Whatever happened to working-class rock?

Tom Lappin salutes a band keeping a tradition alive – and no, he's not talking about Glasvegas or the Arctic Monkeys

COMMUNAL experience is an increasingly outdated concept. Try a water-cooler moment with a remark about last night's drama premiere on BBC2 and you'll invariably get blank looks from colleagues who were watching everything from a Top Gear repeat to a time-shifted Strictly Come Dancing.

Popular music also shies away from common denominators. In a flailing industry clinging on against technological revolution, you can't afford to limit your market. Why would a group shackle itself to specifics when it can offer the airiest of promises and watch the massed mobiles swaying along?

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So it's all the more noticeable when a band comes along that respects older musical verities, and delivers, without shame or irony, a sense of solidarity and belonging in their audience. The initial temptation is to mock, but when you hear that old-time sincerity, it's hard not to get fondly nostalgic.

The Gaslight Anthem, from the never-fashionable New Jersey outpost of New Brunswick, are purveyors of defiantly heartfelt paeans to the small-town working stiff living for the weekend, yearning for a girl called Maria, or at least a decent automobile. They don't so much wear their influences, The Clash and Bruce Springsteen, on their sleeves, as use them as definitive templates. Their music is both immediately familiar and strangely refreshing.

An instant encapsulation of their appeal is provided by their anthem Blue Jeans and White T-shirts, the title an epiphany that came to songwriter Brian Fallon from the stage, when he realised that the band members and the audience shared the New Jersey bar-room uniform. "We are the boys from Little Eden, the heart of Saturday night" is the opening line, an instant Springsteen and Tom Waits reference point. It's an affecting tribute to male bonding, brief moments of joy gleaned from otherwise mundane lives, of liking "choruses sung together, our arms in our brothers' arms".

If such corny sentiment seems anachronistic, it's because being so overtly communicative became uncool. Look at one of the planet's most revered outfits and you'll see that Radiohead's dystopian bleepings and bleatings appeal to the solipsistic melancholic, even when delivered to a stadium full of tightly-crammed consumers.

This kind of connection works on a different plane from popularity. The Beatles and The Stones sold millions without that socio-economic specificity. For a closer representation and empathy with working-class popular culture in the 1960s and the sweaty euphoria of Mod all-nighters, The Who are more valuable.

Nor is sensitive insight enough. Bands from The Kinks through The Smiths to more recent artists like Blur, Arctic Monkeys or Glasvegas have been able to write about the working-class with piquant observational skills, but from a standpoint that is more documentary than participatory.

It's no coincidence that The Gaslight Anthem are slavish acolytes at the altar of the Boss. Springsteen's lyrics are their holy scripture, but they have the advantage of sharing his background in the benighted backwaters of New Jersey, and hence having an intimate understanding of what he was getting at.

This is a state where the attitude will be forever coloured by having to stare over the Mob cemetery swamplands at the shimmering towers of Manhattan and made to feel their scruffy inferiority. It's hardly surprising that some of Jersey's most compelling music seems set up in deliberate opposition to the smart-alec, arthouse nihilism of Lower East Side bohemians like The Velvet Underground or The Strokes.

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Springsteen's protagonists led lives of noisy desperation. His themes, of getting out of a dead-end town, swerving the factory job and early marriage, are usually underpinned by fatalism. For every exuberant, escapist anthem, there are a couple of ballads about wrecks on the highway, broken dreams, dried-up rivers. Witnessing a Springsteen concert in middle America is a daunting experience, seeing the veins throb in the temples of pickup-driving fanatics as they scream along to every line from the only singer who speaks to and for them.

The Gaslight Anthem's other heroes are The Clash. All of 31 years ago, The Clash took the nihilistic polemic of punk and channelled it into a convincing, passionate sketch of mid-1970s Britain, that became a vivid social document.

The journalist Jon Savage, reviewing a Clash show in 1977, described the "audience-performer barrier smashed in a rare moment of tenderness and solidarity". The Clash on tour made an eventually futile attempt to dissolve the distinctions between artist and fan. They did it far more effectively on a debut album that sang of dead-end Career Opportunities, joyless sexual fumblings, thuggish police, riots, and the relentless tower-block view of a Ballardian London burning with boredom. While Bowie had been droning on about starmen and spiders from Mars, this was what spoke immediately and recognisably to a section of working-class British youth.

The Clash discovered a global sensibility, and the soundtrack duties for the domestic deprived in the first days of Thatcherism were passed on to The Jam. Their pithy three-minute social commentaries on alienation, class war, disgust and exclusion, in When You're Young, Strange Town and Eton Rifles articulated British suburban discontent and alienation… "Some of the lads said they'd be back next week" was the coda of Eton Rifles, a number-two hit about class struggle. That's mass communication. Thirty years on, the former Eton Rifle (and irony-impervious Jam fan) David Cameron is about to be the next prime minister

Tribes and trends made it difficult for such demotic passion to capture a mass audience so effectively again. Springsteen's grip on the faithful loosened as they grew older, while in Britain, only Oasis could claim to have stumbled into that kind of empathy.

Oasis became such a wilfully ignorant bloated parody of themselves so swiftly that it was easy to forget that their first album, Definitely Maybe, made a smart connection with an audience that had moved on from The Jam's kitchen-sink realism. Oasis's first single may have name-checked the Big Issue, but they were selling a brand of self-celebration that made a visceral connection with a generation about to be seduced by the possibility of instant celebrity. Live Forever turned out to be a prescient anthem for the vainglorious Big Brother generation. At the tail-end of last century the Oasis megashows were a worrying portent of what was happening to the British working classes.

It might be a strange thing to say about The Clash, whose last album was Live at Shea Stadium, or Springsteen, whose tours take in hangar-like auditoria, but the key to this connection is a level of intimacy and interaction from the stage. Fallon seems to understand that. "People don't like to be talked at," he asserts. "I try to tell them something about my life each time, like an invitation to the table, like hey, put your feet up, grab some coffee, lend me your ear for a minute. I'm gonna tell you something and maybe you felt the same way and maybe we can figure out some secrets together."

It amounts to engaging intellect and emotion. Strummer, Weller, Springsteen, even the young Noel Gallagher, weren't afraid of the occasional literary flourish. Fallon's smart and enticing lyrics are as referential (and larcenous) as a Tarantino script. He understands the imperative of "only connect", providing those fleeting moments where "choruses sung together" can unite performer and audience. He's a throwback, his band a reminder of what we've been missing.

The Gaslight Anthem play the Garage, Glasgow, on Wednesday 3 December.

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