Paul Weller and Popular Music Identity, Idiolect and Image

PDF Paul Weller and Popular Music Identity, Idiolect and Image October 21, 2022

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  1. Andrew West
Paul Weller and Popular Music Identity Idiolect and Image

Using research, analysis and a range of historical sources, Paul Weller and Popular Musicimmerses the reader in the excitement of Paul Weller’s unique creative journey, covering topics such as the artist’s position within his field; his creative processes; the contexts in which the music was made; the artist as collaborator; signifiers that mark the trajectory of the music; and formative influences. Focusing on over 40 years of recorded work from ‘In the City’ to ‘Fat Pop (Volume One)’, this study explores why Paul Weller's music is widely considered both timeless and of its time, and with reference to a wide range of interviews, reviews and texts, it offers an in-depth critical analysis of Paul Weller’s music. It will be of particular interest to scholars and researchers of popular music, popular culture, performance studies and music production.

Andrew West is a Professor and Head of Postgraduate Studies at Leeds Conservatoire, UK.


A singular, evolutionary voice who embodies influence and individuality, since 1977 Paul Weller has moved with and against the times, frequently inspiring and confounding his audiences. In retrospect, the musician and the music are frequently considered both timeless and of their time. As musicologist Stan Hawkins writes, Weller is ‘a figure of our age, post-modern and confrontational, he is a veteran of sophistry who makes everything he performs a novelty’ (2009: 188). The son of Ann, a part-time cleaner, and John, a taxi driver and builder, Paul was born in Sheerwater, a suburb of the Borough of Woking in 1958. Married twice, firstly to Dee C. Lee and currently to Hannah Andrews, Weller is father to eight children by three separate partners.

Paul was bought a guitar by his parents in his early teens and, from the outset, his father John took on the role of managing his career. Like two of his avowed heroes Ray Davies and John Lennon, much preferring the fantastic to the formal, Paul’s teenage years were characterised by uneven moods and problems at school. A self-taught musician, or autodidact, Weller formed his first band, The Jam, in 1972. The Jam served a lengthy apprenticeship, playing at pubs and clubs in their local area, and following the punk boom, Weller, bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Rick Buckler were signed to a recording contract by the London-based record label Polydor in 1977.

As Spicer notes ‘for many artists (The Beatles being probably the most obvious example) it is impossible to categorise them within the boundaries of one particular style; indeed, stylistic eclecticism becomes the defining feature of their music’ (2010: 124). Over the past six decades, Paul Weller’s words and music have sustained a sense of constant adventure, traversing so many textural iterations that it is impossible to classify him as anything other than a popular music artist. On the achievement of Marcel Proust’s ‘Remembrance of Things Past’, Conrad writes of how Proust was able to convey the notion of a prismatic identity (1998: 66). A stylistic shapeshifter, Weller has acquired a multi-faceted persona.

Particularly in the United Kingdom, but also to lesser degrees in Japan, Europe and America, his music has brought him great success and fame. In his sleeve notes for Weller’s 2010 release ‘Wake Up the Nation’, the novelist and playwright Irvine Welsh writes that Weller is ‘probably the solitary artist from this era to indisputably move into the pantheon of British rock n’ roll greats, encompassing Jagger, Richards, Lennon, McCartney, Townshend and Davies, his sixties antecedents, and Bowie, who emerged earlier in the seventies’. Indebted to numerous influences yet immediately identifiable, he is, as his friend and occasional collaborator Robert Wyatt describes him, ‘new furniture seasoned from old wood’ (Ingham, 1998: 39). In a 2016 inter- view with Barry Cain, Weller describes his childhood:

When we lived in Stanley Road, we had no hot water, no bathroom and no central heating, just a coal fire and an outside toilet.... It was a tin bath in front of the fire on a Sunday night.... With everyone bathing in the same water. It was grey by the time I got in but we didn’t give it a second thought because that’s the way it was. When people started moving out of the slums into decent council estates, the world changed. People became more aspirational.... Working class people would compensate for having nothing by trying to dress up to the nines when we went out.
(2016: 434)

Speaking in the mid-nineties, Weller describes the predominantly suburban town of Woking as ‘the area where I used to play as a kid, the woods around there, the rural side’ (Heatley, 1996: 7). In a posthumous thesis, the socio-cultural theorist Lev Vygotsky discusses the significance of childhood experience in facilitating our ability to adapt to what is around us as adults, writing ‘When I recall the house where I spent my childhood or the distant lands I have visited in the past, I retrieve impressions that I formed early in my childhood ... my actions do not create anything new, but rather are based on a more or less accurate repetition of something that already exists’ (2004: 8). In Weller’s music over the years, the bucolic aspects of his childhood environment have similarly facilitated a profoundly deep capacity for using memory to fire exploration.

Occupying a rarefied commercial level with contemporaries Madness and The Police, between 1979 and 1982 The Jam regularly made records that sold over 100,000 copies in the United Kingdom alone.
Despite this success, increasingly agitated with fame, Weller’s accounts of his time in The Jam portray a steadily increasing lack of fulfilment. Writing in the NME in 1978, journalist John Hamblett describes Weller as ‘Chain-smoking, introspective, anxious to communicate.... Charged with something less tangible than physical energy’ (1978: 31). As The Jam became more successful, the expectations placed by critics and audiences on Weller’s de facto role as ‘spokesman for a generation’ (Hawkins, 2009: 187) ultimately created what Weller later described as a conveyor belt he ‘needed to jump off’ (Cain, 2016: 422). Weller’s decision to split the band in 1982 was, however, widely unantici- pated. Not drawn to nostalgia, Weller has no wish to reform The Jam, reasoning ‘I don’t want to do the same things in life. I don’t want to play the same sort of music all the time. I want to change, I need to change and find something different along the way’ (Heatley, 1996: 95).

Among their followers, The Jam left a lasting legacy. In the 2015 film ‘About the Young Idea’ the consensus held by guest narrators including actor Martin Freeman, is that The Jam had a profound influence, not only on their musical tastes but also on their attitudes towards life. In a typical testimony, Freeman says ‘I know every inch of those records, I know every lyric of those records, I know every beat. It is a huge part of who I am’. The following year Weller reflected ‘When I speak to old Jam fans from that time, I get to the feeling it meant so much more to them than just a good record; there was a true cultural connection.... We caught the mood of the times, I guess, the zeitgeist or whatever you want to call it’ (Cain, 2016: 420). Snowball and Deabill’s vivid, democratic account forefronts the fans, who variously explain how ‘The Jam certainly helped to create a social, political and psychological foundation.... They were that one special band in mine and a generation’s psyche.... They gave me the strength, belief and confidence to feel like I was somebody’ (2012: 109, 125, 128). During a social period in the United Kingdom defined by cold war neurosis, domestic poverty and unrest, The Jam sought to turn a desolate mood into a positive one, channelling the hopes of disaffected youths whose outlook appeared bleak.

Initially comprising just Weller and keyboardist Mick Talbot, and marking a significant change of musical and aesthetic direction, The Style Council was formed in early 1983. The first Style Council live appearance, a benefit for CND, was characterised by mud throwing, problems with backstage security and heckling by angry Jam fans. Early recordings were well received, however, and in the Christmas edition of the New Musical Express, Weller declared the year his ‘favourite year for years.... I was sick of being judged constantly by everyone.... I have exorcised most of my demons and I am happier for that’ (NME, 1983: 27). Noting the intuitive way in which Weller assembled his live band, Ian Munn’s book ‘Mr. Cool’s Dream’ chronicles how bass guitarist Anthony Harty ‘got the gig by writing to Paul’ and how singer Dee C Lee had never heard of The Jam or Weller when she joined. As drummer Steve White, recruited at age 17 reflects: ‘I think it was a really inspired move to bring in musicians that were largely unaware of his past because we weren’t intimidated’ (Munn, 2016: 15, 26, 48–49, 71).
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