By Eleni P. Austin
When Punk Rock exploded in Great Britain back in 1977, few would have predicted its continued resonance in the 21st century. Most people dismissed the style as brash and unlistenable. Punk Rock was a reaction to rampant unemployment as well as the collective malaise that blanketed the country.
The music was characterized by staccato blasts of guitar, batter-ram drums and atonal, sometimes nasal vocals. Formal melodies were almost non-existent, lyrics railed against conformity, authority and the status quo. Punks spiked their hair, safety-pinned their faces and strategically ripped their clothes.
The Damned released the first, “official” Punk album, while the Sex Pistols delivered calculated anarchy and received the lion’s share of attention. Meanwhile, bands like the Jam and The Clash embodied the Punk ethos, but tempered it with true musicality.
The Jam was the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist/songwriter, Paul Weller. A version of the band began as far back as 1972. Born in 1958, Weller grew up in Woking, the son of John, a taxi driver, and Ann a home-maker.
Weller showed an affinity for music at an early age. His obsessions with the Beatles, the Who and the Small Faces motivated him to seek out those bands’ touchstones. Thus, he became a true aficionado of Motown, Stax-Volt, Curtis Mayfield, Blues and Northern Soul.
Paul Weller was just 14 years old when he formed the earliest incarnation of the Jam with his best friends, Steve Brookes and Dave Waller. Weller tackled bass and vocals, Brookes lead guitar and Waller rhythm guitar. The original line-up was completed with drummer Rick Butler.
With Paul’s dad John acting as de facto manager, the nascent combo was booked into working man clubs. When Brookes and Waller left the band, guitarist Bruce Foxton joined the fold. Once Bruce and Paul switched instruments, and began alternating their Beatles covers with Weller originals, the Jam began to attract a growing fan base.
The Clash was so impressed they offered the Jam an opening slot on their White Riot tour. The trio signed to the Polydor label and released their debut, In The City in May, 1977. The defiant lyrics captured the angst and zeitgeist of the times. But Weller’s song craft eschewed the snarly and simplistic primitivism employed by their peers. Instead, his style echoed the taut economy of British Invasion forefathers like Pete Townshend and Ray Davies. Quite by accident, the Jam’s songs became the soundtrack to the Mod Revival of the late ‘70s.
For the next five years, over a total of six studio albums, the Jam ruled the charts in Great Britain. They achieved massive critical and commercial acclaim, a feat they never replicated in the U.S. By 1982, one of their last singles, a working class anthem entitled “Town Called Malice,” finally received airplay on mainstream radio in America. But it was a pyrrhic victory, as Paul Weller was already looking for a new challenge. The Jam broke up by the end of the year.
Weller immediately formed Style Council with keyboard player, Mick Talbot. The sound of his new band reflected his deep affection for ‘60s Soul and a new found interest in Jazz. It also presaged a hybrid style in Great Britain that was hugely successful for artists like Everything But The Girl and Sade.
Lyrically, Weller expounded on his leftist politics and offered withering criticisms aimed at racism, Margaret Thatcher and unemployment. His melodies were equally ambitious, incorporating Soul, Jazz, R&B and Hip Hop.
Their first full-length album, (Café Bleu in Great Britain, re-titled and re-sequenced as My Ever-Changing Moods in America), arrived in 1984. Style Council scored two minor hits in America, the title track and “You’re The Best Thing.”
As with the Jam, Style Council released five more albums, each moving further away from the sophisto-pop style that Weller pioneered and becoming more experimental. By the end of the ‘80s their sound began to incorporate elements of House and Techno. As their commercial prospects diminished they were dropped from their label. Bloody, but unbowed, Weller retreated.
After a couple years enjoying some well-deserved family time, Paul Weller embarked on a solo career. His eponymous debut arrived in late 1992 and it was a revelation. Somehow he had distilled his Punk/Pop leanings and his Soul inspirations into one heady brew.
Just as Pete Townshend had served as an artistic beacon for him during the Jam years, suddenly Paul Weller was placed on a musical pedestal. Brit-Pop superstars like Oasis, Blur and Ocean Colour Scene were worshiping at Weller’s alter, earning him the affectionate sobriquet, Modfather.
Weller was on a roll. His next three albums, 1993’s Wildwood, 1995’s Stanley Road, and 1997’s Heavy Soul were concise and economical, even as he incorporated rustic acoustic guitars and hints of Funk and Psychedelia into the mix.
By the early 2000s, Weller had unshackled himself from the giant record conglomerates and signed a deal with the indie label Yep Roc. Based out of North Carolina, the artist-driven label has become home to musical iconoclasts like Dave Alvin, Robyn Hitchcock, Bob Mould, Peter Case and Nick Lowe. Yep Roc allowed Paul Weller the freedom to make uncompromising music.
The last 10 years have been a whirlwind, between writing, recording and touring he has released four wildly ambitious and richly rewarding albums. As Is Now in 2005, 22 Deams in 2008, Wake Up Nation in 2010 and Sonik Kicks in 2012. He also married his second wife, Hannah, and welcomed twin boys, John Paul and Bowie. (All told, he has seven children).
Now Weller is back with Saturns Patterns. It’s his 10th solo studio album, his 27th overall. (Ironically, it’s being released through Warner Brothers Records.) The album kicks into gear with the exigent stomp of “White Sky.” Over a primordial, bludgeoning beat, wah-wah guitars, and a slithery organ, Weller’s vocals are filtered and distorto as he cryptically warns of end-times.
Both “Long Time” and “Pick It Up” pair chaotic arrangements and frenetic instrumentation with introspective lyrics. The former is almost an aural collage. Plinking piano chords, a tick-tock beat and guitar riffs that slash, burn and snarl partner with Weller’s gruff vocals. The mayhem almost camouflages his naked admission of self-doubt. “For such a long time I couldn’t find myself, for such a long time thought I was somebody else/For such a long time I couldn’t find no peace, for such a long time, long time.”
The latter is anchored by a kinetic rhythm that twitches and pulsates. Tensile guitar chords splinter and crackle, as soulful organ fillips and heliocentric synths ebb and flow. Weller’s layered vocals offer the same zen koan, “Pick it up-pick up the pieces before they blow away/Pick it up-pick up the pieces put them together again.” As the momentum slowly builds, sugary Spanish filigrees are added, then pounding piano and shuddery synths. The result is both cyclonic and hypnotic.
The most ambitious tracks on Saturns Pattern are also the most rewarding. “Going My Way” begins as a gorgeous ballad, opening with warm piano notes and Weller’s tender and soulful vocals. It’s an unabashed mash note to Hannah Weller that also acknowledges the pain their coupling has caused…”Many hearts were broke on the way.”
But suddenly the tempo shifts, the buoyant arrangement slightly echoing the Beatles’ jaunty “Martha My Dear.” Just as quickly, it powers down to a pastoral refrain suitable to a “Downton Abbey” drawing room. Hand-claps, finger-snaps, gospel-styled backing vocals, groovy Moog synths and rippling guitar riffs propel the song to an exhilarating conclusion.
“Phoenix” begins tentatively. Initially, the arrangement is propelled by plangent piano notes, woo-hoo backing vocals and tumbling percussion. The lyrics offer a surprisingly ardent encomium on the powers of true love.
But it’s the grandiloquent instrumental breaks that take center stage here. Weller takes pages from Curtis Mayfield’s and Pete Townshend’s playbooks. By overlapping stinging guitar, galloping percussion, fender Rhodes and twinkling synths, he invites comparisons to Mayfield’s transcendent “Move On Up,” as well as the Who’s epochal “Quadrophenia” rock opera.
The album’s piece de resistance is “In My Car.” Here he borrows the Beach Boys’ invulnerable isolation of “In My Room,” and defiantly takes it out on the road. Opening with bluesy acoustic 12 bar Blues licks, a kick-drum beat and fluttery piano, it segues into an insistent swampedelic groove.
Prickly piano chords and sun-dappled guitar accent his sense of security. Weller extols the virtues going mobile. “I’m self-contained and the music’s loud/No one can get in and I don’t wanna get out.” In a nice bit of symmetry, the tune winds down with Weller’s oldest mate, Steve Brookes, unspooling a wicked slide guitar solo.
Other interesting songs include the percolating soul of the title track. Meanwhile, on the loping “I’m Where I Should Be,” Weller finally feels free to be himself. “Not trapped by the burden of parody, shooting cold stares that could freeze ice cream/Thieves in the garden have turned to stone, nothing is left for Babylon.”
The album closes with “These City Streets.” Ambient street sounds gives the track a patina of verisimilitude. Over lush guitars, Moog, Mellotron and piquant violin, Weller has never seemed so warm and soulful. “There’s just you and I alone, there’s nobody else at home/And I look into your eyes and I know why, I’m In Love With You.” It’s a vibrant and expansive end to a wonderful record.
As with his last few albums, Saturns Pattern was produced by Jan Stan Kybert. It also features longtime compatriots like Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Craddock, drummer Ben Gordelier and keyboard player Andy Crofts from The Moons, along with members of Syd Arthur and Josh McClorey from the Strypes on slide guitar.
Paul Weller never let the primitive confines of Punk Rock define him. Most of the Class Of ’77 are content to recycle stale sounds and spout agitprop philosophies. By following his muse, Weller explored myriad styles but stayed true to himself. In the process he has created a rich and enduring musical legacy.