With just one more song this could have been The Jam’s best album but “Setting Sons” kinda peters out on a half-arsed cover of Martha & The Vandellas “Heatwave” (another song previously covered by The Who) when if they’d included, maybe, “The Butterfly Collector” instead of hiding it on a b-side then this album would easily rival “All Mod Cons”.
There was a suggestion upon release that “Setting Sons” was a concept album, based on the lives of 3 old school friends who meet up again after a war (is that them on the cover ?). Part of that story remains in some of the songs, “Thick As Thieves”, “Burning Sky”, “Little Boy Soldiers” and “Smithers-Jones” (written by Bruce Foxton) particularly, but I’d be hard pushed to see the whole album as a concept. The artwork features Benjamin Clemens' bronze sculpture “The St John's Ambulance Bearers” from 1919. It shows a wounded soldier being carried by two St John’s Ambulance men. The back has a bulldog on a beach next to a deck chair emblazoned with a Union flag. The inner sleeve shows an army uniform and paraphernalia in the dirt and the labels feature scenes of Empire, so maybe the concept album idea was there but not carried through entirely.
It should also be noted that with “Smithers-Jones” having been previously released (on the B-side of the mighty “When You’re Young”) and with the inclusion of another cover version, that there are only 8 brand new songs on “Setting Sons”, writing was still not easy it seems.
“Girl On The Phone” starts us off with a stalker story, the girl that keeps calling who knows too much about you. “Thick As Thieves” introduces us to the three friends who the overall story was to be about, “Thick as thieves us, We’d stick together for all time”, youthful dreams that never work out that way as you get older. It’s the song that sets the tone for the album, puts it into perspective.
“Private Hell” could be seen as The Jam’s “Mothers Little Helper”, the tale of a housewife trapped in a loveless marriage, wondering what her grown up children are doing “He don’t care, They don’t care, Cos they’re all going through their own private hell”, all set against a screeching, screaming guitar riff, until her mind finally cracks “Sanity at last inside your private hell”. It’s a fierce and brutal song.
That’s followed by the mini-opera that is “Little Boy Soldiers”. It’s split into 3 distinct parts and tells of our 3 friends and their involvement in a war. In the first part our narrator really doesn’t want “To pick up a gun and shoot a stranger, But I've got no choice so here I come…war games”. In the second section the recruits are told to “Think of honour, Queen and country, You’re a blessed son of the British Empire”. Finally we return to the opening theme and discover that one of our participants was sent 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”. As that fades away it bleeds into the utterly beautiful “Wasteland”, driven along by a theme played on a recorder, yes you heard that right, a recorder “Meet me on the wastelands later this day, We'll sit and talk and hold hands maybe, For there's not much else to do in this drab and colourless place” the aftermath of war ?
“Burning Sky” finds one of the friends telling the others how great and successful his life is now and how the things they believed in “Thick As Thieves” were just teenage dreams that are now pie in the sky “Ideals are fine when you are young”. I always ask myself is that guy in “Burning Sky” actually “Smithers-Jones” whose world comes crashing down in the very next song, this time set within a string quartet rather than the band arrangement of the B-side version.
We next get two of Paul Weller’s finest songs. “Saturday’s Kids” is a Ray Davis-esque, perfect character study of ordinary suburban, working class kids and what they get up to, both the Saturday’s boys who “…live life with insults, Drink lots of beer and wait for half time results” and Saturday's girls who “…work in Tesco's and Woolworths, Wear cheap perfume 'cause its all they can afford”. It would have been an easy song to write in a sneering manner but it’s not done like that, it’s written with love and affection. This is Weller saying “these are my people, this is me”.
Finally (yes I know there’s another track after it but…) there’s “The Eton Rifle’s”, a magnificent beast of a song and The Jam’s first top 10 hit (reaching #3). The lyrics were inspired by seeing students from Eton College jeering at marchers on the Right To Work March that went the length of the country in 1978 to protest escalating unemployment. The opening line was, I’m sure, aimed at those Saturday’s boys in the previous song “Sup up your beer and collect your fags, There’s a row going on down near Slough”. Laughably Old Etonian and Tory Prime Minister David Cameron claimed in 2008 this was one of his favourite songs, ironic when you consider the lyric “What a catalyst you turned out to be, Loaded the guns then you run off home for your tea” exactly describes Cameron’s actions after dropping this country in the Brexit dumpster ! Weller responded to him with “Which part of it didn't he get? It wasn't intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps."
Trivia corner: Vic Coppersmith-Smith when interviewed said “The Eton Rifles” was really difficult to mix and he wound up making a lot of hand edits to the tape, for the un-initiated that’s cutting the tape with a razor blade and sticking it back together in order to move things about or bring in elements from other tapes, things that can easily be achieved with computers these days. “The Eton Rifles” master tape had 65 hand edits (that’s an average of an edit almost every 4 seconds). The tape was said to resemble a patchwork quilt !
We’ll forget the last track OK ? “Setting Sons” is a fantastic album that could have been better. Weller’s songwriting took a leap forward, the band sounded tight and tough. During 1979 and 1980 The Jam were unstoppable, the undisputed biggest band in the country.
Thick As Thieves - https://youtu.be/jLqr4iKwUO4?si=XYdIgCW8A7lTwyWA