Welcome to the latest edition of ‘Golden Vault’, where we delve into the annals of music to bring you a classic album. You’ll know some like the back of your hand and nothing of others. We hope to get you reacquainted with old friends and create new favourites. The album to be taken out of the Golden Vault for reappraisal this week is ‘Setting Sons’ by The Jam.
‘All Mod Cons’ is probably the most fully realised and cohesive record The Jam made, but despite its shortcomings ‘Setting Sons’ contains a handful of Paul Weller’s best songs. It is the middle album of three – ‘All Mod Cons’ in ’78 and ‘Sound Affects’ in ‘80 sit either side of it – that saw Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler on top form as they left their contemporaries in their wake.
The loose concept of their fourth album concerned four friends who drift apart after returning from war – think ‘Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads’ with a darker undertone; that sitcom’s ruminations on class and country seem to have bled directly into Weller’s songwriting process, such is the similarity in tone between his vignettes and Clement & La Frenais’ perceptive workaday scripts. It was a concept Weller abandoned; only a few tracks on ‘Setting Sons’ hint at the intended story cycle, but the melancholia of his theme coats these songs, never more so than on Wasteland and its lament of a decayed youth – “And there amongst the shit/The dirty linen/The holy Coca-Cola tins/The punctured footballs/The ragged dolls/The rusting bicycles/We’ll sit and probably hold hands”
It’s a cynical album, full of conflict on a personal level and on a wider social scale, and certainly on ‘Setting Sons’ Weller is at his most vitriolic and pessimistic (even ‘All Mod Cons’ had some genuinely heartfelt moments to offset the bite). Joe Strummer had a pop at an unnamed band the year previous on The Clash’s classic White Man In Hammersmith Palais, growling “They got Burton suits/Ha you think it’s funny/Turning rebellion into money”. Popular thought would have it as a dig at The Jam. Strummer refuted the allegation, but ‘Setting Sons’ class war protest song Eton Rifles certainly lends credence to the story.
What lets ‘Setting Sons’ down are the two tracks that bookend the album; obsessive fan tale Girl On The Phone seems a misstep in relation to everything that follows, a cut that has more in common with material from their initial one-two punk punch of ‘In The City’ and ‘This Is The Modern World’. Their Who-indebted cover of Martha & The Vandellas’ Heatwave sees the album out. Remember, this is around the same period that the band was releasing singles of the calibre of Strange Town and When You’re Young – why Weller felt the need to tack on a sub-par soul cover seems absurd in hindsight, especially considering the quality of blue-eyed soul he proved capable of writing himself in the ensuing years.
Childhood-adulthood-disillusionment-death…this briefest of synopses encapsulates the bulk of the album’s ruminations, but that’s not to say there isn’t humour and not a few rose-tinted reflections – “Drive Cortinas fur-trimmed dashboards/Stains on the seats /In the back of course!” – wrapped up in the band’s tight compositions. The poignancy of a broken friendship shines through on Thick As Thieves despite Weller’s confrontational bark, while Burning Sky bemoans the death of youthful idealism, in its place the cynicism that infiltrates the entire record, “We’ve all grown up and we’ve got our lives/And the values that we had once upon a time/Seem stupid now ’cause the rent must be paid”
The album’s most experimental track, Little Boy Soldiers, appears influenced by the conceptual song cycles of Sixties-era Who/Pretty Things/Small Faces with its distinct sections and musical motifs. Experimental in a different sense, Private Hell sees Weller uncharacteristically write from a female perspective in a much darker take on Mother’s Little Helper, as “The morning slips away/In a Valium haze/And catalogues/And numerous cups of coffee” The song is a character study in the form he was consistently improving upon, leaning here – again atypically – towards a lower middle class perspective; certainly a more compassionate study than his earlier forays into this type of songwriting and the snarling protagonists of ‘All Mod Cons’ Mr Clean or Billy Hunt.
Bruce Foxton takes a similarly sympathetic view on Smithers-Jones, the bass player’s tale of a beaten down office worker – “Pinstripe suit, clean shirt and tie” – consigned to the scrapheap while the rich get richer and the fat get fatter. Foxton’s songwriting efforts appear sporadically over The Jam’s releases, but this is undoubtedly his finest, most assured effort. It appears here re-imagined as an all-strings arrangement, apparently at drummer Rick Buckler’s suggestion (good ol’ Rick, serving the song), a far cry from the full band version that appeared on the B-side of When You’re Young some months previous to the album’s release.
As the band ushered in the Eighties with the distinctly more experimental ‘Sound Affects’ album they were at their commercial peak, and likewise with 1982’s ‘The Gift’. At this point though, Weller’s musical tastes were pulling in an increasingly different direction to those of Foxton and Buckler; ‘The Gift’ was the most overtly soul-influenced album of their career, and it was also their last. Weller disbanded The Jam at their most successful point and went on to form the Style Council with Mick Talbot, calling an end to one of the finest English bands. Their mid-career ‘Setting Sons’ record may not be as highly regarded as other entries in the band’s canon in terms of fan popularity or critical acclaim, but as an example of Weller’s progression, and with a handful of stone classics, it’s as worthy as its cover suggests it should be.
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