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The Eton Rifles

by

The Jam



Songfacts®:  You can leave comments about the song at the bottom of the page.

This makes reference to England's elite college, Eton. It is a song about class warfare, with lines like, "What chance do you have against a tie and a crest." Paul Weller was inspired to write the song by a news article that he read about unemployed demonstrators on a "Right to Work" march, a campaign initiated by the left wing Socialist Workers Party, passing the prestigious Eton College. The "Eton Rifles" are a cadet corps of Eton College, and the song itself is about the rivalry between boys at Eton and the neighboring working class schoolboys. Paul Weller himself attended Sheerwater Comprehensive school, which was located quite close to Eton.
Paul Weller wrote this during his first holiday since the ascendancy of The Jam two years earlier. In the summer of 1979 he rented a caravan in the seaside town of Selsey in West Sussex on the southern coast of England. The Jam was a Punk/New Wave band that came out of England in the late-'70s.
Throughout the 1980s Paul Weller was a political active Labour supporter. However he has since become disillusioned with politics. It was no surprise then, that he was shocked when in 2008 the Conservative leader David Cameron nominated this class war diatribe as a favourite tune. A flabbergasted Weller commented to the Daily Mirror October 24, 2008: "Which part of the song didn't he get? Did he think it was a celebration of being at Eton or something? I don't know. He must have an idea what it's about, surely? It's a shame really that someone didn't listen to that song and get something else from it and become a socialist leader instead. I was a bit disappointed really."
Its possible that Paul Weller read about the march in the June 17, 1978 edition of The Socialist Worker newspaper in which case he would have read the following: "Eton had never seen anything like it. Right to Work marchers met Rock Against Racism punks weaving through the streets of Eton behind Crisis, a band pounding out driving rock music from the back of a lorry. Two movements coming together outside Eton public school, heart of privilege and pomp. The chants, 'Annihilate the National Front,' fake upper-class accents, 'What does one want - the Right to Work,' 'Eton boys rather naughty, Liverpool boys rather good.' Pogoing in protest as a giant silver spoon is presented to the Eton Head Boy. 'I hope your jolly campaign gets you somewhere,' he said."'
The opening line, "Sup up your beer and collect your fags, there's a row going on down near Slough" is a clever start to the song. The word 'fag' has a double meaning in England. It can be another word for 'cigarettes,' but an Eton schoolboy would more likely interpret it as a slang term for a young public schoolboy who must perform chores for an older student.
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Comments (11):

Political context aside, this is a great song. As in "Anarchy in the UK," the references are lost on this Yank. I couldn't care less frankly, and it was over three decades ago in any case. The tunes both stand up, which is all that matters.
- Kwami, Washington DC, DC
I read on another site that it was about "the public school boys that run the government." I'm not sure of the real meaning, but I do really like the idea that it's a song about working class schoolboys' frustration at these public school boys; "what a nice day for the Eton Rifles" - if taken from the perspective of these working class boys, how annoying it is to be constantly bested - in the song, these kids are beaten by the Eton Rifles, and the importance is placed upon the fact that they are from Eton, not just an equal footed loss - like, as mentioned, "what chance do you have against a tie and a crest?" They're constantly battling to prove that they can better, can fight harder, but they're always, in the end, going to be blamed or put-down - oppressed by the public school boys who 'run the government'. I know it's probably about politics, but when I listen to it, I always hear frustration and agitation and that kind of anger and acknowledged damnation - think the first person perspective in 'Common People' by Pulp or the second person in 'A Certain Romance' by Arctic Monkeys.
- Sally, London, United Kingdom
I don't get the deeper meaning of this. Maybe it's a cultural difference. The "facts" as I have read them seem to be that left wing protesters pick a fight with people they perceive to be right wing, upper class and therefore "Posh" and therefore they hate them. They are mistaken in the brute force the upper class boys are able to field. Left wing protesters take a beating. Some of the left-wing protesters run away, leaving some others to get hurt even more badly. So, what's the social/political comment here? Upper class should not defend themselves when they're attacked? Most very left-wingers are cowards and leave other people to take a beating in a fight they started when push comes to shove? Upper class should steer clear of left-wing protests in order not to get provoked and be forced deliver a thrashing on the protesters? Hope someone can put this into perspective for me!
- Erik, Leiderdorp, Netherlands
Or alternatively, what actually happened during the 'Right To Work' march in the 80's could be studied.

A (very) left-wing political group ironically calling themselves the "Socialist WORKERS Party," (SWP,) took part in the demonstration. Seeing a group of Eton boys and possibly viewing them as posh and therefore soft, a number of the SWP decided to pick a fight with them, dragging other people on the demo with them. Unfortunately they'd overlooked the fact that one of the major school sports is Rugby which tends to make those that play it both tough and strong.
The SWP group rapidly realised they'd chosen the wrong people to bully so they ran away, leaving other demonstrators who had joined in the scrap to get battered.
The song can be seen as coming from one of the non-SWP demonstrators who got left in the fight while the SWP bravely ran away.

Take a look:
"Thought you were smart when you took them on,
But you didnt take a peep in their artillary room,
All that rugby puts hairs on your chest,
What chance have you got against a tie and a crest.

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.

We came out of it naturally the worst,
Beaten and bloody and I was sick down my shirt,"


But at the time I thought I was into left wing politics, (though now cowardly idiots like the SWP,) so it can't be true...
- P, plsmith69@hotmail.com, United Kingdom
"The Eton Rifles are a team. It's about sports violence."
- Nessie, Sapporo, Japan

First we've heard about it. Nessie, when you wrote this had you just finished a case of Sapporo ?
- P, plsmith69@hotmail.com, United Kingdom
The Leeds incident was at the Queens Hotel with the Australian Rugby League team who were on tour in the UK. There is no such rugby team as the "Eton Rifles" - although there is a soccer team called Eton Rifles, inspired by the song.

Otherwise - see Paul from London's comment as he's 100% correct.
- Chris, Leeds, United Kingdom
There's a class war element alright, but this is nothing to do with the rugby player incident (which was in Leeds, not Eton) and is not a reference to a sports team.

It's a reference to a true historical clash in the UK, between protesters on a nationwide "right-to-work" march (I think it was organized by the Trades Union Congress, or TUC - there were a series of these marches in the late 70s and early 80s while Thatcherism took hold) and hostile pupils from Eton public school, who started jeering the marchers.

The line "all that rugby puts hair on your chest" is not a reference to the Leeds incident, but is a reflection of the common (and somtimes superficial) distinction in the UK that public schools promote rugby as a winter sport whilst state schools play soccer. By referencing rugby the emphasis on the class status of public school pupils, compared to the status of the (working class) protesters, is reinforced. Lines such as "there's a row going on down near Slough" (Slough is a few miles from Eton) and "what chance have you got against a tie and a crest" (both tie and crest again alluding to the public school uniform) reinforce the picture.

By this stage in their careers the Jam were well into left wing politics; this track is one of their finest showcases on that front and appears on the Setting Sons album, which is probably the group's most political work.
- Paul, London, England
It got to #3 in 1979. It was their first Top 10 single.
- Michael, Tauranga
Paul and Bruce were in a pub and Psul ended up getting in a fight with some rugby players, Bruce's ribs were bruised and it mucked up the rest of the tour. I think it has something to do with that.
- jack, belfast, Ireland
the song is actually about class wars in england, and also refers to when paul was beaten up by some eton rugby players and he got prosecuted and not them etc
- grahame, york, England
The Eton Rifles are a team. It's about sports violence.
- Nessie, Sapporo, Japan
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