|Front cover of The Style Population, a TSC Christmas card.|
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.|
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
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:
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.
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
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).
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')
(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.)|