Jah Wobble has been putting the old firm back together.
He speaks habitually of his players – in this case, longstanding group The Invaders of the Heart – as “the firm,” as if their business was bank robbery or football terrace violence instead of dubbed out pop fusion. At one point he refers to the band’s mid-’90s incarnation, when they were breaking into the Top 40 with hits like ‘Visions of You’ and ‘Becoming More Like God’, as “the Norwich City of the music scene.” Like the then-UEFA qualifying Anglian football club, he says, the group were “punching well above their weight.” But the current line-up of musicians, he insists, “are world class – and I am not saying that lightly.”
He’s a big fella, is Wobble, with a pronounced cockney accent, a face he claims has been compared to Vladimir Putin’s, and a very determined stare. When he looks at you and says he is not saying something lightly, you know not to take it so. But then he veers off into talk of karma and samadhi, quoting from Zen scholar Daisetsu Suzuki, and one is left with the curious impression of attending a yoga class with one of the Kray brothers.
In my head Jah Wobble looks much as he does on the cover of his autobiography, Memoirs of a Geezer. Suited and booted. Equal parts film noir detective and East End spiv. But today he could scarcely look more different. I’ve interrupted his morning run, so he’s wearing a sweat-blotched blue t-shirt and a baseball cap that says ‘bullshit’.
He talks incorrigibly, almost unstoppably. Even after I’ve told him we’re done and I’ve turned the tape off, he starts going on about his antipathy to art deco – something he puts down to the Highbury grounds of Arsenal FC, rivals to his beloved Tottenham. But I tentatively suggest it may have just as much to do with a more general resistance to grids and straight lines. For Wobble, everything moves in waves. and smooth curves. Nothing is ever clear cut.
He wasn’t always called Wobble. Once upon a time he was John Wardle, one of a group of friends at London’s Kingsway College that were all called John. It was thanks to one of those Johns – John Simon Ritchie, aka Sid Vicious – that he first picked up the bass. During the Sex Pistols years, Wardle would sometimes borrow Vicious’s bass while they sat up taking speed. “Bass chose me,” he says, “I don’t feel much separation between it and me.” Later, a friend stole him a guitar of his own. Without an amplifier for it, Wardle would lean the headstock against a piece of wooden furniture in order to amplify the vibrations.
In some ways this accounts for his famously negligent attitude towards his instrument. Former Can drummer, Jaki Liebezeit, with whom Wardle often collaborated in the early ’80s, would say, “it’s incredible, he just leaves his bass anywhere.” To which Wardle responds philosophically, “Where does bass dwell? It’s not in the bass. It’s in the interaction of things.” Learning to make drones by direct contact with a physical solid object “actually taught me more,” he reflects, “than having it powered into an amp. It’s natural vibration.”
But it was one of the other Johns – the one that at that time was still calling himself Johnny Rotten – that gave Wardle his first break into music. After his departure from the Sex Pistols, Rotten rang up his old pal from college, saying he wanted to start a band. Living at home at the time, on the dole, Wardle figured he didn’t have much to lose.
In Public Image Ltd., his heavy bass notes were the anchor, the solid physical object emanating heavy-duty vibrations, around which the increasingly deranged guitar and vocals would swirl and gyre like something conjured by the witches in Macbeth. “I was so lucky to have my bass to the fore, because I was a real amateur guy,” he reflects of PiL’s first two albums First Issue and Metal Box. “It was, like, three-quarters of the signal.”
Two years ago, Wardle returned to that second Public Image album for a series of gigs with the group’s original guitarist Keith Levene under the name Metal Box in Dub. This came as something of a shock to many observers, not only because Wardle had spent many of his interviews up to that point explaining that he and Levene had never got on, but also because both had eschewed the chance to appear in Lydon’s reformed Public Image in 2009 and now here they were onstage with the singer from a Sex Pistols tribute band. “It wasn’t a parody,” he insists. “I want somebody who sounds like him, as he did then. That’s the point. He’s sung these parts more than John probably has.”
“As much as anything,” Wardle tells me, the reunion came about due to a feeling that he “didn’t play enough with [Levene] back then.” With the benefit of maturity, he believed they could now make the old songs “sound better that it would have at the time.” His one regret concerning the reunion, he says, “was that we never recorded it.” Not for want of trying. They had even gone so far as to hire a mobile recording van for their London show at Shoreditch’s Village Underground, only to find that the distance from the stage to the car park was too long for the rig to stretch.
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Wardle left the original PiL at the beginning of the 1980s. After a brief spell in a “power trio” with ex-Public Image drummer Jim Walker and a friend known as ‘Animal’, he put together The Invaders of the Heart. The original idea, he tells me, was “to try and present some of the feelings behind the music I’d heard from around the world.”
Since his teens, Wardle had been tuning into shortwave frequencies from around the globe, picking up bits of Egyptian chanteuse Om Khalsoum from Radio Cairo and Romani music on Radio Ankara. “It came with a natural phasing from the shortwave oscillations,” he explains, “which made it more exotic – as if it was coming from another universe.” The Invaders would bring this cosmically distorted oriental sound together with the “unpredictability” of jazz and the “spaciousness” of dub, all mixed together “in a very amateur, youthful way that probably annoyed a lot of more experienced musicians over the years.”
Around the same time, he started working with ex-Can members Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, first on Czukay’s solo album On the Way to the Peak of Normal, later receiving equal billing on Full Circle and Snakecharmer. This latter EP, Wardle calls “a mini-marriage made in heaven” for the way it brought together Czukay and Liebezeit with The Invaders of the Heart as a backing band and Paradise Garage DJ François Kevorkian manning the controls.
In particular, the encounter between Liebezeit and Kevorkian’s Linn drum machine, Wardle describes as “like when Freud and Jung had a meeting, round the old oak table.” Things didn’t go so well for either party. The Can drummer “got freaked out” because it sounded like the drum machine was losing one and a half beats every minute. The Linn, for its part, ultimately threw in the towel. “A puff of smoke came out and it died.” Upon analysis, Liebezeit was vindicated. The drum machine was out of time. Czukay, delighted, exclaimed “He out-computered the computer!” Kevorkian, on the other hand, “was genuinely upset.”
Touring the record in ’83, Kevorkian showed them round the loft party scene, taking in the Garage as well as Disco Fever in the South Bronx amongst other spots. “Real exuberance,” is how he recalls the atmosphere of those clubs. “The whole idea of trance was very strong.” To Wardle, who had grown up listening to soul music, he recognised immediately a continuity with the all-nighters popular in ’70s Britain. It was, he says, all about that “special thing of people going into a room and actually worshipping the music. Real bass was respected.”
Bass, for Wardle, has always been about shapes and patterns. “I was self-taught,” he tells me, “so I made patterns – and I’m a ‘pattern mode’ guy when it comes to sequencers. It’s actually quite medieval in a way. Unlike the Bach view, of chordal progression which reads from left to right.” The statement makes me think of John Ruskin. In his mammoth work on the architecture of Venice, the Victorian art critic praised the inventive designs and ornate traceries of the gothic cathedral builders, in whom he saw the perfect marriage of craft and intellect; thought made healthy by labour and labour made happy by thought. If such a union is somewhat characteristic of post-punk as a whole, then it is particularly so of Jah Wobble, one of British music’s most articulate and philosophically-inclined spokesmen.
“It’s very theatrical in a way,” he says of post-punk (“that strange pot pourri”). And it’s this theatrical element that makes it a ripe vehicle for the expression of discontent. “There’s so many things involved in it, it’s somehow the perfect medium to say stuff and to suggest stuff.” But Wardle had little truck with the Red Wedge movement in support of the Labour Party that so many of his peers joined in the mid-’80s, detecting in it something “slightly juvenile”, though he will grant “that it was good that people resisted and were against Thatcher. For some reason it didn’t feel right for me at that time. But then again,” he shrugs, “I was an angry sort of bloke at that time so it was probably my problem.”
Wardle’s temper was once notorious, back in the days when his drunken stagger earned him the name Wobble. Histories of the punk scene tend to be littered with anecdotes detailing his various punch-ups. Even some years later, with Kevorkian in New York, he admits to being “very badly behaved. I was becoming a real nuisance at times out on the road so that started to fuck things up in every way.” He acknowledges that for much of his early career he was “drinking a lot” and taking drugs. “There was a little gap,” he says, “when I didn’t take drugs. When I come out of PiL, I thought, god, I’ve to lay off these powders. But by ’83, I’d gone back on the powders again.”
Around ’84–85, he says, “I just really broke down and had to stop drinking and drugging.” It was, he tells me, “like a bright star that suddenly imploded.” He spent several years working “part-time” in music whilst driving a mini-cab, and later, working on the London Underground. Finally, one day in 1986, his old percussionist Neville Murray came and knocked on his door. If it wasn’t for that call out of the blue, “I probably would have stayed on the Underground, to be honest. I said to him, do you really want to…? I was shocked.” That was the beginning of the group’s most successful phase, breaking into the charts and collaborating with Sinead O’Connor, Dolores O’Riordan, Natacha Atlas, Chaka Demus & Pliers – the Norwich City of the music scene.
He’s scarcely stopped releasing records since. Today, thanks in part to his own 30 Herz record label, he’s more prolific than ever. Over the last few years, new Jah Wobble projects – from Chinese dub to Moroccan chaabi to working with the Modern Jazz Ensemble or making electronic post-punk with Warp Records’ Julie Campbell – have become as regular as severe weather warnings. “I decided that I’d better hurry up and move,” he says, adding ominously, “events could take us over at any time.”
There’s always a note of apocalypse in the air with Jah Wobble. “The karma of good deeds is running out,” he tells me. “It’s all very unstable. Anything can happen.” When I point out that he’s expressed the same feeling about the period at the end of 1970s when he first joined PiL he retorts, “Yeah, and I think it was right to have it.” But Wardle takes “the long term view. What good I do now, when I die, the shadow of the good deed reverberates out and helps people in some way. The action will continue. Music’s a great emanator,” he continues. “It emanates out in a way other arts don’t.”
So the Wobble continues to send out wave upon wave, reverberating and emanating, innovating and inventing. “I’m always ready,” he says, “if a voice comes from above: Jah Wobble, you have had enough time, go away! I’ll go away. I’d be cool with that.” My suspicion is, that voice won’t be coming for a long while yet.
Jah Wobble’s newly reformed Invaders of the Heart will play a one-off show at Under The Bridge, Chelsea on October 10 – head here for tickets.