Friday, April 14, 2023

May I slash my wrists tonight?

Forty years on, the Style Council's "Come To Milton Keynes" still cuts

My interest in the Style Council has cooled considerably since the 1980s, when I followed them with near apostolic urgency. They remain very much a band of the era for me, living on as a graphic reminder of how much I was willing to forgive in the name of adoration. With the hindsight of several decades, I can appreciate Paul Weller's nervy commitment to his second band: they were as much a conceptual joke as an actual group, an observation Weller repeated often, especially during the band's waning days, but something I never really understood at the time. That felt like a cop-out, a shoulder-shrugging just kidding in the face of withering criticism. Now I see that the humor was yet another style that the Council wore.

But still. The ever changing attire, the mannered Continental poses, the willful embrace of eclectic, at times clashing musical styles and genres: much of the Council's modus operandi is frozen in time, colors fading like a Swatch wrist watch in a Salvation Army. Unique in many ways, the Style Council were also very much an '80s band, from their blend of primary-color sunniness and dour realism to the synthesizer beds and studio processing on their later records. Yet Weller is and remains a great songwriter, and many Council tunes, especially their singles, have stood the test of time: "Speak Like a Child," "Long Hot Summer," "My Ever Changing Moods," "Solid Bond In Your Heart," "You're The Best Thing," "Wall Come Tumbling Down" are all indelible records, each a winning blend of Weller's skeptical romanticism and his love for 60s-based pop and soul. His more politically charged songs—and there were too many of them by the end—tend to have withered on the vine, the predictable consequence of Weller's tendency in this era to stubbornly breed pointed, overly-earnest lyrics with whatever musical whim he was digging that week, with a self-conscious determination to remain stylistically varied and Socialistically inspired. A lot of it has not aged all that well. Few talk about the Red Wedge much anymore, let alone "Internationalists."

Weller has often said that he regretted letting the Council go on as long as he did. He's also remarked that he feels that the band's second album, Our Favourite Shop, released in 1985, is their best. I agree. To my ears it's their most cohesive album in vision and sound, though it contains one or two clunkers. ("The Stand Up Comics Instructions," anyone?) The poignant "Homebreakers" is a stark, evocative narrative of Thatcher-era desperation, and "All Gone Away," "The Lodgers (Or She Was Only a Shopkeeper's Daughter)," and "With Everything to Lose" each seamlessly weds musical fluency—the Council is an actual band on this album—with social-critical lyrics, as unlikely as it was that kids were going to dart about the U.K. singing along to Socialist doctrinaire with the same teen verve they did to Wham and Culture Club. Weller could still write a conventional love song (the wonderful "Luck"), but polished agit-prop ruled the day for him in the mid- and late-1980s, an era when he too often tread in shallow waters.


Milton Keynes lies fifty or so miles northwest of London, in Buckinghamshire, established in the mid-1960s as a prototypical "New Town" designed by the U.K. government as an answer to housing pressures in the capital. Conceived as a kind of suburban antidote to relentless city crowding, an ideal of post-war urban planning, Milton Keynes has, justifiably or not, long been derided by critics as "soulless," as a "non-place," a pre-ordained grid-facade lacking a richly organic history. Search online and you'll find posts such as "Why is Milton Keynes so weird?", and a subreddit devoted to answering the question, "Could someone explain to me why everybody seems to hate Milton Keynes?" 

A couple of years ago in the U.K. socialist magazine Tribune, Kieran Curran observed that Milton Keynes "stood out from its predecessors through its comparative lack of traditional municipal socialist elements," that the town was "fundamentally about the rising structure of feeling of 'aspiration'." Yet "from the late 1970s on, the town was also a testbed for Thatcher’s political project—a revanchist tearing-down of the post-WWII consensus, combined with a sentimental appeal to a nebulous, idealised nostalgia for a past that never was." Milton Keynes is often knocked for its U.S.-leaning style—one writer recently complained about the city's "un-British" and "vaguely American form of urbanism"—and the community seems destined to remain a target for those decrying its laboratory-like origins. 

In the mid-1980, a concerned Milton Keynes Development Corporation produced what has come to be known as the "Red Balloons" ad, a feel-good video aimed at promoting the city's civic warmth and, as Curran puts it, "the town’s youth, its community, and a profoundly rendered but profoundly nebulous 'hope'." Curran adds, "Yet when considered in relation to the era’s unfolding political upheaval, this focus-grouped bucolic narrative seems nakedly ideological."

Weller was allegedly watching, and in response wrote "Come To Milton Keynes," the title suggesting a tag-line on a tourist brochure. The premise could have gotten in the way here: reacting to what he sees as the town's tackiness and barely-disguised moral decay, Weller complicates a cheerful, sunny melody with clashing musical touches—swing band horn charts, cheap drum machine rhythms, a Technicolor orchestra with swirling harps, reverb-laden, circus-like keyboard washes—evoking a surface-level bliss nagged by something ugly underneath. Precisely because the arrangement is a melange of disagreeing, backward-looking musical styles, the song is not time- and date-stamped as decisively as other Council songs, and its satire, both in the lyrics and the arrangement, feels pretty pointed still.

"May I walk you home tonight on this fine and lovely night tonight?" Weller opens pleasantly, 

We'll walk past the luscious houses
through rolling lawns and lovely flowers,
our nice new town where the curtains are drawn,
where hope is started and dreams can be borne
Yet against the melody's affability we're soon "mad together in Community," where boys are begging for food on corners when they're not chasing heroin fixes or violence on the green. In the lilting bridge, Weller arrives at his insight:
In our paradise lost we'll be finding our sanity
In this paradise found we'll be losing our way for a brave new day
The line "May I slash my wrists tonight, this fine Conservative night?" is rendered especially nauseous given that Weller's singing in an ironically cheery, Ray Davies mode, the horns and strings dancing lightly behind the desperation. He's looking for a job, and arrives in town having "read the ad about the private schemes." He loved the idea, the buoyant red balloons and all they promised, but having lived there, alert to the dark ironies, now he's "not so Keyne." The last pun's a groaner, but Weller's been known to adhere to an idea he loves no matter how clunky it is. Or is the pun's obviousness meant to be funny, an in-joke, a facet of the Style Council's wry humor? 

"Come to Milton Keynes" was released as a single in England (it hit number 23 on the charts), the 7-inch sleeve featuring a color image from the album's cover shoot, the 12-inch (above) a dourly stylish black-and-white shot of two overcoats and hats hanging on a coat rack, more appropriate to the song's suburban skewering. Both releases featured ubiquitous liner notes by The Cappuccino Kid (the pen name for U.K. music journalist Paolo Hewitt) that echoed the song's complaints: we sour humans, rather than coming "together in sweat of all types, for fun, pleasure and toil,"
Instead, it seems,...have chosen to front on the goggle eye box, a wicked vision of children, balloons, sunshine eternal, wealth of the filthy kind, all manner of plastic crap, yanky cop shows and homes for their bombs, and aahh. . . contentment. All still more bullshit that masks the real picture of self-inflicted death, addiction, misery and mass consumering. American express? Fuck off, I'd rather walk!
Subtle stuff. I've never been to Milton Keynes, and for that matter I've no idea if Weller himself ever visited. A quick survey of the comments on the "Red Balloons" ad above reveals several residents gushing about their wonderful childhoods and adolescences they enjoyed there: 
Happy memories from when i was a kid growing up in Milton Keynes. Still love the place now. :) 
Milton Keynes is the best place i have ever lived, and if it was not for this place always providing me with all my opurtunities [sic] than i would never be what it is today. 
Great day of school-Bishop Parker RESPECT for posting this. 
long live red balloons! 
MK was so cool in th 80's
And the like. There are more than a few gripes about the town online, too, and we all know how nostalgia works. Whether Weller was fair or not in his take on Milton Keynes I can't comment on—I believe he received some flak from those in the city unpleased with his depiction. I only know that "Come To Milton Keynes" retains its wickedly satiric bite, and that there are plenty of targets around for a take on the values eroding behind a facade of municipal unity, on a Paradise found and lost, "where the sun never sets, and all is safe and sound."

The video that the Style Council produced for "Come To Milton Keynes" is a theatrical indictment of hucksterism, consumerism, American-style greed, vulgarity, and "all manner of plastic crap," Weller and Mick Talbot prancing about in tacky costumery. Great stuff. Dig the comments for more "debate" over city planning. 

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