Levene and Wobble control electricity for one more time!
Levene and Wobble control electricity for one more time!

Levene and Wobble control electricity for one more time!
Levene and Wobble control electricity for one more time!
There we were sat in a cafe next to a rehearsal room in Stockport.

I’ve known Wobble for years.

I met him in New York in 1989 when he was getting his life back together and setting himself up as a esoteric bass player who was going to take that distinctive bass tone and marry it to a myriad of different sounds. We hit it off quick. He was a sharp geezer in a silver grey suit with a fistful of great tales about being in the heart of punk rock and also full of spiritual asides and a real depth. He was also one of the great bass players whose playing on those first two PIL albums had been so much part of me and many fellow travellers musical backdrop in the punk and post punk fallout.

I’d interviewed him on and off over the years and followed his career. He had moved up to Manchester and occasionally I would bump into him or see him play a gig with a bagpipe player or some Japanese percussionists or a folk singer and somehow make sense of it all.

When the chance came up to sing Metal Box with Wobble and the newly reconciled Keith Levene it had to be grabbed with both hands. The very fact that they were both working again after all this time was pretty amazing. Two thirds of the powerhouse creative triangle along with John Lydon, that’s something else.

I had all the words printed out and ready to go and listened to Metal Box yet again. Suddenly I noticed the phrasing and the way Lydon just sang where he felt like it, coming in randomly which sounded brilliant but was impossible to replicate, not that this was how I saw how Metal Box should be done- surely they were going to cover the spirit of Metal Box and not the songs note for note? you never know with bands.

Luckily Wobble just laughed when I asked how close to the originals he wanted the singing. ‘make up your own words, do what you want’ he cackled. He was speaking my language.

I had no interest in being a Lydon clone- Lydon is the master of being Lydon and punk was always about being yourself. We went into the rehearsal room and Wobble started up the massive bass line of Poptones and when Keith came in with that chiming guitar suddenly you were in a space- an amazing hypnotic, mesmerising space where time stopped and waves of music washed over you. It could have been written thirty years ago but the song is timeless and the groove is so special. I lost myself in the enveloping sound and sang snatches of those brilliant original words and added phrases and sounds of my own playing with the noise but always conscious that this was about the tension and creativity between Woble and Levene and that this was no traditional singer gig- at the best I was complementing them but more importantly I was letting them flow and jamming with them without getting in their way.

Another fascinating curveball was a the trumpet that screed across the sound giving it a real Miles Dvaies Bitches Brew/Dark Magus flavour. Speaking to Wobble about this after he explained that this was how he wanted the original PIL to sound- the way the Miles had made those munuanental albums in the seventies when he captured the voodoo and went of on an endless trip and took the people with him. This was what Wobble had aimed to do with PIL at the time but it had never happened and fell apart into rancour.

You can feel a touch of this Miles magik in Metal Box- the way the grooves take off and the way that they are pushing somewhere else. What’s great about the album is that it is still framed in a punk consciuiouness, not the punk of 1234 Rmaones but the punk attitude, the way that it may be jammed but it cuts out the loose flannel of hippiedom, there is a discipline in here, a sneer at what you don’t play.

Emboding this spirt is Keith levene, who stands in the corner by his Fender Twin and gently plays the guitar with both hands- moving fingers around in a flurry. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are rock downstrokes or power chords, just endless arpeggios and harmonics, a deeply intellectual yet instinctive way of playing but with so much feel, and the way it endlessly changes and morphs from one sound to the next- this is totally original guitar playing- no-one played like this before and after plenty of people watered it down into millions of dollars work of nothingness- just ask U2.

Levene is on great form, making up for lost time he is in full flow, his guitar has lost none of its imagination and brilliance, those chimes really trip you out, he is controlling the electricity and the fact that he is in such demand again is a rare justice in music.

The rehearsal speeds by, Poptones lasts about twenty minutes, no one wants to end it and then Careering has the same building and building around the bass line- everyone else cutting across the dubbed out bottom end, the Public Image song is the only conventional moment in all of this and sounds almost old fashioned- a song with a sort of chorus – how weird! next, and on the spur of the moment, they throw Graveyard in from Metal Box, that dark, twanging piece on Levene’s guitar has its own spectral atmosphere. It sounds great- being an instrumental originally means that I can skat the vocals and go where I want- which is perfect.

The next night they are playing a gig in Hebden Bridge and I agree to go up and sing the last song after Rotter has done the vocals for the rest of the set. I get there in the nick of time after a hairy drive across Lancashire and past the endless grey slate mill towns that line the roads as you travel north out of Manchester with their boarded up shops and pubs- living proof of the endless recession which provides an eerie backdrop that takes you right back the climate that the Metal Box album was created in all this years ago.

The gig is packed and sweltering hot and when I get there the band are doing a great version of Albatross and everyone on the room is grooving- dancing to the dirty disco that sounds as timeless and off the wall as when it was first convened, what as once the ultimate in avant garde in now a dance music and is the perfect end point for this music- because one thing PIL never lost site of is the fact you have to be able to dance to the music.

I get up for Graveyard and within seconds I am lost inside this music, I’m hooking in round Keith’s tendrils of sound, finding melodies and spaces to sing stuff and freeform as he lets go of his elite shards of electricity, the trumpet is pure Miles and the rhythm section is like no other- incessant and hypnotising- it’s a perfect musical moment.

After the gig there are plenty of cool faces to talk to and it’s a really friendly crowd, people have travelled for miles for this from Coventry and Nottingham to Scotland, it’s a special night and it’s low key nature only adds to the feral power of the music.

Roll on Manchester tonight!

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. […] you can buy in WH Smiths. How wrong I was is hard to convey. The bass was as you would expect. The Jah Wobble style is easy to copy but hard to keep up for long as its strength is its repetition. Scott Firth on bass […]


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