The Jam - Setting Sons, 1979, Polydor
Girl on the Phone
Thick as Thieves
Little Boy Soldiers
The Eton Rifles
Formed in 1972 in Surrey, just outside of London The Jam reached number 4 in the UK album chart with their fourth album Setting Sons. Although their lyrics proved they were certainly just as angry and disaffected as their punk contemporaries, The Jam differentiated themselves from the punk scene they had started in by dressing in sharp suits and incorporating more traditional rock, beat music and R&B influences into their sound. Both The Who and The Kinks were important influences on the look and lyrical style of the band and due to both their sound and their image The Jam became known as the leaders of the Mod revival. They were successful too, with every one of their singles making the UK Top 40 and four of them reaching number 1.
Setting Sons was originally conceived as a concept album about three men who are friends from childhood, they fight in a war and two of them are reunited as adults and find they no longer have anything in common. The album cover which is a photo of a sculpture that is part of the collection of the Imperial War Museum in London reflects this. Called “The St John’s Ambulance Bearers” and made by Benjamin Clemens in 1919 it shows a wounded soldier being carried by two ambulance men. Although some of the songs on the album follow the concept, it got a bit lost and was not fully realised as some of the songs have nothing to do with it. This may be because the album was recorded pretty quickly
Girl on the Phone starts with urgency and strong drums and sets the tone for the whole album, indeed the ringing tone that starts the track literally sets the tone for the song as it is maintained with the beat throughout. It’s also a pretty funny song about someone stalking Paul Weller, but it’s not anything to do with the anti-war concept. There’s another strong drum start on the brilliant Thick As Thieves and Weller’s voice is actually beautiful here, despite the sort of half speaking-half singing element, he makes you care about the story in the first of the concept songs about the three friends as children. Private Hell is fast and echoy on the vocal, it’s a sad song about a life thrown away but it still makes you move. I feel like this could have been a Blondie track, it’s easy to imagine a Debbie Harry vocal on it. Little Boy Soldiers, the second of the concept songs covers the death in war of one of the friends. It’s got some lovely, haunting elements and the ever changing musical styles within it show just how good the band really are as musicians. It also contains a brilliant denouncement of empire in the line; “We ruled the world - we killed and robbed the fucking lot - but we don’t feel bad”. It’s really a wonderfully made song. Wasteland throws in a bit of recorder to start with which, while interesting, can never make up for the horror inflicted on the millions of British 7 year olds who were forced to play this instrument at school. PTSD-inducing intro aside, it’s a soaring and beautiful song. Burning Sky continues the concept from the viewpoint of one of the surviving friends who has given up all his idealistic dreams for corporate profit. Smithers-Jones is all delicate orchestral strings, and it’s unexpectedly nice, despite the melancholy subject matter about a man working all his life and then losing his job. Saturday’s Kids has really great guitars, it’s a lament to the youth who live for the weekend and never manage to get out of their small towns. The only single from the album, number 3 hit The Eton Rifles is obviously a classic Jam track, the last of the concept songs, it covers the experience of the more politically left leaning of the two surviving friends who gets involved in a street fight with a group of public school boys. It’s based on a true story of a 1978 march where working class people demanding access to jobs attacked pupils from Eton, one of the UK’s most famous public schools who were mocking them. The lyrics have a number of double meanings from the very first line; “Sup up your beer and collect your fags”, for the marchers, a call to finish drinking, pick up their cigarettes and go on the march, for the Etonions a call to keep drinking and carry on - a “fag” in public school parlance was a younger boy who essentially had to act as a servant to an older one. This was a long-standing tradition in many British public schools. “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” can be taken literally in terms of the fight but also as a comment on the unfairness of British society at the time, where most industries were run by old white men who had been to similar schools and were perceived to have achieved their status through nepotism rather than ability. This is mirrored in the later tongue in cheek line; “We were no match for their untamed wit” which suggests that their life advantages rather than their abilities were the reason the Etonions came off better in the fight. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I love this song because alongside all these clever lyrics it’s a brilliant, menacing, jump around tune with an epic chorus. It’s like everything great about The Jam distilled into one song and of course it’s the highlight of a great album. Heat Wave closes the album with a fun dance beat. It’s a cheery, fun, 1950’s style song with great use of piano, but by Paul Weller’s own admission, it’s a bit of a shame to close the album with what is undoubtedly its weakest track.
Overall it’s an incredibly strong album. It’s never held up as one of the band’s best and I can’t understand why because 9 out of the 10 songs are great. Admittedly it is a bit bizarre to start a concept album and then just fill it with non-concept songs but there is definitely an overarching theme of ordinary people being manipulated by higher powers - be they military or corporate across all the songs.
The Jam continue to influence a number of other bands, Oasis being the most obvious example. They had a significant cultural importance as the 1970s gave way to the 1980s, both in terms of music and fashion and after their break-up in 1982, their music can be seen as a commentary on a short but tumultuous period of British working class life that continues to resonate today. 1979 was an incredible year for British music, and Setting Sons seems to have been a bit forgotten amongst so many other brilliant releases, this is a disservice to a quality album which is well worth repeated listening.