He is virtually the only former punk icon to sustain success while expanding his musical horizons.
By Andy Gill (The Independent)
Saturday, 24 May 2008
As with Robert Plant turning out to be the most open-minded and creatively vibrant remnant of his generation of rockers, there’s something admirably ironic about the way that Paul Weller has moved from crafting fairly humdrum critiques of a fairly humdrum society, to become virtually the only former punk icon to sustain commercial success while constantly expanding his musical horizons.
It’s an impressive turnaround for a songwriter once derided as “a musical hod-carrier”, particularly when compared to former colleagues such as The Sex Pistols, for ever condemned to the status of punk pantomime as they cash in on greying fans’ memories of their wild youth. Indeed, he summarily rejected an offer to re-form The Jam, leaving former colleagues Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler in the invidious position of drafting in a replacement frontman and becoming effectively a tribute band to themselves.
But why would Weller have wanted to take such a backward step? For as the Modfather turns 50, his new album 22 Dreams is about to hit the shops, and it’s certainly no pale reflection of former glories. Quite the opposite: it’s the best work of his career, a rich and varied bouquet of songs and instrumentals that takes the listener first this way, then that, often down alleyways and country cart-tracks that will surely test the sensibilities of his original punk/mod constituency.
Weller has finessed this position by exploring his own native musical culture in greater depth. Indeed, in a cultural climate increasingly hostage to bland, deracinated transatlantic trends, he may be the most utterly English pop star working today. Small wonder that grandstanding politicians should seek to toady their way into our affections by associating with his work – none more absurdly than Old Etonian tory David Cameron claiming that The Jam’s “The Eton Rifles” was his favourite song, despite it being an angry response to the occasion, back in the late 1970s, when Eton public schoolboys jeered at unemployed workers on a Right to Work protest march.
“Which part of it doesn’t he (Cameron) get?” spluttered an enraged Weller. “It wasn’t intended as a fucking jolly drinking song for the cadet corps!” Yet the latter-day Labour Party fares little better in the singer’s estimation, as he cites the widespread post office closures and former London mayor Ken Livingstone’s phasing out of the beloved old Routemaster buses as instances of Labour’s disregard for traditional working-class institutions. In the recent mayoral election, he abstained, finding little to choose between the candidates.
His beliefs are undoubtedly rooted in his strong family background. Brought up by working-class parents in a Woking council house with no hot water and an outside toilet, Weller never had any illusions about the iniquities of the British class system, declining the offer of a CBE in the 2006 Queen’s birthday honours. He has remained close to his father – who managed The Jam – throughout his career, and has himself assumed the mantle of parenthood five times, twice with his former wife, the backing singer Dee C Lee, once again with a subsequent girlfriend, and another two times with his current partner.
Social and political issues have always been the prime driver of Weller’s muse, after music. Unlike many musicians, he didn’t join a band primarily to improve his chances with the girls, but through an all-consuming fascination with the music he heard as a child on shows such as Top of the Pops, discovering a particular affinity with mod bands such as The Kinks, The Who and The Small Faces. So when The Jam’s stripped-down, high-energy guitar pop found favour with the emergent punk audience in 1976/7, the band stood out from their peers through their refusal to replace their sharp mod look – feather-cut barnets, stylish jackets and Sta-Prest strides – with safety pins and bondage trousers.
Lyrically, Weller’s songs were more focused dissections of societal ills and teenage grievances than anything written by The Clash or the Pistols. But where the Pistols advocated nihilist anarchy, and The Clash hoped to foment revolutionary change, The Jam’s dissatisfaction was infused more with a wistful sense of dismay at the trampling underfoot of traditional English values by dubious “progress”. It was an attitude that set them apart from an earlier generation of mods, whose appreciation of “modernism” was more in accord with the brave new high-rise world of Britain.
Weller’s affection for old values – which echoed Kinks’ songwriter Ray Davies’s wistful take on Olde Englishe virtues – drew him deeper into ambivalent territory where his reflections on things like the decline of the British Empire could be misconstrued as reactionary, even right-wing. A provocative, ill-judged announcement that they might vote Conservative at the 1979 general election – later dismissed as a publicity stunt – would haunt the band, and Weller, for years to come, although few could doubt that the writer of songs such as “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”, “The Eton Rifles”, “A Town Called Malice” and “That’s Entertainment” harboured anything other than broadly socialist principles. Few apart from future Tory would-be prime ministers, that is.
By the early 1980s, punk had metamorphosed into the college rock of new wave, and its sullen offspring, goth, and although The Jam had diversified a little with their Sound Affects album, Weller knew a change was overdue. As the pop culture pendulum swung from punk all the way back over to new romanticism, he mirrored the change in his own way by hooking up with former Merton Parkas organist Mick Talbot as The Style Council, a group whose name perfectly conveyed its blend of café culture and lightweight soul and funk grooves.
Weller’s political leanings became more explicit through the decade, and in 1985 he was a pivotal figure, with Billy Bragg and Jimmy Somerville, in the founding of Red Wedge, an organisation aimed at using music to galvanise youth opinion against the Thatcher government in the run-up to the 1987 general election.
But his involvement with Red Wedge backfired somewhat, reinforcing the widespread view of Weller as a dour politico. The Style Council, meanwhile, polarised fans, many of whom were disappointed at his decision to split up The Jam, and disliked what they regarded as the new group’s insubstantial music.
By 1989, interest had waned to such an extent that even the band’s own record company declined to release their sixth album, the pompously titled foray into house music Modernism: a New Decade, which would see the light of day nine years later. The duo took the hint, and put up the shutters on The Style Council.
Many believed this was the last that would be heard of Weller, but after a few years’ sabbatical, he re-emerged as a solo artist just in time to be hailed as a prime influence on the Britpop movement, particularly by Oasis. They invited him to guest on their debut album, an alliance reciprocated by Noel Gallagher on Weller’s Stanley Road, and more recently on the imminent 22 Dreams.
His new solo style surprised both Jam fans and those who had stuck with him through the Style Council years, with the 1993 album Wild Wood being infused with folk and psychedelic influences. It was as if he were following the pattern set down by his mod heroes such as Traffic, moving from soul and beat music to psychedelia and hippie rusticity, with airy-fairy songs about oceans drifting away, and dreams chased across the fields in the shadow of the sun.
Oddly, although he had haemorrhaged fans during the Style Council period, his new rustic retro-rock seemed to chime with former supporters, and the pedestrian boogies and prog-riffing of 1995’s Stanley Road and 1997’s Heavy Soul sold in huge quantities – the former becoming the biggest-selling album of its year. But they also confirmed the opinions of those who considered Weller a “musical hod-carrier”, who now anointed him the godfather of what became known as “dad-rock”, a generic term connoting music of lumpen, meat-and-spuds tendencies built on 1960s influences. Heliocentric in 2000 offered a brief respite, with its string arrangements by Robert Kirby (famed for his work with Nick Drake), but 2002’s inaptly titled Illumination was so unremittingly dull it even featured a guest spot by Stereophonics’ Kelly Jones.
Then once again, just when one least expected it, with one bound he was free. Or two bounds, anyway: his treatments of songs by the likes of Dylan, Neil Young, Tim Hardin and Allen Toussaint on 2004’s covers album Studio 150 seemed to reinvigorate Weller’s flagging muse, and he managed to carry that energy over to the following year’s As Is Now, using the same studio team on his own new material. The results were dramatically refreshing: the taut, punchy “From the Floorboards Up” was his most compelling single since The Jam’s heyday, and the eclectic scope of the album – from country tearjerker and Pentangle-ish folk to New Orleans funk – presented a man joyously re-engaged with the diversity of musical possibilities. The sparky, energised tone of the album as a whole, meanwhile, suggested he realised that unless he was prepared to grab hold of his musical freedom and run with it – somewhere, anywhere – it might simply shrivel up and die.
It’s ironic, then, that he should receive the Lifetime Achievement award at the 2006 Brits. Though he undoubtedly deserves the recognition, it’s the kind of gong usually given to those whose careers have all but dried up. Weller’s seems to have found a late torrent of inspiration in recent years, with his new album voyaging into all manner of musical realms, not least a jazz tribute to avant-garde harpist Alice Coltrane, accompanied by his friend Robert Wyatt; several further folk and psychedelic excursions; cool coffee-bar soul; and even hardcore electronica, terrain one would never have expected to find him traversing.
Weller is like the musical equivalent of those forever-young pensioners who, upon retirement, promptly set out to hike to the heart of the Sahara or the Amazon basin, a brave spirit who refuses to countenance any curtailment of his creative impulse, and who remains steadfastly true to his blue-collar English roots. A working-class hero? It’s something to be.
A Life in Brief
Born 25 May 1958, Sheerwater, near Woking, Surrey
Education School in Woking. Reportedly hated it. He left at 16.
Career Formed The Jam in 1972 with school friend Steve Brookes, and Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton. Brookes left early on. Debut album In the City, released in 1977, saw Weller being hailed as a spokesperson for working-class youth. Hit the top 10 in 1979 with “The Eton Rifles”, which peaked at No 3. Went on to have 21 singles chart hits in the UK. Final Jam album The Gift, released in 1982, reached No 1, paving the way for Weller’s next band the Style Council. Raised profile with appearance on Band Aid’s 1984 mega-hit “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”. Disbanded the Style Council in 1989. Self-titled debut solo album released in 1992. In 1995 topped the UK album chart with Stanley Road, the best-selling album of his career.
He says “Everyone gets frustrated and aggressive, and I’d sooner take my aggression out on a guitar than a person.”
They Say “The thick kid who sat at the back of the class.” Ian McCulloch, Echo and the Bunnymen