I reckon that I must first have encountered Jah Wobble when I saw Public Image Ltd at Hulme’s Russell Club/ The Factory in about 1979. By and large, this would, as well, have been the first time that many Mancunians actually caught sight of John Lydon. The Sex Pistols only played Manchester a handful of times in their short lifespan and often to meagre crowds, so the Russell Club was out in force to eyeball Lydon and he was assuredly there to eyeball them right back. Monsieur Wobble, however, stood at the rear of the stage, largely unnoticed and thundering out dub-style bass lines behind Keith Levine’s sheet-metal guitar and Lydon’s sneering vocals. I thought they were a huge improvement on the Pistols who I never really took to anyway.
Wobble got his name from Lydon apparently. As John Wardle, 18, from Stepney (or was it Poplar? Somewhere down that way, anyway) he was well aware of the lazy shortcuts that ‘Estuary English’ takes with pronunciation, so ‘John Wardle’ as rendered by someone from the Greater London area on the receiving end of too much Holsten Pils or other mind-altering substances could (and did) rapidly become ‘Jah Wobble’. Still it was a good stage name – sounded like a fat Rastafarian geezer when JW was actually a skinny white guy. Postmodernism, eh? These pop stars just don’t know when to stop, do they…..
Early days with Public Image Ltd – l-r, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, John Lydon
I never really followed Wobble’s career too closely thereafter . His first solo venture was an album called ‘Betrayal’ – aptly named as it precipitated his departure from PIL. – they reckoned he’d stolen some of their material to use on this solo project. The album sold poorly anyway and Wobble then formed a band called The Human Condition. They released a couple of interesting cassettes, which were pretty lo-fi recordings of gigs in Europe and elsewhere. Although the compositions are basic and the playing likewise, it’s easy to see that Wobble was already looking to stretch out with the kind of dub-based jams which borrowed liberally from punk, reggae, world music and Miles Davis-style jazz-funk.
Jah Wobble has been making records/tapes/cd’s ever since that first ‘Betrayal’ album and what I have been trying to do is to pull stuff from existing cd’s , some old cassettes and old hard drives in order to put together a coherent and chronological collection that covers the best of his work in the intervening 30 years.
Guess what? It’s tantamount to impossible! The guy is so prolific and has recorded so much stuff on 7 & 12-inch vinyl, on cassette, on albums and on cd’s. He’s recorded for major labels like Virgin, Warners and Island but has always maintained a steady flow of collaborations released on his own and other small indie label(s).
As well as PIL, Wobble has recorded with a cornucopia of left-field stars from Brian Eno, through Jaki Liebzeit and Holger Czukay of Can to U2 guitarist The Edge, free-jazz saxophonist Evan Parker and faux-Moroccan chanteuse, Natascha Atlas.
The marvellous Invaders of the Heart on stage with Wobble and trombonist Annie Whitehead to the fore
Fast-forward to 1984 and a friend introduced me to two 12-inch EP’s featuring Wobble’s unmistakable signature. The first was the original ‘Invaders of the Heart’ (1983) EP (which gave its name to one of Wobble’s working ensembles of the time – and one of his best) and a 1984 collaboration with Ollie Marland and Polly Eltes (who had sung on Brian Eno’s ‘Taking Tiger Mountain’ album) featuring on one side a splendid and lengthy instrumental called ‘East’. What was clear from these two releases was that Jah Wobble had been bitten by the World Music bug in a major way and from this point onwards I became much more interested in the stuff he was doing, which whilst it wasn’t always brilliant, was never less than interesting.
After that, Wobble seemed to disappear, apparently because, for Wobble, the late 1980’s were largely ‘wilderness years’ where the proverbial ‘personal demons’ led to him abandoning his career as a musician altogether in favour of various menial jobs, including one with London Underground.
Once again, scattergun recordings with people like Primal Scream and Sinead O’Connor and an excellent 1989 live ‘Invaders’ album (‘Without Judgement’) heralded a return to the field of play in the early 90’s and the re-convened ‘Invaders’ entered the studio to record the marvellous ‘Rising above Bedlam’ which was released in 1991. This is definitely one of JW’s finest hours with great tracks like ‘Bomba’, ‘Erzulie’ and ‘Soledad’. Marvellous stuff.
Almost as good was 1994’s ‘Take me to God’ which cemented the World Music collisions of Spanish, Middle Eastern, African and Jamaican themes and showed Wobble really hitting his stride. 1995 saw the release of ‘Spinner’, a collaboration with Brian Eno as well as another solo album, ‘Heaven & Earth’, which broadened JW’s musical palette to incorporate themes drawn from Far Eastern music. This new interest could also be connected with his marriage to the Chinese-born guzheng player, Zi Lan Liao, though I am speculating here and may be doing both Mr and Mrs Wobble a disservice…
More recently, JW seems to have broadened out in terms of working with a number of different ensembles who may remain dormant for many years before bursting into life again. There was the dub/ambient ‘supergroup’ Solaris, fronted by Wobble but majoring on compositions by pianist Harold Budd and with Bill Laswell, Jaki Liebzeit and trumpeter Graham Haynes on board. Then there was ‘Deep Space’, once again with Laswell, but also with French bagpiper Jean Rassle in the band.
More recently JW has fronted The English Roots Band and the Chinese Dub Orchestra, but could not apparently be tempted to rejoin John Lydon for a Public Image Limited reunion tour. I’m not surprised; he just doesn’t have time!
For anyone trying to grasp the diversity and prolific output of Jah Wobble, all I can do is to wish them well. There has been so much stuff that has been released in a variety of versions, stuff from the 1980’s that never made it on to CD, collaborations recorded for small and now defunct labels and so on….. In truth, he is probably a nightmare proposition for a major record company – I mean, how would you promote him? World Music? Post-punk? Ambient dubmaster? Jazz fellow-traveller? he is all of these and more….autobiographer, too, after last year’s ‘Memoirs of a Geezer’ (ho, ho….). He’s even been known to review books for ‘The Independent’ newspaper. Does he ever stop?
Anyway, my attempt to pull together all my scattered Wobble-iana into a coherent collection has left me with no less than 9 CD’s of material from 1980 through to last year’s marvellous re-working of the ‘Get Carter’ theme music.
Oh well, I tried….