Once a mod, always a mod: the “look”, even a dress-down one, is everything. Today, Paul Weller is sporting a purple T-shirt, a knotted, geezer-down-the-boozer scarf, fawn pinstriped slacks, co-respondent shoes, greying feather-cut hair, Benson & Hedges in his hand. Striding along packed, late-summer-evening West End pavements, past the tip of the London thoroughfare he immortalised in A-Bomb in Wardour Street, Weller, tall, wiry, wired, is seeking a place to sit down. The pub? “Nah,” he says in his Woking growl. “I’ve got a gig to do, I don’t want get too wrecked.” He plumps for a deserted pizzeria. And promptly orders a beer.
Weller at 47 is, depending on your viewpoint, still coming up with the goods or outstaying an already strained welcome. His core base of followers recovered from the trauma of his decision to split the Jam in 1982 and learnt to accommodate some of the wilder sonic excursions he took with the Style Council.
Tonight, 150 of them will fill the 100 Club to hear him pre- view As Is Now, his seventh solo album of original material. One devotee turns up to collect his ticket, proudly displaying the tattoo of Weller that covers his back. They’re not fair-weather fans, then.
Others, though, have either dipped in or opted out: Weller’s records no longer sell in the size-able quantities they once did.
Credited (and later damned) with inspiring the mid-1990s revival of guitar music — or dad rock, to detractors — he now finds himself being referenced by new bands such as the Futureheads, whose songs resound with chord changes and lyrical agitation straight out of the Jam songbook.
With five children, two of them in their teens, and a back catalogue bursting with era-defining classics, Weller is long enough in the tooth to be running the risk, culturally, of bumping into himself again. Is he mellowing (as his new songs occasionally suggest)? Or is the man who, in the Jam days, once wound up journalists with admiring references to Thatcher, and has been known to rip into interviewers for bad reviews written years previously, still fired up with the old, pugilistic indignation? “I just stopped reading the reviews,” he laughs. “Whether I make a good record or a so-so record or a crap record, it’s never my intention to make the crap one. I suppose I get offended by reviews that intimate that I don’t care any more, that I’m just chucking it out. But I would never go, ‘That’ll do, f*** it.’ Even with the lousiest records, like Cost of Loving with the Style Council, I never thought, ‘This is shit, but what the hell?’ But with a lot of my critics, it’s not always about the music, is it? It’s more about the man. And I don’t buy this thing where people say, ‘You should just shrug it off.’ Why should I?” If these remarks imply that those old fires still burn, they are not, as it happens, indicative of the place Weller is now in. In fact, he comes across as more at peace with himself and his position in the world than he’s seemed in years. Ask him for his reaction to a recent comment about his being seen “as a traditionalist” and he chuckles where once he might have snarled.
“I suppose what I do is traditional,” he concedes, “in terms of songwriting. I write verses, bridges, choruses, middle eights.
I play guitar. So what? I’ve followed a traditional path. I don’t play electric teapots or sample tables or whatever’s far out. Cooler people do that. I don’t.”
Three years ago, shortly after the release of his Illumination album, Weller’s muse packed her bags and left, and refused to take his calls. One upshot of this dry patch was last year’s covers album, Studio 150. But another was that he learnt, finally, to relax, instead of succumbing to the panic that had invariably set in before.
“I thought, well, perhaps I’m just not going to write any songs any more,” he says. “But I was kind of prepared for that.
I just thought, if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is. Plus, I don’t know if there’s always that much to say.”
This might seem a startling admission from someone who, in his Jam heyday, appeared to have more of importance and urgency to say than almost any other writer of his generation. Songs such as Going Underground, Eton Rifles and Town Called Malice, after all, seethed with fury and spat pure venom. This, of course, made the Style Council’s heavily, well, stylised constructions seem lightweight by comparison and served to mask the latter’s often heavily political intent. And Weller’s solo career, patchy, wayward, but at its best still stupendous and even heartbreaking, confirmed the sense of an artist trying to rid himself of the baggage and expectations his first band placed on him.
“I don’t see it like that,” he begins, when I ask him about this emotional and creative rucksack, then he appears to check himself. “There was a time,” he continues, “the Jam days. I loved that time. I mean, I can’t knock it, it was fantastic. But I was very, very young, and it just seemed a bit weighty at times. I mean, maybe Bono likes it, but ... Not that it was anybody’s fault but my own. I dug myself into that hole. We ’d go to other countries and do press conferences, and it would be all about politics: ‘Tell me about Margaret Thatcher.’ And I’m like, well, I’m here to play a gig.”
Gigs are Weller’s lifeblood. “It’s how I make my living,” he points out. When the songs dried up, he toured and, as has happened before, the juices began to flow again. “Without even trying,” he says, “it just came back to me. In the space of about a week, I wrote six or seven tunes. It was like, ‘Hello, we’re back on it again.’”
He’s past getting hung up, he says, on interpretations and critical reaction. “It’s easy to get caught up in the commercialism, in how many records you’ve sold, but it isn’t about that. It’s about the communication. The whole thing with marketing, demographics and all that bollocks: so my demographic is white, male, 35. It’s just not true. You go to one of my gigs: it’s pan-generational.” It’s true. The 100 Club is rammed, with an age range from late forties to adolescents the same age as Weller’s two children by his former wife, the Style Council singer DC Lee. Does he play them his songs? “They do listen to my music. Sometimes they’ll go, ‘Yeah, it’s all right, Dad.’”
The new album is by a country mile the best thing he’s done since 1993’s solo breakthrough, Wild Wood. Its greatest triumph is to join the dots, more convincingly than any of his other solo work, between the Jam, the Style Council and the albums that followed. These are links the more blinkered have always refused to recognise, despite the fact that there are any number of Jam songs infused with soul, folk or blues that clearly signpost his future directions. It wasn’t, ever, all about the politics.
For all that, one of As Is Now’s most beautiful tracks, Savages, marries Weller’s enduring love for hazy, pastoral acoustica with one of the angriest lyrics he’s written in years. If this is how Weller makes a political statement in 2005, well, that’s his right; he’s earned it. Elsewhere, further links are revealed on the Hendrix- like Blink and You’ll Miss It and From the Floorboards Up, both of which glory in a guitar sound that first screamed from Weller’s amp on In the City. And, in the era of dripping-wet ballads such as You’re Beautiful, The Start of Forever is a reassuring reminder that it’s possible to listen to a love song and not reach for the sick bag. “I wrote that for my girlfriend,” Weller beams, before skewing the anecdote by admitting: “I came back the night we recorded. Only she was expecting me back two days before. I was so pissed.” Damned with faint praise, called a shadow of his former self or just plain dismissed, Weller’s arrived at a point where he both couldn’t care less and still cares passionately. “It’s always nice when people like the record,” he says. “I’d much prefer you to say ‘I really like this record’ than ‘It’s shit, you were better 25 years ago.’ I know in my heart it’s just as good as 25 years ago, if not better.”
Walking back to the venue, he muses about what might have been — “I could have continued the Jam, but it would have turned into a museum piece, karaoke, always trying to update the old songs; you know, the disco That’s Entertainment” — before slipping, after one last suck on his ciggie, into the venue. He’s got a living to make, and our great fortune is to witness him making it. “I know a pop song’s not going to save the world,” he concludes. “But they change people’s lives — and mine's been saved by them.”
The single Come On/Let’s Go is released tomorrow on V2; As Is Now follows on October 10