Following up 1978’s hugely successful ‘All Mod Cons’, The Jam were one of the hottest groups around, surviving through the 1977’s initial ‘year zero’ punk blitz, really only along with The Clash and The Damned. However, The Jam were easily the more accessible and truth be told were generally considered a great pop singles band. This is further emphasised by ‘Setting Sons’; It contains The Eton Rifles’ and ‘Smithers-Jones’, both great singles. However, ‘Setting Sons’ is a great album in album context and quality, and there are no skip-able tracks present at all.
The record is mainly a testament to Paul Weller’s growing songwriting confidence, as inspired by his current reading, he aimed for the ‘dreaded’ concept album. Weller’s concept was of three schoolhood friends growing up together, but parting ways as their political views force them apart – one goes hard right-wing, one goes hard left-wing and one remains neutral. Eventually their escalating political viewpoints result in a civil war, causing the death of one of the boys, leaving the other two discussing the future that is left. It is interesting to note that before this The Jam had concentrated on taking on Ray Davies of The Kinks’ mantle of social comment and had left the political fingerings of their punk peers alone. The main problem with Weller’s idea lay in his perennial writer’s block, and he hadn’t written enough songs covering the concept to spread across both sides of vinyl. To combat this several other songs were recorded, including an orchestral version of Bruce Foxton’s classic ‘Smithers-Jones’, along with a cover of the motown hit ‘Heat Waves’ by Martha Reeves. These were interspersed with the ‘concept’ tracks in the final album though, and the ‘concept’ tracks themselves were mixed around in order, leaving the album slightly disjointed.
The ‘concept’ tracks initially written for ‘Setting Sons’ were (in track order)‘Thick As Thieves’, describing the three boys schooldays when they were best of friends; ‘Little Boy Soldiers’, an awesomely ambitious song describing the escalating friction between the boys, causing the start of the war and the subsequent death of one of them (presumably the ‘neutral’ boy, as his viewpoints are not discussed on any of the tracks). The “I’m up on the hills paying little boy soldiers" line is fantastically evocative as a metaphor of boys playing at war; ‘Wasteland’, where the two surviving boys sit in the “smouldering embers" and talk about what happened to cause the war; ‘Burning Sky’, written from the viewpoint of one boy, discussing his hard-line right-wing views; and lastly the brilliant single ‘The Eton Rifles’, where the hard-line left-wing boy talks about fights between the working class and upper-class boys. Foxton’s bass is of major note in this song, with it duplicating the chorus’ vocal line of ‘Et-on rif-les, et-on rif-les" through the verse. Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler are their usually solid selves throughout the set, Foxton’s bass filling in the gap left by the lack of an extra guitar.
However, where the ‘concept’ tracks form the backbone of the album, the places in between are filled with five excellent tracks which feel so great within the album and are so well paced that you don’t notice that they were originally only there as filler! Opener ‘Girl On The Phone’ is a well chosen opening track, with the music preceded by a ringing phone, which continues through the first verse with all the music keeping in time with the ringing. This is an extremely effective trick to use, as it creates the ringing rhythm throughout the song, despite the sound effect disappearing after about 30 seconds or so into the track. ‘Private Hell’ is a catchy bass-driven song with a great chorus (despite only featuring two words – the title). The song uses a similar phasing technique on the vocals as ‘Itchycoo Park’ by The Small Faces, and it is just as effective here. The seventh song on ‘Setting Sons’, ‘Smither’s-Jones’ by Bruce Foxton is possibly the best song on the record, perhaps with the exception of ‘Little By Soldiers’. The song was originally released as an electric version, a B-side to the ‘When You’re Young’ single that preceded the album. The song was then given an orchestral re-working for inclusion on the final album. The orchestration behind the song is extremely effective and showcases the diversity of The Jam’s approach to music, as well as showing that Paul Weller wasn’t the only member of the band that could write awesome singles! However, the inclusion of a re-working of a previous B-side, along with the inclusion of a cover song, ‘Heat Wave’, really showed the extent of Weller’s writer’s block.
In my personal opinion, ‘Setting Sons’ epitomizes The Jam’s sound mid-career. The band sound full and tight, and the production/mixing give an extra edge to proceedings, making the band more powerful. The vocal echoing, phasing on ‘Private Hell’, delay on ‘Saturday’s Kids’, and instrumental overdubs give make the songs more powerful, and an added depth is given by the use of other instruments, including a cello on ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ and the bar-room piano on ‘Heat Wave’. They are experimental in styles and unafraid to try things like the triumphant orchestral re-working of ‘Smithers-Jones’. In fact, their whole attitude is epitomised on the album’s standout track ‘Little Boy Soldiers’, as they effortlessly switch between musical styles, giving a real progressive feel to the pivotal point in the story told in the ‘concept’. While ‘All Mod Cons’ is generally regarded as their best work, ‘Setting Sons’ is arguably their masterpiece and best album