10 February 2006

Paul Weller: The icon

Next week, Paul Weller will receive the Outstanding Contribution to Music award at the Brits. For 30 years, he has pushed the boundaries of rock. Our writers celebrate an icon who refuses to compromise.

By James Brown  - Published: 10 February 2006

When the XFM DJ announced: "And this is the new single from Paul Weller" last autumn and an upbeat rush of guitars and drums came tumbling out of my car radio, it was so familiar I felt like I had woken from a coma; I wonder for a moment if Weller felt the same way. The single was called "Come On Let's Go" and it could have fallen straight from The Jam's songbook. Fantastic though it is, it won't have troubled the top five as it would have done more than 25 years ago but, then again, those of us who grew up with Weller as council estate balladeer have long since passed the age of buying singles. Thankfully, the man is still writing them, though.

It was a very precise moment, hearing that single. I shuddered in my car seat. For a start, XFM playing Paul Weller was unusual; these days he's more likely to appear on Radio 2 and Virgin than the station of the Kaiser Chiefs, Maximo Park and Arctic Monkeys. Jonathan Ross and Co on 2 are happy to to play The Jam, The Style Council, the early solo material. It fits the audience outlook, that unsaid understanding that we've all grown old and that Weller's gradual slowdown reflects our own. From suited political firebrand with his Wilko Johnson-inspired, guitar-driven anthems of political teenage angst in the late 1970s to the older, much older mellow songsmith with his takes on love, family and whatever the hell he's writing about nowadays. That's us, Jonathan Ross screams it every Saturday morning, we'll still jump around to "Town Called Malice" when no one but our mates is watching but we're more likely to pour ourselves into a glass of wine while chilling out to Wild Wood.

And though the cynic in me assumed that Weller was being played on XFM because his radio plugger will have done a deal with the station, promised them the exclusive on The Strokes or someone, as soon as I heard the single, I knew they were right to play it. Because there are certain impossibilities in music and life that result from the passing of time and the changes we go through. As sure as The Clash can never reform, now that Joe Strummer is dead, so I believe Paul Weller will never reform The Jam. This single was proof he didn't have to. Most of his career since he hung up his little Union Jack badges and his bowling shoes has seemed to be an exercise in saying: "Look, that was then, this is now." He has pursued this policy to the point of perversity.

I recognise it because I've done it too. He's gone, I'm going to ditch this formula of rousing anthems for huge gangs of blokes in parkas and begin dressing like a French mod and dabble in pretension. Just as I later felt, oh, I'll ditch this massive-selling, era-defining magazine (loaded) and go off and earn some money on a ridiculously low-selling, out-of-touch fashion mag (GQ).

And yet, despite a lack of interest in going backwards, this was perhaps the clearest indication, this rousing three-minute single full of whooping vocals and exhilarating beats, that he was finally prepared to flex his muscles and remind us how effortlessly he had written pop anthems that had captured a generation. "Hey, I just recorded this with my mates, I'm putting it out," he seemed to be saying. This was the moment when Paul Weller started doing what he was brilliant at again.

In the meantime he had, of course, written some superb songs, played great gigs, and even allowed himself to revisit acoustically some of his finer Jam songs. But this was something else. It wasn't as instantly classic as "That's Entertainment", a song about the pedestrian ordinariness of everyday life with it's little victories and dull realities that he claimed to have written in 10 minutes one night after coming home pissed from the pub .

(Think about that - you and I would be out falling into someone's hedge, shouting or queueing for chips. Weller was writing "That's Entertainment". No wonder he felt compelled to move on; he knows he's not going to be able to do that too often, so the quicker he leaves the scene of the brilliant crime the better).

And yet "Come On Let's Go" was of that school. Dashed out with carefree energy that at times has been suffocated in his work by an interest in pursuing the English folk rock he came to late in his career.

Just as you can by now tell that Paul Weller has meant a LOT to me at various times in my life, so I might remind you that to this day he winds up many music critics, the purist pop fans who want their music as cute and clever as a toy in a breakfast cereal box. A few years ago, when Weller's comeback as a solo artist was complete, he was playing to tens of thousands at festivals and park-filling solo gigs, worldwide tours and sellout venues. So the inky music press tired of him and his enthusiasm for music - "dad rock" they called it.

It seemed petty and churlish - the writers seemed angry and let down that their Britpop godfather could behave like this - but I couldn't help privately agreeing that I'd personally tired of showing up loyally at the gigs to witness encores featuring any number of members of Ocean Colour Scene, Primal Scream and Oasis jamming.

What the papers missed was that Weller really had transcended to Bob Dylan territory, that he was doing it for himself because he enjoyed it, his years as "being important" having slipped by. Now he was an adult artist writing songs from the vantage point of early middle age and of course that point of view was going to be less frenetic than the anger of the pen that wrote "Eton Rifles", "Dreams of Children" or "Funeral Pyre".

There are, however, others who remain untouched by the trends who have long since admired Weller for what he does. When I asked Rod Stewart which artists of the later generations he rated, Weller's name was the first and only to quickly spill from his lips.

It's a while since I could tell you how long the tracks on his last album are, even what it's called, but that wasn't always the case. As a teenager I would sit and re-read the sleeve information on The Jam albums and singles and ponder such earth-shattering questions as why "Strange Town" wasn't on an album, or who Vic Coppersmith-Heaven was'

For me, at the time, The Jam's songs caught where I was, trapped in that political anger that smoulders when you realise the world's not fair, your parents don't want to be together, and there's no pot of gold at the end of your school years. Sprinting home at lunchtime to hear the top five on a Tuesday. In at one "Going Underground", "Town Called Malice", "Start!". First band to do that since Slade. Wondering whether to buy the NME, Melody Maker or Sounds, depending on which would feature The Jam most.

Weller was angry, direct, straight-talking. He didn't seem much older than us. My mates at school were into Jethro Tull and Zeppelin and Hawkwind; it seemed surreal to be listening to songs about goblins when the news was full of riots, strikes and American missiles. Weller and Strummer and Co seemed to be addressing the issues.

And on it went, he became the ladder of influence that allowed me to climb out of the pit of Thatcher's mass unemployment. I wrote a piece on The Jam in my fanzine and sent it to Sounds after I saw a job advertised there. I was 17. Sounds called me down to see about hiring me. I'd just passed my O-levels. The chance slipped away. Two years later I ended up on the same paper, and then six months later I was hired by the NME. The guy I sat next to had written a lot of Weller's sleeve notes. Back in Leeds, my best mate, Geoff Storer,* * would interrupt my tales of how much free drink there was in the life of a music journalist to ask repeatedly: "Have you met Paul Weller yet?'' That was the benchmark.

This was Style Council time, the later years when he rarely received a decent album review, when everything he did was compared with The Jam. I went along to the Albert Hall and reviewed them, alongside Simon Reynolds of the Melody Maker. Simon wrote clever, considered analytical reviews, I wrote angry, impatient diatribes. We both raved about the gig. They had class. They played clean, fast-moving pop. He still had it.

A few years later and he's lost his big company record deal and he is signed by Andy McDonald, the man who found Billy Bragg and the Housemartins, two acts hewn from the influence Weller had cast. And so he starts the comeback trail.

I start looking for staff for a new magazine. A bloke I met at a World Cup match, Tim Southwell, likes The Jam and Leeds United. So do I. It seems a good starting point for an editorial team and outlook. A bloke-ish simplicity surrounds The Jam fan - it's music to jump up and down to. The early solo stuff has touches of it. He has energy and passion again, free from the shackles of the world's withering opinion of The Style Council, Weller is re-emerging like a lost artist.

The first issue of loaded, and Tim and I want to put Paul on the cover. To interview him, we send Sean O'Hagan. The powers that be encouraged us not to put Weller on the launch cover of loaded because they feared people would think it was a music mag. Paul Weller, the guy who drew the founders of loaded together, never appeared on its' cover. We use a picture of Gary Oldman and put the names of him, Weller and Cantona in equal billing under the phrase Super Lads, a play on the chant Super Leeds. We are wrongly credited with inventing a new type of man.

(Later I move to GQ and need a first front cover to announce a change. I call Paul, he agrees to help out. A great photograph, one of my favourite magazine covers I've done.)

And then after years of jumping up and down at the front of his gigs and occasionally crossing paths in the NME offices or at clubs, Weller started to let us hang out backstage. I think Tim probably vomited with glee the night he finally got to hang out in Paul Weller's dressing room, certainly they were exciting times.

Music, drugs, scooters, sex. I drag a waitress I fancy off to see Weller in Bournemouth. He invites us to hang out for the night to shoot the video for his single "Pebbles on a Beach" at Portland Bill. We take the tour bus to the Reading Festival. Like the characters' in Squeeze's "Up the Junction", I and the waitress get drunk for a few years and get married in the middle of them. At the ceremony, the registrar demands I remove Oasis from the stereo, my best man Geoff hastily puts another random CD in, my wife walks in to the sounds of "Pebbles on a Beach".

Eight years later, the waitress is in Wales with a teacher and I'm back writing about Paul Weller while dumping "Pebbles On A Beach" off the iPod. These things go in cycles. Now he's being honoured at the Brits. He deserves it, he's got attitude, front and a sense of humour.

A fan approaches him in the West End after a gig, offering chips. Weller rears back, shocked and confronted. He probably didn't want chip fat on his jumper. Grumpy, funky and still well-dressed. Strange things happen - and I don't just mean his haircut. The Leeds United captain, Paul Butler, scores a goal against Queens Park Rangers last Saturday and over the Tannoy comes the announcement: "Leeds United's second goal is scored by Paul Weller." "Who the hell is Paul Weller?'' asks an old bloke. He's the boy about town that you've heard of.

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