JAH WOBBLE – Interview

Photo by Alex HurstOne-time PiL member John Wardle is a Renaissance Man who’s heading for his 50th album in a career spanning 40 years of punk, funk, dub, jazz and world music, united by a trademark bass guitar sound. Tim Cooper caught up with the legendary Jah Wobble before a gig. 

The nice venue manager taking his headliner’s dinner order is having a spot of trouble. “’E’s ‘avin’ a stew,” decides the big man with the Cockney accent, indicating a band member with his thumb. “I think Sean is gonna go for the braised lamb and garlic mash. And I’d like the steak and chips, if you can… with a fried egg… and some gluten-free bread or toast.” He smiles contentedly. “That’d be triffic.”

The manager looks perplexed. “Can I just ask – are you gluten free because you’re coeliac at all?” The big man sighs: “How I’m still alive I don’t know. I’m on a FODNAP diet. I can’t even have garlic, onions… I could die! I could go!” He points at Sean, the trumpeter. “He’s given me the kiss of life before. It’s quite heavy. But it works for me – d’you know what I mean?” By now the manager looks positively alarmed. “I probably wouldn’t recommend anything from our kitchen then…”

The big man lets out a huge shit-eating grin. “I’m joking mate! Just do us a steak and chips and if you can. And if you can’t I’ll have the lamb. But I am Jah Wobble. I’m from Public Image. I’ve done a lot culturally.” He waves his arms at the men seated beside him at the table in the dressing room. “The band are workmanlike musicians – we don’t need to worry about them. But if we’ve got 100% energy to worry about , then 95 should go on me. Are you cool with that?”

The manager, unsure whether to laugh or flee, nods as if unable to speak and Wobble continues: “I am gluten intolerant but I’m not gonna fucking die. I can actually have a BIT of gluten, you know. But I do avoid garlic and onions. So give us steak and chips, chuck an egg on it and I’ll come and dance with the chef. Thanks for looking after us James – it is James, isn’t it? – and I’ll buy a dessert or two, so you won’t get done on me.”

“I only wanted to make sure I wasn’t going to kill you,” squeaks James, whose voice has already risen an octave since he first appeared, while backing away nervously. “Thank you,” beams Wobble, with the same sort of overly polite tone the Kray twins, who grew up literally yards from Wobble’s childhood home in the East End of London, once used before suddenly unleashing extreme violence. “I don’t wanna be a drama queen. This is something I only started at the start of this year. I was rushed into hospital, Stockport acute medical unit. I changed me diet and all that. It’s fucking great. I do pilates and everything. I’m not like them people on planes who can’t have the peanuts.”

James disappears gratefully back to the kitchen and Wobble settles his large frame into his seat to talk about his 40-year career as one of the more unlikely Renaissance Men of music. We start, as one generally does, at the beginning, and why it was his friend John Beverley (aka Sid Vicious) rather than him – John Wardle – who got the gig in the Sex Pistols, whose singer was their mutual friend John Lydon (aka Rotten) after Glen Matlock was deemed surplus to requirements. “Apparently I was discussed as getting it,” he replies. “I think it’s because I was very very lairy. I was full of energy and I think I worried the fuck out of Steve Jones and people.” So it wasn’t because manager Malcolm McLaren didn’t like him or thought he might have been a liability? “It might have been,” he concedes, pondering the question. “I did throw Malcolm in a bin once… head first.”

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Jah Wobble is not a man to mess with. He’s big, he’s from the backstreets of London’s East End, he doesn’t tolerate fools gladly and he always speaks his mind. He’s exceedingly polite and articulate, as demonstrated in his self-penned autobiography Memoirs Of A Geezer, but he’s also what East Enders call a tasty geezer. Except he’s not an East Ender any more. Following a fallout with a Bangladeshi gang two decades ago, he now lives in Stockport. He describes the incident that prompted his departure in detail in his entertaining autobiography. “I had a row,” he summarises. “And it got dealt with.” The matter, evidently, is now closed.

So Jah Wobble – the name came from Sid’s mangled attempt to say ‘John Wardle’ after a few drinks – moved to the north of England nearly 20 years ago with his Chinese wife, whose family live nearby, and he’s as happy as Larry… apart from the language difference. Can they understand his strong East End accent, I wonder? “No. I have to slow it down,” he admits. “What I like is that it has an earthiness that the East End used to have.” His boys, John and Charlie, play in a Chinese youth orchestra run by his father in law, and also in a trio with his wife Zi Lan.

When PiL reformed, there are those (me included) who might feel that it’s not really PiL without Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene, the two men who gave them their signature sound on Lydon’s first two post-Pistols albums. “John did ask me (to do the reunion tour),” Wobble confirms. “He offered me a grand a week when rehearsing and a grand and a half when playing gigs. My view was: you’ve got a cake worth a million pounds and you’re giving me this little slice… fuck off. Any reasonable person would say I should be getting a percentage – 30 per cent or something – and some of the merch.

“The other reason (why I didn’t join) was I knew if we did it he (Lydon) would be wanting to present PiL as his vehicle and I got the impression he’s desperate to get that other stuff from the late Eighties and early Nineties recognised, because John at heart is… who’s that School’s Out guy? Yeah, Alice Cooper. He’s an Alice Cooper fan at heart. All that other stuff like Peter Hammill and reggae music, that came from people like myself and John Gray. He was the other one of what we called The Four Johns (with Wobble/Wardle, Lydon/Rotten and Beverley/Vicious) – we used to drink in the Three Johns at The Angel. Just because we had to.”

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Despite missing out on a potential payday with PiL, Wobble is insistent that he bears no grudges against his old bandmate and childhood friend, who he met at A-level college, and has recently rebuilt bridges with Keith Levene. “I didn’t expect it to play out any other way,” he says. “You can’t go through life disappointed by things not working out the way you planned – you didn’t get what you thought you should; but I didn’t feel like that.”

So how did a fellow from a tower block in the East End become a polymath with tendrils in so many global genres of music? It’s a far cry from his upbringing in Stepney, where he remembers first hearing music – his mum bought him singles by Jim Reeves and Burl Ives – on an old Dansette record player: “When it heated up you could smell bacon!” He didn’t like The Beatles until he heard Strawberry Fields. “And that was when my family turned against me: I remember my dad and my Uncle Johnny seeing The Rolling Stones on the telly we had from Radio Rentals and saying: ‘I’d use ‘em for mine clearance’. And my old man meant it because he was an army vet who’d been in El Alamein and all that. They were furious. Even now when I see them I think of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger walking through a minefield looking really scared.”

They might not have talked about Renaissance Men on the streets of Stepney in the 1960s but Wobble is the very embodiment of the term, his career encompassing diverse genres ranging from rock to reggae, jazz, folk, dub, world music from all corners of the globe, especially the Far East and North Africa, and even a neo-classical requiem, with collaborators ranging from Sinead O’Connor and Peter Gabriel, Primal Scream and Gavin Friday, Harold Budd and BJ Cole, to the German experimentalists Can. “The reggae thing (he pronounces it ‘reggy’) was something you grew up with,” he says. “Growing up, me and my mate Ronnie would go to blues dances in Hackney, where there were lots of West Indians. And I’d get the Middle Eastern thing from listening to short wave radio.

“Radio Cairo really influenced me. I’d listen to it more for the frequencies – still do when I’m in my studio. You hear these incredibly intense oscillations, radio waves from stars from millions of years ago. It’s really cosmic. That would send me to sleep and I’m interested in this deep sleep experience, the idea of subliminal sound. Anyway it’s that kind of ambient thing. And I always knew you could travel in your head, actually in your mind. I was gonna join the Merchant Navy and go to sea – it was typical where I grew up that you’d work in the docks or join up and go to sea – but by 14 I’d given up on any idea of that and got caught up with music instead. I’d given up on God and I didn’t want to have a job – I just wanted to have fun.”

Over a career spanning 40 years (punctuated by spells working on London Underground and as a courier) and numbering more than an album a year, he’s worked with musicians from almost every country in the world – his discography includes Japanese Dub, Chinese Dub, Molam Dub (from Laos), Celtic Pipes (Irish dub) ; Maghrebi Jazz, English Roots Music and – on his latest album Dream World – Cuban Dub. “That was written on the back of a walk up the Ashton Canal on a very grey day,” he grins. “It sounded Cuban to me. I want to go back into doing some Irish music. Both sides of my family are Irish.” He’s recently incorporated drum’n’bass into his live act, reconfiguring the PiL song Socialist in that style, and his new album Dream World opens with a slippery workout called Chunk Of Funk that does exactly what it says on the tin.

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One of Wobble’s finest moments from the archives is the notorious PiL clip from American Bandstand in 1980, Wobble playing drums, drummer Martin Atkins playing bass, and Lydon leading bemused black girls onstage to dance to Poptones and Careering. “I loved miming,” laughs Wobble. “I loved Top of the Pops, I remember The Sweet looking like hooligans. When we got there {American Bandstand} I didn’t know it was a big show. The presenter was a very famous guy and I was in the medical room when he came in to introduce himself with his big shiny teeth. I’d been trying to sleep for four days. When we did the show I swapped instruments with Martin but the funny thing is that I actually did play drums on the record of Careering, and Keith did the drums for Poptones.”

Although he played the first few WOMAD festivals, and was even joined onstage by Peter Gabriel, he says the ‘World Music’ establishment tends to avoid him these days, and that he feels patronised by the white men associated with it. “I think it’s because I’m working class and Irish. They’re mostly white public school guys and they wouldn’t contact a working class boy like me in a million years. That’s the class system. They’d also resent paying me the same money. They wouldn’t pay you the same way they’d pay a lawyer – they’ll pay you labourer rates. They’d resent paying me the same money. That’s the class system.”

He does not expect to be asked back after making critical comments about Gabriel and other World Music names in his book. “That’s the way it works. It doesn’t bother me. We killed it at WOMAD, absolutely smashed it, and everyone said we should do more. But the World Music world… there’s a lot of English public schoolboys into the Lawrence of Arabia thing and the romance of it. Someone like me’s a bit too real for them. They’re quite imperial(ist), it’s a bit like their ancestors would have run plantations. And I’ve looked at how I see people treating each other in that world and what I saw was that the artists were not treated as well as they should have been in my view. It’s a bit colonial. I noticed the way they talked to me was like it’s Oxfam or something, like a charity, but of course, everyone working there was on a good screw.”

The current incarnation of Wobble’s band Invaders of the Heart has mostly been together for some time, and it shows in their effortless synergy onstage, where each player’s virtuosity is given free rein, while Wobble’s signature bass anchors proceedings. “My percussionist Neville retired in the last few years. But Mark the drummer has been with us for ten years and I’ve known Chungy about four or five years.”

With the new album about to be released, he’s off to America in October to record another crowd-funded album with Bill Laswell. “We’ve done Pledge Music to fund it. I did that for (previous album) Everything Is Nothing. I’ve made it fun. We can invite people to the studio. A lot of ex-pop stars don’t want to meet the public. I wanted to take people on a drive from the East End to Southend and on to Clapton and some dives I know… I still really want to do it. This time I’m doing walks up the Thames with me.”

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Dream World is an eclectic affair, coming soon after the Moroccan-flavoured Maghrebi Jazz and was recorded mostly solo, with a handful of contributions from Invaders keyboard player George King, at Wobble’s home studio in Stockport. He says its nine mostly instrumental tracks are inspired by the French film-maker Francois Truffaut, the sights and sounds of London, Brighton, and Manchester, and an unexpected visit to the Stepping Hill hospital in Stockport. A Chunk Of Funk, anchored by Wobble’s stomach-churning bass, could have come from Talking Heads’s Remain In Light and Cuban Dub does indeed have a Latin-flavoured rhythm beneath its sprightly bassline, while Latin Jazz Dub is exactly that, and the prosaically titled NHS Ward Tune – written on his phone during a medical emergency last year – is anomalously jolly, with its parping synth melodies.

Backstage with Wobble, as showtime nears and the bassman prepares for what will be a two-and-a-half hour show of spectacular virtuosity, I ask him who are the best and worst people he’s ever worked with. His favourite is Bill Laswell (“a genuinely lovely person”) along with the late Can duo Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay. He cites his biggest influences as Aston ‘Family Man’ Barrett, whom he first saw at the legendary 1975 Bob Marley & the Wailers gig at The Lyceum in London (“the best concert I’ve ever been to”) and fellow reggae giant Augustus Pablo (“for getting me into eastern scales”).

And the worst? “That’s fucking easy. I was in a band with the two worst people in the history of mankind – Johnny Rotten and Keith Levene. They were the worst people ever. But, horribly, I’ve got a small affection for both, so explain that! Keith and I still talk. Everyone thinks when I left PiL I hated him but I didn’t. I only blew him out in ’96 and that’s because he got too much, but I let him back in a few years ago and we still talk: he’s a very bright guy, very smart.” And Lydon? “No. Not since someone asked him about me in an interview and he said ‘He can fuck off and die’ – like Hamlet, d’you know what I mean?”

  • Dream World is out now on Wobble’s own eponymously titled label, on limited edition vinyl, CD and download. Jah Wobble and The Invaders Of The Heart line up of Marc Layton-Bennett (percussion & drums), George King (keyboards), Sean Corby (trumpet & flugelhorn) and Martin Chung (guitar) will continue to play live dates

All words by Tim Cooper, whose archive can be found here. He is on Twitter as @TimCooperES. Photos by John Hollingsworth (bottom), Alex Hurst (top two) and Ben Buchanan (middle two).

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