133. SETTING SONS – THE JAM (1979)

Greatest Records

SETTING SONS – THE JAM (1979)
We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the prescience of Radiohead’s OK Computer. It captured a very precise pre-millennial moment, released right at the, as yet unsullied by military action, start of the Blair era, immediately before Diana’s death and the referendums that brought devolution to Scotland and Wales. But it also cast an unwavering retina on the burgeoning expansion of the internet; if Harold Wilson proclaimed a technological revolution of “white heat” before he reached Downing Street, the one at the time of his successor’s
arrival would soon be something akin to the surface of the sun.

As musicians often admit, sometimes ruefully, once a record is out, it ceases to be their property and how it is perceived and deployed passes far beyond their control, and so it was that OK Computer became not just a soundtrack but an accessory to, and commodity of, the lifestyle lampooned in the speak-your-salary Fitter Happier. But – to the point – while the technology-induced paranoia, dependency and delusion depicted by the album has made more  sense in each of the 22 (how?!) years since it emerged, its prescience doesn’t begin to come close to Setting Sons, a record whose time has, after 40 years, come again in the 2010s.
Regrettably.

Agonisingly, frustratingly, tragically regrettably.

Paul Weller’s idea of an album based around the theme of friends ending up on opposite sides of a civil war seemed fanciful in 1979 – but not that much, particularly as it’s also a starting point for broader themes of growing apart, shifting priorities, transformed ideals. The incipient Thatcher era was already unleashing its defining themes of industrial attrition, atomised communities and fiscal despair, while extremism as insidious as dry rot and ten times as pernicious was making its beery, bilious countenance known on marches, on football terrace, at gigs; the Jam seem to have escaped the worst but many of their contemporaries and successors – from the Specials to Madness to Sham 69 – saw the pantomime of bigotry performed below them in their audience, even though, despite appearances in some cases, it wasn’t something any of them actively courted.

Such was the clenched, touchpaper-ready environment Setting Sons entered in November 1979. Around half of the songs were migrants from Weller’s storyboard (not for the first time, but possibly the last, there was a parallel with the Who; Who’s Next was partly made up of excerpts from Pete Townshend’s internet-prophesying song cycle Lifehouse). Some of the rest didn’t feed into the story but are still yeast-smeared slices of life that act as a sub-plot and add further frames to the album’s depiction, not so much of the state of the nation as a nation in a state.

Thick As Thieves reflects on friends – maybe two, maybe more – who might not be literally light-fingered but, in the true meaning of the simile, are closely bonded – and pilfering from the unlikeliest of targets, from “the drink that made us sick,” “autumn leaves and summer showers” “the burning sun in the open sky” but at every turn, with every new theft on an even grander scale, “it wasn’t enough/and now we’ve gone and spoiled everything.” The approach is typically muscular and visceral Jam – thanks in no small part to the adroit, thoroughgoing and to this day undervalued rhythm section of Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler – but this only partially disguises the rueful lyric and an emotive melody, which breaks cover when Weller stays his guitar hand and delivers one of his most poignant lines: “We stole the silent wind that says you are free.” Then the commotion resumes and the parting is complete: “We’re no longer as thick as thieves, no/We’re not as thick as we used to be.” Conclusion is reached with a three-chord figure repeated twice; a lesser band would have bludgeoned us with it another four times to make sure we got the point but the Jam had an economy and lightness of touch that their legions of imitators would still be attempting to figure out today.

The original story emerges more explicitly on Little Boy Soldiers, a compressed epic in approximately four movements which owes a good deal less to Bohemian Rhapsody than to Buffalo Springfield’s Broken Arrow. The comparison would probably have found little favour with Weller – and most Jam fans –  at the time (Neil Young? That fa’in’ hippy?! Don’t think so, mate) but the way his narrator berates the politicians who have summoned him to do their bidding (“Why the attention now you want my assistance?/What have you done for me?/You’ve gone and got yourself in trouble/And now you want me to help you out”) could have come from any number of ‘Nam-damning diatribes of a decade earlier.
But a (very British?) resignation prevails and battle commences – it could be any battle, any war, the vicious quagmire that the ‘big picnic’ of the first world war proved to be, the imperial death rattle of the Boer War (as depicted on the label on the vinyl album’s side two), even the Crimea or Waterloo. There, we hear cannon fire, Buckler’s military tattoo and Weller strumming hastily as if he really were in a trench and it really could be the last thing he does, as he presents the officer class’ side of the story: “Think of honour, queen and country/You’re a blessed son of the British Empire/God’s on our side and so is Washington.” Cut to, for the first and only time on the album, an acoustic guitar, and Weller whispering to a future generation “a tale of how goodness prevailed” before he’s cut short by Foxton’s bass volley and a heads-down charge to the cruel, if inevitable conclusion, set to another throat-blocking melody: “They’ll send you home in a pine overcoat/With a letter to your mum/ Saying: Find enclosed one son, one medal and a note to say he won.” There were innumerable letters; this is just one of them.

Woodwind has always had a needlessly fraught relationship with rock music. The oboe gets a pass, through the collective endeavours of Andy Mackay, Amanda Brown and Kate St John but consider the ocarina in Wild Thing, the recorder in Satellite of Love and the flute in Moonage Daydream, all of which don’t so much intrude as squat in the songs, gambolling tweely and frivolously as if a maypole had been installed. The strife continues on Setting Sons’ Wasteland, which used to close side one of Setting Sons, and it undermines almost fatally a desperate sketch of friends meeting at a tip which seems barely distinguishable from its surroundings. Weller recounts a polluted Kim’s Game, a grotesque Generation Game conveyor belt of detritus jettisoned from innocent lives: “The dirty linen, the holy Coca-Cola tins, the punctured footballs/The ragged dolls, the rusting bicycles.” Mostly items of play but that innocence has been banished: “We’ll smile but only for seconds/For 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.” It barely matters that these elegant, almost formal lines sit alongside the trite clunkers of: “Watch the rain fall/tumble and fall/like our lives/just like our lives.” The title inevitably invokes TS Eliot and, while the song’s spiritual reach is nowhere near the poem’s, it still achieves a touching resolution through a gently but assertively seesawing melody and the notion of holding hands which escalates swiftly but subtly and emotively from “maybe” to “probably” to “we’ll have to” – the type of almost imperceptible shift which doesn’t become apparent until after several listens.
Burning Sky is bookended by a couple of marginally corny bursts of cod-Eastern exoticism, perhaps alluding to the runaway success of  the Japanese economy, but in between it looks to the shorter-term future. It recounts, in the form of a letter, the misplaced pragmatism and condescension towards an estranged friend of what would soon be known as a yuppie. The blue serge glints and the Moet dribbles with each line as he offers his apologies for his social absence: “In any case, it wouldn’t be the same/’Cos we’ve all grown up and we’ve got our own lives/And the values we had once upon a time/Seem stupid now, ‘cos the rent must be paid/And some bonds severed and others made.” But that mention of rent, and the lament that, “the taxman’s shouting ‘cos he wants his dough/And the wheels of finance won’t begin to slow” suggest a doubt, a fragility, a sense that whatever the width of the lapel or the value in today’s money, this In The City slicker dwells in a castle built on sand that would subside time and time again – on Black Monday, on Black Wednesday, in the puncturing of the dotcom bubble and the crunching of the credit. A couple of years earlier, Burning Sky had, give or take a rock ‘n’ roll apostrophe, been the title of a Bad Company album; here it’s evidently a metaphor for a capitalist system that gives light and heat but takes far more and ultimately only scorches. Weller’s suit, for all his bravado, is plainly being ground down by it, one minute offering worship but the next lambasting it as “the greedy bastard who won’t give up.” The bluster of the verses is matched for lucidity by the chorus, which runs: “doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo/doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-doo-oo-oo.” Musically, it’s as dextrous and granite-hewn on an album where these qualities abound but, once again, lets a chink of pathos through with the cadences on the closing line: “Then we’ll all be happy and we’ll all be wise/And together we will live beneath the burning sky.” A promise of happiness, wisdom, harmony  -things we’d all covet – but on the condition that we throw in our lot with the rat race.
Eton Rifles, then. By far their biggest hit to date, it made number three, after three consecutive singles (a mighty run of Down In The Tube Station At Midnight, Strange Town and When You’re Young) stalled in the mid-teens but the combined forces of Dr Hook and Queen barred its way to pole position. As the now told to death anecdote has it, Weller wrote this story of literal class warfare after hearing of Etonians braying at a Right To Work march as it passed their school; David Cameron, a pupil there at the time, would choose it among his Desert Island Discs while he was still leader of the opposition and before he took a short-term measure for the sake of his party which would have permanent consequences for his country. Weller, naturally, was incredulous and incadescent: “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” “I’d prefer the plague to the Eton Rifles.” Contrary to some evidence, a good deal of intelligence is required to make it to Downing Street yet somehow these sentiments sailed over Cameron’s straw-boatered bonce as he mourned that the left’s privilege of having all the best tunes. This particular one seethes with discontent and injustice, Foxton discharging single-note cannons throughout a coda which has a good crack at simulating the perilous disorder of battle, while the organ of Merton Parka Mick Talbot – Weller’s future Style Council adjunct – takes flight from enemy fire. As we’re often reminded, the new wave’s commercial impact was largely marginal; only a handful – the Pistols, Blondie, Costello and, at a push, the Police and Gary Numan –  had by this point invited themselves to the very highest reaches. Sales, of course, were not the point but they do go a long way towards helping to communicate a message and by now the Jam were, with the Clash and the Specials, the foremost chroniclers of an Albion getting more perfidious with each passing hour.
Those sub-plot songs are the equal of their counterparts for incision and empathy. The plight of women trapped in domesticity (I refuse to use the pernicious term “housewife”) has long been as much a stock subject for rock songs as touring or the socialite on their uppers (the Stones’ Mother’s Little Helper, the Kinks’ Two Sisters, Squeeze’s Woman’s World). There’s always an uneasy air of incomprehension and condescension – how much insight could Mick Jagger really have into the life of a struggling mother? – but Weller achieves real empathy and compassion on Private Hell. “The fingers feel the lines, they prod the space, your aging face/The face that once was so beautiful/Is still there but unrecognisable” may seem unflattering but her husband hardly comes off much better (“The man that you once loved/Is bald and fat/And seldom in/Working late as usual”) and there’s a genuine pathos in the depiction of her isolation even from her family (“Think of Edward, who’s still at college/You send him letters which he doesn’t acknowledge), excursions away from home which bring not freedom but exposure and agarophobia (“The shop windows reflect, play a nameless host to a closet ghost”) and the, literally, breaking point when, “alone at six o’clock,” she drops and smashes a cup, the small, isolated incident which brings the threat of the precipice. All to the most abrasive music on a record where pugnacity isn’t in short supply.
Smithers-Jones is convincingly Foxton’s best song and, as a study of Home Counties white collar misfortune, takes its place alongside the best not only of Weller but also Ray Davies. It could even be a sequel to Mr Clean, the further adventures of the very same prim-on-the-surface-nothing-close-below city drone ridiculed and threatened by Weller in that song on the previous year’s All Mod Cons. Foxton has a shade more empathy as he follows Smithers-Jones at the eager start of the working week (“Here we go again, it’s Monday at last”), diligent, at least outwardly respectable, politely rebuffing the advances of an unidentified evangelist and arriving in the offices just before the clock strikes nine – to be told he’s out on his ear. The last verse suggests his reaction is to make the most of it and keep a lid on the despair (“It’s time to relax now  you’ve worked your arse off/But the only one smiling is the suntanned boss”) but tellingly, it’s sung by Weller rather than Foxton, making it seem like a well-intentioned but crass, worse-things-happen-at-sea gee-up from a drinking mate. The song performs a quick-change artist’s routine three months on from its first appearance as the B-side of When You’re Young; there, it’s a fine, agile barnstorming band performance, like so many other Jam songs. On Setting Sons, with strings reigning supreme, it’s unlike anything they or practically any other new wave band had done up to this point. They took a step which had been unconscionable ever since Joey Ramone derided any notion of “flugelhorns and strings” a couple of years earlier (of course, the Ramones were about to issue End of the Century which, Spector-helmed as it was, had strings to spare). By issuing two diametrically opposed versions, they even did what the Beatles couldn’t or wouldn’t with Strawberry Fields Forever; with Lennon unable to choose between band and orchestral versions, George Martin was compelled to pull off one of his most extraordinary feats of studio derring-do by splicing the two together, despite them being at different tempos and in different keys. For the Jam and producer Vic (Copper) Smith (Heaven) to have done the same would have run the risk of mirroring Little Boy Soldiers too closely and anyway, traumatic as it can be, Waterloo station stands little comparison with the events at its battlefield namesake in 1815.

This leaves us with Saturday’s Kids, a musically slight but lyrically rich, almost Hogarth-like  tableau of small-town weekends which are unremarkable in themselves but incalculably essential to the sanity and survival of those involved, those who”live life with insults.” The vanished period detail tumbles like an off-balance Spacehopper rider – Lite-a-Bite, Woolworths, Babycham, Capstan Non-filters, Cortinas with fur-trimmed dashboards, baggy trousers – but this isn’t a Peter Kay stand-up show; for all its wit and good-natured delivery, it’s much more World In Action or Nationwide probing the lives of “the real creatures that time has forgot,” as Weller calls them at the one moment he lets anger into the song.  They would remain forgotten, their votes would be taken for granted, they would by extension be taken for granted themselves. Many would then choose to vote differently – and here we are in 2019.

The two least distinguished songs open and close the album, which at least brings a sense of unity to  the songs in between. Girl on the Phone could have been an opportunity to get into the mind of a stalker but Weller, a little worryingly, seems flattered by her unrelenting attention and the music is perfunctory. Only the closing couplet (“The girl on the phone keeps ringing back/She’s telling me this and she’s telling me that”) appears on the lyric sheet, underlining the song’s apparent status as an afterthought. The same applies to the cover of the Vandellas’ Heatwave – or, more precisely, the cover of the Who’s cover, which closes the album in a fit of bathos. It’s not bad, exactly, but it is almost completely pointless – there’s little of the verve and gusto they brought to their version of the Kinks’ David Watts a year earlier and, like much of Motown’s ’60s output, the Vandellas’ version is close to unimprovable, so why the Who, let alone the Jam,  attempted it is unclear, even as an undoubtedly sincere homage. Furthermore,  it’s a retrograde step – with the Jam scaling towerblock-high peaks of their own, you’d have thought they’d finally have got out of their system the youthful fixation which even led them to do the Batman theme on their 1977 debut In The City – Just Like The ‘Oo Once Did. Instead, they sound like they’re back at the Red Cow in Hammersmith, pulling out an incongrous and surely unnecessary filler to get the album over the half-hour line.

But quibbles be silenced. Setting Sons caught the Jam in the very middle of their time of magic, a patch as purple as any, heightened a few months later when Going Underground pulled off the then-rare feat of entering at number one. For a year and a half, like many British youths, I had been  scribbling down the top 40 when Paul Burnett announced it at Tuesday lunchtimes on Radio 1; having decided some time earlier that I would retire when my spiral notebook was full, it was a glorious moment to be signing off: 1. Going Underground – The Jam (-) and to editorialise with a parenthetical ‘yeees’ while Liquid Gold and Rainbow languished  far below.

I’ve always felt that the Jam and two of my other favourite bands, the Velvet Underground and Echo and the Bunnymen, followed similar trajectories. Each followed a dense, complex, unimpeachable masterpiece (All Mod Cons, Banana, Heaven Up Here) with a record of overpowering intensity (Setting Sons, White Light/White Heat, Porcupine) and then something much calmer and more reflective, like a cooling  rain shower (Sound Affects, Third, Ocean Rain). Finally came albums which had some of each band’s strongest individual moments but which lacked real cohesion and would prove to be, temporarily at least, swansongs, (The Gift, Loaded, ‘Grey album’). Weller has since, with the Style Council and solo but, laudably, never with a reformed Jam, followed a path that has been capricious, often obdurate, as predictable on some occasions as unpredictable on others, sometimes tedious but rarely without value.

He’s always been least interesting when, paradoxically, he’s been most and least politically engaged. The well-intentioned but ill-fated Red Wedge venture of the mid-’80s was explicitly, capital P Political, at least as much specifically opposed to one party as in support of another, and proved that, while it can be pulled off, something as unregulated and ungovernable as popular music at its best isn’t necessarily the best platform for inherently compromise-driven and inconsistent party politics. Within a decade, his music was almost entirely inward-looking, an understandable reaction to just how far those political compromises and inconsistencies had taken hold, but what was left was a philosophy which appeared to amount pretty much to “I just believe in me, man” and the sound of barbecue-and-cider personal contentment which is a fine state to aspire to but seldom makes for gripping music.

A reawakened musical curiosity and a set of external circumstances impossible not to respond to have rekindled a good deal of his musical and political ardour in recent years but it’s never been more eloquent, more discerningly furious or more torrentialy compassionate than on Setting Sons, a record that’s relevant today as at any time in the past 40 years. I wish it wasn’t, though (PG).

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