You realise you’re getting old when you read that one of your favourite albums is 40 years old. It happened to me recently when I saw something about Setting Sons, by The Jam.
Released on 16 November 1979, it was their fourth album in a little over two and a half years, and one that would pave the way for them to become the biggest band in Britain.
They’d already enjoyed some success, with their 1977 debut In The City making No 20, rushed follow-up The Modern World reaching No 22, and third album All Mod Cons – their first classic record – making No 6.
The latter included Down in The Tube Station At Midnight, one of the songs which would confirm frontman Paul Weller as one of the most talented songwriters of his generation. He was still just 20 when it was released.
They released two non-album 7”s after All Mod Cons, the excellent Strange Town and When You’re Young, which both made the Top 20.
Fans could have been forgiven for wondering why they weren’t included on Setting Sons, but it was clear the band had moved on when the first taste of the new record, The Eton Rifles, was released as a single in October 1979.
A savage put-down of the class system which existed around the famous Eton public school in Berkshire, regarded then, as now, as the centre of Britain’s privileged elite, it was his best lyric yet.
Astonishingly, Conservative leader and future PM David Cameron, an Old Etonian himself, claimed in a 2008 interview that it was one of the favourite songs of his youth, leading Weller to incredulously comment: “Which part of it didn’t he get?”
The Eton Rifles peaked at No 3 in the UK charts, giving The Jam their first Top 10 hit, but it was the only single to be taken from the album, in the days when it was common to milk an album for three or four 45s. The Jam believed in giving value for money, which meant not packing their albums with singles.
I bought the single when it came out, and played it incessantly. To my shame, I didn’t get the album until many years later, though you didn’t really need to as a 13-year-old punk rocker. I listened to my mate’s copy instead, which he got for Christmas.
It was the done thing back then to spend your pocket money on singles, which were 99p or thereabouts. An album was a fiver. That’s why they were usually for special occasions, like Christmas, or birthdays. And if your mate had a record which you didn’t, you just went to his house to listen to it. Especially if his mam and dad were out, and you could turn it up LOUD!
Anyway, I digress. I grew to love Setting Sons at my mate David’s house. He was a year younger than me, but we had similar musical tastes: Sex Pistols, The Clash, Stiff Little Fingers, UK Subs, Angelic Upstarts, Cockney Rejects, and, of course, The Jam.
Setting Sons was conceived as a concept album about three boyhood friends who reunite as adults, only to discover they have grown up and apart. It opens with Girl On The Phone, about a girl who won’t stop calling and seems to know everything: “Knows where I get my shirts and where I get my pants/Where I get my trousers where I get socks/My leg measurements and the size of my cock.”
Then one of the best Jam songs which was never a single, Thick As Thieves, about the changing nature of friendships, where you hear the component parts of Weller (guitar and vocals), Bruce Foxton (bass) and Rick Buckler (drums) combining perfectly for one of my favourite Jam songs.
Private Hell is a remarkable song, about a lonely middle-aged housewife floating through life on Valium. This was written by a 21-year-old man, remember. Astonishing, but it gets better.
Little Boy Soldiers and Wasteland were undoubtedly war themed, with the former rating among Weller’s very best compositions: “We ruled the world/We killed and robbed the fucking lot/But we don’t feel bad/It was done beneath the flag of democracy.”
There’s a wonderful fade out and a few seconds of contemplative silence before Wasteland opens with the sound of a recorder, though the lyrics are again about the past, and how things have changed – not always for the best.
Side two opens with Burning Sky, written in the form of a letter from one old friend to another, who you find you now have little in common with. It probably didn’t resonate too much with the band’s audience at the time. Ask them again now, half a lifetime later.
Smithers-Jones, written by Foxton, is the story of a man’s slavish devotion to the rat race, only to be ‘let go’ by his employer, it was previously heard on the B-side of When You’re Young. Here it is presented in an all-strings arrangement, to stunning effect. It’s the best song Bruce ever wrote.
It is followed by Saturday’s Kids, another of Weller’s classic snapshots of working class life: “Saturday’s girls work in Tescos and Woolworths/Wear cheap perfume ‘cos it’s all they can afford/Go to discos they drink Babycham/Talk to Jan, in bingo accents.”
And then there’s the boys: “Saturdays kids live in council houses/Wear v-necked shirts and baggy trousers/Drive Cortinas, fur trimmed dashboards/Stains on the seats – in the back of course!”
Just as the words of the last two songs are sinking in, here’s The Eton Rifles, with its “all that rugby puts hairs on your chest, what chance have you got against a tie and crest?” and the biting denouement: “Hello-hurray, I’d prefer the plague, to the Eton rifles…”
Much of the criticism levelled at the album is aimed at the somewhat throwaway version of the Martha and the Vandellas song Heatwave, tagged on the end. The Jam had covered oldies before (Slow Down, In The Midnight Hour, David Watts), and while some might think its inclusion was simply the result of haste to get the album finished, I’d like to think that Weller was also leaving us a trail of breadcrumbs back to his influences. It certainly worked for me.
But while the album, and the singles released either side of it, saw The Jam on an upward trajectory, was this golden period also the first sign of the cracks appearing, you wonder? Was Weller, who was still just 21, feeling the strain of being expected by the record company to keep churning out the hits?
Setting Sons was ranked at No 4 among the top albums of the year for 1979 by the then-influential NME, with The Eton Rifles and Strange Town ranked at numbers one and five among the year’s top tracks.
It spent 19 weeks on the UK album charts, rising to No. 4. But The Jam were nothing if not prolific, and even before they had time to bask in the glory of a Top 5 album, they were back in the studio recording another Weller composition, Going Underground.
Released in March 1980 as a non-album single, if I remember rightly it was assured of going to No 1 even before it was released due to the number of pre-orders (or orders, as they were known back then) placed with record shops by fans who’d heard it trailed on the radio. But that’s another story…