|“I don’t ’ave much choice really,” says Paul Weller, speaking on his status as a national institution in the U.K. — where he received an Outstanding Contribution to British Music award at the BRIT Awards last February. “It just makes you feel old really — but I am old, so fair enough.”|
The 48-year-old singer/guitarist/songwriter’s musical life has been cartooned into three phases by rather revisionist rock historians: his mod/punk trio the Jam’s furiously melodic five-year convulsion of a career (1977–’82), when they owned the British charts and had a peerless live rep (only sneaking into mainstream American consciousness at their death, with 1982’s “A Town Called Malice” single); the self-conscious, faux-sophisticated (and eventually shunned) soul/jazz/house experiment that was the Style Council (1983–’89); and then a solo renaissance that, by the mid-’90s and with the endorsement of seemingly every Britpop band of the era (Weller even loaned his talents to Oasis’ genre anthem “Champagne Supernova”), had seen him restored as “The Modfather” once and for all.
From Weller’s perspective, however, he’s simply been doing the same thing all along. “I never thought about anything else but being in a band and playing music,” he opines in an “h”-dropping accent straight from southern England’s soccer terraces. “It’s always seemed as natural as walking and breathing to me.
“I just fell in love with the whole thing, probably from the mid-’60s... You could put these black pieces of plastic on a radiogram and it just kinda filled up your head and your heart. It just seemed something very magical to me and it still does.”
While few critics question the Jam’s combustibility and credibility, the Style Council’s legacy hasn’t aged well. In truth, for their first three years at least, they were a lot more successful than most care to recall. Though they’d never be the Jam (nor did Weller intend them to be, as his sonic stimuli had swelled from his original Kinks/Who/Small Faces template to embrace Motown, contemporary R&B and acid jazz), they enjoyed No. 1 hits and played the original Live Aid concert at London’s vast Wembley Stadium in 1985.
After the Style Council lost their record deal and disbanded, Weller was seen as something of a has-been, until a couple of solid solo albums (1993’s Wild Wood and 1995’s Stanley Road), plus being cited as influencing everyone from Blur to the Prodigy, introduced him to a new generation of listeners and propelled him back to arena-headlining status. Now a career-spanning album, Hit Parade, bringing together all 23 A-sides from the Jam/Style Council/Paul Weller, is being released (on January 23 by Yep Roc Records, as a single CD or box set), with an accompanying two-disc, 54-song DVD of almost all the man’s videos, plus rare Jam performances from Brit TV (released February 6).
The impetus for Hit Parade came from the record label, Weller’s only request being that the album not be sequenced chronologically. Somehow, its flitting around his timeline flatters Weller’s largely pedestrian, Traffic-ish solo offerings; it’s as if the Jam and Style Council’s sense of melodic purpose and urgency rub off on his often remarkably unremarkable middle-aged output. Throughout, Weller’s smoker’s timbre and way with a chord change have him sounding at once laddish and nostalgic, brusque and Byronic, down the pub and up in lights.
“I prefer the new stuff, but then I’ve always thought that,” he deadpans. “For me, [2005’s] ‘From the Floorboards Up’ is as good as anything from the Jam or the Style Council... I think it’ll probably be a bit of a sad day when I think, ‘Oh, it was never as good as that time,’ cuz I think it’s getting better and my thing is always, like, what’s around the corner?
“There’s certain songs, things like ‘A Town Called Malice’ or [1981 Jam hit] ‘That’s Entertainment,’ which have almost become sort of public domain. When we play those tunes it’s like they belong to everybody now. So they kinda get taken out of your hands in a way — in a beautiful way.”
Weller’s lyrical bottling of stuck-in-a-rut British street life, personified by “That’s Entertainment” and the Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight,” remained unrivaled until the appearance of rapper the Streets ?in the new millennium. His grainy ultrarealism and proudly working-class perspective (his dad was a construction worker, his mum cleaned houses) allow Weller the credibility latitude to deliver huskily sensitive lines like “Hair like a wheat field I’d run through” (from 1994’s “Sunflower”) or potentially twee titles like “Tales From the Riverbank” (a Jam favorite paraphrasing kids’ TV puppet show Tales of the Riverbank, starring Hammy Hamster) while remaining a hero to the curry-and-a-pint crowd. He’s the vicarious voice of every show-no-emotion chav’s inner poet.
Weller’s solo stuff largely lacks the overtly left-leaning political comment of his earlier output. Now a father of five (kids are audible in the background throughout our phone conversation), he writes lyrics that are increasingly personal and contemplative. Not that he’s lost his punkish bile, telling London’s Daily Mirror last January: “I’d rather eat my own shit than duet with James Blunt [at the BRIT Awards].”
“If I did write anything political, they would probably be the same things I was writing 20 years ago, which is even more depressing really,” he mulls. “A lot of things I did write at that time still stand up anyway, unfortunately, because I don’t think the world’s moved on, politically anyway.”
Weller’s currently performing full-band versions of Jam and Style Council songs for the first time since dissolving those acts, a prospect that has U.S. fans salivating to the point where, although Weller’s never enjoyed anything more than cult status stateside, his three-night stand at New York’s Irving Plaza at the end of January sold out in less than three minutes, and a third night at Hollywood’s Avalon (where he plays February 3, 4 and 5) had to be added to meet similar demand.
For all his political disillusionment, not to mention a press-created reputation for being downright grumpy, expect Weller’s Avalon shows to be a celebration more than a wake (“All I ever see is big smiles on people’s faces,” he says — and his band are as grinny as anyone). With a 50-song repertoire to choose from, he’s also promising a different set every night.
“Listen, every gig, right, I’ve got something to prove. That’s why I still get stage nerves... it never goes away for me, it never diminishes at all. When I get to the end of every album I think, like, ‘Never again’ — but then, after the smoke clears after two or three months, it’s just like, ‘What are we going to do next?’ ”