The Guardian OCTOBER 10, 2009 - by Alan Warner


It's difficult to recapture how exhilarating yet forbidding John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Limited, actually sounded in 1978. The electric bass was the defining sound of PiL: deeply plump and utterly to the fore. The bass lines were not technically dazzling, but they were of a complete harmonic originality. This was the trademark sound of the nineteen-year-old John Wardle, better known as Jah Wobble, who could only play sitting down and had first taken the bass seriously when asked to join the band by his old college mate, Lydon.

Like the group's guitarist, Keith Levene, Wobble was that rare thing, a true original on his instrument. His bass sound had its own remarkable identity right from the beginning. By the time of Metal Box in late 1979 - three twelve-inch records packaged inside an embossed metal film canister - PiL had pretty much dispensed with verse and chorus, a startling move for a band that would regularly appear on Top Of The Pops. Forged around long and compelling bass vamps, Metal Box remains a landmark album in modern music; unique and improvisational, its youthful alienation and iconoclasm were accepted by both punk rockers and the avant garde.

Memoirs Of A Geezer describes the spiritual and material journey of a working-class lad from Stepney: from his upbringing in the '60s and '70s, through the badlands of the music industry and the Thatcher years, to his current contentment. But rather than another tale of redemption by a spoiled celeb, this autobiography - articulate, funny and sharply intelligent - reads like valuable cultural historiography. Here's Wobble on his tragic teenage friend Sid Vicious, who invented the Jah Wobble stage name by drunkenly slurring his real name: "In terms of twentieth-century iconography, Sid's cartoon-like image is right up there, almost on a par with Marilyn Monroe's up-skirt shot. Sid's narcissistic attitude foreshadowed the postmodern zeitgeist of our age that is epitomised by the kitsch, dumbed-down attitude that pervades much contemporary culture. The subtext that lies beneath the sarcastic presentation of a Graham Norton or a Jonathan Ross..."

It's telling that Wobble makes no distinction between the "straight" periods in his life and his years as a jobbing musician. By 1980 he had walked away from the madness of being in a top rock band, with all its fringe benefits (though sparse financial gain), and into a council tenancy in Shadwell. He was burdened by mistaken self-doubt about his worth as a musician. A man who always liked to begin his Pimm's with soda too early in the day, he soon spiralled down into blackouts and paranoia, and went through Alcoholics Anonymous in the days before rehabilitation was viewed as a titillating publicity stunt. Cleaned up, finally sober and with a young family to support, he joined London Underground as a guard and later drove courier vans. Throughout this period he continued to plough his own lonely musical furrow, with little interest from record labels. He led innovative bands such as the Human Condition - a sort of dub/heavy metal group - and the Invaders Of The Heart, using "Middle Eastern" scales and arrangements and featuring huge, thumping basslines that "would literally make your trousers flap". Eventually, so-called world music became fashionable and people caught up with what Wobble had been doing since 1982. By 1994 he was headlining Glastonbury with a large, multiracial band.

As a memoir of a changed east London, this book is loving, knowing and finally deeply disturbing. Like the rest of the country, the East End had gone through an ideological collapse, from the Wapping dispute to the evaporation of a mainstream political left. Wobble's grounding in his culture and his class awareness bring a lively, confrontational edge to the writing. In class terms, Wobble reconfirms the music industry as being like our other "creative industries": an administrative bureaucracy established so that those on generous salaries - often from privileged, naive backgrounds - can steadily exploit the talents of those who are not on salaries. Wobble describes an encounter with Peter Gabriel, when he inquired about a session he once played for Gabriel's record label: "I asked what had happened in regard to the stuff with the Cameroonian player. Suddenly the old 'toff shell' came up. It was as if I was the gardener and had asked a damn impertinent question and he got all cold and frosty. In an instant I saw another side to him... suddenly he appeared to me as if he were an art collector, like Charles Saatchi. Only instead of acquiring paintings he acquired music."

In 1995, with a hit album, Take Me To God, and collaborations with Björk, Sinéad O'Connor and Brian Eno behind him, Wobble played alongside John Coltrane's saxophone partner Pharoah Sanders on the majestic solo album Heaven & Earth. Then he walked away from the limelight for a second time - just as, as a twenty-year-old, he had walked away from the charismatic aura of PiL. He formed an independent music label and still releases a steady range of albums each year.

Jah Wobble has already created one of the most remarkable and idiosyncratic discographies of any musician in Britain during the last thirty years. Memoirs Of A Geezer helps to define the questing, sometimes troubled soul behind those legendary low frequencies.