First with the Jam, then with Style Council and as a solo artist, songwriter/guitarist Paul Weller mined a range of pop styles, from the Jam's punk-colored Mod and Merseybeat, through the Style Council's white soul, to his 90s excursions into folk and psychedelia. While Weller and his groups have enjoyed immense popularity in the U.K., here in the U.S. Weller's work has found a small, devoted following at best.
Though it first came to prominence in London's 1976 punk-rock explosion, the Jam shared only a high-speed, stripped-down approach with its contemporaries. The trio's clothes, haircuts, and tunes reflected an obsession with the mid-1960s Mod style, and some termed the band the new Who. Although Paul Weller's gruffly accented vocals and earnest songs never broke through to American audiences, the Jam became consistent hitmakers in Britain.
Weller, while attending Sheerwater Secondary Modern School in Woking, originally formed a folk duo with guitarist Steve Brookes in 1972. They later formed the Jam with guitarist Dave Waller and drummer Rick Buckler. Waller and Brooks quit in 1974, and bassist Bruce Foxton joined. With Weller's father as manager, they worked on '60s R&B and Mod-rock covers and some originals; in 1976 they made a successful London debut at the 100 Club's first punk extravaganza. Their debut album was a British hit, yielding a Top 40 U.K. single in the title tune (from which the Sex Pistols later used a riff for their "Holiday in the Sun"). Modern World followed the same format, but the album was so harshly criticized by the British music press that the highly sensitive Weller nearly broke up the band. That year the Jam also released soul covers of "Back in My Arms Again" and "Sweet Soul Music."
Just before the well-received All mod Cons (#6 U.K., 1978), the group released three successful U.K. singles: "News of the World" (#27), a cover of the Kinks' "David Watts" (#25), and "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight" (#15), which revealed a new political commitment. "Tube Station," a protest against Britain's anti-immigrant "Paki-bashing" phenomenon, was banned by the BBC. Setting Sons (#137 U.S., #4 U.K., 1979) was a decline-of-the-Empire/class-conflict concept album and yielded the British hit "The Eton Rifles" (#3, 1979); it also included "Heatwave." Sound Affects (#2 U.K., 1980) was the Jam's biggest commercial success to date, with a #1 British hit in "Start!" and another minor U.K. hit in the acoustic ballad "That's Entertainment."
The Jam continued making inroads on the American market with The Gift (#82 U.S., #1 U.K., 1982) which yielded the Motownish "ZTown Called Malice." Both Cons and Sons went gold in England. In 1980 Weller appeared on Peter Gabriel's third solo LP. In October 1982 Weller announced that the group was breaking up: "It really dawned on me how secure the situation was, the fact that we could go on for the next 10 years making records, getting bigger and bigger…That frightened me because I realized we were going to end up…like the rest of them." Nonetheless, the group's English fans never gave up, and it's last single, "Beat Surrender," came on the chart there at #1 in 1982.
Weller quickly released his first post-Jam efforts as leader of Style Council in 1983. Officially only a duo with Weller and Mick Talbot, Style Council was a bold experiment that Weller later admitted was not entirely successful. Working with a number of guest artists, including Curtis Mayfield, Style Council was conceived as an American '60s-style soul unit with a political point of view. Critics were mixed on how well that goal was met, but U.K. fans were unanimous in their support. Between 1983 and 1988, the group had seven U.K. Top 10 hits: "Speak Like a Child" and "Long Hot Summer" (1983), "My Ever Changing Moods," "Groovin' (You're the Best Thing" b/w "Big Boss Groove," and "Shout to the Top" (1984), "Walls Come Tumbling Down!" (1985), and "It Didn't Matter" (1987). In contrast, here in the States, the Style Council placed only one Top 30 single, "My Ever Changing Moods" (#29, 1984), and only the album of the same name made the Hot 100, at #56, also in 1984. Facing declining interest, the Style Council disbanded in 1990. In 1986 Weller married fellow Style Council member Dee C. Lee (whom he later divorced), and cowrote and coproduced her group Slam Slam's 1991 album, Free Your Feelings.
Weller reemerged with the Paul Weller Movement in early 1991 and released his first, eponymous solo album the following year. His followup, Wild Wood, launched Weller on a run of critical and commercial success: The album went to #2 in the U.K. and was nominated for the country's prestigious Mercury Music Prize; its successor, Stanley Road (featuring guest appearances by Steve Winwood and Oasis' Noel Gallagher), produced two British Top 10 singles ("The Changing Man," #7, and "You Do Something to Me," #9) and went to #1 in the U.K. The record also won Weller a 1995 BRIT Award for Best Male Artist, which he won again the following year. But despite his continued success in Britain with his next two releases, Heavy Soul (#2 U.K.) and the greatest-hits compilation Modern Classics (#7 U.K.), Weller failed to make a mark in America. Subsequently, his 2000 release, Heliocentric, was released only in the U.K.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).