"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 26 October 1979, it became the band's first top ten hit in the UK Singles Chart, peaking at No. 3. It is also the only official Jam single for which a video was not recorded.
The song was produced by Vic Coppersmith-Heaven and The Jam, and was backed by the B-side "See-Saw".
Eton College is a famous English public school located in Berkshire, which is regarded as the epitome of Britain's privileged elite. Their cadet corps is the Eton College Combined Cadet Force, which was founded in 1860 as the Eton College Rifle Corps.
The lyrics of the song recount the difficulties faced by the unemployed and lower-paid working class in protesting against a system stacked against them.
The song recounts a street battle Paul Weller had read about in the newspapers concerning elements of a right-to-work march through Slough in 1978 breaking off to attack pupils from Eton 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 Eton. The two districts have a history of class conflict, with Slough in particular as a result of it having been used for various sociology experiments by urban planners and politicians from the 1960s 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."
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