I interviewed Paul Weller at various stages of his career, whether with The Jam, Style Council or solo. This one was done at Nomis Studios in west London, for the MOJO edition of June 1995, on the release of his Stanley Road album.
At 37 this month, Paul Weller has written his age in hit singles plus a stack to spare. His latest record, The Changing Man, the first track on his new album Stanley Road, will bring the total close to 50. The Jam of course account for the earliest ones and The Style Council for the second series. Now, and since 1991, his hits appear under his own name. No doubt he’ll have plenty more before his time is up.
But such a smoothly successful CV is misleading. What it conceals are the upheavals and occasional plummets that have made Paul Weller’s career a turbulent and un-relaxing ride. When The Jam were matching punk’s explosive energy with edgy, intense power pop the slogan on Weller’s lips was Fire And Skill. But his fire has expired more than once since that time and left him only ashes.
The unstable chemistry of The Jam’s line-up and Weller’s obsessive quest for a new sound outside the rock format made him break up the band at its very peak. Before The Jam’s instamatic anger might turn to pantomime, he sought to refresh himself with cool jazz and exotic influences in The Style Council. Actually they confused rather more than they amused, apparently campaigning on a difficult ticket of soul, socialism and really nice pullovers. Their acclaim was patchy and, in Britain, forever overshadowed by his former group. For the time being, posterity has allocated The Style Council the doghouse next to Wings.
The aftermath of that misadventure was especially hard. Financial pressures forced him to sell the Solid Bond studio in Marble Arch. He entered the 1990s without a band, a record deal or a sense of direction. Though married since 1986 to Style Council singer D.C. Lee, and by now the father of a young son with a baby daughter soon to follow, Weller was frankly adrift. Perhaps the only constant in his career has been his father, John Weller, the ex-builder with a snow white Elvis Presley hairstyle, who has managed him since the earliest gigs in Woking.
Paul Weller’s return from the wilderness has been steady and sure, almost a pop parable. He knows how widely he was written off. He claims he would play music no matter what: “I’d play wine bars if I had to. It won’t come to that, but I would.” In fact he has worked his way back by rediscovering the guitar and by remembering the way that white suburban English boys make their greatest music – by taking American R&B and alchemising it. He’s no longer the austere soul purist he was. Once again, he rocks.
The Weller of old was an angular, frowning man with a perpetual cigarette. In fact he still is. But his nervous energy is nowadays balanced by a more relaxed outlook. He’s quicker to laugh at himself. He’s a lapsed vegetarian and during our interview he assaults a large sausage sandwich, covered in Reservoir Dogs-like quantities of tomato ketchup.
More than anything he loves to talk about music and he consumes it ferociously. On the Stanley Road album is a version of Walk On Gilded Splinters which he took “from Dr John via Marsha Hunt, Johnny Jenkins and Humble Pie”. His conversation ranges across Allen Toussaint, The Dixie Flyers, Albert King, McCartney’s first solo album and the current wave of young British guitar bands – to whom he’s become something of an icon, or elder statesman. “I was talking to Noel last night out of Oasis, and you know how he was saying if Lennon had lived he’d probably be making Macca kind of tunes, Biker Like An Icon, in his own surreal way? But I don’t think so. Listen to Woman and Beautiful Boy, those two songs alone are as good as anything he’d done before.”
Like Lennon, Weller has learned the truth inside that old song title Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out.
Is Stanley Road where you grew up, in Woking?
Yeah, it’s flattened now, the house is gone. I drove down there the other day with my son to go swimming, pointing out that I used to live there. There’s a working men’s club around the corner where I did my first gig. He wasn’t interested. It’s funny to look at those places, everywhere looks tiny and run down. All the reasons I wanted to get the fuck out of there.
I’ve still got family there but my main link with Woking is the area where I used to play as a kid, the woods around there, the rural side. The actual town’s a dump, like most satellite towns. They’ve got a big shopping mall but no-one’s got any bread and the shops are empty.
What’s Stanley Road like now?
One side’s all empty, rubble, and the other side’s this big horrible red bricked office block, probably been standing empty for 10 years. By the road sign there’s a zebra crossing and I thought of walking across it barefoot, in a black suit, but I was talked out of it. It was a bad idea.
That track, Stanley Road, is about when I was a child looking down the street. My dad always used it to measure out a mile for me, from here to the end of the street, that’s a mile. And looking down the street at that haze in the summer when the horizon blurs. Life’s endless possibilities. That’s the attitude the song represents.
Presumably you were really looking to London.
It was where it was happening. London was a special day out, you’d only go a couple of times a year, which made it even more magical. Later on I came up to see the Pistols at the 100 Club, that two day festival with The Clash, and then the Lyceum all-nighter, with Supercharge. That was it for me: I’ve got to be part of this. It was happening, after a hick town like Woking. People have a chance to be themselves in London. In Woking if you had the wrong cut of trousers you’d get your head kicked in.
Where did the music start for you?
The Beatles. It must have been the Royal Command, ’64 or so. My mum would buy the Beatle records and take me to see Elvis films. My mum was young, she had me when she was 18, so she’d be buying singles. But it was The Beatles for me, especially from about ’67, Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, the Mystery Tour.
Even up to ’73, ’74, a good few years after they split I’d still buy their solo albums religiously. Even Ringo’s. Even Sentimental Journey for fuck’s sake, that’s how dedicated I was. Beaucoups Of Blues. I remember I was in the newsagents the day they split up, April 1970, I was just devastated – “I can’t believe this.”
When did your pop star ambitions begin?
I had the idea when I was nine or 10, around ’68. I got my first guitar when I was 12. My parents were cool, they always encouraged me. Took me about two years to learn it. I did my first gig when I was 14 at the working men’s club, did a 20-minute set of covers, Chuck Berry and stuff. We did a pub a couple of weeks later, just me and this other guy playing guitars in matching shirts and loons. We did our 20-minute set and the old man was going, “Do it again!” So we did the same set again.
Paolo [Hewitt, journalist and confidante] was asking me last night, “What d’you think you would have done if you hadn’t made it?” But I would just be in Woking playing the same pubs and clubs. Made the top of the circuit making the maximum money you can earn on that scene. I wouldn’t have done anything else. There was no other option, like if this doesn’t work maybe I’ll do this or try that. It wasn’t even a case of whether I was gonna succeed or not. My success has surpassed anything I ever thought, but I always knew I would just do music, at whatever level I got to.
You’ve never had a proper job, as they call it?
No. Didn’t want one.
Did you sign on?
No. I was making good money. We’d play two gigs a week. We did this same nightclub in Woking for two or three years, every fucking Friday. Then Saturday we’d do a social club somewhere, so maybe I’d cop 15 or 20 quid, which at that time for a 16-year-old was enough. I can always make my living by playing music, whether it’s big money or little money. That’s my job, proper or not. I’ve done my apprenticeship and my college, and that was all those little shithole clubs, playing between the bingo and the seafood. You know what I’m saying?
Were you a suedehead?
Yeah, first time around. About 1970. I missed the skinhead thing, but that was the first time I listened to black music in a big way. At the dance on Thursdays it was reggae or Motown, Chairman Of The Board, Sex Machine.
Did you listen to any rock in the early ’70s?
No, I hated it. You were in one or the other camp. If you were a skinhead or a suedehead you listened to soul or reggae, while all the people with greatcoats, army bags and long hair had a copy of Dark Side Of The Moon or Led Zeppelin. But I never liked any of it. Meanwhile we were doing R&B or rock’n’roll covers, mainly from my mum and dad’s records, learning anything with three chords. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Coasters.
Did you come across the Feelgoods?
Yeah! Down By The Jetty, in ’74, that’s a great English R&B record. I used to love Wilko, he was like the English Chuck Berry. I went to see ’em in the Guildford Civic. He came out, did this huge lick with his legs out and they were off. Yeah! It’s like that Lennon quote when he went to see a rock’n’roll movie and he thought, Now THAT’S a good job, I’d like to do that.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
No I don’t. But the early songs were just straight Beatle rip-offs. We’d get that songbook, The Beatles Complete, and go through the chords… So nothing’s changed, really. [He says this deadpan, but shoots me a glance, as if daring me to agree.]
I was into Merseybeat as well, Gerry & The Pacemakers. For me it’s always been ’60s music. I guess the first things you hear are always the most influential.
Your new material has a later ’60s or even early ’70s feel.
So people tell me. But I’m not that calculating. I’m sure some people think that’s how I work, but it’s bollocks. I think people say that because of the sound, because we’re using real instruments and not making them sound hard and trebly like most sounds you hear these days. It’s warm, and the bass will really hit you in the gut like those old records did, before recording became technology-based or digital.
Did punk remind you of ’60s music?
Two and a half minute songs, yeah. The Pistols and The Clash were the two groups for me, the first contemporary groups that I’d ever liked. There are groups I’ve gone back to from the early ’70s and checked out, like Free, and I really like them now but not at the time. When punk came, at last there were some groups more or less the same age. And the details – they had short hair, straight trousers, they didn’t have beards. It made a difference to me, because I was a mod by this time, and they used to play covers like Substitute, and Troggs tracks.
The Pistols would do The Small Faces’ Whatcha Gonna Do About It.
Yeah. “I want you to know that I HATE you baby”…
Being a mod back then must have been a lonely calling, before the mod revivals.
I think people thought I was a bit eccentric. It must have been weird to see me driving around on a scooter with a parka on in 1975.
Why did you not become a punk?
I liked the attitude of punk but I also thought a lot of it was fake. We all saved up about 20 quid to go to McLaren’s shop – it was called Sex at that time? – and we went in to buy some mohair jumpers and found we couldn’t afford anything. We thought, This is bullshit. At the same time what I got from those bands as a punter was good, because it inspired me. Especially The Clash’s lyrics – some of those early Jam songs were awful, my attempts at being socially aware, but that was me just aping The Clash, after reading interviews with Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, saying people should be writing about what’s happening today. I’d never even thought of it before. I was busy re-writing My Generation.
Did you get disillusioned when you joined the peer group of those acts?
Yes, because a lot of it was a con. Big business. We were never accepted. We were always a little outside of the whole punk circle which was quite elitist, cliquey and art school. Not Rotten, I think he’s genuine, but the people who used to hang around that scene. They were mostly middle-class kids with rich parents, and they’d run away to join the circus.
We weren’t hip at all. We came from Woking, for a start. We saw things differently. I couldn’t understand that trendy side of it at all, that college crowd. I thought punk was the first working-class musical movement in my time, that’s how I perceived it. And I think that’s why The Jam clicked. We made our own scene. What we and our audiences were about was more the real spirit of punk. Some of those groups were fucking awful, don’t you remember? The Cortinas…
Did you enjoy the Jam days?
In terms of fun the early days were the best, travelling up the A3 in a borrowed Transit. There was no pressure because, in our youthful arrogance, we thought we were gonna make it anyway, so we didn’t give a fuck. The time I thought we’d really made it was when we did a four-week residency at this pub The Red Cow in Hammersmith. The first week there was 50 people there, the second week 100 people, by the fourth week it was queues around the block. The management came up to our dressing room and chucked in a free crate of lager. I thought, We’re taking off.
That was an exciting time and you only get that once in your life.
How did you feel about becoming a figurehead?
That would be around ’78, the time of All Mod Cons. I liked it at first, because that was part of the fantasy when I was a kid, to be whatever The Beatles were. But it was frightening, the hysteria when The Jam were at their peak. I was very serious about what I was trying to say in the lyrics. The Jam would try and stay behind after gigs to meet people and break down this barrier, but it never worked that way. People still see you differently. I’d see people come into dressing rooms, shaking.
Was it a hard decision to split The Jam?
I’m quite impulsive but I’d thought about this for months and my mind was made up. People say it was selfish and letting down the others and the fans, but it would have been more of a let down to carry on just because we were earning good bread. I’ve got nothing against earning good bread but I have to enjoy it as well or it doesn’t mean anything. I had a responsibility to the band but we’d been together for 10 years – people forget that, because they only saw us for six.
What was the reaction? Was your dad horrified? Any rational manager would be.
He wasn’t pleased. We still had a contract to fulfil, some tours to do and some singles to make, and he talked me into seeing it through. But it was harder telling the others really, Rick and Bruce. They were gutted to say the least. Bruce was practically devastated. He didn’t want to do the tour, he was so pissed off, so we were going to get Glen Matlock in – but Bruce came back when he heard about it. It was a good tour as well. I think that freaked them out even more, the fact that I was enjoying it. We started putting a lot of old stuff back in the set, like In The City – for me it was more fun because there was less pressure.
It’s a hard thing to say when you’ve been with someone for 10 years, whether it’s your missus or a group. You know – I gotta go.
You’ve never been reconciled to Bruce and Rick, have you?
They’ve been whinging in the fucking press about how many Christmas cards can you send someone. I’ve seen that quote reprinted so many times, and their book came out, so they’re obviously still bitter. But it doesn’t make sense, 13 or 14 years after we split up. I don’t understand it, to keep fucking harping on about it after all that time, for Christ’s sake. We formed the band when we were kids, made it beyond our wildest dreams, earned good bread out of it, had a good time, but all good things come to an end. I admire people like the Stones for keeping it together, but I personally couldn’t do it. I like to move on.
What was your intention with The Style Council?
I was listening to more music around that time. I was listening to jazz and a lot more R&B. The original idea with the Council was to make an English R&B band, a modern Small Faces. And for me to stop playing Rickenbackers, to get a different sound and develop my voice. Miles Hunt was saying to me, “How could you split a group like The Jam to form something as remote as The Style Council?” But why would I split one band to form another that sounds exactly the same? What would be the point?
I remember playing Rick Buckler some tracks off the first Style Council album, Café Bleu, before it came out. And he was stunned: “Are you taking the piss?” I suppose it must have been the same for a lot of Jam fans. But I couldn’t see the point in forming another three-piece power trio.
Initially you had some big hits, against the tide of electro-pop that was big in the early ’80s.
I hated all those groups.
Did you feel isolated?
Sometimes it’s good to have something to kick against, just as The Jam had been the black sheep of the punk fraternity. With The Style Council we were always intimidated in this country. A lot of our gigs here were pretty lame, but abroad we were really cooking some times. Here I had this constant baggage of The Jam I was carting around with me. It was as if there was nothing I could do to impress people in this country. We didn’t have that anywhere else because The Jam never really made it anywhere else. We were fighting a losing battle here.
You got to Number 1 with the second album, Our Favourite Shop.
I like the songs on that. We should have left it there. I lost interest after Favourite Shop.
Other things took its place. I fell in love with Dee and we were off having fun together, which was a distraction from the band.
All the chic Euro style threw some people, don’t you think?
Totally, but the more they found it difficult the more I played on it. I just thought how small-minded people were at that time. “Why are you doing this? Why is it in French?” Well, why the fuck not? I make moves because they interest me at the time. I’m not as calculating as people think I am.
There were also a lot of wind-ups with The Style Council that backfired. They were too insular. We found it funny but others didn’t.
You seemed sometimes to be trying too hard.
Probably. It was too forced, too stylised. We did this French EP, the Style Council A Paris, but the idea came from me getting into the Modern Jazz Quartet, doing Place Vendome, or Dexter Gordon, Our Man In Paris. But unless people know that other stuff it’s gonna look odd. Like The Modern Jazz Quartet wore these blazers with MJQ on them, so we got blazers with TSC on them.
There was also your political stuff.
That put people off more than me having my photograph done by the Eiffel Tower. That REALLY upset people.
But even on the Left you were criticised for dressing smartly.
That’s a very middle-class point of view. If you’re really from the working class then you know how important clothes are to our culture. In the ’60s or ’70s any spare money went on clothes or records. That’s the culture we created. But I noticed on the Red Wedge tour we’d get stick from the entourage for dressing in a certain way, with our loafers on or whatever. Were we supposed to walk around in dungarees? Boiler suits? It’s nonsense, isn’t it? That cloth cap stuff is all bollocks. It’s from before the time when pop culture started to happen. Mod was essentially a working-class movement.
Do you regret the Red Wedge phase?
Yes, they were a bunch of wankers, looking back on it. The Labour Party people as well. It wasn’t me at all, I’m not into meetings and being part of somebody’s club. I believed in what I believed in and a lot of those things I still do, but I’d never get involved again. We’d meet MPs around the country and they were more showbiz than the groups. It was an eye-opener, it brought me full circle in how I feel about politics. It’s a game. I’ve very little interest in it. I’m not talking about what’s happening to our planet or our country, but organised politics. Give me music any day of the week.
Were you getting unhappy with The Style Council itself by now?
Towards the end of the Council I was disillusioned, I thought I’d lost the plot. I had no ideas what I was gonna do, and that’s the only time I’ve ever thought about packing it all in. I was uninspired. I was writing but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I was listening to garage, deep house, a lot of New Jersey stuff, groups like Blaze, though I missed out on the acid house thing. I liked the roughness of the deep soul stuff, like Willie Clayton, I was really into it. We made a whole album in this house style, which never got released. That was when we fell out with Polydor.
Was that a jolt, having your album rejected?
Do you think they were right?
I think they should have put the record out. We were ahead in some ways. I thought it was the next development for The Style Council, the point being that we wouldn’t just have the one sound. Good or not that was the idea behind the band. But people would have hated it, I guess. We did a couple of gigs around that time and it baffled people. Weeks later I’d meet people on the street and they’d say “What the fuck was that about?”
But I have to try. Whether it succeeds or fails I can’t bring the same fucking record out for ever more. A lot of these acts now go away and come back with the same fucking album.
Weren’t you also renegotiating the contract with Polydor? Didn’t that hasten the end?
There were loads of reasons. We couldn’t get along with the new MD, a real bolshy fucker. I’m not used to people talking to me like that. Not because I think I’m Mister Superstar, but I’m not fucking having it. Basically because I am from Woking and I don’t give a fuck, d’you know what I mean?
So it was a personality clash and it was also over money. But I’m glad I got out, and now being with Go! Discs is like being with a real record company, with a bit of respect for the people on their label.
Did you fall out with Mick Talbot?
I wouldn’t say it was Mick’s fault, but I just wanted to finish the whole thing, go away for a while and think. It was strained, but we’ve worked together since then, he’s played on this record and Wild Wood, and we talk now and again. But it was quite ugly. We were trying to put this last record together and we were both uninspired, it seemed to drag on, and then, when it wasn’t going to come out…
But it was the kind of jolt I needed, I guess. At the time it was very difficult, because for years I’d just been touring and making records and been successful. And for all that to suddenly stop was hard. Also I’d turned 30 around that time, me and Dee had our first kid around that time, those big changes in your life.
With the band gone and no record deal, how did you spend the days?
I just stayed at home. I was a house husband. I looked after my son for a couple of years.
Are you glad of that time?
On some levels. It’s nice to see your kids grow up from this tiny thing to a little person. But I can’t say I was happy as a person, because I was frustrated, away from the thing that I need, let alone love, which is to play music.
So what did you do?
I did some demos and we touted them around, but the deals were crap and people weren’t interested – “Oh, Weller’s washed up, he’s got one good song and that’s shite, you know.” I felt insulted by it. Now I’m glad we stuck to our guns.
It must give you a new perspective, to be the person not getting his phone calls returned.
Yeah. That shows you the nature of this business. If you’re successful everyone’s fine: “Go and do whatever you want to do.” That’s why this Brits stuff and all those awards are a load of bollocks to me. Because four years ago I couldn’t have got arrested. Now it’s, “Great, always liked your stuff!” That’s the nature of the business and once you understand it you get on with it. It’s quite simple. You can’t trust it.
Musically, where did you pick up the thread again?
Through going back and listening to stuff I hadn’t listened to for years, like The Small Faces, ’60s stuff , the way a record re-ignites a certain feeling, and reminds you what you used to get out of music. It also put me back in touch with my strengths, with what I’d forgotten I was good at, which is playing guitar. When I sing and play guitar it’s a different thing. For a long time in the Council I stopped playing guitar, especially live. But there’s definitely something about my songs when they’re led by my voice and my guitar. They grab people, at least the people who are into what I’m doing. I guess that’s what I was reminded of.
Looking back, the single Into Tomorrow seems like a turning point.
It was totally. It was the first song I’d written around that time that I thought, Yeah, that’s what I’m good at. I still think it’s a great record, and we just cut it in two days. In the Council, like most other people in the ’80s, we were caught up in technology, and most of our recording was done in the control room – fucking sequencers and drum machines – but Into Tomorrow we just did over a Bank Holiday.
You were self-financed before the Go! Discs deal?
Yeah, our own label.
Were you skint?
I wouldn’t say skint, but we had to get rid of Solid Bond around that time, which is the best thing we ever did because we’d have gone under otherwise. But things fell into place after Into Tomorrow. I made the first album for this Japanese company Pony Canyon. The Japanese have the bucks. They haven’t really got the handle on how you make music – these funny Western people make it and they’ll pay you for it – but they were willing to part with dosh and let me get on with it. So the album came out of that. But we still didn’t get a deal for a good four or five months in this country.
You must have been gratified by Go! Discs’ interest?
Yeah and it’s a smaller company. To give you an example, when we had a play-back for Wild Wood at the Manor, Andy [Macdonald, MD and founder of Go! Discs] shut up shop for the day, got a minibus and they all came down. It’s that attitude. I walk in there sometimes and Andy is playing football in his office with a spliff on and a tape blasting. That’s my kind of MD. You can even talk to him about music.
You seem more open-minded in your tastes now.
Totally. I know this will sound sacrilegious to their long-term fans but I only got into Van Morrison and Neil Young in the last three years. So I’ve got no prejudices; I don’t think Astral Weeks is necessarily Van’s best album; the first thing I heard of Neil Young’s was Harvest Moon, but the simplicity of it is fucking great. Same with Van, some of the tracks on Hymns To The Silence are at least as good as Moondance. I just like whatever is good, now. Same with my own music now: I wouldn’t not do a tune because it sounds too country or too rock. As long as it feels right and natural, that’s the criterion.
So you’re more relaxed in your attitude to hippies, for instance?
That was part of the punk attitude, wasn’t it? Which was right for the time, it was needed. I liked the Pistols and The Clash for being away from the denims and flares and beards, and what to me was self-indulgent music. But my attitudes have changed. I still can’t get into Zeppelin, though I’ve persevered. I really like melodies – all sorts of music, but really strong tunes.
You said once you wouldn’t listen to blokes in beards.
True. I wouldn’t. But I love Free now, Fire & Water, The Free Story, My Brother Jake is a fantastic record.
It’s a new thing for you to be a solo act. You always seemed to want to have others around you to share the attention.
Yes. Now I’m gonna look after my own arse. That’s how I feel. It’s different when you’re younger, forming a band, you all start off on the same footing, but it gets harder the older you get, the more history you gather, to be democratic. You’re all growing different ways. You start off with a single idea, that we’re gonna make it, but people change. I like the fact I’m not responsible to a band now. It suits me.
Of the new songs Porcelain Gods sounds like the most autobiographical, with its theme of the fallen idol.
I’m wary of songs that are autobiographical. They might start off being about me but after that I’m a professional songwriter, just trying to come up with something that will intrigue people. But parts of that song are about me. When it gets to the chorus: “How disappointed I was, to turn out after all, a Porcelain God that shatters when he falls…” Not because I see myself as any kind of god, but I AM disappointed. It’s about me talking to my missus, then the rest of the song is about something else. I like the first two lines, that’s how I started off: “Beware false prophets, take a stand / My fortune cookie cracked up in my hand…” The idea being that to gain any sort of knowledge in life, you have to shatter something or crack up yourself to get to that knowledge… I’m getting too deep and meaningful here… Oh bollocks! I was telling this to Dee the other day and she was [unimpressed] “Oh yeah?”
They sound like the words of someone who’s been knocked about a bit by life.
No, that’s nonsense. When I was a kid and I listened to Strawberry Fields I could never articulate what it meant to me, but it did mean something. The line “No-one else is in my tree”, that was enough for me, that’s how I felt as well. It’s an arrogant statement but even as a kid it meant something.
A lot of the new songs are really intense. It gets more complicated as you get older. What could be more complicated than coming to terms with your own mortality? But the up side is I get more confident. You give less of a fuck if people don’t like you. But things don’t get easier. I personally couldn’t be a pipe-and-slippers man, sitting in front of the telly and being mellow. I want to know what life’s got in store.
Well, your singing voice has got stronger.
I haven’t worked on it at all. I’m still smoking loads of ciggies and drinking, but it seems to be doing the trick. I’d recommend it.