U.K. hit well before the band’s debut album was ready, and the single hung in the U.K. charts for 10 solid weeks, reaching number 17 in October 1979. It would be the highest chart position ever for the band, but no one could have guessed it at the time since the Jags’ original material was so strong. They played hugely influential U.K. TV show Top Of The Pops and also made a music video for the subsequent “Party Games” track from the debut album. Baird also remembers more TV: “It was a show called The Old Grey Whistle Test. We did two songs from the album, ‘Tune Into Heaven’ and ‘Evening Standards.” When we started work on the album (at CBS studios in London), we recorded ‘Back Of My Hand’ again along with ‘Double Vision’ and some other stuff I can’t remember. We then continued recording the remainder of the album at Marcus Music Studios, again in London.”

I remember clearly in early 1980 how stunned I was when I first heard my promo copy of Evening Standards. I was, indeed, an early fan of Costello and his band the Attractions, but I thought the Jags’ take on the new power-pop sound was all together different. Watkinson was right; if he could get to U.S. music fans and journalists like me, then comparisons to Costello would not be so important. Watkinson told U.K. journalist Des Moines at the time, “We’re not a mod band, we’re not a punk band. People will probably find it difficult to identify with us.” As for Costello, he continued, “Look man, I’m no cheapskate Elvis Costello. I’ve never tried to impersonate him. For a start, we’re more humorous, more tongue-in-cheek than him. He’s more bitchy and venomous, like a middle-aged child.”

But the music critics did not accept that the Jags could develop and play their own sound. It was much easier to simply call them Costello copycats. “Any group that can mimic Costello’s tricky changes and melodic uppercuts this skillfully shouldn’t have to imitate anybody,” Rolling Stone commented in its review of Evening Standards. “The problem with critics, they’re not musicians,” bassist Prudence said in 2007. “So they can’t hear that the way the Jags played bears no resemblance to the Attractions, and that the influences were diverse, from “Woman’s World” (Thin Lizzy) to “Evening Standards” (the Clash) and maybe even [Bruce Springsteen] on “Party Games.”

Two “live” recordings of the Jags from that era show a band bursting with energy and confirm its status as expert performers. An early 1980 concert recorded in London’s Paris Theater for the BBC displays the band at its apex: meaty, powerful and prime for a larger audience. That audience was in the U.S., and in the summer of 1980, they made their sole tour of North America. A July radio broadcast from that tour, of a “live” show in Houston, shows the band starting its transition to its second album’s sound, with a keyboard in tow. This show has advance peaks at some material for that next album, plus two fine original songs they never recorded in the studio: “Love In A Telegram” and “Love And A Song.” (Both of these songs are listed incorrectly with different titles on a recent CD bootleg.) “‘Love In A Telegram’ was Nick’s Thin Lizzy influenced tune,” Baird said in 2007. “The vocals are very Lizzyesque.”

Bassist Prudence left the band in March 1980, before the U.S. tour, and other changes were afoot for the recording of follow-up album, 1981’s No Tie Like The Present. Michael Cotton took over bass duties, while Paddy O’Toole added keyboards. Despite the new blood, the relentless Costello taunts and subsequent chart failings seemed to stagger the confidence of the band in the studio. While members to this day explain they never consciously attempted to sound like Costello, drummer Baird did say to me in 2008 that for its second album, the band consciously worked not to sound like him: “When we went into Compass Point Studios in Nassau (in the Bahamas) to start the second album, we had just finished a two-and-a-half-month tour of the U.S.A. We had spent a week rehearsing in L.A. to work out some ideas for the album, and I remember it was awful. It was actually quite worrying—there seemed to me to be no direction.” The band set up in the Bahamas to record and feverishly worked to pull together new material. “We also had the guidance of Alex Sadkin as producer, who was amazing,” Baird said.

No Tie Like The Present suffers from an uncertain stylistic goal; the new-wave and power-pop exuberance of the first album is muted, replaced by a more scattershot approach. “Being in the Bahamas with an American producer who had little knowledge of our past and being away from our usual surroundings—out of our comfort zone—it’s hardly surprising we sounded a bit different,” Baird said. While many Jags fans scratched their heads over the group’s attempt to diversify, the band itself was pleased with the growth. “Personally, I preferred the variety on the second album,” said Baird. “If I had to choose one of them to listen to, it would be the second.”

But in 1981, the album didn’t chart and was met with indifference by the press and public—and the Jags seemed finished. Former members were polite and reserved in their recent comments to me about the problems surrounding the demise of the band from 1980 to 1982. They simply say the group did not end with all on good terms, with legal disputes concerning management—and that looking back reminded them of the unpleasant memory of the death of original drummer Neil Whittaker. Baird explained in 2008, “He threw himself under a train. I think it was at Clapham Junction Station in London. I think he had a few problems and never, I suspect, got over his departure from the band.”

By 1982, after two albums and many fine tracks behind them, the Jags were also no more. Band members today still believe the Jags were only beginning to reach their potential, and they miss the exhilaration of the special times when their music worked and the future was theirs to make. “Playing live was pure adrenaline,” said Baird. “I’d never experienced such a rush. I was devastated when we split up.”

The Jags’ signature “Back Of My Hand” has since been included on many new-wave compilation albums, and is regularly referred to as one of the highlights of the era, but the remainder of the band’s output was out of print until a 1999 best-of CD issued by Spectrum Music in the U.K. Not an edited collection, the CD is actually a compilation of the band’s two U.K. albums and doesn’t include the Jags’ two non-LP b-sides or two extra EP cuts. It does include the U.K. album mix of “Back Of My Hand” rather than the “Buggles remix” that was a hit on U.K. and U.S. radio, and this fact has infuriated fans who bought the collection specifically for this one hit, only to find an alternate version included. 

Of the missing b-sides, the first-album-era “Dumb Blonde” is a pulsing, marching, power-pop gem. It was backed with “Woman’s World” (which hit the U.K. charts for one week in 1980, at number 75) from Evening Standards. The other B-side, “The Hurt,” might be the Jags’ least representative track (though a favorite of at least one band member); it was backed with Island’s last-ditch single for the band, “The Sound Of G-O-O-D-B-Y-E”, from No Tie Like A Present.  The audio mastering of this best-of CD is quite harsh in the high end, as if the master tapes were transferred without attention to proper EQ. The cursory liner note information in the booklet is also flawed, crediting the “Here Comes My Baby” single to Jags members—it was actually written by Cat Stevens and was a number-four hit in the U.K. in 1967 for the Tremoloes. One more error: Standout original instrumental “Silverbirds” has an incorrect songwriter credit and should read “Watkinson/Leaf/Alder.”

Fans of pure power pop should not be dissuaded by any of these quibbles and should hunt the bins for all Jags output, especially the early vintage vinyl. Newcomers to their sound will be delighted with a range of power pop that few—including Mr. Costello—ever achieved. But after all of the praise and clarification I offer here, even I admit that it is difficult to erase fully the miscalculated perception of the Jags by most music journalists. Reviewer Allan Jones was prophetic when he wrote, circa 1980, “Costello remains a phantom they still have to exorcise.”

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