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'We Were Bright, We Had an Attitude, a Revolutionary Kind of Vibe': Jah Wobble Talks Public Image Ltd, 'Plunging Into Death', Spiritual Redemption and the Beauty of the Bass Guitar

'Four strings is like the power of the cosmos. It conjures up something that shouldn't be possible, this immense weight, this power.'

Source: © Jah Wobble

Jah Wobble is arguably one of the most important musicians to have emerged from post-punk.

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Jah Wobble is a singular figure in British music. Raised in London’s East End as John Wardle (his “Wobble” nickname came courtesy of a drunk and slurry Sid Vicious), he was expelled from school and briefly worked in a library, becoming obsessed with writers including Camus and Zola before being sacked for talking to the customers. Whilst enrolled at Kingsway College of Further Education in the early ‘70s, he met John Lydon, and as one of the “Four Johns” (along with Lydon, John Gray, and John Ritchie, aka Sid Vicious), was at the forefront of the punk explosion, and later formed Public Image Ltd with Lydon, after the Sex Pistols’ messy 1978 demise.

Public Image Ltd were, in their own way, every bit as important as the Sex Pistols had been – with second album Metal Box especially acknowledged as one of the definitive post-punk records. Along with Keith Levene’s angular guitar and Lydon’s anguished lyricism, Wobble’s pioneering use of a darker, more elemental bass sound influenced by his early love of dub reggae, saw him feted as one of post-punk’s most interesting and creative musicians.

Metal Box would also be Wobble’s final album with PiL – amidst internal strife driven by drugs, booze and egos he quit (or was sacked, depending who you believe) in 1980, and released acclaimed solo and side projects under a variety of names (most notably Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart)… until in 1985, the wheels fell off.

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Wobble’s reputation for volatility preceded even his “Four Johns” days – but if punk had given free license to his apparent love of troublemaking, then the success of PiL had also aggravated and exaggerated what had been a long and abusive relationship with booze. Blackouts and bouts of violence became the norm, and after a near-total breakdown which he now describes as “plunging into death”, he finally got clean.

All this – along with discussion of his 35-or-so post-PiL solo albums and dozens more collaborations, as well as disarmingly entertaining digressions on everything from the British class system to Brexit – are chronicled with unsparing honesty in his autobiography, Memoirs of a Geezer, first published in 2009 but now updated and expanded as Dark Luminosity: Memoirs of a Geezer.

It’s a wonderful read for anyone who cares about music – but also for anyone who cares about the human spirit. And in person Wobble is the same: now nearly 40 years clean, living in Stockport (of all places) and writing albums at a rate of around three a year, he talks like he writes like he plays – fluid, seamless, non-stop, compelling. His energy is infectious: you don’t want to turn away for a second in case you miss something funny, smart, rude, or genuinely insightful…

dark luminosity cover
Source: Faber

'Dark Luminosity' is the updated version of Wobble's 2009 memoir.

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Hi John, congratulations on the book. Most obvious question: why update it now?

I need the money! No, to be honest it was simply that I'd rather update it than write another one. And I didn't realize how much was taken out of the original book. I only realized all these years later – there's people that I've talked to since and been like, “Of course I mentioned you in the book...” And they looked at me like, what the f--k are you talking about? And they’d been edited out.

But also, there was one thing I hated about it,loathed about it, and that was the f--king title. I’d written it but just couldn't think of a title, and then my flute player at the time, Clive Bell, said: you should call it Memoirs of a Geezer, sort of like Memoirs of a Geisha.

So I went for a meeting with the publisher and they said, have you got a title? No I said, but my bloody flute player says we should call it Memoirs of a Geezer. And they were like: that's fantastic! And then it was all, “We've told all the office now and they'll be really upset if we change it.”

Anyway, bottom line is I’m very happy we can now call it one of my artsy titles. Dark Luminosity. That sounds good, right?

It’s a great title, and a great read. But I couldn’t help thinking: What is it actually about? It’s a book about music, obviously, but it’s also a book about friendship? And survival? And redemption? And the class system?

Yeah, it's obviously about a few things. It's not that easy to define. It's a social history, an interesting one, I think, of the white working class. The London Irish in the East End. I think it's also a sort of classic spiritual redemption story, lost soul finds himself again. And I think that if there's a moral in the tale, it's that you just keep bloody plodding on.

Is that the secret to spiritual redemption? Just keep bloody plodding on?

I'm a tortoise, you know? All the sexy stuff has happened. And now it’s like, you're grafting, you're bringing a family up, being a good dad or hopefully a functional dad, being a functional husband, and you're making your music and you just keep doing that same sh-t, one day at a time, every day… and it suddenly hits you. You're the tortoise. You're not the hare.

I’d always liked to see myself as the mercurial special hare, but actually all I've ever really done is plod on. I'm a guy that does a good bass line. I'm very straightforward, it's all very simple and I do that day in, day out. If it was baking, then I’m the guy that just keeps making a certain kind of special bread.

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There’s a work ethic there though, right? And what struck me reading the book was that even in the height of the Public Image madness, when everything was pretty chaotic and you were pretty chaotic as well, you nevertheless were the one who was trying to keep things at least vaguely professional. You talk about an incident where you were furious with John Lydon for storming off stage during a PiL gig because people had paid to come see you.

Yeah, it's funny in a way, because ultimately work is a thing I take seriously and I care about. So I'm the guy that will book the bus, I'm the guy that will sort stuff out, I'm the guy that will step in and try and make a difference in a situation, for whatever reason. And it surprises me because the other side of me is self-destructive and chaotic and all that stuff. There were times I really didn't face up to responsibilities back then, obviously, but with PiL I wanted to do shows, make records and be efficient about it.

Did that jar with the anarchy-and-chaos punk ethos? Did you buy into that side of punk?

When punk first began in ’75 or ’76 it was captivating and really interesting. It was like a maverick's charter, a place where anyone freaky could go. But by 1977, it quickly changed and all the beer boys started getting involved and it suddenly become an edgy, violent sort of environment. It got very conservative, very unambitious. Everyone had to have the same spiky hair, everyone had to have the same couple of chords.

And I was already thinking conceptually about music, thinking in stratas of sound and texture, thinking vertically far more than linear chord progressions or anything. Kind of like a painting, rather than verse, chorus, middle eight, chorus or whatever.

And it was always going to be the bass out of all the instruments – there’s a lovely phrase: you say you’re “captivated by low frequencies.”

I think the bass is visceral, it’s a physical thing. It literally vibrates you. I was drawn to the bass very early on through reggae and ska records. And then I had an experience going to see Bob Marley with Aston Family Man Barrett playing in ‘75 at the Lyceum and that was just incredible, a guy and four strings and it was like the power of the cosmos. It conjured up something that shouldn't be possible from four strings, this immense weight, this power.

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There's another nice phrase where you say meeting John Lydon was a “Stanley-Livingstone moment”.

Yeah, John, my Stanley versus Livingstone moment – you know, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” We were at Kingsway College of Further Education, and it was a lot of hippie types, like the butt-end of the sixties still clinging on well into the seventies. There weren't many there like me and him and so straight away it’s like, who's this geezer? We were different and we got talking and that's it, he became my mate.

I was cocky and full of it, and he was two or three years older than me. And we had that spark, and that was one of the most important sparks that went into the whole punk thing: me, him, Sid… that was the tinder that took flame. We were bright, we had an attitude. I got expelled from school but I was very well read because I'd read Zola and Hemingway, and I had an idea about things, a revolutionary kind of vibe. And he was a troublemaker. And in a way you still see that with John today. He's not afraid to upset the Woke mob. He’s just very contrarian.

And do you still speak?

No. I think the last time was in 2006, I went out for a curry with him. And in life you sometimes catch up with old friends you may have fallen out with, but you break bread and you compare notes on what you've learnt… and I just didn't feel that happened that night. There was no interest. There was not one question asked. “So how many kids you've got now? What do your boys do?” Nothing. Friendly, respectful, not nasty, but no empathy.

And then a bit later he made the phone call: “Do you want to come back to Public Image?” And I just felt the whole thing was derisory. The money that was offered was really poor, but even that wasn't the main problem. The main problem was it just felt very perfunctory to me, rather than having some kind of wit to it. It could have been, let's have fun with Public Image, let's think of how we present this. I would have done Metal Box, revamped to an extent, and then a great new album and really had some fun with it, you know? But that was not going to happen, not in a million years. I know that sounds like I’m slagging him off, but it's the whole package.

Is that quite sad? It feels quite sad.

Don’t get me wrong, John was very important back then. He was an icon. Between ‘75 to ‘81ish, he looked great and his lyrics on Metal Box were like Samuel Beckett. For a time he was this incredibly important person. And he was an extraordinary influence on my life. I can't conceive what would have become of me without having met John Lydon, to be quite honest. So please don't think it's a case of yeah, you know, he's a terrible person or something. Because I don't think that. Not at all.

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public image ltd
Source: Carsten Windhorst/WENN.com / MEGA

PiL, post-reunion: 'It just felt very perfunctory to me.'

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Part of that (public) image of you has always been that you're a proper geezer, fighting and drinking, you know: that's Jah Wobble, he's a bit lairy… and does that annoy you? Because to be fair maybe that was you for quite a while. There’s quite a lot of fighting in the book.

It can't annoy me because there’s times I have played up to that. But obviously I like to think I’ve a bit more depth too. It's funny with the violence though. I come from a background where you will be in situations where have to defend yourself. And if you don't defend yourself people won't have respect for you. But I actually find all that caveman sh-t really un-evolved. I hate violence actually. I get a fear in my guts with it.

I knew guys that would go out and look to fight, but violence just makes more violence, and where there’s violence there's fear. There's always going to be a tougher guy than you up the road anyway. I found all that stuff very claustrophobic.

jah wobble
Source: © Jah Wobble

'There's always going to be a tougher guy than you up the road anyway.'

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You had periods of quite extreme volatility and then it all climaxed in the mid 80s with what amounted to a total alcoholic breakdown. How close do you think you came to actually dying?

Really close. I had a very tangible sense of darkness and evil and I felt I was plunging into death. I could feel this very, very f--king close. I was very afraid, you know, and physically I was not in good shape at all. It was pretty extreme, pretty serious. You become like a black hole. I knew I had a problem. I knew that was it. The game was up. And so I went to the library.

The library? Well, obviously.

Yeah, that’s what I do. I went and I looked in whatever the section was for alcoholism and there was a book by a guy called Max Glatt and it was absolutely just spot on. He had a little graph of what happens as you go on the way down, like: this is what happens until you get to the bottom and then you have this, you have this, and then you die. And looking at that graph, it was like f--king hell. I can't deny, I'm really getting down to the very bottom here, Jesus.

You're p-ssing yourself and you're having blackouts and you're waking up in doorways. And where I grew up there was a lot of hostels, and f--k me, you'd see some sad sights. These poor old boys, they'd fall asleep in a doorway and you'd see the trail of piss and it just seemed pathetic. And here I was thinking, f--k, I'm becoming one of them, you know?

So I made the phone call to AA. It's anonymous for a reason, but when I wrote the book, this was such a major part of my life it just felt stupid to be coy about it. So I phoned AA and they sent someone round because I'm thinking of topping myself at that point. He was a bloke called Metal Mickey. He was the East End's worst scrap metal dealer. He had been the East End's worst cat burglar, but he took a fall and when cat burglars take a fall it's not good, right? But he was a lovely fella and he took me to my first meeting, and that was it. I just stuck with it. I thought: I'm gonna live, I'm gonna not drink and see where it takes me. I really threw myself into it. And I'm not a Bible basher, I'm not a guy that bangs on about the AA program. But it's supposed to be a bridge to normal living. And that's what it was. It was a bridge to normal living for me.

dark luminosity wobble
Source: Faber

Jah Wobble has not touched alcohol for nearly 40 years.

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And now you’re happy with the quiet life? Although “normal living” seems to involve a lot of hard work.

Yeah, yeah, I am happy. And I just love working. And technology means I can work anywhere. The last album, the solo album, was all based on the bus routes to South London. I actually did the musical sketches sitting on buses. I'd always get on the top deck, front seat. It was great. And now you can record 10 times quicker, 20 times quicker than you could 10, 15, 20 years ago. It's all heated up, it's all speeded up. It’s no big deal now to make three albums in a year.

The bottom line with me? I love the work, I love it.


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