RELIGIOUS epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes, but the memory of the first time Jah Wobble heard the booming basslines of dub reggae is something that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
“The first time I heard dub was probably Burning Spear versions, early King Tubby, when I’d be at blues up Hackney,” says Wobble as we have a cup of tea in the living room of his suburban semi in Bramhall. Still every inch the East End boy about town, but one who happens to have relocated to leafy Cheshire, his bright blue eyes still gleam with the fervour of a recent convert.
“It was one of those watershed moments, it was like music from another fucking planet. Simple as that.”
“It was just fucking incredible. Y’know, it was like music of the gods, it was like music not by human beings. It’s the kind of music they should have had in ET, or Close Encounters, they should have just played fucking dub, it was like close encounters with another dimension. I’m shivering just thinking about it. It was just something else. It was physical and ethereal, all at the same time.
“It absolutely wiped me out. I just couldn’t get enough of it, it just become like an addiction, just the weight of the bass, the fascination of when you went near the speakers and you could actually see your trousers get sucked into the cones. Faaacking hell!” he drawls, lost in the moment. He comes to: “So I’d always be the nutcase right up near the bassbins.”
He was famously given the most perfect nom de guerre to wage war on all that was good and holy in the punk crusades of the late 1970s (jaw wobble is the name given to the involuntary muscle spasms of amphetamine-users) when his one-time flat-mate Sid Vicious introduced his friend John Wardle to someone but couldn’t quite get his words out properly.
Wobble first picked up the instrument which would make his name when Vicious, who could barely play a note, lent him his bass. He felt an instant connection and, in the manner of the times, immediately asked his friend Ronnie to steal him his own.
Wobble, a garrulous, charismatic working class boy from Stepney, was a natural and the obvious choice when his old Kingsway College friends John Lydon and Keith Levene were looking for a bassist for Public Image Ltd in 1978. His love of loud, heavy dub basslines defined and dominated the seminal post-punk outfit’s sound – quite a feat considering he was competitng with a vocalist and a guitarist of the calibre of Lydon and Levene respectively.
Wobble aped the style of playing he heard in dub reggae, where the standard western format of verse, chorus, verse, bridge was replaced by a block of sound repeated over and over again. There was magic, movement and fluidity within PIL’s music, but Wobble’s modal style of playing was about as far removed from pop music as you could get.
“Bach started that system, with the twelve notes, the scale and all that lark, and that whole thing that you have a home key and you modulate around and then you come back to it,” explains Wobble. “Modal is more tough. It isn’t just repetition, you can have a lot of changes going on in modal stuff, but it’s this fixed block, it’s not scales, you haven’t got the major key, minor key thing – it’s a block of sound going on.
“When you hear something like Poptones, that’s really fucking modal, or you hear Careering, that’s modal fucking city, one b-line, a bit of atmosphere, that’s modal. It’s not, ‘oh, that bits in G, and that goes to, what is that? D?’, you know what I mean? It’s fucking modal.”
PIL were an extraordinarily innovative group of musicians, especially given Wobble’s assessment that they were “four emotional cripples on four different drugs”, but the combination of personalities was always too volatile a cocktail to last long and after a couple of years the bassist left them to it.
Broke, heavily into the usual rock’n’roll stuff (“Powders was my thing. And I was drinking like a fucking fish”), his marriage falling apart, and increasingly bitter and twisted with it, after a short spell as a courier Wobble took a job on the London Underground.
“It was lovely,” says Wobble as we move into the garden for a fag. “I was only away from the music for three months, four months before I started again part-time. But it was lovely to have a break and just feel, I haven’t got to worry about running a band, or hustling a record, I’m just this regular geezer doing a job. It was fantastic.”
Wobble went through a 12-step programme: “If you put a plate of chocolate biscuits there, one ain’t no fucking good to me. In fact, I say to the missus, don’t just get one packet, get fucking loads of packets, so that I can just get stuck in, until I’ve had more than enough. I’m one of them kind of people. And I’ve learned to temper that, with biscuits…”
Hooking up with guitarist Justin Adams, who shared his obsessions with the music of the Middle East, he started to pursue an increasingly wayward and eccentric solo career, under various names and guises but more often than not as Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart.
The kid who used to go through the UHF band at night, tuning into heavily-distorted radio stations from Europe, Africa and the Middle East with their dramatic, intoxicating music and incomprehensible but oddly lyrical languages, now recreates this musical tower of Babel with a constantly shifting cast of supporting characters and co-creators, from Holger Czukay, Ginger Baker and Sinead O’Connor, to the Edge, Bjork and Francois Kervorkian. His latest collaborators are Paris-based Laotian ‘rap’ ensemble, Molam Lao.
Always eager to try new things, the one constant in a dizzyingly-diverse career – which has encompassed everything from backing jazz saxophonist Evan Parker to setting fellow cockney mystic William Blake’s poetry to music – has been Wobble’s solid, immovable bass, anchoring and ordering the sound, but simultaneously, pushing it along too.
His music has taken on an overtly spiritual bent over the years, with the former altar boy exploring various paths to enlightenment and evolving into something of a spiritual polymath, taking ideas and notions of being from anywhere and everywhere. But these magpie-like tendencies don’t seem like mere dilletantism, like some pick-and-mix cod philosophy assortment cobbled together on a whim; Wobble appears to be sincere and genuinely open to new thoughts and ideas. But you get the sense that he’s as interested in other people as much as what makes the universe tick.
He is unremittingly foul-mouthed and fantastically good company. He can talk as knowledgeably about Islam or his team Spurs as he can ley lines and Philly International, with an anecdote for every occassion – a typical tale ends with a bellowed ‘fuck me, it’s Ashford & Simpson!’ – and a smile rarely far from his lips. He’s a very different person to the “weird and twisted” angry, conflicted, volatile young man he once was.
These days, he’s got an education (a BA from Birkbeck College, Univerity of London), remarried (to Anglo-Chinese ku-cheng harpist Zi Lan Liao) and had another couple of kids (boys this time), and while he frets about turning into a tosser Mondeo-man who does DIY and is obsessed with satellite TV (not sure about the tosser bit but guilty as charged for the rest), he’s plainly content and at peace with the world. He can’t see himself living anywhere else apart from here in Cheshire.
But there’s still an intensity there, a fire smouldering. See Wobble’s band play live and the picture of calm serenity, of this venerable buddah of suburbia, slips a little.
I DJed before him on a few dates of a northern tour in the early 90s – most memorably when Salford drove me and Simon Scott over to Blackpool and we ended up playing off the back of an old whelk cart at the end of the North Pier in Blackpool (incidentally, Simon and Salford now work with Mark Ital on the highly regarded SubDub) – and I’ve seen him give his musicians a really hard time, berating them, slagging them off like the worst kind of nightmare boss. They are, plainly, there to do a job.
The way you work with the band, I tell him, you seem like a sergeant-major, doing it by the numbers, using discipline and sheer hard work to try to get to a point where the musicians don’t actually need to think about it at all.
“That’s very much something I naturally got into,” he nods, “working very hard and concentrating very hard on doing a b-line, so it’s consistent, you’re never sloppy with your playing. And I think I got like that cos it kinda suited bass and my style of bass playing, but because I wasn’t a trained musician, and I didn’t know anything about chords or anything like that, I thought the one thing you can do is, it’s like a footballer.
“A good, sound, centre-half who doesn’t fucking take any chances at the back and gets rid of that fucking ball, bang, up the front. Or one who has got basic good distribution. Just get the fucking ball, pass it to your team mate. Keep doing that and you become a great team-player.
“The thing that I could do is do that same b-line, over and over, with good timing. And that aesthetic is something I like my bands to have. I keep on and on, because I feel, a lot of the time, musicians play without really concentrating and being mindful. And that is very, very Zen, y’know, that you’ll count breaths up to ten, first of all counting on the out-breath, then, more difficult, on the in-breath.
“It’s that whole idea of focussing your mind, and working very, very hard, until a release comes. And Zen meditation is all about that, where you’re counting breaths, it might all seem a bit grim and serious but the point comes where you just release and you’re not counting breaths anymore, you’re just at one with the breath.
“With the band, it’s a question of focussing on the basics, working very hard on that, with real discipline, and then the point comes where everyone goes into the zone together. Suddenly, you’re out of it and you think, fuck me, did I just drift off? But you know, you never, you was on it. I used to think of eternity as endless time, but in fact, eternity is outside of time.
“By counting time, you’ve suddenly gone out, you’re outside of time itself. It’s that thing where you lose yourself.”
I think this is where we came in.
See also: Metal Box by PiL
[A shorter version of this interview ran in Flux magazine in August, 2005]