He’s now revered as a true British music legend, but Paul Weller hasn’t always been universally popular in Milton Keynes.
Weller’s band The Style Council created uproar in 1985 with their single ‘Come to Milton Keynes’, which suggested the city’s façade of prosperity masked a dark side of drugs and violence.
But MK Web can reveal today that the finger of blame should never have been pointed at Weller – but at comedian Lenny Henry instead!
Weller burst onto the scene with The Jam in 1976 as punk rock spat and swore its way across the nation.
Still a teenager, the singer-songwriter and his bandmates Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler sat uneasily alongside their contemporaries even then.
Although they supported The Clash on their 1977 ‘White Riot’ tour, it wasn’t just The Jam’s mohair suits which set them apart. The band’s suburban roots – Weller grew up in Woking, Surrey – meant they were never truly part of punk’s inner London circle.
In 1982, six studio albums and four number one singles later, Weller decided The Jam’s time was up, at the height of their fame.
He quickly moved on to form The Style Council with Mick Talbot, a keyboard player who had previously been in Dexy’s Midnight Runners and The Merton Parkas.
Adopting an increasingly aggressive political stance – Weller was a prime mover in the ‘Red Wedge’ movement - he found himself embroiled in controversy when The Style Council released the single ‘Come to Milton Keynes’ in June 1985.
The song was described by Weller’s biographer John Reed as ‘an unprovoked attack’ on MK.
In ‘Paul Weller: My Ever Changing Moods’, Reed writes: “The song’s lyrics suggested a reality of drugs, violence, and ‘losing our way’ behind a façade of ‘luscious houses ‘where the ‘curtains are drawn’, the idea being to create a musical pastiche which matched the supposed artificiality of Milton Keynes itself.”
Reed also claims the track was banned by some TV and radio stations after enraged MK residents complained. Weller, it’s also alleged, was invited to visit the city by the local branch of the International Year of Youth – an organization of which he was President – but he declined.
Reed concludes the adverse reaction to the song was ‘wholly justified’.
“Not only had Weller never visited Milton Keynes, but the town’s similarities with Woking, by then a booming eighties equivalent of a ‘new town’ itself, were considerable.” He writes. “Woking, therefore, might have made for a more logical target – but the songwriter chose not to soil his own doorstep.”
To coincide with the single’s release, Weller and his bandmate Mick Talbot appeared on the BBC’s Breakfast Time show to review the day’s newspapers – and talk about ‘Come To Milton Keynes’.
Weller shrugged off the criticism the track had received, while justifying it as a commentary on what he saw as the Americanisation of British culture, citing the famous ‘red balloon’ television advertisement extolling the virtues of Milton Keynes to a national audience.
It’s Talbot’s interjection which raises eyebrows, however – he says Lenny Henry influenced their opinion of MK when he visited the city to make a drugs education film to be screened in schools.
The show’s host, Sue Cook, opens the interview with the observation that the song has ‘caused a stir.’
“You upset a few people with that and you haven’t even been there!” she adds.
Cook: “Why did you write about Milton Keynes? What’s the meaning of it?
Weller: “It was more about the new towns, the fact we used Milton Keynes is neither here nor there. They’re up in arms about it apparently, but big deal, you know. It’s more about the way Britain’s values are changing and us as a race are changing as well, I think, and the kind of materialistic values we seem to have adopted, quite American I think.”
Cook: “Was it the advert about Milton Keynes that made you think of doing it?
Weller: “Well there’s that horrible kind-of Ronald McDonald-type figure in the adverts, isn’t there? I thought that was very American. It’s all showbiz, you know.
Talbot: “The thing is we spoke to Lenny Henry, who made that drugs film – I don’t know if you heard about that, that one that’s going around in schools? He said they shot that in about four different areas and he found Milton Keynes the worst. I can understand that kids in Milton Keynes want to say ‘look, we’re not all drug addicts’…”
Weller: “But the song doesn’t say that anyway…
Talbot: “It doesn’t say that and I don’t think people have looked beyond the title. We’ve just used the catchphrase from the advertisement.”