Saturday, 24 July 2010

22 Setting Sons - The Jam

Purchased : 21 May 1983

Tracks : Girl On The Phone / Thick As Thieves / Private Hell / Little Boy Soldiers / Wasteland / Burning Sky / Smithers-Jones / Saturday's Kids / The Eton Rifles / Heatwave

Any Brighton and Hove Albion fan visiting here will recognise the significance of the date. This was bought in Oldham the morning before the FA Cup Final where Brighton came within a whisker of beating the loathed Machester United but their Scottish striker Gordon Smith failed to put the ball past the famously dodgy Gary Bailey in the last minute.

This was The Jam's fourth album released at the height of the mod revival in the atumn of 1979. It was originally intended to be a concept album about three friends who go off to war and come back to find their respective values have changed. Although Weller couldn't quite pull it off, some of the songs clearly tie in to this theme and there's a frisson to be had from knowing how things turned out for the real-life trio three years down the road.

The LP starts with "Girl On The Phone" a prescient song about being stalked. Its relative slightness is emphasised by not being fully represented on the very wordy lyric sheet. Or maybe Weller was just embarrassed about the line "My leg measurements and the size of my cock". It bounces along on a very fat Foxton bassline and ends predictably with a discontinued tone.

"Thick As Thieves" clearly brings us back to "the concept". It's a fairly typical tale of male friendship fracturing over time as in Tim Lott's "White City Blue" with a verse seeming to suggest that a girl was to blame. Weller sings it plaintively with plenty of echo and the help of Foxton on most lines. On the last verse where Weller laments the passage of time his lines are actually obscured by Foxton singing something else, a strange anomaly which supports the suggestion that this album was rushed. Overall it's not a bad song but the music doesn't have much room to breathe.

"Private Hell" is unusual in The Jam canon for introducing a woman's point of view. Tackling similar themes to the Stones' "Mother's Little Helper" with an actual reference to valium, Weller outlines the empty lifestyle of an ageing housewife with an inattentive husband and children who've flown the nest. It's unremittingly bleak stuff with no resolution. Musically it introduces some post-punk elements with Foxton's overloaded bass suggestive of Peter Hook and Weller's guitar aping Keith Levine and Andy Gill.

"Little Boy Soldiers" is the most ambitious track, the song having three distinct parts, and the original idea was to intersperse them between the other tracks. It begins with a ringing guitar then Weller sings resignedly of the apathy in accepting the politicians' call to arms. The music chugs along for a couple of verses then abruptly switches to Buckler's military tattoo with obligatory artillery noises in the background. A galloping guitar riff emerges and Weller and Foxton croon a series of pro-military slogans punctuated by Buckler's timpanis. This fades into a Roger Waters strumalong with Weller's whispered tale of rape and pillage before the impassioned line "It was done beneath the flag of democracy" signals Foxton's sledgehammer bass taking us back to the initial format and another verse which deals with the inevitable and final conclusion, Weller's last lines about death accompanied by descending piano chords.

"Wasteland" returns us to a familiar Weller trope of finding romance amongst the urban flotsam that would reach its apogee with "That's Entertainment" the following year. The song begins with Buckler's drums for a couple of bars then the main riff is played on a school recorder which gives the track a fragile (or less charitably, weedy) feel until some Hammond organ chords give some bottom to the track. There's some rather awkward scanning suggesting this is a poem set to music rather than a fully realised song idea. It brings Side One to an end rather abruptly.

Side Two begins with one of the strongest songs "Burning Sky" which takes the form of a letter from one of the three friends who is climbing the greasy pole. It comes across now as a very early indictment of Thatcherism considering that she was only a few months into her tenure and moving cautiously at this point but it's worth remembering that people had a desire to escape their surroundings long before she came along. Like "Private Hell" the music shows an awareness of post-punk with Weller slashing away over the top of Foxton's juddering bassline.

Next up is "Smithers-Jones" Foxton's most (some would say only) worthwhile contribution to the Jam canon. The song had been previously released as the B-side to "When You're Young" in the summer but it reappears here in a nearly all-strings arrangement owing a lot to "Eleanor Rigby" apparently the idea of Rick Buckler (who doesn't feature at all on it). Foxton takes the lead vocal and plays the cello. The story of a hapless commuter it's less vituperative than the previous album's "Mr Clean" with Foxton's straight down the line lyrics telling the story without irony. Smithers-Jones is travelling on the train reading newspaper adverts on the way to a meeting which will see him being made redundant in a verse which recalls Willie Loman's excrutiating encounter with the boss's son in "Death Of A Salesman."

"Saturday's Kids" seems like an attempt to write a classic mod anthem and isn't too far away from "A-Bomb In Wardour Street " musically. Lyrically it's not a bad snapshot of late seventies working class life just before mass unemployment started to bite and there's a pleasingly parochial reference to the Sussex coastal resorts of Selsey Bill and Bracklesham Bay - recalling Weller family holidays perhaps ?

Then we get "The Eton Rifles" one of the band's most enduring singles since it took them into the Top Five for the first time in 1979. It has acquired more recent notoriety since a certain Old Etonian called David Cameron named it as one of his favourite songs much to Weller's disgust. And yet the lyrics do make sense as an attack on the public school left and Weller seems to be revelling in the triumph of the college lads over a bunch of agitators who broke off from a Right To Work march in 1978 to attack them , the incident that inspired the song. Musically it's a classic Jam single second to "Down In The Tube Station" from its ominous intro (essentially the same as Pretty Vacant" but played on the bass) to the rousing chant-a- long chorus and the Hammond organ which comes in on the plaintive "What a catalyst you turned out to be ?" reproof.

The last track is their ramshackle cover of "Heatwave" which presages the future by bringing in Rudi (presumably Rudi Thompson of X-Ray Spex) on sax and future Style Councillor "Merton" Mick Talbot on organ. Knowing that gives an added poignancy to the joyful " yeah yeah" interchanges between Foxton and Weller which make it a surprisingly enjoyable finale to the LP.

I don't think anyone could make a case for either of the first two Jam LPs to be the band's best so now's the time to make a judgement on which one I'd nominate. After a couple of listens I decided in 1983 it was this one and I'd just about still go along with that because it's the most consistent. There's no song that you really want to skip , the less inspired moments being still quite listenable. They never made a really classic album but this is the one that came closest

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