There has been so much written about Paul Weller that to attempt to tell his story in a short blog format seems futile. A key figure not just in music but also in youth culture, his influence on people in their teens and early twenties during the decade extended beyond their record-buying habits and on to their politics and appreciation of the arts in general.
Given Paul Weller’s slightly low-key profile outside of the UK since his 1980s heyday, the reverence with which he is regarded at home may come as a surprise to some casual observers. But this is a man who not only turns 60 today, but an artist whose albums routinely land in the Top Five, who is considered nearly as big an influence by Britpop stalwarts as the ‘60s artists who inspired him, and who has always preferred to maintain a distinct Englishness rather than chasing an international audience.
Even though he has only managed to figure on the Billboard Hot 100 for one solitary week (1984’s paean to bipolarity, My Ever Changing Moods), Weller did manage to sell out a hat-trick of concerts at Australia’s iconic Sydney Opera House at the start of the year. I caught the hastily added third and final show on January 29, where he was preceded on stage by The Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows.
It was the most appropriate song. Not just because the Fab Four, the Swinging Sixties, and psychedelic rock all are factors in Weller’s illustrious background, but because of the being a Mod amid punk thing, and switching to being a sweater-over-the-shoulders, jazz-soul man when puffed-up powered pop was making its name, to explorations of Krautrock and electronics, folk and rock in the past 20 years, it has always been true that tomorrow never knows what will pique his interest next, from where the next musical punch will come.
With his cultural icon status and premier pop pedigree as frontman of The Jam and The Style Council—two of the most recognisable British bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s—the so-called Modfather has a reputation as one of the most stylish men in rock. So imagine my surprise when a slightly under the weather Weller decided to blow his nose on stage. The only other person I’ve seen do that was Grace Jones, but, alas, she’d just been heavy in the powdering department. In Sydney 2018, poor Paul was more snotty than snorty.
No biggie. Approaching his seventh decade, dignity as well as age subdued the Woking wonder’s dynamic thrash moves of yore, but he’s still in fine form, vocally and visually. Alongside a splash of cocktail and bachelor pad moves was the cool cerulean surprise of Have You Ever Had It Blue, a jazz-inflected light-stepper from the soundtrack to Absolute Beginners (the flop David Bowie movie rather than the Jam song, which didn’t get an airing).
Weller’s still an attractive, angsty presence, retaining a streak of aggression alongside an inquiring mind – for instance, his only semi-joking introduction to the newish, punchy psych rocker Long Time, “which you won’t know because you haven’t bought the fucking record.” Indeed, for someone so revered his chart record since junking The Jam in 1982 is a curious one.
Within eight months of the final activity of those new wave pacesetters, Weller’s new cafe club collective had three hit singles to their name. Talking to a press release in February 1983, he announced Speak Like A Child, their debut 45, and an appointment that gave an indication of his future musical direction: “Like Robin Hood I will be collecting members for The Style Council as I go on my merry way. For the time bring it’s just me and keyboard player Mick Talbot. I wanted him in my new group because I believe him to be the finest young jazz/soul organist in the country.”
SLAC reached a healthy No. 4 in the UK. The second Style Council single, the club-influenced anti-capitalist Money Go Round, stalled at No. 11 (“It reminds me of a cockney Gil Scott-Heron, said Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp, ambiguously) but via an appearance on Top Of The Pops it did confirm guest vocalist Dee C. Lee’s defection from the George Michael and Wham! camp to the collective’s, later becoming Weller’s wife and mother of his first two children.**
Three singles, three completely different genres.
A much needed breather after the claustrophobic funk of Money Go Round, the group reached their widest audience with the follow-up, Long Hot Summer was backed on a double A-sided 45 with Paris Match, which took its name from the single’s recording sessions that June at Le Studio Grande Armée, a cavernous complex in the French capital and a particular favourite of Eurythmics and Stevie Wonder, but also because Weller had declared “French boys are the most beautiful in the world.”
Zut alors indeed.
In addition to being sold as a conventional two track 7″ single, Long Hot Summer was also simultaneously released as a four track 7″ and 12″ EP titled Á Paris which also contained two keyboard-heavy instrumentals, Party Chambers and Le Depart. Concepts R Us then.
The dreamy, synthesiser-underpinned track had a smooth soul-pop languidness that was a long way from the intense balls-full aggression of his previous group. With a sophisticated new look that screamed chilblains and chinos, he even adopted the pen name of the Cappuccino Kid to write his own sleeve notes. Fancy.
Competing in a Smash Hits-dominated climate clogged by Bowie, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran and Culture Club, in August 1983 Long Hot Summer would become the biggest and only Top Three single of Weller’s post-Jam career. The closest he would get in future was Peacock Suit, a No.5 hit in the Oasis vs. Blur Britpop frenzy of 1996, but a far cry from the four chart-toppers his mod squad had enjoyed between 1980 and 1982.
With fortuitous serendipity, Long Hot Summer’s title even reflected the weather: Britain had just experienced, or endured, what remained the hottest July on record until that was swelteringly surpassed in 2006.
Filmed on the River Cam in Cambridge, the “controversial” video depicted a boating scene and raised more than a few Roger Moore-style eyebrows with a thinly veiled homoerotic undertone while pretty Paul, looking as lithe and lovely as ever, paraded around topless and amorous. “People are getting hot and bothered just because he’s fondling Merton Mick’s ear?” I asked, incredulously, to anyone who’d listen.
Weller, who had already admitted that year that “I quite envy happy bisexuals,” addressed the issue in a 1984 interview with Neil Tennant, soon to be a popster in his own right with the Pet Shop Boys but, at the time, assistant editor of Smash Hits.
And yes, that is a limp wrist crassly overlaid on the text of both pages. Ho hum.
“Am I gay? No, I don’t think I am, not in the conventional sense, but I can appreciate people of my own sex as well. Some people people I see I sort of feel an attraction for them bit whether it’s a sexual one I don’t know. I don’t know that you can always pinpoint emotions, can you?”
“People should be able to think or do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else, and a lot of the fan letters after we did the Long Hot Summer video said that. And I think to get a lot of letters and that kind of reaction has got to be a good thing. I don’t know about actually having gay sex but sometimes I think… well, I wonder what it’s like. I’m actually open-minded on the subject.”
Very annoyingly, not only was the video cut by the BBC, but 35 years later the censored version is the only one on the Council’s official YouTube channel. Is the war still on?
Long Hot Summer and come on, come-hither quotes like these ignited my interest in Weller, though I was probably more interested in laying him than playing him. Indeed, the first owner of his material in our household was actually my father*, who’d bought cassettes of the final Jam album Dig The New Breed followed by their posthumous best of collection, Snap, released the week Long Hot Summer slid out of the charts.
Dad was rather less enthused about Ver Council’s 1985 single Come To Milton Keynes, which mocked the Thatcherite principles prevalent in the 1980s, in particular the soulless sterility of Conservative middle England new towns such as MK, which was forever artificially promoting itself as a “city” (it wasn’t and still isn’t) with interminable television adverts such as the infamous Red Balloon clip that so incensed and inspired Weller to pen the diatribe.
It was also the first two minute ad on British telly, trivia fans.
I found it pretty hilarious at the time, though I suppose dad had some justification, being a longstanding part of the Milton Keynes Development Council that funded the advert and built “the luscious houses” sarcastically referred to in the lyrics, and later, a local councillor, though with none of the style aesthetics Weller had in spades.
Naturally, the local papers were merciless in their attacks on the group, so when it stalled at 23 the same week The Style Council played Live Aid, becoming their lowest charting record to date, dad was delighted. “They’re rubbish compared to The Jam, anyway,” he crowed.
Me? I just wanted to inspect those cricket whites a little closer. New balls please.
The Style Council recorded for the rest of the decade before the always always prolific Weller suffered the humiliation of Polydor, the record label he signed to aged 19, rejecting the Council’s next album, Modernism: A New Decade. Influenced by the acid house scene of the late 1980s, it wasn’t considered commercial enough, particularly given the group’s recent chart performance, where singles might make the Top 20 or miss the Top 40 altogether.
Also in 1989, Polydor spiked the release of a heavily Prince-influenced new single called Like A Gun on the Acid Jazz label. A 12” had made it to the shops only to be withdrawn on the day of release when the label enforced a clause in Weller’s contract that meant he couldn’t record for another label. (He and Talbot knew it, having released it under the pseudonym King Truman.)
Instead, “the greatest hits long-player, from Britain’s most successful girl group” was released, though, tellingly, it omitted Come To Milton Keynes. The Singular Adventures of The Style Council was promoted by the single Long Hot Summer ’89, the group’s final hit that May. It peaked at its entry position of #48 on the singles chart.
It seems that even as late as the summer of ’89, The Style Council was still a going concern. Acetates of a new single, Sure Is Sure, were seen, although this was never pressed.
In the end, the only track from the Modernism album to be released was Everybody’s On The Run, which had featured on the B-side of the Long Hot Summer ’89 single. The subtitle of compilation album, Greatest Hits Vol. 1, turned out not to be prophetic, as no second volume ever materialised. They permanently split later in the year, and Weller ended the decade without a band and without a recording contract.
In the early Nineties he made his move towards the solo career that has flourished ever since. Anyone expecting a slowdown or a drop in quality after four decades? On the evidence so far, Weller the national treasure doesn’t need a grizzled man in his corner telling him to keep moving, keep punching, keep wanting this: he’s going the distance.
A Weller, Weller, Weller, oooh!
BONUS: To mark his 60th birthday today, Paul has dropped a special treat, making available a free download of a beautiful new orchestra-backed tune titled Aspects. It’s smoky, folky, and all kinds of gorgeous.
BONUS 2: *Dad’s mum was actually the first Pafford to encounter Weller in the flesh, when she inadvertently encountered The Jam filming promotional video for When You’re Young in her local high street, Kilburn High Road, in the summer of ’79. This was just weeks before she and my grandfather moved to, you got it, Milton Keynes. However, they were like homing pigeons; they hated MK and were back in London within the year.
There’s a nice circular thing to this story because in the ’70s, gran would often take me swimming in the summer holidays at Swiss Cottage Leisure Centre. Having acquired the last property they lived in, around 2009 I would gym at the same complex, when one day I bumped into none other than Paul Weller, having just taken his own kids swimming. (They lived in nearby Maida Vale, apparently).
Disarmed by a disconcertingly wide grin that radiated across his slightly lobster-tanned face, I couldn’t think of a single word to say to him. Though, strangely, 25+ years after that Long Hot Summer video the last thing I felt like doing was bumming him. My loss, I guess.
**In 2014, Weller and Dee C. Lee’s eldest son Nathaniel came out as bisexual to his “hugely supportive” dad. Then 26, Natt told Attitude magazine he’d been nervous about telling his Modfather dad, but “he’s got no problem with it at all,” telling his musician son ‘People are people no matter what they are, as long as they aren’t hurting anyone.’
“It got difficult because his schtick is that working-class hero thing. The media see him as this alpha male character, even though The Style Council was pretty homoerotic. It was kind of daunting but there was nothing to really worry about.”
See, it really didn’t matter.
Happy birthday sexy.
BONUS 3: A wee bit more from Sydney. Thanks to Smarty Marty