Since the beginning of the band’s existence, in both songwriting and appearance, it was clear that the Jam owed an incredible amount of debt to the My Generation era of the Who. From their impeccable covers of “Disguises” and to their preference for to appear in stylish Mod dress at all times, the Jam could very much have been considered the most authentic representation of true British punk in the late 1970’s, especially when considering their relative lack of success in the States. Where the Sex Pistols and the Clash (among others) became well-known ambassadors of the UK’s version of the genre, it was the Jam’s well-honed mixture of stylistic complexity and Weller’s witty, satirical lyrics a la Ray Davies, that the Jam were perhaps too smart to be the kind of punk that people expected.
But where they didn’t quite fit in with the rest, they excelled as a class of their own. But in one song in particular, the band shows that they’re perfectly fine being aligned with the older guard of British rockers, by being able to build upon their concepts and techniques and create something for the young gobbers to ponder to while they pogo.
After the Jump: Addressing an tired old theme for a new generation of mods and rockers alike.
By the time the Jam released their critically beloved All Mod Cons in 1978, Peter Weller had shown that he was capable, and ready for a more ambitious project. 1979’s Setting Sons was meant to be a concept album revolving around three friends who’ve spent time apart, and upon reuniting, reflect on the different directions their lives have gone. Due to a hurried recording schedule, the concept didn’t quite pan out.
But of the songs recorded, one in particular, “Little Boy Soldiers,” showed off Weller’s prowess for complex structures. With progressive phrases, multiple tones changes and aggressive changes in the points of view, “Little Boy Soldiers” was a mini-opera, much in the fashion of the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away,” or “Rael” before it. A bouncing Jam-as-all-hell poppy tune for the majority of the verse and chorus, it would be easy to call it a mod R&B song that eventually turns into a moral finger-wagging at the pressures of jingoism. It’s a theme that many British bands had addressed, most notably the Pretty Things in their concept album, S.F. Sorrow, but because it’s punk rock and the rules dictate that speed is a must, all of this speeds by in under three minutes.
What’s most rewarding about listening to these different phrases is listening closely for how many other bands the Jam make allusion to in each phrase. The shape of the song recalls the Who, of course, but there’s also a psych-folk lullaby section with a double-tracked whisper vocal that recalls Barrett-era Floyd (as well as the aforementioned S.F. Sorrow), and perhaps most subtle, an extended, droning bass that extends the song past half a minute past the last lyric, as the Beatles have done so many times in their psychedelic era (namely, “Penny Lane” and “A Day in the Life,” both songs of daily British life with dark overtones that hang in the shadows).
Listen for yourself and see who you can hear.