Saturday, 11 July 2020

The Style Council

Often despised, ridiculed and maligned - don't listen to any of it, The Style Council were great....

Introducing The Style Council (1983)

The first single, Speak Like A Child, was the one that shocked all us Jam fans at the time, being a pastiche of sixties pop and soul that based itself around a late sixties organ sound and some blaring horns. I have never been a huge fan of it, to be honest, despite its catchy refrain and I remember at the time being irritated by the way Weller sings "I really like it when you speak an a-child..." What was "an a-child?" or indeed "rank and a er-file...." - a bit like when he sang "succumb-er to the beat surrender.." or "dangle jobs like a donkey's carrOT.." - Weller liked changing words' pronunciations to fit the melody. Back to the song, look, it was not a bad one, to be fair, and I am quite enjoying it again.

The Paris Match was the first sign of Weller's obsession with the French capital that would would carry on until 1985 (he even sings the last verse in clumsy schoolboy French). It is another track that would appear on the next album, although its was done there with smoky brush drums and a real jazzy vibe. Although it is a bit jazzy here, it is more of a soulful song, with regulation drums, a cute organ solo and some melodious piano. I think I prefer this one of the two although it is a close one. I was a good song that exemplified just what a mature songwriter Weller had become. Mick's Up was one of three "Mick's..."  piano and organ-powered groovy, sixties-influenced instrumentals that appeared from this period (Mick's Blessings and Mick's Company being the others). They are all breezy, jazzy workouts that again made a statement in showing the carefree but musically astute side of the group.

Money-Go-Round is a highlight of the album - a full-on piece of driving funk rock.Weller had been flirting with funk on The Jam's swansong The Gift album and this excellent number continues that on seven minutes of politically-motivated funk that rails articulately at the inequalities of big business. It remains one of The Style Council's finest tracks. 
The same can be said of the blissed-out, laid-back hot summer afternoon groove of Long Hot Summer. The accompanying video and its homoerotica was as odd as it was surprising and brave. Musically, it was one of the group's best early recordings. Headstart For Happiness is presented here in an impressive, lively early version. I will proceed to talk about the group and their raison d'être in more detail in subsequent reviews as I progress through the career of this fascinating collective.

** A few of the tracks that did not appear on any albums from the era were the 'b' side, Party Chambers, an energetic, organ-led and vaguely psychedelic but poppy tune; the atmospheric piano instrumental Lé Depart and the starkly soulful It Just Came To Pieces In Hands.

Café Bleu (1984)

So, on to The Style Council from when they finally released a "proper" album, but to do so  I will go back to discussing them from the beginning. Formed in early 1983 by ex-Jam frontman Paul Weller and keyboardist Mick Talbot, The Style Council were a strange phenomenon. Often derided by the cognoscenti, in many ways they were an experiment gone wrong. In many other ways, they were an excellent group that produced some great albums with a soulful, often adventurous, ambitious sound and some biting, socially conscious lyrics. Maybe the group were too eclectic for their own good. 
As far away from The Jam as it was possible to get, really. This album was a brave mixture of soul stylings, contemporary jazz and a bit of rap influence thrown in. Some of the tracks are jazzy, piano-driven instrumentals like the beautifully bassy groove of Me Ship Came In! or smoky jazz like Blue Café. Others feature guest artists like Tracey Thorn on the lovely, late night shuffling jazz of The Paris Match and various guest instrumentalists on the rap-influenced A Gospel and the catchy The Strength Of Your Nature

There is an argument that paints Mick Talbot's jazz instrumentals, Mick's Blessings, Council Meetin' and the infectiously bopping, brass-enhanced Dropping Bombs On The White House as lazy and pointless and experimental ventures like A Gospel as embarrassingly indulgent. While it holds weight to an extent, personally I find the instrumentals provide a brief, breezy airiness in between Weller's undoubtedly convincing, credible numbers. The diversion into rap was possibly ill-advised but rap was everywhere in 1983, so they were just mining a contemporary seam. How all this went down with many of The Jam's fans is, to be honest, pretty badly, many washing their hands of Weller at this point.

The hit single My Ever Changing Moods is stripped down to a soulful piano-only version (I actually prefer the "full band" version), while the other hit, You're The Best Thing features a different mix here, with saxophone to the fore. The Style Council often recorded different versions of the same song. Headstart For Happiness and the violin-backed Here's One That Got Away are both jaunty, upbeat poppy numbers which again shows this material is just nothing like anything The Jam put out, and all released just a few short months later, the sea change was really quite remarkable. Just listen to the evocative, late-night jazzy vibe of The Whole Point Of No Return for proof. Going Underground was only three years previous.

Where the Style Council had a problem was in the image they carefully created, swanning around in Paris in gaberdines, pictured sitting at cafes pretending to read “Le Monde” and drinking cappuccino, wearing dark glasses and so on. After Paul Weller’s gruff “man of the people-no bull” persona in The Jam, it all seemed very pretentious, contrived and more than just a little silly. It garnered a lot of ridicule, which was a shame, because the music was good. A brave experiment that deserved more credit. 

On a personal level, I remember one sunny October afternoon, sitting in Paris's Tuileries Gardens with this album on my headphones. It was perfect for the occasion and that is something I will not forget. An album doing its job. 

** Regarding non-album material from the time, as I said earlier, My Ever Changing Moods is preferable, for me, in its delicious full band form. Then, of course, there is the wonderful Motown-ish pop of A Solid Bond In Your Heart, a song that had begun life at the end of The Jam's career and was one of the group's best stand-alone singles.

There was also the easy to sing along to tones of Shout To The Top; the piano-driven funk of Big Boss Groove (a number which they performed at Live Aid in 1985); the moving and haunting bleakness of the self-explanatory Ghosts Of Dachau; the sublime white soul of The Piccadilly Trail and the extended political funk-hip hop groove of Soul Deep which lent its support in no uncertain terms to the 1984 miners' strike. Finally, we had the very groovy, almost funky organ of Mick's Company and the gentle acoustic ballad of Spring, Summer, Autumn 
- a track that very much looked forward to Weller's early solo material nearly ten years down the line. 

Our Favourite Shop (1985)

This album was The Style Council’s high point. A collection of mainly highly politicised songs that see the jazzy piano instrumentals and smoky club torch songs of Café Bleu jettisoned in favour of a more full band, rocky sound, slightly more akin to how The Jam may have progressed had they stayed together, certainly in the case of the rousing Walls Come Tumbling Down and the non-album single Shout To The Top.

Kicking off with the pertinent Homebreakers, the tone is set - 1985’s Britain under Thatcherism is a miserable place to be. They were not wrong. 
All Gone Away, despite its tuneful lilting acoustic backing, and Come To Milton Keynes continue in the same vein, then Internationalists raises the tempo, musically, with some poppy funk, although the cynical, world-weary message as the same. A Stone's Throw Away is another cautionary, sad tale about police and government brutality. Weller’s voice is so soulful but pointed on all this material.

The Stand Up Comic's Instructions is a monologue delivered by Lenny Henry, as a bigoted Northern working mens’ club “concert secretary”. The depressing thing is, in 1985, dinosaurs like this still roamed the earth. Even more depressing is that, in 2020, they seem to be making a re-appearance. A Man Of Great Promise (dedicated to deceased poet Adrian Henri), The Boy Who Cried Wolf and Down In The Seine are all a bit of a throwback to the previous album - breezily Parisian. 
The Lodgers is another Style Council anti-Thatcher classic as is the melodic, infectious With Everything To Lose (later impressively and intoxicatingly re-worked as Have You Ever Had It Blue). Luck is a bit of a cousin to Shout To The Top, with a slightly Northern Soul stomp to it. The unique appeal of this album is that it message is so strong, so powerful, such a protest yet the music is uniformly so tuneful, often so light, so melodious. Weller has never sung better, either. Nobody else ever made political protest so musically enjoyable. Although the rain macs and Gitanes had gone now, Weller and Talbot were now dressed in pure white denims for promotional photos, covered in make-up and looking all homoerotic. A terrible time, politically, but an even worse time for fashion.

** The non-album material was positively bountiful, almost enough for another album, or half of one, at least. 

An interesting "alternative version" is The Whole Point II - a rhythmic and quirky version of The Whole Point Of No Return, full of jazzy keyboards and joie de vivre in comparison to its more stark and introspective sibling. Then there was the harrowing anti-hunting number, Blood Sports.

And there was more...Spin' Driftin is a laid-back acoustic, bass, keyboards and drums plaintive Weller ballad that harked back to the earlier Parisian sessions; the smooth soul of (When You) Call Me; the Latin-influenced and enormously enjoyable rhythms of the With Everything To Lose sibling Have You Ever Had It Blue?; the jangly pre-Brit pop-esque A Casual Affair; add to those the jazzy instrumental Mr Cool's Dream and you have more than an album - the group and Weller were quite prolific at the time. 

The Cost Of Loving (1987)

After the high point that was the politically-motivated Our Favourite Shop from 1985, two years later the Style Council were back with a shorter album of more polished, professional-sounding soul-funk-pop, tapping into what was now starting to be called “R 'n' B” - laid back, synth-drummy late night US-influenced radio soul.

The album was much less instant and “in your face” than its predecessor, tending to wash over you somewhat. The two singles from the album, the soulful Waiting and the even more relaxing and very appealing It Didn't Matter are probably the high spots. 

The stark and pointed A Woman's Song and also Fairy Tales show that Weller had not quite lost his political edge, but overall, it seemed as if he wanted to drop the political opinionating and just chill out, man. The plain orange cover seemed to exemplify that feeling too. Bright, one dimensional but just maybe lacking a little in individual personality? Right To Go featured rap/hip-hop, for the first time since A Gospel on 1983’s debut album, from guests The Dynamic Three. However, it does, unfortunately, sound dreadfully naive all these years later.

Angel is another of the album’s high points though, a beautiful soul ballad. Heavens AboveThe Cost Of Loving and Walking The Night are all eminently listenable tracks - good hooks, nice soul feel and Weller’s voice now sounding as good as it could get. The sound on this remastered release is good, as warm and full as it can be given that The Style Council's output was always rather trebly and while this album is often cited as being the start of The Style Council’s decline (I guess commercially that was certainly true), personally I have always found it to be an enjoyable listen every now and again. The fact that in 2020 I still dig it out has to be a compliment. It is, however, very much of its time in many ways.

** The usual slew of non-album tracks included All Year Round, a soulful, funky-ish number that more more a passing melodic resemblance to Big Boss Groove; the marvellously underrated, breezy pop single that was Wanted; the bleak violin-backed Françoise. All of these, I am sure, could have found their way on to the album and enhanced it. Take a look at the tracks below, too, and we could have had a very different album indeed. Also dating from the time just before this album's release is a cover of Willie Clayton's relatively obscure soul number, Love Pains. Once more, this was a really good track that would have fitted well on to the album. The same applies to another soul cover, David Sea's Night After Night, which leant its melody to It Didn't Matter

Another unearthed gem from 1986 was the powerful funk-rock of I Ain't Goin' Under. The song was, apparently, intended for Lenny Henry to record, but in the end the Style Council did it themselves. A surprising oddity from 1986 was an appealing cover of Lionel Bart'Who Will Buy? Also dating from this time was the impressive Dee C. Lee-led soul of I Am Leaving
They kept coming as well, these unused songs - the synthy disco-ish pop of My Very Good Friend and the jazzy, laid-back soul of April's Fool. What a cornucopia of riches. As I said, what an album this could have been.

Confessions Of A Pop Group (1988)

Released in 1988, for many, this was the death knell for The Style Council - an apparently preposterous, pretentious, indulgent piece of work that threw all previous conceptions of the band out of the window. For many of Paul Weller's Jam fans, this experimental, dare I say avant-garde album was the last straw. They washed their hands of him, at least until 1993. 

Weller had been listening to a lot of diverse music around this time - classical piano stuff like Erik Satie and Claude Debussy, increasing amounts of  jazz, as well as The Beach Boys' more experimental 1966-1972 material - and the results are clear on the old side one of the album, which is a totally out-there but strangely beguiling creation. Side two reverts to a more familiar pop-soul-funk groove but it is this adventurous half of the album which makes it a unique entity, something unlike anything the artist had ever done before. It was critically panned, with statements in the vein of "indulgent tosh that disappeared up its own fundament..." abounding. Funnily enough though ( or maybe not), in 1998 - ten years later - Weller was still insisting it was the best thing he ever did. Maybe he was being deliberately perverse, but even so he appeared to acknowledge the huge amount of work he had put into it, as opposed to dismissing it as a mistake. Personally, I find it a fascinating listen, shall we say "challenging". It never fails to entrance and mystify in equal measures. It is quite a remarkable thing.

The album begins with the gentle piano-driven strains of the dreamy, lush ballad It's A Very Deep Sea, which features some of those Beach Boys-inspired vibes and seagull noises, like something off Surf's Up or maybe even Dennis Wilson's Pacific Ocean Blue. It is actually a really good track. The next song, The Story Of Someone's Shoe, is an odd one, featuring the irritating sixties vocal group The Swingle Singers, who add their a capella "ba-da-da" backing vocals to Weller's to produce a really strange ambience. This is in another solar system to The Jam's work. Once more, there is something about it that makes you listen and draws you in. I simply refuse to criticise this material - it is clever, inventive and innovative. Kudos to Weller for daring to venture into these unknown territories. Changing Of The Guard is a gently appealing little song with Weller duetting well with his wife at the time, Dee C. Lee, on a number that brings to mind the smooth, slickly-produced white soul of the previous album, The Cost Of Loving. The sweeping strings are sumptuous as is the subtle, jazzy drum sound. 

Just when we think the album is settling down into a more familiar style, now we get The Little Boy In A Castle/A Dove Flew Down From The Elephant - just a look at the titles is enough to start one doubting this product and it indeed adds considerable fuel to the fire of any argument that claims this album to have pretensions. The track was a short-ish Mick Talbot piano instrumental so why the need for a  ludicrously-extended double title? That aside, however, it is clear that Talbot has also been dipping into classical music. It sounds like Chopin or Rachmaninov (I think - don't quote me on that). 

The bravest side of music from Weller's pen comes to a close with the rambling ten-minute The Gardener Of Eden: A Three Piece Suite which features more classically-influenced piano (albeit beautiful at times), some lovely strings and occasional impressive vocals but, unfortunately, a general feeling of going nowhere in particular. That said, whenever I listen to it there are always moments when I think "wow, this is really good". Give it a try, I'm sure the reaction will be similar - basically, it is probably Paul Weller's finest musical creation. It seduces, relaxes and lifts up at various points in its ten minutes. Don't criticise it - it is a courageous, sensitive, intelligent and mature composition. If George Martin and The Beatles had come up with this it would have been hailed a work of genius, (or Brian Wilson, for that matter). Check out the horns and swirling organ at just over eight minutes before the gentle piano comes back in - impressive stuff. By the way, the sound quality is excellent throughout this album, its producers utilising the contemporaneously new digital techniques to great effect. It is lush, sharp, clear and grandiose yet simultaneously warm and deep. Side one of the album should possibly be listened to in isolation as it is just SO different to the rest of it. Side two literally feels like a completely different album. 

Now for the change - or the return to normality, depending on your point of view. Side two begins with three copper-bottomed Style Council soul-pop classics in the wry, anti-Thatcher Life At A Top People's Health Farm with its witty lyrics and pounding, brassy stomp; the utterly beautiful, classy, emotional pop of Why I Went Missing (a song that I rate as up there in the group's top five) and the incredibly catchy flute-powered summery pop of How She Threw It All Away. These tracks are phenomenally good, for me, anyway. I loved them at the time and I still do. Why I Went Missing sends shivers down my spine - sometimes Weller can hit that note with a composition so perfectly, and this is one of those occasions. There is no way on this earth that these three killer tracks should be dismissed as the work of a writer and group on the way out - they are some of the best songs the group ever did.

The perplexingly-titled Iwasadoledadstoyboy (a song about male prostitution) revisits the quasi-rap/hip hop sound - strong organ and programmed drums - that was used on Café Bleu's A Gospel. Confessions 1, 2 & 3 gets that old soul mojo back - once again it harks back to the group's material from the previous few years. It could easily have been from The Cost Of Loving album. The canned "live" audience applause is a totally unnecessary sound effect, however. I am not sure why it was put on there. 
Confessions Of A Pop Group is an extended piece of sweet soul-funk with an intoxicating slow funky groove, fine rock guitar backing (unusually for The Style Council) and an excellent Weller vocal. This is also a really good, criminally-underrated track.

It was clear to see, despite the good points on here, however, that Paul Weller, although clearly wanting to diversify and offer up different sounds and creations, was in the midst of something of a creative quandary - just as the vacuous feelings of the 1980s were fading away and that decade’s pretensions being cast away as indulgent and vain, similarly, it was probably time to call an end to The Style Council’s brave but ultimately fruitless journey. You could imagine NME journalists back in 1988 shaking their heads and composing their “poor old Paul Weller” invective after listening to this, couldn't you? He should never have received the invective that he did, (the same applies to David Bowie with Tin Machine a year or so later). Bollocks to the media, this was a worthy album. Time for Weller to change direction, though, all the same. 

** The non-album tracks from this period included the absolutely lovely soulful vibe of Sweet Loving Ways; the romantic In Love For The First Time, with its winsome bossa nova groove and the funky I Do Like To B-Side The A-Side, which was a throwback to those 1983 Mick Talbot instrumentals. Also dating from 1988 is the superb funk of Waiting On A Connection. The presence of any of these on the album may have given it a totally different character, you have to say.

Modernism: A New Decade (1989)
This was recorded in 1989 but not released until as part of a box set in 1999.
I am afraid to say extended mixes of dance music leave me cold. Yes, it is ok to put on and just leave it on while you do something else (like write a review, I guess!) but I struggle to gain much musical satisfaction from endless keyboard loops and pounding, metronomic drum machines. Love Of The World and the more vocal Can You Love Me? have a vague appeal. I like the intro to That Spiritual Feeling and the whole vibe of the sax-driven track a lot. Indeed, it would be resurrected on one of his first solo releases in 1993. Sure Is Sure is a bit intoxicating at times, I have to admit and it does feature Weller's voice at points in it. Look, it is all listenable, as such, it just doesn't get my juices flowing much. Sorry to all you late 80s house fans.

I admire Paul Weller for having the sheer stubborn belief to put out an album of house music at the time. However, the fact that a few years later, having hit rock bottom, creatively, he began channelling his inner Nick Drake, Traffic and What's Going On-era Marvin Gaye and utterly reinvented himself has to say something.

** The only non-album track dating from these final Style Council sessions is the excellent bouncy dance groove of Promised Land, a cover of a Joe Smooth song (who was he, I wonder?). It was a most accessible, enjoyable number and proved to be a high point on which the group would bow out on. 

Here's Some That Got Away
The rest of the bonus material that didn't appear on albums is dotted around on this excellent compilation album, along with the first single, Speak Like A Child and other excellent singles like Long Hot Summer, Money Go Round, Shout To The Top, Promised Land and Wanted.

There is certainly some great bonus material on here - the Northern soul-ish Love Pains; the soft soul of Sweet Loving Ways; the poppy soul of A Casual Affair; the sad beauty of A Woman's Song; the "white funk" of Waiting On A Connection; the soul stylings of Night After Night and The Piccadilly Trail. Track after track is excellent. Many of them date from the time of Our Favourite Shop and possibly were considered not in line with the political message that most of the album's tracks contained. Many of the tracks here show Paul Weller's liking for both contemporary and classic soul and funk.

My Very Good Friend is another pop soul classic, as is the slowed down soul of (When You) Call Me. Big Boss Groove is an upbeat funker in the style of Internationalists and I Ain't Goin' Under is a funky bit of protest. Blood Sports is as tragic as the title suggests, as is the haunting Ghosts Of Dachau.

Check out Weller's work with The Jam and solo too :-
The Jam
Paul Weller

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