T he king of English pop, Paul Weller, 48, barely registers on the American scene. In spite of fronting the seminal mod revivalists the Jam, then eighties café-jazz engagés the Style Council, and inspiring Britpop in the nineties, “I’ve never had commercial success in the States,” Weller says. “But however small the audience is, it’s committed and passionate, and there’s nothing more you can ask for, really.”
Well, he could ask for quite a bit more, say, the iconic status of Sid Vicious and Joe Strummer, the rebel leaders of his youth. Before the Sex Pistols and the Clash led a musical revolt in 1977 (just in time for the queen’s Silver Jubilee), Weller, a schoolboy from Woking, a gritty suburb of London, had formed the Jam, mostly because, he recalls, “the mid-seventies was boring. I didn’t relate to any of the bands at the time, didn’t like the way they looked, with long hair and beards, didn’t like the way they sounded. It was that ‘us’ and ‘them’ kind of thing at the time. Those things mattered when we were 17.”
In that very good year, the Jam, who revered mod rockers like the Kinks and Small Faces, were both confronted and energized by the punk movement. “It was a big influence when I first saw the Pistols,” Weller says. “It was the first time I saw a band the same age as me, or from my sort of generation, who were playing short, jagged songs.” Soon, the Jam were opening for the Clash and other hard-edged acts.
Yet as neo-mods, they stood alone. In the sixties, the mods had been all the rage in Britain. In the post–hippie era, punk replaced mod as the working-class culture, retaining mod’s vision of youth solidarity but losing its ideal of racial harmony. (If you’ve seen the 1979 film Quadrophenia, or if you wear Ben Sherman or Fake London clothing, you’ll have absorbed something of the particular mod frisson of pop music, Pop art—that RAF roundel!—Italian scooters, and a spiff dress code once epitomized, Weller says, by The Avengers and The Prisoner.)
The music of the Jam, just a third of the A-side feast in the enormous new Paul Weller boxed set, Hit Parade, was as brash and confrontational as any punk upstart’s, but it was equally respectful of mod rock and its milieu—Tamla-Motown soul, Merseybeat, Sgt. Pepper psychedelia. Weller explains, “We were a part of the punk thing, but we took what we liked about it. We sort of made it our own.”
This novel approach found stunning success in the U.K., and Weller captivated the seething, desolate youth culture with abrasive, lyrical wonders like “Going Underground” and “That’s Entertainment.” Yet in late 1982, at the height of the Jam’s hold on the British charts—with “Town Called Malice” and “Beat Surrender” both reaching No. 1—Weller shrugged off his mantle, surprising bandmates and the public alike. After all, the Jam had embodied the mod call to youth for immediate, local social responsibility, for kidney machines in England, as opposed to the global confusions of the Clash. With Thatcher on the rise and the left in retreat, some thought Weller had copped out.
This impression was not shaken the next year, when Weller returned with the Style Council, seemingly a fake group (it was mainly a Weller vehicle) of New Romantic dandies playing fake jazz in an imaginary Eurotrash café. “After I split the Jam and formed the Style Council, there were an awful lot of people that were really disappointed, and took a long time to forgive me,” says Weller. “Some of them haven’t forgiven me still.”
But the joke was on the haters. The Style Council, notwithstanding some “Big 80’s”–silly videos and glam-and-glitter peacockery, floated a radical agenda of universal love against the reactionary tide overwhelming the West. Their best songs, including “My Ever Changing Moods” and “Walls Come Tumbling Down,” were uplifting, long on jazzy jams, strong on horns, the lyrics class-critical without losing their cool and imagistically bold—a poetical call-to-disarm modeled on the Old Romantics. Eventually, the urge to experiment, mostly with house music and electronic funk, coupled with the dizzying politics and contrary costuming, wearied listeners. The band did not outlast the Cold War. Writing liner notes in 1998 as “the Cappuccino Kid,” his Style Council alter ego, Weller clarified the act’s anti-Thatcherite intent: “The band’s real war was waged against the lady whose eyes shone with madness and who will soon stand in true judgement of her deeds. The Council hoisted the flag for equality and justice and pointed out … that Europe was ours and little island minds had no place in the vast world that ticks over and still fascinates us so.” Weller remains high on the Council: “It was so different, such a radical departure from the Jam,” he says. “[But] you can’t follow public opinion, you’d end up nowhere.”