The modfather returns
From celebrity to suburbia: Robert Sandall joins the rock legend Paul Weller on a journey back to childhood and English lyricism. Photographs by Muir Vidler
The rectangular shades and deep tan set him apart from Waterloo’s morning commuter scrum and imply that he must be just back from holiday.
But no, he says he leaves for southern Spain with girlfriend, Sami, and their two kids in a week’s time. One of his other three children – an 11-year-old girl called Dylan – will join them out there. As 49-year-old fathers of five go, it has to be said that Weller is a pretty good advert for the rock-star lifestyle.
Not that we’re meeting today to celebrate that exactly. In terms of his musical track record, Weller has little left to prove. He is, in any case, a reluctant media performer. He has given plenty of interviews over the years without giving much away. His private life – which has included a failed marriage and a bout of heavy cocaine use in the 1990s – has seldom made it into the tabloids.
A rock icon built on the foundations of an old-fashioned British bloke, his reticence is legendary. “Weller is bloody coy,” says a friend who’s known him for 12 years. “His interests extend much further than he will ever let on.” Others claim to have found him difficult: “chippy” is a word that journalists sometimes use to describe a man allegedly defensive of his working-class origins.
“Shy” seems a better description today: the longer we talk, the more relaxed and forthcoming he becomes. The general perception that Weller is a “diamond geezer” – a view that fits nicely with his whiskery, oak-aged singing voice, vivid melodies and keen eye for the details of ordinary British life; like his vignette of yob violence, Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, or his paean to the street where he was born, Stanley Road – feels about right.
The Lifetime Achievement gong he picked up in 2006 at the Brit awards was one of the least controversial gold-watch awards ever dished out by the domestic pop industry. Thirty years since he first found fame in the punk era – as the singer and guitarist with the Jam – he’s become a pillar of the British rock establishment, with an uninterrupted run of more than 50 chart singles between 1977 and 2000, and millions of albums sold.
He is a rock star’s rock star. “Weller” – the no-nonsense handle by which he is usually known – is as deeply revered by the pop aristos he grew up worshipping, notably Paul McCartney, as he is by the Britpoppers who canonised him, like Oasis. Noel Gallagher is one of his best mates.
In a business where money talks very loudly indeed, his integrity is remarkable. Weller has steadfastly resisted calls to re-form the Jam, one of the only big British bands not to have got back together to milk their legacy. On the other hand, he’s always ready to help out younger artists: Weller has recently been asked to record with Amy Winehouse.
Beyond the admiration of fans and fellow musicians, there’s more. Over the past few years Weller’s songs, and in particular his lyrics, have begun to attract serious attention from more elevated cultural commentators. A Radio 4 documentary about the art of the English pop song, broadcast last year, singled out Weller as a wordsmith of distinction, an equal of the 1960s greats such as Ray Davies of the Kinks and Pete Townshend of the Who. The poet Simon Armitage eulogised one of his lesser-known songs with the Jam, Thick as Thieves, for its “terrific standard of writing” and observed that this was “not the sort of lyrics you’d normally expect from a pop song”. Armitage said it concisely summed up a rite of passage, “that you have
to leave your past behind if you want to learn and develop and grow as a person”. Proper poetical stuff.
At the urging of the programme’s presenter, John Wilson – a regular host of Radio 4’s arts-magazine show, Front Row – Weller subsequently prepared a selection of his lyrics for publication in autumn 2007. The book,
Suburban 100, contains the words from a hundred songs with some brief notes by Weller on how they came to be written. It features a front-cover design by the legendary pop artist Peter Blake and a glowing introduction by Wilson, which concludes: “Suburban 100 is his story. But it’s also yours and mine.” On the back there’s a typically truculent – or reticent – quote from Weller himself. “I don’t know why people ask me all these questions. All the answers are in my songs.”
He will maintain this wary distance from the lionising of his lyrics. The biggest compliment Weller will pay himself as a writer is to say: “Whatever other people find of no consequence, I find interesting.” At one point he mentions the word that many men brought up not to think of themselves as intellectuals reach for when the conversation strays: “bollocks”. But in acknowledgment that there might be more to be said, Weller and I have taken the train
to Woking for a bit of a wander and some insight into the formative years of the town’s most famous son.
Weller can’t stand what has happened to Woking. He much prefers its leafier, sleepier past. One of his favourite terms of approval is “old school”, which Woking, he finds these days, isn’t. Norwich Union have built some tall buildings in the centre. A multistorey car park looms over the old
high street. Weller gleefully recounts how Woking was
recently named as the 12th “crappest town in the country” in a book listing the naffness of modern provincial life.
“It’s f***in’ ’orrible. How can you call this progress?” he mutters as we stroll down Stanley Road, a street near the station that’s now one-way, with a large office development on one side and a block of flats on the other. When he lived here in a Victorian terraced two-up two-down in the 1960s with his parents and sister, Nicky, he remembers playing football in the road. “There weren’t any cars, and if there was one you could hear it coming.” Just round the corner, the working men’s club in Walton Road where he played his first ever gig has upscaled into the Liberal Club.
The young Weller’s Woking was a place where “affluence and financial struggle were both very apparent, although any problems my family had I never noticed. There was always food on the table. We always had clean clothes”. His dad worked in the building trade “on the hod”, or on the taxi rank at the station, while his mum was a cleaner at the local 19th-century mosque, one of Britain’s first.
Woking’s historic connection with Asian immigrants led to the establishment of a cemetery for the Indian soldiers who died fighting for the Empire in the first world war. Set among tall pines in a wood near the canal, this is the first stop on Weller’s tour of the area. It’s where he would come and play on his bike during the long summer holidays. The North Downs countryside – commemorated on his album Wild Wood, its title taken from the name of a local country house – still draws him back. Eight years ago he moved his office and recording studio from west London, where he lives with the family, to the nearby village of Ripley.
It’s a measure of his contentedness as a child – and
of how little he even registered the privations of his upbringing – that it was two years into the Jam’s ascendancy before Weller went on his first proper holiday. In the summer of 1979 he rented a caravan in the seaside town of Selsey, West Sussex.
“I didn’t realise that you could get on a plane
and go somewhere nice. I thought planes were just for touring with the band. I had that old-school working-class ethic.” Weller spent a rainy week sitting in the caravan writing songs, notably The Eton Rifles, his riposte to the public schoolboys who had mocked a march of the unemployed.
Pop music was an early obsession. “It’s all I ever wanted to do. Still is. I wouldn’t concentrate in English classes, but I’d study the lyrics on the back of an album cover religiously.” He remembers saving
for a year to buy the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s LP. “Thirty bob was a lot of money when I was 10.” Soon after, he discovered the mod bands, the Kinks, the Who and cockney troubadours the Small Faces, whom he still adores. Weller tried to name his two-year-old son Stevie Mac Kenney Plonk after the first names of the Small Faces band members, but his girlfriend, Sami, wouldn’t stand for
it. As a compromise, the boy is called Mac.
Weller’s Englishness in both the subject matter of his songwriting and his vigorously un-American singing
style was instinctive rather than planned. Ask him why
he chose to be that way and he doesn’t get the question.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
His dad bought him his first electric guitar at 12 and two years later he formed a band with some schoolmates that mutated into the Jam. Though he sees nothing of the
other two members of the trio that became famous when he was 19 – “We were never really friends, they were four years older than me” – Weller is still best buddies with Steve Brookes, the Jam’s first guitarist.
Weller left school at 16. “I was completely rubbish, felt no interest.” By this time he was already earning £18 a week “playing shitty pubs and all that” in the Woking area. He remembers seeing the Sex Pistols in 1976, on the night he first took speed, and realising where the Jam’s future lay.
“I always wanted to play for my generation, but we were never a punk band. We weren’t three snotty kids who’d read Sniffing Glue [the original punk fanzine] and had just put a band together. We’d been making a living at it for five years.” The Jam’s distance from punk’s scene leaders, the Sex Pistols and the Clash, was underlined during their brief appearance on the notorious White Riot tour. After a couple of gigs, Weller gave an interview to the NME in which he claimed to be a Tory voter and a keen supporter of the monarchy. Not true, he now says. He had no political views at the time. “I was just being controversial.” But the Jam left the tour and became music-press pariahs – there was little cachet in being perceived as suburban working-class Tories – until their popularity with the record-buying public eventually restored their credibility. With that, Weller’s lifelong distrust of the media began.
So did his urge to “catch up on the things I didn’t do at school”. By the time he broke up the Jam in 1982, Weller’s songs were starting out as “words on a page rather than verses and choruses. Poems, for want of a better word”. He set up a fanzine, December’s Child, which turned into a poetry sheet, Riot Stories. He took part in readings run by the 1960s poet Michael Horovitz, the so-called “Poetry Olympics”. At the age of 22 it sounds as if Weller might have been having a bit of a student moment. “I wouldn’t put it like that meself,” he says gruffly. “It was the pop-art idea. Take something everyday and blow it up.”
One of his most popular songs from this period,
A Town Called Malice, says a lot about the intuitive autodidact he was becoming. Weller insists that he never read the novel by Nevil Shute, A Town Like Alice, to which its title clearly refers. Based on a series of observations about tough times for families like the Wellers in Woking in the early days of Thatcherism – “To either cut down on the beer or the kids’ new gear, it’s a big decision” – the song heralded the arrival of left-wing politics in Weller’s life. “You were either for or against back then. It’s not like politics is now.”
For most of the 1980s, Weller was the staunchest and most high-profile supporter of Red Wedge, the loose coalition of Labour-supporting rock musicians who toured the country in a bus during the 1983 and 1987 general elections. Now, he bitterly regrets it. The Labour politicians he met “really put me off. They were all in it for themselves. They talked to you in a very absent-minded way. It was all firm handshakes and distant eyes”. He says unprintable things about Ken Livingstone and Keith Vaz. “There was no ego on our tour bus. Then you’d turn up somewhere and meet these…” he searches for the right word and comes up with the splendidly old-school “scoundrels”.
The only Labour-related person he had any time for was “Neil Kinnock’s missus. She was all right. Reasonably fit as well.” By the time new Labour fetched up in power, Weller was so disillusioned he refused to let them use his song The Changingman as a theme alongside their 1997 electoral anthem Things Are Gonna Get Better. He says that
he argued with Noel Gallagher over his accepting Blair’s invitation to No 10, and is disgusted with the ex-PM’s latest appointment. “Peace ambassador to the Middle East. F***ing joke, mate. How he sleeps at night I don’t know.”
By now we’re sitting taking in the panorama from the top of Newlands Corner, a hill on the edge of the Downs where Weller is enthralled by how little the view has changed over the centuries. The romantic, nostalgically inclined small-“c” Conservative took over from the
angry young leftie after the break up of his second band,
the Style Council, in 1989, when Weller finally went solo. “It felt like starting again, playing to half-full halls. But
I’d got to that thirty-something stage, feeling more reflective, writing more personally. It was a good experience, learning my craft again.”
The 1990s proved a mixed blessing for Paul Weller. The intense acclaim for his solo albums Wild Wood and Stanley Road sucked him into the mad, druggy partying which swept London during the Britpop era. His marriage to the Style Council’s backing vocalist, Dee C Lee, collapsed; a brief liaison led to him fathering a third child. His domestic situation eventually stabilised after he gave up the coke binges, moved back to Woking and began seeing Sami, a woman he met while he was recording and she was working at The Manor studio near Oxford.
They now live with their two children in a house in Maida Vale in west London and, like many suburban boys, Weller is a devoted Londoner. More appreciative of the capital than when he wrote his disparaging first hit, In the City, in 1977. Weller recounts a trip he made recently with his seven-year-old daughter, Jessamine, to an exhibition
on the South Bank. The view driving back over Westminster Bridge blew him away. “London is an amazing city,” Weller marvels. “If I was gonna move anywhere, I’d move abroad. And I can’t see myself doing that.”
The penultimate stop on our awayday in Woking is a visit to Weller’s parents, John and Anne, who live in an apartment in a converted 18th-century convent on the edge of town. Yes, they’re here thanks to their famous son; but not because he bought it for them. Until last year, John worked as Weller’s manager. Ill health forced him to give up in 2006 after 30 years. Such a long-lived arrangement is almost without precedent in the pop world. “It’s normally a disaster, the Jackson 5 and all that, but we’ve had so many laughs. Drinking at every airport bar in the world. We’re great mates.” After the Jam were offered their first record deal, John offered to stand down. Paul wouldn’t hear of it. “Dad learnt as he went along, the way we all did. Taking on all these record-business c***s.”
John Weller has become a bit vague since he turned 75, but his wife is still as sharp as a drawer of knives. The son takes after the mother. Paul Weller’s celebrated eye for detail is clearly present in the stories Anne Weller tells about
how Woking has changed – for the worse – over the years. “It used to be such a lovely place, with three cinemas and a dancehall. Now it’s all shops and offices.”
Her memory for telling moments in her son’s career beats his. She recalls a concert the Jam gave in 1978 which received a two-page put-down review from the NME’s Tony Parsons, then the rock weekly’s chief gunslinger, now a bestselling novelist. “But Tony wasn’t even there, was he?