Category Archives: 1970’s

Steeleye Span – Parcel of Rogues – Classic Music Review

parcelofrogues

As I am deeply concerned about the mental health of my readers given the hyper-charged political climates in the US and UK, I have chosen to avoid politically-charged music for the foreseeable future. Though Parcel of Rogues doesn’t quite qualify as apolitical due to two songs involving political intrigue in the early 18th century, I’m pretty confident that there are no Jacobites in my audience and that comments made in response to this post will not ignite a heated debate over the restoration of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Parcel of Rogues represented an important step in Steeleye Span’s development with its extensive use of electric guitar and overdubbing (they would soon add a full-time drummer to further strengthen the connections to rock). The impetus for introducing more rock sensibilities to the music was spearheaded by Bob Johnson, a dogged researcher of folk tradition who identified and arranged many of Steeleye Span’s most memorable takes on traditional folk songs. With a multi-talented cast of accomplished musicians, Steeleye Span would develop a sound more attuned to modern tastes while remaining firmly entrenched in folk traditions.

If you knew nothing about Steeleye Span or Parcel of Rogues and popped on over to Amazon to read the user reviews to see what all the hoo-hah was about, you would likely form the conclusion that the album’s main attraction is Maddy Prior’s voice. One of the strongest pieces of evidence in support of that assertion is found on the opening track, “One Misty Moisty Morning.” The song is based on the traditional “The Wilshire Wedding (Between Daniel Do-well and Doll the Dairy Maid with the Consent of her Old Father Leather-Coat, and her dear and tender Mother Plodwell)” [Roud 13910 , 20075 ; Ballad Index OO2359 ; Bodleian Roud 13910]. The lyrics used here are closer to the Bodleian take, though Steeleye Span wisely eliminated several of the more tedious verses where Daniel meets and gains the approval of the parents.

Maddy assumes the role of Daniel, who while strolling along “one misty moisty morning” bumps into “an old man a-clothed all in leather.” The old man responds enthusiastically to Daniel’s greeting, “Singing how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do again” (the phrase that serves as the song’s chorus). Daniel refers to the old man as a “rustic,” implying that he (Daniel) is an educated city fella. We learn that the old man is a thresher, which means he earned his keep by using a device called a flail to break the seed heads on oat and wheat stalks while waiting for the Industrial Revolution to come along and make him obsolete.

Historical Aside: Thanks to the murderous ingenuity of homo sapiens, the flail was also transformed into a weapon by adding metal spikes to the club, giving the warrior a handy-dandy device for splattering an opponent’s brains all over the battleground.

But I digress. Daniel continues his jaunt and happens upon a milkmaid named Dolly who tells him she’s going “a-milking, Sir” a quaint phrase that Daniel finds absolutely charming. Falling in love at first sight (and likely horny as hell), Daniel then describes how he gave Dolly “many kind embraces” and that he “stroked her double chin,” causing Dolly’s heart to go all a-flutter (to say nothing of the excitement she felt in another part of her anatomy). Having thereby overcome all resistance, Daniel claims his bride, gets the parents to sign off and marries her straightaway. A celebration follows where caps are flung and all join together in a round of “how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do and how d’ya do again,” after which I’m sure Daniel immediately escorted Dolly to a conveniently-located copse and banged her to the complete satisfaction of both parties.

A story is only as good as its storyteller, and Maddy Prior is a marvelous tale-spinner. The clever introductory passage features a trio of guitars set to contrasting textures ranging from clean to distorted, building to a close marked by a wah-wah peddle on distortion that ends on a rising note. As the final note fades, we hear the more natural sound of Peter Knight picking a jaunty phrase on mandolin as Maddy approaches the microphone, stepping into the empty space created by the disappearance of the guitars.

That space intensifies the crystal clarity of her voice, a voice of stunning beauty that defines the word “riveting.” Her delivery is unforced; the syllables roll off her tongue as naturally as conversational speech. Her phrasing is perfectly clear, her breath timing remarkably unnoticeable. The first two verses feature only Maddy supported by Peter, a wise choice that strengthens the position of story and storyteller, allowing the listener to revel in the beauty of the voice and the language:

One misty moisty morning when cloudy was the weather
I met with an old man a-clothed all in leather
He was clothed all in leather with a cap beneath his chin
Singing how do you do and how do you do and how do you do again
This rustic was a thresher as on his way he hied
And with a leather bottle fast buckled by his side
He wore no shirt upon his back but wool unto his skin
Singing how do you do and how do you do and how do you do again

The wah-wah reappears on the second chorus, assuming a position in the channel opposite the mandolin, leaving Maddy to dominate the center. As she spins the tale, you notice subtle adjustments in her phrasing that add diversity to the mix and color to the story—when she comes to the point in the song where Daniel attempts to mimic Dolly’s vernacular—“‘a-milkins’, Sir,’ she said”—you hear the polite deference in her voice and can easily visualize her making a curtsy as she says it. The arrangement continues to build in the background as the story progresses; on the third chorus, Rick Kemp makes his first appearance on the bass while Bob Johnson and Tim Hart join Maddy on the vocals. The fourth verse introduces the surprise plot twist where after spending oh, about ten minutes with this broad, Daniel announces in an aside to the listening audience “And straight I fell a-courting her in hopes her love to win.” As the sudden news takes some time to absorb, Bob Johnson decided it was a good time for an instrumental break, a wise decision that prolongs the suspense.

Maddy continues the tale in verse five over an arrangement similar to verse four, but as the sixth verse depicts the marriage proposal, the band tones it down to sweet-and-sacred by repeating the pattern of the opening passage, substituting tinkly piano for one of the guitars—another brilliant move. The arrangement expands in verse seven to incorporate the mandolin, followed by the full band on the wah-wah-enhanced chorus. That power shift presages the goose-bump-generating final verse, where the band plays at full power and Maddy adjusts her breathing to achieve full diaphragm-driven oomph starting with the phrase “to celebrate the day,” leading the band into a perfectly constructed coda marked by a stirring finish. If I ever decide to create best-of-lists, I am 100% positive that “One Misty Moisty Morning” would easily earn a place in the category of Best Opening Number, All Genres.

The problem with a strong opening number is you have to follow it with something pretty damned good or samplers might conclude that the album is a one-song wonder. The Beatles and George Martin did this exceptionally well in the post-Beatlemania period, as the following examples demonstrate:

  • “Taxman”/”Eleanor Rigby”
  • “Back in the U. S. S. R.”/”Dear Prudence”
  • “Come Together”/”Something”

Two patterns emerge: one, the paired songs are noticeably different in terms of style, tempo and subject matter; two, each features a different lead singer (and in these cases, a different songwriter as well). As we just had a rousing and joyful number, logic demands something darker and rougher. “Allison Gross” [Roud 3212; Child 35], with Bob Johnson singing a tale about “the ugliest witch in the North Country,” would qualify on the lyrics alone, but Steeleye Span raised the stakes by exploiting the sonic possibilities of the electric guitar.

The first three verses set up the story: Alison Gross has “trysted” the narrator to come to her bower, where, according to the narrator . . .

She stroked my head and she combed my hair
She set me down softly on her knee
Saying if you will be my lover so true
So many good things I would give to you

Gee, Alison sounds like a nice girl! The narrator, however, chooses to respond to her wiles with unadulterated venom:

Away, away, you ugly witch
Go far away and let me be
I never will be your lover so true
And wish I were out of your company

Well, now, hold on there, pardner! She didn’t force you to come, so you never had to be in her company in the first place! Sounds to me like you’ve got a problem with assertive, independent women and, as men terrified of losing their god-given power have done for centuries, you’ve tagged her with the old “evil witch” label. Since you knew she had a “tryst” in mind, are you playing hard to get? Or is your pecker telling you one thing and your misogyny another?

Alison chooses to ignore the insults (what a classy broad!) and spends three verses offering him an array of gifts, including “a mantle of red scarlet,” “a shirt of the softest silk well-wrought with pearls around the band,” and “a cup of the good red gold well set with jewels so fair to see.” Our loser of a hero responds to her incredible generosity with more venom:

Away, away, you ugly witch
Go far away and let me be
I never would kiss your ugly mouth
For all of the gifts that you could give

Alison has finally had it with this annoying little shit and decides to give it back to him with a vengeance:

She turned her right and round about
And thrice she blew on a grass-green horn
She swore by the moon and the stars of above
That she’d make me rue the day I was born

Then out she has taken a silver wand
She’s turned her three times round and round
She muttered such words till my strength it did fail
And she’s turned me into an ugly worm

YOU GO, GIRL!

This incredibly satisfying denouement is not how the original tale ended. Bob Johnson cut the last two verses that describe how the Queen of the Fairies shows up one Halloween and turns this measly little worm into . . . well, a measly little worm in human form. I consider the Queen of the Fairies a traitorous bitch and will have no more to do with her.

And truth be told, the worm transformation isn’t really the end of the Steeleye Span version of “Alison Gross.” After the final round of the chorus, our ears are blasted away by a series of power chords as harsh as anything you’d hear in death metal—the sonic equivalent of Alison’s final blow, the triumphant sound of dark magic . . . and, in my highly biased, pro-Alison interpretation, a dire warning to men who dare disrespect a strong woman. The effect is doubly shocking because such an abrasive sound is so unexpected from Steeleye Span, but I would argue that the choice is completely defensible in the context of the story and the arrangement.

Shifting gears once again, “The Bold Poachers” [Roud 1686; Ballad Index McCST098; Bodleian Roud 1686] is a tragedy played out in G minor, the arrangement built around Tim Hart’s Appalachian dulcimer. The electric guitar here is limited to punctuation and vertical swoops that serve to emphasize the overall gloom; Hart’s vocal is complemented by two and three-part harmonies sometimes marked with Maddy Prior’s swooping soprano that reflects the sinking feeling of approaching doom. The apparent tragedy is the loss of two young poachers who are found guilty of murder and condemned to exile on a prison ship bound for either Australia or the American colony, which, according to the liner notes, was “tantamount to a sentence of death.” The real tragedy is how wealthy landowners pitted the lower classes against each other—the two young men murdered two gamekeepers, hired hands paid a measly sum to protect their masters’ sacred property rights.

We certainly need a little pick-me-up here, and the voices of Maddy Prior and Tim Hart join together to give us “Ups and Downs” [Roud 364; Ballad Index K176; Wiltshire 255], a song that certainly sounds jolly enough, though it turns out a less-than-jolly experience for the maiden in question. The narrator (whom we learn later is a bloke named Mickey) is on his way to the market at Aylesbury when he runs into a lass headed in the same direction, intending to hawk her dairy products. As it happens, Lady Luck is going to toss Mickey a rare softball opportunity:

As we jogged on together my boys together side by side
By chance this fair maid’s garter by chance it came untied
For fear that she might lose it I unto her did say
Your garter’s come untied my love fol-der-o diddle-o-day
Your garter’s come untied my love fol-der-o diddle-o-day

Rather than reply to such an obvious come-on with a well-deserved slap in the puss, the maiden thinks for a moment, then replies, “O since you’ve been so venturesome pray tie it up for me/O I will if you go to the apple grove fol-der-o diddle-o-day,” obviously having decided that her diddle-o-day could use a nice twiddle-o-day. I’ll bet you can’t guess what happens next:

And when we got to the apple grove the grass was growing high
I laid this girl upon her back her garter for to tie
While tying of her garter such sights I never did see

The fact that Mickey is rookie when it comes to nookie is confirmed by the immediate appearance of the chorus: “And we both jogged on together my boys fol-der-o diddle-o-day.” Calculating the time between “laid this girl” and the moment they climbed back on their trusty steeds, I estimate that Mickey shot his wad in nine seconds.

I have no moral or ethical problem with this bawdy wench having a brief, er, very brief roll in the grasses, but sadly, her greatest mistake was to let the guy shoot first and ask some rather important questions later:

O since you’ve had your will of me come tell to me your name
Likewise your occupation and where and whence you came

Much to her dismay, she learns that Mickey is not an overcompensated executive but a drover boy (cattle or sheep-herder) from Dublin (gasp!) and he lives at the Ups and Downs, which, according to Mainly Norfolk, “was a nickname, or possibly a euphemism, for the sixty-ninth foot regiment, a Welsh regiment which was regarded as a humorous anomaly because their ranks consisted largely of raw recruits and elderly veterans.” In other words, L-O-S-E-R. The song ends with the girl having wasted her cherry on a nobody and unable to sell even a stick of butter at the fair. The moral of the story is a twist on the age-old wisdom that a man’s brain is located in his testicles, but while a man can pretty much get off scot-free, when a woman thinks from her clitoris, she could wind up preggers or labeled a (gasp!) whore.

Thank Science for The Pill!

After a brief lead-in, the instrumental “Robbery with Violins” opens with an outburst of wah-wah and screaming violin giving way to Rick Kemp’s believe-it-or-not funk-style bass. The “robbery” in question follows when Peter Knight re-enters playing the old reel “The Bank of Ireland,” a highly adaptable piece often played on tin whistle or accordion. For me, Rick Kemp’s bass is the highlight; Knight’s otherwise well-played fiddle solo suffers from a combination of too much reverb and a poor EQ setting. It’s followed by the children’s song, “The Wee Wee Man” [Roud 2865; Child 38], a fantasy about a tiny little guy with a long white beard and superhuman strength. It’s well-played but something of a bore—though you might find it useful if you’re tired of reading “Rumplestiltskin” to your kiddoes.

For those who think I’m overplaying the sex angle on Parcel of Rogues, this is what the folks at Mainly Norfolk had to say about “The Weaver and the Factory Maid” [Roud 17771, 3085]: “The earliest weavers’ songs are from the time when handloom weavers went from village to village, setting up in farmhouse and cottage kitchens. Amorous chances were plenty.” Those were the good old days before steam looms and textile factories enflamed many a Luddite to try to block technological progress by smashing up the newfangled machines. Worse still was the fact that the weavers (mostly men) were now forced into dependence on women to earn their daily keep: “This song, lyrical and wry, curiously illuminates this moment in history when the handworkers were finding themselves obliged to follow the girls into the factories and weave by steam, and when country song was changing to town song.”

The narrator is one of those handloom weavers forced to make the change, and in so doing winds up working with and bedding one of the factory girls. His father strongly objects (“How could you fancy a factory maid?”) but the more sensible son defends his decision by pointing out the undeniable advantages of the new world order:

“How can you say it’s a pleasant bed
When nowt lies there but a factory maid?”
And a factory lass although she be
Blest is the man that enjoys she

O pleasant thoughts come to me mind
As I turn down the sheets so fine
And I seen her two breasts standing so
Like two white hills all covered with snow

Of course, nothing in this world comes without a price, especially a great pair of tits. As the weaver learns quickly enough, the price he has to pay for the right to bury his face in the lady’s luscious cleavage is a mental state that would be eventually identified as “modern ennui”:

The yarn is made into cloth at last
The ends of the weft they are made quite fast
The weaver’s labors are now all past
Such a wearisome trade is the weaver

Maddy’s vocal is typically marvelous, her voice gliding effortlessly up and down the scale, spicing up her delivery with trills and glissandi, and once again varying her timbre in sync with the mood of the characters. The syncopated rhythms established by electric guitar and bass calls to mind many a Jethro Tull song, but unbalanced (to modern ears) rhythms were not uncommon in the traditional folk music of the isles.

We now move to two songs that form the heart of Parcel of Rogues (one of which gave the album its title), each having to do with different phases of the Jacobite movement in favor of the restoration of the House of Stuart. This was apparently a big deal for a lot of folks in Scotland and Ireland who had the misfortune of being denied Pete Townshend’s eternal wisdom, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

“Rogues of the Nation” [Roud 5516; trad., from Hogg’s Jacobite Relics from Scotland] specifically deals with the Acts of Union in 1707 officially unifying the kingdoms and parliaments of England and Scotland. The song adopts the perspective of the Scottish opposition to the union, who believed (correctly) that the marriage was consummated through English bribery of Scottish rogues using a combination of cash and position. Though the song is attributed to Robert Burns, there is contrary evidence that the song originated in the previous century, indicating that roguism was nothing new in bonny Scotland.

What force or guile could not subdue
Through many warlike ages
Is wrought now by a coward few
For hireling traitor’s wages
The English steel we could disdain
Secure in valour’s station
But English gold has been our bane:
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!

Though the politics may be obscure, the performance is incredibly moving. Accompanied only by a funeral bass drum, Maddy, Bob and Tim give us three verses of three-part harmony marked by tones that capture the deep bitterness and sadness of the betrayal. Equally moving is Peter Knight’s overdubbed fiddle solo that follows in stereo, a combination of steady bowing and sharp thrusts that reflects the dagger plunged into the Scottish heart. In an album of superb arrangements, “Rogues in the Nation” stands out for its blessed simplicity and stunning execution.

Fast forward a few decades . . . the Scottish Jacobites are still pissed about the union, and even more so since Queen Anne of the House of Stuart failed to make babies after seventeen attempts! The throne was claimed by a gent from the German town of Hanover (George I) over the objections of Jacobites who argued that the Stuarts deserved the spot. In a fit of collective pique, the Jacobites rebelled in 1715, and because they were driven more by passion than military might, suffered a crushing defeat.

The loss forced the Jacobites underground, where they bided their time for Bonnie Prince Charlie (and another failure thirty-odd years away) by writing mocking songs like “Cam Ye O’er Frae France” [Roud 5814, from Hogg’s Jacobite Relics from Scotland] targeting George I. It does take a bit of effort on the part of the modern reader to grasp the meaning of the song; as noted by Renaissance Man and songsmith James Prescott, “Many Jacobite songs are riddling—in part to steer clear of the laws against treason, and in part from a love of satirical wit that was widespread at the time throughout Great Britain. ‘Came Ye O’er Frae France’ is one of the most witty of the songs, and is packed with cryptic metaphorical and allegorical references.” Here’s a sample of the challenges facing the modern reader/listener:

Though the claith were bad, blythly may we niffer;
Gin we get a wab, it makes little differ.
We hae tint our plaid, bannet, belt and swordie,
Ha’s and mailins braid — but we hae a Geordie!

Fortunately for us, Prescott developed a virtual glossary to help us appreciate the scathing wit. The abridged translation goes something like this: “George I was a libertine who fucked fat broads, skinny broads and men—and if no one was around, he greased his willy and had a great time all by his little ol’ lonesome. Never fear, however, for someday James III is going to waltz across the Channel and put his perverted German ass out to pasture.”

Though the lyrics may reflect the bawdy ridicule of low comedy, the music reflects the dark determination that characterizes members of an underground movement—the steady tempo of the martial snare drum navigating the multiple time signatures, sweeping all obstacles in its path; the minor key intensified by the rapid-fire picking of dulcimer and mandolin; the harmonium in deep background implying a grim fight ahead; the occasional bursts of rough electric guitar capturing the bubbling, righteous anger. Most noticeably, Maddy Prior sings with the utter resolve of the Jacobite fully committed to exposing the outrageous fraud (in her opinion) of King George’s reign. I can easily picture her hiding like Hamlet behind the arras, ready to plunge a dagger into the heart of any King’s soldier unlucky enough to stand too close.

After two songs of grief and grim determination, Steeleye Span made a wise choice to end the festivities with the charming melody of “Hares on the Mountain” [Roud 329; Ballad Index ShH63; VWML CJS2/10/1129; Wiltshire 837; trad.]. Bob Johnson plays the role of an old man longing for his tomcat days with obvious relish. The electric guitar-mandolin duet that supports the verses and expands into a flurry-filled instrumental passage highlights the marvelous picking skills of Johnson and Peter Knight, and the cheery fade of harmonium and mandolin is pure melodic delight. “Hares on the Mountain” is certainly light, but a very nice bookend to an album that spans a wide range of sound and mood.

I was shocked—shocked!—to realize that it had been seven years since my review of Below the Salt. Steeleye Span picked up where Fairport Convention left off, extending the boundaries of folk music and increasing its appeal to music fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The richness of their music is undeniable, the talent of the band members remarkable and their legacy both assured and well-deserved. With its exceptional musicianship and well-crafted arrangements, Parcel of Rogues was another superb addition to their catalog.

I hereby apologize for my negligence and promise to explore more of their music in comparatively short order.

The Jam – Setting Sons – Classic Music Review

I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you that I think very highly of Setting Sons . . . but I also wonder what could have been had Paul Weller been given the time and space to realize his original vision of a concept album that followed the lives of three boyhood friends who grow up and apart after a war deflects their life trajectories.

The disruption of the creative process resulted in an album “haphazardly put together” (PunkNews.org) but nonetheless praised by the critics. Paul Weller’s lyrics drew admiration both then and now; in reviewing the deluxe edition in 2014, Tony Clayton Lea of the Irish Times noted, “If there’s a prize for a 1970s songwriter that used words instead of slogans to better effect, then Weller takes the gong.” Critics on both sides of the pond were particularly annoyed by the cover of Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave,” and hardcore Jam fans somewhat bummed that only seven of the ten tracks were previously unreleased originals.

I do have several issues with the critical consensus. The first is that the critics seem to hold Paul Weller accountable for the album’s “haphazard construction” instead of placing blame where it belongs: the production line mentality of the music business. While the album was certainly cobbled together in a last-minute rush, Setting Sons has a definite unity about it, most obvious in the socio-cultural subject matter, musical themes and palpable urgency in the band’s attack. Finally and most importantly, the critics generally ignored the most engaging aspect of the album—the chordal and rhythmic complexity displayed in many of the songs. What’s even more remarkable is that the complexity doesn’t translate into inaccessibility—the melodies are memorable, the harmonies on point and the band kicks ass.

“Girl on the Phone” was one of two songs Weller dashed off at the last minute, which tells me he must have had a boatload of confidence in Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler, given the multiple time signatures and key changes he was about to throw at them. The jaunty syncopated 6/4 time of the verses gives the piece a thrusting Latin feel that is irresistibly hip-shaking, made even sweeter by Weller’s decision to mute his guitar on every third measure, letting Foxton drive the rhythm on his bass. When I tried to accompany the band on my guitar, I found it incredibly difficult to suppress the urge to finish the run and leave Bruce to it, so kudos to Weller for achieving the musical equivalent of holding ejaculation when a man is ready to explode.

I finally managed to get the verses down (all chords firmly compatible with the D major key), but when faced with the first key change I ran up against my latent classical training paradigm and had a bitch of a time getting past it. In the first bridge, Weller initiates the key change by moving from the complementary F# minor chord to the new key of F# major. Okay, one finger, one fret, easy peasy. But when he jumps several steps down the Camelot Wheel to introduce an Eb major (almost a key change within a key change), my blonde brain shorted out and I had to hit the reset button. I finally realized that he had not designed this section of the composition with compatible harmonies in mind but just the reverse—the ill-fitting key change reflects the uneasy tension one must feel when a perfect stranger calls you on the phone (or, in modern terms, contacts you via a phishing e-mail) and appears to know every last detail about you and your life. An experience like that would throw anyone off-balance; hence, the “off-balance” key selection–a superb intuitive move on Weller’s part.

The second key change introduces an alternative bridge, this one in the more compatible key of B minor. By this point, Weller has completely shifted from his initial “weird but probably harmless” orientation (“What foresight she must have/I’ve got to meet her whenever I have time”) to “Holy shit!”:

Girl on the phone keeps a-ringing back
Knows where I get my shirts and where I get my pants
Where I get my trousers where I get socks
My leg measurements and the size of my cock
And I must say its un-nerving
To think that she knows me

As opposed to the confusion communicated by the first, incompatible key change, shifting to the darker minor key complement tells us that he’s reached a state of clarity about the situation—this bitch is bad news. The good news comes from the band—“Girl on the Phone” is not an easy piece to master with its multiple changes contained within a near-punk tempo of 163 bpm, but The Jam plays the piece to perfection.

“Thick As Thieves” is the first of four tracks from the intended concept album, a tale of male bonding that fades with age and experience. The composition features three distinct patterns: two in the key of A and one in C# minor that ends on the incompatible G# major to create a dissonant tension before linking with the base A major chord—not quite as musically complex as “Girl on the Phone” but certainly varied enough to engage the listener (with Foxton’s bass a particular delight). The lyrics are most interesting, particularly in how Weller defines the nature of boyhood thievery—the “theft” of experience:

We stole the love from young girls in ivory towers
We stole autumn leaves and summer showers
We stole the silent wind that says you are free
We stole everything that we could see

The following lines foreshadow the demise of this form of freedom: “But it wasn’t enough, and now we’ve gone and spoiled everything/Now we’re no longer as thick as thieves.” The elucidation comes in the extended verse towards the end of the song, where Weller and Foxton engage in a duet of sorts, with Weller mourning the loss and Foxton confirming the reality:

But something came along that changed our minds (we’re no longer thick as thieves)
I don’t know what and I don’t know why (we’re not thick as we used to be)
But we seemed to grow up in a flash of time (we’re no longer thick as thieves)
While we watched our ideals helplessly unwind (we’re not thick as we used to be)

I detect an ironic double entendre here centering around the British definition of “thick” as “stupid.” One could interpret Foxton’s lines (in parentheses) as “No, we’ve grown up and we’re not as stupid as we used to be” while Weller bemoans the loss of vibrant idealism. Without the full storyline it’s impossible to be definitive, but the meaning of that double entendre is echoed in another one of the concept album tracks (see below). Though we are denied the experience of hearing the song in its intended context, the strength of the imagery and the band’s tight execution put “Thick As Thieves” into the plus column.

Guitarists will be relieved to find that “Private Hell” has more familiar chording and only a simple change in time signature (4/4 to 2/4) in the verses. Bruce Foxton leads the way with a nasty bass tone followed by searing flash chords in E minor, both combining to set the appropriately hellish environment. Weller described his lead character to Mojo as “a very beaten-down, unhappy person really,” and the dark picture he paints with the lyrics spares neither the woman of the house nor her family:

A mirrored image of what you wanted to be.
As each day goes by a little more
You can’t remember what it was you wanted anyway.
The fingers feel the lines they prod the space
Your aging face the face that once was so beautiful,
Is still there but unrecognizable
Private hell, private hell.

The man who you once loved is bald and fat
And seldom in, working late as usual.
Your interest has waned you feel the strain
The bedsprings snap on the occasions he lies upon you
Close your eyes and think of nothing but
Private hell, private hell

We then learn that the family unit is in full collapse—her daughter never bothers to call, she doesn’t get to see her grandchildren and her college-age son ignores her letters—“‘Cause they’re all going through their private hell.” Weller doesn’t give us much of a clue as to what led to the family dysfunction, but it was more likely the result of an unconscious marriage and the emptiness of life in a consumerist society. Yeah, what a drag it is getting old:

The morning slips away in a valium haze,
And catalogues and numerous cups of coffee.
In the afternoon the weekly food,
Is put in bags as you float off down the high street
The shop windows reflect – play a nameless host,
To a closet ghost – a picture of your fantasy
A victim of your misery – and private hell

This is the second song Weller dashed off to meet the record company’s deadline, and all I can say is that Paul Weller is one hell of a dasher. “Private Hell” is a painful but truthful depiction of modern ennui and the toll it takes on human mental health.

“Little Boy Soldiers,” another fragment from the lost concept album, is actually more of a suite than a straight-up song with three distinct segments plus a reprise of the first segment at the end. The narrator of the piece is a soldier-in-training—or, more accurately, a guy who enlisted because the economy was in a shithole and now finds himself having to go through the motions. At this juncture in the larger story, the country has decided that the soldiers must march off to war (where or why are both unknowns). Our anti-hero greets the news with something less than a passionate display of martial spirit:

You’ve gone and got yourself in trouble
Now you want me to help you out
These days I find that it’s all too much
To pick up a gun and shoot a stranger
But I’ve got no choice so here I come . . . war games

The sounds of Rick Buckler’s military drum roll and artillery announce the second segment, where the rhythm mimics a galloping cavalry horse and we learn from the narrator that the British Army’s primary mission is to maintain the myth of the glorious empire (in denial of its true role as second fiddle to the all-powerful USA):

I’m up on the hills playing little boy soldiers
Reconnaissance duty up at 5:30
Shoot shoot shoot and kill the natives
You’re one of us and we love you for that
Think of honor, queen and country
You’re a blessed son of the British empire
God’s on our side and so is Washington
Come out on the hills with the little boy soldiers (3)

Kudos to Weller for identifying the white supremacy that fueled the empire and calling bullshit on the whole god-is-on-your-side crap. In the third segment—featuring a more morose arrangement marked by minor chords and whispers—our anti-hero divulges the secret behind successful colonization and how the truth is shrouded in soothing lies:

Come on outside I’ll sing you a lullaby
Or tell a tale of how goodness prevailed
We ruled the world we killed and robbed
The fucking lot but we don’t feel bad
It was done beneath the flag of democracy
You’ll believe and I do yes I do yes I do
Yes I do

The reprise is essentially an updated version of Country Joe’s “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” albeit more cynical and hopeless:

These days I find that I can’t be bothered
To argue with them well what’s the point
Better to take your shots and drop down dead
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

As the only military action happening at the time of composition involved The Troubles, it’s interesting that Weller chose to focus on British military history and tradition . . . perhaps he perceived it as a latent danger, a means to perpetuate the myth of British glory, a psychological crutch of sorts. A great admirer of Ray Davies, you can hear echoes of Arthur in this song (“Mr. Churchill Says,” “Some Mother’s Son”), but I think Weller outperformed his mentor on this one—his use of the first-person narrative and his obvious empathy for the soldier imbue the song with a powerful immediacy.

The third piece of the puzzle from the aborted concept album is “Wasteland,” a song that noted critic and arrogant prick Robert Christgau called “pretty dumb.” In response, I would say that Christgau is pretty dumb to demonstrate his utter insensitivity to life in declining communities and the environmental waste that often surrounded those communities. As if living in a garbage dump wasn’t bad enough, governments and speculators in both the U. K. and U. S. often used such toxic landfills to construct public housing, condemning the lower classes to spend their days in what Weller called “monolithic monstrosities.”

“Wasteland” is actually a brilliant piece of work. The music is certifiably ironic, as Weller’s narrative of kids playing “there amongst the shit – the dirty linens – the holy Coca-Cola tins – the punctured footballs – the ragged dolls – the rusting bicycles” is backed by a pastoral arrangement sweetened by the rustic sound of a recorder. The music paints a picture of happy children mucking about on the village green while the lyrics tell a grimmer story:

We’ll sit amongst the rubber tires
Amongst the discarded bric-a-brac
People have no use for—amongst the smoldering embers of yesterday

And when or if the sun shines
Lighting our once beautiful features
We’ll smile but only for seconds
For to be caught smiling is to acknowledge life
A brave but useless show of compassion
And that is forbidden in this drab and colorless world

Still, kids can make the best of most situations, and Weller also describes the wasteland as an oasis of “release when we could play – and think – without feeling guilt.” It’s only when they get a little bit older that they realize that the wasteland is a bottomless pit at the lower end of the social order and that their odds of moving on are close to nil:

Meet me later but we’ll have to hold hands
Tumble and fall – tumble and falling
Like our lives – like our lives
Exactly like our lives

In closing, allow me to correct Mr. Christgau: “pretty dumb” “pretty fucking brilliant.”

The final entry from the concept album is “Burning Sky,” the title symbolizing capitalist exploitation of resources no matter what the cost to the environment or the quality of human life. The premise of the song is quite clever—one of the three boyhood friends (probably the idealist in the group) has written to his old mates to suggest a reunion. The narrator in the song is the mate who wrote back, excusing himself from the festivities and revealing why they’re “no longer thick as thieves.”

The opening line—“How are things in your little world?”—is a clever bit of foreshadowing indeed. I already hate this prick.

I’m really sorry that I can’t be there
But work comes first, I’m sure you’ll understand
Things are really taking off for me
Business is thriving, and I’m showing a profit

And in any case it wouldn’t be the same
‘Cause we’ve all grown up, and we’ve got our lives
And the values that we had once upon a time
Seem stupid now, ’cause the rent must be paid
And some bonds severed, and others made

He dismisses their vibrant period of youth as ” . . . a laugh but that’s all it was and will ever be” then reveals his allegiance to Mammon with all the fervor of a religious convert:

And it’s only us realists who are gonna come through
‘Cause there’s only one power higher than that of truth
And that’s the burning sky . . .

And you’re just a dreamer if you don’t realize
And the sooner you do will be the better for you
Then we’ll all be happy, and we’ll all be wise
And all bow down to the burning sky

This was quite a timely composition, hitting the airwaves six months after Maggie Thatcher took over and solidified the whole capitalism-as-religion bullshit that Ronnie Reagan would shortly bring to the States. I have to say that when I played the four concept album songs as a self-made suite, I felt a deep sense of loss . . . the music, the arrangements and the emotion-evoking lyrics convinced me that the concept album would have been an absolute masterpiece.

Then again, we might not have ever heard the string quartet version of Bruce Foxton’s “Smithers-Jones.” The Jam had recorded the song as a straight band number to serve as the B-side to “When You’re Young” but the single version turned out surprisingly tepid. Rick Buckler suggested that the song was more suited to a proper string arrangement and man, was he spot-on—the string version packs far more power and clarity, and its formality makes it a better fit for the lead character’s obsession with routine.

That lead character was Foxton’s father. Writing about someone close to you presents a challenge because you always run the risk of excessive sentimentality and muddled emotions. Foxton made the unorthodox but ingenious decision to insert himself into the story in order to share his concern for his father honestly and openly. Though it’s not what they teach you in Creative Writing 101, it works!

But before he goes there, Foxton establishes the lead character, painting a too-typical picture of a man addicted to routine:

Here we go again, it’s Monday at last
He’s heading for the Waterloo line
To catch the 8 a.m. fast, it’s usually dead on time
Hope it isn’t late, got to be there by nine

Pinstripe suit, clean shirt and tie
Stops off at the corner shop, to buy The Times
‘Good Morning Smithers-Jones’
‘How’s the wife and home?’
‘Did you get the car you’ve been looking for?’
‘Did you get the car you’ve been looking for?’

The bridge that follows introduces a new melodic variation, introducing Foxton in the role of “participant-observer.” As noted, this is not the dispassionate observer whose perspective remains closed to the reader, but a very active participant who has observed his father wasting his life away and wants to do something about it. It seems to my ears that Foxton may be relating a conversation he had (or wished he had) with his father; the father response to his heartfelt pleas is italicized:

Let me get inside you, let me take control of you
We could have some good times
All this worry will get you down
I’ll give you a new meaning to life, I don’t think so

While this gets very close to that awful line in “Arthur” (“Arthur we love you and we want to help you”), the difference is that Foxton’s urgings are personal while Ray Davies’ offer has no personal connection and comes across as rather condescending.

Having dismissed his son’s suggestions, Smithers-Jones arrives at work to the news that the boss wants to see him alone—and no, it’s not “the promotion you’ve been looking for”—

‘Come in Smithers, old boy’
‘Take a seat, take the weight off your feet’
‘I’ve some news to tell you’
‘There’s no longer a position for you’
‘Sorry Smithers-Jones’

Apparently, Foxton’s father still had his pride and decided to salvage some by opting for retirement over redundancy.

The last verse depicts the father in retirement, but the narrative becomes somewhat ambiguous here—we’re not sure if he’s really “feeling groovy” or wishes he was still on the job (“Work and work you wanna work ’till you die”). I’m sure that most retirees feel somewhat torn about not having to work anymore (I sure as fuck wouldn’t), so I think the ambiguity is appropriate. Kudos to Pete Solley for the minimalistic but engaging string arrangement and to the anonymous members of The Jam Philharmonic Orchestra for a solid day’s work.

“Saturday’s Kids” is the only track on the album that doesn’t work for me. The in-verse key change (moving from G major to E major) feels forced and pointless and the depiction of the lives of working-class youth doesn’t yield an “aha” moment that grabs me. The one musical moment that does work for me appears in the second bridge (“Saturday kids live in council houses . . .”) where a shimmery arpeggiated guitar forms a luscious musical background.

Because the incident at the heart of “The Eton Rifles” took place so long ago and because the song is loaded with words and phrases that have little meaning to English speakers outside of the U. K., I thought it might be helpful to provide a summary of the event and Paul Weller’s motivations for writing the song. I copied the following overview from an article on “The Eton Rifles” that appeared on New Frame, a not-for-profit, social justice media publication based in Johannesburg. Full disclosure: the subtitle of the article reflects an editorial bias that I happen to agree with: “A single line from a 40-year-old song succinctly sums up how Boris Johnson, the buffoon of Britain, ended up as prime minister.”

It was June 1978. At the front of the march snaking through the streets of Eton in southeast England was a lorry. On the back, like punk incarnations of the Pied Piper, the band Crisis was playing loud music. Socialist Workers Party members followed the truck and were later joined by Rock Against Racism punks.

This Right To Work march, in protest against rising unemployment, stopped at the gates of the elite school for boys, Eton College, a symbol of English privilege, entitlement and power.

There the protesters handed over a giant, fake silver spoon to the school’s head boy.

As the 17 June 1978 edition of the Socialist Worker newspaper reported, the head boy patronisingly told the marchers: “I hope your jolly campaign gets you somewhere.”

Paul Weller, leader of new wave band The Jam, saw coverage of the march on television. “I was watching the news on TV and I saw this footage of a Right To Work march going past Eton, where all the kids from the school came outside and started jeering at the marchers,” he recalled to Uncut music magazine in 2016. “I just thought what a great fucking image it was.”

It prompted Weller to write his famous song about class warfare and inequality, The Eton Rifles. It was released on 26 October 1979 and shot to number three on the hit parade.

Generally accurate, though I take exception to the label “new wave” to describe The Jam. Let me give you one other important bit of context from Uncut: “Following the Conservative victory at May’s general election, a raft of new policies led to a swift rise in unemployment and a growing suspicion that was the nation was being divided along class lines.”

Now that you’re in the picture . . . let’s move on to verse one:

Sup up your beer and collect your fags
There’s a row going on down near Slough
Get out your mat and pray to the west
I’ll get out mine and pray for myself

Several things going on here—Weller plays the role of working-class bloke, building on the stereotype of men always looking for a fight even if they haven’t the slightest idea what they’re fighting about. Even American readers know that fags = cigarettes, but the word is also used to describe what Americans would recognize as the hazing rituals practiced by fraternities in some U. S. colleges (fagging) and was part of daily life at Eton. “Get out your mat” alludes to a significant Muslim population in Slough, and the suggestion to “pray to the west” reveals the narrator’s ignorance of geography and non-Christian religious rituals. Slough (town folk) and Eton (gown folk) have a long history of class-related conflict, so the narrator’s response to the possibility of a punch-up is a product of cultural inheritance.

Note that Weller described what he saw as “jeering” and not “fighting” in the quote above; I could find no credible evidence that any fisticuffs took place that day. In verse two, Weller slips out of his working-class duds and takes on the role of wry observer:

Thought you were smart when you took them on
But you didn’t take a peep in their artillery room
All that rugby puts hairs on your chest
What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?

“Sport, sport, masculine sport/Equips a young man for Society,” sang Vivian Stanshall, and ultra-upper-crust Eton encourages such a belief (it’s still an all-male institution). Rick Buckler commented in the Uncut retrospective on the song, “For me, it was always a parody of the shooting club at Eton School who were actually called the ‘Eton Rifles‘. Growing up in Woking, you were aware that the school was nearby and these kids were being taught how to fire guns. It seemed crazy – a very militaristic view of education.” The key line, of course, is “What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?” This refers to Eton’s status as “the chief nurse of England’s statesmen,” having provided the nation with twenty prime ministers, including the current incumbent. The answer to the question is “no chance at all,” which is only partly a reference to the weapons and superior physicality of Eton lads. The main reasons the working class have no chance are twofold: one, tradition as manifested in a rigid class system still holds sway; and two, their tactics make scant use of smarts and too often dissolve into brawn and bitching:

We came out of it naturally the worst
Beaten and bloody and I was sick down my shirt
We were no match for their untamed wit
Though some of the lads said they’ll be back next week

Weller certainly comes down on the side of non-violence but knows he’s up against centuries of class hatred—strong and valid feelings that no one has effectively translated into positive action. “Hello-hurrah, I’d prefer the plague to the Eton rifles” may make someone feel good but it doesn’t change anything. I read Weller’s message in the “The Eton Rifles” as this: “Reconsider your approach. Class warfare isn’t going to get you anywhere when the other side has all the power and not likely to give it up. Educate yourselves, learn how the system works, then figure out how to outwit the bastards.”

The music for “The Eton Rifles” is positively inspired—the dissonant chord that opens the piece, hinting at a descent into madness—the muscular, assertive rhythms—the Eton Rifles Choir (a group of boys who hung around the studio whom Weller invited into the studio) on the “Hoorays!”—and the rare appearance of an organ to add a touch of funereal blues to the mix. It’s a terribly exciting song with an unfortunately timeless but important message: you can’t win if you can’t break the cycle and you can’t break the cycle until you break the cycle that lives inside your head.

The album closes with the most controversial track of them all, though the controversy is completely apolitical: The Jam were roundly attacked for including a cover of “Heat Wave.” The omnibus indictment contained two alleged crimes: one, “Heat Wave” was a poor fit in an album filled with socio-cultural themes; and two, The Jam’s version wasn’t all that different than The Who’s take, which appeared on the album A Quick One.

I can’t defend The Jam on the charge of poor fit. The only way you can make sense of “Heat Wave” on Setting Sons is to pretend it’s a bonus track.

As for the charge of “too much like The Who,” all I can say is . . . oh, for fuck’s sake.

The Who turned one of Martha Reeves’ signature soul songs into a silly pop song. Roger Daltrey is a great rock singer but a total wimp when it comes to soul music. He simply doesn’t have the pipes or the feel to deliver credible soul vocals. Paul Weller, on the other hand, is a GREAT soul singer, something he has proven time and time again over his long career. And in this particular composition, The Jam completely outpower The Who with stronger bass, more focused drumming and no-bullshit guitar. “Heat Wave” may be something of an orphan in the context of Setting Sons, but taken by itself, it’s a damned impressive performance.

Though I rue the loss of the concept album (and the fact that I’ll always be reminded of it because of the album cover and title), Setting Sons is one of those relatively few albums that I hate to leave. There’s something about this album I find enormously engaging—something beyond the political compatibility. Maybe it’s the heartfelt sincerity displayed in the words of Weller and Foxton, or maybe it’s because my reviews lately have been relatively rock-free and I really needed the jolt that only a great rock band can provide.

All I know is this—despite the recent appearance of the second wave of COVID-19 and the return of restrictions—and despite losing part of my roof to the thunderstorms from the tail end of Tempête Alex—when I slipped my headphones on to listen to Setting Sons, all my troubles vanished into insignificance.

That’s the power of a great rock ‘n’ roll band—and The Jam certainly qualifies.

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