Jah Wobble and Keith Levene play Metal Box in dub : the interview
For the first time in 30 years Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, the core of the classic post punk innovators Public Image Limited will be taking to the stage together again. The ground breaking, dub heavy bassman and one of the most original guitar players ever have reconvened to play tracks off the two key albums from their original outfit and a bunch of new tunes that continue their ground breaking work from the past. It’s going to be a special show with added extras including an on stage in conversation with Jah Wobble before the set which I will conduct and then they will play.
In my feral punk rock youth Public Image were part of the soundtrack. I bought the Public Image single the day it came out from Cobeweb Records in Cleveleys, the youth who sold it to me from behind the counter is now the music controller at Radio 2! The first Pil album was a firm favourite – the sheet metal guitar and that astonishing bass was mindblowing and John Lydon was on fire. Me and my brother would play the Metal Box album over and over, we had to put plastecene on our record needle beause the bottom end of Wobble’s bass made the needle jump all over the place. I still have the album, the surrounding metal case stained with coffee and from years of being the rolling table for local drug fiends.
The news that Jah Wobble and Keith Levene were finally working together again is pretty exciting and had been Chinese whispers for the last few months working together with Julie Campbell on the brilliant Psychic Life single
After being out of contact for a few years the pair had decided to revisit their own legacy of the first two Public Image albums from the late seventies that redefined music in the post punk period and arguably were the first releases to signpost the form.
Wobble, who knew Lydon since the mid seventies- meeting him at Kingsway College of Further Education, was one of the Four Johns- the gang of very smart nutters who were the inner core of punk rock, terrorising the hippies on the Kings Road were John ‘Wobble’ Wardle, John Grey, John ”ËSid Vicous’ Ritchie and John Lydon. When the Pistols fell apart and Lydon started his next project it was inevitable that Wobble (who got his nickname from Sid Vicious) would get the call up and the pair of them added ex Clash guitar man Keith Levene to the line up to form Public Image.
The new band recorded two amazing albums that redefined music with Wobble’s wobbling bass end, Levene’s chiming harmonic guitar and Lydon’s sensational poetry that was half cackled and half whined creating a totally new music that influenced everyone from post punk to U2 and beyond.
Last year Lydon reconvened the band without the two key members and toured to critical acclaim. This year Wobble and Levene had decided to revisit their past as well whilst fast forwarding to the future.
Which brings us to the Cornerhouse in city centre Manchester, a city that Wobble has lived in for several years, for the interview.
When the music business is mentioned he fixes me with his sharp blues eyes and sneers, ”ËIt’s a silly business full of silly people and you don’t take it too seriously.’
Words of wisdom from the bass legend.
Making his name with those two earliest Public Image albums, Wobble left the band under a cloud and has carved out an idiosyncratic career taking his bass to a myriad of musical styles.
Wobble is bored of contemporary culture but conversely happier with his life than ever.
”ËThis year feels like the 70s. It’s a time to hunker down, watch a lot of American TV, which is now the best TV in the world, incredibly, after Danish television, I read a lot of books, do the things I do, I have a nice life, a very private kind of life and a life away from the madness. That’s one of the reasons I’m up North and have been for 13 years. Up here there’s not so much Bollocks. You get on with your life. I like Football, got my dog- Tyson who I take for long walks. I love music, but I don’t take the whole business side too seriously. It takes a while but eventually if you stay somewhere long enough you put roots down. I’m on the firm up here now. I wouldn’t move away from here now, I like it. Where I come from is not there any more anyway. I come from a place called the past.’
When Wobble goes back to London to rehearse he feels dislocated from the city he grew up in.
”ËUp to last year I was still occasionally rehearsing and recording in the East End. There’s a place I use in Bancroft Road, Vatican Studios. It’s an easy place to work in. I like the guys who run it. I’d stay nearby. I was the cockney returning back to where I come from. I’d go to the place where I was staying, and the Eastern European bird who managed the place, Bethnal Green’s first 5 star hotel, says ‘I like your accent, where are you from?’. I said ‘I’m from here love’. (laughs) I’m a Stepney boy, That’s my manor out there. She laughed and waved her hand, ‘Don’t be silly’. She must have thought I was a demented Kiwi or something. Nowadays outside it’s full, 7 nights a week, of crazy middle class 20 somethings on the razzle. I don’t know who they are, where they come from or how they got the money to do that. I went to the restaurant there and I said ‘Can I have the menu’, and another po-faced bird says ‘no, the chef decides what you eat here.’ I laughed, my lunch companion and I were going ‘Hahaha’, but no, it was true! Everyone has moved on, mainly to Essex. I always saw Essex as an Indian reservation sort of a place. I ain’t the kind of guy that’s gonna live in a (F**ing) reservation. That’s where the Cockneys are now ; the Indian reservation is Essex. I’m not going to go abroad, I’m British, I’m English. I like the culture, it’s still here to an extent. It’s been badly dented but it’s still here. The Football and all that, Manchester is a great town for football; football wise it’s a very knowledgeable city. I’m a proper Spurs fan of course. There’s still stuff going on here in Manchester. I can be anywhere though. With the cyberworld you can tap into what you need as well as contact who you need in a blink of an eye. . You don’t need to be in the physical centre as much.’
Based in Manchester and creating a great reputation for his never ending series of collaborations where he brings his bass to play with all manor of world musicians and esoteric vocalists Wobble has made a great series of records since he left PiL. He has now done the one collaboration a lot of us were waiting for and given Keith Levene the call. Dealing with the past he re-connected with, what to many people has been his perfect musical foil. In music you are lucky to find someone you can fit in with perfectly so it’s always good to take the chance to try and make it work again. These creative partnerships are fleeting and beset with problems.
”ËI did fall out with Keith and avoided him like the plague. But people always assumed that after PIL I never spoke to him but I did. I was in contact with him right the way up to the mid nineties. I wondered if he was still fucked up when I got back in contact. I met him at Bethnal Green and to be honest I was thinking, “is he on drugs”, that was what I was thinking and all I cared about. If he was on drugs I couldn’t work with him and low and behold, he wasn’t. he turned up clean. He’s ravaged himself with it all. I think he’s finally done with it. He’s been his own worst enemy for 30 years. I don’t think he’s a programme guy like I am. I was an alcohol, speed and cocaine sort of bloke. But now it’s been 25 years clean and sober. I could never get on with hallucinogenics- me and trips forget it. I done opiates but I didn’t take to them. I’m not moral about it, my best friend of the time died from that life . I’m in my 50s, don’t get me wrong, I’m in good nick, I feel strong- I’m very conscious, like lot of people in their 50s, of time. You want to see it all of in a nice resolved way- square whatever circles need squaring- and for me that was to play a bit with Keith. I enjoyed it, it’s going to be exciting. Me and him go back for years, he was part of the squat scene before punk and ended up in the Clash. He was the best musician from that period. So it was great to be working together again. He was also looking at trying stuff out and being kind of very open, he’s still the same-an adventurous spirit- and obviously I’m always looking to push the music a bit beyond the normal terminus. But the most important thing is to have a bit of fun, Keith’s so bored with the subject of Lydon, as I am, additionally I’m so bored, bored, bored talking of the legal situation, so I’ll explain it a succinctly as possible.
We received a heavy duty City lawyer’s letter sent on behalf of Lydon/PiL, that appears to threaten us with possible legal action, if we proceed with our JAH WOBBLE KEITH LEVENE PLAY METAL BOX IN DUB project in the UK. Our shows in Japan were announced and advertised a few months ago. Lydon/PiL’s lawyer advised us that a application for a trademark for ”ËMETAL BOX’ was made several weeks later, on the 21st of December 2011. The lawyer’s letter dropped through my door on New Year’s Eve notifying me of the application. The letter further advised us that any future legal action against us would be on the basis of us ”Ëpassing off’ (pretending to be), Lydon/PiL. Keith and I both found Lydon’s actions puzzling. We feel we are obviously well within our rights to play compositions from ”ËMETAL BOX’. We fail to see how any sensible person could (wrongly) think he (Lydon) would be performing with us, or that we could appear to be PiL. Indeed if we were to bill ourselves as JAH WOBBLE AND KEITH LEVENE PLAY BEATLES SONGS , surely no sensible person would assume that it was a Paul McCartney/Ringo Starr project. In any case there are, I believe, a number of other issues regarding these sort of trade mark applications. So we will see. But whatever, I am very confident that we cannot be stopped. It goes without saying that Keith and I have no problem with the present line up of Pil performing our old songs. Or anyone else for that matter. And we certainly don’t have a burning desire to exclusively own the words ‘METAL BOX”.
But then this is not the first time that Public Image business ended in the hands of the lawyers.
‘When I left PIL it was a very bad business all round. There wasn’t a good reason to stay. I wasn’t getting paid properly even though we sold records. The original Public Image Limited had ended up going into receivership, circa 1983 I believe. The business side of things was, in my estimation, very badly run. I think we allowed the wrong people to be around us. I said so vehemently at the time. Keith admits now that I was one hundred percent right about the situation. I thought when I left that would be that, but that things would be done in a civilised way. How wrong I was, I left Pil in the offices of John Lydon’s lawyers. We were all supposed to meet there. John didn’t even turn up and left it to the big city lawyer to deal with. As I said in my book, so much for Anarchy in the UK.’
Bad business had destroyed a band that had started out as the best of mates sneering at the business side of music, typically like many of the bands that came out of punk, they tried to avoid the moneymen aspect of creativity and ended up playing into the lawyer’s hands.
”ËI couldn’t get out of the contract with Virgin. No one would help me until I bumped into Tony Wilson in London and he helped me get out the situation. He got me a lawyer who got me out of the Virgin deal. Tony paid for the first consultation. I didn’t see any money from PiL. All I got was a shoebox full of cash that was hidden under a bed at Gunter Grove. I went and got that and went off to America. It took another 16 and a half years before I got any money.
Post PiL a skint Wobble was quickly on a creative high though, working with one of the bands that had really influenced him and PiL.
”ËI left PiL and hit the ground running. I was working with Holger and Jaki from Can, which was incredible. I then went on my own musical journey. I was into world music and played with people who interested me. I wouldn’t change anything about the past. I enjoyed what I was doing so much that I couldn’t possibly say that PiL ruined my life. PiL was a springboard for me. What we were doing then was pretty radical. I haven’t played Metal Box stuff for a long time , nor First Edition- I really like Theme, that could really be a Metal Box track. I love the first album, it’s quite underrated. I think Annalisa, Fodderstomp even Lowlife still sound great now. Fodderstomp is a groove and a half, we may be playing that one at the gig in Manchester.’
Wobble’s bass was one of the signatures to the sound. He learned his idiosyncratic style in the ad hoc nocturnal life he was leading before joining the band.
”ËI played bass in squats before PiL. I sold the amp I had practised with so I used to have to lean the bass against the headboard of my bed to hear it. It also had an awkward action but that enabled me to get a great strength and stamina in my playing. I had a thing for bass, the only thing that came close to that was clay pigeon shooting which I took to like a duck to water on the one occasion that I did it. It was me and Sid playing together on a borrowed bass at Warwick Road. We would play together, taking turns. He would play fast Ramones stuff and I would be going the other way, playing in half time. I think that slow heavy bass is really great because it has this monstrous groove, like a tiger movement, it’s like the king out strolling- not in a rush for anything or anyone. Sid would turn round to me and say “you’re shit, you can’t play!”Â And I would say the same to him.
To be honest Sid would dumb down and pretend to be stupid which was very much to his detriment. That was punk, to pretend to be stupid, like to be clever was in some way bourgeois. No-one was willing to be the big brother or big sister, it was a very teenage thing and unfortunately a lot of those people ended up having very teenage outlooks right the way through into their adult lives, it’s a very ugly thing to behold, this business encourages teenage behaviour, I have to watch it myself, you end up being a sneering teenager and the older you get, the uglier it gets.’
For Wobble though, music is the key and he remains fascinated by the bass.
‘I always preferred the bass, there’s a good tradition of bass players out of this country like McCartney, John Entwhistle and contemporaries like Peter Hook who has a great melodic sensibility and understands a great melodic bass line. It was always about the E string for me like on Careering. I used to write in geometrical shapes on the fretboard, you get suggestions in the patterns when you do modal things and although it seems very primitive it will can get quite sophisticated, it suggests melodies and a sense of space, not so much scales. A lot of what I do is modal, but it was very much by ear, with a lot of ‘proper musicians’ it has to be set in musical grammar and you have to say, OK its in A minor , you know you have to give them a certain familiar framework to be within.’
Like many in his generation Wobble is the perfect non musician, playing by instinct , bringing his own approach to his instrument, playing by ear whereas, despite creating a whole new lexicon, he feels that Keith Levene has a more musical background.
”ËI think Keith was a lot more knowledgeable than he let on. He has a sensibility no- one else could imitate a lot of the way he plays, especially with the delicate way with harmonics that he has. It’s all about getting a mood. When we were rehearsing the other week he was vibing people out, the other guitar players hanging out in the rehearsal room couldn’t work out how he did his thing. It’s very subtle, he merges tonalities and keys.. It’s a little bit similar to Debussy’s ‘Cathedral under the sea’ and all that; on ‘No Birds Do Sing’ he plays an almost oriental thing, a huge diffused tonality, like Debussy- impressionistic- like an impressionist painting with no clear differentiation in regards to contour. Its all around, it’s not exactly this or that key, it’s a bit like when you hear church bells.’ He explains in wonder at he amazing sounds that Keith coaxes from his guitar.
Wobble has always been a team player. His art is about collaboration- whether it’s bagpipes or Chinese musicians or a Japanese drummer- PiL themselves were not really a band either but a collaboration between three wilful individuals.
”ËPeople always ask me if it’s is difficult working with Chinese or African musicians but it is actually straight forward. You’re dealing with pentatonic (5 note) scales and rhythm. For a start you don’t need to worry about harmony. That’s not to say it doesn’t get complex but you all share a similar method and overview. It’s not like dealing with some mad jazz funk player who over eggs the harmonic element-you’re left thinking “for gods sake please keep it simple!”Â Some of the songs of the first album, such as ‘Theme’, nod towards the structure and approach of Metal Box whereas the Public Image song had an A part and a B part- almost conventional! It was also one of the first proper b lines I wrote, again it’s the open E string with an interval to the B which I always really like, that was first ever proper b line I wrote. I made that up at home and took it into the studio and we finished it off there. There was another bass line at the beginning which I’m not sure if it got used, it might have kind of got turned into Religion. I think Lydon had the words for Religion already- I ended up not liking the song, so we are not playing it at the gig, I said to Keith, do you mind not doing it, he don’t like Bad Baby so we don’t do that- so it’s a fair swap. I don’t like the sensibility behind Religion, I don’t like Religion getting knocked per Se.’
A Catholic guilt?
“Well OK , admittedly I come from a catholic background. I was an alter boy, however it’s not guilt that makes me say that. I just think that in regards to religion you have got to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water. I wasn’t mad on the mix either-it tries a bit to hard. It’s just my taste, so I thinks its rather turgid that song, it’s my least favourite. Keith likes it though and at some point we might do it. I’m not having a hissy fit over it. Keith’s got a secret hope that I do Religion and I got a secret hope we do Bad Baby!’
These days Wobble is a less highly strung individual figure, albeit a talker, age has brought a wisdom, a real live wire but not the dangerous figure of repute from his east end youth. In the pre Public Image days Wobble had a reputation, a reputation that he now regrets, the years have brought a wisdom.
”ËI wasn’t a tough guy, but you’re forced to put your hands up in that environment. I resent it now to be honest, being forced to do the caveman shit, but when you’re in that environment and walk through the estate and someone throws a brick at you you have to make a stand. My old man was ex army and had a “you have to sort it out yourself”Â sort of an attitude. In those days if you had gone to the police they would have laughed at you, so you would get the brick and you would have have to show these people that you are not an easy target, life is even more complicated and dangerous now for young men, it’s more of a gang culture these days. You did had strong street gang culture in the east end in the late 1800s, with the Bessarabians and other street gangs. So there were heavy duty street gangs then, just like right now. That wasn’t the case in East End I grew up in. You didn’t really have street gangs then. To be honest the proper gangsters of the time wouldn’t have stood for it. I grew up in the post war thing where blokes that had come out of the desert and the jungle had seen some very heavy stuff, close combat and had seen close friends with their brains spilled out. A lot of those guys were very traumatised and they were told not to talk about it, they were told that people at home had had the Blitz to contend with and so had their own troubles to deal with. Back in the forties those demobbed guys were very tough. They would not have been impressed by today’s street gangs. I think many of them would have had a tendency to dismiss ‘ street gangsters/hustlers’ as work shy ponces and spivs. Men had come back from the army, some of them had come back with depression. What we would now call post traumatic stress. In some respects our post war generation reaped the benefit of the tremendous violence that the generation before them had encountered. They were sick of war and hardship. So although it was tough, it was a reasonably peaceful time. By the seventies things began to change. There were more problems in society. In the eighties my cousin was stabbed to death. A really bad thing. His family will never fully recover.
Wobble is pure old skool East End, an East End that has largely disappeared to the new money and has been displaced out to Essex. His conversation is dotted with the characters he grew up with, the landmarks that are disappearing, the culture and the accents that are just about hanging on.
‘That’s where I came from, Stepney. I knew all those Dock areas, Limehouse, Poplar, Wapping, Shadwell and Rotherhithe over the river. My granddad was a Lighterman working the barges on the river. My old man’s brother Terry become a priest. When they were kids they worked on the barges with my Grandad. The younger brother John died after falling in the water. I’m named after him.
It was this East End backdrop that made the man. Born in 1958 he was quickly attracted to the urban street musics of the late sixties/early seventies.
”ËI was into bluebeat and ska, the suedehead thing and then punk. I used to go to Paul’s record shop on Cambridge Heath road. Paul also had a stall at the weekend, outside Whitechapel Station. My mum would buy me a single every Friday. Among my first one’s were ‘Froggy Goes A Courting’ by Burl Ives and Jim Reeves ‘Welcome To My World’. Then through my sister I got into Bluebeat- the urban music of the time. I also liked the Who’s Quadrophenia, Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. I loved the sound of Philly- especially the strings. I was more into the urban thing, There was lots of great pop in that era like T Rex, Thunderclap Newman and all that. There was some really good pop, all the glitter stuff like ‘The Sweet’, great producers like Tony Visconti. At the same time the ‘serious albums market’ was becoming very turgid, it had all morphed into this pseudo classical thing and went up its own arse, that’s what happens when the groove gets lost, it’s what we used to call white music, it’s wasn’t my cup of tea at all.’
He found like minded souls at college, an eccentric looking youth who was also drifting through the mid seventies.
”ËIn 1974 I had been expelled from school, I was an irritating tearaway nuisance, a classic teenager, I was looking for some fun and saw this nutty character, I liked the look of him, he was a funny guy, quite solemn but kind of charismatic. He made me laugh, he had long hair which was all henna’d- quite a charismatic individual. I was a couple of years younger than him. His best mate John Grey was a big influence, in hindsight he’s the interesting one of the ”Ëfour Johns’, he was the one with great musical taste. He was the one big influence on John in every way, a very important factor in his life without a doubt.’
The friendship with Lydon was one of the key friendships in punk and for those brief years when Lydon was an iconic presence Wobble was one of the boys who kept Rotten’s feet on the ground. The last three decades have seen them drift apart, both locked into different paths of life, at first the reformed Public Image had asked Wobble if he would play but for a wage, which was insulting. And now the whole lawyers letter from Lydon has hit a raw nerve?
‘Yes indeed it has John. As far as I’m concerned it recreates the toxic world of 32 years ago when I left Pil. Lydon and me is now completely done, it was not like I was ever going to play with him again. I have avoided bad mouthing him, because what’s the point? If it wasn’t for him I probably wouldn’t have become a musician. Let sleeping dogs lie and all that and look back to the positive aspect of things, has been my attitude. Consequently I took little interest in him or what he was doing. However, to be honest, in my opinion he stopped being a credible artist a long time ago. To my mind he took the lazier easier route of becoming a celebrity. I think it’s very hard to be both a credible artist and a mainstream celebrity.
So the Wobble and Levene collaboration is not a long term career option, this is for the pure creativity only?
”ËAbsolutely, this is me and Keith having a jam. Playing together because it works. I will be very surprised if I’m out next year doing Metal Box in dub. Keith is good to work with now, he’s clean again. The reason why I stopped working with him in the first place was was primarily his drug use. So we can now have some fun again while there is still time. But of course I always have something else to attend to just over the horizon, as does Keith of course. He has another project called ”ËChocolate Box’ on the go. ‘
The most surprising yet logical twist in the plot is that the project a singer from a Sex Pistols covers band.
‘Well he will only be there for some shows. He won’t be there for the Manchester gig. We have something else in mind for that night. When we do the full on METAL BOX IN DUB gigs we intend to have him on the firm. The singer Nathan looks like a young Rotten/Lydon, we got him from from a Sex Pistols covers band. He sounds and looks like Rotten did back then in the late seventies. Keith knew him. He had played with him. I asked Keith what it was like. He said it was deeply weird like going back in time. I thought it sounded reminiscent of the Tarkosvy film ‘Solaris’ when characters who are dead reappear as they were. I was very keen to experience that weirdness I must admit. At first it was very very spooky. But now to me he is just a nice bloke called Nathan who really has his own life. I must admit I was fascinated about this tribute band thing. I found the whole thing fascinating. I wouldn’t go and see a tribute band but it’s a very interesting phenomena. I said to the singer what’s it like? is it weird? he said it’s just an act. I said do you feel like a young Lydon off stage? he said “no its just an act, it’s like being an actor”Â. I don’t see why having a singer doing Lydon’s parts is a problem. I have no problem with a bassist being a my ‘musical doppelganger’. I’m sure Keith feels the same in regard to his guitar playing.
This may show a willingness to recreate a certain aspect of the past but there’s also a strong desire to move forward and there are four new tracks recorded and ready to play live.
‘We did a 4 track EP in the studio which I’m bringing out digitally on 30 Hertz, download only, the tracks are called fucking ‘Fucking Yin and Fucking Yan’, there’s one called ‘Strut because it really struts another one called ‘Mississippi’ which sounds like Tiny Tim!, and the last one is called ‘Back on the Block’. We want to go forward with this, same as me Keith is vehemently against the potential naffness of it all. We really do not want to look like just another heritage rock act. We will be looking to push the envelope, I said use this as a starting point, it’s enough for us to play these old songs for now. I only did 20 odd live shows with PiL, so how can anyone begrudge me to do these shows, I always wanted the opportunity to play that music live. Why shouldn’t we. We have got every right.’
And we have the right to hear it…