I’ve spent the weekend listening to the music of just two British artists, each of whom I think have every right to be thought of as the best of the last 30 years and even to be considered with the greatest British musicians of the 20th Century, such as Lennon & McCartney, Bowie & Ray Davies. Rather than just review one of their tracks, I thought I’d give these giants of British rock a more thorough overview.
The first of these is, of course, Paul Weller. It may be that I’m slightly biased, seeing as Weller hails from Woking (the subject of his classic A Town Called Malice), the nearest town to the area I call home, but I’m reasonably confident that geography isn’t clouding my judgement all that much. Rather it all comes down to the fact that not only has Paul Weller consistently produced music of the highest quality for over 30 years, but also that he has done so in a variety of styles that most musicians would struggle to name, let alone excel in.
Whilst The Sex Pistols & The Clash are regularly hailed as the best bands of the 70s, for me The Jam outdid them in almost every respect (especially The Sex Pistols’ one trick pony act.) To be fair The Jam were never really punk, rather they might better be bracketed as new wave: whatever, they crafted pop music of the highest order, in the same way that The Beatles made pop music. In fact so obvious was The Jam’s debt to The Beatles (unlike most punks and their Year Zero attitude) that the rhythm to Start was a blatant tribute (or rip-off) of The Beatles’ Taxman.
As well as these classic rock influences Paul Weller also mixed dollops of Motown soul into The Jam’s mix, signalling the direction his next band, The Style Council would move in. This was most obvious with The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had To Swallow) which is quite beautiful but aso about as different to songs such as Eton Rifles (the track which, in a moment of unintended irony you couldn’t make up, was named by Old Etonian David Cameron as one of his favourite songs) as you can get whilst still making music with bass, guitar & drums. What Bitterest Pill does share with earlier Jam tracks is Weller’s amazing ability to craft a tune and come up with beautifully insightful lyrics.
On tracks such as the amazing That’s Entertainment Weller’s lyrics really come to the fore as the guitars go acoustic and Paul sings of the million little things that make up modern British life.
Waking up from bad dreams and smoking cigarettes
Cuddling a warm girl and smelling stale perfume
A hot summer’s day and sticky black tarmac
Feeding ducks in the park and wishing you were far away
This way with words was something that didn’t abandon him as he abandoned his bandmates to form The Style Council. Like much of Weller’s work, The Style Council are often mocked. But, whilst his outfits would certainly raise an eyebrow now, even in Hoxton, his courage in ditching the most popular band in Britain at the time and striking off in a radically new direction still deserves applause. Add to that the fact that some of the songs he made in this period are some of his best, and I really don’t understand what the problem is.
Tracks like Shout To The Top & Walls Come Tumbling Down channelled Motown like few other white artists have managed and stand amongst the best blue-eyed soul of the 80s, or any other decade. On a different tip entirely, The Style Council also saw Paul Weller experimenting with a very 80s sound by incuding synths on tracks such as Long Hot Summer & My Ever Changing Moods. On top of that the videos were, often unintentionally, hilarious. And then there were tracks such as You’re The Best Thing which are, quite simply, beautiful.
Not content with drifting from guitar driven power pop to soul & new romantic tinged jazz, Paul Weller’s next move would signal the end for The Style Council. He recorded an album, Modernism, almost entirely influenced by the house sound which was, at the time, still a relatively underground genre. And this is the man many accuse of being boring and afraid to take risks. In fact it turned out that he’d taken a huge risk as only one song from these recording sessions, Promised Land, was released and The Style Council were dropped by their record label.
For many musicians this would have been the signal to sit back and enjoy the royalties of 13 years of hits. Instead Paul Weller went back to his roots, gigging his way round the UK and building up another fanbase and, in keeping with his previous reinventions, perfecting a new sound. And, contrary to much of the criticism that has been levelled at him, his solo career has not simply been album after album of Dad rock.
The eponymous debut solo album featured tinges of soul but, unlike with The Style Council, it was soul of the acid jazz rather than the Motown variety. The tracks also often included samples and were all based round a central acoustic folk-rock sound. Tracks such as Round & Round and Amongst Butterflies are stunningly beautiful and also highlighted what would become more & more apparent in his sol work: a willingness to sing of his personal feelings – perhaps because the lyrics of these and many of the songs on his iconic second solo album, Wild Wood, suggested that Weller was happy and at ease back in Surrey (having been so desparate to leave in his early years.)
I really don’t need to say much about Wild Wood as it’s pretty well known and acknowledged to be a classic, although I actually prefer its predecessor. What I will say is that the mix of acoustic tracks and incredibly tight rock numbers would go on to inspire more acts than just about any of his albums since the glory days of The Jam. And, once again disproving the boring tag, he got Portishead in to do an amazing mix of the title track.
His next album, the much maligned Stanley Road, would give him his biggest success since The Jam but would also prove to be a bit of a burden for him, as it was the album that would often be used against him when critics wished to disparage his work. And, whilst it’s far from my favourite bit of Paul Weller’s work, it’s really not bad at all.
You Do Something To Me is a beautiful love song that can’t be blamed for the ubiquity its since gained, Out Of The Sinking is a peerless piece of 90s rock, the piano-led simplicity of Broken Stones often brings me close to tears & Pink On White Walls is simply lovely (sorry, it’s the only video I could find!) And the opening track of Stanley Road could easily be thought of as Paul Weller’s motto and, though hopefully not for many years, the phrase most likely to be inscribed on his tomb – The Changing Man.
Since then Weller has released a further 6 albums, most recently the amazing 22 Dreams. And of these, I’d argue that only one or two were in danger of becoming clones of Stanley Road (Heavy Soul & Heliocentric in case you’re interested): the others have seen Weller playing with genres and styles, just as he always has done. Here, an album of covers (including the amazing Early Morning Rain), here an album mostly made up of folk-tinged acoustic numbers. Most of this went unnoticed by the majority of critics (but not it seems by the public, as all of these albums made the top 5): it wasn’t till this year’s release of 22 Dreams that Weller once more became fashionable.
However, rather than go on about the injustice of this, or rambling on how about how he looks fitter and more stylish than any 50 year old has a right to, I’ll instead encourage you to go & buy 22 Dreams if you haven’t already as it really is amazing, blending so many of the different genres that Weller has played with over the years. It also failed to make the Mercury shortlist, which is a fucking disgrace, but that’s just par for the course where Paul Weller’s concerned.
Paul Weller image from his official site – please don’t sue me!