The Jam's epic future-Britain concept album SETTING SONS came out in 1979, just after I started working at the record store.
At first I hated it. It was so alien to me. I couldn't cut through the thick accents, and the choppy guitars, gritty subject-matter & back-to-basics musical approach was miles away from the arty progressive-rock I was mostly listening to at the time.
But then I realized there was a story being told here, and that helped. And though the details of that story painted a grim & depressing picture of England as I'm sure it was then -- when the only future possibilities for young people must have seemed limited to either going On The Dole or Joining The Army -- the overall effect was intense and powerful.
The album ended up being a series of brutal life lessons: Employers will work you hard until you can't work any more, the Army's just an excuse for getting killed, governments & politicians are all useless, even best friends will let you down. Jam leader/songwriter/guitarist Paul Weller didn't even offer playing in a rock&roll band as a way out of the mess.
SETTING SONS now works as an equally clear, brutal picture of life as it is in the U.S. today -- and as it has been for at least the last five years
I got used to the second side first. The rather lightweight side-opener "Girl on the Phone" didn't exactly help. But the rapid-fire guitar&drums intro to "Strange Town" would've woke anyone up. And the story -- about being a stranger in a whole new place & the adjustments you have to make -- would be easy for anyone to relate to.
And then came the kicker, as Weller explained (if I'm cutting through his accent accurately): "They all ignore me, 'cause they don't know/I'm really a spacer from those UFO's...." If this translation isn't right, it should be -- it sure gets the point across. Talk about being alienated....
This eye-opener led into what I consider the heart of the album, the next three songs: "Thick as Thieves" is a winding tale about lifelong friends who eventually go their separate ways due to forces they can't control -- but there's a sort of wistfulness & nostalgia in Weller's vocal, & the dramatic & driving intertwining vocals in the last verse are a knockout.
Now that they had my attention, the grim "Private Hell" was the first of these songs to really grab me by the throat. A sort of "generation-gap" song, a bitter portrait of a parent for whom all the joy has gone out of life -- the ending is about as grim & powerful as this album gets. Unforgettable.
"Little Boy Soldiers" is about going out to Play Army -- and about how that adventure could turn out. The ending is another brutal, ironic dead end.
"Wasteland" closed the side with a statement about the emptiness of life in England at the close of the '70s -- lightened-up by choruses of a tootling recorder. Punk purists probably hated it -- I thought it was pretty great.
Flip the record over and "Burning Sky" states the album's main themes directly & brutally -- life is beyond hard, and can you earn enough money to keep up? Because the pressure never stops....
Bassist Bruce Foxton's one song on the album is the classical/ironic "Smithers-Jones," about a lifelong bureaucrat whose job is eliminated without warning, leaving him with nothing to look forward to but an empty retirement -- sort of a distant cousin of The Kinks' classic "Shangri-La." The singing is accompanied only by a string section -- a production move also made by The Boomtown Rats on "I Don't Like Mondays."
"Saturday's Kids" is a look at Jam fans, or average British teens & young adults of the day -- it maybe doesn't add much, though it expands the bleak landscape against which these songs are set.
I admit I don't get all the political references, but "Eton Rifles" is another anthem about violence on the streets and in the country. Great singalong choruses & more slashing guitar from Weller.
The first side closes with the worst version of that old Martha and the Vandellas hit "Heat Wave" that you'll never want to hear again. Ghod knows why it's here unless it's just to fill space. Any of The Jam's bitter & brilliant later hits such as "Funeral Pyre" or "That's Entertainment" would have fit perfectly here.
There was talk after the album's release that a more extended concept was originally planned -- that the album's story was based around three childhood friends who grow up and apart after some unspecified future war. Perhaps Weller just didn't have time to finish all the songs, or the songs he had planned didn't cut it when it came time to record the album.
(Wikipedia confirms that a larger concept was originally planned, that the album as released was something of a rush job, & that "Heat Wave" & the previously-released-in-a-different-form "Smithers-Jones" were added to fill up the album. Wikipedia also says Sides 1 & 2 were switched for the U.S. release.)
I'm leaving something out of this review so far -- why this album had such a big impact on me, why I still play it now & then, though definitely not for "light entertainment."
Partly I'm sure it's because of the direct, slamming, in-your-face production -- the grim attack never really lets up. The slashing guitars & the great group vocals cements it.
And also, I'm sure, it's because at the time I never expected "a work of art" to emerge from "that punk-rock stuff" that I refused to listen to as A Matter Of Principle back then.
But most of all I'm sure it's because of the relentless atmosphere of grim, life-changing decisions that absolutely must be made Right Now -- against a backdrop of No Future.
It feels like Real Life. Especially these days....