Sunday, 18 August 2013

SPIN DRIFTING: REFLECTIONS OF THE STYLE COUNCIL – THE CLASSIC ALBUM SELECTION (2013)


I’ve been listening to The Style Council. Not for the first time of course but thanks to a new six CD Classic Album Selection the first time back-to-back chronologically.

Their career, between 1983 and 1989, neatly spanned my teenage years so it’s difficult to listen to them without old memories spin drifting past. They’ve never been afforded the elevated status of The Jam but in their own way The Style Council had a similar effect shaping the political, sartorial and musical worldview of elements of my post-Jam generation.

I bought their debut single from WH Smiths in Hounslow on the week of release whilst visiting my Granma. I sat in the chair under the grandfather clock, eating a cake mountain, and tried to comprehend The Cappuccino Kid’s gobbledygook on the back cover as Giant Haystacks wandered around the ring with some little fella bouncing off him on World Of Sport. “Speak Like A Child” wasn’t a big departure from The Jam’s last knockings but the emphasis Paul put on the “A” in the title jarred then and jars now. The eight minute politicized funk of “Money Go Round” took “Precious” a step further yet “Long Hot Summer” didn’t sound like anything Weller had put out to that point and if he was keen to severe ties with The Jam’s terrace mentality then a shirtless, greased up, ear stroking frolic with Mick Talbot on the riverbank was one way to go about it.

Those three singles and a few extra tracks make up the first CD here, Introducing, but Café Bleu was the proper album coming out in 1984. There’s five jazz instrumentals with Paul only occasionally taking the main vocals on the album, happy to share them, including giving Tracey Thorn the lead on “The Paris Match” yet driving her round the bend with his unhappiness at her pronunciation of “fire”. It’s a pity the unified jazzy vibe of the first side didn’t continue on the flip but Weller’s restlessness and refusal to get stuck in a groove meant experiments in rap (“A Gospel”) entered the fold. “A Gospel” was dreadful then and sounds worse now – hideously dated - especially as the rest of the record still sounds fresh.

The Style Council’s attempt to turn us (by us I mean me but I was far from alone) into skateboarding, body-bopping B-Boys was mercifully brief (for now) as their primary goal was to mould us into sophisticated Europeans: pastel pullovers draped over shoulders, sauntering down the Champs-Élysées, stopping for a frothy coffee and reading Le Monde before shopping for Blue Note LPs. The reality for a bunch of fourteen year olds was walking home from school in our bowling shoes with grey Fred Perry jumpers tied over our shoulders, pulling out a packet of Gauloises we’d bought from the garage (they didn’t stock Gitanes) and looking down at the other kids with their boring B&H and Rothman’s fags. Those Gauloises tasted bloody disgusting but they rarely touched our lips and our jazz collections consisted of half of Café Bleu and a few Mick Talbot B-sides.

Our Favourite Shop was the most consistent album they’d make; it all fits together and like 22 Dreams many years later is greater than the sum of its parts, however, when listened alongside the others it’s noticeably their least ambitious and experimental LP, which is an odd thing to say bearing in mind Weller sings a track in French and Lenny Henry talks one in Brummie. This album also has the dubious distinction of spawning my first piece of published writing; a review for The Phoenix List, a folded A4 newsletter that grandly claimed to be a “The Weekly Newspaper For Mods”, which landed on doormats every Thursday. In fairness, there was a lot of Mod news in 1985 so the font was tiny. From the dark corner of my bedroom while my little brother was asleep in the bottom bunk surrounded by his Roland Rat posters, I wrote this (brace yourself):

“Although Paul Weller’s not so young anymore, he’s still angry and those of you who thought he’d gone soft should have a listen to this album. Gone are the biting Rickenbacker chords of The Jam which have now been replaced by breezier pop tunes. But Weller’s lyrics have never been more direct and harsh. Throughout the record he tackles a number of today’s social problems, i.e. unemployment, racism, drugs, government, even new towns with such clear and crisp lyrics that it almost makes you feel guilty. The tracks themselves are a mixture of slow acoustic-style numbers; funky “Soul Deep” songs (“Internationalists”); and excellent up-tempo pop songs (“Luck”, “A Man Of Great Promise” and “The Lodgers”), these are the best as they sound happy when you listen to them but their underlying messages are clear. The ace track is “Homebreakers”, sung by Merton Mick and is so classy I can’t describe it. The album is worth buying for that song and “A Man Of Great Promise” alone. Paul Weller, Spokesman For A Generation? Too true. 10 out of 10.”

And yes, I did take that into school, and no, nobody was interested. Apart from squirming uncomfortably reading it now a few things strike me. Firstly, and most disheartening, is how very little my writing has improved. I’m acutely aware I still write like an average 15 year old fanzine editor and here’s the proof but the crux of the review is about right. It is the directness of Weller’s attacks (and that he had come back firing after the largely innocuous lyrics of the previous LP) that stand out here and which he would lose throughout his solo career. I'd later have many drunken conversations with my mate Guy, sitting round his flat playing records all night and when he'd stick on Wild Wood or Heliocentric I’d launch into a rant about how I couldn’t relate to Weller's songs any more, they were either too personal or ambiguous. Our Favourite Shop isn't like that – it’s a vivid scrapbook of Britain in 1985 yet musically (bar only one of two brief moments) has hardly dated. I was over generous with my initial review but I there’s no way I’d give it anything less now than 8 out of 10.

All well and good to this point. We’d moved from being Europeans and were now Internationalists. We were politically motivated off the back of campaigns for CND, miners, even Red Wedge which prompted Neil Kinnock to crack the hilarious gag, “Can I first of all disabuse anyone of the idea red wedge is the name of my hairstyle.” I’d turned a blind eye to Weller’s slicked back hair do and his floppy soul boy wedge but come The Cost Of Loving I was down the hairdressers getting my spiky blonde highlights put in. The rubber cap I had to wear left such a deep indent in my forehead it looked like I’d had a lobotomy so chose to walk home four miles rather than get the tube in case I saw anyone I knew. I wasn't copying Paul Weller, we just had similar taste...

1987’s The Cost Of Loving is the one with the infamous plain orange sleeve. The one which made John Weller splutter “What’s this fucking bollocks? You’re not the Beatles, you cunt”. John was talking about the artwork but he could just as easily been talking about the album. Originally released as a double album with a couple of songs on each side it was only side two with the decent “Heaven’s Above” and excellent “Fairy Tales” that saw much turntable action. The flat singing on the lifeless single “It Didn’t Matter” was bad enough but having a loved up Weller and Dee C. Lee crooning to each other on Anita Baker’s “Angel” or reciting embarrassing lyrics like “I’m gonna love you anyway, I don’t care what people say…” on “Waiting” was atrocious, as was the attempt to transform themselves into a full blown US style modern soul act.

Why “Waiting” was given a single release instead of “Fairy Tales” I’ll never understand. A bonus point though awarded for having Curtis Mayfield mix “Fairy Tales”, even if all Curtis did (bless him) was turn the treble up on the guitar and pocket a few a dollars for five minutes work. But ask most people about the album and I’ll put money on them mentioning “Right To Go”, another ill-advised venture into rap or electro or whatever it was (thankfully it wasn’t Paul and Mick rapping). Nowadays I admire in their balls in attempting to do things like this but then I was near apoplectic. No one liked it, it lost them lots of followers, but they didn’t give a stuff.

This album coincided with Jerusalem, their indulgent satirical film (reasonably funny now, especially Talbot who had a natural comic flare), which showed before their gigs. I was more tolerant than my mates and the majority of a bemused audience at the Royal Albert Hall. It was difficult to hear what was going on, what with being crushed by a stampede off disgruntled punters pushing past, “Fuck this bollocks, I’m going to the bar”. I can’t remember anything about their set. I think I saw them three times but only recollect things around the gigs – like wanting a black and orange TSC college scarf – rather than any music. They did look good though around this period: lots of white denim, Cutler and Gross sunglasses and Bass Weejuns being order of the day. I’d never bought such expensive shoes before.

Like all their albums, Confessions of a Pop Group, bore no resemblance to the previous one. Side one - “The Piano Paintings” – was their take on classical music which prompted Mrs Monkey to scoff yesterday, “The Style Council were so pretentious”, a charge I can’t defend but I like. One again it was a complete shift in styles but this one suited them better (pretentiousness always sat well with The Style Council). Side two played it straighter and the run of “Life At A Top Peoples Health Farm”, “Why I Went Missing” and “How She Threw It All Away” is the best three-in-a-row they ever made. Simply getting the lyrics to “Health Farm” on the radio and television now would be impossible.

The tears of young men splattered many a badger-like shoe when news of The Jam’s spilt surfaced yet throughout the whole of The Style Council’s existence I collected all their records (including imports); had a notebook I’d write all their recording details just in case I needed to quickly check whether Steve Sidelnyk played percussion on “The Story of Someone’s Shoe” ; taped everything I could off the telly on to a couple of video tapes I made special boxes for (“The Style Council: Probably The Best Pop Group In The World. Volumes 1 & 2”) yet their disbandment in 1989 hardly registered.

Polydor refused to release Modernism: A New Decade, which only got saw the light of day on The Complete Adventures of The Style Council box set in 1998. I didn’t buy it so it’s inclusion on this Classic Album Selection was a major draw I wouldn’t ordinarily repurchase things but the set only costs around fifteen quid and is neatly presented with all discs in separate gatefold sleeves.

I didn’t expect to like it. In 1989, deep house (or maybe it was called garage) was the thing. I wasn’t greatly into it but was interested enough to go to Ibiza and root around record shops buying Ibiza House & Love albums of mixes popular on the island. The catch-all “dance music” was everywhere, rave was still around, "Funky Drummer" break beats were on every other record, the Happy Mondays were coming through, The Stone Roses were about to go overground, and bands with guitars would all claim “there’s always been a dance element to our music”. It’s not difficult to understand Polydor’s stance. Those wanting house records were not interested in the Style Council and for the most part the opposite was true. Even we bought and said we preferred Joe Smooth doing “Promised Land”. If the Albert Hall crowd were dismissive of Jerusalem they were openly contemptuous when greeted by an unfamiliar acid house Council in July ’89, in what would provide the band’s death knell. I wasn't there and was more likely listening to Inner City records.

Yet, against the odds, Modernism now, rather than sounding like a tired band about to be put out of its misery, sounds like a band rejuvenated and optimistic of the future. It does sound of its time (although less than I'd expected) and of all the albums this is the one I’ve listened to in the most nostalgic way (despite not hearing it until now). Other "pop" acts were moving in a similar direction (The Blow Monkeys and ABC to name two) but TSC - in retrospect - sound far more convincing and authentic. Discovering it in the recent hot weather with a beer in hand has helped. Mrs Monkey, far less forgiving and unencumbered by an 80s past, asked “What on earth are you playing?” It’s the Style Council. “It’s shit”. It’s the Style Council’s house album. “It’s still shit.” You probably had to be there.

I’d planned to play these six albums through once but have kept going back to them. The ground they covered in little over six years is incredible. Sure, it didn’t always work but they were brave, they challenged themselves and their audience and they never stood still. In Paul Weller’s career this is far from the wobbly part in the middle it is sometimes thought (although there’s been a discernible shift in that) and no one should underestimate the contribution of Mick Talbot.

In 1990 Paul Weller told the NME, “We created some great music in our time, the effects of which won't be appreciated for some time.” Now is the time.
Mickey's Monkey (2009)

3 comments:

  1. I liked them; not sure about the licking each other's ears era though.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Licking each other's ears?! I only remember them being stroked. They were even more radical than I gave them credit for!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Modernism is a great record. Sure is Sure is a magic track, with Weller channelling his hero Curtis Mayfield. Genius music.

    ReplyDelete