Album: Setting Sons* – The Jam
Review: Uncut, 12 December 2014
Author: Garry Mulholland
*the review is of the deluxe and super deluxe editions
Remastered with bonus tracks. Weller and co’s fourth album improves with age…
“There is still a widely-held perception that Jam albums follow a numerical pattern; an inverse of the Star Trek Movie Curse. That is, the odd-numbered Jam albums are excellent, while the even-numbered ones are… well… not.
This has always affected the reputation of The Jam’s fourth album, with its healthy sales and inclusion of breakthrough Top 3 single “The Eton Rifles” undercut by a half-finished concept and a dodgy cover version closer that inevitably leads to Setting Sons feeling rushed and inconclusive.
But comparing Setting Sons with, say, the frankly awful second album This Is The Modern World is pushing a nerdy fan theory way too far. The excellence of six of its ten songs, and the tougher, denser sound fashioned by loyal Jam producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, make Setting Sons the successful link between the creative breakthrough of 1978’s career-saving All Mod Cons and the February 1980 triumph of the “Going Underground” single, an anthem of nuclear panic and social alienation that revealed that The Jam had stealthily climbed to biggest-band-in-Britain status by becoming the first single to enter the UK charts at No.1 since 1973.
The bonus tracks added to this remastered version – the brilliant pre-album singles and B-sides, the work-in-progress Setting Sons demos including three previously unreleased songs, the final Peel sessions, and the vinyl-only “Live In Brighton 1979” set – give the Jam loyalist an overview of exactly how Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler made that creative leap at the end of a decade that had began with the Beatles’ split and ended with the anti-rock experiments of post-punk.
Setting Sons saw Weller basing more of his lyrics on his own poetry, and established his credentials as an ironic commentator on both the British class system and the fleeting bonds of childhood friendship. The typically tough-but-tuneful “Thick As Thieves” and “Burning Sky”, and the ambitious mini-rock operatic “Little Boy Soldiers” are the most explicit survivors of the original album concept (as revealed to NME’s Nick Kent in September), of three male friends torn apart by a British civil war who meet up again after the war’s conclusion.
But “Private Hell”, “Wasteland”, “Saturday’s Kids”, “The Eton Rifles” and the orchestral version of Bruce Foxton’s “Smithers-Jones” are all close relations; bitter reflections on ordinary English men and women – working-class and suburban middle-class – alienated and manipulated by corporate and military power.
Only the closing “Heatwave” – essentially a cover of The Who’s cover of the Martha Reeves And The Vandellas hit, featuring future Style Councillor Mick Talbot’s first keyboard work with Weller – and the hilarious, out-of-character opener “Girl On The Phone” break ranks. One of the most underrated Weller gems, the latter examines the power of an imaginary stalker who knows everything about our bemused boy wonder, even “the size of my cock!” It’s the first evidence of Weller’s dark humour.
The new remaster gives freer rein to the density of the sound Vic Smith gradually developed for The Jam, with Foxton’s bass punching through, revealing just how much space his busy, lyrical lines open up for Weller to use guitar as sound effect rather than straight rhythm and lead. And while the Brighton live show is inessential, two of the three newly unearthed songs, Weller’s “Simon” and “Along The Grove”, are stark, caustic and could have been contenders. Foxton’s “Best Of Both Worlds” may have been best left in the vaults.
But Setting Sons has improved with age. It reminds us that working class life was best captured, not by The Clash, nor PiL, nor even The Specials, but by the mock celebration of The Jam’s “Saturday’s Kids”, with its life of “insults”, beer and “half-time results”, and Weller’s recognition that we – and our parents, with their “wallpaper lives” – were “the real creatures that time has forgot”.
At the time we were stunned, and grateful, that any dapper young rock ‘n’ roll star had noticed. The insight and empathy shown here marked Weller out as the first pop hero of the coming decade.”
I’ve said before that, if pushed, I’d name All Mod Cons as my all-time favourite album. The follow-up album, Setting Sons was in the shops on 16 November 1979, just 378 days after the release of All Mod Cons, but that doesn’t come close to telling the story as The Jam had released three astonishing stand-alone singles and quality b-sides in Strange Town (April 1979), When You’re Young (August 1979) and The Eton Rifles (October 1979), albeit the latter was also included on the later album.
At sixteen years of age, music really was beginning to mean the entire world to me. I was finally being allowed to go to live concerts and was feasting on all sorts of post-punk new wave bands who were calling in at the Glasgow Apollo on their tours. But The Jam were my go-to band, the one for whom I would have given absolutely anything to have been able to share a stage with, even for just one song, not withstanding that I had no musical ability at all. I’d have mimed just as they did on Top of The Pops.
Setting Sons was the first album by The Jam I actually bought on the day of release – All Mod Cons was one that had waited until I had plenty of spare money from the Christmas tips given to me by customers on my paper round. Setting Sons was played to death back in 1979, along with all those singles and b-sides, to the extent it soon got all sorts of scratches and marks as typical 16-year-old boys really don’t know how to take care of their records. The copy from back then is long gone, thrown out when it became unplayable maybe six years later, replaced by a copy picked up cheap but which turned out to be a different pressing with a standard Polydor Records label in the middle of the record rather than the rustic drawings that had been on the original.
At the time, I didn’t think it had any flaws, although it was clear that some of the songs weren’t as immediate or as strong as the intermediate singles from earlier in the year. I even liked Heatwave, which I suppose came from my love of dancing rather than just being wedded to the idea of angry men playing angry songs via fast guitars, basses and drums.
I was becoming ever increasingly politically-conscious, aware now that young people, just like me, were seen as being unimportant and dispensable. I had stayed on at school beyond the summer of 1979 but could see that some mates who I’d played football with for years were now pretty fed up, with very few having got the sort of trade or job they had hoped for and were being forced into something they didn’t want to do for not all that much more money than I could make from my six-nights a week evening paper round and the big shift delivering Sunday papers for three hours from 7am every week. There were even a couple of boys who had signed up for the army, and I had it in my head that I’d soon be reading about them in those very same papers having been shot dead while doing service in Northern Ireland as we were very much at the height of the ‘troubles’ (or so it seemed).
Setting Sons spoke to me as I imagine it did to a lot of late-teens in the UK, and it was no surprise that by the time Going Underground came out just three months later, it did the unthinkable and went straight in at #1, as Gary Mulholland points out above, the first single by any singer or band to do so in seven years. This was our time and The Jam was our band. Nobody who had come beforehand was relevant, and nobody who was to follow would be meaningful.
Nowadays, I can see some failings. Brilliant though it is, the concept of including the orchestral version of previous b-side Smithers Jones, as well including what I can now accept is a perfunctory cover of Heatwave, demonstrates that Setting Sons was a bit of a rush-release, timed to get out to coincide with the UK tour and in the shops so that lots of folk could get it as a Christmas present or, as in my case from the previous year, something to be bought with the tips from the paper round.
Three songs from Setting Sons made ICA 52 back in December 2015, itself an effort which precluded any single or b-side. I make no apologies for repeating those songs today, along with the words I wrote at the time
“It is astonishing to look back and realise that Weller was barely 21 years of age when he wrote the songs that made up Setting Sons, the band’s fourth and most ambitious album. There’s no doubt that in his head he wanted to pull together a concept album telling the story of three childhood friends whose lives don’t go the way of their youngdreams with everything changing after them fighting but surviving a war. The concept wasn’t fully realised, possibly being down to him deciding it was an ‘unpunk’ thing to do or perhaps it became just too big a challenge in too short a timescale. It’s a real pity and begs the thought ‘if only….’ for the foundations that were laid down, as exemplified by Thick As Thieves, make you think that the result could well have been a record forever feted to be near the top of the all-time classic lists.”
“A song like no other in the history of the band and perhaps the new wave era’s equivalent of Bohemian Rhapsody – or at least that’s how I initially felt when listening to this as a 16-year old back in 1979. It was earnest and it was thought-provoking stuff but above else it was unsettling, thanks in part to its constant changes in pace and rhythm but also as a result of the doom and gloom nature of the lyric.
OK, I was sure that I was going to leave school, head off to university and find myself some sort of job linked to whatever qualifications I manged to get but I knew quite a few folk who were hell-bent on joining the armed forces and seeing what happened from there….none of them of course even remotely considered that in doing so they were putting their young lives at risk. I wanted so much to give every one of them a cassette with this song on and ask them to have a serious think about things….”
At 16, I had no idea what the line ‘stains on the seats – in the back of course’ was all about. Nor did I know who smoked Capstan Non-Filters (Embassy Regal? yup….that was my dad’s choice of habit) and for Selsey Bill and Bracklesam Bay you would have had to substitute places a little nearer home or insert Blackpool which around half of Glasgow seemed to migrate to in the last two weeks in July back in the mid-70s. Otherwise it was a song that resonated with me and even now I can recite every single word of the lyric. But I do accept that, with its descriptions of things that aren’t part of modern society then it’s a lyric very much of its time and so probably won’t resonate much with today’s kids….except perhaps the bit about hating the system. Some things just never change.
And finally, one that made a second ICA, #152, in January 2018.
This tale of a lonely, depressed, drug-dependant and mentally ill housewife was scheduled to feature in the ‘songs as short stories series’ but it has rightly fought its way into inclusion on this ICA. I used to think the lyric was all a bit melodramatic as I honestly couldn’t think of any female relative or mother of any friends of mine whose behaviour was like this. Looking back, I was wrong…it was just that some folk were exceptional at keeping things well hidden….
I also can’t imagine, to this day, just how brilliantly and accurately a 21-year old working class lad was able to put himself in the shoes of a middle-aged, repressed woman.