The Jam - Setting Sons

Summer 1979. The Jam had just established themselves as on of Britain's most popular bands, after the success of their third album, All Mod Cons, and a string of top-twenty hits. Although they were lumped in with the rest of their generation (i.e. punks like The Clash and The Sex Pistols), and Paul Weller could get as angry as the next man about, ooh, anything, really, the Jam were still different to other bands of their time. Instead of shooting up, like Lou, or cutting up, like Iggy, Weller prefered to thrash around with his Rickenbacker, and write acidic social commentary, like a cross between Ray Davies and Pete Townshend.

Anyway, to get back on topic... One of the "aims" of punk was as a reaction to the turgid, self-indulgent musical masturbation of prog rock. Ponderous songs and self-indulgent, navel-gazing tunes with fifteen-minute instrumental breaks were among the targets, but public enemy number one was the concept album. Granted, the same punks also admired Lou Reed, and David Bowie, both of whom had released concept albums (e.g. Reed's Berlin, or pretty much any of Bowie's albums from Ziggy Stardust onwards), but who needs consistancy when you've got a bag of speed and three chords to play with?

My apologies for the previous paragraph. The whole point of this introduction is to explain how, at the age of 21, Paul Weller was a confident and successful young songwriter, who was willing and able to follow in the footsteps of his idols (The Who, The Small Faces, The Kinks, to name but three), and attempt to write a concept album. His concept? The album was basically going to follow the lives of three young school-friends, in the not-too-distant future. As they grow up, their politics change; one becomes a radical leftist, another a right-winger, and the third remains fairly middle of the road. And then, following some sort of great war, the three meet up again, in a sort of common or garden dystopian world of the future. As you do.

Unfortunately, as happens so often, Paul ran out of steam; writer's block reared its ugly head again, and they were left with only five concept songs - which would be fine for the likes of Pink Floyd, but The Jam's songs rarely managed to clear three and a half minutes, and people just wouldn't stand for such a short album. So they threw in another five tracks, and, lo and behold, thus was born Setting Sons.

Track Listing:

  1. Girl On The Phone (2.54)
  2. Thick As Thieves (3.39)
  3. Private Hell (3.50)
  4. Little Boy Soldiers (3.34)
  5. Wasteland (2.50)
  6. Burning Sky (3.32)
  7. Smithers-Jones (2.59) (Bruce Foxton)
  8. Saturday's Kids (2.52)
  9. The Eton Rifles (3.58)
  10. Heat Waves (2.23) (Brian Holland/Lamont Dozier/Eddie Holland)
Personnel: All selections written by Paul Weller, unless otherwise specified.

Our five "concept" songs here are Thick As Thieves, Little Boy Soldiers, Wasteland, Burning Sky, and The Eton Rifles (which is probably the best track on the album, and got to number three in the British charts when released as a single); but they've been put out of order on the album. Thick As Thieves is obviously the first song in this cycle; it sets the scene, being about a group of friends at school and through adolescence, promising that they'd always be as thick as thieves. But even by the end of the song, they're drifting apart ("now we're no longer as thick as thieves"), as they start going to different schools... and so the story continues with The Eton Rifles, which doesn't integrate into the whole concept that well. The Eton Rifles is an archetypal Jam song, with a strong bassline, chiming guitars, and great chorus ("Hello, hooray!"), and its subject matter is one of Weller's favourites; class, and in this case, class warfare. Eton is a pretty posh school in England, and the song seems to be half taking the piss out of privileged students, who pretend to be so radical, or bohemian, or socialist, and then "run on home for (their) tea", back to the cosy little world their parents inhabit, if anything goes wrong; at the same time, Weller, the poor working class kid, is "left there standing like a guilty schoolboy".

The next step in Paul's conceptual tale is probably Burning Sky, where the friends meet up again; it seems to be narrated by the most conservative, right-wing of the boys; "I don't want you to get me wrong/Ideas are fine when you're young", "Work comes first, I'm sure you'll understand"'s the talk of a young man whose early morals and values are being eroded by power and money. The next song, Little Boy Soldiers, tells of the war that erupts somehow. Of the lot, Little Boy Soldiers is the most "concept song" sounding of them all; like the "mini operas" the Who used to do back in the 60's, or even like Bohemian Rhapsody or Paranoid Android, Little Boy Soldiers is made of several parts. It seems to be narrated by the most neutral of the three friends; "These days are fine, but I can't be bothered/To argue with them, well, what's the point?". It paints a slightly childish, but still cynical, view of war: "Take your shots and drop down dead/Then they send you home in a pine overcoat/With a letter to your mum/Saying 'Please find enclosed one son, one medal and a note to say we won'".

The last song of the five is Wasteland, which seems to take place in the grey aftermath of the war, when the friends meet up again, possibly at a field where they played as children, that is now a crater-pocked battlefield. It's not really clear whether this is a full-on dystopian future, or if the country is just in a post-war depression of sorts, but it's a pretty depressing song, lyrically: "To be caught smiling is to acknowledge life/A brave but useless show of compassion/And that is forbidden in this drab and colourless world", although musically it's pretty uplifting, with a bright and airy tune and melodic recorders.

The rest of the album, despite the lack of concept, is pretty good, too. Girl On The Phone, the opener, is a spiky little tune, about a (possibly) real-life stalker, who, according to Paul, knows his leg measurements and the size of his cock. Perhaps Paul bred chickens to help his writer's block? Track three, Private Hell, is one of my favourite Jam songs. The guitar is pretty abrasive; when it starts, it seems to be in a major key melody, but it soon becomes a minor riff, which goes perfectly with Weller's tale of a woman, trapped in a decaying marriage, numbing her pain with valium; like a bleaker version of the Rolling Stones' Mother's Little Helper. Saturday's Kids is a fairly standard enough Jam song, about kids from council estates; again, it's kinda bleak, although it has a pretty jaunty tune. Smithers Jones is quite a treat; the original was released as the b-side of When You're Young, but Bruce Foxton's very Kinks-y tale of a dull office worker's firing is polished up nicely here, with a lovely string ensemble backing. I shall decline to comment on the final track, Heat Wave, except to say that it is a pretty pointless cover of a Martha And The Vandellas song, and it is mercifully short.

To sum up, Setting Sons is one of The Jam's best albums; it's the sound of three guys doing what they do best. Although its predecessor, All Mod Cons, arguably had better songs, Setting Sons is a better produced album; Weller had more time and confidence recording Setting Sons, and it shows.

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