Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
There are many reasons to love Paul Weller, the primary songwriter and singer for The Jam, but here’s a reason to hate him: he claims to have written 1981’s great “That’s Entertainment,” in ten minutes, while drunk. I suspect that most of us couldn’t write a song as good as “That’s Entertainment” if we spent our entire life trying, whether or not we were under the influence of any substance.
The Jam rose to fame, at least in England, on the back of songs that were mostly angry, fast and loud. As time went on, though, they began to include softer songs, without diluting their powerful political and social point of view. What makes “That’s Entertainment” so potent is the sense of barely contained rage in its mostly acoustic, relatively quiet arrangement. The lyrics are a stream of consciousness collage of scenes from ordinary life in Margaret Thatcher’s England, a country that Weller felt was tilting strongly toward the wealthy and privileged and away from the needs of ordinary people. According to Weller, these vignettes were all visible from the bus he was on the night he wrote the song, and as a whole, they paint a picture of sadness and hopelessness.
So, Weller sings about “paint splattered walls and the cry of a tomcat,” “a freezing cold flat and damp on the walls,” and “opening the windows and breathing in petrol,” each verse followed by the sarcastic refrain “That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.” (The song was, in part, inspired by a poem, “Entertainment,” by Paul Drew, and I wonder if there is also a backhanded reference to the glossy musicals compiled by MGM in their films from the mid-1970s with the same title).
Weller saves his best for the evocative last verse:
Two lovers kissing amongst the scream of midnight
Two lovers missing the tranquility of solitude
Getting a cab and travelling on buses
Reading the graffiti about slashed seat affairs
When Weller sings that last line, his anger bubbles to the surface, but there isn’t the full-on explosion that appeared to be building.
It is likely that The Jam never gained the same level of fame in the U.S. as they did in their native country because so many of their songs were focused on specific English concerns that were unknown on these shores, and by their use of particularly British language. So, because at the time (and sadly, even now), issues of income and class inequality aren’t at the top of American’s list of concerns, and because of the use of words like “petrol” and “flat,” the song wasn’t a huge hit in the U.S. Appearing on the Jam’s fifth album Sound Affects, “That’s Entertainment” was not initially released as a single in the U.K., but nevertheless, a German import peaked at 21 on the U.K charts, and it was never released as a single in the States. Its reputation, though, has improved over time, often appearing on “best of” lists—it is the only Jam song on Rolling Stone’s 2004 and 2010 lists of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The simplicity of the song has resulted in innumerable YouTube solo guitar covers, and we will steer clear of those, trying instead to highlight covers that bring something new to the song, without losing its essence.
Billy Bragg – That’s Entertainment (The Jam cover)
Billy Bragg, who made his name as a left-wing busker, recorded this very stripped down version of the song in 1988, but it remained unreleased until 2006 when it was included as a bonus track on the reissue of his Workers Playtime album. By that time, Bragg had become famous and had expanded his musical palette significantly, so this was a bit of a throwback. If anything, Bragg’s stark arrangement puts even more focus on the lyrics, but his version seems a touch more openly angry, and less seething than the original.
Dr. Ska —That’s Entertainment (The Jam cover)
Roughly at the same time that the Jam were rising, the 2 Tone ska revival was taking hold, again mostly in England, influenced in part by the Jam’s mod style. Bands that recorded for the 2 Tone label (and others in the movement) were usually made up of both black and white members, with inclusive fan bases and the working class concerns. This ska cover of “That’s Entertainment,” released in 2014 by Dr. Ska, about whom little can be gleaned, other than that he claims to be located in La Rochelle, France, clearly refers back to the 2 Tone style, and his Bandcamp page is decorated with the distinctive black and white checkerboard graphics that typified the label’s art.
Morrissey — That’s Entertainment (The Jam cover)
It’s a bit of a cliché to point out that no one does morose like Morrissey, and his take on “That’s Entertainment” is downbeat and depressing, but also quite beautiful. Whereas Weller sang the song with quiet defiance, Morrissey’s version, released in 1991 as a B-side, is filled with brooding resignation. Weller, for whatever reason, has been quoted as saying that he appreciated the Smiths to some degree, but was not a fan of Morrissey’s solo work. By the way, the background vocals on this recording are from Chas Smash (a/k/a Cathal Smyth), a former member of the 2 Tone band, Madness.
Reef — That’s Entertainment (The Jam cover)
This cover appeared on a Jam tribute album, Fire & Skill: The Songs of the Jam, released in 2000, which included contributions from a number of well-known musicians and bands, as well as some lesser known acts such as English band Reef. They decided to go harder and faster than the original, making it sound more like early Jam. There’s really nothing wrong with that approach, because it does highlight the anger of the lyrics, but it does sacrifice some of the subtlety.
Anorak— That’s Entertainment (The Jam cover)
In 2006, Catalan synth-pop band Anorak recorded an album of covers of mostly punk and new wave songs, including a version of “That’s Entertainment,” as a bit of a joke (which can be seen by the album’s title, Synthetic Pop Covers From The European Agency). You could try to interpret the cold, emotionless vocals as a commentary on the harshness of the English life that Weller wrote about, but it is more likely that the band simply played the song in their accustomed robotic style. Nevertheless, it is actually pretty catchy.
Bonus Weird Cover: Dexied the Emmons/Yoshihiro Hachima — That’s Entertainment (The Jam cover)
The title of this piece promises Five Good Covers, and if we stopped here, we’ve probably satisfied our side of the deal. So, don’t expect this to be a good cover—but it is an interesting one, at best. This version appeared on another Jam tribute album, English Rose – Tribute To The Jam, released in 1997 on a Japanese label. It is credited toハチマヨシヒロ(デキシード・ザ・エモンズ), which further research indicates refers to Japanese band Dexied the Emmons, and even more research indicates that it is by Yoshihro Hachima, the band’s drummer. It is hard to tell if this is at all serious, but it is fun.
For some real entertainment, buy the Jam’s ‘Sound Effects on Amazon.