Now that's entertainment

FOR MANY an ageing rock icon the Outstanding Contribution to Music award at the Brits can be a mixed blessing. It is the most illustrious prize of the evening, possibly the only one to which the audience of Champagne-swilling executives will pay any attention. But for the recipient it suggests that their best years are behind them, their time is nearly up and the remainder of their careers will be confined to dusting down the trophies and reliving past glories.

There will be no such worries for the former Jam and Style Council frontman Paul Weller, however. Not only is his eligibility beyond dispute - without him BritPop might never have existed, while indie bands du jour The Ordinary Boys and Arctic Monkeys (the latter of whom weren't even born when The Jam split in 1982) both acknowledge their debt - but he is also critically and commercially still on top. In the past five years alone Weller has had nine singles in the top 40 and has proved he can sell out the Albert Hall several times over. His seventh solo album, As Is Now, released in October last year, was a hit with critics. "Weller's back," trumpeted the NME. "And this time he rules."

This hasn't always been the case. At the start of the 1990s, Weller was without a band and a record label. By 1997, as New Labour hijacked "Cool Britannia" and commentators grew tired of BritPop's smug effrontery, a portion of the blame was laid at Weller's feet; his dour meat-and-potatoes style memorably anointed "dad rock".

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Should the commercial tide turn against Weller again, we can rest assured that he won't go quietly. His critical stock may have risen and fallen over the years but, at 47, rock's most notorious grump remains as loudly opinionated as ever. He is still known to phone journalists who give him a bad write-up and threaten them with a beating. Three years ago he publicly bemoaned the state of the music business, branding record executives as "scum".

Given his uneasy relations with the entertainment industry, it was something of a surprise to find Weller willing to appear at the Brits tonight, though that was before some bright spark suggested he perform a duet with squeaky-voiced schmaltz-merchant James Blunt. Weller's response? "I'd rather eat my own shit."

For Weller, staying true to himself has been the guiding force of his career. The Who's Pete Townshend once said that he has never met a musician as wary of hypocrisy and "selling-out" as Weller. But high standards come at a price: in Weller's case, the dissolution of The Jam.

It was 1982 and the band was at the top of its game. Their album The Gift had recently topped the charts, surfing on the back of the single A Town Called Malice, and they were soon to embark on an end-of-year tour that included six sold-out dates at London's Wembley Arena. But, at 24, Weller decided to call it quits. It was a bold, potentially foolhardy move that, in the eyes of diehard fans, was nigh-on unforgivable. So distraught was 15-year-old David Lines, obsessive Weller fan and now author of The Modfather: My Life With Paul Weller, that he took all his Jam memorabilia - posters, T-shirts, even his beloved bowling shoes - to the bottom of his garden and turned it into a bonfire.

Born in 1958, Weller grew up in an old Victorian council house in Woking, Surrey, with his parents and his younger sister, Nikki. The family struggled to stay financially afloat - Weller's father, John, a former boxer, worked on building sites and his mother, Ann, cleaned the houses of their wealthier neighbours. Rather than dismiss his rock aspirations as idle daydreams, the self-sacrificing Weller parents encouraged their son, who had been weaned on The Beatles, The Small Faces and The Who, to pursue his ambitions. When, at 14, Weller started The Jam, his first move was to install his dad as manager. Thirty-four years on, John Weller still oversees his son's affairs.

The band's first album, 1977's In the City, was a critical success, though it was their third album, 1978's All Mod Cons, containing the song Down in the Tube Station at Midnight ("They smelt of pubs, and Wormwood Scrubs, and too many right-wing meetings") which brought them to prominence and inspired the Mod revival.

While The Sex Pistols and The Clash remain the historical markers of punk, The Jam were the people's favourite, achieving four No 1 singles in their short career. On the surface, Weller couldn't have been more different from John Lydon and Joe Strummer. Eschewing the punk uniform of studded leather and shredded denim, he opted for white socks, two-tone shoes, boating blazers and parkas. While his ideals were rooted in punk, his writing was more sophisticated. Weller's lyrics bulged with literary references, from George Orwell to Kenneth Grahame.

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His songs told of teen alienation, working-class rage and romantic vulnerability. Yet he disliked the idea of being a spokesperson for anyone other than himself and was a reluctant figurehead. After observing an audience consisting of carbon copies of himself at Finsbury Park's Rainbow Theatre in 1979, his next appearance on Top of the Pops saw him dressed in a plastic apron.

With hindsight, it was the very abruptness of The Jam's departure that sealed their longevity. By cutting them off in their prime, Weller ensured that they never descended into middle-aged mediocrity (for this same reason, we have been assured that a reunion will never happen) and that their legacy has remained pure.

Would that the same could be said for Style Council, Weller's post-Jam project which championed R'n'B, jazz and French cigarettes. Many of Weller's early fans deserted him at this point, feeling that his new jazz-pop direction - all drum machines, synthesisers and Euro-cool - wasn't for them. The band had several hits, including You're The Best Thing and Walls Come Tumbling Down, but in 1989, after four albums, their record label, Polydor, dropped them.

If the late 1980s were tough for Weller, the early 90s were considerably worse. In 1993 his old Jam sidekicks, Rick Buckler and Bruce Foxton, launched a lawsuit, claiming they were owed more than 200,000 in royalties and earnings in merchandise accumulated since the group split.

Weller was bitter. "I felt we were the best of friends, and best friends don't take each other to court," he said.

Two years later divorced his wife, Dee C Lee, the Style Council vocalist and mother of his two children. Refusing to be cowed, Weller pushed on with phase three of his career.

As a solo artist he seemed to have fallen back in love with the rock'n'roll that had inspired him as a teenager. The difference was that this time around he was an adult writing from the vantage point of middle age. Despite the million-strong sales of his 1995 album, to the ageist music press, a middle-aged Weller just wasn't acceptable. The "dad rock" tag has followed him around ever since.

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Right now, however, it seems the Modfather has had the last laugh. In just under 30 years he has travelled a rocky path from punk upstart to national institution. He has survived three very distinctive incarnations, each one apparently in opposition to the last.

Tonight even the music industry, an establishment that Weller has made no secret of loathing, is embracing him as a hero. In a rare display of graciousness, Weller will be returning the favour with a live performance.

Just as long as James Blunt keeps a respectable distance, that is.

The Brit Awards will be presented tonight and televised tomorrow at 8pm on ITV1.