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Paul Weller takes Britpop in a new direction [July 18, 1993]
Plus: Take That, R.E.M., and Bjork
Hey, Time Traveller! 👋 Welcome back to July 18, 1993!
📰 John Major is recorded calling his cabinet colleagues, “Bastards”.📽️ Whimsical Johnny Depp movie Benny & Joon hits the cinemas.📺 ITV broadcasts the first live Star In Their Eyes Grand Final. The audience vote for Jacqui Cann’s impersonation of Alison Moyet.
🎶 Number One song in the UK Top 40 is ‘Pray’ by Take That, but let’s turn our attention to this week’s Number 19…
Paul Weller, ’Sunflower’
We’ve seen Britpop go through its first incarnation recently: the bittersweet nostalgia of Denim, the retro-futuristic London of Saint Etienne, the grimy, sexy glam of Suede, and Blur trying to reinvent The Kinks for a post-Pavement audience.
Britpop 1.0 isn’t really a sound so much as a mood. It’s literate, socialist, salacious, ironic and provocative. While Britpop 1.0 doesn’t always engage with other genres (such as dance and hip-hop), it’s not antagonistic to them either—except for the dour, earnest, machoness of grunge.
But Britpop will soon evolve into something very different. By the time Oasis played Knebworth, Britpop had moved away from Suede or Back In Denim and become steeped in the beer-and-football cliches of Lad Culture. Bands like Ocean Colour Scene, Cast and Kula Shaker (not to mention the Brothers Gallagher) played no-nonsense, straight-ahead rock’n’roll that fans celebrated as “proper fahkin music”.
Britpop 2.0 was partly defined by what it wasn’t. It wasn’t as decadent as rave, as queer as house, as girly as pop, or as ethnic as hip-hop. This was normal music for normal blokes.
In other words, Britpop 2.0 was a reactionary movement, based on the same worldview that ultimately led to Brexit. Where Britpop 1.0 had been ironically retro, treating the past as something slightly toxic, Britpop 2.0 used nostalgia as a defence against the onrushing future.
And this musical movement had an intellectual figurehead to give it some gravitas. They had The Modfather himself, Paul Weller.
I don’t care how long this lasts
The first important thing about Paul Weller is that he doesn’t care about anything besides music. The Guardian interviewed him a few years ago and asked which mattered more to him, his music or his personal relationships:
He ponders this for an eternity – aware that an honest answer involves "hurting other people. But if I'm really honest, outside of my kids, it would be music."
The second thing to know about Paul Weller is that he’s almost impossible to analyse. He hates interviews, hates explaining himself, and often does the most unpredictable things. He is a man of ever-changing moods, as it were.
Weller first became a pop star in 1977, when The Jam’s debut single, ‘In The City’, appeared just a few weeks before The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save The Queen’. Several things suggested that The Jam might be anti-punk reactionaries: their neat Mod-inspired suits and haircuts; the union jack imagery; their ability to play their instruments (very much against punk’s DIY ethos); the fact they had a song bemoaning the end of the British Empire.
But ‘In The City’ explodes with spiky, furious energy that most punk bands would die for, and songs like ‘Down The Tube Station At Midnight’ and ‘The Eton Rifles’ were more politically coherent than anything The Sex Pistols ever wrote.
Punk collapsed pretty quickly, but The Jam went from strength to strength. When ‘Going Underground’ made Number One in 1981, they looked set to become the biggest band in Britain and emerge as the undisputed kings of post-punk.
Instead, Weller shocked everyone (including his bandmates, Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler) by disbanding The Jam. He was bored, he said. He wanted to try something new.
That something new was The Style Council, a blue-eyed soul group that leaned into contemporary pop music trends. Fans of The Jam hated Weller’s new project, but Paul just carried on and kept making albums until people were forced to accept that, actually, The Style Council were pretty great.
They made four albums together and achieved something that had eluded even The Jam: a hit single in America.
I long for that sharp wind to take my breath away
In 1989, something that changed the course of music history. An event involving five words you never expect to find in the same sentence:
Paul Weller’s acid house album.
The Style Council had gotten on board with house music in 1988 when they released a pretty excellent cover of ‘Promised Land’ by American DJ Joe Smooth:
After this success, they started work on an entire album of acid house-inspired songs called Modernism: A New Decade. If this record had been a success, it could have sent Weller off in an entirely new direction. Perhaps he would have followed in Norman Cook’s footsteps and become an iconic superstar DJ?
We’ll never know, because Modernism: A New Decade was an utter catastrophe. The label hated the finished project so much that they not only shelved the album, but terminated their contract with The Style Council. Shortly after, the band split up.
Weller entered the 90s at the lowest point of his career. Without a record deal, without a band, the future looked bleak.
And I miss you so
Probably not a surprise that Weller, now in his mid-30s, decided to go back to his roots.
He started working on solo music with a greater focus on folk and 60s pop, moving away from acid house and all other traces of modernity. This back-to-basics approach feels even more pronounced on his second solo album, Wild Wood, which sounds like it was recorded in 1973.
Now, all of this is fairly typical in any rock star’s evolution. People like Eric Clapton and Sting were going down the same road at the same time. The big difference is that Clapton and Sting’s retro music didn’t make a dent on youth culture.
However, the opposite happened to Weller. Wild Wood and its follow-up, Stanley Road, became essential texts of the Britpop movement. Paul Weller himself became The Modfather, the elder statesman giving his blessing to a new generation who were making guitar-based “proper music”—meaning old-fashioned music with minimal experimentation and zero genre crossover. He became unequivocally reactionary, an anti-punk.
How did he end up here?
A couple of coincidences dragged Weller into the centre of Britpop. First of all, Blur essentially stole his Mod revival schtick during their Modern Life Is Rubbish era. This prompted a renewed interest in Mod, which caused younger people to rediscover things like The Who, Quadrophenia—and The Jam.
Second, Weller befriended a struggling young band called Ocean Colour Scene who had failed out of the Baggie era. Steve Craddock from OCS played guitar on Wild Wood, while Simon Fowler sang backing vocals. Ocean Colour Scene then went on find success in latter-day Britpop with aggressively retro anthems like ‘The Day We Caught The Train’. As well as the OCS guys, Weller also became a friend and collaborator to people like Noel Gallagher and John Power from Cast.
So, Weller didn’t jump the Britpop bandwagon. If anything, Britpop jumped the Paul Weller bandwagon and assimilated him into its plans.
And Weller doesn’t seem like he particularly cared, in much the same way that he didn’t care all that much about punk in the 70s. The difference is that The Jam found themselves in a thrusting, forward-looking youth movement.
As The Modfather of late-90s Britpop, Weller took the opposite role, becoming a general in a fight against the future.
Elsewhere in the charts
[Number One] Take That, ‘Pray’
The boys score their first Number One, effectively ending the Battle Of The Boy Bands. Take That are now the undisputed kings, while East 17 are distant runners-up,
An army of less talented clones are also now marching our way. Brace yourself for Ultimate Kaos and Bad Boys Inc. It’s gonna get rough.
[Number 14, new] Craig McLachlan & Debbie Gibson, ‘You’re The One That I Want’
Debbie Gibson blows Craig McLachlan off the stage here. She should have done Grease as a one-woman show, Tommy Cooper style.
[Number 17 ↑] Oui 3, ‘Break From The Old Routine’
Oui 3 were great but they faced one massive problem: they existed at the same time as Us3 and nobody could tell them apart.
[Number 29, new] The Waterboys, ‘Glastonbury Song’
A much bigger hit in Ireland than it was in the UK (or anywhere else). It’s a good song! It’s not ‘Whole Of The Moon’ but what is?
[Number 27, new] R.E.M., ‘Nightswimming’
Nothing about the Automatic For The People era makes sense on paper. A folky American band write a piano ballad about skinny dipping? And it’s a huge global hit? Sir, are you on crack?
It’s an amazing song though and a fine bit of storytelling.
Album of the Week
It’s interesting how Bjork’s solo career has so many parallels with that of Radiohead. Radiohead and Bjork are now both known as furiously experimental sonic innovators, producing music that’s often brilliant but rarely radio-friendly.
And both of them debuted in 1993 with LPs that now sound… a little ordinary by their standards.
Bjork had already established her avant-garde credentials with her work in The Sugarcubes, although their final single, ‘Hit’, offered the case for Bjork as a mainstream pop star. Debut continues that argument with a string of earwormy singles, all of which are just weird enough to make you say, “yup, that’s still our Bjork”.
Beside the giant hit singles like ‘Human Behaviour’ and ‘Big Time Sensuality’, there’s a ton of quirky experimentation throughout the record. Quirkiest of them is ‘There’s More To Life Than This', which was recorded in the toilets of a London nightclub; a cover of jazz standard ‘Like Someone In Love’; and the lonely woodwinds of ‘The Anchor Song’.
Viewed as a manifesto for Bjork The Pop Star, Debut is a roaring success. Much of this is due to the work of Nellee Hooper, whose shimmering production makes this a wonderfully digestible collection of eccentric Icelandic dance-pop.
However, listening to Debut today feels a lot like relistening to Pablo Honey. You know that punches are being pulled, that you’re hearing people with a clear idea of what their first record should sound like. You can’t forget that you’re only hearing a fraction of their potential.
That said, Debut has aged a lot better than Pablo Honey. The big weakness of Radiohead’s debut is that it feels like it could have been recorded by any other indie band in 1993. There’s nobody else on earth that could have made Debut.
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