Jah Wobble:
Melody Maker, April 26th, 1980

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1980 Melody Maker / CHRIS BOHN


Melody Maker, April 26th, 1980The image has cracked. Jah Wobble, resident wit and bass player for the PIL corporation, has peeled off his clown's make-up to reveal 'a pale gawky face'. CHRIS BOHN breaks through the witticisms to discover the wisdom. Photos: ADRIAN BOOT.

One-time cat burglar and self-confessed Jack the Lad, Jah Wobble hasn't had an easy time convincing people of his serious intent. Partly his own fault of course, having rechristened himself thus and released a joke for a debut single, [1] he's been unfairly labelled as Public Image's court jester, although he's also taken advantage of the freedoms allowed to certified eccentrics.

Indeed our own Vivien Goldman took some persuading that his feminist beliefs, among others, were genuine when she interviewed the band upon release of the 'Metal Box'. [2] But she did have the knowledge of a few Wobble indiscretions to overcome before she could begin to take this sensitive – honestly – individual on the level again.

Then again, there should never have been such a problem in the first place, excepting a human failing to see beneath the clown make-up, even in this post-Richard Pryor/Lenny Bruce age, or Chaplin/Keaton, if you want to go further back.

Wobble-as-he-was made PIL easier to swallow for some. When the corporation was formed by John Lydon and friends, following the sordid public destruction of the Sex Pistols, they opted for privacy in a normally open-house industry, avoided the bloated excesses of rock 'n' roll and finally rejected any alliance with it. Their decisions have always been eminently sensible and above all very human.

But because they were unconventional in a rock sense, people have often been intimidated by their unwillingness to get involved, not recognising that PIL are one of the growing number of bands bringing a welcome new moralistic sense to an arena singularly lacking in any. But to those who refused to grasp it, Wobble-of-old at least could be relied on for traditional rock antics. Like pissing into a pint glass in an Indian restaurant, an incident Viv had in mind when she interviewed the band. [2]

"The thing is, when you're in a group you feel you can play life like a game – 'How shall I act today?' for instance," expands Wobble. "That's a thing I was into before, because you're not sure how to act. The trouble is, people see things very much as labels and just won't see outside them. People have a joke and still think about life. And I do think about life, you know, but I refuse to go around with a furrowed brow. Comedy and humour are so important – the international language that everyone can understand."

Humour is carried through to his latest solo single, his fourth. [3] On the sleeve he's depicted as a bizarre Arab, or possibly archaeologist, making sand castles before a pyramid backdrop. It shouldn't matter, but it probably will, and it'll be a shame if the sleeve deters buyers from his strongest effort to date. A fine interaction of a bold guitar figure and sensitively placed keyboards is only marred for me by the weakness of his voice, friendly though it is, which doesn't carry the song's repetition – not until the well-placed dub toward the end, at any rate.

It's taken from his soon-come solo album debut 'The Legend Lives On – Jah Wobble In Betrayal', a solid collection less emphatic on the brilliant, buoyant bass he provides to PIL's rhythmic orientations. The eight tunes see him in various musing moods, enjoying the opportunity to doodle out entrancing melodies on the synthesizer with the help only of engineer Mark Lusardi on guitar and PIL drummer Martin Atkins.

His slowed-down version of 'Blueberry Hill' stands out, by dint of its familiarity, if nothing else. A weird choice?

"I just like some Fats Domino stuff. Some of it's very mystic, and other times it's shit. I like the words, and the way he sings them is weird, and I just brought that out by changing the rhythm and singing along with it. It comes out a bit poppy, I suppose. The megaphone effect I got reminded some people of Ray Davies."

He's too humble to make any great claims for it, though he's justifiably pleased with the outcome. Wobble describes himself as a thinker, ready to rationalise before jumping to swift conclusions. Some might see him as a worrier, but they'd be missing the points. His will to be reasonable at all costs occasionally jars as non-committal until the sense of what he's saying seeps in.

Inevitably contradictions crop up in conversation, and if you spot them in time he does his best to clear them up. His irrepressible humour seldom manifests itself, but when it does laughs are loud and long. Is this the notorious wide boy of early PIL? The bearded grin leered from wide-angled photographs? Evidently, yes.

Wobble, a native of Whitechapel, a lapsed Catholic, long-time friend of John Lydon, joined PIL with a minimum of playing experience. Claiming to have learnt sitting down, he would similarly take to the stage for their rare TV or rarer live appearances.

Wobble's the man who defined early PIL with the magnificent bobbing basslines of their first 'Public Image' single. His playing on 'First Issue' was exemplary too, but the band had at that point still to liberate themselves from following each other too closely. By the 'Metal Box' though they'd clearly succeeded in their stated aim: to play independently from each other within a song's framework. And the results were wildly exciting – total pop music, with each instrument following its own track, yet keeping sight of the song's core.

Wobble has proved himself as essential as any other member to the PIL corporation. And like most any other successful venture they find themselves in the gunslinger syndrome of having to fend off attacks from upstarts believing themselves to be faster.

One such onslaught came in the recent 'Wobble to split' rumour, which PIL thought had been promulgated by Wobble himself as a joke. See the problems he faces?

"It was a load of bollocks," says Wobble. "I don't know where you got it from. We do have arguments, but no real ones over PIL, as we move in the same direction."

There are still those who claim PIL to be a pisstake or Lydon's revenge on the music industry, even after the well-conceived 'Metal Box'. Some contend that the set was put together way after deadlines had been missed to keep their parent label Virgin happy.

"That's a new one," laughs Wobble. "We don't have deadlines. That's funny, something I care so passionately about and spend a lot of time on, and then someone says that. You know whorramean, the cunt!"

That people still so passionately hate PIL's outsider approach is justification enough of their existence, if they ever needed one. On the surface this refusal to play the rock 'n' roll game could be seen as monumental arrogance, their unwillingness to tour a spit in the eye of those people who support them.

"I understand people feeling like that, and if I wasn't in PIL maybe I'd feel that way, too," acknowledges Wobble. "But I just don't see why as a person I should make myself overly accessible. I've got my own life to lead and I just don't go to gigs and stuff. I don't go out much and I don't suppose the others do. But it's not like we're sitting around saying 'Don't talk to so-and-so.' We're just people leading a certain way of life. Okay, sometimes we get too sanctimonious, but, you know, we're people. The only drag about it is that people continue to use rock 'n' roll criteria to judge us, and we're not a rock band. Just a group of people trying to get together occasionally to do what we want to do, play a few gigs and that's that. You can't promise people anything you can't live up to. They'll only hate you for it."

Sharing his distaste for the excesses of rock 'n' roll, when expectations of band returns are too often overblown by expensive and unrealistic marketing campaigns, I'm sympathetic to the PIL ideal, along with Robert Fripp's related small mobile thinking unit and the Joy Division professional independent set-ups (as opposed to wilfully amateurish operations). Their approach seems like good sense to me, so the next questions went against the grain but they were necessary.

The day after this conversation Wobble was set to leave for PIL's first American dates, taking in roughly ten gigs over 28 days. [4] That's three times as many as those played in England, how come so few gigs here?

"I don't really like concerts," replies Wobble. "I don't go to them. If they're seated you're simply there to God-worship some fucking cunts miles away onstage or whatever, and if it's in a club, I just don't enjoy it, I get paranoid. I'd like to have done more gigs here if we could get a really good sound. Ultimately we really do care, in a way. And, paradoxically, we don't. We don't really have to be polite to anybody. You talk about expectations, and that's what it's all about, right? I've just got mine to live up to, and nobody else's. America's just a working holiday, the way I see it, and proportionally we're not playing any more gigs there than here."

But doesn't the visit smack of a promotional trip for 'Second Edition', just released there? The usual follow-through? There's ways and means of doing it, he responds.

Melody Maker, April 26th, 1980"Like The Jam, they deserve more respect than those bands who go over there and arselick. At least they stay British and don't talk in phoney American accents. They wanna break America and sell more records, well, that's cool. Then there's that Rolling Stones thing, bowling over there and finding a couple of old black geezers in some shack, and some fucking superstar deigns to walk into their backyard and drag them onstage. Who the fuck do these pop stars think they are to interfere with other people's lives? So many things annoy me ..."

Talking of expectations, weren't PIL's a little high with the 50,000 pressing of the 'Metal Box'?

"Not really. The first album sold a hundred thousand, 80,000 in the first week, so 50,000 was just about right. There's not many PIL fans out there, maybe a hundred thousand, but together they'll fill Wembley Stadium. I care about those people and I don't want to let them down. That's why you've got to stay hard and put out hard music."

That's not a contradiction?

"People say they don't wanna be a cult hero, but I wouldn't mind, because I don't want to lower myself or my musical standards just to reach a big audience. I want to be in it a long time, selling good records, that's what I believe in."

Funny how PIL's sensible behaviour frighten people. By minimising their collective public personae they should by now have reduced followers' tendencies to treat them differently. Undoubtedly they'd rather be left alone, but people being intimidated by them is absurd.

"The thing that gets me is when people are intimidated and don't mind. They don't mind thinking you might insult them because you're in PIL. It makes me sick. You're acting like a pig and they're applauding you. That's what happened with Sid, right? Well, with PIL it's different – they expect you to make highfalutin put-down remarks, they expect it from John. Go on, take the mick! - He did it, 'urray, he did it!"

Unwilling to trade on his East End or lapsed Catholic past ("That's too easy a cliché, everybody goes through their private hells"), Wobble's life is centred on what he calls his own culture, following his own abstract thoughts and concepts.

"My culture is literally the life I lead, the way I conduct myself. Maybe it would help to be a capitalist in some respects, to get people into a culture. I'm not saying I'm so great, so learned or wised up. Just that I've reached certain conclusions which I think are right, and other people haven't. I've got faith in certain aspects of life, I believe in karmas, bad karmas. I sometimes have wicked thoughts, but it comes back to me like a slap in the face. I had a big row, when I was nasty to someone when I shouldn't have been, and I suddenly found I'd lost my wage packet. That really hurt!" he laughs.

He spends a lot of time sponging up influences, believing Stockhausen's maxim that there's no such thing as self-expression. He sees himself as an aerial, a radio picking up and sending out signals. And while he doesn't particularly like his music, he shares the composer's fascination with shortwave radio.

Something also tuned into by former Stockhausen pupil Holger Czukay, Can's bassist, who's just released a solo album 'Movies'. Czukay and Wobble met and hit it off during the German's recent promotional visit, [5] so much so that they plan to work together in the future. One 'Movies' track, 'Persian Love', affected Wobble closely. It features an Iranian singer recorded from shortwave radio, the voice so stunningly beautiful that it moved Wobble to say:

"I thought 'Right, I'm not going to sing again!' And I mean it. Fuck me, mine just don't compare ... Brilliant stuff! Inside my head my voice sounds really good, but when I hear it back it sounds weedy and high. It just doesn't suit my body, I hate it. Then sometimes I hate my looks as well, I'd rather like to take a rubber and rub them out."

But now he's in a successful pop group, they don't matter so much, I suggest. He laughs.

"Yeah, after years of not getting the girls people think suddenly I'm good-looking. My looks are suddenly fashionable – to be over-tall, pale, fucking gawky face and awkward way of moving, it's really trendy now, so I'm lucky."

But, his Jack-the-Lad days behind him, Wobble's too sensitive to take advantage. He practices the feminism he professed to Viv before Christmas, [2] though he doesn't particularly like talking about it.

"I just happen to believe that I don't start whistling at birds walking down the streets. But I hate this idea that the woman hate the men, it's bollocks. You just lead your life. I'd rather have just one amazing relationship, full of unhappiness as well. Monotony is the thing in life. Like in 'Apocalypse Now', when Brando whispers 'the horror ... the horror' – I always think 'the monotony ... the monotony.' It just pressures you. It kills relationships spending Tuesday evenings in together when the telly's the worst. Little things like that."

What a strange movie 'Apocalypse Now' is. Some people went for its 'Heart Of Darkness' connections, while others deplored its use of war as spectacle. Wobble liked both, relating closely to the central Sheen character's metaphorical journey into the mind's recesses, while perceiving compatriot John Lydon in the Brando figure.

"The purity of thought of his mission in his actions reminds me of John. Nobody can get near, it's unreachable. Journalists get wound up by him, and other people can't get near him. A fascinating person. I think I can understand him to a certain extent."

Not so Lydon and Keith Levene's sudden infatuation with bodybuilding. During the duo's last promo trip to the States [6] they took to surfing, but were embarrassed by their puny physiques. Consequently, they've become health freaks to improve their bodies before this tour's return. But they haven't succeeded yet in recruiting Wobble to their causes. He can't rationalise it, worried maybe that the means will become more important than the end. His mind is agile enough, if his body isn't, jumping to a witty analogy:

"It's something you see a lot in life, means coming before an end. It's wrong. Like civil service advisers, they're the people who run this country, not Thatcher really. Sometimes I think she's just a front piece, a gimmick, a good image. It's like a rock band getting a girl singer!" Laughs loudly. "The Tory party gets itself an Iron Maid!"

Prospects of PIL in America might worry some, following the Pistols' demise there, though the two are only obliquely related. On their return there's the chance of more English gigs, but with PIL that'll depend on how they feel about it at the time, which is alright by me.

As much as I like them, I just don't envisage them as a performing band, and against my better judgement I'd like to see their myths remain intact. Old habits die hard.


[1] 'Dreadlock Don't Deal In Wedlock' (released 5 October 1978).
[2] New Musical Express (8 December 1979).
[3] 'Betrayal' (released 15 April 1980). The 12" version featured an added dub section and was released on Wobble's 'I Could Have Been A Contender' compilation in 2004.
[4] PIL got their US visas on 11 April 1980 (as pictured on the sleeve of Brian Brain's 'Another Million Miles' single) and arrived in Boston on 16 April 1980.
[5] Holger Czukay was interviewed by Chris Bohn in the same issue.
[6] Early March 1980.


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