The Jam was the best British band of the late 70s and early 80s. Let’s be done with that debate. No, they weren’t as punky and rebellious as The Sex Pistols or as “look-how-badass-I-am” as The Clash. But they were the best.
Sure, some think that The Jam’s popularity undercuts their cred. But sometimes it happens like that: sometimes the best band of a given time and place is also the most popular one. Not very often, but sometimes. Between 1977 and 1982, thanks to The Jam and the British record-buying public, it did.
(Originally posted on Amazon.com on March 13, 2005)
The Jam’s November 1979 release Setting Sons is generally considered to be one of their 3 best albums. Inexplicably, however, it is also considered to be the weakest of those three. The only reason for this seems to be that it is neither All Mod Cons (its predecessor) nor Sound Affects (its successor), their other two great albums. Sadly, this underrating of Setting Sons obscures the fact that it contains some of the band’s best material and one of their finest singles. (Why only one? Because the 3 other brilliant songs from this era were released as singles but not featured on albums.)
Much of the underrating of Setting Sons can be attributed to the overrating — in hindsight — of All Mod Cons. The greatness of that album is probably confused to some extent with its significance.
AMC was their great leap forward, and proof that their sophomore slump would not cause them to flunk out. So the importance of this album should not be underestimated, but neither should its greatness — bountiful though it is — be overrated.
Setting Sons was a highly anticipated album. Not only was it the follow-up to The Jam’s breakthrough, it was also preceded in the eight months prior to its release by two top 20 singles — “Strange Town” and “When You’re Young.” While these songs would not appear on the new album, they did confirm The Jam’s status as one of the more important bands in the UK at the time. When the album was finally released in November 1979, it reached #4 in the UK (and #137 in the US) and was accompanied by the band’s highest charting song to date, the explosive #3 single “The Eton Rifles.”
It had been reported prior to release that the album would deal with the concept of how 3 childhood friends had changed as they became adults after a modern-day English civil war (described in the song “Wasteland”). In essence, it was to be a Weller-generation version of The Kinks album Arthur, or: The Decline and Fall of the British Empire. (The two albums do make very good companion pieces.) About half of the 10 songs on the record addressed this theme directly. But when listened to as a whole, only the first and last tracks — the latter being a cover of “Heat Wave” — seem to have nothing to do with the intended concept.
Some have criticized Setting Sons for being too “mature”, but since Paul Weller was only 21 when the album was released, perhaps “precocious” is a better word.
The album kicks off with the gleefully playful — yet somewhat cynical — “Girl On the Phone.” Then come the songs that form the core of the album’s theme. The songs take on such issues as dissolving friendships, aging, war, and selling out. The anti-war track “Little Boy Soldiers” is particularly good, pre-dating the Falklands War by a few years and also containing the eerily prescient line “God’s on our side and so is Washington.” (I don’t know if Margaret Thatcher ever said that, but Tony Blair probably has.)
The remaining songs contribute to lesser degrees to the album’s theme. Foxton’s finest composition, “Smithers-Jones,” is basically The Jam’s version of The Kinks’ song “Shangrai-La,” with its tale of a middle-aged man who has worked his whole life only to see it amount to nothing. (It also has an instrumental nod to The Kinks’ “Victoria” at the end.) “Saturday’s Kids” vividly depicts the misadventures of contemporary British youth. Finally, “The Eton Rifles” is plucked straight from the papers, with Weller railing against snotty students’ disrespect for workers.
Musically, The Jam is a formidable trio of players, and the fact that they are not virtuosos is part of their strength. Paul Weller is an extraordinarily capable guitar player. I know that does not sound like particularly high praise, but it is. He knows exactly how to craft his guitar work so as to give each song the distinctive flavor that made The Jam so unique. Be it chords, riffs, or solos, the patented Jam sound springs effortlessly from Weller’s fingers, and never for a moment does he sound like a show-off. Bruce Foxton’s bass playing is good enough to qualify him as what Jake Burns–his current band’s lead singer*–calls him: “one of the all-time greats.” His trademark ominously punky bass lines give the perfect touch to “Private Hell” and “The Eton Rifles,” and his punchy, more straightforward playing fills the space beautifully on “Girl On the Phone” and “Saturday’s Kids.” And while rock critics will forever struggle to find a non-perfunctory way to compliment drummers, the fact is that a band as energetic yet focused as The Jam needs the perfect timekeeper to speed them up and slow them down. Rick Buckler fits this role to a T. [*Foxton was a member of Stiff Little Fingers when I originally wrote this.]
Paul Weller sings from several points of view on Setting Sons. At times, he is the 21-year old who he was in 1979 (“Girl,” “Rifles,” “Soldiers”). At others, he is an adult singing in the first person (“Thick As Thieves,” “Burning Sky,” “Wasteland”). Finally, he is sometimes someone slightly older than himself commenting on the grown-ups around him (“Private Hell,” Foxton on “Smithers-Jones”). The loss of ideals as one grows older is of particular concern to Weller: “we watched our ideals hopelessly unwind,” “ideals are fine when you are young,” “the smouldering embers of yesterday.” It is the loss of such ideals that leads to unhappiness later in life: “we’re no longer as thick as thieves,” “We’ll watch the rain fall/Tumble and fall/Just like our lives”.
This unhappiness takes the forms of broken friendships, unhappy marriages, alienation from family, and unsatisfying work. While ideals may seem helpless in the grip of hard reality, it is only by sticking to them and making them a reality that one can avoid being stuck in a “Private Hell.”
In the songs described above, Weller is singing from perspective of another person. He does so beautifully, but hearing him sing from his own perspective is always a unique treat. He is at his cynical and punky best on “Girl On the Phone,” “The Eton Rifles,” and “Saturday’s Kids.” “Girl” has Weller commenting on how his fame has made him so recognizable that even a girl who he cannot identify knows his “leg measurements and the size of his cock.” In “The Eton Rifles,” Weller caustically spews his disdain for privileged students, ridiculing on their love of rugby, their ties and crests, their brand new shoes, and their “untamed wit.” He knows damn well that the ivory towers will not protect them forever.
“Saturday’s Kids,” meanwhile, finds Weller singing in a whimsical (and less cynical) tone about a group of youngsters he may be too old to be part of now, but to which he will always belong in his heart. He gets all the details right: the boys with their beer and football (soccer) games, the girls with their cheap perfume and discos, and their parents with their Capston non-filters. (And let’s not forget the “v-neck shirts and baggy trousers,” which come off in the backs of cars with predictable results.)
The influence of Ray Davies clearly trumps that of Pete Townshend on this record.
The 2001 CD re-issue of Setting Sons features nine very valuable bonus tracks. Individual singles were released as many as 8 months prior to and 4 months after the release of the album. All three of them — “Strange Town,” “When You’re Young,” and “Going Underground,” their first #1 single–are all included among the bonus tracks. Also included are the wonderful “The Dreams of Children” — the double A-side of “Going Underground” — and two indispensable B-sides: a version of The Who’s “So Sad About Us” and the brilliant “See Saw” (the B-side of “The Eton Rifles”). The latter is particularly valuable not only because it is probably The Jam’s best non-political, Who-inspired pop song, but because the only other place it is available on CD is the 5-disc box set. The re-issue is topped off by “Start!”, the #1 single from the forthcoming Sound Affects LP.
All things considered, this version of Setting Sons is an ideal first purchase for a Jam newcomer. It captures one of the greatest post-Beatles bands ever at their youthfully energetic but tightly focused best.
The newcomer could also opt for Snap! or Greatest Hits for a career overview, but for a snapshot of a terrific band at their peak, the 2001 re-issue of Setting Sons cannot be beat.