Paul Weller: A look at his lyrics

DJ Taylor analyses a genuine rock-poetry dripping with literary references
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Ican date my regard for Paul Weller's skills as a lyricist to a Thursday night in the autumn of 1978. Back from school and oppressed by the thought of looming Oxbridge exams, I opted for the easy consolation of Top of the Pops. And suddenly there he was - a tall, rodent-faced boy in a mohair suit with a scarlet Rickenbacker guitar clutched to his chest wailing that he didn't wanna go down in the tube station at midnight, whoa hoh ho. I bought the record the very next day. It was the start of an intense and, even now, not fully extinguished love affair.

To ears that had first been alerted the year before by "All Around The World", "Down In The Tube Station At Midnight", a No 15 hit for The Jam, was Weller's first real statement of lyrical intent. A taut three-minuter about a man being kicked to pieces by a gang of right-wing thugs, it harbours most of the main elements of his song-writing attack: on the one hand a visceral immediacy ("I glanced back on my life, I thought about my wife, cos they took the keys and she'll think it's me"), on the other a series of nods to a pop tradition that went back to the Beatles. "Fumbling for change" in front of a slot machine, our man "pulls out the Queen...smiling, beguiling", a direct link to the line about "in his pocket is a portrait of the Queen" in "Penny Lane". But also on display amid the rain of boots is a kind of nursery-rhyme playfulness. Putting the coin into the machine, the protagonist pulls out not a slab of chocolate, but a plum.

All this was enough to establish rat-boy in my eyes as a sort of punk Philip Larkin, an obsession made all the more confusing by the hulking contrast between Weller in interview and Weller on disc. Hauled in front of a television camera, hunkered down with a music journalist, Woking's finest turned inarticulate. Left alone, he was capable of producing a genuine rock-poetry. "The world is your oyster, but the future's a clam," he declared in "When You're Young", "it's got you in its grip before you're born...You think you're a king, but you're just a pawn."

Not too many claims, it should be said, can be made for the rock lyric as art: a form, that is, able to survive in isolation from the music conceived to frame it. At least half of the impact of "Tube Station...", consequently, is down to the backing: Bruce Foxton's three distinctive bass thumps, for example, as Weller grunts "I first felt a kick...and then a fist." At the same time, what gives Weller's best lines their assurance is a half-buried literary sensibility, a feeling that shelf-loads of English literature were dimly visible beneath the paint-stripper guitar breaks. A pattern bookman our Paul clearly was not and yet even the early Jam numbers fairly drip with literary reference. "You know what happened to Winston," Weller yells in "Standards", and he means Nineteen Eighty-Four's Winston Smith, not Churchill. The downtrodden fantasist "Billy Hunt" plainly derives from Keith Waterhouse's Billy Liar, while Weller's Kenneth Graham fixation realised both The Jam's "Tales From The Riverbank" and the 1993 solo album Wild Wood.

The lyrics to Wild Wood and 1995's Stanley Road are quintessential updatings of the entity known as "English Pop": plaintive, pastoral, elegiac, in which Weller remembers his teenage rambles in the Surrey hills, "where I took my time", or reckons up the generational profit and loss account, the "Now you don't get so many to the pound" motif of "Tales From The Riverbank". Simultaneously Weller's Englishness has all the sharpness of a social-realist novel from the 1950s. "Saturday's Kids" starts with simple reportage ("Saturday's kids live in council houses/Wear V-necked shirts and baggy trousers") before projecting the ground-down years ahead: "Save up their money for a holiday/To Selsey Bill or Bracklesham Bay/Think about the future when they'll settle down/Marry the girl next door with one on the way."

The mark of Weller's potency was that he appealed far beyond the constituency for whom he was writing. I wasn't a Saturday's kid; I was the swot in the prefect's blazer who thanked God for his white-collar parents and his place at Oxford. Sitting in a college TV room and listening to a gang of puzzled Etonians remarking "Eton Rifles" - Weller's response to a Right to Work march that had passed by Eton College and been loudly disparaged by the young gentlemen within - was one of the great formative experiences of my late adolescence.

Come his solo career, beginning with 1992's Paul Weller, the subject matter turned more abstract, a matter of pondering the heavens ("Kosmos"), looking down from above the clouds, wondering whether his fire had gone out and even fixing his eye on the consolations of religion ("Can You Heal Us Holy Man?"). The precisely mapped visions of apocalypse in the Jam's "'A' Bomb in Wardour Street" had given way to the vaguer, but no less ominous, intimations of "Out of the Sinking". He had children, too, by this time, which produced a raft of entirely unself-conscious paeans to the moon seen on infant pyjamas. The early Weller, on the other hand, spent half his time conciliating the football terrace communality of his (mostly) male audience and the other half sharply exposing it. Part of him wanted to lose his identity "in the crowd" but the second, and dominant, part was forever plotting a hasty exit to "the place I love", far away "from the numbers."

And always the sense, so rarely found in pop, of genuine feelings genuinely stirred. Even the Style Council era of off-white soul and unwise hair-cuts produced "Ghosts of Dachau", with its desolating images from the death camps. Stuck in the middle of side two of The Jam's All Mod Cons, a whisker away from "Tube Station", is the desperate semi-acoustic yearning of "Fly", in which the singer tells his girlfriend that "I want us to be like Peter Pan." In the context of late Seventies rock'n'roll, bondage trousers and Sid Vicious's overdose, only Weller could get away with this. The most exciting moment in pop? How about that opening da-da-da thud of "Going Underground", followed by the husky assertion that "Some people might say my life was in a rut - well, I'm quite happy with what I've got..." For about five years he was my God, my talisman, a cultural icon next to whom Ian McEwan and Martin Amis were just college boys with a prose style. Paul - Modfather, Woking Wonder, English elegist, national treasure, I salute you.