|Paul Weller doesn't do things the easy way. While his new wave peers sought fame in America, his ultra-Brit punk group The Jam remained stubbornly English, sneering about "Eton Rifles" and glorifying "tube" stations. Then, when a breakthrough looked imminent in 1982, he quit the group, turning his back on rabid three-chord screeds to instead mix politics, jazz and blue-eyed pop with the Style Council. His fans were a bit confounded.|
These days Weller has found a role he's comfortable with - British rock's elder statesman. The Style Council disbanded after trying to go acid house, and the singer went back to basics. Taking cues from Neil Young and Traffic, his music is now equally informed by the Brit R&B revivalists of his youth and the English folk tradition.
Across the Atlantic, the dapper songwriter is called "the modfather." Morrissey has covered his "Going Underground," Oasis follow him around like puppies, and rising bands like the Libertines readily invoke the time when the teenage Weller was spokesperson for a generation. So in a typically odd manoeuvre, he's gone and released his first album of cover tunes.
Studio 150 has some obvious picks - Young and Oasis are both accounted for. But there are some eccentric choices as well. Who knew Weller loved Aaron Neville's "Hercules"? In the singer's hands, the songs are less hallowed objects than starting points. Rose Royce's "Wishing On a Star," for instance, is downright funky, while Weller traces the roots of The Jam's "English Rose" to the traditional ballad "Black is the Colour."
With this in mind, and without revealing who the artists were, we played Weller a selection of songs to get his thoughts on covers, the current crop of rock revivalists, and how cigarettes cost him his falsetto.
Robert Wyatt's "Shipbuilding" from His Greatest Misses (Vack, 2004)
Paul Weller: Dear old Robert Wyatt - I didn't recognize it at first, though. He was going to record an instrumental version of a Style Council tune called "The Whole Point of No Return." The guys at the studio told me, so I left a little note for him that if he wanted a guitar, then give me a call. He did. As it turned out he was quite a big Style Council fan - I suppose from the jazz connection and maybe the politics. So I went down and played on his album called Shleep, and we stayed in touch from then. I played some guitar on his last album, too.
VH1: Was there a mutual admiration thing going on before you met him?
PW: He knew more about my music then I did about his, to be honest, but I loved "Shipbuilding." I like the fact that he is an outsider, he ploughs his own fields. I love that English plaintive thing in his voice. But 'cause of his jazz background he has got that abstract air about his music. Working with him was similar to the way I work - sort of, "Try it and see what happens."
VH1: Wyatt is known for reinventing songs with his cover versions. Why have you chosen to do covers right now?
PW: I was kind of sick of writing for a bit. It was a way of having a break from writing, but still making music. It was quite liberating in a way. It has been a little full on for like 25 years or so. It is nice to have a period where I didn't have all these bits of music and words flying around my head.
The Hives - Walk Idiot Walk from Tyrannosaurus Hives (Interscope, 2004)
PW: I do like the Hives, they are alright.
VH1: Was there a time where you felt like rock was dead? You even made an acid house album at one point.
PW: That's when I forgot to play guitar. I think the last two years has been great musically, whereas before you had all those fabricated bands, like Westlife, Spice Girls, and all that shite. You are always going to have a reaction against all that stuff, and it has just started to happen.
VH1: Is it possible for a movement like punk to happen again, where it sweeps up so many people with its enthusiasm, and at the same time rocks people precisely because of how radical it is?
PW: It wasn't like punk happened and then it was in all of the charts. You may have had the Sex Pistols at No. 2, and then Boney M at No. 1. People look upon punk much more favourably now, and that's just nostalgia. It was great from the point of view that it got all of us kids motivated, but it didn't change the whole music scene - that idea is just rubbish. The revolution doesn't have to be a big one; it can be small one, if it gets people out. I don't think music is going to blow everything else out of the water. It changes the individual. That's the revolution.
The Small Faces - "Itchycoo Park," from There Are But Four Small Faces (Columbia, 1968)
PW: The Small Faces are a massive influence on me. It's everything for me: they looked great, their music was great, their attitude was great. It was the most complete band for me. The first time I heard them was "Tin Soldier," which was like late '67 or early '68. I remember seeing them on an English program called Top of the Pops, and being amazed. I was a fan from there onwards.
VH1: They started out as R&B obsessives.
PW: Until they discovered acid, and then they go in a whole different direction. I don't think anyone else sounds like them. I am still amazed by the fact that Steve's voice was like that at such a tender age, I mean he was probably only 21 when they split up. Humble Pie was too heavy for me and lacking in melody. The best thing about the Small Faces was that there was great singing and playing, but they were great songs as well.
Aaron Neville - "Hercules," from Ultimate Collection (Hip-O, 2001)
PW: I love all this New Orleans stuff, man. It has so much of that rhythmic thing that they have going on down there, that I can't even begin to understand it. I can also see a lot of modern music in that now, all the funk in it. Allen Toussaint is a fantastic writer and producer. Some of his songs are borderline MOR but even they have a weird edge. It's something you can't even put your finger on.
VH1: Have you ever been to New Orleans to have a look around?
PW: We played Tipitina's, which was like Professor Longhair's Club. We used to play what we thought was a funky little instrumental piece in the set, and we could just see people's faces and they were like, "What the f*ck is this?" It didn't communicate at all. We were just like five little white boys trying to do that in the home of funk. So that was a bit of an eye opener.
VH1: You cover "Hercules" on Studio 150. Is this what I would hear on your stereo at home?
PW: I didn't pick any of the songs for that reason. I picked them 'cause a) they were good songs, and b) the songs were not familiar with me or the band. I think that gave us a bit more license to play with the tunes. I wouldn't make an album of Kinks or Small Faces or Beatles tunes. That would be utterly pointless.
The Style Council - "My Ever Changing Moods" from Café Bleu (Polydor, 1984)
PW: [grins] The man is a genius, the man is a f*cking genius...
VH1: This is probably your biggest American "hit." What's happened to your voice since then?
PW: Well, it sounds like my balls haven't dropped. They must have, 'cause I was in my mid twenties, but it sounds like I have been castrated. I haven't done voice exercises or coaching or that rubbish. I guess it's just twenty years later of singing. Cigarettes have improved my voice I think, although I don't want to be an advert for smoking. I can do more things with my voice and I don't need to think about it. It's weird.
VH1: When you hear your own music played back at you, do you think, "Could have fixed that."
PW: Always. Often I'll get something and be like, "That's perfect." I couldn't have changed anything, or fixed anything, and the writing is just absolutely right. I heard "Broken Stones" off [his 1995 album] Stanley Road in a bar in Spain, and it just sounds right - real soulful and heavy. Me vocal is great on it. But it's rare. I would say I am more pleased with my stuff in recent years - which isn't to say that they are better songs then the Jam or Style Council stuff. But in terms of performance and sound I know they have got a different maturity. I find that more enduring.
VH1: Is the Style Council one of the more misunderstood periods of your career?
PW: Some people got it, but a lot of people didn't and I didn't give them enough slack to pull them in. The way I was at the time was like, "This is what we are doing, if you don't like it, f*ck it," which looking back, is the wrong attitude, but that is the way my attitude was at the time.
VH1: You seemed to be kicking against glossy '80s pop even while working in that idiom.
PW: I guess you are a product of what is around you at the time, but we hated those bands like the Thompson Twins and all that rubbish. I personally was on a mission to change all that, especially in the first two years. But it all ends up that you can't help but be affected by your times. Whether you like it or not, it clings to you.