The Modfather discusses The Jam and his new solo career in this 1993 NME archive piece
Paul Weller and The Jam are on the cover of Uncut’s History Of Rock 1979 edition, in stores now or available to buy online.
For Paul Weller, 1989 was a bad year. After 12 years of crafting some of the most memorable moments in British music history, he reached a creative dead-end. The Style Council, for a brief time regarded as the saviours of pop, looked out on their feet.
Five LPs along the line, the record company eventually drew proceedings to an untidy close by refusing to release an album adopting an out-and-out house direction. That, so it seemed, was that. Like Lydon, Strummer, Jones, Shelley and to a lesser extent Costello, yet another ’70s icon – perhaps the finest of them all – had fallen by the wayside before achieving true greatness. No more heroes – that was their catchphrase…
Fast forward to July 1993 and Weller’s appearance on Jools Holland’s BBC2 series, Later…. Looking tanned and sturdy, he rips the place apart from the first chord of “Sunflower” to the dying moments of “Has My Fire Really Gone Out?”. Sinewy, rough-edged riffs compete with Steve White’s pounding drum assault. Weller confidently stomps around the studio floor wearing the broadest of smiles, his face soaked with sweat. For the first time in years, Paul Weller’s enjoying himself, dropping the mask of earnest singer-songwriter and just letting himself go in public.
But is this apparent return to form merely a nostalgic reflection of past glories? Sure, he’s arguably had a broader influence on current music than any other artist – from The Wonder Stuff and Ride through to Carter and Blur – but does he have anything new to offer?
A month later we’re at The Manor, the Oxfordshire studio where Weller recently finished his second solo LP, Wild Wood. As the first single, “Sunflower”, suggests, it’s a blistering return to form. A spacious country house, fringed by greenery and a clear water stream, The Manor is home-from-home in a stately kind of way. We’re greeted on arrival by the generously waisted Kenny Wheeler – minder, gofer and moral support to the Weller clan for over 16 years. Still managed by his father John, Weller has kept this close-knit unit with him throughout his days with The Jam, the Council and, now, his solo career.
On first meeting, you can see why he relies so heavily on this extended family set-up. Much has been said about his shy, awkward manner in the past and the first thing you notice about him is the way his eyes dart uncomfortably around the room, like a cat looking for an escape route from the clutches of an over-zealous child.
Still, he makes conversation, trying you out for size. What do you think of the album? When do you want to do the interview? Where do you want to do the photos? And gradually, with the formalities over, you begin to realise the characteristically fragile Weller persona is not as accurate as it first seems. He’s no after-dinner speaker for sure, but there’s a quiet calm about him, and a warmth of character that overrides his initial shyness.
No longer the spokesman for a generation, political firebrand nor champion of causes, Paul Weller, the bloke, sits cross-legged on the living room floor next to a pile of Stax and Motown rarities, talking comfortably about the past, quite obviously at ease with himself.
But to understand his current state of serenity, it’s important to note the desperate trough he’d sunk into with The Style Council. A rapidly disillusioned Weller had already decided to split the band by the time Confessions Of A Pop Group was released in July ’88.
“I couldn’t say it was a mutual decision,” he explains, “but I wanted to get out.” Things had become stale and he and songwriting partner Mick Talbot were bored by it all. The reaction to Confessions… made him feel that he’d become isolated from the real world. He thought it was the best record he’d ever made – critics and fans thought otherwise. It threw him that he’d become so far removed from his audience.
“After The Style Council, I felt totally unleashed,” he says, looking wistfully into the middle-distance. “I had no record deal, no publishing deal – for the first time since I was 18 I was a free man. But I went through a period when I thought, ‘What do I do now?’ because I’d spent so many years doing the same thing, going down to the studio every day, and when you haven’t got anything to work towards, it can really throw you. I had to just have some time to decide what I wanted to do. It was probably the first time I’d had the opportunity to stand still and take stock of what I was doing in life.”
How did you feel being dropped by Polydor?
“I thought they were wrong and I was right,” he laughs. “Rightly or wrongly, I believed I was absolutely right in making the last album. I was just being true to myself. On one level I can understand why the few people who heard it didn’t like it and my audience might have hated it. But does that make it wrong? I dunno. I was a lot more arrogant then. I’m the sort of person that, if I become obsessed by something, I can’t see any other way of looking at it. But it was born out of my own arrogance… I boxed myself into a corner to an extent. My head was up my arse. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a stage I went through.”
After over a decade of putting the world to rights, he suddenly found himself feeling decidedly insecure about things. He kept going nonetheless, playing a string of low-key London dates as The Paul Weller Movement. It was evident, to all but the most blinkered, that the spark was still there. With a handful of songs blending with the best of his back-catalogue from The Jam and The Style Council (through necessity rather than choice), each show become a cause for minor celebration. Still, despite two sell-out national tours, Weller was still hiding behind band names and willingly confesses that he was still at odds with himself.
“I was all over the shop at the time,” he admits. “I didn’t have a fucking clue what was going on. It was a ramshackle affair. But in retrospect, the tours were really constructive. You can find yourself onstage sometimes, it can bring something out in you – ambition, drive, motivation – you can use any number of words to describe the feeling.”
The Paul Weller Movement were soon scattered, but the relationship between Weller and fellow Councilman Steve White, who had joined the new band in its infancy, was cemented. The two continued to forge ahead, recruiting musicians as they went along.
“I didn’t think me and Steve would have carried on after The Style Council,” he admits. “If he hadn’t got in touch with me around that time, it might not have happened. Steve had left a couple of years before the band broke up – not necessarily with bad feeling – but there was a kind of vibe between us. He didn’t like the way in which we were heading and we didn’t get on too well. So I didn’t really think about him until a couple of years later. There’s just some sort of chemistry between us – it’s great to play with someone like that.”
By the time Weller had finished recording his eponymous debut solo album, he felt he was back on the right track. Developing the subtle psychedelic qualities reminiscent of latter-period Jam, while retaining the solid R’n’B base that had guided him throughout, the album was, if not faultless, refreshingly unpretentious. It seemed as if a great weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
“There was something there,” he recalls. “With ‘Into Tomorrow’ and ‘Amongst Butterflies’ – I thought that even if I just had those two songs, they were enough of a sign. Before that I’d doubted whether I’d lost it completely. Everything I was writing during the house time didn’t seem to excite me or I didn’t get the same feeling from it. Mind you,” he says soberly, “four years later, lots of people are making dodgy house records, aren’t they?”
If the first album was the first step along the right path, the new LP, Wild Wood, is his most assured work for years. It reflects a broader perspective than before, combining sturdy acoustic-based numbers like “Foot Of The Mountain” and “All The Pictures On The Wall” with grittier material like “Sunflower” and “The Weaver”. Most of it was recorded in one take and it has a timeless quality that’s neither 1968 nor 1993. Significantly, Weller seems driven by a new force. If he once appeared to have the answers to all the world’s problems, he now sets himself a tougher, more personal lyrical examination entirely. “Can You Heal Us (Holy Man)”, the focal point of the album, catches Weller stuck in the middle-ground of life. Having rallied against the status quo for so many years, he finds himself starting to adopt less strident opinions and values, questioning what it’s all about.
“‘…(Holy Man)’ is supposed to be fairly ironic,” he states, pulling his knees under his chin. “I’ve got little time for organised religions. I think they’re a real charade, most of them, and the contradictions are too much for me. But at the same time, I still think that faith is a very important thing. I don’t think I have absolute faith yet, but I still like the idea that some time I will. I come from a family of atheists, which is good in one way ’cos it’s left me clear space to make my own mind up – but I’ve also inherited their scepticism. With my dad, it’s just you’re born, you live, then you die. I appreciate the realism of that, but I like to think that what we’re doing now is worth something. Maybe not tonight,” he laughs, “but in the broader span of things. Whether it’s a vain hope or not, I don’t know. I don’t think we can just be passing through it all. But as for all the vicars and the priests, I’ve got no time for them.”
It’s a long way from In The City to Wild Wood, but then one record was made by a callow 17-year-old and the other by a man settling uncomfortably into middle age. Gone are the fervently expressed political ideologies – not ditched for the benefit of mainstream pop audiences, but stacked away in a dusty corner of his mind. During the ’80s, if you had an ounce of conscience within your soul, you pinned your political colours to the mast. The Style Council were initially applauded for taking songs like “Walls Come Tumbling Down” into the Top 10. But as Thatcherism gradually demolished the opposition, Weller and co became whipping boys for the Labour Party’s abject failure to galvanise young voters through the Red Wedge movement. In retrospect, the notion that a motley crew of bright young things could have moved the immovable seems faintly ridiculous – but they were very different times. Now they’re just desperate. Either way, Weller has now adopted a more organic approach to his work. Although he believes that some of his later stuff with The Jam and early Council tracks were streets ahead of his contemporaries, he now adopts the no-frills approach.
“There’s really no point getting wrapped up with worrying about an image,” he sighs, “or what the NME thinks about me. All that ‘spokesman for a generation’ bullshit – it just got to a ridiculous stage. There was a time with The Style Council around ’85 when we were doing press conferences and people would ask, ‘What do you think of Maggie Thatcher?’ and, ‘What are you going to do about the Tory party?’ – all these heavy-duty political questions.
“We were just in a fuckin’ band for chrissakes! It wasn’t entirely the press’ fault because, to a certain extent, it was my own doing. And I’m really out of my depth on that, I think. I really believe more and more that I’m just good at what I do. Playing guitar, singing songs and that’s about it. People who look for more than that are going to be disappointed, to be quite honest. But I’ve come to terms with that.
“It’s not to say that I’ve reneged on all those things – that’s a different matter. The fact that I’m not writing about them any more doesn’t mean I don’t feel them or think them. I just don’t feel right writing about politics or social issues. My attitude might change, but at the moment it doesn’t come naturally to me.”
If there’s one clear link to the past on Wild Wood, it’s that Weller continues to dabble with childhood images. It’s the kind of fragile tie to the early days that both Weller and his fans find such a rich source of inspiration. The title track itself is inspired by memories of the dense woodland that surrounds his home town of Woking. It’s the kind of song he feels most comfortable with. “‘Wild Wood’ is all about these magical memories I have from when I was a kid,” he explains. “‘The Place I Love’ on All Mod Cons is a bit like that, too. ‘Monday’ on Sound Affects, ‘Boy About Town’ – those are the songs I like now. I can relate to those images more so than ‘Going Underground’ because that was just how I felt at one point in time.
“There was a period, particularly during the early days of The Style Council, when I just couldn’t listen to Jam songs. But when Polydor sent me a tape of Extras to check through (last year’s Jam B-sides and outtakes compilation), it kind of made me feel nostalgic. I started digging out some of the old records, listening to them in a totally different way. Getting into them because they were good records, not just because I had something to do with them. I enjoyed that experience and I found there were a lot of good songs I’d turned my back on. But I still feel uncomfortable playing some of them. I’ll get a verse or two in and then I’ll find two lines of a lyric that I can’t really sing anymore because they’re so badly written. I have a problem playing songs I don’t feel completely confident about. I have done it, but I don’t like it.”
Paul Weller is the last remaining figure from the roll-call of those ’70s heroes. Joe Strummer is a spent force, Mick Jones is a sick man, John Lydon is a surfing LA airhead and Pete Shelley… well, he’s back in the Buzzcocks. Punk was supposed to be the most creative movement of them all, but we still ended up with Tina, Phil and Elton as our role models. It’s tragic. Considering the sorry state Weller was in four years ago, what’s kept him going?
“Talent, old-fashioned talent, writing good songs,” he says, clichéd but true. “I think it’s a bit of a sad state with regards to my generation of songwriters, y’know. They were really harsh on all those ’60s bands because they were pioneers, those geezers, they were bound to make loads of mistakes. And at the end of the day, I don’t know whether we were as good as them. I don’t think we were. They were better singers, better players, better songwriters.
“The amount of times The Jam got slagged off in the fanzines for tuning in between numbers! But we came from a different background. All I wanted to do from the age of 12 was be in a group. When I was 14 I eventually got round to learning the guitar and I started going out doing gigs in pubs and clubs, playing Chuck Berry or whatever else had three chords. That’s the end of the story, really. Twenty years on, that’s what I’m still doing. I know I’ve done it in a roundabout way and I’ve been some people’s spokesman – some people’s this and some people’s that. It’s all bullshit, really, and people who have grown up with me will realise that. There are people out there the same as me – 35 years old with two kids, who met their wife in ’79 or whatever. We’ve all grown up together and been through a lot. As long as it doesn’t get too nostalgic or too sentimental, I’m happy.
“It took me a while to realise you don’t have to give up. I looked around and realised nothing else interests me. It was just a question of having the time to readjust, and I feel different now – if anything, I’m more obsessed by music than ever. You worry sometimes. Although it sounds a bit melodramatic, it’s almost like a curse because that’s all I can do in life. I was only 30 at the time The Style Council split and you don’t pack it in then if you really care about what you do.”
Look at Neil Young and you see one of the most influential rock’n’roll figures of our age. Nearly 50, packing them in like never before, setting the standards by which all other performers will be judged. Listening to Wild Wood, or watching his astonishingly sinewy live performance, you can see Weller turning into a Young-esque icon for another generation. God knows, we need him for a while yet.
Paul Weller and The Jam are on the cover of Uncut’s History Of Rock 1979 edition, in stores now or available to buy online.
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