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The quixotic creativity of the Style Council

IN 1959 COLIN MACINNES published “Absolute Beginners”, the second novel in his London trilogy. Set in the summer of 1958, the book follows its anonymous teenage narrator around the city as he meets friends, laments his failed relationship, takes pornographic photographs, mourns his father and witnesses racial violence. The post-war youth culture the novel portrayed was dominated by jazz, rock’n’roll, European clothes and new slang words.

For Paul Weller, the book was a “blueprint for modernism”. The protagonist was cool but he also cared about outsiders and underdogs; the novel’s message was about “embracing all these different cultures and not being xenophobic”. He wrote a song inspired by the novel for the Jam in 1981 but disbanded the group a year later, fearing that it had become creatively stale. The Jam had enjoyed great success by marrying a mod image and punk sound with lyrics about working-class life, yet Mr Weller wanted to create more experimental music that incorporated jazz, pop, soul and R’n’B. With Mick Talbot, the keyboardist for the Merton Parkas, another mod-revival band, he set about translating the sensibility of MacInnes’s book into music.

“Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council”, a documentary, shows how the duo delighted in defying expectations. They wanted their band to be a loose collective of musicians, with players coming and going as they pleased. Two persisted for most of the band’s six years: Steve White, who, aged 17, impressed Mr Weller and Mr Talbot with his virtuosic jazz drumming; and Dee Lee, a seasoned funk and soul singer (she married Mr Weller in 1987). Together they explored different genres, flirting with cabaret, rap, go-go beats and house music. The band cultivated an eclectic and unique look on stage, too, whether resembling characters from one of Jean-Luc Godard’s films, or sporting preppy knitwear and colourful casual clothing.

Their albums were accompanied by irreverent liner notes written by the anonymous “Cappuccino Kid” in the style of MacInnes: listeners were implored to “listen to every part of this record and take none of it at face value”. The lyrics, however, were full of serious social commentary. As he did for the Jam, Mr Weller wrote sharp polemics: “Come to Milton Keynes” criticised the maddening uniformity of the new town of that name; “Walls Come Tumbling Down” encouraged listeners to rise up against authority; “The Lodgers” lamented poor living conditions (“It’s all inclusive—the dirt comes free”). Elsewhere, the Style Council’s songs explored unemployment, Margaret Thatcher’s policies, drug addiction and social breakdown. The band played at events supporting nuclear disarmament and recorded a song to benefit striking miners.

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What is surprising is that the Style Council were not regarded as an esoteric musical curiosity: seven of their singles made it into the top ten of the British charts, and they had hits in Australia and New Zealand too. (In America, meanwhile, only the single “My Ever Changing Moods” penetrated the Billboard top 40.) “Our Favourite Shop”, their second album, reached the top of the British album charts in 1985 and was their greatest commercial success.

But, true to their founding principles and creative restlessness, Mr Weller and Mr Talbot were uninterested in producing more of the same. “The Cost of Loving”, released in 1987, turned away from the Style Council’s winning blend of soul, jazz and folk music to focus purely on contemporary R’n’B. The record lacked the effortless charm of the band’s early work and was disparaged by critics. A short film, “Jerusalem”, made to accompany the record, had the feel of a 37-minute-long in-joke. “Confessions of a Pop Group” (1988) was perhaps the band’s most adventurous work, with Erik Satie, an avant-garde composer, the Modern Jazz Quartet and the Swingle Singers serving as cultural touchstones. By the band’s high standards, it was a commercial failure. “Modernism: A New Decade”, an album of deep house music recorded in 1989, was subsequently rejected by Polydor, the band’s label. The group parted ways that year.

“Long Hot Summers” does an excellent job of telling the Style Council’s story and reminding the viewer of the remarkable output of a band all too often dismissed as pretentious. With the benefit of hindsight it becomes clear that the group was ahead of its time with its fondness for guest vocalists, genre-hopping singles and outspoken politics—which were rare at the time but are no longer noteworthy today. Listen to the new 37-song anthology of their work (also entitled “Long Hot Summers”) and revel in their panache, whether they’re playing cool jazz, belting out soulful anthems or indulging in dancey instrumentals. Music-making, for the Style Council, was always an exciting adventure; they took fans along for the ride.

“Long Hot Summers” was broadcast on Showtime in America and Sky in Britain


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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2020/12/09/the-quixotic-creativity-of-the-style-council
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