Paul Weller Interview Face, The, May 1982
AS PAUL WELLER says, in the mid-1960s the original spirit of Mod implanted itself into the soul of young Britain with a self-nurturing, almost religious zeal. Outside of London in particular it has continued to be nourished by such cultural phenomena as Northern Soul and scooter clubs. It is also worth repeating that a large part of the sharpest, most stylish edge of Punk had its roots in Mod.
As a glance at The Jam's live audiences attests, this has been a major factor in sustaining the colossal British popularity of the group: especially in the provinces, the Born Again Mods of the ‘70s are vastly outnumbered by those who - no matter what their particular current tribal loyalty - draw the majority of their roots direct from the source of that main mid-‘60s British youth movement.
But the main reason for the huge success of The Jam is the hypnotic listenabilty of Paul Weller's songs. His melodic modern folk music, spattered with the action painting of his words, is at once distantly aloof and super-intimate, a paradox given clearer definition by the austere figure of Paul Weller himself, an older brother rather than a prophet or icon to The Jam's increasingly youthful live audiences.
We talk in his room at the Leicester Holiday Inn, prior to second of the group's two shows in that East Midlands town. There is a Cromwellian, Puritanical obsessiveness in the manner in which Paul Weller continually returns to railing against what he defines dismissively as "those pop groups" - the likes of Depeche Mode and Adam Ant - betrayers, he believes, of the destiny of their musical form.
Always lighting yet another cigarette, Paul Weller gathers his worried brows into a v-shaped knot between his eyes, like a stone arrowhead emblematic of the forward flight of his purposeful intent. Weller responds with pensive, spontaneous anxiety to the sometimes troubling subject-matter arising out of our conversation, leaning his gaunt body across the table that separates us. Only occasionally does he flop back on his chair and emit a light laugh.
It's serious business being Paul Weller, especially when you are constantly checking yourself to ensure you are not being self-deluded into taking yourself too seriously. Incidentally, there is no sign whatsoever of his delivering a practised stock interview rap - half the time he is interviewing me, asking me what I think.
The ostensibly well-ordered Weller reveals much of his humanity in the tip-like state of his room, a situation about which he apologises with a satisfied smirk. The room is littered with unfolded clothes belonging to both him and his girlfriend, who is in charge of the group's merchandising when The Jam are on the road.
Running shoes lie on the bed next to a Bush mono record-player. On the table in front of us, curling up at the edges, is a plate of white bread cheese sandwiches - Paul Weller has been a vegetarian since his girlfriend converted him from meat-eating in 1978. An Eek-a-Mouse LP is at the front of a pile of recent reggae records leaning against the bed: "Eek-a-Mouse is a bit gloomy. I much prefer Clint Eastwood - he's got much more life, more bubbly."
On the floor is an open copy of a history of the French Revolution. "I just read anything that interests me," he says. "I don't think I've got such a thing as a favourite novelist, apart from Orwell. I've just read All Quiet On The Western Front. That says a lot about how we arrived at where we are today, about the feelings of the young people then who were involved in the First World War - it's really strong."
His own publishing company, Riot Stories, is shortly putting out a fanzine with its own flexidisc, as well as another volume from Newcastle poet Aidan Cant. "I'm definitely going to expand the publishing thing," he threatens. In addition, Weller and The Jam now run two record labels, Respond, distributed by Polydor, and Jamming, which they themselves put into the shops.
Paul Weller rarely goes out in the evenings. Never an ardent club-goer, he says he has now given up nightclubbing completely. Occasionally he visits the cinema, though he seems to be invariably disappointed. Carry On films are his favourite: "I saw an advertisment for Death Wish II: it seemed to have all the ingredients for a box office success - a few rapes, a few murders. To me it all just adds to the fuckin' sickness. The other week I saw Heartbeat, that film about Kerouac. But I wasn't impressed. I'm not impressed with The Beat Generation anyway. It's the same with Burroughs. I read one of his books when I was at school – Junkie - I thought it was a load of crap to be honest - another big myth. Like Henry Miller. I'd like to read some D H Lawrence, but the mentality of that time seems so hard to get into.
"What about the music papers, though?" he suddenly demands. "I think they're terrible!"
Anyway, I hear you've given up drinking.
"I gave it up last October. I still have a pint now and then, but I don't get pissed anymore. I got fed up waking up feeling like a sack of shit. Mind you, it was only about one night a week that I'd stay up all night, pissing it up. It used to be a laugh. But you can't do it forever. I particularly used to drink on tour, because it's so boring, hanging about with nothing else to do but drink. I've given up dope as well, but I was never a great drug-abuse person. Mainly it's just that I want to keep straight so that I can think straight."
Part of the dope myth is that it makes you think more clearly.
"It doesn't do that at all. It's like people say that speed is good for writing, but that's complete crap: it's a totally different vision that you're coming out with then. It's not your truth."
A lot of the lyrics on The Gift are very good: it's an excellent record.
"I think it's the best thing we've done. I thought that at the time about All Mod Cons, and then about Sound Affects - not as much about the other three. But this one - definitely. I really felt it at the time we were making it. There were no precious decisions about what we were doing. It was just a case of putting everything we'd got into it. And to me that comes across, especially when you hear it on the radio, next to all the other records. It just leaps out."
I heard you were worried about making the record.
"I'm always worried about doing a record. Because I'm not the kind of writer that always has 12 or 14 songs all ready and rehearsed for when we go into the studio. I pick up ideas as I go along. In fact, a lot of the time I write in the studio. That really slow track, ‘Ghosts’, was done like that. I really think it's one of our best songs."
That's the song with the lines, "Don't live up to your given roles/There's more inside you that you won't show/But you keep it hidden just like everyone". Are those very autobiographical lines?
"Probably, yeah. That song is about all the cults that British people adopt, including myself with the Mod thing. And I think that comes about because a real sense of purpose is missing in most of our lives. A kid who's straight out of school, even if he's not on the dole, all he's got at the end of the week is his wage packet. And that is just not enough. It's not just down to a money thing, is it? It's down to a sense of purpose in life. Even money isn't a great power to actually inspire people's lives."
I read something where you were slagging off Ghosts In The Machine by The Police, saying that if there wasn't a political solution you might as well give up.
"Of course there's a solution. It's just that none of it works at the moment. The thing is to get away from the idea that the way it is at the moment, in both East and West, is therefore the natural order of things. Neither system works - that's obvious."
Yet you were prepared to vote Labour simply to try to keep the Tories out. Which in the end is obviously a very negative decision to make.
"It is, because it means you're not voting for them because you think they're a great party. On the Continent the Social Democratic Parties are very much the middle party. But in England the SDP is not the same thing at all - they're like another fuckin' Tory Party."
In the past, you've compared all political organizations with Boy Scouts or school societies. Yet you've joined CND.
"I think people are right to be suspicious about all such movements. But as far as campaigning against nuclear arms goes, I don't think there's a political choice - in fact, you can only decide one of two things: you either want nuclear arms or you don't. The worst thing is when people feel they're powerless to do anything about it, and they think, "Fuck it: I might as well have a good time if I can't change it." To me all those pop groups are just feeding them that – that's morally wrong as well as dangerous. Mind you, it's because of those groups that I think our audiences are getting younger-otherwise I wouldn't have any explanation as to why we get such young people coming to see us, even though I also think there are a lot of people who've grown up with us since 1977. But generally there isn't much going on in music. All those pop groups are so fuckin' shallow, and those kids are seeing them for what they are."
I know you're very into the idea of The Kids. But isn't it more to do with people's attitudes than their ages?
"I don't know. I tend to get a bit chauvinistic about youth. I believe in it. I know what you're saying - that the basic thing should just be people. It's just that I always remember the feeling of being 18, and it's great to know that you're that age."
Have you lost that feeling?
"Yeah... But it's not a question of losing it, but of accepting that you can't have it anymore. The important thing is to remember what it was like. That's the trouble with older people - they forget. Even people my age have probably forgotten. They regard 16 and 17-year-olds as idiots. In fact, most of my old school-mates do. But Punk really was the alternative culture to that. People put Punk down now."
I know. Especially in the music press - that sickens me. It's all about... sniggering at it. But I still passionately believe in it. So does that put you in a difficult position? Do you feel you have to become like an elder statesman?
"I don't feel I have to. It just gets hoisted upon me. The Elder Statesman at 23? I think that's a load of fuckin' crap."
You speak out against the notion of heroes. Yet you yourself certainly are one.
"Yeah. And that pisses me off. Because it's a trap."
A trap for yourself, or for those regarding you as a hero?
"For them, really. Except ultimately it will trap me and the group as well. That's my one big worry - that we'll become institutionalised, and that'll be that. It means you have to keep working within the confines of whatever image people have put upon you. But what else can you do about it? You can shy away from certain things, like the daily papers, and all the pin-ups, and be honest with people. But... I dunno: if there were a lot of other groups working the same way as us then it could be different. But most of them opt out for commercial success and everything that goes with it. It's like all the bullshit you hear from people in those pop groups - that people want stars, that they want the chance to dress up once a week, and escape from it all. Who says they want that?"
Personally I would have thought that you should be able to feel good all of the time.
"I would have thought so."
But how do you cope with money? Presumably you now have a reasonably large bank balance: do you feel guilty about it?
"No. I used to. But I don't feel guilty about it anymore, because there are a lot of people who've got a lot more fuckin' money than I have, who don't deserve it. I feel guilty when I think about the money people like nurses get, people who are doing...[laughs] I was going to say, ‘proper jobs'. Anyway, people who're doing really important jobs. All that's ludicrous, but that's our whole money system, isn't it? But I am trying to do something with what I've got, like the two labels, for example. And I'm also trying to get a studio. I'm not just hoarding it, and I'm not extravagant with it, either. I think I'd feel a lot more guilty if I was extravagant - if I was buying my girlfriend mink coats, or shooting up a 1,000 worth of junk every week."
Heroin is very popular these days, of course.
"Another decadent trap. It really surprises me about a lot of the bands who've come from the punk era. Do you know what I mean? They're just like any fuckin' American rock group, just debauched junkies. It's that whole rock'n'roll thing. It's all returned to that again - it's almost like punk never happened. That's basically what I think we should be fighting against in The Jam. There are other bands like The Beat - they've got the right idea. I think it's just a question of smashing all that myth, all those pop and rock'n'roll myths."
Do you still go on public transport?
"Yeah. Obviously if you're on tour you don't, because people know you're in town. But in London I do, because there are so many people there you just get lost amongst them all. When we were recording The Gift up in Oxford Street I used to get a bus there every day. I think things like that are important, because... I dunno: when you say it keeps your feet on the ground it sounds a bit patronising. But really it's a question of still mixing with ordinary people, isn't it?"
But do you do that? Aren't you a bit of a loner?
"I suppose I'm quite a private person."
Do you have many friends?
"Not in abundance. But the people I have got as friends I trust implicitly so..."
What year was it that you moved up to London from Woking?
You were given a lot of stick about coming from Woking: there was the assumption that because that was your home town you were therefore middle-class, that secretly The Jam were Tory Rock.
"People who say things like that are talking out of their arse-holes. You end up having to justify your working-class pedigree - you can't do anything about that, I suppose. But our house in Stanley Way where we first lived in Woking before we moved to the estate was like a Victorian house a hundred years old with no hot water and no bath and an outside shithouse. But if you mention that in print, it sounds,
‘Hello: Professional Working-class.' So I prefer not to really talk about it."
Not only do you have the problem of being regarded as Working-class, but also of being seen as a Professional Earnest Person. Do you find all that very difficult?
"It gets on my tits to have to constantly justify myself. My thing is that people either trust me or they don't. I don't think I'll ever let people down, because I have got a basic integrity. Anyway, I couldn't do that to people - I'd just feel too bad if it was for selfish reasons."
Have there been many times when you've realized you had to really watch yourself?
"No, not really. Other groups keep me in check. When I see all these other fuckin' groups - all the really fradulent bands that're around - that keeps me in check. That keeps me realizing what we should be doing - showing that bunch of wankers up for what they are. It's like their bad behaviour keeps me in check."
How has having your father as manager helped?
"It's great. Because we're really good friends. We always have been. We'd always go out drinking together."
Have you got any brothers or sisters?
"A sister. She's about 19."
It's very good that you can have that kind of relationship with your father.
"I'm lucky, because I've always got on well with my mum and dad. I think it's because they're younger than many kids' parents - my dad's only 50 now - which really helps."
So how do you feel about the idea of the family unit?
"I think it's really important. Like I was saying before, a lot of people when they get past a certain age forget what it's like to be young. But that's one thing my old man never seems to have forgotten. He's not a conventional person - none of my family are. He believes in the power of young people and youth. His thing is that they are the life-blood of the country, which is obviously true, and that therefore they should have a much more important role in saying things. They are the future, so obviously they should have a hand in carving out how that future should be developed. He really believes in that, so it's easy for me to get on with him."
The current fashionable attempts to break down the family structure are obviously fallacious: the family has always stood as a symbol of strength and unity.
"Yeah, I agree. I think it would be a bad thing if it ever came about that the family was finally broken down. That was one of Orwell's things: he reflected on it in 1984, but it was featured more strongly in a couple of his essays: that the family unit would be broken down, and people would become isolated. The family unit is important, because if it works it shows you how to work with other people - just that basic commonsense of working with other people, of acknowledging and respecting other people around you. So if the family unit is broken down, then it's like that whole thing gets broken down - that whole kind of respect towards other people, and how you work with them and treat them."
That's one of the important things about groups - people in them have to acknowledge each other's existences and inter-relate with each other.
"That's why I like being in The Jam. If we split up there are other things I could do, obviously, but it wouldn't be the same at all. Because it's great when you're doing things with other people and you get something that really works and you're part of. I think I'd really miss that above all else. It's a long time now: it's eight years we've been together - a long fuckin' time. But we understand each other's temperaments."
That's why it's often much better than music that comes from the solo star with his backing band."
"It's crap all that. Even when I get singled out, even doing this interview. When the LP came out there was my face on the front of every music paper - what a load of shit."
At the time I wondered if that had been consciously manipulated.
"Well, it's tempting, isn't it? I have got a basic ego, just like everyone else. But after you've seen five or six papers, you start to think,
‘Fuckin' 'ell: if I'm getting sick of it, so must everyone else.' And it isn't just me: with my dad as well there are definitely four of us in this group: if you took away one of us it wouldn't work."
But how do Bruce and Rick feel about you writing almost all the songs?
"That's always fallen to me - that's my role. I think it's accepted. There's no conflict about it. I've always been the writer in the group - that's what I like most doing. Rick's tried to write songs, but he's never come up with anything. I don't think it really causes anyone any turmoil."
It's known that Ray Davies is your all-time favourite songwriter: what is it about him that appeals so much?
It's only his early stuff I really like. He was the only person writing in that way at the time - writing about basic, ordinary life. And it's very pure English language that he uses - there are never any Americanisms in it."
Certainly he understands what songs are about, about melodies...
Which you do.
"I've always been into melodic music. I think in the end that's what it's down to. It's not as confining as people make out - there are a lot of things you can do with melody."
How do you write? On a guitar?
"It all depends. I mainly start with lyrics, and work on the tunes later. The way we work, we're a very disciplined group. But my writing's not that disciplined - I have scraps of paper with a couple of lines written on them, or a list of titles which I think sound interesting, and I work from there. I might have about three separate lyrics which in the end I join together into one song. I carry most of my ideas around with me in my head, and it's just a question of finding the right openings for them. I don't know if a lot of people work like I do. Because for all the disciplined image which The Jam have - which is partly true - I don't think many people could work like us: two weeks before we go into the studio, I won't have any songs, and everyone'll be a bit worried. Then I'll just come up with it on the first day. It seems to work for us like that."
Do you think the songs are more personal on this album?
"It's directly what I feel, directly me, directly my thoughts on it. Pete Townshend wrote an article about you recently in Time Out magazine: he said you obviously were in a great rush to get your words out when you wrote them, and that's why they never rhyme - which, in fact, they often do.
But what's rhyming got to do with it? You can tell he's from the Old School. Ray Davies' rhyme, but not conventionally. What is it he does in ‘Dead End Street’? He rhymes ‘And my feet are nearly frozen' with ‘pour some tea and put the toast on'. (laughs) What the fuck does rhyme matter? It's rhythm that matters."
So how do you feel these days about Pete Townshend? He was always made out to be your spiritual mentor.
"I think that's a load of shit. We've totally surpassed the Who-thing. When we started off, what we were doing was totally derived from that '65 Who thing - the look, the sound of the guitars, everything. But this is five years later, and obviously we've developed on from that, into us - The Jam. These days I don't think Pete Townshend knows what he's fuckin' on about at all."
Chris Salewicz, Face, The, May 1982