This project is partly – perhaps even mainly – about getting older and tracing that journey through music, but it occurs to me that I haven’t really thought about that process from the perspective of the musicians.
Even by 1995, it was still possible to think of rock music as a new phenomenon, something which young people created, and young people listened to. I think that most other forms of music had matured to a degree, but the 1990s were the first period where it became clear that the first and second generation of rock musicians weren’t slipping quietly out of the limelight to make way for the next iteration; everyone was competing for the same space.
But were competing for an increasing number of ears. It seems obvious to say now, but no-one was growing out of this music; if the musicians were growing older, so were the audience. In 1995, I turned 33. There are four albums on this list released in 1995, and I bought them all on or near their release date. My father was 33 in 1964 – he wasn’t buying Beatles and Rolling Stones albums; he probably barely knew who they were. From his generation to mine, something changed – partly the effect of the ‘album era’ I talked about back at the beginning; that easy availability of all the music of the last 40 years – and partly, I think, that music seemed to have hit on a formula which worked.
I’m not pretending that music stopped developing after the early seventies; of course not, there are an ever-evolving set of genres and styles, with more appearing every day, and I certainly wouldn’t argue with the contention that hip-hop and its fractally expanding offshoots was an entirely new kind of popular music, not beholden to much of what came before it (but gleefully ready to appropriate any parts of it which served the rhyme). My point is that, instead of one style overtaking a previous one, and leaving the teenagers of the 1970s behind, everyone came along for the ride.
There’s an essay or two to be written on why that is, of course – just offhand, I can think of the change in formats; of the explosion of DIY creativity ignited by punk and carried forward by the New Wave and all that followed; of the expansion of rock journalism from weekly disposable inkies to proper glossy magazines; you can even throw in changes in the political and economic landscape and the sudden availability of easy consumer credit.
While I make notes for a forthcoming writing project which won’t get off the ground, let’s consider the case of Paul Weller.
Having used the sensibilities of the punk movement to give his band, The Jam, a way into the public eye, Weller’s songwriting and musical abilities kept them there for several years. The Jam were staggeringly popular, but came to an end (at Weller’s insistence) when he was only 24. In 1982, to have had a rock music career which lasted as long as it did was a significant achievement, and had all three of them faded into semi-obscurity afterward, no-one would have been overly surprised.
Weller, however, started an entirely different band, and made them successful, playing music which sounded quite unlike The Jam, but exactly like the 1980s. Even then, at the conclusion of a second career, Weller faced the question which few had encountered until then – what does a middle-aged rock musician do now? Once past the supposed musical peak of 27, is there a career to be had continuing to make music? Who’s going to be buying albums by people heading for their forties when there are a hundred new bands a month appearing, and appealing to an audience who want something which represents their lives and their concerns?
It turned out that the audience who loved The Jam in their teens and twenties were – unlike their parents’ generation – still buying music, and while (as we’ll see) they would be perfectly capable of finding much to enjoy in the younger bands, having someone of our own generation still making music which stands up alongside it was even more appealing.
In 1995, I was still waiting for the moment when I’d grow out of all this ‘pop music noise’, but the noise kept evolving along with me, and while I did think for a time that perhaps there wasn’t much more blood to be wrung from this particular stone, I’m still eagerly anticipating new albums by bands I only discovered recently, and looking forward to hearing something new.
I have some strong opinions on what passes for ‘pop music’ these days, but I did back in 1995 too, and that particular gripe clearly doesn’t hold any water with the millions of people who go out and buy it. I prefer my music not to be shaped by algorithms, or moulded by focus groups, or written to a formula, but there’s plenty of other kinds of music still out there, so I’m not going to run out of things to listen to any time soon.
Back in 1995, I acquired a copy of Stanley Road on CD (and I think it might have been a birthday present), and loving it helped me lean back into those Jam albums I’d never quite fully absorbed back in those fast-paced days of change, and helped me find a way into the ‘Britpop’ (I was never a fan of that label, but you know what I mean by it) which was all around at the time.
I sometimes struggle to clearly identify with the 1990s; it doesn’t have a ‘feel’ for me the way the 1970s and 1980s did, and that may be a function of age, but the music is what anchors it for me, and right at the centre of it is this album, a considered, mature work by an artist still finding new things to say, despite having reached what his generation would once have considered pensionable age.
On the cover, designed by Peter Blake of Sgt. Pepper fame, Weller looks – no doubt intentionally – like John Lennon, and The Changingman starts with that Beatle-like guitar sound, straight out of Dear Prudence, although the vocal couldn’t be anyone else, and while the song never quite shakes off its influences, it manages to sound contemporary, perhaps partly due to the way it influenced (or shared influences with) the likes of Oasis, who mined the same seam musically.
I had forgotten how effective the sparse opening to Porcelain Gods is – perhaps I should say that despite it being one of my favourite albums at the time, I haven’t listened to it for maybe a decade or more – it’s actually a much better song than the opener in its willingness to explore the sound rather than just chug along in the same vein. I’m not sure if I knew that the bass is played by Dr. Robert of the Blow Monkeys, but it’s fantastically fluid and gives the track a relaxed underpinning for its otherwise menacing air.
Another musical doctor next – Dr. John’s swampy New Orleans blues retitled for some reason to I Walk on Gilded Splinters (the original is Guilded). I’m not sure I’m convinced that Paul from Woking carries off the voodoo menace, but I’m singing along anyway; it’s an irresistible melody however presented. Apparently – did I know this at the time? – Noel Gallagher is in the mix somewhere, and I do still love the fake ‘scratched vinyl’ outro.
You do Something to Me is a straightforward love song, perhaps the best known song from this album, and one which perhaps best illustrates the way that the passage of time produces music which wouldn’t have worked as a Jam or Style Council song – it’s a mature song with a slightly world-weary feel to it which would sound strange coming from a younger Paul Weller.
Woodcutter’s Son demonstrates that the passage of time hasn’t dulled the righteous anger of the man who was a big part of Red Wedge. It‘s perhaps not as clearly focused on a specific target, but behind its cheerful clapping and the unmistakeable keyboard work of Steve Winwood, there’s a real air of menace and anger at the state of the world.
As soon as I hear the piano at the start of Time Passes…, I realise that my thesis for this post was perhaps subliminally inspired by this, my favourite track on it. There’s nothing complicated about it, a quiet blues-based lament, but I suspect it came into my life at the first time I really thought about the inexorable progress of time. Turning thirty and being in possession of something approximating a career, together with the fact that I was now listening to music like this and thinking about the people who were making it getting older like I was – well, something struck a chord with me, and something made me approach this album from this perspective.
I still don’t know if the instrumental coda is meant to be attached to it, or is an introduction to the title track, or somewhere in between.
While it’s musically different – much more up-tempo and purposeful, Stanley Road addresses the same question – how to look back and look forward at the same time. It is, of course, the theme of the whole set of songs, perfectly captured in a simple image of the street where Weller grew up.
Broken Stones shifts moods quite deliberately. There has, so far, been little sign of the soul influences which reach all the way back to the days of The Jam, but they’re all here – surrounded by understated piano, drifting accordion and that glorious bass, Weller’s voice makes much more sense in this context – he’s a soul singer; perhaps even a gospel singer, trying to explain his philosophy while adrift in the sounds of the seventies.
Talking of which, Out of the Sinking feels like a lost song from the early seventies – it’s got that same swagger that the Small Faces did. If this album is, as I seem to be suggesting, a recap of everything which has gone before and is trying to put all of that into a 1990s context, it is drawing from impeccable sources.
Back to the Beatles for the piano intro to Pink on White Walls; a simple, straightforward slice of a pop song which swings joyfully by in little more than a couple of minutes, which is not something you can say about Whirlpool’s End, which takes the premise of an angry Jam song and stretches it over seven minutes of slow boiling anger. I’ll be honest; I think the song is done at the halfway point, and I’m unconvinced that stretching it out past that adds much at all, despite some smart guitar and drum work – the drumming on this whole album is impressive – I’m known for being an apologist for overly long songs, but I’m prepared to call out the odd one which seems to burble away to no great effect.
Wings of Speed is much more like it, concluding the album with a burst of gospel-tinged (OK, gospel-soaked) piano balladry. It’s a very effective way to end an album, timeless in its appeal, and perhaps symbolising the way this whole album manages to be at once free from any particular time period, and firmly fixed in the 1990s.
I’m not sure my words convey how much I have enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with Stanley Road. While I wouldn’t claim to be word-perfect on the lyrics the way I was with some of my earlier favourites, I was singing along happily to much of it, and while it’s not a perfect album by any means, it does illustrate neatly the way I was feeling about music, and life in general in the middle of the 1990s. I’ll not leave it so long next time.
Any other albums by this artist to consider?
The only other one I know well is Wild Wood, which I also heartily recommend. As with a few others, I played this one to death, but didn’t move on to any later ones – I should probably try to figure out why that is.
Compilations to consider?
There’s a greatest hits album called Modern Classics from around this time, and a much later one called More Modern Classics (naturally); maybe I should investigate those…
Live at the Royal Albert Hall contains some of these songs, but Catch-Flame! from 2005 also includes some songs from earlier in his career, which may appeal.
Well, there’s The Jam and The Style Council. That should keep you busy for a while…