Throughout their existence, the Jam always maintained a precarious position within the punk rock spectrum. A fitting illustration is the cover of their acclaimed 1977 debut In the City, where the band’s clean-cut mod portrayal belies their youthful rebellion while the hasty rendering of their name in graffiti contradicts the development and precision of their tight musicianship. On top of that, Bob Marley invited the Jam to his “Punky Reggae Party” alongside the Damned and the Clash, but vexingly also included the decidedly un-punk Dr. Feelgood in the festivities. Regardless of where the Jam fell in the cliquey continuum of British rock scenes in the 1970s, their full-length introduction impressively paved the way for an extremely successful, albeit ephemeral run in popular music.
The terse chords that commence the album on the lead-in “Art School” do so in much the same fashion as the Clash hammering out “Clash City Rockers” to start the U.S. version of their debut full-length at around the same time. But while bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols pushed their music in distinctly new directions, the Jam held tightly to the conventions of rock ‘n' roll, playing a sped-up and freaked-out adaptation that blurred the lines between revivalism and pioneering.
Another inconvenient anomaly of the Jam and In the City is the dichotomy of their political slant. The band takes a firm slide to the left on the discordant anti-development anthem “Bricks and Mortar,” which attests, “This is progress, nothing stands in its path / Yellow bulldozers, the donkey jackets and J.C.B.'s / While hundreds are homeless, they're constructing a parking space.” The title track is a tribute to the young commoner which also serves to castigate authority and condemn police brutality: “You still think I am crap / But you'd better listen man / Because the kids know where it's at / In the city there's a thousand men in uniforms / And I've heard they now have the right to kill a man.” Opposite these sentiments is the brash “Time for Truth,” which laments the decline of the British Empire and belittles Labor Party PM James Callaghan. The Jam would go on to endorse the Conservative Party in the 1979 general election at the behest of their PR manager who imagined (correctly) it would help them stand out among their decidedly left-leaning punk peers.
Atop the confusion over their politics and place in the punk scene is still an undeniably great album. Songs like the smooth rocker “Sounds from the Street” and jerky dance tune “Takin’ My Love” affix a glowing enthusiasm to counterbalance some of the weightier subjects of the record. Perhaps the only real gaffe (aside from their experiment with conservatism) might be the inclusion of the 1960s Batman theme. Apparently it was a fairly popular tune to cover at the time with its easily recognizable blues scale lead and Adam West bearing the bat insignia on TV, but in retrospect it just throws off the flow of an otherwise outstanding sequence of songs.
Despite the myriad debates attached to this album like asterisks, the Jam crafted an immortal effort with In the City. Recharging the rock ‘n' roll routines of the past and paving the way for the punks of the future, the Jam secured their spot in history on this, one of the definitive albums of the 1970s.