Released on 10 March 1980, Going Underground was a call to arms to those sick of then Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s mission to secure more nuclear weapons at the expense of little things like the National Health Service. ‘You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns,’ warned Paul Weller of a scenario that, thanks to HHS in crisis and later military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, continued to be relevant.
“It was borne out of the political state we were in at the time,” Weller told Total Guitar today of the atmosphere that triggered the writing of Going Underground. “Whether it was youthful paranoia or whatever, I thought we were on the brink of devastation really. We were building up our nuclear missiles, especially in this country.”
According to Weller, writing and arranging Going Underground didn’t happen overnight. He and the other two members of The Jam, bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler, put the hours in. The reward was their first No 1 single. “Yeah, I can remember it taking a while to get together,” says Weller. “It wasn’t one of those tunes where I came in the studio and had it all written. We jammed on it quite a bit.”
At one point during those jam sessions someone came up with the now classic key change. “I think that was me!” laughed Weller. “I’m bound to say that, aren’t I? There are good chords in there, without blowing my own trumpet. The chord sequence just lent itself to that key change. It’s quite a cyclical chord pattern on that chorus.”
The Jam’s producer at the time of recording Going Underground was Vic Coppersmith-Heaven. ‘Vic Smith’, as Weller calls him, had form. Among his many triumphs, he’d engineered and co-produced the Rolling Stones’ Honky Tonk Women 45 and co-engineered the band’s classic 1969 album, Let It Bleed. He’d also produced The Jam’s 1979 album, Setting Sons, and would repeat the feat on the follow-up, Sound Affects, released in 1980.
The recording session for Going Underground was booked at The Jam’s usual haunt, the now defunct Townhouse Studios at 150 Goldhawk Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London.
“I don’t remember why we recorded there,” Weller mused. “Although Vic was keen because it was all hi-tech at that time, cutting edge and all that stuff. We didn’t know much about studios so we just went along with it.”
Typically, Weller relied on his Rickenbacker 330 guitar and Vox AC30 amp for the recording. The identity of the Rickenbacker he used on the recording (he had a few) is finally revealed: “It was black, if that’s any use,” Weller laughed after some head scratching. “It would have been the one I used in the Going Underground video, definitely. It was just a bog standard 330.
All the rhythm parts were done with that. I did a lot of the harmony lead lines on a Les Paul Junior. It wasn’t a proper Gibson; it was a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster that my old guitar roadie made.”
It has long been suspected that Paul used a stompbox to get his overdrive sound in the studio. Truth is, he just cranked up his AC30. “I was always really against pedals,” he explained. “I never really used pedals until much later. I was into pure sounds and didn’t like anything fucking with the signal. I was very definite about that. So, it would all have been natural overdrive from the amp.”
To get the bright, metallic guitar sound on The Jam’s previous single, The Eton Rifles, Vic Smith had surrounded Paul’s Vox amp with 30-odd corrugated iron sheets. That razor sharp tone is proof that Vic’s inspiration was worth all the heavy lifting. He may have also used this method during the recording of Going Underground. “There’s a fair chance, yeah,” reckons Paul. “They were all pretty much the same sessions.”
Fast forward to 2010 and the promo video for another of Paul’s albums, Wake Up The Nation. What really gets the fan forums buzzing is the guitar hanging from his shoulders: it’s his old Going Underground Ricky 330.
“I gave it to [Weller's longtime solo band guitarist] Steve Cradock for his 30th birthday,” says Paul. “Some years ago, I’d like to add. It wasn’t a sentimental thing for me, using it in the video. I think it gave Steve a little kick.”
“I said, ‘It would be good if you played your old Rickenbacker’,” Cradock told Total Guitar. “It really suits him.”
The guitar has seen a fair old bit of life according to the Ocean Colour Scene guitarist and Weller sideman. “It’s fucked,” he says. “Well, it still works and it sounds great but it’s war weary. I’ve had to stop taking it on the road. I’m too nervous.”
Cradock still uses the 330 in the studio. Most recently he played it on I Man from his 2011 solo record, Peace City West.
The fact that the image of Weller with his black Ricky still causes so much excitement more than 40 years after he recorded the Going Underground video is testament to just how important this Jam classic is. “It’s part of people’s growing up, their rites of passage, I suppose” says Weller. “I think the song is still musically and lyrically relevant today. The line, ‘You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns’ is still relevant, sadly.”