on 6 May 2018
No twenty-one year old has ever written song lyrics that capture pissed off boredom and stunted ambition as well as Paul Weller did in Setting Sons. Set to tautly aggressive music generated by nothing more than a drum kit and a couple of guitars, he, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton described what it was like to grow up angry and poor in one of the M25’s bleak satellite towns – the anonymous, newly-built, consumerist, ethically free, outer-London suburbs (in their case, Woking) where identity is conferred by a nod of recognition from the barman at your local and status by a suit, a salary and a company car. (Ballard did a good job of describing this world in “Kingdom Come”, referring to it as “a zoo for psychopaths".) Although it never quite morphed into the intended concept album telling the story of boyhood friends growing apart as they move from adolescence to adulthood, the vision of the songs is still quite extraordinary as Weller approaches this dystopian world from a very disparate array of viewpoints and hits his targets time and time again with withering hostility and, for a twenty-one year old, remarkable insight.
For me, the highlights start with the second track, Thick as Thieves, as Weller’s character looks back on his friendships during a flawed, tough adolescence and goes on with blunt regret to observe that, “…now we've gone and spoiled everything, now we're no longer as thick as thieves”.
This is followed by Private Hell – a stunning take (by a twenty-one year old) on the same desolate, suburban life from the standpoint of a middle aged woman. What could be more desolate than, “Think of Edward who's still at college, You send him letters which he doesn't acknowledge. Cos he don't care, they don't care. Cos they're all going through their own private hell”?
Then comes a time in the army (the inspiration for the album’s iconic cover) with Little Boy Soldiers and a chance to exchange the suburban wasteland for the lethal wastes of the battlefield; the result is as good a peace protest as the 70s produced. The final lyrics – “Then they send you 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” – bring the little boy soldier back home.
And home is, of course, also a wasteland – the title of the next track. It’s an urban wasteland of “…the holy Coca Cola tins, the punctured footballs…” which is soaked in Weller’s brutal fatalism as he tells his girl (and us) to, “…watch the rain fall - tumble and fall - tumble and falling - like our lives.” It’s not the greatest track on the album but it fits both the mood and the narrative.
Because the narrative continues with Burning Sky – a song which shows a way (although a predictably repugnant way) of escaping the wasteland. Delivered as a letter, it is a paean to the sort of shallow materialism that Ballard fictionalised in “Kingdom Come” as it rejects the past with Weller singing, “…cos we've all grown up and we've got our lives, And the values that we had once upon a time, Seem stupid now cos the rent must be paid, And some bonds severed and others made.” The slick boys of Woking, it says, are on the make and they’ve no time for anything (or anyone) else.
But then we seem to get a break as Bruce Foxton takes over the writing and constructs a beautiful song about a man (Smithers-Jones) who seems to have found some kind of contentment, even if it is empty contentment in his banal commute into London from the suburbs to Waterloo. Inevitably, though, the serenity hinted at (by what is, pretty much, an orchestral arrangement) implodes into bitter introspection as Smithers-Jones loses his job. A mate of mine – aged 57 – has just been made redundant and the first thing I did was fire off the familiar final lyrics of this track to him: “It's time to relax, now you've worked your arse off, But the only one smiling is the sun-tanned boss, Work and work, you work 'till you die, Cos there's plenty more fish in the sea to fry.”
This dislocation triggers a return to a moving portrait of the peripheral suburban badlands in Saturday's Kids, a song touched with real sadness for the futility and worthlessness of what Weller sees around him. He sees that “Saturdays kids play one arm bandits, They never win but…” he asks, “…that's not the point is it?” After that, though, he goes up to another level when he notes that, “Their mums and dads smoke capstan non filters, Wallpaper lives cos they all die of cancer…” Genius – and more brutal than anything in Eliot’s Wasteland.
Then, paralleling the anti-war message in Little Boy Soldiers, there’s a reaction to the social injustice in Saturday’s Kids with The Eton Rifles. For me, although an iconic song, it’s not the best song on the album – I think that’d be Private Hell but I change my mind every time I listen to it – but, as the years since 1979 have demonstrated, it’s a song that speaks the truth. “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” It should be a rallying call for anyone who understands that, even in Woking in the late 70s, silver spoons were in short supply, that our elite is still largely composed of those who have benefitted from childhood privilege and that, once upon a time, a song attacking private education was one of the most popular songs in the country; hilarious that David Cameron said that the song meant a lot to him.
So, there you have it – the best album that The Jam made. They did produce other songs that match Setting Sons – Mr. Clean and Down in the Tube Station at Midnight for two – but, as a body of work, this is pretty well untouchable.