The Style Council — an impishly named band whose fifth official career-spanning retrospective collection, “Long Hot Summers: The Story of the Style Council,” was released in September — held court at the top of a pantheon of a very English genre born and laid to rest in the Thatcher era, now retroactively called “sophisti-pop.” Consciously or otherwise, it was a form dedicated to the slippage between style and substance.
Its stars were gangly and unmuscled, but they could pass as debonair in the right suit, a good coif and a close-up. They adored soul music, high-hold mousse and shared the energy of yupped-up slicksters or corner office-contenders, but were too naturally pasty and left-leaning to be real proto-Patrick Bateman-types. Patently nouveau-riche, white-collared to the point of costume, and obsessed with the unctuous cream of a saxophone solo, this was a breed of artists of a new caliber, as conspicuous in their consumption as they were tethered to the contradictions of class. They shared some of the resentments and furies of punk, ska and hip-hop — politicized genres by nature — but in their cashmere sweaters and emphatically new-moneyed glamour, they broadcast mixed signals to a mass audience.
“Long Hot Summers,” and the sophisti-pop mania that it chronicles, can be read as a faithful document of the incoherence and instability of capital in an incoherent and unstable state — a testament to how meaningfully money can soothe and confound, or free and bind. It might reasonably be seen as a flourishy blip, campy ephemera or an uncommonly excellent case in pop’s mimicry of the mood of an exceptionally twisty epoch. What was uncontestable — especially during a moment when most things felt like a tough swallow — was that it was a movement that seemed to go down remarkably easily.
In the huddled land of what Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tellingly termed the “haves” and “have-nots,” Britain in the early ’80s was experiencing tectonic convulsions of economic disorder. New-wavers, two-tone artists and bohemians — as they were wont to do — made much of their disgust toward the state. Whether the dorky, nasal warblings of Elvis Costello, the necessarily politicized skankings of the Beat and the Specials, or the eternally fabulous sulk of one Steven Patrick Morrissey, the world of English alternative wrought its own thematic canon out of aggressively rejecting Thatcher. (Punk, to nobody’s surprise, bristled especially hatefully with songs bearing titles like “How Does it Feel (To Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead).”)
A band called the Jam — a rascally, jangly, skinny-tied, mod-rock troupe — had, until its dissolution in 1982, become one of the clearest articulators of British anxieties. Their tracks were filled with scowly denunciations of nuclear militarism and small-town dissatisfaction. They toured with the Clash, cashed-out with 18 consecutive Top 40 singles in the United Kingdom (with four of them reaching No. 1) and gave the world “That’s Entertainment,” a song that — in its curt, roguish narrative of a crumbling working class, allegedly written in 10 minutes in a post-pub stupor — would become one of Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
At their commercial climax, principal songwriter and aquiline blond Paul Weller decided he had had enough of the din. “The rock sound just bores me,’’ he practically sighed in a 1984 New York Times interview. “I just don’t think it means anything anymore . . . all those clanging guitars. I just got sick of it.” Within a year, Weller, along with Jam keyboardist Mick Talbot, transfigured into the Style Council and plunged into a specific, satin-smooth, melt-in-your-mouth, cocktail-party-ready polish that would butter Britain’s charts for a half-decade.
Author Martin Amis — one of the loudest British voices chronicling apocalyptic angst and moral laxities in the 1980s — has something of a subtext on sophisti-pop in his 1984 novel "Money." The work is a piece of fiction about the eponymous subject from a hedonistic dirtbag's gaze on Thatcher's U.K. and Ronald Reagan's America, and in the main character's world of hyper-capitalist masculinity, men abided by "the Thatcherite creed of 'loadsamoney' " to its fullest. "You just cannot beat the money conspiracy," he wrote. "You can only join it."
An Englishman named Bryan Ferry seemed to carry this idea like a credo. First seen as the lead of the athletic art-pop stalwarts, Roxy Music, he shed the avant-garde cardio of his albums from the ’70s to emerge in the early ’80s as something more like a lounge singer permanently employed on a luxury cruise. Gone was his earlier art-school peacockery, and in its stead came a mood more suited for white tuxedos, silk pocket squares, fat roses and videos that had him taking sullen rides in limousines.
British media had fun calling him “Byron Ferrari” for his new high-class trappings and tendency toward louche cabaret, but money was beautiful, and, by extension, so was he. Ferry had remodeled himself into a yawning, Gatsbyesque Lothario, and in Roxy Music’s final album, 1982’s “Avalon,” sophisti-pop’s aesthetic lodestar.
In full, exquisite exhaustion, “Avalon” examines the debris of relationships, as told from the point of view of a suave loner, all backed by plush and luscious oceans of saxophone swoon. From the crème de menthe wooziness of “More Than This” to the heart-and-velvet-jacket-flinging “Avalon,” the sheer gigantism of Ferry’s newly groomed glamour made him a moony figurehead of a style that felt distinguished, lusty and romantic to the point of near-satire. Rob Sheffield of Spin magazine would later call the album “the all-time greatest make-out inferno,” which was less a sideways dig than it was a fact: Few things were as seductive as how money felt.
Entranced, Weller swan-dove headlong into the heart of Ferry’s unwritten sophisti-pop syllabus with airs that were tonier, goofier and made for extraordinarily easier listening than anything the Jam would’ve deigned to do. By using R&B, soul, doo-wop and jazz as ideological and structural starting points, embracing his hot-nougat voice, and bridging the distance between the Stax catalogue and Wham!, Weller made the Style Council a lush Amazon of uniquely sumptuous schmaltz. Within six months of his band’s formation, out came “Introducing the Style Council,” and in it, a mountainously pretty, chuggy, Delfonics-on-holiday track titled “Long Hot Summer” that abandoned the Jam’s laddish grimace for sun-fevered smiles and shots of Weller luxuriating topless on a gondola.
Later came other iterations of this new little prince: The video for “Boy Who Cried Wolf,” a deliciously syrupy song with its own scat section, stars a fez-clad Weller pensively staring into a hand mirror in a vacant English manor; “Wanted (Or Waiter, There’s Some Soup in My Flies)” has him in pinstripes in a nightclub’s practice room. But it was the Style Council’s biggest, breeziest, brassiest hit, “My Ever Changing Moods,” that crowned Weller into what biographer Iain Munn called a “fair-skinned Smokey Robinson,” earned him his highest-selling single, and allowed the 1984 album it came from, “Café Bleu,” to catapult him toward the top of a twinkling constellation of sophisti-pop superstars that shared the bourgie grandeur of his rebrand. From the Blue Nile’s fedora-clad euphoria in “Hats,” to Scritti Politti’s drop-top-friendly “Cupid & Psyche 85,” to the spangly nightclub gauche of “Animal Magic” by a band titled the Blow Monkeys — cunningly, sophisti-pop turned the crisis of money into a fetish object.
The beauty of a compilation usually lies in the way it can refashion a band's narrative by sequencing songs into something resembling a coherent statement of purpose. Out of their 15-plus official and unofficial collections, "Long Hot Summers" is the Council's tellingest for how it makes clear sophisti-pop's new-money-in-drag act was more than an indulgence that foiled fantasies against the formlessness of life for so many in the United Kingdom. In 1984, the same year "Café Bleu" was released, unemployment had reached its apex at 11.8 percent. With chronic joblessness, an upswing in poverty and a grand undoing of the social welfare state, the Style Council — backed by their historically punk-grown politics — seemed uniquely suited to coat some agitation in velvet.
Glorious, gaudy titles like “Come to Milton Keynes” are wisely included at the heart of the compilation. It’s a dreamy, paradisal track — with requisite horn sections and jazz drums — asking for suicide in the face of the Conservative Party’s regime. Their class-consciousness-raising anthem “Walls Come Tumbling Down” starts with, “You don’t have to take this crap,” meeting the equally unsubtle anima in the swingtime standard “Dropping Bombs on the Whitehouse” or the complex snub to Thatcher’s bootstrapping politics in “Life at a Top Peoples Health Farm.”
Actively oppositional stances wound their way across and into sophisti-pop canon like sharp filigree. Bands like the Blow Monkeys would go on to write songs that would literally detail raving on Thatcher’s grave (the track is called, incredibly, “(Celebrate) The Day After You”), whereas bands like Wet Wet Wet built into their name a triplet celebration of what the prime minister referred to her “wimpish” opponents as: “Wets.” Members of Hue & Cry — of the Sly Stone-ish single, “Labour of Love” — went on-record in an interview to note their hit was really a polemic “about the love affair that existed between parts of the British working class and Margaret Thatcher.” One could probably do no better, though, than the title of Heaven 17’s album, “Penthouse and Pavement” — the twin battlegrounds governing British life and sophisti-pop’s concerns.
Just as soon as it had started, in 1985, Weller, once again, felt the windy whip of change. Egged on by the coaxing hand of left-wing activist and singer-songwriter, Billy Bragg, the Style Council joined the front of a cavalcade of sophisti-pop comrades including Heaven 17, Prefab Sprout and the Blow Monkeys to form a collective of musicians who called themselves the “Red Wedge.” They held “a simple remit: to oust Margaret Thatcher from office, and by default return the Labour Party to power.”
In its early '90s descent — marked by Labour's loss of the 1987 general election, the Red Wedge's dissolution and the Style Council disbanding shortly thereafter — sophisti-pop is ultimately remembered as a world rife with not-unpleasant cognitive dissonances. It loved and lavished new money, yet found ways to make a burlesque of it; it was a style that sometimes yearned for freedom from class trappings while often remaining performatively glued to them. Its real legacy, though — its pathos and odd magic — is in how it smoothed the mess of the moment into radio-ready coherence; how it aestheticized the pomp of politics into song.
Weller certainly endures — his status as silver-foxed icon remains strong across the Atlantic, his stint as a councilman is endlessly torn apart by Jam purists and is now of the not-unpolitical, pastoral singer-songwriter ilk. Stateside, however, sophisti-pop proper lives mostly now within banal retail atmospheres — department stores, groceries and pharmacies — like a charming Muzak meant to drain and temper a mood to stasis. This is not to say that the genre was lost in translation, nor that it’s now only good for the amniotic state necessary to buy toothpaste or Q-tips, but only that it’s a sick, savage irony to see that it has been relegated to do what pop, sophisticated or otherwise, has always done best: stylishly manage to keep things moving.