As album sleeves go, the one for ‘Our Favourite Shop’, the second album by The Style Council, is by far one of the most interesting for me in among the thousand or so long players I own.
Why I hear some of you whisper?
Well, it’s the clues therein. If, like me back then, you were a Paul Weller spotter of a certain heightened obsession, to have the chance to study the contents on display and to then pick through ‘what meant what’ and how they then helped shape the boy from Woking, simply gave me hours of enjoyment.
And all this before you got to listen to the actual music…
The art director on the project was long time Weller associate Simon Halfon, who along with Paul created the idea of a shop interior in a photographic studio and then invited Weller and the other main member of the band, Mick Talbot to bring in records, photos, clothing, football programmes, books and general ephemera etc., all of which meant something to them growing up and that had influenced them in their formative years.
From observing the items on display, it was obvious that the two by way of being close in age and background, had very similar tastes which then helped explain the connection they had discovered before going on to form the band after Weller spilt from The Jam. Soon standing alongside them of course, would be other band regulars, singer Dee C Lee and drummer Steve White. Guest artists on this record would include the likes of comedian Lenny Henry, and singers Tracie Young and Alison Limerick as well as names that would become very familiar within the Weller camp in the years to come, namely Helen Turner, Billy Chapman and Camelle Hinds.
‘Our Favourite Shop’ was released in the UK on June 8th 1985 on the Polydor label, around 10 months on from their debut album ‘Cafe Bleu.’ It went on to top the UK album charts, after being generally very well reviewed and received.
Side one opens with the sound of a railway station announcer who in turn leads you to Mick singing lead vocal on ‘Homebreakers’ which is the story of family members having to leave their community in search of employment during the economic downturn caused by the then Thatcher government. Co-written by Talbot and Weller, musically it is as diverse as ever with this band. The ‘bed’ is a soulful shuffle punctuated by sharp Hammond organ stabs that are accompanied by a rumbling bass line. Listening to it, you are left in no doubt of the political leanings of this group and those politics are a constant on the tracks that follow.
A bossa nova soundtrack greets us next as Weller relates the tale in ‘All Gone Away’ of whole villages and towns decimated by the policies of the Tory government, who by way of closing coal pits, herald the death of the local high streets as people have no money to spend in the local shops. This all takes place against the backdrop of the rich in the capital, attaining more wealth on the profits that are made from these decisions. The juxtaposition of the music and the message, not always taken in on the first listen, well by me anyway, is an intriguing one and clever too.
‘Come to Milton Keynes’ is up next and it contains a biting lyrical take on the whole ‘new town’ phenomena of post war Britain. Milton Keynes is highlighted here after being featured in ‘Come to Milton Keynes’ adverts of the early 1980s. On the surface everything looked new, clean and fresh, but take a peek just a little under the surface and gradually the suffocating boredom of nothing to do, leads for some, to mindless violence and destruction and rampant drug abuse that is never that far away. The jolly music hall melody once again contradicts the words sung by Weller such as… ‘I liked the idea, but now I’m not so Keyne’
It all goes funky with ‘The Internationalists’, which is another combined Weller/Talbot composition. Steve White kicks it all off, and ‘rise up and get together’ is the positive theme of the song. Working as one, with black and white uniting means, you can change things. The song fairly rockets along and there is no holding it back. Performed at ‘Live Aid ‘that year, its message was perfect for that particular day of global action.
‘For liberty there is a cost; it’s broken skulls and leather cosh.
From the boys in uniform, now you know whose side they’re on, with backing, with blessing from earthly God’s not heaven.
A stone’s throw away from it all.’
I have always liked the use of strings by Weller on various songs over the years and that is never better illustrated than on the classic ‘A Stones Throw Away. It relates the story of police brutality around the world at the time of it being written, be that in Chile, Poland, Johannesburg or South Yorkshire. Very powerful lyrics, beautifully delivered and those strings get me every time.
Against the general hubbub of a northern working men’s club, comedian Lenny Henry adopts the persona of a racist/homophobic/sexist comedian of the 1970s to deliver the cutting, insightful message of common myths and lies, dressed up as ‘jokes’ in the track ‘The Stand Up Comedians Instructions.’ Within a few years of this, a new breed of ‘PC’ comedians would emerge nationally to all but finish of the comedy world depicted here Listening back to it today, I doubt any of the contemporaries of The Style Council would have put anything like this on a so-called ‘pop’ album. As ever, they were simply way ahead of their time.
With a title taken from ‘Aesop’s Fables’ with its message of ‘to give false alarm in the hope of getting a reaction’ the ‘Boy Who Cried Wolf’ is the tale of a destructive attention seeker who loses a love by not caring for it, but instead driving it away. Weller is on fine vocal form here, set against a very 1980s sounding backing of drum machine to the fore. Tracie Young is on the excellent backing vocals. ‘It always worked before, you kept the wolf from my door, but one day you never showed and honey, now I’m not so sure.’ That’ll teach ya.
The sound of church bells herald the beginning of side two.
Those bells – sampled from ‘Big Black Smoke’ by The Kinks pop pickers – lead on to, for me at any rate, a solid copper-bottomed classic of a song, namely ‘A Man of Great Promise.’ The lyrics deal with drug related death of Dave Waller, a friend of Weller’s and one time member of The Jam. Waller, by all accounts was a very talented poet, but the ‘dangerous passion’ mentioned here in the lyric – heroin – did for him at a young age. ‘Still I wonder, if it’s in the cold earth you prefer to lay…’
Next up…‘Weller goes bi-lingual shocker!’ The jazz tinged ‘Down The Seine’ illustrates very nicely the strident pro European stance of this band, which from their inception had featured Paris as a backdrop on many photo shoots. As an aside, I always thought Sandie Shaw should have been brought out of retirement to cover this as a UK entry in the Eurovision Song Contest in a sarcastic, ironical move of the highest order. A stick on winner for me. But then again, what do I know? Murky Bunkup one and all.
A damning verdict on the world of the old school tie, fat cat Tory world is next. Never has that world been so eloquently depicted in song as on ‘The Lodgers’ (Or She Was only a Shopkeepers Daughter) Weller and Dee sing this beautifully with Dee in particular nailing the lyric of cover-ups and lies at the so-called top of society. Sadly, many of the themes mentioned here are still with us and as prevalent today as they were 30 years ago.
Then we have ‘Luck’ which fairly belts along. This love song from the pens of Talbot and Weller proves a nice change of tack from the previous politically charged songs that mostly come before it. Summertime 1985 perfectly captured.
Steve White enters the song-writing fray next, with this comment on the one time Youth Opportunities Scheme that gave way to the Youth Training Schemes that were introduced in the UK in the late 1970s to the mid 1980s. They were claimed at the time to be a form of apprenticeships, but to many of the youth themselves, it smacked of them being used as cheap labour. Furthermore, if you refused to sign up on the schemes, your benefits were cut or stopped. This led to many seeing no future for whilst on these schemes and many desperately sad suicides resulted. The melody is the same as the later TSC song ‘Have You Ever Had it Blue’ harbours a very powerful lyric, which still makes sobering listening some 30 odd years on.
The title track is next up and it is a fine musical soul based work out written by Mick. All involved have a stretch out, with Mick’s Hammond to the fore on the opening parts. Listening to it in 2019, it now brings Jimmy Smith and Billy Preston to my more musical educated state of mind. Of course, I only learned about the work of those two fine gentlemen by listening to The Style Council in the first place, which explains why they were so important to many like me.
Ending the album, is the still fondly recalled ‘Walls Come Tumbling Down.’ On this tune, revolution is in the air. The line ‘the class war’s real and not mythologized’ pretty much sums up the overall message here. One of stand up and fight back. Prophetic as well in regards of the Berlin wall itself lets not forget.
Many of us back then in 1985, heeded that call and and I for one, being already being a member of trade union, eventually joined the Labour Party and I volunteered to work for the party whilst unemployed in the summer of 1996. Sadly, what I saw then in there put me off politics for life.
Frankly, it was a shambles and I felt very disconnected from it all, leaving the party not long after as a result. What I saw back then, has been mirrored in recent months, by the current Brexit fiasco, which has highlighted how self-serving and useless most of those in the political parties and ultimately parliament are.
But, I say fair play to Weller, Talbot, White and Lee for highlighting what was going on and trying to mobilise us, the youth of the country, to do something about it. Of course, it didn’t always work, but I strongly believe the motivation behind it all was very well intentioned.
They also introduced me to some fantastic clobber that summer, which some might say was more important and for which I’ll always be truly grateful.
Such a band, such a great album.
I’m forever grateful and thankful for their existence.
The Mumper of SE5