Paul Weller: "The Style Council Taught Me To Not Be a Cunt"

Chris Catchpole
·10-min read
Photo credit: Steve Rapport
Photo credit: Steve Rapport

From Esquire

Photo credit: Steve Rapport
Photo credit: Steve Rapport

On a muddy May afternoon in 1983, Paul Weller and Mick Talbot were sat in the back of a minivan slowly making its way through London’s Brockwell Park, where the pair were due to perform at a CND benefit concert. It had been barely five months since Weller called time on The Jam, to howls of consternation from suburban bedrooms across the country. As the path to the stage narrowed, the van was set upon by a mob of angry young fans.

“They were banging on the window shouting at me: ‘You tore them apart!’," recalls Talbot, who still empathises with the kids he says he saw crying on the other side of the glass. “God knows, it’s over 40 years since Ronnie Wood split up The Faces, but I’m still getting over it.”

Paul Weller’s decision to break apart one of the most popular bands since The Beatles, at their commercial peak, remains an act of career hari-kari unparalleled in British pop. And while there’s probably a fair few of those weepy, parka-clad kids who still haven’t forgiven him, what Weller did next made for an even more unexpected chapter. It's also the subject of a new documentary on Sky Arts, Long Hot Summers, which offer a colourful rummage through the story of The Style Council: playful, political, sometimes baffling and frequently hilarious.

“It was such a fun time. Those first three years were so fucking wonderful,” Weller says. “I had such a laugh and we had so much fun. We made so much music – good, bad and whatever – but we tried loads of different things and we didn’t listen to anyone. We just fucking had it and did our own thing. Stuff you’d never get away with doing now.”

In many respects, The Style Council weren’t even a band in the traditional sense. In its inception the group was more of a modernist pop art experiment, with Weller and his new foil acting as musical directors in a loose collaborative project that could encompass contemporary pop, jazz, blue-eyed soul, hip-hop and Chicago house. Though the core line up soon included teenage drummer Steve White and singer Dee C Lee, they opened up the floor to guest vocalists, rappers and, on 1985’s 'The Stand Up Comic’s Instructions', Lenny Henry doing a turn as a racist club compere. Seven of the thirteen tracks on their 1984 debut, Café Bleu, didn’t even feature Paul Weller singing.

“It was totally liberating. However much I enjoyed The Jam, towards the end I just felt the constraints of being in a big band. I’d had enough of it,” he says. “I wanted to have the freedom to use different musicians. Have the core of me and Mick and then bring in different people and try to make every record sound different. It was the polar opposite of being in The Jam.”

The seeds of The Style Council had been sown when Weller read Colin MacInness’ 1959 novel Absolute Beginners on holiday in Sorrento, towards the end of The Jam. The book’s meticulous depiction of a smart-suited West London mod opened his mind to the roots and possibilities of the subculture he’d sworn allegiance to back when he was a schoolboy scribbling pictures of scooters in his exercise books. Now 24-years-old, the leader of the biggest band in the country and reluctant spokesman for an army of kids in target t-shirts, he realised that mod’s cornerstones of black American music, European style and a British sensibility could open up a world of possibilities that stretched far wider than a pair of bowling shoes and an angrily strummed Rickenbacker.

Open up the gatefold sleeve for The Style Council’s second album, Our Favourite Shop, and you see an Aladdin’s cave filled a more than a few of Weller and Talbot’s shared loves. Yes, The Beatles, The Small Faces and Otis Redding are present, but look closer and you spot pictures of French actor Alain Delon, Tony Hancock and Terry Thomas. Cult novels by the likes of Joe Orton and Douglas Copeland take up one corner, while a vintage cycling jersey is pinned up in the back next to the poster for the recent film adaptation of Another Country. Back when Weller first told Talbot – then a jobbing Hammond organ player after stints in mod revivalists The Merton Parkas and Dexys Midnight Runners offshoot The Bureau – he was planning to split up The Jam it was these shared cultural references points the pair bonded over.

“We had a meeting that was only supposed to last half an hour and it ended up being four or five hours,” recalls Talbot. “Music was the first point of call but we’d drift off into clothes and films and books and plays. It was almost like a game of chess: ‘Oh what do you think of the the adaptations of Nell Dunn’s novels? Have you got Poor Cow? What about Up The Junction? Yeah, have you got the soundtrack? Yeah, the one by Manfred Mann?’ Lots of things that were quite niche back then. If you mentioned it and someone had a detailed knowledge of it you knew they were for real. There was no going to the loo and Googling it, not in 1982.”

“Mick and I have an awful lot in common," Weller says. "Musically and culturally we’d grown up through the skinhead, suedehead thing and become mods in the Seventies, so a lot of our influences were very similar." The pair would shop together during European tours, hunting out mod-friendly fashion. "We were like two old grannies at a jumble sale. We just went fucking mad, going to all these places where you could get these beautiful colourful clothes that you didn’t really have in England in the early Eighties."

In fortuitous bit of cultural osmosis, when the pair first started recording together, BBC2 was showing a season of French New Wave cinema. The likes of À Bout De Souffle and Un Homme Et Une Femme bled into the music the two were making.

“Paul and I were enchanted with them,” says Talbot. “We’d get into the studio the next morning and go: ‘Did you see that thing last night? Did you see that bloke’s mac? What were they playing in the scene in the café?’ It all fed into the melting pot of what we were doing and the way we visualised the photography, the sleeves and certain things we might wear."

It was an aesthetic of cosmopolitan sophistication that coloured almost everything The Style Council did. A plume of Gitanes smoke drifting though a Parisian café as modern jazz plays in the background; a cashmere sweater tied over the shoulders or an immaculately folded raincoat over the arm; Curtis Mayfield, The Isley Brothers and the forward-facing sparkle of contemporary R&B. It all provided an alluring escape from the grim realities of Thatcher’s Britain.

“We had a good audience. There were a lot of Jam fans who didn’t get it and didn’t like it, I understand why, but it was a lot more mixed. There were more girls, more couples,” notes Weller of the converts to his new direction. “There was still that football element, but it wasn’t as violent as the gigs had been prior to that. There was a beautiful vibe in the crowd. The nature of the music was softer and a little bit more groovy, so you’d see a lot more people moving and dancing and not kicking the shit out of each other which was nice to see.”

Photo credit: Steve Rapport
Photo credit: Steve Rapport

The Style Council purposefully placed themselves in a pop rather than a rock sphere, but while the likes of Duran Duran might have presented a world of soft-focus aspiration – all hair spray, big shoulder pads and expensive yachts – The Style Council hit kids watching Saturday morning TV with a maximum strength dose of left-wing politics. Two of their biggest hits, 'Shout To The Top' and 'Walls Come Tumbling Down', were essentially calls for class insurrection set within irresistible soul-pop bangers. They were even given the opportunity to play the latter in front of Charles and Diana alongside 70,000 people and millions more watching worldwide during Live Aid.

“I have no recollections of the day at all. I was so nervous I was besides myself,” says Weller. “At the end I was just shoved on stage and stood there like a dick. I was well out of my fucking depth. I was never cut out to be a superstar and I’ve no desire to be one, so I was inhabiting a world I really didn’t feel part of.”

Weller and Talbot also took no small pleasure from taking the piss and confounding audiences’ expectations. If fans had a set idea of Paul Weller as an earnest voice of a generation scowling at the world around him, he was going to prance around with his top off in the tongue-in-cheek, fingers-on-earlobes homoeroticism of the 'Long Hot Summer' music video. Later, to promote their third album, The Cost Of Loving, they made Jerusalem: a 37-minute film of surreal, impenetrable tosh that involved among other things Weller dressed up as King Canute talking into a giant shell-shaped mobile phone.

“There was definitely some winding up going on. Doing certain things to upset people or annoy people or challenge people,” says Weller. "It was that thing of being constrained by people telling me what I’m into and who I am.”

The Style Council’s like it or lump it approach eventually proved to be a law of diminishing returns. The Cost Of Loving’s cold R&B sheen lacked its predecessors’ sense of fun (“my eye was off the ball by then,” Weller concedes) and while the lush, grown-up piano pop of 1988’s Confessions Of A Pop Group has since had a critical re-evaluation, it won back few fans at the time. By the time they debuted their new house-influenced direction with two shows at The Royal Albert Hall in 1989, most remaining fans walked away and Polydor refused to release their next record.

At 32, Paul Weller found himself sat at home without a record deal wondering what he was going to do with the rest of his life. What followed was a hugely successful solo career, yet he still has fond memories of the seven years he spent following his creative nose with The Style Council.

“It was just a fun time,” he says. “It got a bit crap towards the end, but like any relationship that drags on too long that’s what happens.”

Earlier this year Weller released his 15th solo album, On Sunset. His fifth to go to number one, three of its tracks featured his former co-councillor Mick Talbot on keyboards.

“The Style Council taught me to stick to what you think is right at the time even if it turns out to be wrong years down the line. You can only do what you believe in at the time,” he says. “And don’t be a cock. That’s what it taught me. Don’t be a cunt. When I look back now I’d just become a prick by the end. It took me a while to learn some humility after that. Instead of alienating people you’ve got to bring them along and be inclusive.”

For those that did come along for the ride, The Style Council frequently delivered some of the most joyous, artful pop music of the decade. It’s a trip well worth revisiting.

Long Hot Summers is on Sky Arts on 31 October at 9pm. The greatest hits album, Long Hot Summers: The Story of The Style Council, is out now on Polydor

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