"The Eton Rifles" was the only single to be released from the album Setting Sons by The Jam. Recorded at Townhouse studios and released on 3 November 1979,it became the band's first top ten hit in the United Kingdom, peaking at #3. It is also the only official Jam single for which a video was not recorded.
"The Eton Rifles" as such, do not exist: the cadet corps of Eton College is the Eton College Combined Cadet Force, Eton being a famous English public school inBerkshire regarded as the epitome of Britain's privileged 'elite'. The song itself recounts the difficulties faced by the unemployed and lower paid working class in protesting against a system loaded against them.
The song recounts a street battle Paul Weller had read about in the newspapers concerning elements of a Right To Work march going through Slough in 1978 breaking off to attack pupils from Eton College who had been jeering the lunchtime marchers (hence Hello, Hooray, an extremist scrape with the Eton Rifles)
The song's lyrics, in common with many Jam tracks, contain colloquial references to life in Britain, including:
"Sup up your beer and collect your fags, There's a row going on down near Slough"
Literally, the first part of the line means "drink up your beer and collect your cigarettes", though in this case it is likely a double entendre referring both to a group of friends hurriedly leaving a pub, and to the British boarding school practice of fagging; a hierarchical authority structure in which younger students acted as personal servants to those in higher forms.
With regard to the latter part, Slough is a town near to Eton. The two districts have a history of class conflict, with Slough in particular as a result of being used for various sociological experiments by urban planners and politicians throughout the 1960s through to the 1990s (a common target in Paul Weller's lyrics in The Jam).
"What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?" is a reference to school uniform and badges, particularly the influence of the "old school tie".
"There was a lot of class hatred in my songs at the time," said Weller. "'Eton Rifles' would be the obvious example of that. We used to go on Sunday drives with my uncle and we'd drive through Eton, and I remember seeing the young chaps."
In May 2008, Conservative leader and Old Etonian David Cameron named "The Eton Rifles" as one of his favourite songs. Cameron is reported to have said "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."
Cameron's praise for the song earned a scathing rejection from Paul Weller, who said, "Which part of it didn't he get? It wasn't intended as a jolly drinking song for the cadet corps."
Ironically, in 1977 Weller had said in the New Musical Express that people should vote for the Conservatives, a comment intended to shock and which later came to haunt him during his long involvement with theLabour Party initiative Red Wedge.
He added, "I think I have pretty much nailed where I was at to the mast. But people come to gigs for different reasons: it isn't necessarily about what the person on stage is singing. But at the same time, you do think, 'Well, maybe this'll change their minds.'"
In November 2011 Guardian music critic, Alexis Petridis, questioned Cameron further; "You said the Jam's song Eton Rifles was important to you when you were at Eton. Paul Weller, who wrote the song, was pretty incredulous to hear this, and claimed you couldn't have understood the lyrics. What did you think that song was about at the time? Be honest.' To which Cameron replied; "I went to Eton in 1979, which was the time when the Jam, the Clash, the Sex Pistols were producing some amazing music and everyone liked the song because of the title. But 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."