Thursday, March 22, 2012

In Defense of The Style Council

Time has not been kind to The Style Council. Heck, I don't think the 1980s were kind to The Style Council. They were a pretty polarizing group, especially to Mod folk then and now.
Front cover of The Style Population, a TSC Christmas card.
Many people dislike them for the musical genres they dabbled in and the dilution of their original Mod(ernist) leanings. Others love them for taking those risks and even credit Paul Weller with broadening the Mod musical spectrum (or letting him get away with things other bands could not have gotten away with). Personally, I'm mixed on the band and have been trying to give their whole catalogue another shot, coming at them with a different frame of mind in my older age.

But first, let's jump in the ol' time machine for a bit so I can think back to when I first heard them... diddly-doot...diddly-doot... diddly-doot... Ah yes... It was back in high school, at a time when I was deep into my Jam obsession and still identifying more with the punkish elements of a lot of those Mod revival bands. One day, I came across a copy of the Absolute Beginners movie soundtrack which included the Style Council song, 'Have You Ever Had It Blue?' (thanks to Le Drugstore 1968 for correcting me on the title). I knew this was Paul Weller's band after The Jam and couldn't wait to finally hear what they were about.

I got back to my record player, took the disk out of its sleeve, put the record on the turntable and prepared to be rocked with Mod power! After the song was over, I sat there bewildered. Something wasn't right. I re-played 'Have You Ever Had It Blue?' just to make sure. Yup, either my record needle was busted or the LP sleeve was mislabeled because this didn't sound like anything Paul Weller would have been involved with. Of course, it turned out I was wrong.
My wife's official Torch Society membership card, proving she was a Style Council fan before I was a Style Council fan.
It took about another year for my mind to open up a bit and the next Style Council song I sat down to listen to was 'My Ever Changing Moods.' This was the song that hooked me. After coming to terms with the fact that this was definitely NOT the sound of The Jam, I realized that, hey, it still sounded pretty good. Totally different, but good.

Over the next couple of years, I got even more into The Style Council, buying up their singles and LPs. As can probably be expected, not all of it was a hit with me. There were a lot of misses, some of which confused the heck out of me. (i.e., The Jam's lead man being okay with using drum machines?)

Over time, I think The Style Council has taken huge blows for many of those misses and I'm not necessarily going to disagree. Their attempts at rap songs, JerUSAlem, use of synthesizers and other effects, frosted blond hair, many parts of Confessions of A Pop Group... but I'm not here to pile on even more things to dislike about The Style Council. Instead, I'd like to take a different approach and offer up what I think are the
Top 10 Things The Style Council Did Right... Maybe.

1. A Return To A Mod(ernist) Aesthetic


I will go on record to say that Paul Weller was probably at his most 'Mod' during the very beginning of The Style Council, even more so than during his time with The Jam. (Now excuse me while I duck to avoid any flying shoes or tomatoes.) Fully influenced by Colin Macinnes's Absolute Beginners, he embraced café culture and '60s French stylings, eschewed parkas for rain macs, left behind a punkier sound for a jazzier one (for the most part), and really polished off his suit look. While many revival bands were probably still blasting out their mod angst singing about crowds and numbers, The Style Council smartened up and cleaned up their look and sound. They promoted a more well-read identity through their lyrics and sleeve-notes. And they tried incorporating a more jazz-based sound into their songs, again, for a good chunk of the time. Whether they succeeded or not is up to interpretation.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to pass and they eventually swayed away from this aesthetic. They left behind their Absolute Beginners leanings in favor of trendier, contemporary styles and sounds. For instance, Paul Weller (next to Mick Talbot), started off looking like this:
... and ended up looking like this:

2. Hammond Instrumentals
Paul Weller may get all the attention, but Mick Talbot, The Style Council's organist, was no slouch. According to Paul Weller, one of the reasons why he clicked with Talbot so well was that he "wanted that particular [Hammond] organ sound, because I've always like The Small Faces, who used it." Well, even though they were about as far from a Small Faces sound as you could get, they still released some pretty great Hammond instrumentals, including songs like 'Mick's Up', 'Mick's Company', and 'Mick's Blessings' (okay guys, we get it... trying Micksing it up a bit, why don't you?). Most of these songs appear on their earlier records, as Talbot eventually traded in the Hammond for a (gulp!) synthesizer, changing the band's sound overall on their later albums. It's too bad they didn't use more of these Hammond-driven songs later in their career as they probably could have provided a stronger bridge into the Acid Jazz era.

3. 'Solid Bond in Your Heart' 
I can't tell you how many times I rewound and played this video when I had it on an old bootleg VHS:
Everything thing about this was great, from the Northern Soul beat of the song itself to the dapper Mod outfits on Paul and Mick. So many things screamed 'Mod' to me in this video: Paul Weller's arrival on his scooter, Mick acting as soul DJ, a roomful of people getting down to soul sounds.

The first time I saw this video, there were only a handful of Modish types left in my area, so seeing all those people dancing in the video was as much a case of wishful thinking as it was to Paul and Mick. I mean, man... now that I think about it, this was a downer of a video! Both guys show up to the gymnasium looking forward to a day of soul-steppin' with their huge crew. Instead, they're the only two people who show up, and proceed to spend their entire allotted time at the gym reminiscing about the good old days.

Now, I don't know whose memory we're actually watching in this video, but either Paul remembers Mick being a loser with the ladies or Mick has some pretty low self-esteem. The most bummer part of the video? A bunch of teens waiting for these two friendless twenty-something old fogies to clear out so they can use the space. Heck, I'd be heading off to wallow in my early-onset mid-life crisis crying into a cup of cappuccino, too. But at least they're still dressing cool at this point, right?

4. The Cappuccino Kid
I got into The Style Council at around the same time I was heavily into Beat writers and, yes, I used to dream of moving to San Francisco to spend my days in North Beach. So, you can imagine how easily it was for me to accept the idea of a 'Cappuccino Kid.' I used to sit in my bedroom in La Puente, CA thinking about how cool it would be to walk around those San Francisco streets, dressed up in suit, tie, and sunglasses, with a copy of Desolation Angels under my arm, on my way to Caffe Trieste.

As you can probably guess, I enjoyed reading the liner notes and back sleeves of Style Council records, digging on the Cappuccino Kid's ramblings. Sure, they could be silly and pretentious, but so was I as a teen. For me, the Cappuccino Kid combined Modish sensibilities (um, he mentioned sta-prest a couple of times!) with what I perceived to be a Beat outlet (writing poetry while sipping espresso).

I'm not that young kid anymore... but I'm sure there are many young people out there, today, digging on Beat literature as if they were the first to discover it. And they may be the type of kids who would still get a kick out of the Cappuccino Kid.

For me, things are different now. I still dig Beat writers and all, but I haven't read them in years. I now live a block away from a Caffe Trieste in my neighborhood, and as much as I enjoy having breakfast there with my wife, it's nothing like what I envisioned as a teen. Instead of struggling writers counting up change for a cup of coffee, it's filled with yuppie couples and children running around eating their pastries. And these days, my work is about a 15 minute walk away from North Beach and sometimes I do walk up there in a suit and tie. Only I leave the books at home and skip drinking coffee at the original Caffe Trieste in favor of having cocktails or wine at Tosca Cafe, Vesuvio, and Specs.

5. Tracie
Yes, I'm going there.

I picked this record up based solely on the "Style Council-Related" sticker on the plastic sleeve. Tracie Young was the back-up vocalist on The Jam's 'Beat Surrender' and also provided back-up on The Style Council's first 45 ('Speak Like A Child') before moving on to a (short-lived) solo career produced by Paul Weller. The record above is totally silly and I totally dug it!

Now, I will admit that the #1 reason why I probably liked this song was because of Tracie's big, beautiful eyes. I didn't know any better and thought she was some Mod girl Paul Weller had found. (Granted, this was probably how Mod girls in the '80s, at least in LA, were dressing at the time.) There really wasn't anything 'mod' about her, but I didn't care. I was completely smitten. I'd have a crush on her up until seeing Tiffani-Amber Thiessen on Saved By the Bell my future wife outside a movie theater.

6. The Cover of 'Our Favorite Shop' 
The album cover to Our Favorite Shop is just fantastic: a hodgepodge of Modish memorabilia scattered throughout the shop while Paul and Mick loiter on. Sure, Paul's sporting a pretty 1980s haircut (same hair I'd have in my early new wave days) and Mick's wearing a 1940s-looking suit with white loafers, but for the most part, they look pretty slick. I mean, dig them creases on Weller's trousers.

But even more, dig everything in that shop! Ties, scarves, Al Green poster, Tamla Motown 45s, Kenny Burrell and Sly Stone LPs, Rave magazine with The Small Faces on the cover, '60s paperbacks to die for... I can keep writing, but I'd rather spend the time just absorbing this record cover. Oh yeah, and the LP's pretty good too. Except for maybe 'The Stand-Up Comics Instructions.'

7. Their 'Orange Album' Period Wasn't All THAT Bad
Yes, yes, you're cringing, I know it. The 'Cost of Loving' era of The Style Council, probably their most disliked. Oh, I get it. Trust me. These songs came out at a time when contemporary American R&B music was at its most over-produced and bland. I remember that music when I was a kid and I did NOT like it. Unfortunately, Paul Weller did like it at the time... a lot. So years later, when I first heard this album, I felt betrayed by Paul Weller and The Style Council (even though this album was already several years old by that point).
But I have been giving it another listen lately. No, I still don't love it, but I also don't hate it. As far as pop songs go, especially for that time period, some stuff on there isn't that bad. For instance, 'Cost of Loving' and 'Heavens Above' are pretty good songs overall. (I know, I know.) It's just all that '80s technology that gets in the way. (Full disclosure: my mom used to always play Anita Baker around the house when I was a kid and I grew to love it, which may be why I've learned to accept some of these songs.) And one of my all-time favorite TSC songs, 'Wanted,' is from this time period. Maybe it's because it sounds lifted from The Isley Brothers' 'Who's That Lady', but I've always really liked that song. Compare for yourselves:

Y'know, I'm really surprised that after all these years, some Mod band hasn't taken up the challenge of re-interpreting The Style Council's The Cost of Loving. Or imagine if one of these new soul bands actually re-did this as a real soul album? Hey, if J.J. Abrams can 're-imagine' Star Trek and  Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings can re-work Janet Jackson's 'What Have You Done For Me Lately,' then somebody can show people how good this album could be without all those synthesizers and programmed drum beats!

God, maybe I am getting old. I just wrote some positive words about The Cost of Loving.

8. Strong Political Stances
I was a naive little kid spending the 1980s worrying more about what kind of damage my little brother could do to my Transformers collection than I did about what kind of damage Reagan and Thatcher were doing to the world. But hey, childhood! Paul Weller & Co., however, were at that perfect age to see what was going on with the world and to try doing something about it.

You may not have agreed with their more leftist viewpoints, but you have to give them credit for trying to get their ideas across through the power of pop (not rock) music. Seriously, how many dance songs do you know of with lines like:
Are you gonna get to realise
The class war's real and not mythologized 
(From 'Walls Come Tumbling Down')

Sure, many of their political songs are dated these days. Things are different today than they were 25 years ago (better or worse is up to your own interpretation). And yes, they should have followed Bob Dylan's habit of keeping political songs universal instead of specific to the times. But y'know what? As much as I love Dylan, I just can't dance the same way to 'Masters of War' as I can to 'Walls Come Tumbling Down.'
(Plus, I gotta give The Style Council credit for opening my eyes to one of the French Revolution's most notorious figures, Jean-Paul Marat, thanks to his famous 'flick of the finger' speech on the back of the Café Bleu LP. I wish more pop bands assumed they had a more literate audience.)

9. Simon Halfon's Designs
What The Style Council lacked in consistent sounds they made up for in consistent design, thanks to their graphic designer, Simon Halfon. Influenced by Blue Note's Reid Miles's use of sans serif type and monochromatic images, Halfon created a great Modernist identity for the band early on. Even as the band morphed away, stylistically, from a Modernist look into more contemporary fashion styles, Halfon kept the look of their albums, singles, and posters pretty consistent, while still moving his own style forward. He kept things clean and modern with limited color palettes, sparse imagery, and the aforementioned sans serif fonts.


10. Good or Bad, They Moved Forward
Love them or hate them, you have to admit that they did try to progress musically. Starting off as late-'50s-looking Modernists trying to capture a jazzier sound, they ended in t-shirts and neon shorts playing contemporary pop music... in about 4 years. That's a pretty huge progression in any pop band's life. Take a look at how most 1960s bands shifted from an R'n'B sound and look to psychedelia in the about the same amount of time. These days, most bands don't really change all that much. The Pearl Jam of today is probably the same Pearl Jam of 20 years ago, only with less hair. The Style Council of 1983 was a vastly different band than The Style Council of 1987.

Again, the direction they moved into might not be your cup of tea (I'm mixed), but they took that risk. That's pretty ballsy in my book. Unfortunately, they were a product of the technology and music trends of their time. Drum machines, bass synths, and the influence of Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis production techniques took them in an area I still haven't grown to fully accept yet. But I give them credit for being brave enough to try it. Moving forward was a great idea in theory. Too bad they were just a victim of the times. (By the way, NOT moving forward isn't a bad thing either. Some bands find a sound that works for them and just spend their career improving upon it with great results, i.e., the Daptone bands, Nick Lowe, Nicola Conte, etc.)

And, let me say now that, NO, there's nothing necessarily 'mod' about moving forward. I know people out there may think that by virtue of changing with the times they were, in fact, being 'mod' or living 'modernist' ideals to the fullest, but I disagree. Just because what they were doing was modern for the time does NOT necessarily mean it was 'mod'. Remember, 'mod' was never short for 'modern'. (Heck, if that was the case, everything modern today would be 'mod.')

That said, The Style Council's choice to build upon their sound and change with the times or move forward was not necessarily a bad thing for them. You and I may not have been into it, but for them, it was all growth. And from what I've been reading, Paul Weller's still growing.

And ain't nothin' really wrong with that.

[For further Style Council readings, try these links:
1. Wholepoint Publications for all your Style Council needs.
2. The Anorak Thing's experiences with The Style Council, Part 1 & Part 2 (A counterpoint to this post that is very well written and super funny!)
3. The It Sparkles blog with some fantastic scans of TSC memorabilia.]

Style Council-era Paul Weller, walking away from the ugly look of parkas and (ugh) boxing boots. Unfortunately, the slicked-back hair and highwatered, cuffed pants aren't much better. (Thom Browne must have loved this look, though.)

19 comments:

  1. Brilliantly argued. I was a bit late getting into the Jam, but was there right from the start with the Style Council, and still love them. One thing you don't mention was that their slightly more romantic sound helped grow their female fan base; I've seen loads of women melt to 'You're the Best Thing', or 'Long Hot Summer'.

    There's a fab BBC documentary about Weller, where Mick explains the frustrations Paul would face during this period of dealing with fans who couldn't deal with him not playing a Rickenbacker, for example. I'm sure you can find it on the interweb somewhere.

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    1. Nicole, thank you so much! Oh, and please... I don't want to go into their effect on women. Do you realize how many lady friends go on and on and on about the TSC (and Weller) appeal? Sheesh! But let me start on Tracie and watch me get shot down.

      I'm going to hunt down that documentary. It's really interesting how the guitar was so central to people's opinions of PW. I'll admit when that first Paul Weller Movement single came out and he was advertising the target and rocking the guitar again, yeah... I felt like he had 'returned' to us.

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  2. Well done, though I agree to disagree it was a very entertaining, engrossing read! And if I still had my Tracie 45 of "The House That Jack Built" I'd gladly send it your way.......and thanks for the "Anorak Thing" plug!!

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    1. Sir, I was cleaning outside and heard Irene laughing out loud. Of course, I thought she must be reading this blog entry. I walked in to check and it was YOUR comment about Springsteen she was laffing about! Your blog and comments have been killing us!

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  3. Nice article on TSC. I would note that The Style Council also released an amazing list of B-sides like The Piccadilly Trail, It Just Came To Pieces In My Hands, Spin Drifting and Sweet Loving Ways, which I find flawless. The Style Council definitely balanced between Mod (or Modernist) music and sophisti-pop. Far more closely linked then Weller would ever admit. Confessions of a Pop Group and Modernism: A New Decade are still absolute classics despite the general view. Cost of Loving is actually an underrated album in my view. The opening It Didn't Matter sounds like a lost Jam and Lewis track (i.e.: High Hopes by S.O.S. Band), which I find to be TSC most adventurous singles. The rap on "Right To Go" is laughable I'll grant you that, but Heaven's Above and Fairy Tales are incredible. Anyone ever notice that the fade in and out at the end of Fairy Tales (which was mixed by Curtis Mayfield) sounds like the Impression's Mighty Mighty Spade and Whitey? My mom had the Anita Baker album as well, so I was familiar with Angel as well before I got the album. Their rendition is quite nice. Walking the Night and Waiting are all gems as well. Though I prefer the Wanted B-Side version of Cost of Loving, the album version is fine as well. All in all, Cost of Loving rates pretty high for me.

    Oh also, the song from Absolute Beginners is "Have You Ever Had It Blue" not the similarly sounding "With Everything To Lose."

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    1. My man, don't think I didn't have you in mind the ENTIRE time I was writing this. Out of everyone I know, you have always been the biggest champion of Cost of Loving, back when we were all deriding it.

      Years later, I've been trying to re-evaluate it. And yeah, on a pure pop level, there were some good things there. I finally came around, if not 100%, at least 75%. Especially on Confesssions. Still not a fan of Jam and Lewis stylings, but I can appreciate what TSC were trying to do. I do need to give 'Fairy Tales' a more thorough listen now, though.

      Also, I meant to include a photo of the patch, but that has to come later as I need to get my jacket fixed up. I wanted to get this post up, but both of us were bumming I didn't include it. It's coming...

      (And thanks for the song correction. You're totally right!)

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  4. Well balanced post Carlos, as always.

    One thing Weller certainly did wrong is seen in the Solid Bond in Your Heart video. He drops that beautiful Lambretta TV! Paul, come on! What's wrong with you?! It's a TV for God's sake!

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    1. I know, right Patrick! That's the one part of the video that ALWAYS made us cringe.

      Also, that gal that Mick is trying to hook up with? Man, it doesn't get more "'80s" than her hairstyle!

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  5. Lots of laugh out loud moments reading your piece. I play a bit and understand you dont want to stand still as a musician. Playing is fun, but the challenge makes it more fun. Creativity can be so very rewarding.

    I think at the time Paul loved the Soul sound, and thought it was the way forward. I think us English guys have always tried to be soul boys, but we dont quite have the swing of the USA guys. Meaning i would love to play guitar like one of the funk brothers or Steve cropper, but cambridgeshire is hardly a HOT bed of SOUL.

    The Style Council possibly followed the MOD ethic than The Jam, but lost their way several times. My mate andy was the royal albert hall gig where weller went house. And it was lost alot on alot of the crowd he said.

    The Indie band Pulp said that most bands have 2 times when thier music fits, Weller has had more than most. Which in a career is not bad at all !.

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    1. Haha, thanks Andrew! And you're right... you really do have to credit PW with trying to carry that Modernist idea forward by embracing those contemporary soul sounds. Unfortunately, it was at a time when soul was getting overpowered by over-production.

      Imagine if the TSC were around today with new soul getting back to horns and simple playing!

      And that's another great point about Weller... he's the guy who keeps bouncing back!

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  6. If they had lasted a bit longer, they probably would have coincided with the Acid Jazz movement and been treated as conquering heroes!

    I too was a member of the Torch Society and still have those snappy quarterly magazines, membership card etc somewhere. Weller even sent me an autographed 8X10 when I joined which really surprised me.

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    1. They were so so close with that King Truman 45. And that first Paul Weller Movement single was amazing... he was really heading in the right direction.

      I tried signing up for The Torch Society... unfortunately, this was in about 1990 or so, when I didn't realize TSC was pretty done!

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  7. I totally agree that "they probably would have coincided with the Acid Jazz movement and been treated as conquering heroes!" They even released a 12" on Acid Jazz called King Truman's "Like A Gun" which uses a pre-P-Funk/ Acid Jazz sound for 1988! Not their best song by a long shot, but one can nevertheless see Weller's musical intentions. Also, Weller's early solo song "That Spiritual Feeling" adopts an Acid Jazz vibe as well as "Here's A New Thing." I find it a bit sad that the TSC audience didn't quite get Weller's House stage, it really isn't that crazy for the time. By 1989, ABC, Blow Monkeys, Duran Duran, etc were all putting out House albums and 12 inches. I find it totally bewildering that Polydor couldn't see the trend, I kind of think there was something more personal in their decision to not release their last album. Again. thanks Carlos for your cool article on my favorite band! Interestingly, The Style Council really opened up my world to soul music. First Northern Soul, with A Solid Bond In Your Heart and all the icon references on the record sleeves (the fist/ the torch). They also initiated my interest in 70s and 80s soul (breaking me out of my 60s bubble) with songs like Shout To The Top and The Lodgers, You're The Best Thing, and It Didn't Matter. I started to appreciate disco, Brit-funk, and Jam & Lewis. And through their House period, I got familiar with Larry Heard and Blaze. The Style Council are a really important band for me, because through them, I learned a world of music. As much as I love The Jam, I cannot say the same about them. Also, I really love the clothes and style!

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  8. Very entertaining and agree with much of it. Delving into their catalogue for an absolute beginner now would no doubt cause all sorts of confusion but at the time they did kinda follow a fairly logical path reflecting very much the political and musical landscape. It was an interesting time and for those of us of a certain age their influence on all manner of things can't be understated (as commented on above). Did make a few right stinkers though!

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  9. I pretty much agree with Le Drugstore 1968. Whether you think Weller lost the plot with The Style Council or not depends on if your definition of mod/modernism is one of strict adherence to all things 60's or more expansive where you stay up to all things cultured, tasteful and soulful as they change and evolve. During the Council era, Weller seemed to be of the latter mindset and I would say was the better for it. Acid Jazz, Brit Funk/Soul-boy Culture, Casuals etc. are all manifestations of the UK mod ethos re-adapted for the modern era from where I stand but what do I know?

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  10. I didn't really like The Style Council either, but there were a few songs that they did "right."

    I just love "The Paris Match." I heard the Paul version first and liked it, but when I heard Tracy Thorn sing it on the "My Ever Changing Moods/Cafe Bleu" LP it floored me! If anyone is not moved by that version - you're not human. The first version of "Headstart To Happiness" was pretty great too - the lyrics are the winner. Other notable songs: "It Just Came To Pieces In My Hands," "Walls Come Tumbing Down," "Solid Bond" (as you mentioned), "The Whole Point Of No Return," and a few others I'm forgetting. Another great one, Carlos!

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  11. Nice one!

    You were spot on when you mentioned that TSC/Paul broadend the "Mod musical spectrum". I reckon they were a road map of sorts to other genres of music that some folk may have otherwise not been exposed to. At least not at the time. In spite of that, some of their music was still lost on me. It's interesting to consider the collection of songs on "Here's Some That Got Away". The songs seem to span almost the full range of their stylings from cafe jazz to american 80's soul. I appreciate the strides that were made in redefining themselves. Weller, these days, is doing Weller in fine form, but much of his later music sounds similar in my ears. I can't really distinguish a song from one LP to that of another. That said, with my sudden renewed interest in my own ska/mod/soul leanings, I will make it a point to also "re-discover" his latter catalogue. Thanks for the blog, sir!

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  12. Oh, and one more thing...

    Since you referenced the similarities between "Wanted" and the Isley Brothers track, it had me recall the similarity between "Luck" and "Harvest For The World". Then I found this...http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjiMRtWFCUU!

    Yikes!

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  13. Brilliant post I only now found thanks to a Google search. Nice to know many others were as moved by the Style Council and Paul Weller's persona. I was Googling because I just wrote two pieces for my blog. Check them out, you might like them: http://www.oncewerebachelors.blogspot.com/2013/04/more-adventures-with-style-council.html and http://www.oncewerebachelors.blogspot.com/2013/04/what-i-wore-twenty-five-years-ago-what.html.

    You have a great blog that I'm thoroughly enjoying! Keep it up.

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