Tuesday, 9 October 2012

For a long while, Setting Sons was my most-played Jam lp. I think I bought it second, after The Gift, and curiously enough, Setting Sons has some things in common with their last album. For a start, it's a bit of a bodge job. It began life as, curiously, a 'concept album', that late 60s/ 70s album format which was largely spawned by The Who's Tommy (1969), and (for me) synonymous with the gatefold-sleeve excesses of 70s rock and particularly prog. Why the hell were The Jam making a concept album?

Well, it's clearly down to The Who. If Pete did it in Tommy and Quadrophenia then it must be all right. But as a concept album, Setting Sons is incomplete, largely, I think, because Weller simply doesn't write songs with the grand (or grandiose) visions of a Townshend or a Bowie. Setting Sons was meant to be about three friends who grow up and apart, the album narrating what happens to them. The title's multiple puns indicate that this has a particularly British context: as the front cover and inner sleeve indicate, the story is in part indebted to British involvement in two world wars, and the Empire upon which the sun was never meant to set. The album came out in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, but the album isn't nostalgic for some kind of lost glory, the Empire dreams which still haunt British culture and the British polis. Instead, the central themes of the album are disappointment and betrayal: betrayal of self, betrayal of one's friends, betrayal of ones ideals and causes you believe in.

The highly ironic use of the Union Jack on the back cover and inner sleeve - it adorns a deckchair on what appears to be Brighton beach - is a reference as much to the Mod past as to notions of Britishness, but I don't think the album is a repudiation of either. 1979 was the year of the 'Mod revival' (and the release of the film of Quadrophenia) and such bands as Secret Affair and the Merton Parkas, whose keyboard player was Mick Talbot, who plays piano on Setting Sons and would form The Style Council with Weller in 1983. Though at the time I remember Weller distancing himself from the revival, the rather ambivalent gesture on Setting Sons is markedly different to the homage to the Mod heritage The Jam presented on the previous lp, 1978's All Mod Cons. The sound of Setting Sons itself a development, reining back the top end of the Rickenbacker's brittle overdriven clang to achieve a thick, bassy, rhythm-oriented effect (although 'The Eton Rifles' does feature loud, squalling feedback over its intro and extended outro riff).

But it's the sequencing of the album, just as with The Gift, that is the real puzzle. Setting Sons begins with 'Girl on the Phone' (which, on original pressings, I believe did not appear on the lyric sheet), and ends with an almost entirely redundant cover of Martha and the Vandella's 'Heatwave'. Why, then, begin the lp with the most inconsequential track, and end it with filler? Just as The Gift opened with the bog-standard 'Happy Together' (rather than a single or crucial track 'Ghosts'), Setting Sons bookends the central tracks with a 'wrapper' of less juicy material. that's not to say that 'Girl on the Phone' is weak; it's catchy, very tightly played, uptempo and light, but it's almost as though the band are warming themselves and the audience up for more significant material.

Then comes along the second track, 'Thick as Thieves', and like the side closer 'Wasteland' it's a melodic, mid-tempo track that articulates the key themes and ideas of the 'three friends' concept. 'Thick as Thieves' as introduces the sense of loss - 'we're no longer as thick as thieves' - that dominates the fragmented 'story'. Friendship is central here, the personal dimension that Weller connected in a more abstract but effective means to change and politics in Sound Affects. Friendship here cannot withstand the effects of war or the 'burning sky', the 'greedy bastard who won't give up', capitalism itself. The sense of loss in these two tracks finds a different register in 'Burning Sky', the first track on side two, whose lyrics are set down as a letter from one old friend to another. The persona reveals himself to have given in, to have 'bowed down' to the Burning Sky and its dictates, and the loss of youthful innocence is cast as a kind of betrayal: 'Now I don't want you to get me wrong, Ideals are fine when you are young/ And I must admit we had a laugh, but that's all it was and ever will [be]'. The re-writing of personal history to accommodate the betrayal of principles (and trading career success for friendship) makes this loss a much more bitter one. 'Burning Sky' I now find to be the central track, thematically: it countermands any wistfulness, and indicts a world that demands obedience and destroys resistance.

The sense of the 'system' destroying peoples' lives is also present in 'Saturdays Kids' (who 'shop in Tesco and Woolworth [...] wear cheap perfume cause it's all they can afford'), but the exuberance of the track and its leavening humour ('Ford Cortina, fur trim dashboard/ Stains on the seats - in the back of course!') indicates that life, of a kind, goes on in spite of the system. The song ironizes resistance in the chant 'It's the system, hate the system, what's the system?' but annotates the paltry share of the nation's wealth afforded to the working class in post-Imperial, post-industrial Britain. The horrors of middle-class anomie, and in particular the deadening existence of the middle-class housewife is the focus of 'Private Hell', a strident rocker that bangs away on one chord for most of the verse, and whose refrain of 'Private Hell' is so dislocated from melody that Weller sings it in an indeterminate pitch, almost a groan. The lyrics address the housewife as 'you', furthering the sense of alienation, but indicates that this is the common condition: 'they're all going through their own /Private Hell', and privacy or isolation is a central component of, and compounder of the misery.

The single that preceded the album was 'The Eton Rifles', which cracked the top three in the UK. It's an extraordinarily British song. The opening lines run: 'Sup up your beer and collect your fags/ there's a row going on, down near Slough'; for any non-British listener, this must appear nearly incomprehensible. The song is, of course, about class, and privilege, and about Britain (and Empire) run by the rich, for the rich. In the days of Cameron and the Bullingdon club, 'The Eton Rifles' seems as caustic as ever. On the b-side of the single was a Foxton song (his best), 'Smithers-Jones', arranged for the three-piece band. On the album, the song appears with an orchestral arrangement, as suggested by drummer Rick Buckler. This treatment is highly effective, setting the story of the office drone, Smithers-Jones, laid off from his job, in a sound-scape which suggests cosiness and 'culture'. This is no protection; as Weller sings in the bitter coda, 'It's time to relax now you've worked your arse off/ The only one smiling is the suntanned boss/ Work and work and work and work 'til you die/ There's plenty more fish in the sea to fry.'

In a sense, Setting Sons is Weller's attempt at a 'condition-of-England' narrative, using the story of three friends to examine what Britain was like at the end of the 1970s. 'Little Boy Soldiers', a three-movement and highly ambitious song about the friends involved in war, is equally caustic about such overseas adventures ('I'll tell a tale of how goodness prevailed/ We killed and robbed the fucking lot/ But we don't feel bad / It was done beneath the flag of democracy'), but was apparently originally designed in three separate pieces, to appear, in concept-album fashion, at key parts in the song-cycle. Stitched together, they're effective enough, and shows how a bodge can reap dividends.

Setting Sons had a different running order when released in the US and Canada, including another 1979 single 'Strange Town' and its b-side, one of The Jam's very best songs, 'The Butterfly Collector', with its rather misanthropic and bitter psychedelia. Why this, or another single 'When You're Young' (which might have fitted the concept) wasn't included on the album is a mystery, as they would have strengthened it a great deal. Perhaps Weller was ethically invested (as on later Style Council lps) in not having albums mined for endless singles, asking fans to pay for multiple product, but this does occasionally make Jam albums less strong than they might be. 1978's All Mod Cons, has three tracks to appear on singles (two a double-A side), and it's no coincidence that it's the best and most consistent Jam lp.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A short excursion with Trout Mask Replica

I've been reading Lester Bangs' Mainlines, Blood Feasts and Bad Taste, in which he interviews Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart. Inspired by this article, I dug out Trout Mask Replica, his 1969 double album, which I hadn't listened to in quite some time. It's a 28-track pandemonium, and I put it on during the drive to work. It saw me neatly from leaving the petrol station near home to the turn-off of the M6.

Listening to Trout Mask Replica again was a bit like listening to the audiobook of Joyce's Finnegans Wake that I'd had in the car a week or two ago. From the primal gumbo of sound would emerge clarity, phrases (musical or verbal) that suddenly pierced the surface and seemed all the clearer set against the texture of the whole. Because, in places, like on 'Neon Meate Dream of a Octafish', Trout Mask Replica sounds for all the world like a tin box of kitchen utensils being kicked fitfully down a fire escape. With rhyme, but seemingly no reason, Trout Mask Replica is an aural assault, and makes you think: what the hell is going on?

On some tracks, like 'China Pig', an improvised blues recorded on a cassette, Van Vliet's voice takes command, a growly blues shout that anticipates the later Tom Waits, and the guitar accompaniment renders a direct Delta blues; on 'Orange Claw Hammer', a capella, he carries the whole song with a shanty tale that is pure Melvillean Americana. As I listened, I realised that what is so challenging about  Trout Mask Replica is rhythm. It's a long way from a rock 4/4 or the beat of blues; only the first half of the final track, 'Veteran's Day Poppy', a thumping r'n'b, or the jalopy rumble of 'Pachuco Cadaver', or the stomping 'Fallin' Ditch' (which has a lovely melodic electric bass line) have much in the way of recognisable and sustained metrical regularity. It sounds like chaos, but isn't: legend has it that Van Vliet locked the band in a house for months, rehearsing 14 hours a day, drilling them over and over and over, and finally recorded all the instrumental tracks in an 8-hour burst. The spiky, shifting, clattering structures are designed that way, are not the product of 'play' (like the 'Old Fart' in the title of the penultimate song) but of hard work, and lots of it.Van Vliet was as driven as Keith Richards, in a way, to drive the band on, to achieve the desired sound through repetitive work.

(I've recently thought that the Romantic image of Keef, the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know' outlaw, is wrong. Keith doesn't create through bursts of inspiration, but through repetition, jamming, work. Heroin and cocaine facilitated the work/ crash cycle, where Keith would be up 3 days straight. Richards isn't known as the 'riff machine' for nothing.)

The Stones song that comes closest to the feel and angular playing of Trout Mask Replica is 'Ventilator Blues' from Exile on Main Street (1972), with its harsh slide guitar figure and halting gait; but Charlie Watts would have had to have been on L-Dopa to to achieve the ticcy, convulsed rhythms of Trout Mask Replica, and the Stones' organic groove is diametrically opposed to Beefheart's bolted-together constructions. (I'm also reminded of the figure of 'witty, ticcy Ray, the Parkinson's sufferer in Oliver Sacks's wonderful book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, who translated his tics into expressive jazz drumming.) The only out and out rock drummer to move so extensively around 4/4 rhythms was Keith Moon. In a recent documentary on Quadrophenia, Townshend said that he didn't rate Moon as a drummer, and complained that instead of playing 'boom-tish-boom-tish' Moon would play 'boom-bip-bop-tiddle-iddle-be-bop-boom-tish', and Townshend himself would have to keep time with his guitar: 'someone had to'. It's an odd complaint. You only have to compare a Keith Moon version of the most driven of Who songs, 'Won't Get Fooled Again', with the live cut included on the 2006 Endless Wire cd to realise just how important Moon's polyrhythmic drumming was to The Who's sound. Pete is, I confess, a bit of an old crank these days, bless him, so I can forgive him this indiscretion.

It's the absence of a rock 4/4, that regular thump that anchors the wildest 60s psychedelic rock freak-out, that makes Trout Mask Replica such an uncomfortable (and downright weird) listen. In most songs, the rhythm is agitated, unsteady, revealing the way the songs were written, in pieces, then spliced together; hi-hats aren't where they should be; it's as if the drum kit had been assembled by someone who'd never seen one before, and then played them blindfolded. To reiterate, though, this has nothing to do with incompetence, and everything to do with intention: the music and lyrics are of a piece, an expression of the very singular landscapes of Don Van Vliet's imagination. (As a child, according to Bangs's article, Van Vliet built sculptures and refused to go to school; Trout Mask Replica's songs are ramshackle sculptures themselves.)

While not exactly pre-musical, the sound of tiny tots banging tin cups together in a play pen, there is a gleeful, whirligig energy to Trout Mask Replica's pandemonium that can be found as easily in the lyrics as in the music: 'A squid, eating dough, in a polyethylene bag, is fast and bulbous. Get me?' Where Joyce's Finnegans Wake attempted to represent a language so fluid that it reached a pre-Babel glossolalia, there is something if not quite primal about Trout Mask Replica's sonic and linguistic sculptures, then prior to the factory-floor regularity of rock and pop's post-war rhythms. It's awkward, yes, but it's the uncomfortable energy of beings that haven't yet learned to adopt the patterns of the workaday world. Trout Mask Replica might be the product of hard work, but it resists, or precedes, modernity's discipline.