In praise of: Paul Weller

Time for something completely different… Much to the delight of a number of my colleagues, I’ve recently set up a stereo in my office, largely because I now work out of it every day and therefore wouldn’t get to listen to music as often as I’d like if I didn’t. I mostly listen to music on vinyl but I usually have the stuff I really like on multiple formats. Yes, I’m a sucker for different vinyl versions (especially if they have different covers or different coloured vinyl) and special edition CDs with extra tracks. Much to my wife’s displeasure, I’ll also hold “retrospective” days where I’ll listen to a particular artist’s back catalogue (the Neil Young days are the one she looks forwards to least, though she’s probably lucky I’m not into The Fall). I held one of these days yesterday — a Paul Weller retrospective — and listening to every album he’s made got me thinking about his career.

As Mrs Renwick and many of my friend’s will testify, I have long-running love affair with Paul Weller. The Jam rank a close second to The Who in my list of favourite bands and I love pretty much everything he’s ever done, including the Style Council. This is an apparently controversial position among the people I talk to about music and I’ve never been able to put my finger on why, with the exception of some people who simply don’t dig that kind of thing. There is, however, a prevalent view of Weller as a grumpy one-dimensional dad rock figure, which is most often held by people aged 25-35 and helps explain the inertia behind the negative attitudes towards his oeuvre. After a steady build up, Weller’s solo career took off during the Britpop years when he was made into a kind of elder statesman of British guitar rock, producing some of the finest music of that era, particularly Stanley Road. Consequently, a lot of people have read that “modfather” period backwards and interpreted Weller as some kind of one trick pony. I think that view is totally wrong.

It’s worth remembering that Weller’s renaissance during the 1990s came about because he was on an upward curve from what was his lowest moment: the Style Council losing their recording contract. That moment became an important part of the 1990s’ Britpop view of Weller: he was rediscovering the guitar after a lost decade. The Jam were great, so people said, but the Style Council were shit and finally Weller had come to his senses. Even though I bought into this story in the mid-90s (I was 15 and 15 year olds know fuck all), I now realise that I was wrong. The Style Council were a really good band. That doesn’t mean everything they did was good because it wasn’t. However, even their duff records and mistakes are testament to what made them good: a willingness to experiment and follow ideas through to their logical conclusion. The “Modfather” label often leads people to see him as someone who constantly ties to preserve the 60s. But what made the Style Council good was the way Weller took the modernist side of mod culture seriously and explored not only the frequently sidelined aspects of 60s mod culture (jazz for example) but also the modernist aspects of his own era. Let’s not forget that the final straw for Weller’s record label was when the Style Council delivered a house album, which was the entirely logical conclusion of the modernist explorations Weller had been undertaking.

In my opinion, the people who write off the Style Council are largely those who fell into the trap that Weller set for them. Weller broke The Jam up when he was only 24  and the band was at the absolute height of their power and popularity — an act that is probably difficult to comprehend these days when things like record sales have a completely different meaning. The Style Council were his reaction against The Jam and it’s a move that is probably closest to the ones Neil Young made after Harvest made him massive. Everything about the Style Council was supposed to test fans of The Jam: the clothes, the music, everything — something that is most clearly demonstrated in the notorious video for “Long Hot Summer“. But if you look past a couple of occasionally dodgy haircuts, the Style Council produced some of Weller’s best music. Songs like “My Ever Changing Moods” are among my favourites from his whole career. And, for all people knock it, I actually think much of the late Style Council output was good.

In this respect, it’s also worth remembering that the kinds of music the Style Council made was a growth from The Jam’s later output. The Jam were actually a much more diverse band than people often recognise. Their first couple of albums were really good and classics of that period and genre but they don’t sound like the Jam — they sound like the Jam playing punk music, which is what they basically are. It was when Weller started exploring soul and funk sides of his music tastes (as well as the more experimental side of his guitar music tastes that probably owe much to The Beatles’ Revolver)  that The Jam evolved into an interesting, individual and powerful group and it’s when they put out their best records — Sound Affects and All Mod Cons among them. Their later output — specifically that on The Gift — was very, very different to that on In the City and it merged almost seamlessly into the Style Council. I don’t, however, often hear Jam fans argue that “Beat Surrender” is a bad song.

This diversity is reflected in Weller’s solo career. He’s made a couple of albums I don’t like (Heliocentric — I’m looking at you) but, generally speaking, he seems to make batches of albums that explore different aspects of the same idea. Wild Wood, Stanley Road, and Heavy Soul are one batch; his recent excellent albums, beginning with 22 Dreams, another. Those recent albums are in fact much more interesting and diverse than much of the stuff you hear from new bands. In fact, Weller is among the few artists who have been around for as long as he has and still puts out good, interesting records. He is not part of the heritage trail, populated by bands like the Rolling Stones, who make a living playing songs from 30 years ago but who long since ceased to be a functioning outfit, artistically speaking.

Why do people have such a negative opinion of Weller then? Well, part of it is certainly the repackaged Weller story that came as part of Britpop. However, I can’t help feel that some of it is a class thing. Weller isn’t an art-school type and for that reason I think it’s difficult for trendy types to say they think he’s a genuine innovator in the same way they are happy to say that about, say, David Bowie or Neil Young. Weller’s music explores the traditions of soul and funk, which he has frequently joined successfully with things like psychedelia in ways that are deserving of much more respect than he gets from the music press. Not everything he’s done has been great but not everything Neil Young or David Bowie have done has been great either and I’m sure Weller would be the first to admit that the odd part of his back catalogue isn’t as strong as the rest. The point, though, is the place those mistakes came from and the reasons they were made. And I think the fact those mistake exist is evidence enough that Weller is not the dad rock figure he’s often held to be.


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