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The Guardian JANUARY 7, 2015 - by Dave Simpson
JAH WOBBLE: "I WAS ATTACKED AND HAD A PROPER BIG FIGHT WITH A GANG"
The Invaders Of The Heart bassist on tour salaries, pioneering world music and what Sid Vicious was really like.
Hi John . Where are you?
Back from walking the dog, who's just covered himself in fox shit. Please God, don't let him start rolling about on the floor.
You're about to tour with Invaders Of The Heart for the first time in twenty years , prior to releasing ReDux, a mammoth - gulp - six-CD box set. What's going to be on there?
Stuff from my thirty-six years in music: back to Public Image Limited and my half-a-dozen purple patches since. There's an '80s disc, an ambient spoken-word disc, a world roots disc. I'm enjoying the cover versions most. We've done [Harry J & The All Stars'] The Liquidator, the Midnight Cowboy theme and a reggae version of The Sweeney theme tune - all the stuff that turned me on to playing. The new single, Let's Go Psycho, is my tongue-in-cheek punk song about a "suburban yob". I wanted to pay respect to that era, as someone who was involved in it.
How do you look back on punk?
When my mate John Lydon  told me he was joining a band called The Sex Pistols, he might as well have said he was becoming a 747 pilot, because working-class kids like us just didn't do that. It wasn't like music now, where well-off kids have three years and a flat in Notting Hill to make a go of it. If you asked for that where I was from, they'd have had you sectioned, but suddenly there were kids from pokey council flats all over London coming together with energy, intelligence and humour. Punk was closer to The Marx Brothers than the situationists, but a window opened. I was already thinking about music, so it was fantastic timing.
Why did you pick up a bass, not a guitar?
It's physical like no other sound, and it had a very calming effect on me. When I saw [Bob Marley's bassist] Family Man Barrett onstage in 1975, you've got this bloke there with four strings who seems to have the power of the universe. You get a certain feel for it and it becomes a mystical, magical thing.
What was your first bass?
I borrowed Sid Vicious's Fender. He'd say, "You're shit" and I'd go, "You can't fucking play. Give it to me..." But the first of my own was a Musicman copy. I was living in a squat and had burned the furniture to keep warm. The others were furious and rightly so - so after a big fight, they just left me there with this bass and no amplifier, propping it against the headboard to get a sound. The first bass line I wrote [heard on the song Public Image] went Top 10. Commercially, it's been a steady decline ever since (chuckles).
What was Sid Vicious really like?
I made a radio documentary called In Search Of Sid Vicious about that. [Author] Jon Savage very generously gave me access to his recordings of Sid's mum - a heroin addict - going, "I fucking told him, 'I don't care where you go. Sling yer hook. Fuck off. Sleep on a park bench for all I care.'" This when Sid was fifteen years of age. So a very damaged boy. When Sid told a shrink that he wanted to kill himself, the shrink told him to bring a friend along to get him interested in life, and that was me. I said, "To be honest, I don't know if he has got anything worth living for. Suicide is a viable option." The shrink was horrified - we ran out of there pissing ourselves laughing. But, of course, many a true word said in jest. He was thinking of topping himself.
Could you have been in The Sex Pistols?
Nah, there was talk of it but there's no way it would have happened. Rock bass playing is not my natural style. When I first saw The Pistols, it was the first rock band I'd been in a room with and Glen Matlock was playing the bass. So there was no way that would have been a good entrance for me. Instead, when John [Lydon] asked me to form Public Image Limited with him, I was like Lamela, the Spurs player, when he was at Boca Juniors: I became the main man very young. Nobody ever told me what to play, so I was able to develop my own style naturally. That was such good fortune.
What was it like being in your first band, with the most controversial person in the country?
John is what he is now, but up to 1980, '81... look at the photos of him. He really had something. He'd get attacked in the street, but it's hard to exaggerate what a pivotal figure he was at that time. Later on it got really unpleasant in a way I've never experienced with anyone else. It's not as if the music biz spoiled him. He was an awkward sod to begin with! In a way I won the lottery, because I found the thing I was good at in life. On the other hand, I was in a band with the worst people you could be with (laughs). But stick us in a room together and we made fantastic music.
What did you do to your teeth when PIL appeared on Top Of The Pops?
In those days, everyone used to smile and make a zany face to the camera, so I wanted to do it with my teeth blacked out.
Why did you quit PIL after the second album, the seminal Metal Box?
People were getting drunk, using drugs. There was a big pool of money, no manager, so no onus on having to work. We played three gigs in the whole of 1979. I used to get really bored and I wasn't interested in hanging around the court of King John, and he respected that. So I left to do what I was supposed to be doing and actually play music.
Next, you played with Can's Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, krautrock godfathers..
I used to call Jaki Liebezeit "Rain Man", because he had that shy quietude about him, but I was like the guy in the hotel room that Travis Bickle meets in Taxi Driver who tries to sell him drugs and guns. I'd say to Jaki, "Do you want a Chieftain tank?" He'd just calmly, patiently say, "No." So I'd leave him, then go back: "Do you want a piece of the Turin shroud?" Endless wind-ups. But he's a master drummer who I love playing with.
How did you get to make a mini-album with The Edge?
The dance producer François Kevorkian had remixed U2 and wanted to make a record with Edge and me on bass. Then I brought Holger and Jaki into the fray. Snake Charmer was successful all around the world.
Were you an unlikely U2 fan?
Not particularly, but I always say that all these rock bands are similar to broken clocks: correct twice a day. So I really like New Year's Day and Beautiful Day.
Invaders Of The Heart brought world music to the pop charts. How did you get into that music?
When I was thirteen, I heard Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum on shortwave radio. It sounded like it was coming from another universe - far more romantic and erotic than someone revealing their breasts on a beach in Torquay. I played at the first WOMAD, but they've airbrushed me out of history for comparing them to Oxfam. I worked with Peter Gabriel quite a bit but was made to feel like an impertinent gardener. "How dare you bring that up?" He wasn't a bad bloke, but we're still in this Downton Abbey society: if you're from the wrong side of the tracks, you'll never be accepted. We've got three overgrown schoolboys and a saloon bar wag to run the country. All they know is the Eton debating society and Oxbridge. Imagine these fuckers dealing with Putin, for God's sake.
How come you worked as a tube driver for a while?
When I left PIL, I stopped doing sulphate and cocaine, but three years later, on tour in America, I started taking drugs again as well as drinking heavily and by '86, I was in big trouble. I stopped - I'm twenty-eight years clean and sober - and started working on the underground in '87. One day, I got on the Tannoy and started shouting into it: "I used to be someone!" I had that calling, to get back into music.
Next, you became an unlikely key figure in dance music.
I'd come out of the underground and walk past these clubs with funky looking young people queuing to get in. It was the beginnings of what would be called acid house. Again, with urban music, they liked heavy bass, so I ended up doing a lot of work with people such as The Orb and Paul Oakenfold.
You played on Screamadelica. Could you have joined Primal Scream?
They did ask me to do the Screamadelica [anniversary] tour. But they had Mani on the firm - he's a good mate and there wasn't much money, gawd bless 'em. I never got any publishing for that album, so they could have looked after me, but they're good lads. It doesn't bother me. I was driving my kids around a lot by then and I'm very wary of anything that means taxis having to be booked while I'm away.
Are you really the only person to have produced Brian Eno?
The Spinner album in '95. Cracking album, actually, but he gave me snippets of music to work with. It was like being given half a boiled potato and some peas and being asked to make a soufflé. After we finished, he sent a long, flowery fax. "I was hoping to be treated a little bit more like a Moorish maiden." I thought, "You'll have to give me a lot more than £8,000 to do anything like that, son!"
After major success on Island Records in the '90s, why did you walk away, moving to Stockport and setting up your own label ?
Music was pouring out of me, but a major label could never keep up with that output. Also, I'm an archetypal East Ender, but I'd started seeing fifty-strong gangs with machetes, girls being groomed. Eventually I was attacked and had a proper big fight with a gang, which moved into Sainsbury's as I recall. My missus was pregnant and people said, "Just get out, John." My in-laws were in the north. I knew they'd get the kettle on.
Why weren't you involved when Lydon reactivated PIL in 2009?
If John had been willing, we could have played Metal Box and some of the first album in some fantastic, iconic places, then made a new album. I've no interest in playing lumpen heavy rock from the later PIL albums. Also, I was offered £1,500 a week when gigging. Now, most people like to earn that kind of money, but for a founder member on a tour generating hundreds of thousands of pounds to be put on a weekly wage? Nah. Forget it.
Instead, you reunited with PIL guitarist Keith Levene, releasing an EP and touring Metal Box in dub.
Keith was a horrible junkie in the PIL days but we were all a lot younger, no hanging offences were committed and we always made good music. My only regret is that we never got a proper recording of those shows. We hired a mobile studio to park outside the London gig to record it and picked the one bloody venue in the country where the car park's too far from the venue.
When you look back, do you regret some of your occasional career suicides, such as calling Jools Holland a "glorified pub pianist", which meant you'd never get invited back on Later?
Not really. I think I called him "waxy faced" as well. I sometimes say to people, "Don't be like me. Make your point but don't speak harshly", but I am what I am: an honest bloke and I speak the truth. Mind you, I suppose politicians and psychopaths say that, don't they?
1 Sid Vicious's drunken slur of Jah's real name - John Wardle - instantly renamed him "Jah Wobble"
2 Wobble's pioneering worldbeat-ambient-dub band, who had several hits in the 1990s
3 AKA Johnny Rotten - The pair met in 1974 at London's Kingsway College
4 30 Hertz, imprint for countless releases of everything from Wobble's Chinese and Japanese Dub albums to poetry
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