By Lee Gale
Writer and musician Simon Wells knows a thing or two about cool British culture. His previous books have covered The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and homegrown cult films, and he’s also co-curated a Sixties film season at London’s National Film Theatre. Perhaps, though, his latest project falls closest to his heart. His new book, In Echoed Steps: The Jam And A Vision Of The Albion, is an investigation into the poetry and literary influences of Jam frontman Paul Weller.
To Wells, the Modfather is more than mere pop legend. He’s on a par with Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Lord Byron, albeit with a distinct talent for distilling his thoughts into three-minute psychedelic compositions. So take off your green parka, dust down a copy of Geoffrey Ashe’s 1971 tome Camelot And The Vision Of Albion and butter some crumpets using the blade of Excalibur. As you are about to discover, Weller’s words have a lineage that can be traced back to King Arthur.
BIC: Why write a book about The Jam?
Simon Wells: There’s been a few, hasn’t there? I’d always felt that the cool part of The Jam’s history was the Sound Affects period. There’s a psychedelic element to Paul Weller’s poetry. He’s in the classic British vein of psychedelic songwriters, like Syd Barrett, so it’s a great avenue to explore. There was a psychedelic renaissance around 1980, with a lot of bands fusing the energy of punk with a psychedelic sensibility; Gang Of Four and Joy Division, for example. The popular Jam sound, records such as “When You’re Young” and “Eton Rifles”, to me, are muddy and congested. I love the way that Sound Affects was a really stripped-back album, which allowed Paul Weller’s lyrics to get a greater prominence and not be overwhelmed by The Jam sound.
Sound Affects was 1980?
That’s right. So for me, that period, 1980-’81, was a purple patch for the band and Weller’s writing had assumed a new reality, away from the youthful anger semantics. He was going to other realms, which were incredible. There’s a 1971 book, Camelot And The Vision Of Albion by Geoffrey Ashe, which I’d heard Weller had read. That was a line being drawn with the poets, Blake especially, Shelley and other visionaries. They were going back to Camelot and King Arthur’s vision for Britain. Very heavy stuff. Paul Weller had read the book, devoured it and loved it and was expressing Ashes’ book within Sound Affects. “Set The House Ablaze” is questioning the nature of existence and that, as humans, we’ve lost our perception of the goals that we should be striving for. For a 22-year-old, writing in those sorts of heady terms, it’s pretty impressive. It’s an acerbic psychedelia. The whole album’s a monumental masterpiece. I’m blown away by it.
Twenty-two years old? The Jam were young in 1980, weren’t they?
Sound Affects was a step up from Setting Sons, which was a great album but this elevated it. Weller still thinks it’s their peak, and I do too. He went into realms that they’d never explored before, musically, but mostly lyrically. That’s the inspiration for my new book, In Echoed Steps. I’m using a line from the song “Absolute Beginners” but then I’ve subtitled it The Jam And A Vision Of The Albion. Like Ashes’ book, I see Paul Weller as a classic English poet, not so much a songwriter. If you read Blake, Shelley, Keats and Byron, he’s in that realm and I don’t think it’s too hifalutin to say that. Weller’s words were way outside the pop formula. Initially, I wanted to look at that period but with all poets there’s a start, a middle and an end. I had to look at his background and what spawned Paul Weller. So we’re looking at Woking and the Englishness of his environment.
What can you tell us about Woking?
It’s a microcosm of British society. You’ve got very poor areas, very, very rich areas, and it’s divided geographically by beautiful countryside and then you’ve got factories and industrial bits. You’ve got a river that cuts right through it, you’ve got these amazing woods and you’ve got the common, where HG Wells, who was briefly based in Woking, had set The War Of The Worlds – because of it’s otherworldly nature. It’s like going to Mars.
So you researched Weller’s teenage years…
I’ve been able to time travel back to the Seventies and see the landscape around Paul Weller and it was vicious. I remember what it was like in East Grinstead when I was a kid. They talk about inner-city violence and inner-city racism. It’s got nothing on rural and small-town racism.
Peter Hook from Joy Division says that in the early days when playing gigs, half his mind was concentrating on playing bass, while the other half was studying the audience. It was a violent era and he never knew what the crowd was going to do next.
It was a violent time. I spoke to some of Paul Weller’s school friends. From my vintage, if you were a teenager who was into writing poetry, you were up for execution. How did he get away with it? A bit like David Bowie and a bit like John Lydon, Weller’s otherworldly so he’s strong enough to deal with opportunist bullies. Also, he was so different that people kept away from him.
Was Weller cool at school?
He was different. There’s this wonderful image that one of his friends told me. In 1974, Weller bought a parka and a scooter, and he would drive round Woking. Written on the parka was “Mod Class A”. Going back to that time, I remember it being the height of glam and flares. You would have cut a strange presence. People thought of him as weird. Punk arrived and authenticated him. Punk was a collection of weirdos who were given a legitimacy. There were a lot of Paul Wellers and Peter Hooks about, loads of people who were just different. From that, Weller carved his own way. You can’t overstate the importance of Paul Weller on the whole mod revival. Without The Jam, it wouldn’t have happened.
On the British coast in the late Seventies, there were swarms of olive-green parkas.
It was everywhere you went. It united some of the inner cities. But going to a place like Crawley in the mod revival, it was a sea of green parkas and most of those parkas had “The Jam” written on the back. Weller tried to distance himself from the mod revival. Then, of course, being Paul Weller, he was happy to tear it all up. From “Going Underground” and “Eton Rifles”, he would then go into these psychedelic, even folksy, tracks like “That’s Entertainment” or “Liza Radley” and do something completely different. When he finished with that, he went into soul and funk with The Gift. He’s ever-moving. But I always felt The Jam had another psychedelic album in them.
Do you think they ended that period too soon?
Their foray into English psychedelia? Yes. Funnily enough, I think Weller had burnt himself out. He’d put everything into that album and the following year, 1981, they only did a couple of singles. I don’t think they did an album that year. They did “Funeral Pyre” and “Absolute Beginners”, which weren’t particularly great. There was a B-side, “Tales From The River Bank”, which is a beautiful psychedelic piece. But again, as soon as that was over, he was onto something else. That’s his style.
Did you interview Weller for the book?
I didn’t interview him. There are a few reasons. The principal one is that people I know, who are close to him, say that he’s Jam’d out at the moment. I made a decision; I said, “Let’s present this to him and see what he thinks.”
What do you think Weller will make of it?
Someone’s told me he’s intrigued. It isn’t a predictable book about The Jam, which will interest him. That was the last thing that I wanted to do. The guy who took the photographs for the book is Derek D’Souza, who was a Jam photographer in the day. He’d already done a book on The Jam a few years ago, In The Crowd: Images Of The Jam 1979-1982. Derek did a photo session with The Jam at Chiswick House in 1981. Chiswick House was also the location where The Beatles did two promotional videos in 1966, for “Paperback Writer” and “Rain”. Derek’s photos have been magically transformed by the artist and designer Paul Skellett, who has re-imagined and restored the photos, many previously unseen.
The Beatles’ “Rain” video is wonderful.
It’s beautiful. I found this really exciting. When The Beatles videos were made, apart from a bit of local news, there was no press stating that the band had gone to Chiswick House. In September 1966, The Beatles Monthly Book, a fan-club publication, reported that there had been a photo session in a “West London park”. I know Paul Weller had acquired a set of The Beatles Monthly Books from a jumble sale. I know that he’d seen that piece on Chiswick House so when he asked Derek to do the photos in Chiswick House, I thought, “Well, he’s seen The Beatles films and photos.” Derek, who was 19 at the time when taking the photographs, didn’t know about The Beatles connection and it was only a couple of years ago, when I was talking to Derek, that I said, “If you see Paul, ask him if he chose Chiswick House because of The Beatles.” When he asked, Weller said, “Of course I did.” He was always keen to replicate The Beatles.
You can see some of The Jam’s Chiswick House pictures online. It was a fantastic shoot.
This is what I love about The Beatles and The Jam at Chiswick House: it elevated them out of urban surroundings, which they were most popularly associated with. In 1966, there weren’t too many photo sessions that would lift The Beatles into pastoral settings. It was all mainly associated with rotting houses and urban surroundings. The Jam, even more so. They were a real suburban band that talked about tower blocks and being in the street. So to put them into Chiswick House, with its beautiful, renaissance, neo-Palladian architecture, was historic. When I first met Derek, I said, “That was an amazing photo session.” And he said, “It was all Paul Weller’s idea.” Weller knew what he was up to, no one else did. I don’t even think the rest of the band knew why they were in Chiswick House. Paul Weller is… I wouldn’t say a magpie but he’s heavily influenced by poets and writers. Alan Sillitoe is an enormous influence on him, having read The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner.
Do you think Weller ever met Sillitoe?
That’s a good point. I wonder if they did. Loneliness and Weller are similar. Then you look at Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. It’s always the outsider. Colin Wilson, The Outsider. Paul Weller is an outsider, giving a view and then pulling it into the pop framework. This kid in Woking in 1974, wearing a parka; people probably thought he was a Martian. This individual against society. He talks about Winston Smith [from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four],the individual, and also the opressiveness of society against the individual. He felt very much on the outside. But also, he had a sharp intelligence and was able to cut through bulls**t. But what gave it its currency was its poetry. Anyone can write, “F*** the system,” but he looked at it in a poetic way, best exemplified in tracks like “Man In The Corner Shop” and “Wasteland”. Weller connected with a large following. It wasn’t a cult following; it was enormous.
Were The Jam your favourite group?
I grew up with The Jam. It sounds a bit soppy but the lyrics of those songs at that point connected with me deeper than any other band at the time. Later, I felt that XTC identified with Britain in a way that others hadn’t, but Weller’s reality, vision and thought, in the way that he managed to put it into a three-minute pop song, was without parallel. He was so sharp that it could only be identified by people of a certain culture at a certain time. It wasn’t going to be translatable in Holland, France or Germany. It was fiercely British.
At that time, there were some strong-minded frontmen in bands, people like Kevin Rowland, Suggs and Ian Curtis.
Ian Curtis was visionary. Like XTC, when you have two very strong personalities – Colin Moulding and Andy Partridge – it usually implodes. Weller was on his own but he needed a band to carry his vision. That was translated well by Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler. They managed to interpret where he was going but, of course, Weller’s stamp was all over it. There’s a couple of Foxton songs, “News Of The World” and “Smithers-Jones”, but they weren’t even a shadow of what Weller could do.
The Style Council split opinion. What are your thoughts on them?
I think they’re different. It’s wrong to associate them with The Jam. There’s not one Style Council song that’s anything like The Jam.
Weller goes from a British to a European standpoint.
He wanted them to have a European flavour but I don’t think it translated in Europe at all. It was still very British. The best examples of The Style Council’s music are sublime but you can’t identify it with The Jam in any way. I don’t know any track where you could say, “That sounds like The Jam.” They’re just so different. I liked them, I thought they were great, but his songwriting didn’t go up a notch, it went in a different direction. If you listen to Sound Affects, he’s questioning the nature of reality and existence. The Style Council never really touched on that. They went political. The Jam were not political, they were socially aware. The Style Council tackled issues, which, I think, served to distance them from a Jam audience that was drawn from many political slants. Weller really displayed his socialist colours in The Style Council. That alienated a lot of people. Weller’s said that he regretted getting involved with party politics.
You’re a prolific writer. The list of subjects you’ve tackled is very British, things like Quadrophenia, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. Then, in 2009, you released a book on Charles Manson. But you discovered a British angle…
Very much so. When I first came across Charles Manson, like most people, I thought: The Beach Boys; southern California; absolutely no relevance to the UK whatsoever, apart from The Beatles. Manson was intrigued and interested in The Beatles. He must have seen the phenomenal success of The Beatles, around the Sgt Pepper time. I think he saw a kinship with them. The things The Beatles said, he identified with. But I didn’t see anything beyond that. And then I found out that Manson was interested in Scientology. Where I live, in East Grinstead, there’s the Scientology headquarters of the UK, a place called Saint Hill. It was L Ron Hubbard’s base in the UK. There was a three-hour interview Manson did with the BBC in 1994. He mentioned that he’d sent some people over to England.
The Manson Family crossed the Atlantic?
One of the Manson Family had studied at East Grinstead, a guy called Bruce Davis. For me, living three miles from East Grinstead, to think that in 1969 a member of the Manson Family was wandering around nearby is just madness. Then I came across a death in London of a guy called Joel Pugh in 1969. It was associated with the Manson Family and needed exploring. I was able to draw a connection with Manson in the UK. There was a religious cult in London called The Process Church of the Final Judgement. Again, Manson had links. In tracing the movements of Bruce Davis, he is associated with this death in London. I know for a fact he was also in Manchester, involved in some dodgy dealings up there. So there is a British angle to Manson that no one had seen before. It’s crazy.
Did you find this out while writing the book or was the book based on this fact?
Based on the fact. Did we need another book about Charles Manson? Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi is the benchmark of research because Bugliosi was the prosecutor on the Manson case. Many people will read that and say, “That’s enough.” I knew there was far more to it. As an angle to hang it on, as a British author writing about an American phenomenon, I needed to put this British angle in. I was able to devote a lot of the book to Manson’s relation to the UK.
Were there any repercussions from this? Any unusual phone calls?
We had to have it all checked out by lawyers but as soon as you write “Scientology” you end up being monitored by them. I got weird phone calls from people in America, emails about strange Manson stuff, which is par for the course. Any writer who mentions the Manson Family will enter into that world. I had some strange things going on. Equally, I’ve had some very positive things. As someone who was involved in the new-age traveller movement in the Eighties, I’ve come across Charles Manson characters. I’d seen quite a few. I’d heard a lot of crazy people talking s**t around a campfire. There’s plenty of them around. To me it was nothing out of the ordinary so it gave me this great perspective to approach the monumental figure of Charles Manson and demystify him. Manson was no different to some of the fried-out people at Stonehenge. “Oh, he’s a visionary, he’s a countercultural icon,” but the other thing is, separating him from the murders, there were many messiah-type characters in California during the Sixties. Loads of them.
Is that the toughest subject you’ve tackled?
Yes. Because I had to deal with the murders, which were awful, and I don’t recommend it. I called the book Coming Down Fast because anyone who understands commune community life, when things are going well, it’s fantastic. If you have a self-appointed person in charge, commune life will implode. It has to.
Have you lived through a commune experience?
I’ve done the new-age traveller thing, so I know all that. Commune stuff, when it’s great, it’s great, but people get doubts. For Manson, he built this commune up. His self-appointed divinity, his self-appointed messiah status, it all collapsed. In the book, I had to systematically go through this. It collapsed over a year, but 20 to 30 days before the murder, everything collapsed. It was a tale of the Sixties. It wouldn’t happen now. People would google him. He wouldn’t get away with it.
In 2003, you were asked to curate a Sixties film season at the National Film Theatre. That must be a career high.
The NFT in 2003. It was fun. This was before streaming video. So with a friend, Paolo Hewitt, who’s a great writer, we were able to go to the NFT and say, “We want to put these films on,” and they agreed to it. Which doesn’t happen very often. Having that choice was fabulous.
What films did you choose?
I co-wrote a book, Your Face Here, in 2001 with a writer called Ali Catterall. We wanted to look at British cult films. There are very few, only a dozen or so. We were hard-pushed to find a dozen that you could call “cult movies”. So when I did the film season with Paolo, we wanted to find films that were British and cool. So you get the usual suspects. Up The Junction is my favourite Sixties film.
Up The Junction – the Ken Loach and Tony Garnett film?
No, and I’m at pains to point out that Up The Junction, the film, is completely different to Up The Junction, the BBC TV play. This is the Peter Collinson film, which I adore. It’s romantic and dreamy. Ken Loach’s and Tony Garnett’s film is dark and brutal, and I totally understand the furore it caused at the time. So finding cool films of the Sixties, there’s obvious ones like Blow-Up and Up The Junction, but then we had the chance to put in films like Sapphire. You wouldn’t imagine that would be a cool film. Then there are other films like Tonite, Let’s All Make Love In London, Peter Whitehead’s documentary. Today, I don’t think you’d have a season like that because people can just download films or stream them. Bronco Bullfrog was another one. At that point, Bronco Bullfrog wasn’t on DVD.
Will there be any more cult British films made?
Probably not. The film that I’ve written a lot about, The Wicker Man, to me, is the ultimate cult film. I remember researching it for Your Face Here. When I first came to London, in the late Eighties, I was heavily into finding films and you’d put adverts in a film magazine. Occasionally, you’d get someone who’d say, “I have a copy, a fifth-generation broadcast on Italian telly from ten years ago.” I used to hang out at the NFT quite a lot because it was a place you could see these films. They used to have a telephone kiosk and it became an ersatz advertising place where you’d put Post-It notes: “Has anyone got a copy of this…?” That was a way that people would trade. There was also a guy in Camden Market whose whole stall was A Clockwork Orange videos and soundtrack. That’s all he’d sell. I presume he made a lot of money. Now if you want to watch a film, you just google it.
With The Wicker Man, isn’t there a section of tape that’s missing? In fact, I think I read that in your book.
In the book, we were able to find out what happened and it was complete myth-making. The story that the director, and Christopher Lee principally, would say is: “Oh, my greatest piece of film was buried in landfill.” I got hold of the producer. He said, “This is the reality: I was given this film. There were only two networks in the UK who would show films. We showed it to them and they unanimously said, ‘We will not show this, it’s too weird, it’s too cult. But what we’ll do is put it as a B-feature so you can play it with a film that’s translatable – Don’t Look Now.’” But B-features in those days only ran to 84 minutes maximum. Consequently, it went out as a cut version to satisfy it as a B-feature. But in the interim, the original negative was mislaid and that was through human error. It fuels the conspiracy theory. A cut of the original film was sent to the States. But, you know, it’s a great story
In Your Face Here, you say that British films started to market themselves as “cult”.
That happened with Trainspotting. The marketing budget was as much as the film. They poured so much into the marketing and they specifically targeted it as a cult film.
At Waterloo station in 1996, there was a massive advert on the concourse for Trainspotting.
That’s right. For a film that only cost £2m, maybe even less, they did the same again with marketing. They targeted train stations. But you also had the book, which was enormous. Withnail & I is, for me, the last true British cult film. Everything that came after was marketed as a cult film because Trainspotting, Lock, Stock… and everything beyond that, they knew the formula of the cult film and they marketed like that.
Reading about Withnail & I in Your Face Here, you wonder how the script managed to stay so brilliantly funny because there were business managers interfering with it, saying, “It isn’t funny, change the script.” What sort of people were these, who didn’t get the humour?
Probably the people who make 2point4 Children, My Family or Citizen Khan. I look at them and I don’t laugh and yet they were commissioned. Cult films always fall out of the norm. Ali and I said this in the introduction of Your Face Here. Uniformly, they break the mould; informally, they are completely outside of the expectations of the financiers. I think that’s by and large for every cult film.
In 2013, you wrote The Tripping Horse – a novel. Is writing fiction a completely different process to factual because it’s reflecting more of your personality?
I’m not dismissing the hard work that goes into non-fiction but there are days when you’re writing a non-fiction book where you can just let the other part of you write it. A novel, it’s different. The only person you’re pulling on is yourself. It’s hard work. I have a lot of admiration for people who write novels. I had to self-publish mine. I tried every angle. Most of the responses that came back were, “We don’t have an audience for this,” or, “We like the style but we don’t understand it.” Again, it’s like the idea of bringing The Wicker Man to a film studio. The only reason The Wicker Man got made was because the studio, which they’d sent it to, had subsequently been taken over by a company that wanted to turn the studio estate into flats. To divert the unions, to keep them sweet, to make out they weren’t asset stripping, they asked for new products. “Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man, here’s the money, put them into production – I doubt we’re going to flog them anyway.” If you went to anyone at that time with The Wicker Man, they’d have said, “You’re mad.”
Have you ever stayed at Portmeirion?
About 40 times. I thought Portmeirion was slightly remote from The Prisoner connection. The Prisoner was filmed there for a month but now they’ve gone and built a bloody chessboard on the lawn. I hate that. So I have mixed feelings.
Have you thought of writing a Prisoner book?
A few have been done. I don’t know what more there is to say about it. I think there should be something more on Patrick McGoohan because he’s such an enigma. I wrote a documentary about The Prisoner called Don’t Knock Yourself Out, which is on the DVD. So I’ve done that; that’s enough.
Do you have a favourite Prisoner episode?
I have four. “A. B. & C.”, “Free For All”, “Many Happy Returns” and “Fall Out”. “Fall Out”, for me, is breathtaking. McGoohan’s career ended after The Prisoner, really. He did guest appearances. Actually, he fronted a series in the States that didn’t do well called Rafferty. I’ve got my own feelings that he burnt himself out with The Prisoner. He worked pretty much 24 hours a day and he was obsessed with it. But then the final episode is mad. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? “Fall Out” was pretty much just fragments and he wrote it in a plane with this aim that No.1 was going to be No.6 and No.6 was going to be No.1.
What’s your next project?
I’ve got a book of poetry coming out. I’ve always wanted to do it and what’s great about self-publishing is, I don’t have to think about drumming up interest – I’m just going to do it myself. I’m also a singer-songwriter and have an album out later in the year. And I’ve also got a unique Beatles project, which I can’t say too much about at the moment. That’s going to be really interesting.
Can you make a living from book writing?
Not on my level. I don’t know too many people who do. You always live in hope that you’re going to hit lucky. You’re looking at receiving a figure that’s less than someone stacking shelves at Tesco. I have another job where I work in a care home. I’d say to any young person who wants to get into writing, if you’re in it for the money, think again. Go and get a job and write part-time.
In Echoed Steps: The Jam And A Vision Of The Albion by Simon Wells, Paul Skellett and Derek D’Souza is published in May and is available for pre-order now at Pledge Music, pledgemusic.com/projects/inechoedsteps.