Rock icons are often and easily trapped within the legend that they and the media create around them, but not in the case of Paul Weller. The singer-songwriter jumped to the forefront of English alternative rock fame in the late 1970s via the Jam, which Vic Garbarini of Musician later dubbed “the British pop phenomenon of the early 80s.” Weller then effected an impressive escape from the demands and expectations of this first public persona, reinventing himself in the context of a very different but also very successful soul-oriented duo, the Style Council. With both bands, he scored a remarkable string of Top Ten singles and earned a reputation for a commitment to his music and his politics. He also later embarked on a solo career, pursuing a rigorous touring schedule and achieving commercial and critical success.
Weller grew up in a working-class home in the town of Working in Surrey, England, where he was born on May 25, 1958. Years later, Weller would wax poetic about the sense of community that reigned in that neighborhood. In an interview with Melody Maker he told Paolo Hewitt about “Stanley Road in Woking, which is all terraced houses, and you could leave your back door open and no-one would rip you off. The neighbours would be walking in and out and there’s a general working-class integrity which has now vanished.”
Without an environment that offered him any formal training, Weller was nonetheless drawn into music at an early age, inspired by the then-emerging rock that he heard around him. “The whole reason I started playing music when I was 12 or 13 was because of the Beatles,” he told Adam Sweeting of Melody Maker in 1984, “so I was brought up on all that and I did believe in it.”
Hewitt, writing for Melody Maker in October of 1982, right after the Jam announced that it was disbanding, traced the roots of group to 1972, when Weller played sets with his school friend Steve Brookes at local working men’s clubs. By 1973 the duo had expanded with the addition of Nigel Harris and Dave Waller. In 1975 and 1976, however, the lineup gradually shifted and Weller was the only remaining original member; Brookes, Harris, and Waller left and were replaced by Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton. This trio would constitute the Jam for the next six years.
By the end of 1976 the band had coalesced around Weller, who performed most of the lead guitar and vocals and wrote most of the songs. That year, the trio headed for London, where they broke into the circuit of
For the Record…
Born Paul Weller, May 25, 1958, in Woking, Surrey, England; married Dee C. Lee, 1986; children: John.
Began playing sets with Steve Brookes as the Jam at working men’s clubs in England, early 1970s; Nigel Harris and Dave Waller joined group, 1973; Brookes, Harris, and Waller left group, c. 1975 and 1976; Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton joined Weller, c. 1976; group signed with Polydor Records and released debut album, In the City, 1977; founded Jamming magazine, 1981; founder and owner of Respond Records, 1981-86; the Jam dissolved, 1982; Weller formed duo Style Council with keyboardist Mick Talbot, 1983; released debut single, “Speak Like a Child,” Polydor, 1983; released U.S. debut, Introducing the Style Council, Polygram, 1983; released U.K. debut, Café Bleu, Polydor, 1984; formed and disbanded Paul Weller Movement, 1990; Weller released debut solo album, Paul Weller, Go! Discs, 1992.
Addresses: Record company —Go! Discs, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.
clubs that nurtured the punk scene. “The Jam’s first London gigs collided with the emergence of punk,” Paolo Hewitt wrote in Melody Maker, “and the group, sporting mohair suits, soon gained a following thanks to Weller’s fast, energetic songs.” Garbarini later described this earliest incarnation of the band as “a sinewy, somewhat brittle punk version of the Who in hyperdrive.”
Early in 1977, the Jam had secured a contract with Polydor Records. The group’s first recording, a single released in the spring of 1977 called “In the City,” just cracked the British Top 40. It was, at the very least, an auspicious beginning. The debut album, also called In the City, claimed the Number 20 position. By August a second single, “All Around the World,” rose to Number 13. The album release preceded the band’s pair of first serious tours: the U.K. tour introduced the Jam to an already enthusiastic audience, while the U.S. tour—characteristic of the band’s relationship to American audiences—was not particularly successful.
Back at home, however, the Jam was already solidly ensconced on the “mod revival” landscape. In December of 1977, the band’s second album, This Is the Modern World, almost made the Top 20 and kicked off another English tour. The next few years witnessed a very regular output from the trio, including their first world tour in 1979 and a consistently enthusiastic reception from the English market. Their chart hits included a long list of singles, among them “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” “Strange Towns,” and “The Eton Rifles” in 1978 and 1979. In 1980 they were graced with another string of hit singles, including “Going Underground” and “Start.” When “Going Underground” topped the charts upon its release, Melody Maker’s Hewitt described the event as “reminiscent of the Beatles at their height.” The Jam’s albums were also making it into the British Top Five and finally beginning to edge into the U.S. Top 200.
Weller’s public persona seemed to embody the Jam’s angry, nonconformist attitude; he rejected even the usual pretensions of rock star rebels. Discussing a song from The Gift in Melody Maker, Weller celebrated it as “a smack in the face to all those shitty groups I detest,” which he characterized as “showbiz and escapist.” Weller would later express a similar contempt to Musician’s Garbarini, explaining his sense that “rock culture’s a myth, it’s not part of reality. From a historical point of view, it’s always been a way to escape and live out your fantasies.”
Weller’s politics also played a vital role in shaping his music. He maintains an uncompromising anticapitalist criticism of government. Explaining his political beliefs to Hewitt in March, Weller expressed himself with a vehemence that the public by then considered characteristic of the singer: “Obviously the first thing you have to do is get rid of this government, but I’d like to get rid of all governments really and replace them with people’s councils that are re-elected every six months. It’s something that you’d have to implant now and you’d only see the fruits in 100 years time or something. But unless you start doing something now it’s just f—ed.” He was notorious for declaring such opinions to the press, but his convictions also showed through in his activities and in his song lyrics, which were as much about the struggles of the working-class as about the romantic longings of classless teenagers.
As the band’s reputation and production cycle became stable, Weller allowed himself to expand into other venues. In 1981 he started a magazine called Jamming and his own label, Respond Records. A breakdown early in 1982 prompted him to swear off alcohol, which further increased his restlessness. Since his rebel stance was actually less about image than about politics, Weller became uncomfortable with the band’s security; he began tinkering with it, altering the Jam’s music to suit his own need to experiment and take risks. The 1982 release The Giftfeatured an infusion of some retro-soul into the alternative rock sound.
During the summer of 1982 Weller’s sense of stasis had become so profound that he decided to disband the Jam, despite the band’s unmitigated reign on the British alternative rock scene. The group announced the breakup in October of 1982, promising to complete one last tour before parting for good in 1983. Explaining that he wanted the group to “finish with dignity,” as quoted by Paolo Hewitt in Melody Maker, Weller declared, “We have achieved all we can together as a group … both musically and commercially.” The Jam went out with a bang, their last performances accompanied by the reissue of all of the band’s singles and several albums. They were back on the U.K. charts.
Weller acknowledged the sense of shock that Jam fans felt, noting in an interview in November of 1982 with Melody Maker’s Hewitt that the band had “become such an institution, such an establishment.” Trying to explain his motivation in breaking up the band, Weller confessed to Hewitt that he “was frightened by the security of the Jam.” Furthermore, as Hewitt argued, Weller’s critics “fail to comprehend … the enormous faith Weller has in music as a positive force and his breaking up of the group is perhaps the finest example of this belief.”
Although Weller had briefly toyed with the idea of pursuing a solo career, he formed the Style Council with keyboardist Mick Talbot only a year after the Jam disbanded. Signed with Polydor, the duo became a vehicle for the soul-based sound that Weller had begun exploring in the Jam’s last years. Weller found a more amenable atmosphere for that work with Talbot, and the two began recording cuts with pronounced soul, jazz, and R&B inflections. “I think the time is right for a new way of presenting music without the usual bullshit,” Weller told Brian Harrigan of Melody Maker on the dawn of the Style Council early in 1983.
“I wanted Mick Talbot in my new group because I believe him to be the finest young jazz/soul organist in the country,” Weller explained in Melody Maker, “and also because he too shares a hatred of the rock myth and rock culture.” Although the sound had shifted, Weller stressed that his motives as a public figure remained largely the same. That summer, he told Melody Maker that “the level of commitment in the Style Council is higher, actually … in the six months we’ve been going we’ve done more than I’ve ever done in the past.”
In particular, the Style Council played regularly at charity venues, with proceeds generally going to working-class causes; Weller also earmarked the profits for certain singles, including “The Money-Go-Round,” to benefit specific causes. The Style Council announced its political commitment with its first live performance at the May Day Show for Peace and Jobs, a music festival supporting leftist politics. By 1985 Melody Maker’s Barry Mcllheney would dub the band “Europe’s leading social workers.” The Style Council also demonstrated their support for the Labour Party in 1986, taking part in the “Red Wedge” tour and hoping to spark political interest in young Brits.
The Style Council’s first singles demonstrated quite soundly that Weller had not sacrificed commercial success in his search of a new sound: “Speak Like a Child,” the duo’s first single, went to Number Four on the British charts. It was followed by a pair of Number 11 hits, “The Money-Go-Round” and “Solid Bond in Your Heart.” A first EP, Paris, rose to the Number Three spot, where it was eventually eclipsed by 1984’s official debut album, Café Bleu, which peaked at Number Two. “My Ever Changing Moods” emerged as one of the strongest cuts from the album, taking a solid Number Five spot on U.K. charts.
While the Style Council’s first U.S. release, Introducing the Style Council, did about as well as Jam albums ever did with U.S. audiences, the second U.S. album, called My Ever Changing Moods, actually broke the Top 100 in 1984, rising to the Number 56 spot. High Fidelity’s Steven Rea noted, “Weller… has refined and, to some extent, redefined his style and music with his new combo,” but concluded that “whether it will win where the Jam did not—in America—remains to be seen. My bet is no: Paul Weller is still Paul Weller no matter what band he’s fronting.” While Weller’s new experiments went over well with English buyers, the American market was not especially receptive. The Style Council’s video for “Long Hot Summer” couldn’t win airplay on MTV, because, as Weller told Garbarini, “it’s too R&B.”
After the release of My Ever Changing Moods, Musician ’s Gabarini placed the Style Council within a broader movement to return to rock music roots. He mused, “So far it’s only been Weller and a few others who understand the implications of what’s happening, who see clearly that this is a necessary therapeutic step towards the formulations of newvalues, not just anotherfad.” Garbarini also speculated that “being the singleminded, intense lad that he is, Weller has extended his search back beyond Motown to black pop’s real roots, gospel music.”
For Weller, as Garbarini suggested, the meaning was ultimately not about market, but about politics. “There was an English soul group in the ’60s,” Weller told Garbarini, “who referred to music as the new religion, and that’s how it is. Music has a lot of responsibility to live up to—it has to supply the fight which is missing in our culture right now. As far as I’m concerned, religion is pretty much dead on its feet, and politics is just a waste of time at the moment, so young people have nowhere else to put their faith.”
Weller maintained his usual level of involvement in political activism, taking part in another “Aid” concert in the fall of 1984, this one in support of coal miners on strike, and participating in the international Live Aid concerts before the Red Wedge. In the meantime, the Style Council added more titles to their list of U.K. chart hits: 1984 saw “You’re the Best Thing” reach Number Five and “Shout to the Top” climb to Number Seven. In 1985 “Walls Come Tumbling Down” claimed the Number Six spot, and Our Favorite Shop spent a week in the Number One position on British charts. Mcllheney, commenting on the “considerable acclaim” that greeted the album, predicted that the Style Council were likely to be “going on and moving up for some time to come.”
Weller made some major changes in 1986, including closing down Respond Records. He also married a former singing partner, Dee C. Lee, in December; their son John was born two years later in June. The Style Council remained a productive band until 1990; they recorded several more albums and many more hit singles along the way, although they didn’t perform live after 1988. By 1990, however, Weller would decide that he needed to catalyze another change in his music career: he dissolved the Style Council at the beginning of the year and by the fall of 1990, announced the formation of the Paul Weller Movement. The band proved to be only a brief experiment and had no releases. Following that tepid effort, Weller receded from public life and the music business, his first real break.
In an interview with Gary Graff of the Detroit Free Press, Weller articulated what those intervening years were like for him. “There was a lot of change for me at that time. I was turning 30, and that freaked me out…. I always figured that was the end of the road when you hit 30. So I definitely had a couple of years of being quiet, just kind of finding myself. It was a period to sit back and reassess what I was doing, what I wanted to do in the future. I started thinking about whether I wanted to continue doing music. I was looking at why I was doing it, what were my motives for wanting to do music?”
When his first solo album, Paul Weller, hit the market in 1992, the artist encountered the first flop in a 16-year career. Not only did many reviewers pan the album, but some even perceived Weller as letting go of the principles that had set him apart earlier in his career. “I can’t find Weller here,” declared Steve Sutherland of Melody Maker. “Weller, who once gnashed and growled and writhed against the system like a mad dog in a muzzle,” he elaborated, “is now making music out of habit, just for the sake of it.”
Of course, Weller had originally put to rest the phenomenal career of the Jam because he didn’t want to be making music for the routine of it. Ultimately, Sutherland felt that the album was “utterly bereft of virtue.” Critical of Weller’s “obsession” with soul music, Thorn Jurek wrote in Detroit’s Metro Times that the album “comes off sounding like little more than a white boy fantasy of a time that—for him—never was.” In addition, Rolling Stone reviewer Kara Manning labeled Weller “a thirtysomething Brit with an identity crisis,” and she noted with regret that the alburn’s “moments of coherent beauty are countered by episodes of confused ingenuity.”
Spin, however, summarized the very different critical reception that greeted Weller’s second solo effort, released in 1994. Announcing that “the breadth of material on Wild Wood puts Weller back at the top of his game,” Jonathan Bernstein also noted that the British public concurred, receiving the album “with fulsome praise and brisk across-the-counter activity.” Scott Schinder in Pulse! reported that the album “reestablished Weller as a major star in the U.S. and Europe.” Bernstein also heaped praise on Weller, whom he saw as “maturing like fine wine” as he produced “the most accomplished and affecting songs of his career.” With the success of Wild Wood, Weller admitted to Schinder, “I kind of ignored America for a long time, but I’m quite interested in making it in the States now. I’m not sure why, but it just feels like it’s the right time now.”
Singles, with the Jam; on Polydor
“In the City,” 1977.
“All Around the World,” 1977.
“The Modern World,” 1977.
“Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” 1978.
“Strange Towns,” 1979.
“Eton Rifles,” 1979.
“Going Underground,” 1980.
Singles, with the Style Council; on Polydor
“Speak Like a Child,” 1983.
“The Money-Go-Round,” 1983.
“My Ever Changing Moods,” 1984.
“You’re the Best Thing,” 1984.
“Shout to the Top,” 1984.
“Walls Come Tumbling Down,” 1985.
“Solid Bond in Your Heart.”
Albums; with the Jam; on Polydor
In the City, 1977.
This Is the Modern World (includes “The Modern World” and “All Around the World”), 1977.
All Mod Cons (includes “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”), 1978.
Setting Sons (includes “Eton Rifles” and “Strange Towns”), 1980.
Sound Affects (includes “Start”), 1980.
The Gift, 1982.
Dig the New Breed, 1982.
Live Jam, 1994.
Albums; with the Style Council
Paris (EP), Polydor, 1983.
Introducing the Style Council (includes “Long Hot Summer,” “Money-Go-Round,” and “Speak Like a Child”), Polygram, 1983.
Café Bleu, Polydor, 1984.
My Ever Changing Moods (includes “My Ever Changing Moods”), Geffen, 1984.
Our Favorite Shop, Polydor, 1985.
Internationalists, Geffen, 1985.
Home and Abroad, Polydor, 1986.
The Cost of Loving, Polydor, 1987.
Confessions of a Pop Group, Polydor, 1988.
Singular Adventures of the Style Council (includes “You’re the Best Thing,” “Walls Come Tumbling Down,” “Shout to the Top,” and “Solid Bond in Your Heart”), Polydor, 1989.
Paul Weller, Go! Discs, 1992.
Wild Wood, Go! Discs, 1994.
Rock Movers and Shakers, edited by Dafydd Rees and Luke Crampton, Billboard Books, 1991.
Detroit Free Press, November 13, 1992.
High Fidelity, January 1994.
Melody Maker, March 13, 1982; October 30, 1982; November 6, 1982; February 19, 1983; August 13, 1983; March 24, 1984; February 23, 1985; July 20, 1985; November 17, 1990; August 28, 1992.
Metro Times (Detroit), October 28, 1992.
Modern Drummer, July 1993.
Musician, April 1984; October 1992.
People, January 18, 1993.
Pulse!, September 1992; July 1994.
Rolling Stone, November 26, 1992.
Spin, October 1992; April 1994.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Go! Discs publicity materials.
—Paul E. Anderson
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