Paul Weller At the BBC is a mammoth set containing 39 tracks spread across two CDs. There is also a four CD edition which exists although it tends to fetch fairly high prices nowadays, to the extent that if you buy it you’ll never complain about your mobile phone bill again; and apparently a download only version made up of a gargantuan 188 tracks in total. So matter which version you own, what all this amounts to is that Weller is obviously no stranger when it comes to performing for one of England’s most cherished radio broadcasters. And while no doubt many of his fans would already own the excellent Live Wood, released in 1994 on the back of his extremely successful Wild Wood LP issued just the year before, At the BBC is a far more comprehensive and career spanning collection of in-studio sessions and concert recordings made between 1990 and 2008, from his early post Style Council days, to the pastoral delights of Wild Wood, the powerfully soulful Stanley Road, the guitar-laden and unprocessed Heavy Soul, the reflective (and underrated) Heliocentric, it’s all here, and in pristine sound quality.
What the first disc of BBC reminds the listener and indeed illustrates is Weller’s commitment to the song. Whether it’s the acoustic intimacy of “Wild Wood”, “Clues”, “You Do Something to Me”, and “Friday Street”, or the more electric rave-ups of “Hung Up”, “Peacock Suit”, and “All I Wanna Do (Is Be With You)”, Weller manages to prove himself a master of melody and form. He also mixes things up with a few unexpected covers, most notably Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain”, Ronnie Lane’s “The Poacher” (an obscure though inspired choice I must say), as well as “Pretty Flamingo”, a song made famous by Manfred Mann.
The second side documents Weller in full band mode, with recordings taken from numerous concerts (and different years) yet seamlessly compiled to make it seem like one show. Fans of his solo debut will undoubtedly bar-up over the funky Traffic influenced “Kosmos”, a heartfelt “I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You”, and “Into Tomorrow”, each of which are executed in Weller’s own inimitable style. Other highlights include impassioned versions of “Can You Heal Us (Holy Man)”, “Shadow of the Sun” (a particular standout), “Sunflower”, and an especially charged “I Walk on Gilded Splinters”. He also performs a convincing cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”, along with “The Changing Man”, from Stanley Road, with Ian McLagan joining him on stage (something which must have thrilled Weller to no end). And even if I hadn’t of read it in the liner notes, the man’s distinct and unmistakable piano style can be heard throughout, giving it away instantly as to who is pounding away there in the background.
To hear both CDs in one listen would be an impressive achievement on anybody’s terms. Therefore this imposing compilation is perhaps better served in moderation, over at least a few days, so as the listener has the opportunity to appreciate it all the more. Because this is one of those products that just keeps improving over time, provided one has the patience and fortitude. And while Weller unashamedly kneels at the altar of his idols (Marriot, Small Faces, Pete Townsend, Steve Winwood etc), his own music not so much imitates but rather adds and compliments to what has already gone before, as a way of keeping the flame alive, for want of a better term. A musician whose muse is as stubborn as it is restless, forever searching for that ultimate yet elusive chord or melody.
Weller says in the liner notes, and I quote: “I’ve bought quite a few in the past, from the Hendrix one to The Who to the Small Faces to the Fabs, so for my stuff to be put out alongside them and to be a part of that tradition, it’s definitely something special.” Yes indeed. And with Weller continuing to record and perform, one gets the feeling that we can look forward to more BBC albums in the not too distant future.