Holding out for a hero: Paul Weller interview
Dec 11 2010 – Dave Owens
Never meet your heroes they say, you’ll only be disappointed. David Owens cast aside those cliched worries for a meeting with the musician who, more than anyone else, helped shaped his life.
I HAD a sizeable ache in the pit of my stomach that refused to shift. A knotted ball of nerves, emotion and fear were there for good reason.
These steel-reinforced butterflies had been in an internal holding pattern from the day confirmation was agreed on an interview I’ve been waiting for my whole life. I was about to meet my rock ’n’ roll hero – the voice of a generation who flicked the switch for me musically, politically and sartorially 30 years ago.
It was 1979 when my world changed forever. I was 10 and my older sister had a boyfriend who allowed me to borrow his copy of The Jam’s All Mod Cons album. It was transparent, even to my pre-pubescent eyes, that he was trying to butter up his girlfriend by cosying up to her little brother, but still, I wasn’t complaining (he made a pretty good job of it. He’s now my brother-in-law and has been since 1986). Picking up the album, with the ultra-cool trio of Paul Weller, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler staring back at me from the cover, I slid the black vinyl from the pristine white inner sleeve with a sense of excitement. When the needle hit the record it was as if a bomb exploded in my mind. The intoxicating, adrenaline rush of furious guitars, sneering vocals and visceral thrills were like nothing I’d heard before.
Prior to this epochal introduction to new wave, punk and rhythm ’n’ blues, I had experienced a series of half-baked liaisons with every child’s favourite furry environmentalists The Wombles and teen pop teddy boys Showaddywaddy.
The Jam, however, were the real deal – a dazzling collision of serrated chords, sharp-suited chic, razor-sharp lyricism and an unstoppable self-belief that inspired rabid fanaticism amongst their adoring following. For a time in the 1980s, they were the biggest band in Britain and far beyond. I’d been set onto the path to musical fulfilment, and my guiding light was Paul Weller.
Now, more than three decades after first discovering The Jam, I was set to be granted an audience with my idol. To not put too fine a point on it and deviate from grammatical elegance, I was petrified. I’d not been this tense since recent nerve-wracked landmarks such as the birth of my daughter and the similarly queasy experience that was Cardiff City’s Championship play-off final loss to Blackpool in May.
Of course, as a journalist you’re often afforded the luxury of meeting musicians, celebrities and all manner of people in the public eye. While I’ve been wielding my keyboard in anger as a professional hack since 1989, I like to think I’ve got this interview lark down to a fine art. However, no conversation has left me suspended in such a dizzying stupor as my meeting with the Modfather.
So what was the root cause of this anxiety? Why has this musician with the impeccable threads and barnet to match had such a profound effect on my life? I guess my story is one that has been replicated from time immemorial by those who have never forgotten their formative musical influences. It’s why bands of that ’80s era such as The Specials and Madness still retain such a special bond to their audience forged three decades ago.
And it’s no different for me. The Jam were my first love and my very first gig. It was September 24, 1982. I was 13 years old, fast approaching my 14th birthday, and was being taken to the concert as an early present courtesy of my aforementioned sister – Nicky and her boyfriend, Stuart. I had unsuccessfully attempted to see The Jam two years earlier when they played Sophia Gardens in Cardiff. As a fresh-faced 11-year-old I was laughed out of Virgin Records, then on Duke Street in the city centre, when I tried to get a ticket for the show. Save for a stick-on beard and an emergency voice breakage, who was I kidding.
To cut a long story and long journey through the back roads of Somerset short, my very first time was at the decidedly unsalubrious surrounds of the Shepton Mallet Show Pavilion. It was a venue that by day doubled up as a cattle market and by night put on live bands. Luckily, the smell of the building didn’t last long in the memory – but one of the greatest nights of my life did.
Bedecked in purple two-tone sta-press trousers and a black and white Prince of Wales check button-down Ben Sherman shirt topped off with obligatory parka, I believed I was the epitome of cool rather than what I actually was, an eye-boggling car crash of badly co-ordinated colour choices.
I’ve still got the Solid Bond In Your Heart tour T-shirt that I bought that night and if I eat just lettuce for several years, I might yet fit into it once again. My youthful mind’s eye is littered with these sorts of epochal landmarks that have Paul Weller’s immense influence stamped all over them.
I also vividly remember the day The Jam announced they were to split and I fought back tears as I trudged my way to high school after reading those earth-shattering headlines in my copy of Record Mirror.
In the pre-internet age, there was no mass messageboard rumour-mongering, so no inkling of the devastating news that tumbled forth from the music mag’s pages that fateful morning of October 28, 1982.
It was ironic that a music paper had dealt me such a hammer blow. It was after all The Jam’s music that would propel me to write my own mod fanzines, firing my imagination and setting me on the road to journalistic enlightenment. These most do-it-yourself of DIY publications hit a highpoint in the late ’70s and early ’80s. And I was no different, having my own stab via the medium of Pritt Stick and a mate’s mum’s office photocopier.
My laughably stitched together One Way World fanzine (named after a song by mod outfit Secret Affair) was strictly second division compared to some of the glossily professional Premier League ventures that served as the pinnacle of amateur publishing.
Nevertheless, little did I realise that these formative foundations would decades later lead me to stand outside the stage door of the Cardiff International Arena on an impressively arctic, sub-zero Saturday evening in November, waiting for this long sought after rendezvous.
The air was sharp and icy, Wales had surprised no one by losing to the All Blacks at the Millennium Stadium and Cardiff was awash with hordes of rugby fans, attempting to numb the cold by drinking to excess. It was a surreal evening in every sense of the word and it was about to get even weirder.
Accompanied by Weller’s affable tour manager Bill Wheeler, I was ushered into the inner sanctum of the CIA’s backstage area past two burly security guards and into one of the arena’s many dressing rooms. Despite spending that afternoon rewriting the questions I would put to the modernist icon and whiling away the rest in nervous anticipation, something surprising happened.
At that precise moment I felt totally relaxed; trapped in the eye of the storm there’s no turning back, so it was as if I accepted my fate and the professional adrenaline kicked in.
My WalesOnline colleague Andy Johnston was busily setting up the camera to film the interview and I started checking my hair, adjusting my John Smedley top to accommodate a mic and polishing my shoes on my trouser legs. Well, one doesn’t want to look scruffy in the presence of a fashion figurehead. Then he appeared before us and sat down.
“All right mate, how you doing?” he inquired in a chirpy London accent.
It’s often said that Paul Weller can be difficult in interviews, but thankfully and reassuringly for me, he was in an ebullient and playful mood.
Maybe that’s because 2010 has arguably been his best year yet. His latest album, Wake Up The Nation, certainly lived up to its title’s billing, sending critics into a frenzy over its contents – an experimental collection of songs that surged with an urgent vitality, while never losing their ear for melody or boundless spirit. It’s seen him reborn and reawakened, attracting the patronage of a generation of younger performers, while affording him ultimate cool kudos – making the shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize.
The lines of nearly 35 years in the rock ’n’ roll business are etched on the 52-year-old’s face, but he looks fit, healthy and, as always, impeccably turned out – when I met him, he was wearing a black top, cardigan and cords.
His crowning glory, his hair, was a thing of wonder. But as it’s rude to stare, I decided that it was best to get the questions rolling. My line of enquiry centred around just what it’s like to be Paul Weller. He occupies a unique place in British rock ’n’ roll history. He’s a musician who has reinvented himself through The Jam, his fanbase polarising ’80s outfit The Style Council and latterly for 20 years as a hugely successful solo artist.
As the former voice of a generation and now as the music press’s anointed Modfather, he perhaps means more in seismic shift terms to music fans than any other British artiste since The Beatles first bestrode the rock ’n’ roll landscape.
I put it to him that he means an awful lot to an awful lot of people – citing the effect he has had on my life an ample example.
He, of course, had no idea of what this moment meant to me, but then he’s had a lifetime of similar meetings with fans who have waxed lyrical with Weller eulogies, citing him as a mod god and a musical icon.
“Well I never get tired of hearing it,” he said, a big smile breaking across his face.
“But seriously though, I don’t sit around and think about those things, I don’t think about myself in those terms.
“There’s loads of people who I’ve met over the course of time who have told me tales of when they were 12, 13 coming to see The Jam and meeting us backstage, or outside a gig or talking to my old man (Paul’s late father and manager John Weller) and telling little stories.
“I’m more kind of touched by that really.
“And also just how much it meant to people and meant to people’s lives.
“I think it’s really brilliant you know, it doesn’t swell my head it just makes me feel privileged and proud to be part of this thing.”
I wondered if Paul ever thought about the sort of imprint his huge canon of work would leave in terms of its legacy.
“I’d like to think I’ve left something in the world,” he mused with inordinate modesty.
“Without in any way trying to be morbid, life is very short and I’d like to think I’d leave some body of work that would inspire other musicians long after I’ve gone.”
I think that’s a given especially since 2010 has been the finest of vintages for the musician.
“Yeah, it’s been a good year and the biggest highlight was that people liked the record,” he told me.
“We thought we were taking a bit of a chance because sonically it’s a little out there, but generally speaking people liked it and it got great reviews for whatever they’re worth.”
Given his stylistic influence on the sartorial choices of a million middle-aged gentlemen, I ruminated over the extent of his fashion obsession.
In public he’s always the epitome of cool.
But I wondered if, in the privacy of his own boudoir, he ever lets the stylish image slip and slob around in his elasticated waistband trousers.
“No, not quite,” he laughed, “but neither do I sit there in a three-piece suit and I certainly don’t go down the shop in my trackies.
“That’s just not on man!”
As Bill Wheeler signalled the allotted 15 minutes was up, our chat ended on this humorous high and frankly, I was buzzing. We had just enough time to grab a picture (although I’m working I’m still a fan so you’ll forgive me the non-professional concession).
Stood there with Weller’s arm round me as Andy fired off the flash, I felt elated.
It was as much out of an enormous sense of relief that I didn’t really embarrass myself as it was that I had finally met the great man himself.
Impromptu photo session over, Weller turned on his desert boots, shook our hands once more and with a cheery “nice one lads” headed off for a pre-show pow wow with his band.
Don’t ever meet your heroes they tell you. How wrong could they be.