Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Jam turns whistling into the sound of fascism

In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re picking our favorite songs with whistling.

Among the list of press release words that immediately telegraph that I probably won’t like a certain piece of music, “whistling” ranks right up there with “infectious,” “sunny,” and “Nashville.” (Sorry, Nashville.) Whistling, by its very nature, conveys a whimsy that is the general opposite of everything I look for in a song. Generally speaking, if your song has whistling, you may as well slap a ukulele on there and make it the background for a commercial where a Zooey Deschanel stand-in gets the most out of her debit card. In short, I wasn’t sure I had anything for this week. But then I remembered “Set The House Ablaze.” A barnstormer in the middle of The Jam’s 1980 album Sound Affects, it’s one of the mod-punk band’s most menacing tunes—and surprisingly, a lot of that has to do with the whistling.


Over a wiry, stair-skipping guitar riff (Perhaps you’ve heard Bloc Party’s version?), the song finds Paul Weller and company sounding a warning about encroaching European fascism, scattering allusions to uniforms and jackboots, and admonishing in its final verse, “It is called indoctrination / And it happens on all levels.” That sense of indoctrination—of being caught up in the illusion of peace promised by all fascistic ideology—is echoed in its jaunty chorus of whistling, the sound of blissful ignorance.

Atop the song’s martial beat, it’s a bit like the march of Bridge On The River Kwai turned sinister: Merrily it rolls along, conjuring images of goose-stepping soldiers leading angry dissenters away to reeducation camps—possibly to get them to like songs with whistling. I won’t go quietly, but ”Set The House Ablaze” is a good start.

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