Perhaps it was just as well it didn’t work, since the songs hang better, together and on their own, without being tethered to a song cycle about three boyhood friends whose lives went in markedly different directions. Such an idea is obscured by the opening track about the “Girl On The Phone” (complete with sound effects) stalking the singer because, well, he’s a singer. That out of the way, the back story is set up in “Thick As Thieves”, a catchy look back at the boys’ lost youth. One of them pens the letter paraphrased in “Burning Sky”, bragging about his busy corporate life. Another could be the angry military pawn of “Little Boy Soldiers”, pushed through several tempo changes. Somebody else is stuck in the “Wasteland”, trying to maintain hope in the face of economic decline.
The rest of the songs, while topical, are worthy vignettes outside the original idea. “Private Hell” is a fitting title for the situation holding an aging housewife hostage, her kids grown and distant, her husband merely a reason to shop for groceries week after week. The youth of the day are dismissed as “Saturday’s Kids”, but still seem more appealing than the snobs attacked in “The Eton Rifles”.
The most striking song on the album is arguably “Smithers-Jones”. Written by bassist Bruce Foxton and already heard as a straight rock B-side, it got a major makeover with classical strings, an inspired match for such a vivid portrait of an office drone, worthy of Weller and Davies—and even more effective coming after the businessman’s spiel in “Burning Sky”. That said, the slightest song could be their closing Who-heavy cover of “Heat Wave”, familiar to ‘70s kids from Linda Ronstadt’s version, and here featuring a horn section in a harbinger of albums to come. Bringing the album in at 32 minutes, it’s still a good performance.
And that’s the point—the parts make the sum. In a short amount of time, the band had become something of spokesmen, with two strong songwriters offering wry observations of society. Not bad for three yobbos in their early 20s.
The Jam Setting Sons (1979)—3½