Q COVER STORY: We take a trip down memory lane with the Modfather for 40 years of rucks, drugs, booze and some of the greatest popular music ever made.
In May 1977, a teenage Paul Weller released his first album with The Jam. By an amazing coincidence, he has a new album out this May – exactly 40 years after his debut. Simon Goddard meets him to chart The Modness Of King Paul, from punk beginnings to the biggest band of his generation to The Style Council, to the Britpop breakdown and beyond, witnessing his ongoing coronation as mod’s living monarch in the heartlands.
For ages, Paul Weller had been bugging his mate “The Hobbit”, actor Martin Freeman, for a small role in the BBC’s Sherlock. Weller was a fan, especially of the first two series (“before it got a bit too convoluted”) and imagined a walk-on part beside Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Freeman’s Watson “as a busker or something.” And so, in the summer of 2016, Freeman finally obliged his famous chum, sorting him a blink-and-miss cameo in the series four finale. Not, alas, as a busker, but as a corpse in period Nordic costume. “I was there dressed as a fucking viking for six hours,” recalls Weller, puffing his way through a packet of Camel Blue between sips of mineral water, sat outside a West London pub. “Six hours,” he repeats. “I couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t pop to the local caff dressed as a viking, man. It’d be like a fucking Monty Python sketch.” Direct, taking the piss, swearing like a tinker and never far away from a packet of fags: Paul Weller’s first album came out 40 years ago this May, but he hasn’t fundamentally changed since then. Forty years in the game, man and boy. He turns 59 this May and the voice is gruffer, the boot-polish-black hair now polarbear-white, but the human force of nature about to release his 24th album, A Kind Revolution, isn’t so different from the “snot-nosed 18- year-old” he remembers walking into a studio in March 1977 to make his very first with The Jam. “Forty years in music, it’s a fucking lifetime,” he says, bracing himself for Q’s celebratory scoot down memory lane. “It’s not for me to say where I fit in any canon, or how I’ll be remembered. And I think the older you get you don’t give a fuck.” Why does he think he’s lasted 40 years? “Cos…?” he ponders. “…Cos I’m good at what I do, I suppose.” At least one UK Number 1 album every decade since the 1980s (six to date), lifetime achievement trophies from both the Brits and Ivor Novellos, a singer who’s provided successive generations from punk to Britpop with the soundtrack of their lives, who even the compliment-stingy Morrissey has hailed “a genius”: Paul Weller, indeed, is good at what he does. But equally intriguing is the phenomenal longevity of an artist whose devoted audience, many a feather-cut doppelganger included, consider to be their boy done good. A “normal” geezer. One of them. Because he isn’t. There’s another Paul Weller: the one who used to walk around the streets of his native Woking barefoot, who celebrated his first Number 1 single by going on Top Of The Pops in a kitchen apron. “That’s not normal,” he agrees. No, it isn’t. Nor is one of the most influential British songwriters of all time popping up on telly as a dead viking. That’s why Q reckons you’re not the everyday bloke your fans think you are. Because you, Paul Weller, are a bit mental. “Hmmm,” he takes a pensive puff of his cig. “Well, we all have our quirks, man.” So The Modfather is actually The Madfather? “I’m all things to all men,” he beams. “It’s funny. I am kind of regular but then I do this other weird thing as well. Even getting up onstage and doing all that is kind of weird. I’ve got both those sides in me. I can relate to a lot of ordinary people, if such a thing exists. But I can also take a different view on it.” As he sings on A Kind Revolution, his has been “a long, long road.” So let’s start at the sticky black tarmac’s beginning: a date with that snot-nosed 18- year-old, currently awaiting us in a three-button mohair suit, chewing gum like an angry goat in a studio off Oxford Street. Just a word of caution: you might want to duck as you enter…
eating jam butties and a cup of tea in the morning. I don’t remember how it started, though. That’s just people around alcohol for you.” The late ’ 70s and early ’ 80s were, as he reiterates, “violent, tribal times”, a climate that bred many an early masterpiece: Down In The Tube Station At Midnight, The Eton Rifles and the “kick in the balls” of That’s Entertainment. But it’s also in The Jam that we find the first poetic pangs of freedom, escape and the longing for a pastoral Eden, themes central to Weller’s 40- -year year oeuvre,oe from 1977’ s Away From The Numbers to 2017’ s The Cranes Are Back. Where does that yearning stem from? “Fuck knows,” he puffs. “You’d have to ask a psychologist, mate. Possibly from when I was at school? People trying to box you in, that you were just destined for the factory. I remember seeing the job opportunities person and them asking what I wanted to do and I told them ‘be in a band’ and they scoffed. It’s the freedom of thought that you can rise above your own wn background. Not materialistically, but the freedom to be whoever you want to be.”
In the autumn of 1982, after six albums with The Jam, Weller himself reassessed who he wanted to be, or rather who he didn’t. Some roundel-patched-parka oundel-patched-parka diehards still can’t forgive him for breaking up the band of their life, blind to the courage it took a 24- year-old to do so and the wisdom of foresight to bow out at their peak. The Jam’s a model legacy untainted by decline. Weller may have pulled the trigger, but the real culprit who loaded the gun was Colin MacInnes, late author of the 1959 mod bible Absolute Beginners. After borrowing the book’s title for The Jam’s top five hit of October 1981 before he’d actually read it, the following summer he decided to make amends on a holiday to Italy with his
girlfriend, taking along a copy of MacInnes’ novel about a teenagenage jazz fan set against the late-’ 50s Notting Hill race riots as his beach companion. “Readingeading that totally turned my head,” says Weller, who is still quoted on the back of the current Allison & Busby paperback edition: “A book of inspiration.” In his case, inspiration to finish The Jam. Why did it affect him so much? “It just kickstarted me on to the whole mod purism thing. That righteous path. I remember reading Absolute Beginners and, that same holiday, thinking I could maybe continue the band for another five or 10 years, and that scared me. I realised I didn’t want to. I needed to try something else. It was a selfish move, but you can only be true to yourself.” Only recently he was at the gym with his son when a young kid came up and asked: “Are you Paul Weller from The Jam?” To some people, he knows, he’ll forever be Paul Weller From The Jam. He still plays select Jam songs live, but only those that he can either connect to (“which is the hardest thing”) or “dig” the crowd’s euphoric response. Others, such as Going Underground, he doesn’t ever foresee dusting off. “I wouldn’t be able to do that one justice,” he says honestly. “And if I don’t feel the words to something any more that’s just cabaret, which I don’t do. A percentage of people will always get upset by that. Like recently there was some Jam tribute in Liverpool and I think Bruce’s band was playing and some fans got angry because I didn’t turn up and we didn’t re-form. And it’s like, groans] ‘Man, are you stupid? You must KNOW by now I ain’t gonna do that, right?’ But some people’s expectations are very different from mine.” On 11 December, mber, 1982, Paul Weller walked offstage as the singer in The Jam for the very last time at Brighton Conference Centre. Whatever people’s expectations of what he’d do next, they probably didn’t involve monks’ cassocks…
“I was very hot-headed and probably difficult to deal with. But I was on a mission.”
Then and now: Paul Weller in Carnaby Street, London, 1977 (left) and (right), 40 years later, in Jet Studios, Parsons Green, London, 13 March, 2017.
Youth explosion: The Jam live at London’s Royal College Of Art in 1977; (right) music press cover star in the late ’ 70s and early ’ 80s.
(Above) The end is nigh: The Jam in 1982; (below) Weller with Jam career-high, 1980’ s Sound Affects.