Following controversy over one of their hits, Michelle Charlton followed the political development of The Jam in Issue 53 in September 2013.
One reason to dislike British prime minister David Cameron—and we’ll have to stick to just the one reason, or we could be here all day—is the fact that he was educated at that bastion of English class privilege called Eton College. Unlike scholarship boy George Orwell who later turned against everything his old school stood for, Cameron’s mission in life has always been to keep the world safe for Old Etonians.
Soon after he started there, but before he enrolled in its cadet corps, the college entered the popular consciousness and the pop charts in the shape of the Jam single ‘The Eton Rifles’. Having floated to the top of the Conservative Party, Cameron looked back on the Jam’s influence in 2008, singling out that track as his particular favourite:
‘The Eton Rifles’, inevitably. I was one, in the corps. It meant a lot, some of those early Jam albums we used to listen to. I don’t see why the left should be the only ones allowed to listen to protest songs.
The song’s composer Paul Weller didn’t quite see it the same way: “Which part of it didn’t he get? It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps.”1 His incredulity only increased:
How could he not understand what ‘Eton Rifles’ was about? It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We could have had a great socialist leader for our country who’s been inspired by that song, and instead we get David Cameron.2
It was even proof for him of Cameron’s political incompetence: “If you can’t take the time or intellect to see what the song’s about—you haven’t got much chance of running the country, have you?”3
When this was later put to Cameron he replied:
of course I understood what it was about. It was taking the mick out of people running around the cadet force. And he was poking a stick at us. But it was a great song with brilliant lyrics. I’ve always thought that if you can only like music if you agree with the political views of the person who wrote it, well, it’d be rather limiting.4
Perhaps Weller, like his song’s protagonists, thought he was smart when he took him on, but it’s time to take a peep in the artillery room…
‘The Eton Rifles’
Weller, lead singer, guitarist and lyricist with the Jam, wrote the song during a rain-sodden caravan holiday on the south coast of England. Years later he outlined what has come to be the generally accepted inspiration:
The story was there for me already—the unemployment march started out in Liverpool and passed Eton college. All the young chaps came out to jeer and take the piss. It was a mini class war being played out.5
As Britain’s dole queue hovered around the million and a half mark, unemployment was a big issue in the late 1970s. A Right to Work Campaign offered opposition in the shape of marathon marches linking up unemployment blackspots and workers facing redundancy. One such march passed Eton in June 1978, but no mini-class war seems to have broken out. Marchers put on posh accents to chant: “What does one want—the Right to Work”, but the college’s head boy appeared to sympathise, telling them: “I hope your jolly campaign gets you somewhere”.6
In contemporary interviews, Weller made no reference to such an incident. “I got the inspiration for the song from watching a programme on the BBC called, I think, Camera,” he explained. “They showed an old photo of the Eton Rifles and I thought, what a great name.”7 When it was released as a single in October 1979, an old photograph of the Eton cadet corps did indeed feature on the cover. News of the marchers’ visit to Eton in 1978 could well have been in Weller’s mind, but if so, he moulded the story into something more confrontational than the reality.
A similar march two years later did in fact spark a row, and Weller saw this instance of life imitating art as something of a vindication:
with the Right to Work march, there was a minor incident in Eton College. So looking back, ‘Eton Rifles’ is a quite feasible story really. It wasn’t as ridiculous as people make out, class warfare, it’s quite possible.8
He wrote the song “in one go as it reads on the page”,9 and in the demo version he recorded solo in July 1979 the lyrical and musical structure is identical to the final version. A handwritten copy of the lyrics from that session confirms that, the only difference being that Eton is misspelled “Eaton”,10 suggesting that Weller hadn’t encountered the college too often in his reading.
The song opens with people being told to drink up and head for the Slough area where a fight is taking place, only to find that “All that rugby puts hairs on your chest”, and the Eton boys are made of stronger stuff: “We came out of it naturally the worst… We were no match for their untamed wit”. The defeat also owes something to the cowardice displayed by some of the would-be class warriors:
What a catalyst you turned out to be
Loaded the guns then you run off home for your tea
Left me standing like a guilty schoolboy
Protestors of a musical bent prove to be less committed in deeds than in words:
Thought you were clever when you lit the fuse
Tore down the House of Commons in your brand new shoes
Composed a revolutionary symphony
Then went to bed with a charming young thing
While ‘The Eton Rifles’ is written from the perspective of those opposing the posh pupils, it pulls no punches in announcing a clear Eton victory. Its criticism is directed at left-wing protestors who didn’t translate their radical talk into action when it mattered. Such accusations are common enough among protestors, sometimes unfounded and sometimes with justification, and as the song presents an imaginary scenario, it can’t be proved or disproved here. But Weller’s decision to include such an accusation reflects a jaundiced view of the left. Bracketing composers of revolutionary songs with such hypocrisy likewise reflects a suspicion of left-wing musicians.
In interviews around the single’s release in October, Weller was clear that he wasn’t taking sides. The song was “just a piss-take of the class system… It’s also obviously a piss-take of these trendy socialists and fascists as well.”11 While it is healthy that Weller wanted to dismiss fascists too—at a time when they threatened to become a real danger in Britain—nothing in ‘The Eton Rifles’ resembles any ridicule of them. All of its ridicule is reserved for trendy socialists.
Cameron’s claim that the song had an influence upon his fellows is confirmed by an interview Weller gave to the Eton College Chronicle, no less:
Basically, it’s, like, taking the mickey out of class. It’s meant to be humorous—I think for a start the title’s funny. It’s an imaginary setting, the two classes clashing, with the trendy revolutionary saying to the man in the pub, “Come on, sup up your beer, there’s a row on up the road,” and it’s like, “The revolution will start after I’ve finished my pint.”
He admits that he had never gone near Eton himself, and emphasises that he meant no offence: “I’ve got nothing against Etonians personally. Eton’s just a symbol for the song. They’re not annoyed about it, are they?” On the contrary, the interviewer tells him, to which he replies: “Great, that’s fantastic. It’ll probably go to Number One.”12 Young Master Cameron must have been chuffed.
Before the Rifles
If the Jam and ‘The Eton Rifles’ being other than left-wing comes as a shock to some, it should be no surprise in light of the band’s history. While their home town of Woking in Surrey earns a footnote in socialist history as the place Friedrich Engels was cremated, it has been a rock-solid safe Tory seat for over a century now, despite seeing an influx of workers with its expansion after the second world war. Coming to mass attention in 1977, the Jam were open enough about being working-class Tories. In their first major interview Weller claimed:
The queen’s the best diplomat we’ve got. She works harder than what you or I do for the rest of the country.… All this “change the world” thing is becoming a bit too trendy.
He was more explicit a week later: “We’ll be voting Conservative at the next election.” Drummer Rick Buckler concurred: “It’s the unions who run the country.”13 Publicity pictures showed the band posing by Big Ben in Union Jack suits, a flag which also draped the stage at their gigs.
Within a few years Weller would be dismissing such sentiments as a cunning plan to wind up left-wing bands rather than a true reflection of the Jam’s politics, but other contemporary statements suggest they were expressing honestly held beliefs. Their lyrical forays into politics were cut from the same cloth. In ‘Time for Truth’ on their debut album, Weller lays into “Uncle Jimmy”—Labour prime minister James Callaghan, a deserving target—but not from the left. “Whatever happened to the great empire?” he sings: “You bastards have turned it into manure”. Nostalgia for the good old days of British imperialism is a hardy annual of working-class Toryism. The song demands justice for the killing of a man in police custody, even accusing Callaghan of wanting “a police state / So you can rule our body and minds”. But Weller explained his concerns in an interview:
I don’t think people realise how close we are to a police state. The Labour government will want everything state-owned soon. It’s getting to be like 1984 already.14
He was rightly worried at the expansion of state coercion in 1970s Britain—even if he exaggerated it—but lumped it in with the Tory bugbear of nationalised industry, and saw it as Labour’s fault specifically. Thatcher’s plan to ‘roll back the frontiers of the state’ seems to have appealed to him, and he wouldn’t be the only working-class person not to realise that she only wanted rid of those frontiers where they interfered with the accumulation of capitalist profit, intending to reinforce them beyond recognition where they might be needed to uphold it.
The Union Jackery was part of this plebeian conservatism, but also was intended as a nod to the Who, a key source of inspiration for the early Jam, with the Big Ben pose referencing the cover of their My Generation album. As it became clear, however, that the imagery would feed into the fascists’ attempt to gain a foothold on the music scene, the flag was put away. The criticism they came in for stung, as Weller admitted later that year:
I’m sick of everyone calling us conservatives and saying we’re not radical enough. I think Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher are cunts. I don’t trust any of them. All I said at that time was that I thought the Tories would do less of a bad job…15
He was partially motivated by a refusal to go along with a left-wing orthodoxy among bands, an admirable desire to think for himself rather than following the herd. But the opinions he held at the time were conservative ones, at the end of the day. By 1978 he was admitting: “I said a lot of very naïve things last year. If anything I’m apolitical now.” He was likely to vote Labour just “to keep the right-wing fascists out”.16 But above all, he was about making music, not political statements.
Politics can’t help but intrude, of course. In ‘Down in the Tube Station at Midnight’ Weller established the Jam as a real lyrical force. Those fascists make an appearance in the menacing scene evoked by the song, as its protagonist is assaulted by drunken thugs with the smell of “too many right wing meetings”. While this wasn’t left-wing in and of itself—thankfully, opposition to fascism in Britain in 1978 was not confined to socialists—the political note makes an important contribution to the nightmare.
However, Weller still seemed determined not to be a trendy left-wing songwriter. In January 1979 the Jam recorded a demo of ‘Strange Town’,17 although Weller had only one verse written to accompany three renditions of the chorus. This tale of a new arrival’s difficulty fitting in with the habits and attitudes of London was finished off that month, now including a pop at the urbanites’ political stances:
We’ve got our own manifesto
Be kind to queers
And oh so glad the revolution’s here
Weller proved that the casual homophobia wasn’t off the cuff when miming the song on Top of the Pops, flicking a limp wrist to accompany the word “queers”.18 The back cover of the single featured a poem—uncredited, but clearly by Weller:
we gotta solution
shoot all the rich men
put them in camps
give all the money to the poor man so he can be rich
don’t shoot us though we’re rock and rollers
His tongue is in his cheek here, and there is undoubtedly much to mock in the left-wing shapes thrown by some pop stars. But the very idea of far-reaching social change is being dismissed: Weller couldn’t see a way of being left-wing without falling into the tired cliché of the radical rocker.
But he was being pulled leftwards despite himself. ‘When You’re Young’ was hastily recorded in July 1979 as the Jam needed another single. It tells of the joys of youth, swearing “you’re never ever gonna work for someone / No corporation for the new age sons”, only to be brought down to earth by the crushing reality that “life isn’t like that… the world is your oyster but your future’s a clam”. The single’s B‑side ‘Smithers-Jones’, written by bass guitarist Bruce Foxton, is a great tale of a loyal member of the rat race commuting to the office to hear that his hoped-for promotion turns out to be the sack. The final verse, contributed by Weller,19 generalises his fate:
…now you’ve worked your arse off
But the only one smilin’ is the suntanned boss
Work and work and work and work till you die
There’s plenty more fish in the sea to fry
By now the Jam were working on their fourth album. Weller intended Setting Sons to be a concept album focussing on three friends who meet up again after a civil war: “one joins the left, one veers off to the right while the third one doesn’t feel any particular affiliation whatsoever. He’s the abstainer.” Asked which character was closer to himself, “‘The Abstainer,’ he replies immediately.”20 In the event, only about half of the album’s tracks fitted in to this concept, but it did allow Weller to explore political themes.
‘Thick as Thieves’ bemoans the loss of youthful comradeship and its ideals, while ‘Wasteland’ tells of devastated lives in a devastated landscape. ‘Little Boy Soldiers’ offers a totally different take on the “great empire” Weller once sang of, as a politician lures someone to “Shoot, shoot, shoot and kill the natives… beneath the flag of democracy” with the assurance that “God’s on our side and so is Washington”. In ‘Burning Sky’, written as a prose poem, the right-wing character cries off the friends’ reunion because he has an important business meeting:
I don’t want you to get me wrong, ideals are fine when you are young… there’s no time for dreams when commerce calls… And it’s only us realists who are gonna come through… and you’re just a dreamer if you don’t realise and the sooner you do will be the better for you… and we’ll all bow down before the burning sky.
Whether ‘The Eton Rifles’ is part of the concept, with the abstainer addressing the left-winger, is unclear.
It is preceded on the album by a song written in the same caravan on the same holiday,21 ‘Saturday’s Kids’. This unsentimental story of people like those Weller grew up with originally ascribed a level of political resistance to them: “it’s the system / hate the system / smash the system!”22 But by the time the final version was recorded on the same day as ‘The Eton Rifles’, that last line was transformed from defiance to bewilderment: “what’s the system?” Weller was being drawn to the left in his lyrics, but was valiantly resisting the attraction. This is the immediate context of ‘The Eton Rifles’ as far as his political development is concerned: a songwriter hesitating warily on the brink of political commitment.
After the Rifles
As it turned out, the support of Etonians wasn’t enough to get ‘The Eton Rifles’ to the top spot, but its peak at number 3 made it the Jam’s first top ten hit. Their success was confirmed in March 1980 when their next single, ‘Going Underground’, went straight in at number 1. The line “A show of strength with your boys’ brigade” seems to hark back to the Eton cadets. The song is scathing about the state of the world, but while its injustices “Make this boy shout, make this boy scream”, Weller suggests that few share his indignation, leaving him no alternative but to retreat:
You’ve made your bed, you better lie in it
You choose your leaders and place your trust
As their lies wash you down and their promises rust
You’ll see kidney machines replaced by rockets and guns
And the public wants what the public gets
But I don’t get what this society wants
I’m going underground
Retreat was less of an option, however, for an honest songwriter with something to say about Britain in the 1980s. An alternative was hinted at in the single ‘Start!’ in August. Its stress on the power of real human communication, however ephemeral, can apply to many situations, but Weller himself was inspired by Homage to Catalonia, and specifically George Orwell’s fleeting encounter with an Italian who had come to fight Franco like himself:
As we went out he stepped across the room and gripped my hand very hard. Queer, the affection you can feel for a stranger! It was as though his spirit and mine had succeeded in bridging the gulf of language and tradition and meeting in utter intimacy.23
Weller told an interviewer: “there’s a lot of talk of the ‘egalitarian society’ where all people are equal but this was it, actually in existence, which for me is something very hard to imagine”.24 Reference to the Spanish revolution was well hidden in the lyrics, though, and could hardly be fathomed in the absence of Weller’s external explanation.
‘Start!’ was chosen as a single in preference to ‘Pretty Green’, a forceful take on the power of money:
This is the pretty green, this is society
You can do nothing unless it’s in the pocket
…power is measured by the pound or the fist
It’s as clear as this
Both appeared on that year’s Sound Affects album, which featured an excerpt from Shelley’s ‘Masque of Anarchy’ on the back cover (“Rise like lions after slumber… Ye are many, they are few”). ‘Man in the Corner Shop’ contrasts the mutually blinkered visions imposed by class. ‘Set the House Ablaze’ takes to task someone seduced by fascism because “we’ve lost sight of the goals we should be working for”. ‘Scrape Away’ answers in advance those who would dismiss the attitude now emerging from Weller’s lyrics:
Your twisted cynicism makes me feel sick
Your open disgust for “Idealistic naive”
You’ve given up hope, you’re jaded and ill
The problem is you’ve got a catching disease
Politics was becoming an increasingly overt aspect of the Jam’s lyrics. With fascist groups still infesting the margins of British politics, ‘Funeral Pyre’ in May 1981 envisaged a neo-Nazi book burning:
I could see the faces of those who led
Pissing themselves laughing
Their mad eyes bulged, their flushed faces said
The weak get crushed as the strong grow stronger
The following February ‘A Town Called Malice’ delineated with exceptional poetic skill the destruction wrought by capitalism “Struggle after struggle, year after year”. But this “magnificent howl of outrage at Thatcherite Britain”25 concludes that now “it’s up to us to change / this town called malice”.
By now the Jam were regular participants in benefit gigs against racism, youth unemployment, and particularly the nuclear arms race. ‘Just Who is the 5 O’Clock Hero?’ on The Gift, released in March 1982, presented the worker as the real creator of wealth, overwhelmed by bills and harassed by the rich. Commenting on the track, Weller was at pains to downplay the importance of his own position: “the nurses and the miners are the real heroes because they keep the country going—and not pop stars”.26 The album also featured ‘Trans-Global Express’:
Imagine if tomorrow the workers went on strike
not just British Leyland but the whole world
who would earn their profits?
who would make their bombs?
you’d see the hands of oppression fumble
and their systems crash to the ground
This unambiguously socialist statement pinned the Jam’s colours to the mast, but the vocals were mixed so low as to be unintelligible without the album’s lyric sheet in hand. The political message is almost smuggled in under the northern soul beat, and only those hearing it performed live could hear the outspoken message.
The Gift was the Jam’s last album, with the band breaking up at the end of 1982. Weller’s frustration had been growing as he saw the group becoming a fetter on progressing in the musical directions he was interested in exploring. The split had a political element too, at least after the fact. Certainly the greater freedom Weller found in the Style Council was reflected in a brace of classic socialist songs.
What a catalyst
David Cameron is wrong to see ‘The Eton Rifles’ as a protest song ridiculing his fellow cadets. The ridicule is aimed at the other side of the barricades—or at those not prepared to man them, at least—and at class conflict in general. Where Cameron gets it right is that calibrating your musical taste to an artist’s political views is a particularly idiotic way to tune your ears. It unfortunately remains common on the left, and occasionally appears on the right too. In fact, Cameron’s own attempts to embrace the Jam, the Smiths and Radiohead cannot credibly rid themselves of the odour of spin, a dishonest attempt to portray himself as a common man listening to cool music rather than a rich parasite impoverishing millions.
At the risk of stating the obvious, socialists should listen to and enjoy ‘The Eton Rifles’ because it is an excellent song. The lyrics are illuminated by a rare wit, and succeed in painting an enduring picture. While lyrics have been to the fore in this discussion, the song is a powerful piece of music too. Not just Weller’s guitar, but Buckler’s drumming and especially Foxton’s bass craft a memorable soundscape, admirably matching the threat and confusion of the scenario.
The song makes fun of the left, but that only adds to the charm. Firstly, the left often makes mistakes and fails to live up to its proclaimed principles, and should have the guts to admit it. Secondly, even our best attempts sometimes end in failure and farce, and we should be able to laugh at them even as we try to learn from them. The class war isn’t all doom and gloom, after all, and often features the absurd as well as the noble. An inability to face this leaves us in a poor position to fight.
“Though some of the lads said they’d be back next week” is the final affirmation in ‘The Eton Rifles’. Even though its author was unsure whether or not to take the leap of faith towards socialist politics, he was aware that the class war of which he sang wasn’t going away because of an isolated battle here or there. Like it or not, that struggle is not one we can just opt out of, and the unavoidable defeats, humiliations and betrayals are themselves a necessary part of the process whereby, one day, we will be able to outwit and outclass the enemy.
- Both quoted in John Wilson, ‘Chasing the blues away’, New Statesman, 15 May 2008.
- Quoted in Paul Moody, ‘Paul Weller: “Success does strange things to people”, Uncut, December 2008.
- Interview with Channel 4 News, 19 April 2010, http://www.channel4. com/news/paul-weller-returns-to-politics-with-a-small-p.
- ‘David Cameron, we have a few questions for you…’, 25 November 2011, http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/nov/25/david-cameron-answers-questions?fb=native&CMP=FBCNETTXT9038.
- Paul Weller, Suburban 100: Selected lyrics (Century, 2007), p 55.
- Socialist Worker, 17 June 1978.
- Quoted in Graham Willmott, The Jam: Sounds from the street (Reynolds & Hearn, 2003), p 129. A similar statement from another interview is quoted in John Reed, Paul Weller: My ever changing moods (Omnibus, 1996), p 99.
- Quoted in Lynden Barber, ‘Light my Pyre’, Melody Maker, 23 May 1981.
- Weller, p 55.
- See Richard Buskin, ‘Classic Tracks: The Jam, “The Eton Rifles”’, Sound on Sound, May 2007.
- Quoted in Reed, p 99.
- Quoted in Willmott, p 129-30.
- Quoted in Steve Malins, Paul Weller: The Unauthorised Biography (Virgin, 1997), p 45.
- Quoted in Reed, p 74.
- In his own words: Paul Weller, edited by Michael Heatley (Omnibus, 1996), p 57.
- Available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zcts9zBH-jE.
- See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-V_OZLcmJz4.
- Paolo Hewitt, The Jam: a beat concerto (Riot Stories/Omnibus, 1983), p 78.
- Nick Kent, ‘Weller’s Immaculate Conception’, New Musical Express, 18 September 1979.
- Weller, Suburban 100, p 38.
- In the demo version, available on the 1992 Jam album Extras.
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (Penguin, 1989), p 1-2.
- Quoted in Malins, p 81.
- As critic Graham Lock called it: quoted in Hewitt, p 109.
- Quoted in Reed, p 134.