Wednesday 2 July 2014

The STYLE COUNCIL: Our Favourite Shop

(#316: 8 June 1985, 1 week)

Track listing: Homebreakers/All Gone Away/Come To Milton Keynes/Internationalists/A Stone’s Throw Away/The Stand Up Comic’s Instructions/Boy Who Cried Wolf/A Man Of Great Promise/Down In The Seine/The Lodgers (or She Was Only A Shopkeeper’s Daughter)/Luck/With Everything To Lose/Our Favourite Shop/Walls Come Tumbling Down!

(Author’s Note: This was another album to which I listened in two formats. The LP is essential for the elaborately-designed photographic cover display and for the quotes from Jimmy Reid, Lenny Bruce, Oscar Wilde and Tony Benn. Side two of the cassette edition comprises “Gary Crowley Meets The Council,” wherein the chirpy disc jockey talks through the record – which plays quietly in the background throughout – with Weller and Talbot. I haven’t reminded myself of it yet because I don’t want their views to influence mine. It’s up on YouTube if you’re curious.)

In June 1985, David Peace was eighteen, or seventeen – he appears rather coy about revealing his date of birth. All I am saying is that some things stay with you for life, if they hit you at a certain time.

However old he was, there is no excuse for you not going off and reading Red Or Dead. The book is large, long and best read quickly; it works best if you see it as a Miltonian epic poem, and you will subsequently want to go back over key passages many times. Especially affecting is the book’s second half; Shankly retires from Liverpool, knowing almost immediately that he has made a mistake but too proud and/or stubborn to go back on his decision. His life busily winds down over its remaining seven years and he finds that, bit by bit, the world has no further need of him. The board of Liverpool Football Club are silently relieved by the retreat of someone whom they view as a faintly embarrassing anachronism. His testimonial match is under-attended and doesn’t raise that much money. The offers from clubs and chairmen slowly dwindle to nothing.

But he can’t let go, this Shankly; he’ll talk about the world and football as he knows them to anybody; sitting in a café, watching his tea go cold, waiting for someone else to come in and chat with, or ringing up fellow managers asking them what they thought of Match Of The Day, or reminiscing with any reporter, journalist or punter who turns up. Eventually he is prepared to talk to himself, sitting on the promenade in Blackpool. He can’t stop because he is aware that he may already have outlived his own legend; one of the book’s bleakest, shortest and most poignant chapters is the one where Thatcher wins the 1979 election and he sits silently in his chair, looks out of his window at the silent streets and locked doors, and feels himself, his time, to be passing. Is he really the last person alive who feels this way about football, and life?

Eventually the streets of Anfield turn into boarded-up, empty slums. The world has changed, and for the worse; everybody has gone away, and soon Bill Shankly will go away as well. Then what, or who, will be left? The heart attack comes during the riots, while his city is burning.

What I am asking you to do is to hold this picture in your mind as you listen to “All Gone Away,” a cheery Radio 2 samba, complete with a cheesy flute interlude straight from a mid-seventies BBC sitcom, over which Paul Weller sings about “how monetarism kills whole communities.” The first song in this tale to include the word “monetarism.” The Style Council were New Pop in the way Miles was free jazz; in other words, they weren’t really, but were carving out a parallel path.

Our Favourite Shop couldn’t be more different from Brothers In Arms if it tried – and it doesn’t need to try. I will leave the minutiae of the “shop” as displayed on the cover for you to discover but it is worth noting that very little, if anything, of what is in this shop is from the present (mid-eighties) time; it’s all from, or just before, or just after, the sixties, and this extends into the anything-you-like-as-long-as-it’s-not-rock approach to the Council’s music; its influences are mostly from the past (funk, soul-jazz, bossa nova, Beatles, psychedelia) but its intention is to deal with the (1985) present in order to enable a future.

Viewed in that context, the first six songs of Our Favourite Shop represent a dazzling index of pop possibilities; it is one of those rare records where every new song suggests a different, exciting (or imposing) world. And unlike Dire Straits, the record wastes no time pointing fingers and naming names. This is an anti-Thatcher, anti-Conservative polemic of fire, and perhaps the most depressing thing about it is that it could have been written and recorded last week.

The record begins, bravely, with “Homebreakers”; a railway platform announcer ushers in an odd vocal – how did Weller’s voice get so deep and gruff? – which is only odd until you realise that it is Mick Talbot singing; a brave introductory tactic for somebody as residually popular as Weller. The family can’t find work so are breaking up; the singer goes to the station and gets on the train with no real joy or hope. The accusation is that it is the Government who has done this, with their insistence on people getting on their bikes to find work. Anybody who came of age in eighties Scotland will recognise the pain instantly. The music is brooding, breakbeaty, organ-dominant; as Dee C Lee’s voice hangs on the last syllable of “responsible” like the mother clinging to the carriage door of the departing train, hindsight reconfigures what we hear; it actually sounds like Portishead.

“Come To Milton Keynes” is a neon nightmare of newness – the names of the great liberals John Milton and John Maynard Keynes misused to promote misleading, fallible brightness – mostly thanks to John Mealing’s astonishing orchestrations (Joe Loss meets “A Day In The Life”) but also to Weller’s deceivingly chirpy paean to drugs, violence and suicide and Talbot’s unhinged, Theremin-like keyboard which proposes a Home Counties Mercury Rev. “Internationalists” – performed at Live Aid, and the album’s title song in the States – is the kind of dynamic funk of which Wham! were once capable. “A Stone’s Throw Away” recasts “Eleanor Rigby” in a world drowning in state brutality, and depressingly it has not dated a jot. This is succeeded by a brief monologue by Lenny Henry, impersonating Bernard Manning over nightmare working man’s club organ, about how “light entertainment” is actually a malevolent, dark and gruesome death-ray  - and we now know that the reality was, if anything, much, much worse than that.

So far, this is a bold record, merrily displacing everybody’s preconceptions about Paul Weller’s art, if not his politics. The ride is thrilling. But about halfway through “Boy Who Cried Wolf” – better Culture Club than Culture Club had managed in eighteen months – you can sense some of the energy sapping, the urge to settle down and make a “Style Council record” becoming more apparent. The song itself is fine but far too long. And side two shrinks back from the musical challenge. Weller sings of frustrated suicides, French passion and, several times again, the dismal state of his nation but the music doesn’t keep pace, settling for a reasonable but none too exciting mix of Europop and American soul/funk styles (whereas the bossa nova of “All Gone Away” subtly reminds us that Tropicalia was primarily the expression of the desire for political and societal revolution via music; for the most exquisite blend of the two, see Tom Jobim’s matchless Matîta Pere). “The Lodgers,” with its undersold nod to the work of Jam and Lewis, works best in this respect, but the fact that “With Everything To Lose” was reworked, with entirely new lyrics, as “Have You Ever Had It Blue?” for the soundtrack of the following year’s Absolute Beginners, makes one wonder how closely people were listening to the words, or even bothering with them.

“Walls Come Tumbling Down!,” the album’s closer and big hit single, is like a supercharged and focused “Beat Surrender,” uplifting and hopeful. And this may be the first number one album actively to encourage its listeners to go out and do something to change things; hence the sleeve’s contact details for CND, International Youth Year and the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign. In Like Punk Never Happened, Dave Rimmer refers to the Style Council as a kind of “loyal opposition.” This is streets ahead of The Gift – and the jury remains out as to whether the Style Council were really streets ahead of The Jam – but the fact remains that the album came out after the miners’ strike had drizzled into non-existence. Overlying all of these songs, like the heaviest and saddest of clouds, is the question which Charles Shaar Murray, in the NME, asked about the songs on Born In The U.S.A., namely “what do you do the morning after defeat?”

It is as if Weller knows that in the summer of 1985 “we” have already been beaten – and he remains careful to keep “pop” at a distance from him; the second line of the lyric to “Walls Come Tumbling Down!” is printed as saying: “You don’t have to sit back and Relax (capital “R” Weller’s, italics mine)” – and that what the Style Council are proposing, both philosophically and artistically, isn’t going to be enough to effect a change. So Our Favourite Shop is half a great album – although that was still half an album more than most other musicians managed in 1985 – whose inner dread is powered by the increasing knowledge that the shop is eventually going to go out of business, close down and be replaced by a tanning salon. As most of our favourite shops have now done.

Next: Pop’s Silver Surfer seeks solace but finds only self-willed solitude.