A British Icon

By Sergio Ariza

Paul Weller is a restless fellow, always willing to take one step forward rather than settle down and live on his money. And believe me, if anyone can do it, it is the ‘Modfather’, one of the most respected and admired personality in British music, someone who has managed to create work as big as the greatest, the iconic figures from the 60s who he had always admired like Ray Davies, Pete Townshend, and Steve Marriott. Like them, he was a guitarist, singer, and above all, a brilliant songwriter.

John William Weller was born May 25, 1958 in Woking, England, but despite that, his parents started to call him Paul, and the name stuck forever. At age 7 he was already crazy about the music of the Beatles, The Who, and the Small Faces, and at 11 he was playing the guitar. By 14 he had formed The Jam together with his mate Steve Brookes on bass and of course that bass was a Hofner, just like Paul McCartney’s. His father became the manager of the young band, a job he would have for the rest of his days, and soon Rick Buckler joined on drums, and Bruce Foxton played rhythm guitar. They played Beatles and Chuck Berry covers, and some original material by Weller and Brookes. In 1975 Weller began to take an interest in the Mod movement of the 60s, he bought a Lambretta, cut his hair, and the band started to play decked out in black suits. Brookes left the band and Weller and Foxton changed instruments, as it was easier for Weller to sing and play at the same time with his new Rickenbacker 330. His guitar style would be based on 2 models, that of Pete Townshend from the early Who, and that of Wilko Johnson of Dr. Feelgood.

His fame was on the rise and in 1976 they began to play in London regularly, where Weller would discover the Sex Pistols and the Clash, those that he would see as the spearhead of his generation, and so the R&B by the Jam would sharpen and accelerate with the energy of punk. Although they were accepted by this scene, there were many things that separated them, from the suits to their professionalism (at showtime they were a couple of steps ahead of other almost amateur bands of the scene), to their love for music and 60s bands, despised by many of their contemporaries. That didn’t stop Chris Parry from signing them up with Polydor Records, in early ‘77, and the Clash took them on their tumultuous White Riot tour. At this time they put out their first single, In The City, and their first album of the same name. It was an adrenaline laced record that sounded like The Who in ‘65, fused with the Sex Pistols.  

In July of that year they released the super single All Around the World that climbed to #13 on the sales charts, Polydor gloated with this new goose who lais the golden eggs, and sent the band into the studio to come up with a new record. The result showed that fatigue and stress were taking their toll on Weller. Despite some remarkable tunes like This Is The Modern World, the title track, the record wasn’t as good as their debut, and the reviews were negative.

Weller was plunged into a creative dry spell, and thought about quitting music. When, at the start of ‘78 the label asked for a new single, they got one from Foxton, News of the World. It’s not one of the band’s best songs but has an excellent solo by Weller. Nevertheless, they started to record demos for their 3rd album, but they were rejected by Parry who thought they were weak. That was when Weller, his pride stung, decided to step up and take the reins. He listened intently to the Kinks until the inspiration came back to him, delivering his best collection of songs to date, along with an excellent cover of David Watts by Ray Davies’s boys. All Mod Cons was the absolute confirmation of The Jam and placed Weller as heir of his idols. His incisive social commentary and totally British characters strung in such irresistible songs as Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, Mr. Clean, Billy Hunt and ‘A’ Bomb in Wardour Street, it also broadened his style palette by incorporating acoustic bits, or love songs like English Rose, anathema among punks. Weller had been released from any limitations and now he could fly free, as seen on the cover, he got rid of the suit.  His Rickenbacker 330 Fireglo was doubled creating marvellous harmonies and giving the band a wider sound.

Weller continued to grow in all his facets as you can see on his next single, Strange Town, one of the three favourite songs from his solo career, and another of his best moments as guitarist. Its sequel was the excellent Setting Sons, a record that contains the direct and aggressive The Eton Rifles, the first of his singles to reach the British Top Ten, landing at #3. The first of many. After that, Weller’s band became the most important band in the U.K., as evidenced by the fact that their next single, the doubleside comprised of psychedelic Dreams of Children and exciting Going Underground, climbed highest on the charts. The influences keep growing and the aforementioned psychedelia is followed by  more contemporary things like Joy Division and Wire, still, the presentation call of Sound Affects, his new record, had the same bass riff as Taxman by the Beatles. Weller’s solo is even better than what McCartney did on the Beatles hit, and Start! became the 2nd straight #1. The Jam fever was so great that in January ‘81 That’s Entertainment made the charts despite not being released as a single in the U.K.. Weller picks up an Ovation Custom Legend instead of the Rickenbacker for this classic record.

It seems that Weller begins to feel restricted by the Jam’s limits, a trio, and the important sound the Rickenbacker made. Besides, he is more and more drawn to his new passion, soul and black music, and he wanted that reflected in his music. Signs of this are apparent on the release of Absolute Beginners in 1981, with its horns, and confirmed on his new album The Gift in 1982, with its funk bass and wah wah guitars which show that Weller was listening to Curtis Mayfield more than The Who. On it, is his 3rd #1, Town Called Malice, with that irresistible bass line, right out of Motown, and the catchy organ. Everything seemed to indicate that the trio format didn’t do it for him anymore. In September 1982 he released The Bitterest Pill (I Ever Had to Swallow) that seemed like a warning to what happened on October 30, when, to everyone's dismay, he announced the band’s break-up. A month later Beat Surrender came out, which anticipated the sound of The Style Council, Weller’s 2nd incarnation. It went straight to #1 and was one of the songs played at his farewell concert in December of ‘82. He had put it at the top.   

Free from the long shadow cast by The Jam, Weller formed Style Council along with Mick Talbot focussing on soul and jazz sounds, the guitar remained in the background and synthesisers were incorporated , yet their first 2 records continue to show his enormous class and his amazing composing talent: songs like Speak Like a Child, My Ever Changing Moods and Shout to the Top are among the best of his career, displaying his great voice. After 1987 things started to go badly, as much commercially as artistically. In 1989 the label refused to release Modernism: A New Decade, a record influenced by the House scene and the Style Council adventure ended just opposite way The Jam did. Weller’s career had bottomed out, and a third act seemed unlikely.

However, in the early 90s Weller rediscovered the guitar and got his self-confidence back. In’92 his solo debut was released with a homonymous record that charted among the top ten (something the following 12 would also do, to date) and he got his roots back, with a wink to the R&B of the 60s, without forgetting the funk in his days with Style Council. The proof was the remarkable Wild Wood, the next year, with a strong traditional pastoral flavour, and new influences like Traffic and Neil Young, and songs like the title cut and Sunflower. His performance in Glastonbury ‘94 was solid proof that that he hadn’t forgotten to play the guitar, but this time it was with Telecasters from the 50s, an Epiphone Casino and a ‘68 SG instead of his Rickenbackers, most of which ended up in the hands of friends and disciples including Noel Gallagher, his faithful mate Steve Cradock and Gem Archer.

In 1995, with the Britpop movement of bands like Oasis and Blur at their peak, he released Stanley Road, one of his greatest hits, and Paul Weller became the ‘Modfather’, the most respected and revered figure  by this generation, which made him their own. Songs like The Changingman showed that he still had it and was in top form. Paul Weller had once again reached the top and did it his way. The 21st century finds him fearlessly experimenting and delivering records like Illuminations, 22 Dreams, and Wake Up the Nation, which still show that his work is on the level of his greatest influences, entering the exclusive club of great British composers such as McCartney, Townshend and Elvis Costello. Big words for any music lover.