In the summer of 2005 Paul Weller was in Amsterdam, completing his new album As Is Now. I’ve interviewed Weller at all the main stages of his career, with The Jam, The Style Council and as a solo artist, but I am sure I have never drunk as much before. It seemed almost a test he would put to journalists that year. We bar-crawled around the city all afternoon and evening. Thankfully I recorded the interview at an early stage. What followed was probably rubbish. The piece became a cover story for the Word magazine.
The first time I saw a woman take her clothes off for money I was with Paul Weller. It was about 25 years ago and we were in Scandinavia. He was on tour with The Jam and I worked for Her Majesty’s Music Press. One night without warning our hotel bar put on a strip show and a girl undressed before us to the theme music from A Clockwork Orange. This took me by surprise but Weller was not happy at all. With a grim expression he took his girlfriend’s hand and marched out.
The Paul Weller of today, however, is more openly admiring of the female form. We sit in the sunshine at a pavement café by an Amsterdam canal side. In their shorts and summer dresses, on foot or on bicycles, visions of Dutch loveliness parade before us. ‘Awright, darlin’?’ chirps the former Conscience of his Generation. ‘You know what?’ he says to me. ‘I can’t wait to be 70. Maybe I’ll get this fucking monkey off my back. D’you think you ever stop thinking about it?’
Ah yes. Sex. A Greek philosopher said losing interest in sex was like being unshackled from a lunatic. And I wonder at how times have changed. Where is the tense, slightly puritanical young man I used to know? The fellow I’m sharing these cold beers with is sun-tanned and comfortable in his loose white collarless shirt. He’s still the dandy mod — check out the ‘barnet’ — but our conversations have a different flavour. I used to be sent by the NME to ask Paul about CND, Red Wedge, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But today when a pretty young barmaid arrives to collect our empty glasses Paul says to me: ‘She’s more fucking important than Tony Blair. And she’s a barmaid. That’s far more fucking important to me. Y’know what I mean?’
What’s new, too, is that we talk endlessly about our children and growing old. Paul’s dad, John Weller, is the tough ex-boxer and building worker who has managed his son’s career from the beginning. Nowadays when Paul hugs his father — and Weller is a tactile, emotional bloke — he’s struck by how small and frail the old man suddenly seems. ‘And your kids,’ he adds, ‘they make you think of your own mortality, don’t they?’ Paul Weller has five children now, by three different mothers. The latest, a boy, was born to his girlfriend Sammy just two months ago. He wanted to name him after all four Small Faces, but had to settle for two: Stevie Mac. It’s believed negotiations broke down at bass guitarist Ronnie ‘Plonk’ Lane.
Weller’s devotion to music has not changed. He talks about soul, or jazz or The Beatles with a kind of savage intensity. When he calls Curtis Mayfield ‘a prophet’ he means it literally. Weller will use a phrase like ‘the Holy Communion of Rock’n’Roll’ and shoot you a piercing glance, daring you not to take him seriously. But if music is his religion, it’s his bread-and-butter too. He’s not messing about. He’s a hardened veteran of the road, the studio and the promotional circus. Some of it he loves and some he despises, but it’s all he knows. He’s a Lifer.
Is music the only job you’ve ever had, I ask him?
‘Done a bit of window cleaning in my youth. Worked on the building for about two months. But I wasn’t cut out for it at all. From the age of 12 or 13 music was all I ever wanted to do. Even though I moan about my job sometimes, like we all do, I wouldn’t change it for the fucking world, man, y’know what I mean? All I wanted was to make music. Sometimes you’re granted your wish and when you are it’s fucking beautiful.’
In a studio around the corner Paul has been finishing his next album, As Is Now. Its first single, From The Floorboards Up, is a shuddering rush of rock’n’roll. I haven’t heard him sound so wired in years. ‘I am excited, man,’ he says. Relaxed or not, he still vibrates with nervous tension. Sitting outside this bar his legs are always pumping to the beat of some song in his head. ‘It’s a special time. It’s great to be 47 and still fucking ‘aving it, y’know what I mean? I’m fired up about it. It all goes in cycles. You get times when you’re low and then it all comes back again.’
How long will you carry on, do you think?
‘As long as I can. Until I fall over and peg it.’
Would you have settled for doing it at a lower level of success?
You once told me if The Jam hadn’t worked out you would have carried on playing wine bars in Woking.
‘All the difference would be, right, if I hadn’t have made it, it would just mean I was still stuck in Surrey playing pubs and clubs. But I still would have done it. There’s nothing else I can do and nothing else I want to do. Thank God I did get a chance to go beyond the confines of Surrey. But I would never have got to travel. In my time, if somebody down the road went on holiday to Spain it was a big deal. So I would never have got to see other cultures, other sides of life. Music for me has been the whole key. How else would I be sitting in Amsterdam in the fucking sunshine with a beer? I owe it all to music.’
Well, you could have joined the army.
‘The TA. But to be fair, man, I’ve put the time and effort in. And the times when I have taken me eye off the ball it’s gone down the pan. You’ve got to keep your eye on the prize, all the time. Once you stop caring about it, it slips from under your feet. But every now and again you get more inspired. The other night I saw The Kings Of Leon, right. I’m 47 and I’ve been doing this for years but to get inspired again by a bunch of kids, a four piece band playing rock’n’roll, no light shows, no frills, no bullshit costume changes or any of that cobblers, and just getting off on that. To see everyone at the Holy Communion of Rock’n’Roll. It goes across boundaries and cultures, it lives and breathes. It’s real. It’s more real than fucking most things, man. It’s more real than fucking politics, that’s for sure.’
You’re out on the road a lot, aren’t you?
‘For me, playing live is not only me bread and butter — cos I couldn’t rely on record sales — it’s also where I get the chance to shine. We always played. Even before we got a chance to make a record. You wanted to play every night of the week if you could, cos that’s what bands do. It isn’t about someone doing five gigs. U2 announce their tour of England, five gigs. That’s bollocks to me. I’m going to do 18 gigs in a fucking month, man, y’know what I mean? Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Musicians go out there and play to the people. And get close. Not be at the back of a fucking stadium.
‘I still get nervous after all these years. I’m still fucking bricking it before a gig. Always. But I think that’s so important. Forget last night or 10 years ago, tonight’s the make-or-break. That’s always been my attitude and when it isn’t it’ll be time for me to turn it in.’
(I notice Paul squinting suspiciously at my iPod. I’m using it with an iTalk attachment to record the interview.)
‘That an iPod? It records as well? As we speak? What will they think of next?’
Are you a bit of a Luddite?
‘I haven’t got a clue about technology, man. I haven’t got the Tinternet in my house, I don’t want one. I think it’s the Devil’s Window. And I will never have one. And how it’s advanced the world is beyond my comprehension. It’s rubbish. You walk into any office now and everyone’s behind their screen. Whatever happened to conversation?’
No fancy ring-tones on your mobile, then?
‘I haven’t got a fucking mobile. I smashed it the other day in a fit of auto destruction. I’m not ‘aving it. Of course there’s good things in technology, but I don’t see how it’s made the world any better.’
I went to a conference the other day where they seemed to think the future of music was ring-tones.
‘That’s beyond me. Why would you want to hear a song as a fucking ring-tone, for Christ’s sake? Go and buy a record. This fucking dates me but I’m not ‘aving it at all. It’s the Emperor’s New Clothes.’
OK, but aside from ring-tones your actual songs will be sent down to people’s mobiles.
‘How can you hear a tune on your phone?’
Because the phone and the iPod will be combined.
‘I dunno, man. Thank God I was born in 1958. I’m from a different generation, praise the Lord.’
You must have seen a lot of changes in the way you make records.
‘The biggest change came in the ’80s. I really noticed it because we had a studio called Solid Bond which was the old Philips Studio from the ’60s with the same gear in it, the same lay out.’
A very historical place.
‘Totally. Dusty Springfield, The Walker Brothers and all that. And then all of a sudden this desk wasn’t ‘any good’ any more and this tape machine wasn’t ‘any good’ any more and everything had to be digital. And as soon as we all went digital, man, everyone sounded the fucking same. From country & western to funk to rock’n’roll or whatever, everybody sounded glassy and linear. A technical thing but it’s true. I think it’s great that the White Stripes go to some shitty studio in East London and do an album in two or three weeks using old gear and everyone loves it.
‘But I tell you the other big difference, and again I see this in my older children, they listen to a tune but they watch it on the music channels. When they hear a tune they go ‘I really like that video.’ They call me in and say ‘Listen to this’ and I go ‘You’re not listening, man, you’re watching it.’ And I think their generation is missing out, cos it’s giving away too much. The beauty of a record was where it sent you in your imagination.’
Did you like CD when that came along?
‘They’re shit. I still think they’re shit. I’m totally vinyl. I have got into buying CDs, right, but I’ve got into this awful thing of saying ‘I like track 3 and track 14.’ I used to know all the titles on a record but now the titles are so small I can’t even read them. What’s that all about? And how you can have them on your computer is beyond me. I used to be down the record shop every Monday morning, fucking ‘aving it. I don’t care about being dated. Oh, it’s not like the old days! But what’s interesting is that vinyl is making a comeback among young kids. And at the end of the day, whatever the technology, what you can’t download is people. At the gig the other night you had to be there. And you’ll never change that, you’ve got to sweat.’
How has the media side of your job changed? You were never a very willing interviewee.
‘I dunno, I’ve come around a little bit. I had my grumpy stage and paranoia stage but at the moment, because I’m so fired up about it all, I’m quite happy to chat about it. I’ve dropped a lot of my inhibitions and hang-ups.’
Do you miss the music weeklies?
‘When I was a kid the NME was the Bible. In Woking you got it on a Thursday and I’d rush out and read it cover to cover, even the articles about bands I didn’t like. I’d read the whole fucking thing, scan the charts so I knew what was in the Top 20. And classic photos. I’d cut out Pennie Smith’s pictures. I’ve still got things I cut out from 1975/76. A Nick Kent article about Syd Barrett. David Bowie was on the front cover. I’ve still got them.’
What’s your opinion of record companies now?
‘I’m fortunate to be with V2. Because it’s independent and a small company I can walk around the office and know most people’s names and have a chat and a cup of tea and I’m quite happy to do that. I went into Universal to do some press for some Jam reissue a couple of years ago and it was like walking into some fucking bank on Wall Street. This big fucking place with some cunt sitting there at a desk. I can’t imagine being there now, me at Sony or Universal. I’m glad I got kicked off it, thank fuck.’
When The Jam signed to Polydor it seemed such a big label. But then it just gets swallowed up by something much bigger.
‘Polydor was great when I started there. Every office had its own mini bar and when you walked in everyone was on the piss. It was a totally different vibe. Everything’s so clean and corporate now, marketing and demographics and all that rubbish.’
Remember when the NME was in a scruffy office on Carnaby Street? People like you or Strummer would just walk in off the street.
‘Yeah. Rubbish, isn’t it? But we shouldn’t sound like a pair of grumpy old men. Rejoice! Rejoice!’
‘I’ve always thought now is better. I might moan about the Tinternet or this or that, but now is always better. I like now. That’s what makes me a mod. In my heart I’m still a mod, and now is better. You’ve got to embrace the day. It all starts again.’
Is it a relief that you’re not as …
No, I was going to say you’re not expected to do the Spokesman of your Generation bit.
‘Yeah, totally. I would really not want to be Bono cos I never see him talk about music any more. And that’s the position I got into at one time. I got into this fucking rut. Like I’d do a press conference in Sweden and someone would go ‘Tell us about Margaret Thatcher’. I mean, I don’t fucking know, y’know? I’m here to play a gig. I don’t envy that at all. But at the same time I’m not equipped to do that anyway. I’m definitely not an intellectual.’
Are you still interested in politics?
‘I’ve come full circle, to be honest. I think they’re all wankers. I always thought that. You can change the faces but nothing really changes. I think we the people change but they don’t clock on. They’re so out of touch it’s scary, it’s either a conspiracy theory, or they don’t care or they’re too stupid to care.’
Do you still work hard?
‘I never stop, mate. I haven’t stopped for 25 fucking years. I went into self-imposed exile for a little bit after The Style Council fell foul of the British public. But aside from that I’ve never stopped working.’
Do you pay as much attention to your image as you used to?
‘I don’t give a fuck about image, man. I don’t care about that. I dress and I do me barnet like I do because that’s what I want.’
But you still care about how you look?
‘Totally. I’m a mod. Of course I do. But I don’t do it for my public image, I do it for me. And I never felt pressure to do it. It’s always been for me.’
Even when you had kids imitating you and replying to those cheap fashion ads in the back of the NME?
‘Jam shoes? All that? It was something to do with me but it was nothing to do with me. I was thinking about that the other day. We never got a penny out of that, man. We should have been right on that. We must have sold countless pairs of fucking Jam shoes. And all we got was a few free pairs! Here’s some free shoes, boys.’
That’s like Epstein and the Beatle wigs.
‘But I don’t think I’ve got an image. I don’t walk around thinking I’m the dog’s bollocks or Mr Cool. That’s fucking nonsense. I do it for me and my mod sensibilities.’
Do you feel under pressure to keep looking young?
‘Well you’d hope to look young, but vanity’s a double edged sword. Whether we like it or not we’re all getting older, you get a beer belly and you go grey and get lines on your fucking boat race. Gravity will have its way, the way of all flesh. But you still don’t like it, do you? When I see photographs I can’t help but being vain. When we did the shots for this piece the other day they showed me the Polaroids and my first thing is, Do I look old in it? Whether it’s a snapshot your missus took of you on holiday you can’t help but wonder how much you’ve changed.’
Yes. In your own head you’re always younger than you really are. The only thing to do is look at the picture and think, In 10 years time I’ll think this looks great.
‘That is so fucking true, man. I remember thinking the same thing 10 years ago and now I see pictures of me then and think, Oh I was so young then. But you have to go with it and it does bring its rewards. I’m always banging on about getting old but there are things I love about it. Like giving less of a fuck what other people think. Here I am and you either dig it or you don’t and if you don’t that’s fine.
‘I’m glad I’m old enough to have seen the Sex Pistols. The kids ask me what it was like. And Dr Feelgood, fucking brilliant man. Wilko. Amazing. When you’re young you need some signs, you think you’re on the right track but you need these signals like Wilko. I went to see the Feelgoods at the Guildford Civic and the first number goes 1-2-3-4 and Wilko did this fucking jump up in the air, did the splits. The first band I ever saw, again at the Guildford Civic, was Status Quo and again I thought they were amazing. We were sat up in the furthest back row but I’d never heard music that loud before. To hear that and be pinned to the wall it was just, Yes! Like my daughter seeing The Kings Of Leon the other night and saying ‘That’s what I want to do in life.’ That was me, man.
‘Talk about signals, right. This year Little Richard come over, Chuck Berry come over and Bo Diddley. I thought that was a sign that rock’n’roll is back. I took that as a personal signal and that’s why the new single, From The Floorboards Up, is rockin’. I’m still receiving signals even at my delicate age. I think rock’n’roll is back. It’ll never vanish. Sometimes it’ll lie dormant then it’ll come back and bite your fucking head off. Even after you and me are brown bread, man, when we’re dust and rocks, it’ll still be there. Thank God.’
Has this way of life been hard on your private life?
‘Difficult, definitely. Inevitably you have to go away and be a different person, with a different mindset and lifestyle. It’s been weird for me the last few weeks. I’m over here remixing, been doing a couple of days off and then coming back and I’ve been caught between these mad stools. I’m trying to be normal and get down to Waitrose and do the school runs and try to be a nice person. But me girlfriend said to me the other day, ‘You’re psychotic.’ Which is possible. I’m trying to love and look after my family but I’m also trying to make the best record I’ve ever fucking made. So there’s always that weird dichotomy. It comes with the fucking territory, Hopefully, if you’re lucky, you have an understanding woman and love shines through.’
After some more drinks we walk around to Studio 150, the highly civilised Amsterdam facility where Paul made last year’s covers album, also named Studio 150. He plays me some new tracks and fires me that inquisitor’s glare. ‘What’s the word, Boss? Are we ‘aving it? What are you sayin’, Paulus?’ I reply that I think I am a good omen for him. I’ve written three Paul Weller cover stories before and each coincided with a peak in his career. There was The Jam’s Sound Affects in 1980, The Style Council’s Our Favourite Shop in 1985 and his most successful solo album Stanley Road in 1995. If the same should happen for As Is Now in 2005, I would not be surprised.
As evening falls we lope along another canal bank to a small, dark bar and set about the world’s reserves of Jack Daniel’s. We talk spectacular amounts of rubbish for several hours. He demands to see my iPod again and is appalled. ‘It’s like a mini fridge. With no fucking beers in it!’ He apologises for an argument we apparently had in 1983. He says we met on a tube and I recommended he listen to country music. ‘I was not fucking ‘aving it, at the time. Country music? What? But I can dig everything now.’ Yet he is still an argumentative bloke. Without warning, he is suddenly savaging a little book I once wrote about John Lennon. ‘You’re pretending you know what was in his head, man! You don’t fucking know!’
Then it’s on to religion. He is getting more and more preoccupied by it, he thinks. But the inspiration comes from music. ‘All You Need Is Love, man, that’s my creed. The Fabs are my prophets. Curtis Mayfield! Y’know what I mean?’ What is not inspiring to Paul Weller are the hip hop videos he hates his kids to watch. ‘All the bling shit. A rapper throwing money over naked women. What sort of message does that give out?’ He remembers the soul music of his youth, and its counterpart in white ’60s mod-pop, as the music of pride and working class ambition. Self-respect in the teeth of snobbery. An answer to the poverty of aspiration. The Holy Communion of Rock’n’Roll.
‘It’s about the people. Folk music. The people’s music. I’m fucking down with it. I’m not cool about it. I’m not with that at all, man. I’m into playing music. But you’ve got to do that every night. Take your eye off the prize and you’re nowhere.’
Somehow we get on to Eric Clapton and I ask if he can see himself at 60, at the Albert Hall, playing a reunion with his old trio. He looks at me, baffled. He seems amazed I could ask anything so stupid. ‘No fucking way. Onwards and upwards. As Is Now. Title of the album, man. That says it all for me. This is the moment.’