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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22 Comments

  1. STEVE PRUDENCE
    Posted September 6, 2009 at 9:31 am | Permalink

    Best history of the JAGS ever to be published.
    Great job , Thanks !
    Steve.

  2. Rick Graham
    Posted September 19, 2009 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

    I actually saw the Jags a few times- Nashville rooms, etc, & I can tell you they were far better than your average band around at that time- I would suggest that one of the problems was that the “Power Pop” tag they got saddled with lost them their audience, as the power pop fad didn’t last very long, & they faded out of popularity along with the Pleasers, Vapours, etc Cheers Rick

  3. Chip Rosenberg
    Posted October 23, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    I saw the Jags in Washington DC at eather the Cellar Door or The Bayou, I can’t remember which venue. They opened for The Cretones, who were lead by Mark Goldenberg, who is now Jackson Browne’s lead guitarist. The Jags were nothing short of amazing, and they totally stole the show that night. I bought the album that night and took it back to college with me and everyone would say the same thing > “who is that amazing band you are plaing?”.

  4. Moyses Gomes, Italy
    Posted November 20, 2009 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Back in 1981, my father used to work for a record company in Brazil and was one of the people that would receive all the new stuff from around the world and decide what should be published locally. I was 19 at the time and he brought home the Evening Standards LP together with other things of that era (including The Nighthawks ‘Shanty Town’ single and Karen Lawrence & The pins, two gems in my collection). I was imediately truned on by the collorful cover, which reminded me a lot of a 60′s group. I had not heard anything about Elvis Costello at that moment, meaning I was under no influence. Later I’d also identify similarities with the Jam, but the quality and endurance of the Jags sound are undoubtedly “unbeatable”.

  5. Jim Wylie
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 5:52 am | Permalink

    A very well written and informed review. Great to see that someone at last understands and appreciates this very talented band.

  6. Posted January 23, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Bought the first album in 1979. Bought the second when it came out. Listened lots…knew all songs. Got into Elvis Costello big time several years later, in the mid 80′s. Listened lots…knew all songs. Didn’t see the resemblance until it was pointed out to me in an article I read in the 90′s. Still waiting for the third album. Mal.

  7. penthouse scarboro
    Posted February 6, 2010 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Where are they now?

  8. Cookie
    Posted February 11, 2010 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Apparently, if there was to be a third album, it was going to be called “Oil level costs”. See if you can work out why?

  9. Mr H
    Posted March 29, 2010 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Saw the Jags at the Golden Lion Fulham,must have been 79/80,they were one of the tightest bands I’ve seen.Just goes to show what the music industry is like!!! has’nt got a clue!!

  10. Graeme
    Posted May 30, 2010 at 1:10 am | Permalink

    Many years ago and after the The Jags had broken up I saw a band in Aberdeen, UK who called themselves the Jags MkII. They played the single “I got your Number” and the vocal sound was so similar, I suspect Nick was the vocalist (but I can’t be sure). I presume there was some connection to the original line-up but I can’t confirm. Anyway, they were superb, one of the best live acts I’ve ever seen. They sold a cassette of their songs at the gig which I bought. The cassete was trashed when my son trashed the car and I would love to track down another copy. Does anyone have any idea where I could track down a copy of this?

  11. Posted May 31, 2010 at 11:24 pm | Permalink

    I found a link to the BBC Recording.

    http://newstalgia.crooksandliars.com/gordonskene/backstage-weekend-jags-live-paris-thea

    Anyone know where to get a copy of the show in Houston?

    Best
    Tommy

  12. Posted December 6, 2010 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    I recall The Jags with Nick and Richard Mazda (gtr) and Tony Lloyd (bass) Neil or Dave Thompson (drums) playing in Bournemouth prior to Wales. Gigs at The Stateside Center with Steel Pulse and Bournemouth Town Hall. Very early days I grant you but “Dumb Blonde” was on the set list. Was at school with Neil and no, leaving the Jags was not the reason for his death.

  13. Posted November 4, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    As an American teen in the early ‘eighties, I often felt culturally stranded from the rest of the world. Pop music seemed to be nothing but disco, arena rock ,and schlocky ballads. US radio stations tended to ignore anything vaguely “new wave” or ‘punk.” It was only through magazines like “Trouser Press” did I learn of fantastic bands like The Jags. I acquired both albums in bargain bins, circa 1983, and absolutely love them. I really do not hear the Costello comparisons. If anything, The Jags were highly influenced by the more raw side of the early Beatles, and that is one fine point of inspiration.

  14. john
    Posted March 30, 2012 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    RIP Neil

  15. Posted June 22, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    The Jags entered charts over here in Holland with their ‘Back of my hand’ in 1979 and I was sold. Instantly. Bought the first album and that’s still is one of my alltime favorites. Superb ‘drive’, great songs, great hooks: excellent songwriting, I must admit that ‘No Tie Like A Present’ was a bit of a disappointment at the time but, like wine, things get better throughout the years.
    I ran into the 45 ‘The sound of G-O-O-D-D-B-Y-E’ on Ebay recently. Bought that solely for the flipside: ‘The Hurt’. I never heard the song and probably will not on short term: either:no recordplayer here any more. But I’m glad I have it. Makes my Jags-collection almost complete. I’ll upload it on youtube in the future. Still looking for ‘Love in a telegram’. Would be great if someone would upload ihat one on the tube.In that case it will be ‘Everything of the Jags’ on that channel. Except for the Houston-concert bootleg. Anyone out there?
    BTW.: great history of the band here. Great to read about the band that really blew me away when I started to dent in to my 20′s. A reunion would be….exciting, to say at least???

  16. Posted December 24, 2012 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Yesterday I got my hands on a cassettetape my brother-in-law stored for decades. It contains an almost complete concert by The Jags, recorded for KRO Radio in The Netherlands, late 1979/early 1980. Here is the setlist: Desert islands discs (incomplete) / The last picture show / Evening standards / Love and a song / Dumb blonde / Little boy lost / Party games / Tune into heaven / Single vision / Back of my hand / She’s so considerate / Double vision (incomplete).
    The tape still sounds great. I’ll try to upload to youtube as soon as possible.

  17. Alex Baird
    Posted January 11, 2013 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    Well, it’s taken me three and a half years to post a comment here but I have no excuse except that I have a memory like a hen and keep forgetting. Anyway, A fine piece of writing which pretty much sums up the short life of The Jags. Wonderfully put together by Timothy Gassen. I am particularly delighted that someone further up this page posted a link to a live recording we did at the Paris Theatre for the BBC. Brings back so many happy memories. We had our little moment in time …..and what an excellent moment it was too. Thanks Timothy.

  18. ben godsoe
    Posted January 12, 2013 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    Alex Baird….I thought you may be interested to know that my dad managed the band, or at least he ran Conspiracy Records at the time and informs me he had some connection. You may remember him as Gordon Hale who also either managed/signed/produced The Lightening Raiders? Excuse me if I have the details wrong as to any aspect of that. We were moving his things the other day and dug out loads of Jags memorabilia like badges etc and loads of vinyl. He’s spoke of it before but I’d completely forgotten about his days in that business. If you want my email etc let me know.

  19. john2john
    Posted May 12, 2013 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    I was the Jags who inspired me to like Elvis Costello. Jags were much better in my opinion, with better songs too.

  20. Andy B
    Posted May 24, 2013 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    I bough both LPs back in the day, I must admit I didn’t think either was a classic, I used just just pick out the odd 3 or 4 tracks I liked and keep playing those. I did think “Single Vision” B-side was the next best thing to BOMH. I agree with the Elvis C comparison, I recall Watkinson saying he wasn’t aware of it, but find that hard to believe. His vocals sound a little fake, as if trying to be ultra cool and sound like Elvis C rather than just use his own natural voice, bit like when Robbie Williams did “old til I die” and suddenly thought he was Liam Gallagher. Does anyone know what the lyric is in BOMH “I’m not a **** machine”? It actually sounds like **** but guess that would have got it banned if it was – although I don’t hear anything that resembles “fruit machine”.

  21. darrell
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely cracking write up here… and full of stuff I didn’t know. Nick’s brother, Matt, was my mum’s boyfriend at the time so I knew plenty about the Jags… first hand. Had the white labels, badges etc. Even a knitted jumper!! (also sported by Duran Duran’s John Taylor in a Leeds Roundhay Park programme)

    I also spent about 6months lodging with Nick in Wandsworth, he mainly busked – and such a good one as well.

    “I never ever was a beach boy” – written about Nick’s life at Private school – and bits of his brother’s experience of Scarborough College was one of the reasons my mum decided to put me in state school instead. Alex Baird was said to be one of the best drummers since Keith Moon. John Alder went on to do session work with Trevor Horn/Steve Levine. (I was sat in the studio whilst John did vocals and lead guitar for ‘Believing it All’ by Steve Levine.

    A very understated band – I was 11/12 during their peak – but still rate them highly.

  22. darrell
    Posted August 7, 2013 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    oh, and one more snippet of info. One album was originally entitled:

    Oil Level Costs.

    It’s an anagram… for someone that sounded similar?

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