Music Features

Our Favourite Shop: Thirty Years On

For such a complex man, Paul Weller isn't hard to figure out. Box him in and he wiggles himself out like a double-jointed escape artist. When the forced march of life as a pop star reaches a dead end, he escapes with his boldest artistic moves. That explains his departure from The Jam's in 1982, when the trio was at its peak, which left fans and band members in the lurch. Musically, though, the transition to the soul-pop of The Style Council was less jarring, a move that had begun on The Jam's last records. That he found a more willing partner in Mick Talbot goes without question. It gave Weller, a man of instinct, a chance to start fresh.

Record buyers were quick to forgive. Pop singles like Speak Like A Child and A Solid Bond were irresistible, and Money-Go-Round showed that Weller hadn't lost his convictions. The singles and EPs drew inspiration from northern soul, cool jazz, and continental pop, yet this adventurous spirit failed to soar on the band's first album. Mind you, Café Bleu was a big seller, even in America, where its title was changed to My Ever Changing Moods to capitalize on the band's first and only top twenty hit there. However, the album lacked the raw angst that was taken for granted during Jam days. The next offering would make up for it. Weller never strayed far from his working-class roots, and he couldn't ignore the societal changes around him. It was time for some hard truths.

May 29 marked the 30th anniversary of Our Favourite Shop. Mick Talbot has called the album a diary of the times, but what's surprising, thirty years on, is how little has changed. The violent confrontations of the miners' strike are long gone, but the fight for workers' rights and decent living wages is current news. Take for instance the opening song, Homebreakers, which is about young workers forced to relocate for job opportunities. It could be the farewell song for people living in places like Detroit and Puerto Rico. Complex emotions are conveyed in simple lines like these: "Now our tears fall like rain as my mother walks me to my train/ with a kiss and a wave "Come home weekends, that's if I can save". This grim situation gets the black comedy treatment on All Gone Away, where a playful Latin beat marks time as a tight community becomes a ghost town. The magical misery tour screeches to a halt on Come To Milton Keynes. Private scheme ads, with their rosy promises, lure job-seekers to the new city, who'll find themselves toeing the line there: "In our paradise lost we'll be finding our sanity/ In this paradise found we'll be losing our way." The Lodger warn us not to settle in that place, where the room at the top is reserved for leeches.

Weller has the instinct of a good dramatist. With Everything To Lose captures the drudgery of dead-end jobs, the sense of everything going wrong with no room for escape. This rush of feeling is elemental, which taps directly from everyday situations experienced by family and friends. Without it, agitprop tracks like Internationalists and Walls Come Tumbling Down would miss the mark, yet their call for unity is still compelling in these conservative times.

Despite all this intensity, there is space for other moods. A Stones Throw Away is superbly atmospheric, thanks to a masterful string arrangement by John Mealing. Luck and The Boy Who Cried Wolf are love songs, both imbued with a musical sophistication that recalls emerging groups such as Aztec Camera and Prefab Sprout. Yet Weller stands apart from those bands in his commitment to raw emotions, so the production sheen is reined in. Case in point, the French-chanson feel of Down In The Seine doesn't disguise the desperate plea for help; the brass arrangement of A Man Of Great Promise is there to support the story, not to distract from it. By and large, the production sins found in so many eighties records are hard to find here.

Notwithstanding the volatile feelings about the state of the country, Weller leaves us with glints of hope. As prayers go, Shout To The Top demands action, and not just from The Almighty. The aim of the record, which pops from nearly every track, is to fight complacency, but there's no attempt to tie the loose strands under the guise of a concept album, just a desire to report what's going on. Weller's instincts proved to be right, because it made the top of the UK charts.

In America, the album's title was changed to Internationalists, and the title track was chucked away for good measure, as if an old-school Mod instrumental would directly impair sales. It revealed some marketing concerns from Geffen Records, but all their efforts were futile. For one, the songs couldn't be dumbed down to fit the mindless pap of Top 40 radio, which shunned personal views, whether political or social. Secondly, the group didn't make a proper tour in support of it, which would've meant touring months on end across the continent just to crack some key markets. It could also be argued that the tracks were too British; however, it wasn't hard to find parallels with the state of Reagan America, where economic realities were being criminally misrepresented. Let's not forget that the long drain of job outsourcing began in the eighties.

Although The Style Council never saw themselves as a pop commodity, their record company did. Their next effort, The Cost Of Loving (1987), felt rushed in, and sales began to slip. The shift to a pared-down style on Confessions Of A Pop Group (1988) confounded the public, resulting in dismal sales, and what should have been a rebirth ended as an epitaph. Modernism: A New Decade (1989), a bold experiment with techno sounds, was rejected by their label. It was finally released in 1998, years after the band's split.

As a solo artist, Weller continues to grow and adapt. Some months ago I was surprised to see him on an American news show, sartorially perfect on a Sunday morning, playing with his band in support of his last album. Had he done that kind of promotion thirty years ago, the story would be different. As things stand, a great deal of his music remains undiscovered by the American public. Even those familiar with The Jam's catalog would be dazzled by the sheer diversity of his recording output. Our Favourite Shop ranks amongst his best, a perfectly balanced work that has stood the test of time.

Weller the artist continues to move on. Right now, he's riding another wave of musical reinvention that began with 22 Dreams. One thing remains unchanged, though: his sensitivity to the troubles of ordinary people. At heart, he's still a working-class lad trying to make sense of the world around him.