DECEMBER 2, 2020
In July, when On Sunset debuted at the top of the UK charts, Paul Weller achieved the remarkable feat of having a number one album in five consecutive decades. While this encouraged some listeners to wax nostalgic for Weller’s earliest success with his mod-revival band the Jam, On Sunset has far more in common with the eclectic, soul-inspired records of his Style Council years. Fittingly, a new anthology of Style Council recordings, Long Hot Summers, recently reached the UK top ten, and a documentary of the same name will appear on Showtime this month. It seems the perfect time to raise a cappuccino to Weller’s other great band.
While I’ll happily listen to anything Weller produces, I will always have a soft spot for those Style Council records. More than any other music of the era, they shaped my social and political as well as my sonic outlook. And as the Long Hot Summers anthology makes clear, the best of those songs stand up to any British or American pop music of the 1980s.
A musical icon in Britain, Weller has never had a broad following overseas; in fact, The Style Council’s “My Ever Changing Moods” (1984) remains his only composition to reach the US Top 40. His first band, the Jam, produced a string of UK hits between 1977 and 1982, and there was widespread consternation in the British press when Weller left to form the Style Council with keyboardist Mick Talbot.
Across the Atlantic, neither the Jam nor the Style Council received much notice from that then-new source of everything musical, MTV. I well remember waking up at sunrise on July 13, 1985, at my parents’ home in Omaha, Nebraska, just to watch the Council perform at Live Aid — they were second on the London bill, after Status Quo — only to have MTV cut away after one song for an interview.
What was it about the Style Council that spoke to a bookish teenager in middle America? Weller and Talbot embodied a cosmopolitan European outlook that seemed to include everything I thought was missing from my own life. I discovered the Style Council at the same time I discovered cool jazz, bossa nova, and the soundtracks (and fashions) of French nouvelle vague and Italian Neorealismo cinema. If the Who, the Kinks, and early rock and roll informed the musical character of the Jam, it was this other ’60s — along with a dollop of Philly and Motown soul — that shaped the Style Council.
If the image and sound were cool and sophisticated, the lyrics were more often angry and urgent. “Walls Come Tumbling Down!” (1985), a top ten attack on Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, opens with the memorable line, “You don’t have to take this crap.” “Come to Milton Keynes” (1985), a missing link between the Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society” and Blur’s “Country House,” is a dark commentary on one of the last of the new towns, where the opening stanza’s “May I walk you home tonight?” mutates into “May I slash my wrists tonight?” in the last. Along the way, Weller employs some zeugma-esque lyrics worthy of Dickens: “We used to chase dreams now we chase the dragon.”
But there was also melancholy. The atmospheric “Long Hot Summer” (1983), with a title that hints at both romance and politics but a lyric of personal anguish, is probably the band’s most successful foray into this field. A spare drum machine and shimmer of 80s synthesizers provide the aural update to its American soul inspirations (the Dramatics’ 1972 “In the Rain” comes to mind). Its chorus, with a frustrated repetition of “no matter what I do” finally resolves with the inevitable confession, “I end up hurting you.”
On the single’s flip side, “The Paris Match,” Weller (or Tracey Thorn, in a later version) sings, “I’m only sad in a natural way / And I enjoy sometimes feeling this way.” The literary scholar in me hears in those lines an 80s update of the eighteenth-century fad of sensibility. I think of the words of another melancholy twenty-something artist, William Wordsworth, who described “that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts / Bring sad thoughts to the mind.” But at age 19, I thought Weller had read my mind.
The band’s only US hit, “My Ever Changing Moods,” is also one of Weller’s best compositions. Musically, “My Ever Changing Moods” borrows the lush ii7-IM7 opening chords from the Classics IV hit of 1968, “Stormy.” But it adds some Latin percussion and a bright horn section — all of which would then be borrowed for Santana’s “Game of Love” (2002), a catchy pop song with a similar tempo and arrangement, but none of Weller’s risky wordplay.
In each verse of “My Ever Changing Moods,” two melodies play out over a similar ii7-IM7 then IVM7-IM7 chord progression: the first (“Daylight turns to moonlight”) smooth and even, the second (“The cool before the warm”) more rhythmic and staccato. In contrast, the chorus moves through a clever series of descending chord changes, then lifts back up to the conclusion. Rather than a triumphant final chord, it’s a neat turn-around that takes us back, fittingly unresolved, to those “Stormy” chords.
The lyric opens, “Daylight turns to moonlight, and I’m at my best”: it’s that liminal moment in between the two. If the first stanza focuses on our personal mood swings, the political slips into the second verse with the repetition of “the hush before the silence, the winds after the blast,” a potent reference to nuclear fears in the Thatcher/Reagan era. The final two stanzas are more overtly political. I think my favourite line is “Evil turns to statues,” as brisk a summing up of commemorative history as I know, and one that takes on new significance in 2020. But the whole is sung over such a catchy, summertime melody that it’s impossible not to feel hopeful.
While the song is clearly an anthem to clear thinking and action — don’t get “caught up in the dailies,” or your Facebook feed — it comes from an artist who, even in the 80s, clearly relished the opportunity to change directions at unexpected moments.
Perhaps the cleverest example from the Council years is the Gil Evans-powered “Have You Ever Had It Blue” (1986), itself a rewrite of an earlier (and angrier) TSC song, “With Everything to Lose” (1985). The last stanza ruminates on that hopeless state, “When all the people you thought you knew are changing more and more.” It’s a melancholy observation about life — people change, and often there’s little we can do about it — but it’s also a keen observation about Weller’s own musical directions. More than a few diehard Jam fans must have heard that lyric with rue.
The Long Hot Summers anthology reminds us that some of the band’s best songs were b-sides. The bossa nova “Piccadilly Trail,” with its chorus swapping between “the trail” and “betrayal,” and the pulsing, Curtis Mayfield-style “Big Boss Groove,” were as good as almost any of the Style Council’s album tracks.
One of their finest later songs, strangely missing from the anthology (though it does make a significant appearance in the documentary), is “It’s a Very Deep Sea” (1988). Here a meditation on life’s bad decisions is imagined as a diver’s exploration of underwater wreckage. “Perhaps I’ll come to the surface and come to my senses,” sings Weller, in another neat zeugma. Musically, “It’s a Very Deep Sea” comes closer to the songs of Erik Satie or Jacques Brel than those of Weller’s contemporaries. Perhaps only Elvis Costello has been able to pull off such a variety of moods and styles.
Indeed, Weller’s willingness to change — really the only constant in his five-decade career — has angered and perplexed more than a few of his listeners. But for listeners with a vision of Britishness unafraid of musical (or national) borders, those Style Council records remain a vibrant record of another era: one that recognized the danger of standing still and becoming a statue.
Thomas McLean is an Associate Professor in English at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is the author of The Other East and Nineteenth-Century British Literature: Imagining Poland and the Russian Empire (Palgrave, 2012) and co-editor with Ruth Knezevich of Jane Porter’s 1803 novel Thaddeus of Warsaw(Edinburgh, 2019). He has written on art, literature, and migration for The Migrationist and The Conversation UK.