Marking the release of the band’s career retrospective Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council, the band’s co-founder reflects on beginnings, endings and timely reappraisals
Anniversary albums and anthologies are big business in pop music, and many bands have enjoyed a revival of fortunes off a re-examination of their hits. Until now, though, there has been nothing of the sort for The Style Council, one of the great enigmas of the 1980s.
What do you think of The Style Council? This was surely one of the most-asked questions in British pop music in the mid-1980s. Paul Weller and Mick Talbot’s new enterprise could not have been more different from Weller’s previous venture with The Jam, which he broke off abruptly to much gnashing of teeth among the fans.
Weller, however, was well ahead of his game and hooking up with Talbot was a natural next move for him. Recruiting drummer Steve White and vocalist Dee C Lee, they set about a musical project free of restricting genre labels. Until now The Style Council have steered clear of any career retrospectives, but Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council, Universal’s quadruple-disc anthology, is set to put paid to that in partnership with a documentary on the band on Sky Arts.
We find Talbot, the band’s keyboard-playing lynchpin, in the middle of a socially distanced recording session. “I’ve done a little bit of recording at a few studios,” he says, “and that seems to be a viable thing now. I know a lot of people do remote recording but being a bit of a traditionalist I’m interested more in having three or more people in the room at the same time, although that sounds a bit old fashioned and antiquated. I’ve been fortunate to go to a few studios where they’ve got a good set-up and are keeping their distance but are still making music, so that’s something.”
Then there is Long Hot Summers to consider. “If there’s ever been a year for retrospective navel gazing, this is probably a good one,” he laughs. “The fact there is a lot of my past washing about that needs promoting is helpful, as I’ve got a lot of time on my hands to promote it!”
Is a retrospective for The Style Council overdue? “I guess it is. A few things have come together at the same time. There’s the new documentary going out on Sky Arts at the end of the month. I think it was initially going to go out at the beginning of the year, as it was shot over a year ago – I was a much younger man when that was made! In the fullness of time it’s good, because Sky Arts has now gone freeview and it broadens the audience.”
Recently the BBC have been mining the archive of Top Of The Pops in the mid to late-1980s. These shows reveal The Style Council in their natural habitat, making some incredibly varied music that gives a reminder of their freedom of musical speech. “It was a very liberating thing,” says Mick, “and initially when it started it was very brave of Paul to go in such a different direction. I’ve said in the past, he had everything to lose and I had nothing. I’d been in three bands that were signed that only lasted for a year each; I didn’t know what I was going to do next. He had just come out of one of the biggest bands in Britain that was still on an upward trajectory after five years, and a lot of people were questioning his sanity. Paul is always driven by what he wants to do artistically, and it was a really nice thing to be around, to have that kind of liberation and freedom. Usually there is a compromise, even with the most idealistic bands, but especially in the early days it seemed nothing was off limits.”
This much can be discerned in a demo for My Ever Changing Moods, released as part of the anthology, revealing a plethora of string lines along with the familiar melody. “Sometimes we tried things in about three or four ways, and sometimes we put out two versions of things because we thought the song was versatile enough to take different approaches. Often there was something about the demo that we liked. We tried a lot of different things; the experimentation was free and easy. Sometimes things did click, and we weren’t really aware of it until afterwards.”
We travel back a little further in time, to when Mick and Paul first met. “I played on a track on Setting Sons, The Jam’s second album”, he recalls. “It was a cover of Heat Wave, the Martha And The Vandellas song, and it was the last track they did on that album. Paul hadn’t seen the band I was in, but he’d heard the B-side of the single we had done with a piano solo on it, and he said he wanted something with that style of playing. He got in touch with me and just said, ‘It’s the final track on the album, we want to bring in keyboards and a horn player.’ That was probably about three years before The Style Council. I did a few bits and pieces with The Jam. I never went on tour with them, but I’d get up for a few numbers when they were in town. I played for three or so London dates. Then I didn’t see Paul for about 18 months, before he mooted the fact that he was going to wind up The Jam and had a new project in mind. I saw him sporadically over those three years, and I didn’t know him that well until we got together to be a permanent thing.”
Talbot recalls how he felt at the time. “I was shocked when he said he was going to break up The Jam. I wasn’t so shocked because some of the things he was in to may not have been that recognisable to people listening to The Jam stuff. I’d heard him talk about a lot of different things. He seemed a very forward-thinking person, and I think there were clues about his affinity for soul music from way back. Some of the later Jam stuff signposted that a move was on the horizon, and I felt he was starting to look more that way.”
He is generous in his praise when we discuss the songwriting dynamic between the two. “Paul is such an all-rounder, really. Sometimes he would write a song at the piano, and I know that we did co-write that many things, but quite often I’d come up with instrumentals and it would happen organically. Sometimes they would end up as B-sides, and sometimes they would work as a prelude to a song, or A-side – remember sides, when we had albums?! Sometimes we would approach that as an overall mood for the whole side of a record, and some of the more transient instrumental music would set up things so that you’re almost making music as classical musicians would do. We would have things in movements, with the same mood.”
The process was instinctive. “Other times I would make music Paul thought was strong. There is a song called Home Breakers which is one of our best co-writes. I had a strong focus on where the music was going, with the melodies, and he had some really great lyrics. There was no set pattern, but really Paul is the complete package as a songwriter. I can’t hazard a guess, but I would think probably 95% of what we did was solidly his compositions. He was very open when it came to arrangements, and things like ideas for a horn motif, or if the bass line wasn’t fully formulated. Sometimes I would play synth bass on things, and it would add a slightly different flavour – but then Paul is a very good bass player, and played bass on a lot of our stuff. It’s just that rarely happens on stage.”
Was he aware of the charts being flooded with electronic music when The Style Council started? “Possibly, but we were very into what had gone before. We weren’t shying away from technology; I think we were trying to mix it up. At the same time we weren’t an ’80s synth duo, and yet a song like Long Hot Summer has got a strong synthesizer top line, it’s got a synthesizer bass line, a drum machine mixed with live percussion, and it’s also got a Hammond organ. There are elements of vintage soul production but it also takes elements of stuff that was contemporary then too. The fact that we didn’t stick to one thing or another gave it its own identity, I think.”
Another new cut to see the light of day on Long Hot Summers is an extended version of Dropping Bombs On The White House, whose title could have been thought up yesterday. Talbot laughs. “Possibly! Some of these things, even though they’re quite old, have resonance with our current situation. It was a play on words, because in the jazz fraternity when a drummer takes a solo they drop bombs, it’s a kind of technique. Because Steve White was so well versed in the work of people like Art Blakey and Buddy Rich, we were saying ‘drop a few bombs on this!’ It’s a sort of slang for be-bop, the way you do certain things on the drums. The fact his name was White made it a clumsy pun that might just draw people in.”
Touring was a happy experience for the band. “There are highlights all over the place really. We had a great time in Italy, for some reason they took to us. Not that we didn’t have a great time in the rest of Europe, but the spirit of Italy clicked with what we were doing. We had great tours in Japan, and we tried to go where people liked us. We didn’t go to America that often; it was like supply and demand. We played some great gigs when we went there but only ever did New York and Los Angeles. My Ever Changing Moods did well there but I think the record company thought it would be a prelude to You’re The Best Thing, but that didn’t do as well.”
A quote from Weller at the end of the band’s life bears repeating at this point. “We created some great music in our time, the effects of which wouldn’t be appreciated for some time.” Is it only now that critics fully appreciate The Style Council? “A little bit, yeah. In the build up to making the documentary and making it, there are people who are older than us who said they didn’t really take to us, and had been exposed to a bit of our music just because of what was forthcoming, and said they liked it more than they thought, so who knows? I think with The Style Council it was a game of two halves, we felt for about the first three years that we were very instinctive, and didn’t really select singles from a commercial perspective. We just tried to make each one different from the one before, that was the only criteria. We tried to give value for money, we tried to make singles a standalone affair to a large extent.”
Then the perspective altered. “Once we got into 1986 things started changing for us, and I think a lot of people got disenchanted with us. Our Favourite Shop was our most successful album commercially, but at the same time we were quite aware that we could have made Our Favourite Shop Part 2, and that would have been much better received than the album we did do. That was The Cost Of Loving, and it lost us a lot of people. At the time we thought we were doing nothing different to what we’d done before, we were just following our muse and hoping people would come with us. We had a run of it for about three years where we were lucky, and then it got a little bit sticky. Talking about the resonance of certain songs to the current political climate makes me think the most about Our Favourite Shop, and that was a mirror image of where the country was at that time.”
The effect on the band was longstanding. “I think that created a rod for our own back, because we got to a point where journalists, after that album came out, rarely spoke to us about music, and that’s a bit weird when you’re in a band. It’s all well and good, because it was a time to stand up and be counted, about social change, and we got behind a lot of things we believed in, and we wouldn’t have it any other way, but I thought it became a bit of a grind for journalists from about 1986 onwards. It might have overshadowed things a little bit. At the same time, our quest for changing and doing things differently took us somewhere we weren’t as strong as we were before. It took us another album to get on an even keel, and I thought Confessions Of A Pop Group was a much stronger album, but it suffered because of the dwindling figures of the one before. We lost a lot of people’s attention by then, so we went out with a whimper, having started with a bang. People might remember the whimper, and the less fruitful times.”
He considers the finished anthology with modest understatement. “It’s funny, because when there’s a box set and a documentary coming out, it’s like watching the edited highlights of a football match. Match Of The Day for 20 minutes can make a 90-minute match look a lot more exciting! I’m really proud of the music though. I’m not a fiercely nostalgic person, but I’m pleased the documentary’s been made, and I think they’ve done a very good job. It’s quite a hard thing when you realise some of the compromises involved in making something like that, but because of what’s happened it seems like a good time to reflect and take stock, appreciate what you overlooked at the time. I’m a freelance musician and my profile will probably never be as big as it was in the 1980s, but it’s something I enjoy doing, regardless of whether I’m doing a demo that no-one’s ever going to hear with three mates, or I’m at Glastonbury playing with someone. Going through The Style Council ingrained in me the thought that I never actually wanted to lead the circus.”
“We had a run of it for about three years where we were lucky, and then it got a little bit sticky.”
Nowadays Talbot is clearly enjoying his music, doubling up as a producer and experienced session musician. “A few things that I worked on in the past have only just seen the light of day. There’s a guy called Ian Wills who has a band called Wills & The Willing, who I did some work with, and a band called First Congress. Their main guy is Tom Van Can, and he’s doing things bit by bit, he’s self-financing, used to be a film maker – a really interesting guy. He’s got a really panoramic vision for his music. It will take him a while to get to the album but he’s certainly doing things the way he wants to do them which I like. I’ve also worked with a band called Mother Earth, just before lockdown, and we got 10 tunes done. The further I get away from them the better they sound, so they need finishing. It’s funny because someone will say Wills & The Willing is in the country charts, and I didn’t even realise I was playing on a country record. I think I always play the same thing, they just change the drums! People tell you that you’re well-versed in six different genres, but I’m just playing what I think.”
He still speaks regularly to Weller. “Yeah, I’ve played on three tracks on his current album. We’d done a couple of days filming at his studio, and at the end of the first day he said, ‘You haven’t got to rush off, have you?’ It was a long day, pouring out memories of The Style Council, and they were quite meticulous in their interrogation, it was like I’d witnessed a murder crime. Paul goes, ‘Do you wanna play on a few tracks? I’m gonna order a curry and then I’ll play you some things and see what you think’. I thought I’d played on two tracks but when I got the album it was three, that’s how much of a blur it was. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised. It was nice to be asked.”
The two have crossed paths quite frequently since the group went their own separate ways. “I live in Blackheath, and when Paul played in Greenwich a couple of summers ago, I got up and played Shout To The Top. He just rang me up and heard we were going to pop down, and he asked me how I fancied doing it. I did it and there was a real buzz. There’s been a few gigs where Paul’s slipped that in and it’s not killed it, so that’s something.”
We talk about his wishes for the anthology. “I’m more interested in seeing how it goes down with people who weren’t around at the time of The Style Council. It’s one thing saying there are people who are as old as I am, who like it now they’ve been exposed to it, but I’d be more interested in hearing what someone who’s 20 thinks of it rather than someone who’s 60. A few of my son’s mates quite like it, but he’s 35 so not quite a spring chicken. We’ve got to get more young blood on board.”
The Style Council’s Long Hot Summers: The Story Of The Style Council is out on 30 October 2020 through UMC/Polydor. The documentary Long Hot Summers is on Sky Arts from 31 October (Freesat 147). Further information on The Style Council can be found here.