Thursday, June 30, 2022

Sonic threads

    People say we're wasting our time
    They don't seem to understand
    'Cause when you're dancing all night long
    It gives you the feeling that you belong

So sang Paul Weller in 1977 on "Non-Stop Dancing" on the Jam's debut album In The City. The song had been inspired by the Northern Soul movement then churning up dance floors in venues in northern England. "By 1975, Northern Soul had spread south into a national phenomenon, and the charts were full of reissues of old classics and new cash-in groups like Wigan’s Ovation," John Reed wrote in his Weller biography, My Ever Changing Moods. "And it reached Woking and the teenage Paul Weller, who'd ride up to the Bisley Pavilion on his scooter," adding, "It made such an impact that he even wrote a song about the experience." According to scrapbook notes that drummer Rick Buckler kept during the Jam's early years, "Non-Stop Dancing" was demoed in May of 1976, which means that Weller wrote the song when he was around seventeen years-old. Remember being seventeen?

Pushing forty years-old two decades later, Weller would essentially rewrite the song as "Peacock Suit," the lead single off of Heavy Soul (1997), a swaggering tune defending the Mod sensibility that gripped him as a teenager and that would come to define his tastes into his adult years, an outlook that Weller would liken to a religion. "I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod," Weller said to television host Jonathan Ross in the early 1990s on the cusp of a solo career. "Peacock Suit" was another in a clutch of songs wherein Weller married his twin obsessions, style and music. Allegedly written in response to an article critical of Mod attire, the song can be seen as a sneeringly cocky double a-side to the joy and abandon of "Non-Stop Dancing," both tunes celebrating Mod movement and style—"clean living under difficult circumstances," as the Who's early manager Pete Meaden famously put it in the mid-1960s. "I'm Narcissus in a puddle / In shop windows I gloat," Weller exults in "Peacock Suit,"
Like a ball of fleece lining
In my camel skin coat

I don't need a ship to sail in stormy weather
I don't need you to ruffle the feathers of my Peacock Suit
Did you think I should?
Weller now might blanch at the desire to fit into a community so dear to his heart in "Non-Stop Dancing," yet a sturdy sonic thread runs from that song to "Peacock Suit." The opening riffs in each are cut from the same cloth, as it were (and both are borrowed from the Small Faces' driving "Grow Your Own") and though the pace in '77 is typically quicker than what Weller would take in '97, each song extolls the same thing: the joy of movement, out on the dance floor and out on the street, your image mirrored gleefully in your sweaty mates' faces or in a streak-free shop window. The singer in each song doesn't give a fuck about your review. The driving "Peacock Suit" is still a staple in Weller's set lists; it's a wonder he hasn't revived "Non-Stop Dancing" yet (or updated it in other ways, as he's done in the past with his songs.) Overlay "Non-Stop Dancing" onto the cool, "Day Tripper"/"Jumpin' Jack Flash"-styled vamp at the end of "Peacock Suit" and what do you hear? I'm still a mod, I'll always be a mod, you can bury me a mod. Depending on one's attitude toward Weller, the resemblances in the two tunes can suggest a songwriter who's recycling ideas, and shallow ones at that, a criticism long lobbed at Weller, who never shies away from acknowledging that he steals from the best, and often himself. I hear a groove of sentiment and sound that keeps arriving and keeps surprising, the way a sunny day can affect you at seventeen and at forty in the same blissy and overwhelming ways. 

left, 1977; right, 1997

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