‘Anyone for the Paul Weller headbands ?’ was an in-joke that often popped the air at the twin desks in RTÉ Cork that once constituted the No Disco production office. I heard this question put one night by a hawker outside The City Hall in Cork and, juveniles that we were, would deflect to it whenever we felt harassed by pluggers, chuggers, colleagues and life itself. The thought of anyone in a Paul Weller headband was so preposterous that it could dilute any situation.
But there’s always a side-story. One of the more memorable inserts aired during the first season of the No Disco music television series in 1993/94 was an interview with Weller, the former Jam and Style Council frontman and song-writer who’d roared back to life with a couple of cracking solo elpees. I don’t recall that exchange as particularly revelatory or ground-breaking but it certainly struck a chord because, at the time, Paul wasn’t doing a lot of media. Just to get him in front of a camera was the first achievement and anything after that was a bonus.
The success of Paul’s first, self-titled solo album had confounded many seasoned industry-watchers. Difficult to credit it now given the career he’s enjoyed since but, after the demise of The Style Council in 1989, and still in his early-30s, Weller was thought by many to be a beaten docket. Little wonder that, in the spring of 1994, he had the music weeklies in his cross-hairs.
Paul was on the road with a terrific live band touring a second solo album, ‘Wild Wood’, into which Donal Dineen – the No Disco chairman – and myself had fallen head-first. Enthusiastic students of all points from Traffic and Van Morrison to Nick Drake and Neil Young, we were smitten by the pastoral vibes that sprinkled it, and played some of its key cuts from to a thread on the series.
Like many contemporary male novelists, I too have parked a series of pivotal Top of the Pops memories, among which The Jam – Weller’s first group – blasting through ‘Going Underground’ in the BBC Studios one Thursday night, is among the most enduring. The spiky three-piece he led from 1973 to 1982, is easily among the finest British bands in popular music history. Indeed, alongside The Pet Shop Boys, Madness, Buzzcocks, The Smiths and New Order, I mark The Jam as one of the best post-Beatles British singles bands of all time. Channelling my inner and outer, Alan Partridge, the double album best-of, ‘Snap’, should be in every self-respecting music collection. It was certainly very prominent in mine and, once I’d played it to a crisp and devoured the sleeve notes, I worked my way backwards into the mighty Jam albums that under-pinned it, ‘Setting Sons’, ‘All Mod Cons’ and ‘Sound Effects’ especially.
[As an aside, The Jam regularly surface on lists of the best and most influential three-piece groups of the last sixty years. It was maybe pre-determined, therefore, that, years later, Weller found himself sharing a label with my own all-time favourite three-piece, The Frank and Walters].
It was because of Paul Weller that I went full septic and re-shaped my bowl-cut, wearing my do for several years like he does on the front of ‘Snap’, with a canyon-wide centre-parting lashed into shape using two combs. The centre-parting was a popular look for feens in Cork during the 70s and 80s: in most instances more a spotty face look than a Small Faces one.
I had to explain this to the progressive, denim-doused rockers in another-worldly barbershop on Paul Street called ‘Heads Only’, where I’d started to go as soon as I was allowed to have my hair cut without parental supervision. ‘Heads Only’ was sound-tracked by the double-album indulgences of Pink Floyd and Genesis, the walls lined with Roger Dean pastiches and the ceiling splattered with painted-on planets and stars. Had I asked them for a Roger Waters or a Steve Howe look, it’s unlikely I’d have had to go into such detail.
In much the same stylistic vein, an influential Irish promoter, Pat Egan, opened a couple of record shops in Cork during the late 1970s and I was a regular nuisance around the bargain bins inside Rainbow Records, at the top of Patrick Street, next to The Swan and Cygnet pub. Pat didn’t just deal in vinyl and wax: Rainbow’s narrow body was lined with groovy badges, tee-shirts and life-sized posters of young wans who were so eager to get out onto the tennis courts that they neglected to pull on their drawers. Every week the staff would take a print-out of the week’s Top Forty singles and albums from Music Week magazine and sellotape it onto the counter. Many’s the hour I idled away in there poring over the detail, noting the names of the various bands, writers, producers and record labels listed on those charts. It was on that counter that I first encountered the name Vic Coppersmith-Heaven, The Jam’s long-time producer who, I later learned, and to no little disappointment, had actually been working with the band for years using his real name, Vic Smith.
I bought my first ever record – ‘Shine A Little Love’ by Electric Light Orchestra – in Rainbow Records and, just as importantly, my first ever skinny-tie, on which The Who’s logo was printed half way down. I’d only ever heard one of their songs, ‘My Generation’, but read that Weller regarded them highly. I wore that tie proudly for several years thereafter and, much later, decided to finally investigate The Who more fully. I thought they were average.
I was in from the get-go with Weller’s next operation, The Style Council, who were a poppier, bulkier and marvellously grandiose concern. I gathered up as much of their material as I could – and there was an awful lot of it, some even sung in French – and lost myself in the over-blown sleeve notes and the magnificent packaging, marvelling again at how and where popular music might take a fella. A year previously, The Jam were documenting the daily soap opera of life for suburban Britain’s working classes: months later, Weller was lounging, bare-chested, on a gondola, his unkempt mop-top now swept back and creamed-up. The video clip for the band’s third single, ‘Long Hot Summer’, was a study in homo-erotica, had any of us been clued in enough to appreciate it.
Apart entirely from the music, The Style Council personified what some of us were aspiring to from our desolate perches in Blackpool and Saint Mary’s Road. They were pretentious, engaged, politically in tune and sharp, and Weller was magnificently turned out. On the band’s inconsistent debut album, ‘Café Bleu’ and, later, on the mighty ‘Our Favourite Shop’ – which came in the most affected sleeve I’d seen – they were both outside the curve and firmly in the moment. On one level, they were the antithesis to my other favourite bands of the period – The Smiths, Prefab Sprout and R.E.M. – all of whom traded more in substance than sass and looked like they were togged out in dead navvies’ gear.
The Style Council aspired to look good in order to play good but were an important musical counterpoint too: they dabbled freely and with more abandon than most, often with woejesus results. But they opened the door for us also to stuff that might otherwise have been lost in a welter of jangly guitars.
I loved ‘Money Go ‘Round’ for all its clumsiness and, despite its student thesis, even ‘Soul Deep’ – released as The Council Collective – with its funky synths, percussion and shared soul vocals. ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’ even began with the line ‘You don’t have to take this crap’ which, as opening gambits go, is certainly on the braver side: I just found it impossible to take issue with them. And, in one key respect, how could I have ? All that had really changed was the wrapping and much of that early Style Council material wasn’t too far removed from where The Jam had left off. From ‘The Bitterest Pill’ and ‘Beat Surrender’ to ‘Speak Like A Child’ is no distance at all, really, and that beefed-up sound had been a feature of The Jam’s lengthy last tour, where the three-piece core was augmented by brass, keyboards and backing vocals.
The Style Council took off at a ferocious gallop altogether; Weller sounded like he was in a real hurry and it’s been regularly argued – not least of all by our hero – that he just felt increasingly restricted by the limits of the three-piece, guitar-led line-up. No harm reminding ourselves here that, when he announced he was breaking up The Jam, Paul was twenty-four years old.
After a sterling five years, The Style Council just ran out of puff. I will, if pushed, make a case for the band’s third album, ‘The Cost of Loving’, the weakest of its five elpees, even if it certainly sounds like the work of tired hands. Failing to crack the Top Ten with a fourth album, ‘Confessions of a Pop Group’ – a rare occurrence during what had been, by any standards, a spectacular and prodigious fifteen years – the band was dropped by it’s label and the main man disappeared for air off-Broadway. Weller had started the 1980s with The Jam’s terrific ‘Setting Sons’ album in the British Top Ten and ended the decade without a record deal for the first time in his adult life.
Once a regular cover-star across all of the different weekly music magazines, there was a spell during the early 1990s when Weller’s appearances in the inkies were confined to small box ads in the listings sections towards the back of Melody Maker and New Music Express. Those low-key classifieds were promoting new solo material, like the singles ‘Uh Huh, Oh Yeah’ and ‘Into Tomorrow’, which were available on his own label, Freedom High Records, the name of which told its own story. The success of the first solo album that followed saw him quickly back in harness at Go Discs, the label founded and run by Andy MacDonald that, at the time, boasted a small but spectacular roster. On which resided The Las, The Beautiful South, Billy Bragg, Beats International, The Stairs, Portishead, Trashcan Sinatras and also one of our own: The Franks.
‘Wild Wood’ was produced by Paul with Brendan Lynch and picked up where the first solo elpee left off: two of the central themes are the natural world and Paul’s reflections on his own writing. The politics and campaigning, which had routinely deflected away from the music and perhaps even de-railed The Style Council a bit, were gone: pared back and spacious, the politics on those early solo albums are purely personal. ‘Wild Wood’ was released during the first urgings of what would becoming a defining British music movement led by Blur, Oasis and Pulp, and repeated an old trick of Paul’s: he was distinctly outside the curve and still central to the moment.
As part of the tour to promote that album, Weller played a live show at The City Hall in Cork on Sunday, February 27th, 1994. I was there, lost in the spread of velvet bleachers up in the balcony during the late afternoon while the formidable band, featuring Yolanda Charles, Steve White, Helen Turner and Steve Craddock, went through it’s sound-check. After which Paul joined us on a small, pre-lit perch where we’d set up our gear, accompanied by a couple of record company handlers and the formidable presence of his father, John, his career-long manager, replete in a fashionable polo shirt and leather jacket. Despite the heads-up I’d been given, he talked freely and at length about his music, politics and creative freedom. About fifteen seconds into his first answer he brought up Red Wedge, socialism, the British left and the value of protest songs. We could have gone on talking all night and he needed little or no prompting: he was terrific company.
The cameraman on that shoot, and on many of the other first No Disco set-pieces, was Joe McCarthy, one of the real greats – and earliest innovators – of Irish film and television. Among his many other talents, Joe was an award-winning director, a fine technician and an outstanding story-teller. He recognised John Weller’s name – and then his face – having seen him box at amateur level for England during the 1950s, and the pair of them were off.
As we wrapped up the interview, and Paul was shuffled away and out of the venue, Joe and Paul Weller’s old man were still locked into a fervent conversation about an amateur bout somewhere from years earlier. I can’t remember a single note of Weller’s show later that night but I can recall the important things.