Everyone was stunned, including his bandmates, when Paul Weller decided to end the Jam in 1982. They had put out their sixth album, The Gift, and showed no signs of slowing down in terms of popularity. “Town Called Malice” from that album charted at #1, but by the end of the year they’d called it quits. Weller was already gearing up for a new band, also featuring keyboardist (of The Bureau and Dexys Midnight Runners) Mick Talbot, where he hoped to embark on experimental antics that would not have fit into the Jam’s more straightforward rock sound.
Not all his fans were crazy about the idea; nonetheless the members of the Style Council began to gel in 1983. Talented teenage drummer Steve White and backing vocalist Dee C. Lee were added to the line-up. The band would release five studio albums (the sixth was held up by their label because it dove entirely into a new Weller whim, house) before calling it a day in 1989-1990.
Paul Weller has since settled into the role of well-weathered national treasure, and with a nickname to boot, “the Modfather”, he’s influenced plenty of young musicians to take up guitars. He experienced a career renaissance in the 1990s with more hit songs under his own name, some collaborations, and was constantly being name-checked by upcoming young rock bands. Many Brits still hold the Jam in high esteem today, though Weller is far less known here across the pond.
While I do love Weller’s seminal 1993 solo releases Wild Wood and Stanley Road, especially the lush, pitch-perfect romanticism of “You Do Something to Me”, I’ve never been really into the Jam. I do like 70s British punk-rock music, and I very much like the new wave that came after it, but instead I keep listening to the portion of Weller’s career that is sometimes viewed as a diversion, a bit of strangeness and self-indulgence. While it’s true that the Style Council did have their hits, top-ten stuff, and “My Ever Changing Moods” was Weller’s biggest US chart break-through, considering them my favorite part of his career always requires a bit of defending.
I admit to loving an underdog. I find it exciting to picture Weller, still fairly young at 22 and at the peak of his game with The Jam, deciding to go off in another direction. No one thought it was a good idea, not the label, not the fans. They didn’t make it through their first live gig without being pelted with mud by concertgoers. The Style Council sounds light years away from the Jam because Weller was restless and couldn’t stay in one mode for long.
He is more than competent as a guitar player and I would be foolish not to mention it. However, his voice is an equally thrilling instrument and the Style Council put it on display. I would argue that from about 1984 to 1995 was the best period for Weller’s voice. Never before or since has Weller roared, or rung, with such assurance within palpable uncertainty. I think it has much to do with the times as well; Weller was overtly socialist-leaning in Thatcher-era England. Weller argues that his voice is strongest now, but there’s something to be said about it during the Style Council years.
The Style Council were always questioning and until towards the end, very much caring. There’s a deep earnestness there which even Weller’s sometimes wry, throwaway commentary in interviews of the period can’t detract from, nor the always aware pretensions. Their music has a consistent feeling of resolution and hope. They did have style, but the substance was there, too.
The Style Council were ambitious. Some of their songs were long shots that land with a dull and heavy thud (“Right to Go” off of The Style of Loving being the most egregious that comes to mind, even Weller thinks it’s ‘fucking awful’; also see JerUSAlem and good luck figuring out what’s happening in it) but their failures are often to me, in a strange way, endearing. The more albums they put out the stranger it all got. They were unafraid to fail and this lack of fear made their successes higher. They had moments where they even admit they were in too deep, with the politics or genre-hopping attempts that backfired. Still I love that freewheeling sound which, while culled from varied influences, still came off as distinctly British pop music in the end. When they were good, they were very good. Fantastic.
Weller himself summed it up: “I had a total belief in The Style Council. I was obsessed in the early years. I lived and breathed it all. I meant every word, and felt every action.”
Speak Like a Child (1983)
(aka Your clothes are clean and your mind is productive)
“Speak Like A Child” was the group’s first in a run of singles before they even toured or put out a full-length album. It’s a lively, brassy track, very much the sort of pop music one would make after going through a box of soul records. Weller reportedly dumped off a huge collection of albums in (keyboardist) Mick Talbot’s lap to get him into the mindset of what he wanted to accomplish with the new band.
The song ushers in a more overtly political era for Weller, but with tongue firmly in cheek. As he and the rest of the band grew increasingly involved in political action, his lyrics would also become more provocative and critical of the government. ”Speak Like a Child” is at a level that questions the current order of things without being out-and-out cynical; it feels too warm and slightly playful. He could almost be chiding a lover (‘spent all day thinking about you’ sounds romantic, right?) though he’s really not, it’s more chiding politicians who speak bullshit. As it turns out, Weller has a lot to say about contemporary political rhetoric (And I believe it when you look in my eyes/You offer me a life, and never lies/Least only the kind to make me smile).
It gets sort of thorny trying to discuss the place of politics in music. I know I’m sometimes in the minority when I suggest that they the two are, in fact, inextricable, as it’s still believed that politics shouldn’t be tackled in polite company. But to approach Weller’s political motivations in the music on the minimal emotional level, there is something powerful at work, still. Much of the earlier, politically motivated Style Council songs feel like the sonic equivalent of a hand up, or perhaps a pat on the back. Weller is too direct to be condescending, as cheeky as all the dressing up and gidding about that he would do with the band sometimes felt. Lyrically he’s broadly accessible to the point of earnestness, a point I’ll dwell on more later.
The music video for “Speak Like a Child” features a double decker party bus with a handmade sign that says “[we’re] really free aren’t we?!?!”… though you’ll notice that the reveling band members repeatedly have to duck under tree branches throughout. Also, bright pink, yellow and blue squiggles were drawn in on the film at some point during post-production. They crackle and pop from the screen, especially since the rest of the colors are muted towards grainy; the countryside they’re frolicking in otherwise looks pretty washed-out.
My Ever Changing Moods (1984)
“My Ever Changing Moods” is a head-clearing song. It’s revitalizing. That opening bit is like biting into a new crisp juicy apple for the first time, the burst of sweetness as you sink your teeth in. And then, there is always the warmth of horns waiting just around the corner, if your resolution flags a little.
Weller’s point here is not just to comment on shifts in public and social policy he finds troubling, he’s thinking of the counter-solution too: self-transformation. Given his ascent from ordinary and not overly charismatic bloke from Woking to national music icon, it’s not hard to believe why he feels this to be a powerful concept. This too is why he plugs into music as being a vehicle as others would cringe away from the idea of making their music political. To Weller, music is a vital tool. It would be a waste of time to be overly subtle, so the much of the language he uses throughout the lyrics denotes dynamic change. Daylight turns to moonlight... Bitter turns to sugar… etc. That’s what he’s aiming for.
I also think of “My Ever Changing Moods” as bridging the gap between the tongue-lashing of “Speak Like a Child” and the rallying to solidarity of “Shout to the Top”. Basically the poles from which Weller shapes his personal-political ideologies are candor and collective self-determination, and this song successfully positions itself between the two. You’ll notice that Weller won’t ever hold back about how the direction the country is headed in is fucked, but he will never ever say “you (the people) are fucked”. Such a thing would amount to sacrilege in his clear-eyed but not defeatist worldview.
A sense of hope just overrides everything else.
Long Hot Summer (1983)
1) That synth is STILL insane. If you tried to hold it in your hands it would be all syrupy.
2) Someone else on tumblr declared this the invention of chillwave. They were joking, but maybe they’re not actually far off. If Korn can claim to be the originators of dubstep, then the Style Council can have chillwave locked down. But seriously, this song sounds like it was made for the first track on SIDE B of a stoner summer mixtape. Its lushness has a feeling of the present-being-the-past already, a bittersweet longed-for memory. The percussion wanders like it’s about to fall asleep. Is there anything more chillwave than that?
3) This video’s perfect but very literal embodiment of the song as being a lazy travel shirtless downstream on a small boat on a very hot-seeming day is actually just a set-up to see Paul Weller and Mick Talbot dancing. They end up dancing (badly) in almost every Style Council video. “The Lodgers” is a more egregious example but we’ll get to that later.
In fact, it soon transpired that The Style Council weren’t really a ‘group’ at all, more a conceptual pop vehicle based around Paul’s love of clothes, film, books, records and ‘60’s French fashions. With friend and confidante Mick Talbot in tow, Weller made it clear that the collective of friends and musicians who made up the band weren’t going to tour for a while. Instead, he and Mick projected an image of themselves as coffee-bar sophisticate, listening to jazz and soul records, sipping endless cups of cappuccino and generally living out their Absolute Beginners fantasies.
Their first adventure pretty much summed up the playful, faintly cinematic vibes of those early months: a trip to Boulogne to shoot some promo photos. Decked out in rain macs, shades and expensive loafers, they looked like ambassadors for a New Modernist Europe - or refugees from The Italian Job. It was all wonderfully tongue-in- cheek, hilariously pretentious and, for a generation weaned on the gritty earnestness of the New Wave, joyfully liberating to watch.
Pat Gilbert (May 1998, in The Complete Adventures of The Style Council Booklet)
This is an interesting perspective and from someone, unlike me, who was cognizant at the time that the Style Council were a band. Much of what I have to say this week delves into the music/lyrical stuff and less the image, though as you’ll see in all the music videos and some of the images that I have for you, ‘style’ was a player, too. They were very conscious of and deliberate with the aesthetic they were presenting. Their album art, for instance, has a consistent modern aesthetic engineered by graphic designer Simon Halfon. He had done artwork for The Jam and would assist Paul with his solo career album art as well.
Headstart for Happiness (Live on The Tube, 1983)
Sometimes I forget all about “Headstart for Happiness” because “Long Hot Summer” and “Speak Like a Child” are so great and from the same time, and it wasn’t a single though they often played it live, and Mick Talbot sings the first verse. But the truth is that “Headstart” has an infectious energy. Here Paul introduces “Miss Dee C Lee” and her parts are particularly wonderful, especially the back-and-forth banter she has with Paul before her solo. I also love Paul’s guitar tone, though you almost can’t make it out with all the brass. Good times.
A Solid Bond in Your Heart (1983)
(aka Nostalgia is a trap, even for mods)
Let’s talk about mods for a second, because Weller, with his short hair and suit rolling up on this community club in 1983 on a scooter is the height of mod. You see, as it turns out, nostalgia is not just for the elderly. An entire social group of English youth in the late 70s/80s was constructed around remembering the way things used to be (‘modern’) in the good old 60s. It was about style (in opposition to people who identified as punk, say) as much as their music of choice (R&B and soul). As Weller puts it, when he went out his working-class upbringing taught him that he ought to dress up sharp to do it.
So what the mod movement gives us is music videos created by young musicians who are still in their twenties (!!) feeling old & nostalgic. Mick’s romantic failures notwithstanding, this song and video are full of warm, fuzzy feelings for remembering good old days past. The end features a literal passing of the baton though. Mick and Paul say oh look at these young kids haha we’re old now (at 22) go have yer fun in the community building ‘cause none of our old friends showed up to dance to cool R&B sides.
What is interesting about this all is how Weller is concious of and playful regarding the mod image—he dumps his scooter after all—yet he still comes across as extremely earnest. This song is a celebration of the past and having your whole worldview shaped by a particular kind of music, but ultimately it is open to the future as well. I in fact consider this song to be a straight-up manifesto for Weller’s career at this period. I’ll try to do my best / To hit you where it counts / I just wanna build up / A solid bond in your heart