Happy 35th Anniversary to The Style Council’s debut album Café Bleu, originally released March 16, 1984.
In 1982, Paul Weller disbanded The Jam at the height of their popularity, citing a desire to pivot toward using a more soulful approach to his music. He felt The Jam were stuck in a rut and not growing as a band. Bassist Bruce Foxton and drummer Ric Buckler did not share this opinion and the split took them by surprise. To this day, Buckler and Weller are not on speaking terms.
In 1983, Weller enlisted keyboard player Mick Talbot, who previously had stints in Dexys Midnight Runners and The Merton Parkas to form The Style Council. To round out the lineup, The Style Council used a rotation of studio musicians and guest stars like Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt from Everything But The Girl, forming a unit known as the Honorary Councilors. With this new group, Weller was able to branch out and experiment with soul, jazz and pop in a way which was not possible with The Jam.
Café Bleu is the full-length debut album from The Style Council, preceded by an EP called Introducing The Style Council which was only available in Canada, the Netherlands and Japan. My listening experience with this album is completely different now than it was when it was first released. The LP I heard 35 years ago was the US version of this album, which was called My Ever Changing Moods. The title track was a different version using a more upbeat tempo with a full band. This version had a different running order and fewer tracks and at the time it was one of my favorite LPs.
Café Bleu is Weller’s bold and declarative statement that distinguished his newfound tenure with The Style Council from his previous life with The Jam. The first track “Mick’s Blessings” is an instrumental song featuring keyboardist Mick Talbot. It’s an odd choice as an opening track, but it flows nicely into the next track, “The Whole Point of No Return.” It’s a 1980s coffeehouse style commentary on England under Margaret Thatcher’s rule: “Rising up to break this thing / From family trees the dukes do swing / Just one blow to scratch the itch / The laws made for and by the rich / It would be easy / So, so easy.”
The next two tracks, “Me Ship Came In!” and “Blue Café” are instrumentals that could be considered filler, but are crucial to setting a mood and providing a lead-in to one of the album’s highlights, “The Paris Match” featuring Thorn. This could have easily been on Everything But The Girl’s debut album Eden (1984). Everything from the vocals to the arrangements is perfection.
The sixth track “My Ever Changing Moods” is vastly different from the aforementioned version. It’s just Weller on vocals and Talbot at the piano. This version works best with the album’s running order as opposed to the other version. By the time you get to this point on the album, it’s crystal clear that The Jam are in Weller’s rearview mirror.
Side 1 ends with yet another instrumental, “Dropping Bombs on the White House”, a sort of swinging West Coast jazz workout featuring the drumming of Steve White and more of Talbot’s great work on the piano.
The beginning of side 2 is where Café Bleu goes off the rails. “A Gospel” musically misses the mark and disrupts the great flow of side 1, but it contains a rap by Dizzy Hite that is lyrically brilliant: “Sent through the ages of boy to man / The living testament of making a stand / Killing the wicked then raising the dead / Eating propaganda and shit spoon fed.” The commentary on the societal dysfunction of the 1980s is spot on, but loses its bite by tackling a genre outside The Style Council’s wheelhouse.
“Strength of your Nature,” while sounding dated today, is a good bridge into the next phase of Café Bleu. “You’re the Best Thing” is The Style Council’s homage to the ‘70s soul, slow jam era. It borrows themes from popular R&B songs from the previous decade and puts Weller’s spin on it. It’s a welcome departure from the previous two songs and you get a sense of what Weller was going for with Café Bleu.
“Here’s One That Got Away,” “Headstart for Happiness” and “Council Meetin’” round out Café Bleu, with the first two of these three tracks giving us a tiny glimpse into what Weller’s post-Style Council career would look like. These two tracks are light, breezy, and are not packed with heavy social commentary. “Council Meetin’” is another instrumental that closes out the album, and demonstrates that throughout this album, Weller was more than happy to share the spotlight with his fellow Councillors.
Listening to Café Bleu in 2019 is a whole different experience for me than when I first heard it back in 1984. While it is brilliant in some spots, there were quite a few tracks have not stood the test of time. It’s a really good album that comes perilously close to collapsing under the weight of its own ambitiousness. In hindsight, it was obviously a workshop in progress that Weller did not even know was occurring.
Café Bleu blazed a trail for acts like Everything But The Girl, Matt Bianco and Basia to explore adopting a jazz/pop sound. It is an album that definitely screams “made in 1984,” but it was a bold step in several different directions that remains an important part of Paul Weller’s legacy.