Jah Wobble:
Sounds, May 3rd, 1980

Transcribed by Karsten Roekens

© 1980 Sounds


DAVID McCULLOUGH goes strictly Wapping-wise and discovers that the PiL-popper is not the awkward poser he'd expected. Pictures by PAUL SLATTERY.

Sounds, May 3rd 1980 © Paul SlatteryA pop group I know told me a strange story a long time ago. It concerned Virgin Records HQ in trendy Notting Hill.

This pop group went there once to check Virgin out before possibly signing to them. While they were waiting in the foyer 'to be dealt with' they heard the eerie sound of one of their records playing somewhere above them. It spooked them, they felt sure at the time it was a mind game, they ran out of the building never to return (though, to complete the story, they haven't exactly fallen on stoney ground since then).

The same thing happened to me when I went to Virgin to interview Jah Wobble. It was the first time I'd been to Virgin's little trendy farm-yard of offices, and when I was finally led up an almost vertical ladder into the press office barn my eyes landed slap-bang on a picture of myself, me, on the wall, staring drunken, completely blotto, putting on a face for the camera.

The photograph, I remembered, had come from the Berlin article I wrote on Richard Jobson. But I was astonished, I could only vaguely remember where the photo had been taken. I reeled from the shock and tried to cover it up while the press office riled me good humouredly. One up to them, I thought.

Virgin are like that, a surreal 1984-ness about everything they do. Always in control, the Big Brother Company, somehow malevolent and at the same time subtle and intimate and good at what they do. The perversely perfect company for the group of people that are Public Image, in fact. Power against power, machine against artist, each of them equally all-seeing and manipulative entities. I'd love to be a fly on the wall when they clash! I have been, on the phone, overhearing vicious words exchanged betwixt press officer and band. It was white heat conflagration, I can tell you.

Jah Wobble still hasn't got over Virgin himself. He'd appeared from up the steps, shook hands with me and photographer Paul Slattery, and started talking to his press officer. Outside ten minutes later he told me astonished that that was the first time he'd spoken to the guy, and he knew he'd only been nice to him because 'a journalist' had been present. He was shocked more than appalled. ''Usually they wouldn't look twice at me!''

Like I said, they suit each other somehow.

Against all expectations Jah 'John' Wobble was a friendly, intelligent and thoroughly self-effacing and self-examining human being. Virgin had warned me he'd be difficult, he'd take the piss, that he might even bring one or two 'henchmen' along for a laugh. Afterwards they were surprised and curious to hear that we'd got along like a proverbial house on fire, and ''so it wasn't a battle of the angry young men after all?''

The only 'battle' could have been between me and the springs of Slattery's 1922 Mini van, in which I sat in a Z-shape in the back all the way to Wapping (Wob's request, it was his home), and from which rigours I still haven't recovered. If you see me looking like Quasimodo, you'll know why.

As for Wobble, he reminded me of a thief from Dickens. A likely lad, yes, but so many other things as well, a mystic, a poet, a criminal, an idealist. The interview had a theme running through it. Wobble had chosen Wapping as sunspot for the day, and we talked about changing landscapes, how London's dockland is being wasted, how the face of London is changing for the worse, how London is losing its character, how most things you see around you in 1980 are in decline and suicidal dissipation.

And that's Jah Wobble for you, alive, awake, full of interest and looking around him. He also made me think of schizophrenia. Even this early, before he began to talk about it in connection with PIL, there was a vague schizophrenic quality about Wobble. Like the way he looks, there's no clearly defined pattern of images there.

He's not quite the lad, he's not quite the madman, he's not quite the intellectual or the mystic, but there's enough of each of every one of those in his hazy mercurial being to suggest them all. Geoff Barton said he looked like Steve Harley. Now that could be right in there as well.

For a good twenty minutes he talks solely about Virgin (and that is, after all, PIL and Lydon's main immediate battle ground). He mentions The Jam in passing, and I say The Jam and Public Image are probably the only two bands that justify the existence of any major record company. They are the exceptions, otherwise we might as well go totally independent forever, there'd be no case for anything else otherwise.

Wobble: ''PIL seems to really raise hatred in people... it's just, like, a natural music! I saw a great thing in the American 'Billboard' magazine the other day. It said PIL are what jazz used to be like... that's what we are, there's no big deal about it, we're not making fucking symphonies, we're doing really quite honest music and that's it. Everybody these days thinks 'This must be rational'. You'll find music that's not really on a rational level will worry people and produce extreme reactions... like Beefheart maybe...''

McCullough: ''What did Virgin think of 'Metal Box'?''

Wobble: ''They never really commit themselves. First they didn't agree with it until they checked out the financial thing. We had to put up the dough for it, like £ 20,000 of our advance was put into it. We're very streamlined financially, very disciplined with our funds...''

McCullough: ''Rough Trade might say PIL are just perpetuating the music business by being on Virgin, they could have more effect making their own records.''

Wobble: ''Wouldn't we love to! We had no choice. Wouldn't we love to have our own label! I'm not going to slag Rough Trade off, and I don't see anything wrong with reaching a small audience, and I can respect in a way that they're literally not 'selling out', but on the other hand, what do they fuckin' mean to a kid that lives in the backstreets round here? You know, there's a high possibility a kid in one of those houses has one of our records, 'cos a lot of our followers are yobs. I'm not praising the yob mentality, but a lot of them are our fans.
''I think we're probably achieving a lot more by getting our music across, music that hasn't got the bollocks taken out of it, yeah? That's what it comes down to, we're using Virgin as a vehicle, they're using us, but we're winning a small battle there. Maybe we're not winning the war, but we're winning the battle.

''We're doing our own business, we're a company. We don't need them as it happens. We'd rather starve than give up on points. You know, we told them we wouldn't give them a second album over a point, and we were all preparing to go to other jobs. I mean it, you know. That was before 'Second Edition' came out, and we were all quite seriously thinking about doing something else, perhaps go to another country and make records, we weren't going to give up, we were gonna get dough from elsewhere, we weren't gonna have people keep shitting over us...''

Jah Wobble met John Rotten and Sid Vicious at the College Of Further Education in Kings Cross, London. He never liked the Sex Pistols' music, but he thought it was good for a laugh. He'd tried (unsuccessfully) to take up the bass in a band, but he'd forgotten all about the instrument when John Lydon contacted him soon after he had left the Pistols and got in touch with Keith Levene. Wobble sees the coming together as ''cosmic'', a meaningful coincidence.

He talks about Sid the teddy bear.

Wobble: ''He was quite witty and intelligent... it's hard to talk about somebody this long after you knew them. But I'll tell you one thing: smack, yeah? It's interesting what drugs do to people, it brings out certain parts of their character. Like, people have said we must have made 'Metal Box' on speed, but I wouldn't touch it now.

''I just think that kids should not take drugs, and I think it's important for somebody in a group to say that, instead of making sly innuendos in interviews and that. Geezers in bands in their twenties should be more responsible than that. Why can't they say to kids who might just be getting into drugs 'Look, it might not necessarily make you a better person.' In fact it won't, drugs give you nothing. Dope as well. It won't make you better.''

McCullough: ''Knowing Sid, how did you feel about Virgin's 'Flogging A Dead Horse' album?''

Wobble: ''I felt sick. Though Sid a lot of the time had no real respect for himself, and he's the sort of fellow anyway who'd be sitting up in heaven laughing down at Virgin...''

McCullough: ''Do you ever think somebody might be flogging a dead Wobble in ten years time?''

Wobble: ''There's no way they could do that. I've got control, and thank God I didn't get into it when Sid did, because you get maturer. People at the start of PIL thought I was just another joker, so now I play that down a lot. 'Cos I've always been a bit of a loon, I have a drink sometimes and a little muck-about, but nothing heavy. But people don't understand, they get frightened of that way of life. And I saw what they were trying to do: 'Here, have another drink, dahling...', and I bored them to tears!''

McCullough: ''I've heard you're a total piss artist.''

Wobble: ''People never learn. I've been a lad all my life to annoy people, because people didn't want it. As soon as people started saying 'Be a lad!', I won't be. I'll be boring and sensible straight away. Another thing is with John. 'Oh, he must be under so much pressure all the time!' Look, if he didn't want it, he'd get out of it. There's no big thing about 'feeling sorry for PIL'... The shit I can bear, and I'm glad I'm here, but I can get a job up the road cleaning tables tomorrow.

''Sometimes we get in ugly situations still. A lot of it's John's fault, and I say 'This is your fault!' You know, people coming up trying to have a go in pubs and that. Sometimes it's funny, you'll go into a bar and the old couple behind the bar will still recognize John from the newspapers and it'll be ace, 'Come on, have a drink on the house, son!' There's so many ironies in life...''

He tells me how he's been picked up by the police nearly every day for the last week, and how some of the police have been good and friendly and talked with him about how the docks are changing and how bad it is. He doesn't tell me what the police pick him up for, but it rings very much of a small-time criminal past he's trying to live down (''I honestly haven't got the bottle to pretend 'Oh, I've done a few jobs in my time,' I honestly haven't got the bottle...'').

We return to his 'cosmic' theories on life. I tell him it must then make him just a pawn in a game.

Wobble: ''No, I believe everyone's an entity within an entity. I always get slightly embarrassed because I do believe in it, but you start to sound, you know, 'Hey, hippie, man!''

I knew PIL were hippies all along! He talks of friends of yours and mine in the music scene.

Wobble: ''These people all live in a rock and roll dream, these professional cockneys! It makes me ill! I don't hang about with a big bunch of boys, but I know they take the piss out of this cockney bit so much! Just because you're born in the East End, just because you're brought up in a working class environment doesn't mean to say you have to go 'Waay, yew cunt!'

'I'm happy with life, I'm glad I was brought up in the East End. I've got two arms and two legs, and I'm going to America tomorrow, life can't be that bad, can it?

''On the other hand, I look for the shit. Some people can walk down the West End and see the fur coats in the shop windows, but I always see the meths drinkers on the corner, you know? I mean, most people I know don't like PIL. They'll say to me 'You look on the depressing side of life in PIL...' I agree, yeah, I suppose so, but it is there, so I can't be wrong!''

He points to old derelict houses across the river.

Wobble: ''Look at those houses, then look at those.'' (trendy new Wapping flatlets) ''Imagine living there, I'll bet there's woman in there still having still-born babies... it goes on, yeah?''

McCullough: ''The solo album is the other side of you then?''

Wobble: ''Yeah, I wanted to put a sunshine record together, but not be insulting, 'Hey, let's be happy', none of that shit. I've got a happy side as well, I hope people tape it off Peel and listen to it by the sunny river...'' (this man's a born poet!!)

McCullough: ''If you weren't in PIL it would never have got released?''

Wobble: ''Yeah, totally agreed!'' (laughter)

McCullough: ''What's Jeannette's role in PIL?''

Wobble: ''She's just the coordinator, but she does the art side as well. But you know, it's not a close-knit group of people who sit down and think 'Oh, how shall we act this week? Shall we deign to talk to anybody this week?' It's not like that at all.''

McCullough: ''That is people's impression, though.''

Wobble: ''No, I'd hate people like that myself! Your little cliques of people, I hate that. I suppose if I wasn't in PIL I'm human enough to believe a lot of the things that people think, you know? I wouldn't like it myself if I wasn't in the band. We're going to America tomorrow, and if I weren't in PIL I'd think 'Yeah, those cunts, why don't they play here then?' You can't keep saying you're sorry all the time. I'm lucky I can indulge in my fantasies without being too... It's important to be a bit humble, yeah?''

McCullough: ''What about gigs for PIL?''

Wobble: ''Yeah, well, it hasn't really been viable in the past to gig. And I don't really want to gig every week, about once every four or five weeks is enough. The thing is, everybody's looking for a figurehead, it's terrible! I know a lot of people think that every night PIL is 'Oh, where shall we go tonight, Cecil, which club will it be?'

''The truth is, I spend every night watching telly with my girlfriend. And I'll tell you one thing, I bet I get more pissed off than the fans do. I'm always on edge, I've got nothing to fucking do, sometimes I'd love to go and play up north. But you know, it's like that hippie thing again. In PIL strange things happen, you can be sitting about for four months just soaking up influences. Tomorrow, no one really made a decision to go to America as such. It's a fallacy to think that anyone's in control of what they do...''

Stop: here's two reference points for Public Image that came through talking to Wobble:
1. The film 'Apocalypse Now'. Wobble had seen and loved it. Likewise, I'm certain, the rest of the band. It's on PIL's level at times, the ideas of disfigurement, purity, the primeval are all close to PIL.

And 2. Schizophrenia, the idea of an overwhelmingly broad reality. PIL cover everything, they're on the brink of a real madness. About this Wobble says: ''Some people are beginning to say that schizophrenia is a good thing, that it's a sane reaction to an insane world. A lot of psychiatrists go mad after dealing with schizophrenia...''

Two ideas from under the floorboards. Maybe they're close. Maybe they're far away. I know they're useful.

The day closes with a car ride back from Wapping, back to the sheen and polish of Virgin HQ. In one of those rare occurences the interview ends in a climax where you can say 'That's it', that's the way we should leave it for now.

McCullough: ''Do PIL feel in a bubble, alone?''

Wobble: ''Yeah, but we're not the first, you've had Can and that in the past. We're unique, but we've no brazen new political theories...''

Here it comes, the final rush and click of the cassette recorder.

McCullough: ''Do you think there's a schizophrenic streak in PIL?''

Wobble: ''I think sometimes we border on psychosis. I'm not using that word lightly. I really mean psychosis. In other words we lose touch with reality. Again, I think a lot of people do. We just lose it and things happen... I don't know if it's good or bad.''

Three ducks walk across the main road. Slattery slams on the breaks. We nearly crash. I'm still sure it never happened, but it did.

Sounds, May 3rd 1980 © Paul Slattery


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Sounds, May 3rd 1980 © Paul Slattery
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