|In May this year, Paul Weller reached what must have seemed like a significant milestone in his life, when he celebrated his 40th birthday. Looking back over his activities within rock music, stretching for more than 20 years, he would have had good reason to feel satisfied. Comparatively few rock musicians manage to sustain a successful recording career for as long as this and, of those that do, even fewer make the journey with their critical reputations intact. Paul Weller is an important figure in music, though not just because he was responsible for some of the most vibrant songs of the punk and new wave era. Neither is it just because he showed the courage to follow his muse into a new and unexpected direction, at the height of his popular success and with the considerable risk of thereby inducing disappointment and disapproval in his fans and critics. It is not the huge setback of being rejected by his record company. |
Paul Weller is an important figure in music for all of these reasons, but also because he has not forgotten why he wanted to become a musician in the first place. All the enthusiasm and the fire, the longing to change the world with his music, that were there when the teenaged Weller played his first gigs, are still there in every note that he plays today.
It is at this point that the often made comparisons with Eric Clapton begin to break down. Paul Weller has certainly proved himself over and over again to be a fine guitarist, a powerful singer and a memorable song-writer. But he is not and has never been content to trade on the basis of his past reputation. The latest Paul Weller album is always an event, and, for this critic, the best work he had ever produced is also his most recent.
Encouraged by his young mother to become an ardent Beatles fan, Paul started playing guitar at the age of 12 and, two years later, felt confident enough of his ability to start playing the occasional gig. His debut, as part of a duo with a second guitarist, took place at a working man's club in his home-town of Woking and consisted of a 20 minute set of basic Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs, learnt from his parents' record collection. By 1973, the duo had expanded to a four piece group, already called The Jam, and including schoolfriends Steve Brookes and Dave Waller on guitars and Rick Buckler on drums. Paul himself played bass guitar at this stage but handled most of the lead vocals. From the outset, Paul had every intention of making music his career and persuaded his father, John, to act as his manager - a role he has, in fact, fulfilled ever since.
Dave Waller was replaced by Bruce Foxton after a short time and when, it is said, Foxton sat on his new colleague's bass guitar and broke it, he and Paul Weller swapped instrumental roles. There was never any doubt as to who the leader of the band was and the evolution of The Jam's musical approach was inspired entirely by the music that happened to catch Paul's attention. In 1975, this was first album made by The Who a decade earlier, "My Generation". Paul was fascinated by The Who's entire image: he decided to become a mod, bought a scooter and a parka, and rapidly began replacing the rock 'n' roll songs in the set with songs recorded both by The Who and by the soul artists that had been influence on The Who.
It was at about this time that The Jam recorded four songs as demos. A handful of copies of two different acetates apparently exist, with the A side titles being songs called "Blueberry Rock" and "Some if Kind Of Loving". Any copies surfacing now, of course, would be likely to raise a considerable amount of money at auction.
The turning point in The Jam's fortunes came when Paul was in the audience for an early gig by The Sex Pistols. Here was a group with many of the same influences as Paul himself for they included cover versions of songs by The Who and The Small Faces in their set at this time but performing with a dynamism and an energy that Paul found inspirational.
The new high energy Jam soon began to attract attention. The group was booked for a four week residency at the Red Cow in Hammersmith, during the course of which the audience expanded from around 50 people to a full house with long queues outside. Gigs at the prestigious Marquee club were similarly successful -despite which, the group suffered a rejection from EMI records and the subsequent departure of a disillusioned Steve Brookes.
The effects of the setback, however, proved to be short-lived. Deciding to continue as a trio, The Jam were signed to Polydor in 1977 and proceeded to take the rock world by storm. During the course of six years, The Jam scored some 27 entries in the top 50 singles charts, including a few titles that were hits more than once. Four singles reached the number one position, with one of them, "Going Underground", entering the charts at number one, a feat previously achieved by the Beatles and very few other artists. The group also issued seven albums during this time, including the posthumous live compilation, "Dig The New Breed", all of which entered the LP charts, with "The Gift" reaching number one in 1982.
Happily, The Jam's status as one of the most successful groups of the era was matched by Paul Weller's rapid development as a songwriter. By the time of 1979's "Setting Sons" album, the mod influences had been completely outstripped (even if Paul did still insist on including an energetic cover of the Martha And The Vandellas song, "Heatwave"), while the succeeding albums, "Sound Affects" and "The Gift" are so full of great songs as to be candidates for two of the most crucial collections of the early eighties.
An indication that Paul was beginning to think beyond what he viewed as the constraints of the Jam line-up was provided by the inclusion of a brass section on both "The Gift" and the tour undertaken to promote the album. Nevertheless, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler were devastated when Paul informed them that, at the peak of the group's fame, he wished to disband The Jam. Initially, Foxton refused to take part in the farewell tour, but changed his mind when he discovered that the former Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock, was scheduled to take over the bass guitar role.
Paul Weller's new group was initially conceived as a collaboration with keyboard player Mick Talbot, previously a member of one of the mod bands formed in the wake of The Jam's success, The Merton Parkas. Drummer Steve White was involved from the start, however (and has played drums with Paul Weller ever since), while singer Dee Cee Lee was soon brought in as well - eventually becoming Mrs. Weller.
Paul steered The Style Council into being everything that The Jam was not. The Jam's music was generally a raw, high energy affair, with the sound of the guitar taking the centre stage; that of The Style Council was sophisticated, smooth, and mellow, with keyboards predominating and the guitar relegated to little more than a bit player or even absent altogether. While The Jam were widely regarded as serious to the point of being dour, much of The Style Council's material was presented in a heavily ironic manner, even if those critics who complained of pretentious sleeve notes and questionable video imagery persisted in failing to grasp the humorous intent. In 1988, a publicity photograph showed Paul posing as the archetypal nerd, complete with horn rimmed glasses held together with elastoplast, tissue scrap stuck to a shaving cut and a simpering smile, which should have made his jokey stance clear. By then, however, the gesture was arguably too late, as the critics were losing interest.
Only Paul's obvious social concern remained intact during the transition from Jam to Style Council and was, indeed, stepped up, as evidenced by the 1984 single made in collaboration with singers Jimmy Ruffin and Junior Giscombe and issued, as by the Council Collective, in aid of the miners' strike and also, two years later, by the participation in the Red Wedge tour in support of the Labour Party. Much is often made of the frustration and alienation felt by many fans of The Jam when presented with the diametrically opposed music of The Style Council, but the fact is that the tally of hits achieved by the latter group is remarkably high. All but two of the 18 singles entered the top 30, while all five albums charted (as did the later Greatest Hits compilation), with 1985's "Our Favourite Shop" reaching the number one position.
Nevertheless, when Paul presented Polydor with version of a Chicago house album in 1989, the record company balked at yet another tangential change in style and rejected the tape. The album receives its very belated release as part of the new Style Council boxed set.
Paul took the rejection badly, losing confidence in his own abilities as a songwriter and retiring from active music making for the best part of two years. During this time, however, he did start listening again to some of his earliest influences on record and when at last he decided to write and record a new song, the masterly "Into Tomorrow", releasing it on his own Freedom High label, it was apparent that he had rediscovered his guitar playing and the vocal passion that had arguably always been his greatest assets. At about this time, Paul was introduced to an album that was by then some 23 years old - the second LP by Traffic. Hugely impressed by the combination of soulful song-writing with the wide range of timbres available to Traffic's saxophone and flute enhanced rock group line-up, Paul immediately set about making an album of his own in the same style.
With the Japanese only album, "More Wood (Little Splinters)", rounding up the single B sides; with "Live Wood" succeeding in conveying the energy and emotional impact of a Paul Weller concert; and with the "Stanley Road" and "Heavy Soul" albums presenting further refinements of the mature Paul Weller sound and including hardly a weak track between them, it is clear that Paul is currently producing the best music of his life.
A number of Jam, Style Council, and solo releases have become quite collectable, although the high sales and long availability of most of the basic album and single issues have kept the values of them low. In addition, there are a number of guest appearances that collectors should be aware of, although there are rather fewer of these than many other artists of Paul Weller's standing seem to manage.
The first of these took place as early as 1980, when The Jam's guitarist was asked by Peter Gabriel, recording in the adjacent studio at the time, to play the crucial rhythm part for " And Through The Wire". In 1981 Paul set up his own Respond Record Label, which issued some 20 singles until its demise in early 1985. He produced many of the records himself - notably those by The Questions, Main T.Possee, and Tracie Young -and co-wrote some of the songs as well. He also produced a single by Apocalypse, issued on the Jamming label in 1982, the group being led by Tony Fletcher, the man responsible for both the Jam fanzine, "Jamming", and its offshoot label. None of these singles sold at all well (apart from Tracie's first, "The House That Jack Built") and they have become accordingly hard to find now, although their values stay resolutely low.
Paul was one of the many artists featured on the Band Aid hit, "Do They Know It's Christmas?" and was also involved in two later, less successful, charity ventures: a single recorded with Dee Gee Lee and Lenny Henry as by People In Progress ("This Is My Song") and a track on the Artists For Animals album "Liberator".
In 1991, Paul produced and wrote seven songs for the album "Free Your Feelings", issued by Slam Slam, a group fronted by Dee Cee Lee. More recently, there is the "Come Together" track included on the War Child "Help" charity album, on which Paul realised a childhood dream by playing with Paul McCartney on a Beatles song. There are contributions to recordings by Oasis ("Champagne Supernova"), Ocean Colour Scene (three tracks from the "Moseley Shoals" album and one on the rarities compilation, "B Sides, Seasides And Freerides") and Dr.John (the recently issued "Anutha Zone" CD).
Earlier this year, Carleen Anderson was the support act on Paul Weller's tour (with Mick Talbot playing keyboards in her band) and Paul is heavily involved in her recent album, "Blessed Burden", playing on and co-producing many of the tracks, as well as co-writing two of the songs with Ms. Anderson. Finally, there is a strange Banghra-influenced dance single from 1994, called "Indian Vibes" and credited to Mathar, but actually the work of Paul Weller, playing sitar and guitar in company with another sitar player, bass, and drums.