/ Absolute beginners, Polydor, 1981
I know I come from Woking and you say I’m a fraud
But my heart’s in the city, where it belongs
– The Jam, ‘Sounds from the street’
If in 1981 you were to pick one group which epitomised fantasy, and one to oppose them on the side of reality, you could probably make no better pairing than Duran Duran and the Jam. Despite the young Paul Weller’s faux pas in his first NME interview as to his voting intentions, it was clear by the mid-point of the new Conservative government’s first term that – stung into politicization by his gaffe – he was developing a red core, while Simon Le Bon, Nick Rhodes and the unrelated posse of Taylors were seemingly unconcerned about the state of the nation, and were therefore Thatcher’s perfect children. While Duran Duran went swanning on beaches in Sri Lanka (as the very reverend Pete Wylie would later put it in ‘Weekends’), Weller concerned himself with the double-edged joys of working class life as inventoried in ‘That’s entertainment’ and ‘A town called Malice’. Obviously Le Bon et al were seeking – and found – fame and fortune, while Weller chose to make musical art, often as pointed as it was pleasurable. What he sought was artistic perfection, of a kind – the instinctive desire and lifelong dedication required to craft a pop song that could not be improved upon. Reaching for something tantalisingly out of grasp; the creative equivalent of naïve political idealism. Except that what Paul Weller reached for, he often came to hold in his hand.
It was a surprise to be reminded recently that he participated in both Band Aid and Live Aid. But compare the sequence of songs that the Style Council aired at Wembley (‘You’re the best thing’, ‘Big boss groove’, ‘Internationalists’, and ‘Walls come tumbling down’) – with those that Duran Duran performed in Philadelphia (‘A view to a kill’, ‘Union of the Snake’, ‘Save A Prayer’, ‘The Reflex’). True to form, Weller did not let party spirit get the better of him.
You could take this contrast as far as the women each sings about – on the one hand ‘Girls on film’ and ‘Rio’, and on the other ‘English rose’ and ‘Liza Radley’, with Weller charmingly croaky on both and famously bashful enough about the former not to let the song be listed on the sleeve of All mod cons.
So how do we explain that it was fantasists Duran Duran who were mundane, ordinary, everyday, while the songs of Paul Weller, though more than occasionally heavy with the ballast of social realism and idealism, were exciting, extraordinary and magical?
At the time, and throughout the eighties, the decade which saw new heights of political conflict within modern Britain, no fan of the Jam or the Style Council would be likely to admit that Weller’s songs as much as Duran’s were an escape from precisely the reality that he often wrote about, or at least the intimation of the reality that was waiting for you upon leaving school. Even as he reeled off his list of doubtful delights in ‘That’s entertainment’ – ‘sticky black tarmac’ and ‘slashed-seat affairs’ – we dwelt not so much on the portrayal of reality as on Weller’s wordplay, his melodic gifts, the liberty espoused by his vocal delivery, the heights that his guitar could reach when set against the solid foundations of Bruce’s bass and Rick’s drums. These were things which on one level had nothing to do with external reality, nothing to with the world. They were cerebral, and of the heart. Consciousness and emotion – the essence of what it means to be alive. They set many of us dreaming of a time when we would have the confidence to express ourselves in the same way; about what, it almost didn’t matter.
Yet conversely it took me a long time to come out of the bellicose mindset the eighties bequeathed me, a long time to drop the notion that music must be connected to reality to be meaningful, and well, real. I got there in the end. There is of course a place for mental escape, a place for escape from drudgery and the harshness of reality. There’s possibly even a place for Duran Duran.
‘Tales from the riverbank’ was certainly a step aside from social realism. Recorded in August 1981 alongside its spectacular if over-fussy A side, it’s a water-coloured slice of Rickenbacker-fuelled psychedelia, and after so many sounds from the street, one of Weller’s first paeans to nature (they’ve come thick and fast over the years since), specifically an early eulogy to the countryside of childhood, to the particular Wonderland rabbit hole that the young Paul fell down.
That open space you could run for miles
Now you don’t get so many to the pound
True it’s a dream mixed with nostalgia
But it’s a dream that I’ll always hang on to
That I always run to
Won’t you join me by the riverbank
Bruce walks his bass through the song while Paul’s guitar meanders in perfectly executed oxbow curves. Initially Rick’s rhythm seems to be rather too urgent, but it transpires that urgency is required to back the oncoming message; the song writer could not yet let himself entirely forget his somewhat self-inflicted role as spokesperson for a generation. So he anticipates and defends himself against a charge of nostalgia, that heinous crime in the eyes of punk, before finally – masterstroke – turning the argument around and going on the attack:
Now life is so critical, life is too cynical
We lose our innocence, we lose our very soul
Weller throws his stone into the smooth surface of the current; waves of sustained guitar lap the banks of the river in response.
The original riverbank in question almost certainly belongs to the Wey, which runs eastwards to the south of Woking before heading north to join the Thames at Weybridge. Though we have led very different lives – I went to school with boys who went on to become real-life Eton Rifles – I was also born in Woking, a Gemini ten years younger than Paul Weller. That connection has always felt to me like it counted for something, even though I would almost certainly have been no less a Jam fan and Weller follower had I been born anywhere else in Britain.
There’s a not dissimilar notion at work on the Go-Betweens’ ‘Caroline and I’, on which Robert Forster sings about the Princess of Monaco, with whom he shares the same year of birth:
It gave me something small that I could feel
That maybe as you grew you knew how I’d feel
So you could say that Paul Weller is my Princess Caroline of Monaco. Now there’s a line you thought you’d never read.