Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Paul Weller: Sounds from the Studio'


Ian Snowball's 'Paul Weller: Sounds from the Studio.'
Ian Snowball's 'Paul Weller: Sounds from the Studio.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Paul Weller: Sounds from the Studio is the Memento of music biographies. Author Ian Snowball, whose surname aptly evokes the randomly accretive nature of his writing, runs through the eponymous artist's catalog in reverse order. If you're not familiar with Weller's career, you'll start each chapter like Leonard snapping out of one of his amnesic lapses: a whole life has been lived, but you don't know anything about it and you need to pick up where the next chapter left off.

Even more strangely, Snowball never bothers to explain his unusual approach. "Sounds from the Studio is a book about Paul Weller's 23 studio albums across 40 years," he writes in closing out the introduction. "Weller, Weller, Weller!" Well, yes.

There's certainly ample justification for exploring Weller's oeuvre at book length. He's known as "the Modfather" for spearheading Britain's Mod Revival of the 1970s and '80s: a musical movement harking back to the natty, quintessentially British sound and feel of the Who and the Small Faces. The Mod bible is Colin MacInnes's 1959 novel Absolute Beginners, and when director Julien Temple turned it into a 1986 movie, Weller's band the Style Council contributed a single to the soundtrack — although David Bowie's title track is the film's best-known song.

Born in 1958, Weller grew up a Beatles acolyte and formed the Jam when he was just 14. The band broke out in 1977 when their song "In the City" hit the UK Top 40 and their fans the Clash took them on the road as openers. The ultra-Mods ultimately topped the UK singles chart four times, and sold out their farewell concerts at Wembley Arena in 1982.

Snowball gets to their 1980 album Sound Affects on page 209, with the band cutting short a U.S. tour launched to support the album discussed in the next chapter. (See how confusing this is?) The author notes the hit "That's Entertainment" marked the first time Weller brought acoustic guitar to the fore, and features a litany of references to urban cacophony. "Ray Davies would've been proud of such lyrics," argues Snowball without explaining why.

Earlier in the book, and later in his career, Weller formed the Style Council to explore his jazzier side. That band would cross over to the U.S. as the Jam never did, landing a Top 40 hit with "My Ever Changing Moods." They played Live Aid, and Weller contributed to the era-defining charity single "Do They Know It's Christmas?"

The band's 1984 debut Café Bleu was renamed for U.S. release to make "Ever Changing Moods" the title track. It's the subject of Snowball's last chapter in the Style Council section, a chapter that of course begins with the dissolution of the band described in the following section. Snowball goes to great pains to assure readers that although Weller had changed his wardrobe and his musical style, he still had the irreducible soul of a Mod.

Arguably, there are no Mod clothes, there is no Mod music, there are no Mod attitudes, but there are clothes which Mods like, music that Mods can agree with and attitudes that Mods adopt. This way of thinking has been demonstrated by Paul Weller since the earliest days of the Jam and it's something some Weller fans have also been able to adopt.

In case you didn't gather that Weller's "Ever Changing Moods" were political as well as personal, the album also included less ambiguous tracks like "Dropping Bombs on the Whitehouse."

The Style Council dissolved in the late '80s, and in the succeeding decade (or, in the book sequence, the earlier decade) Weller found himself a revered figure of British rock. Noel Gallagher appeared on his U.K. chart-topping 1995 solo release Stanley Road, and the song that possibly put Weller in more U.S. ears than any of his own releases was Oasis's "Champagne Supernova," which features Weller on lead guitar and backing vocals.

Gallagher, who talked to Snowball much more extensively than Weller did, reminisces about how the vibe at Manor Studio evoked the residential-studio style of bands like Led Zeppelin. Weller pulled Gallagher in to play on a cover of Dr. John's "I Walk On Gilded Splinters," with the Oasis co-leader trying not to let on that he'd never actually heard of the New Orleans legend. The atmospheric track later landed on The Wire soundtrack.

In the 21st century, the Modfather has enjoyed continued critical acclaim and popular success in the U.K., while remaining under the radar for most Americans. He was given NME's Godlike Genius Award and a Brit lifetime achievement award, as well as the 2009 Brit for Best Male Solo artist — a surprise event that made headlines for costing bookies heavily. They swore they were done taking bets on the Brits, but of course in subsequent years they got right back at it.

This is where Snowball's book opens: with Weller in the rosy glow of his late career. There are Jam documentaries and museum exhibits, Weller's playing with the Who at Hyde Park, and the Modfather is learning to use Pro Tools ("certainly something he might find himself using again for future recordings," muses Snowball). His 2015 album Saturns Pattern was "a fantastic achievement," raves the author.

Snowball's two-page interview with the latter-day Weller gets pride of place at the book's beginning. The artist's comments are humble and un-illuminating: "I think music defines me and has helped me through loads of bad times and has helped me celebrate the good times."

Sounds for the Studio is strictly for Weller superfans who are already closely familiar with his work. It's not remotely suitable as an introduction to his work, and even Weller devotees may find Snowball's uncritical boosterism wearying. Put this volume on your Weller shrine, if you have one, and then drop the needle on your favorite album to experience the sounds from the studio in a more direct fashion.

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