Paul Weller, the best dressed man in rock, has just turned 50. And one of his biggest fans is the fashion designer Sir Paul Smith. Here, as a birthday tribute, we asked one great British original to interview the other about 30 years in the music business, first suits, changing styles, politics and beyond. John Walsh took notes.
Resplendent in one of his own-brand charcoal suits, accessorised with multi-coloured buttons and howling crimson socks, Sir Paul Smith is waiting outside the Hammersmith Apollo concert venue in west London to meet one of his heroes. Now 62, six-foot-three and as gainly as an Anglepoise lamp, the great designer, who sells his classic-but-funky suits to 52 countries, consults his notes anxiously. He is not used to interviewing people about their lives. And since his quarry is Paul Weller, the punk-era rock star and passionate throwback to 1960s Mod culture, his anxiety is justified. Weller, who has just teetered over the existential cliff-edge of turning 50, is a difficult subject.
The Woking-born guitarist may have had a 30-year career since The Jam were signed to Polydor in 1977 for a mere £6,000; but he was never the chattiest musician on the planet. As rock journalists (and Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs) have found, his natural taciturnity can defeat the most sympathetic line of questioning. Which is why I have been enlisted to play the middle-man, rapporteur and fan of both distinguished Pauls. They are meeting here for a chin-wag that’s occasioned by a commercial deal. A publisher called Genesis is about to launch A Thousand Things, a limited edition large-format scrapbook of Weller’s multifarious career and 21 albums. Sir Paul Smith will be selling copies – at £250 a time – in his shops.
Weller appears, his tightly handsome face creased with a frown and framed with curtains of spiky Mod-style hair grown long at the sides: the look of Steve Marriott fronting the Small Faces in the late 1960s. The two men slap each other on the back in a friendly way – they seem to be old pals, a mutual admiration society despite the 12-year age difference – take seats in adjacent chairs in an upstairs dressing-room, crack open some mineral water, and begin.
Sir Paul Smith: I want to ask about what influenced you. My wife went to the Royal College of Art when she was 18 because she was inspired by a cousin at St Martin’s. I started designing because I used to drink in a pub called The Bell in Nottingham where all the art students hung out. Whereas you, you’ve had so much style and been so well-dressed for years, I wonder, where does it come from? From inside you, or was there an uncle who was a whizz-kid dresser?
Paul Weller: It’s always been just part of the culture. Growing up, for most working-class kids, is all about football, music or clothes. You might not have much money, but whatever you have got, you’re going to look good.
PS: That’s how you felt from the start?
PW: As a kid, I remember being knocked out seeing those kids in 1960s bands, the way they dressed. Then the late-Sixties skinhead and suedehead thing; how immaculate everything was. You’d see people in the street and know exactly what they were into. Which you can’t really say about people today, when they’re wearing tracksuits as day-wear.
John Walsh: Is it true to say that you, Paul Smith, wanted to be a dandy and stick out a mile while you, Paul Weller, wanted to subscribe to the look of a tribe?
PW: Dandy isn’t a word I’d have used. It was part of the culture to dress up to the hilt. At 12, I’d see other kids, all of 16, and think how fantastic they looked. I remember this vision of a guy I knew, walking down the street in a Tonik blue jacket, a red Fred Perry shirt, beautiful faded 501 Levi’s, red socks and ox-blood brogues – mint he looked, just fantastic.
PS: It’s fascinating that you’ve always worn tailoring – properly constructed jackets etc. Having a suit made to fit was what upper-class people did.
PW: I got my first suit from Burtons.
PS: My first two made-to-measure suits, one was pale pink, one was mint green, double-breasted, with prick-stitch edging.
JW: I’ve found a nice quote, Paul Smith, from a conversation we had in 1997. You said: “I was 21 in the Hendrix era, but I was already past the hippie stage. I had a hand-made, pale pink, single-breasted suit with some red hand-made python boots. I got called some terrible names.”
PW: Red python boots! I’d like to have a pair of them now.
PS: They were made by a Greek man in Pratt Street in Camden Town. He made boots in ordinary python, red python, red patent, green leather, with a bit of a heel… [sighs] I used to come down from Nottingham to the Whisky-a-go-go, to see Georgie Fame and Blue Flames and Herbie Hancock, and the Blue Note people. God, they were so perfect, the way they dressed: the button-down collars, Tonik suits, slim pants and, in the summer, seersucker.
PW: I’ve seen some great photos of you in a flowery shirt and flared trousers.
JW: Tell us about The Jam look in 1977 – the tight black suits, white shirts and thin white ties, the Reservoir Dogs look, long before the movie. Was it a response to punk fashion?
PW: We were doing it before punk arrived. I was always very image- conscious as a kid. We always had a special stage look, just to stand out – I just thought we should all dress the same and wear black suits. But also from my love of the whole Mod thing as well.
PS: You and the band were so stylish, but so were your record covers. Do you feel sad about the old vinyl records and the big fold-out sleeves? It just doesn’t look as cool when it’s CD-size.
PW: Yeah, you could take out the inner sleeve, and spend ages just looking at and reading it. Now you don’t even have that – people just download the music and that’s it.
JW: What about your Rickenbacker guitar, which you seemed to play all through The Jam years. Why not a Fender Stratocaster or a Gibson Les Paul like everyone else played?
PW: All my heroes seemed to play Rickenbackers, like The Beatles and Pete Townshend. It was just apeing my heroes. I thought it was a great-looking guitar and still do. I got my first one at 16. It was amazing. I used to sleep with it beside my bed.
PS: You know, though Paul and I are completely different, there are lots of parallels. Until I was 18, I wanted to be a professional racing cyclist, and I used to keep my bike in my bedroom. Paul didn’t like school, and I didn’t either. I left at 15…
PW: I left as soon as I could.
PS: And we’re both still doing it, still loving it and are both still completely ambitious. He’s just done this fantastic new album. I open shops around the world. I’ve got a pink rectangular one on Melrose Ave, LA, and an eclectic, art-gallery shop in Tokyo.
Weller’s new album, 22 Dreams, is his ninth solo record. Rather than turn out something safe and formulaic, as befits a quinquagenarian, he’s produced a huge enterprise: 21 tracks of mind-spinning diversity. Mojo magazine called it “without doubt his most experimental, challenging and un-Weller-like recording to date, taking in – among the familiar rock, folk, soul and psychedelia – previously unthinkable elements like electronica, avant-garde mood pieces and even a spoken-word poem about God”.
JW: It’s your 21st album; there are 21 tracks on it. So why’s it called 22 Dreams?
PW: You have to hold one back for yourself. You can’t give them all away.
PS [misty-eyed]: That’s lovely.
PW: There’s some areas I’ve not been to before. It’s a bit … what d’you call it, avant-garde? There’s instrumentals, a spoken-word piece.
JW: Where did that come from?
PW: Steve Cradock, the guitarist in my band, said it’d be great if we had a poem on one track. I said, what about this one, it’s been around for some time. It’s called “Gods”.
JW: Who wrote it?
PW [testily]: I wrote it.
PS: This is what’s fantastic about Paul. He never says, OK, we’ve got the formula now, that’s what we’ll do. He’s always wanted to do more.
PW: It’s like a challenge. You can’t do it every time, but you do as much as you can.
JW: Paul Smith, is there any parallel in your life for Paul Weller’s decision to leave The Jam and form The Style Council?
PS: I remember doing a fashion show in 1983 in Paris in a concrete gallery owned by an experimental artist. There was dub music, I only used black models, all the suits were bright raspberry, bright blue and yellow ochre. I’d just emerged from doing suits in Prince of Wales check, so the audience thought I’d gone mad. And it was the most successful collection I’ve ever done.
JW: Doesn’t this show you, Paul Weller, that your famous line, “The public wants what the public gets” isn’t necessarily true? In both cases, they got what they didn’t know they wanted. They didn’t like the Style Council, they didn’t like the raspberry suits, but then they loved them.
PW: It just takes a while for people to come round to it. Sometimes, you collide seamlessly with your audience and sometimes you’re a million miles apart.
JW: It’s harder for the Paul Weller brand, though, because you can’t just introduce a new line and wonder if the public will like it. When you split up The Jam, it outraged a lot of people. Do you need to be pretty hard-hearted to do something like that?
PW: I suppose so. Yeah. In terms of being an artist or being creative, that’s what makes the decision. And it broke some hearts and upset a lot of people, but it’s like in any relationship, if it’s come to an end, you got to move on haven’t you? I’d been in The Jam for 10 years, since I was 14, and there were all the years people didn’t know about, when I was playing in shitty clubs.
JW: Was your dad a snappy dresser?
PW: Dad? No. Me mum was. She had me when she was very young, so she was always into clothes.
JW: Your dad was a boxer as well as your manager. Did he ever teach you how to box?
PW: He took me to a boxing club when I was about five or six, a place he used to train in, and this kid said, “Do you want to come in the ring and have a spar?” I thought, what’s that mean? In the ring, he punched me right in the stomach and I lay winded on the floor, and that was it, I never went again. I wish he had taught me, it would have been a handy thing to know. My dad won most of his fights, you know. He had about 200, and only lost three or four.
JW: Tell us about the book, A Thousand Things. Is it a vanity project?
PW: The publishers, Genesis, put out really special books – they’re expensive, but really well manufactured, proper quality. They’ve done various people, like Bob Marley, John Lennon, the Who, Pink Floyd.
PS: We sell them in our shops. They’re like the Bible of the band or the singer, and they’re really amazing.
PW: It’s more a pictorial thing than a Bible. A scrapbook perhaps.
PS: What’s nice is to see how stylish he’s been for ever.
JW: £250 is a bit steep for a flipping scrapbook. What would the young Paul Weller think about that?
PW: I can’t disagree, but you need to see the quality of it. It sounds a bit poncey to call it a work of art, but it’s an art book, the way it’s been put together.
JW: Which record sleeves of the 1960s did you like?
PS: The Beatles’ covers were the best, I mean Sergeant Pepper designed by Peter Blake, and the White Album – I mean, what kind of genius was that?
JW: Which is your favourite of your own record covers?
PW: I like the ones from more recent years. Stanley Road was great, another Peter Blake effort.
PS: Since you’re an icon for a whole generation of admirers, do you feel any responsibility towards your generation as a spokesman?
PW: No I don’t. I think my responsibility is to the music and to try and make that as good as possible, to always push it forward and take people with me.
JW: Did you get bored with the political Red Wedge period?
PW: It was the politicians. After I met them, I thought what a bunch of phonies. It’s not a world I want to be a part of.
JW: Did they talk to you about your music?
PW: They talked about themselves. All the time we were doing the Red Wedge tour, they were dismantling the Young Socialists at the same time, which was a bit underhand, I thought.
JW: Did you get on with Billy Bragg?
PW: Yeah, I love Billy Bragg. He’s genuine, he really means what he says. It is a great pity he’s not Prime Minister.
JW: That was a nice rebuke you gave David Cameron the other day [“Which part didn’t he get?”] when he tried to pretend “The Eton Rifles” was his kind of song because he’d been in the cadet force. You’ve often spoken about being disillusioned with New Labour, and suspicious of the Conservatives; but you send your children to private school. Can people assume you’re becoming a Tory sympathiser?
PW: I’m not that bothered about politics, really. I can’t tell the difference between politicians, they all look exactly the same to me. They all went to the same public school, they all went to the same university – and they’re all trying to pander to the mainstream. I’m not interested in politics to be honest. It bores the shit out of me.
JW: Does a creative session start with a lyric or a riff in your head?
PW: I spend more time storing up things in my head. Or I’ve got a great title that might stay in my head for years, until I’m ready to write, and then that’s this little itchy feeling inside you. But the song dictates the style you choose. It’s a matter of sitting down with a guitar or piano and the chord sequence comes to you, and that says how it’s going to be.
JW: Paul Smith, with you the creative spur is more likely to be a visual stimulus?
PS [musing on the violently patterned throw on the sofa]: I could probably get a jacket made up from the material on your couch.
PW: Hang on, I think I bought one just like that from your shop, a few months ago…
Copies of ‘A Thousand Things’ – the signed, hand-made, limited edition book – are available to view and purchase at Paul Smith, Floral Street, Covent Garden, London WC2, alongside an exhibition of Paul Weller photographs and memorabilia. The book is also available through Genesis Publications: genesis-publications.com, 01483 540970, price £250. The new Weller album ’22 Dreams’ is out now on Universal