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A Man Escaped: The Style Council’s Confessions Of A Pop Group 30 Years On
Lois Wilson , July 3rd, 2018 10:41

Dismayed by the relative failure of Red Wedge, The Style Council find solace soundtracking the bleak state of the nation while pushing the possibilities of pop. Paul Weller discusses one of his more overlooked albums with Lois Wilson

On 20 June 1988, The Style Council issued Confessions Of A Pop Group to mainly scathing reviews. When the album stalled at Number 15 – their previous three all having charted at Number 1 or 2 – it sparked the end of their relationship with their record label Polydor who refused to release its follow up.

Too artful and direct for the mainstream with its piano suites and political polemics – Bros’ ‘I Owe You Nothing’ topped the singles chart; Nite Flight, a compilation of quiet storm soul by George Benson, Alexander O’Neal, Luther Vandross et al the album one – Confessions Of A Pop Group was consigned to the bargain bins.

Give it a listen today though and you’ll hear Paul Weller at his most artistically brave, intimate and socially astute delivering a state of the nation address as fierce as any of his work with The Jam, exposing his inner workings more than any other chart bound pop singer before or since and wilfully shattering notions of high and low art with references to Debussy, Satie, the Swingle Singers, Osiris and erotic pulp fiction. “There was a sense our time was up,” says Paul Weller. “It wouldn’t have mattered what we put out, it would have bombed. So we thought, if this is going to be our last time, we better make sure it counts.”

Just three years earlier Paul Weller had been spearheading Red Wedge, the left wing pressure group of musicians encouraging the youth to vote. The Style Council – line-up completed by Mick Talbot, Dee C Lee and Steve White – performed at Live Aid and their second album, Our Favourite Shop, which roared with the passion and anger of the socialist cause hit the top spot. “You don’t have to take this crap,” he shouts on ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down’, the record’s jubilant call to arms and real change was palpable.

That optimism didn’t last long. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher took the Conservatives to their third consecutive general election win, making her the first PM to do so since 1820 and the political idealism that had galvanised Weller and his followers was quashed.

Dejected, he distanced himself from Red Wedge – the movement finally disbanded in 1990 – and turning his back on organised politics, went into the studio to score his despondency. Confessions Of A Pop Group was the result and it rang the death knell on insurrection and hope for a better life in a series of experimental songs mapping his personal fallibility and frailty.

These were sketched out over a two-week stay at his parents’ house on the south coast, using the grand piano in the family’s front room – “In a creative burst,” he says, “written as poetry then set to music” – and then recorded at London’s Solid Bond Studios with Weller and Talbot sharing production.

The first side, subtitled ‘The Piano Paintings’, pushes the boundaries of what constitutes pop – The Style Council, always anti-rock, here influenced by the Impressionist composers and the French new wave on piano suites with an environmental message featuring harp, string quartet and a coda paying tribute to the Beach Boys. “We were aiming high,” says Weller. “We knew we were being ambitious, doing something new. We knew it might have consequences, might lose our audience but that wasn’t a consideration. We had to do what felt right.”

The rest delves deep into Weller’s psyche. ‘It’s A Very Deep Sea’, full of self doubt and remorse unsettles as he sings, “But no, on I go down into the depths/ Turning things over that are better left/ Dredging up the past that has gone for good/
Trying to polish up what is rotting wood.”

‘The Story Of Someone’s Shoe’, a brutal invective about a one-night stand, with its unforgiving lyrics, as grim and graphic as any kitchen sink drama are sharpened further when pinned to an elegant soundtrack of vibraphone and a capella vocals by The Swingle Singers – inspired by The Modern Jazz Quartet’s Place Vendôme and utilising a Style Council trope, placing a gritty subject with musical opulence.

Side two features more self examination – the mournful ‘Why I Went Missing’, the break-up pop of ‘How She Threw It All Away’ [Weller, now 30, married to his co-singer Dee C Lee, and about to become a father, looks back to his first serious girlfriend Gill Price] – and a scornful summary of the late 80s political climate. Out went the We Shall Overcome rejoicing of ‘Shout To The Top’, now there was just pure disdain for Thatcher and her colluders. The album’s lead single ‘Life At A Top People’s Health Farm’ and ‘Iwasadoledadstoyboy’ encapsulate the feelings of a man and country in crisis, dejected, with no answers. The first, a tale of class struggle namedropping Thatcher, Trotsky, Engels and The Archers, what Weller called his updating of Dylan’s ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ cloaked in horns, keyboards and drums begins with the sound of a toilet flushing. The second is a direct swipe at The Sun, its title an actual headline printed in the newspaper. “This was how ridiculous it had got, it was just pure propaganda for the Tories,” says Weller.

It’s the title track, however, that captures best the ideological shift from youthful optimism to resignation at the slow moving machinations of party politics.

“There was a sense that Santa doesn’t exist anymore,” says Mick Talbot. “How could we have been that naïve?”

Seething with punk vitriol, over blistering electro funk Weller croons soulfully, “Cheap and tacky bullshit land/ Told when to sit don’t know where you stand/ Too busy recreating the past/ To live in the future.” Weller’s critique of the Thatcher/Reagan relationship and the stationing of US cruise missiles on UK soil is powerful stuff. “Their confessions are written in your blood… see no future, hear no lies/ Speak no truth to me or the people I love,” he continues.

“It felt like we were just another state of America. We no longer had our own voice. It didn’t matter what we did or said, nothing would change. The rich would get richer, the poor, poorer, it didn’t matter what you believed in, it wasn’t going to happen,” says Weller.

While Confessions Of A Pop Group was castigated at the time, over the years its status has risen and rightly so. It’s Weller’s most honest outpouring and most influential too, sowing the seeds for his solo critical and commercial rebirth; present in the self questioning of 1993’s Wild Wood; the sonic exploration of 22 Dreams/Wake Up The Nation/Sonik Kicks 2008-12 trilogy and in the more considered conscience soul of last year’s A Kind Revolution. “We set out to document the dismal times but at the same time we wanted to elevate pop to an art form,” he concludes. “Sometimes it’s important to do that and I think we succeeded in both.” He certainly did.