With Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet album turning 30, Banjo looked at the story of one of music’s most incredible records.
Clash were undoubtedly Liverpool’s favourite punk band. While the Sex Pistols’ debut gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall has been acknowledged as the starting point of that city’s punk scene, The Clash’s first gig at Eric’s performed a similar magic for Liverpool.
The gig was witnessed by Jayne Casey, Julian Cope and Ian McCulloch, who went on to form Big in Japan, The Teardrop Explodes and Echo & The Bunnymen respectively, amongst other bands.
Also in attendance was one Pete Wylie of Wah! fame who, legend has it, approached The Clash’s Mick Jones after the gig to tell him how he had been inspired him to form a band.
The story goes that Jones handed Wylie his guitar with the words “Pay me back when you’re famous.” Wylie later stated “That day everything changed… nothing in Liverpool was ever the same again”
It wasn’t that Liverpool didn’t love Sex Pistols, but that, apparently, they just weren’t that good when they played Eric’s, for what would be the only gig the band ever played in the city.
Also, this was only the 3rd gig at Eric’s, so both band and venue were still unknown quantities, which meant that only around 50 people were present.
Of course, over the years the number of people who have since claimed they were there is probably over 100 times the number that actually attended, such is the impact punk has made on history.
By the time The Clash played on May 5 1977, things had changed. Punk was exploding all over the country, attracting the outcasts, the curious and those in search of something to match how they felt and to give voice to the noises in their heads.
Liverpool at the time was not in a particularly good place; financially in the trough of an economic slump following the decline of its docks and shipping industries and culturally still looking for a way out of the shadow cast by The Beatles’ unprecedented success.
Musically, Liverpool had yet to find a post-Beatles identity, although The Real Thing had kept the city’s flame burning in the charts.
When Roger Eagle and Ken Testi decided to open Eric’s, Roger, perhaps sensing that change was in the air, asked those members of his club he took under his wing not to listen to The Beatles, for fear that the past would infiltrate the new present.
Jayne Casey, One of those who were so instructed, remembered “A couple of years ago we’d been to a funeral and we were all sat round a table. There was me, Ian McCulloch and Pete Wylie. Ian looked at me and said, “Have you listened yet?” And I said, “No, have you?” And he said, “No” and we both looked at Wylie and said, “Have you?” And he said, “No” and we both in the same second said, “Yes you have! We know you have!” And he was like “I haven’t, I haven’t” but we were like “We can tell from your composition that you’ve listened to them for years!” So we’re convinced that he listened, he pretends he didn’t but he did.”
But the music that was being made by the new generation paid no heed to the likes of The Beatles. The Clash themselves penned a song called 1977 that famously claimed “No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977”.
The Clash were everything a band should have been at that particular point and place in music. Young, good looking, well dressed, confused and even contradictory.
Their songs combined political thrust with killer riffs, signing about hate, war, being bored and riots. Live they were described as being like “three James Deans coming at you”, as the front line of Mick Jones, Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon charged and attacked, backed up by the mighty Topper Headon.
That gig revitalized the city’s music scene. People met there and were jointly inspired to do something.
What nobody could have predicted at the time was how much they could go on to do. There are times in life when the stars just seem to line up and things work out right, a one in a billion meeting of minds and talents, and this seems to have been one of those occasions.
People formed bands before they knew what kind of musicians they would turn out to be, taken by The Clash’s messianic call. We can thank the gods of chance, or perhaps some other agent of destiny, that this crowd included the extraordinary voices of Ian MCCulloch, Pete Burns, Pete Wylie and Holly Johnson, along with the mercurial talents of guitarist Will Sergeant, drummer extraordinaire Budgie and art prankster/cultural terrorist Bill Drummond.
It may be the case that this astonishing pool of talent would have come together regardless of this particular gig, but the point remains that The Clash lit the touch paper and the firework duly went into the higher atmosphere and exploded.
The Clash were one of the first bands this writer saw at Eric’s, a few months on from their debut appearance, on their Tommy Gun tour.
As confession is alleged to be good for the soul, I will hold my hand up and say that I was never a massive fan after their initial run of singles, nailing my colours to the Pistols’ mast instead.
That said, this was without question one of the most thrilling gigs I have ever seen, The Clash were undoubtedly at their best live, unmarred by the poor production of their first album and the American sheen of their second.
To this day I can remember the energy of the gig, along with the heat, the packed crowd and the feeling that, somehow, this was a gig that would stay with you long after we had left the venue.
I had never seen Eric’s so crowded, perhaps the fullest I ever saw it, with the possible exception of Iggy Pop. The size of the crowd was such that people had spilled out from stage front through to the bar area, making even a glimpse of the stage tricky.
The Specials were supporting them on this tour and, although I tell people I saw them it is probably more honest to say that I glimpsed them, through a doorway and over people’s heads. The crowd looked hot and we didn’t fancy getting caught up in the heat and mess of it, just for a support band.
If I had the chance I would tell my teenage self to get in there and catch one of our era’s most important bands while they were still unknown. I was amazed at how popular they seemed to be despite few people in my social circle having heard of them.
As The Specials left the stage and people headed to the bar, we saw our chance and pushed our way in. Thankfully we got to within a few people of the front of the stage and The Clash burst forth and blew our teenage minds!
Playing their first album and early singles, they already had a run of songs to make most new bands weep with envy.
With the Sex Pistols banned from almost everywhere and soon to split up, The Clash were head of the punk pack at this point, and made a nonsense of the myth that punk bands couldn’t play their instruments.
The people inspired by their first Liverpool, gig have achieved much in the years since and have doubtless inspired other people in their turn.
Perhaps this is the ultimate compliment for a gig, or even a band – that they create these ripples in a pond to such extent that they are still being felt all these years later.
Liverpool, and indeed the whole world, would be so much worse without them.
As the debut album from post punk pioneers Magazine turns 40, Banjo looks back at the start of an incredible story.
Back in the heady days of 1978, schisms and splits had already started happening in punk.
As a new movement, it is often said that there were no rules when punk first started, but it is perhaps more accurate to say that the rules were still being written. As such, some of its earliest protagonists were making shifts and leaps away from the basic noise that would come to define punk as a music.
One of the first to rail against perceived confines of punk was one Howard Devoto. His first forays into music was with Buzzcocks, who were a vital part of punk as perhaps the first punk band to form outside of London, the first to release an independent record and as organisers of Sex Pistols hugely influential gigs at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. They were also a brilliant band.
Famed for their perfect singles and for naturally adding an impeccable pop slant into punk, Buzzcocks’ early material was spiky, edgy and rough around the edges. Devoto stood out as a front man, avoiding a confrontational stance and singing about his own observations on the world around him. If you want to hear a record that completely sums up the sound and spirit of 1977, listen to the band’s Spiral Scratch EP.
Devoto however, had ambition and vision that stretched beyond Buzzcocks’ brief and left the band in early 1977, refusing to be hemmed in by the rules he saw being written for punk. His next step was to form Magazine, a band who operated to no such barriers. Much of 1977 was spent recruiting new band members and writing new songs. And what a band Devoto put together.
Guitarist John McGeogh was a real find. Undoubtedly one of the best and most influential guitarists of his generation, McGeoch would go on to play for Siouxsie and the Banshees, PiL and Visage. Another find was bass player Barry Adamson, who muscular funk basslines added much depth and difference to Magazine. Adamson would go on to an idiosyncratic solo career, as well as playing with Nick Cave following the Birthday Party’s split.
The first sight of new material from Devoto’s new band was the single Shot by Both Sides. It was an instant classic and immediately a hip record to admit to liking. Magazine came off the starting blocks with instant credibility and cool. Shot by Both Sides was a startling declaration of intent for a new band and gave Magazine their first appearance on Top of the Pops.
It was also deceptively punk and straightforward, the rest of Magazine’s set was less conformist and had artier ideas.
Released in June 1978, the music press were practically salivating when the album was released. Opening track Definitive Gaze set out the album’s stall well; a keyboard led song with a funk feel, already Magazine were presaging much of what was to come. Much of what became known as the New Romantic scene can be found here. The loose grooves, the futuristic sounds and art house sensibilities here were laying foundations for a future, which one can imagine is what Devoto had in mind when he left Buzzcocks.
Second track My Tulpa followed this further, guitars and keyboards blending to create a music that developed and built on the dislocation that punk had engendered. Adamson’s bass particularly deliberately looks to be creating something outside of the rock or punk arena.
By the fifth track, Burst, Magazine had become epic. Perhaps articulating his reasons for leaving punk behind, Devoto sings ‘Once you had this promise on the tip of your tongue. But it went without saying, it went on too long’. The repeated closing line of ‘Keep your silence to yourself, you will forget yourself’ gave post punk its first anthem.
The next track, Motorcade, gave it its second. A tale of an important figure driven around in cars while people turn their heads to stare, but who is unable to even choose ‘between coffee and tea’.
For all their epic leanings, the band were not without a sense of humour however, as the ending to throwaway track Recoil demonstrates.
Perhaps the most lasting classic on this astonishing debut is The Light Pours Out of Me. A slow burning, brooding examination of ennui, here Devoto’s literary leanings also came to the fore. In interviews, Devoto referenced Camus and Dostoyevsky, where other bands were slinging political slogans around.
This is perhaps where Magazine’s strength lay, in their ability to marry together punk roots, a vision of the future and a keen literary mind. This can be a fine line to walk without falling off to one side or the other, but Magazine walked it superbly.
Closing track Parade finds Devoto surprisingly singing a love song. Of course, there are twists in the tale and examinations of love, but there are also genuinely touching moments, such as when Devoto sings ‘Now that I’m out of touch with anger, now I’ve nothing left to live up to, I don’t know when to stop joking, when I stop I hope I am with you’. The music itself is almost in ballad territory, but with a haunting futuristic keyboard riff that again led to a lot of music that was yet to come.
Real Life is a classic album and still regularly turns up in Best Album lists, with Uncut ranking it as the 37th best album of all time in 2006. It is also a record that offered a way out of the cul de sac that punk could to easily find itself trapped in, a pointer to the future and a source of inspiration for generations to come.
Magazine’s next album Secondhand Daylight was to bring keyboards even further to the front and again gathered rave reviews. Sales were disappointing however and it seemed that Magazine had peaked commercially. Commercial or not, Magazine left behind them a mighty back catalogue that sounds as interesting and inspiring now as it did then.
Public Image Ltd’s Metal Box was an album that transformed the post punk landscape, Getintothis’ Banjo looks back at one of music’s masterpieces.
Punk rock progenitor and one-quarter of arguably the greatest ever punk band, The Sex Pistols in conversation with Sun 13’s Banjo
Like a lot of people, Glen Matlock looms large in my cultural background. As one quarter of Sex Pistols, he was directly responsible for the total upheaval of my teenage world. He was the band’s main musician and was the closest we were likely to get to a Sex Pistol you could take home to meet your mum.
The Pistols and punk appeared quite suddenly in my life. I have a crystal clear memory of a day in my last year at school when I was told of a band who had appeared on TV the day before and swore ‘like troopers’.
Again like a lot of people, this was the first time I had heard about Sex Pistols. It was not to be the last.
I lived hundreds of miles away from where the program was broadcast and nobody in my school had seen it, but its shock waves had made it to my neck of the woods the very next morning, so we can see the effect this program had on spreading punk across the country.
But, and this is an important point to Matlock, there is more to him than his past. To the point that it is easy to imagine him coming across this article and feeling immediately dispirited that yet another interview with him starts off with that band and that interview.
He has played with Iggy Pop, The Damned and The Faces, but the shadow of the Sex Pistols looms large over him to this day.
Glen has a new album, Good to Go, released this Friday, 21st September. Recorded with Earl Slick and Slim Jim Phantom, it is an album of unashamed, unadorned rock n roll. To promote Good to Go, he has been keeping himself busy, playing gigs in such far-flung corners of the globe as Korea’s demilitarised zone and the banks of the river Ganges in India.
When I spoke to him he was in the middle of an intensive couple of days of back to back interviews, and sounding fairly worn out and weary with the whole thing, as anyone would be spending that much time answering the same questions and giving out the same details.
‘Sorry’ he tells us at one point as he struggles to answer a question, ‘I’m a bit interviewed out today, I’ve done about 9 or 10 interviews so far.’ Yeah, I saw your schedule I tell him, I’m amazed you’re still going.
Back on a roll, he continues. ‘I’ll tell you what I did do earlier’ he says, ‘I did The Wright Stuff tv program, then I did some Russian tv thing. But it’s all part of life’s rich pageant. I think my maxim to life these days is just say yes to most things that come your way.’
There’s a mate of mine who’s in the fashion business, and when we ask what we’re up to, we always quote Newton’s Law of Motion at each other – a body at rest stays at rest, a body in motion stays in motion, unless an exterior or equal force acts on it, or something like that.
But if you say I’m just waiting for the phone to ring it invariably doesn’t, and one thing begets other things.’
Glen Matlock also still sounds like someone who is passionate about the music he is making and is very keen that it gets listened to.
Tell us about the tour and these far flung dates you’ve been playing.
‘Well it’s not really a tour, but I’ve been playing selected dates. I’ve just got back from Korea, I’ve had something in India, just a one-off thing, and I’ve had a five night residency in a place in Canary Wharf, I’m going over to Dubai for a gig with Chris Spedding and then in September I’m going to Scandinavia for some shows, just me and my acoustic, which is kind of one down from being a comedian I think. ‘
It all sounds a long way from Monday nights in the 100 Club.
Yeah, but that’s alright too. When you’re an older bloke you take what comes along and as long as you approach it with a good heart, it all comes out alright in the end. The main reason I’m doing this is for the new album, which I’ve got to get people to dig somehow.’
So tell us about your new album?
‘It’s a bunch of songs I’ve been writing over the last four years. I wanted to so something a bit different, not the same old punk kinda thing, which is fine, but not when you’re not playing to the people who did it with the first time around.
And I saw Bob Dylan play, maybe three or four years ago and I can appreciate Bob Dylan. I’m not his biggest fan, but the band he had were fantastic. He had Charlie Sexton on guitar and the bass player was Tony Matthews, who plays stand up bass. And the drummer was fantastic and spent most of the set playing with brushes, and I thought that’s really cool, you can get the songs to come through, how can I do something similar?
And I thought ‘I know, I’ll call Slim Jim Phantom, he only uses half a drum kit, I’ll ask him if he’s up for doing it.’ And he suggested using Earl Slick on guitar, who I’d worked with before. Chris Spedding plays guitar on a track which I’m quite pleased with, with him being a member of The Wombles!
And I wanted to make the album a little more Americana-ish. I don’t think I’m ever going to get on Radio 1 these days, but I know that Radio 2 and Radio 6 are playing music like that, so I thought maybe I should change the tune, production wise.’
Would you want your stuff to be played on Radio 1 these days? Did you ever want your stuff to be played on Radio 1?
‘I think anyone who writes a song wants as many people as possible to hear it and then be able to decide whether they like it or not. If you write something that’s catchy and people hear it a couple of times they might think it’s really catchy.
Music is about communication, so the more avenues there are to get it out there the better really.’
Where do you look to for your influences these days?
‘Just what’s going on in my life really, and how I’m dealing with it and how you’re rising or not rising to the occasion or dealing with the pitfalls of it all. I’m not on some heavy political bent, because we all know what’s wrong with the world and you end up preaching to the converted and can come across as a bit Billy Bragg, which I don’t want to be.
You write in songs what you can’t necessarily express on a piece of paper and it brings out some emotional thing. Or that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.’
Has the way you write music changed over the years?
‘Nah, it’s the same old shit basically. Most songs I write, I’m walking down the street and an idea comes into my head, and if that idea doesn’t go away it’s time to pick up the guitar and work out the chords that go with it.
Every songwriter’s got a mental bag of half ideas that they can use and reference, but the whole thing is about trying to get across what’s on your mind. It doesn’t always have to be of the most fantastic consequence, but I think it’s got to be as succinct and direct as possible.
I try to write songs as if I’m having a conversation with somebody. I do like to think there’s a bit of humour in my songs, I think we can all be a bit tongue in cheek about things sometimes.’
Well it must all work for you. You’ve written some of the best songs ever recorded and it’s taken you all over the world and last over 40 years. You must be doing something right.
‘I suppose I must be. I don’t know what yet. [laughs]’
One thing I noticed recently, looking at the calendar, is that a few weeks ago it was the 40th Anniversary of the first time I went to Eric’s in Liverpool, and it was to see you in Rich Kids.
‘Were we any good?’
You were great, Rich Kids were a brilliant group.
‘I’ll tell you what I do remember about Eric’s, it used to whiff a lot because they had a problem with the drains, but also I do remember playing there with Iggy Pop, must have been in ’79, and I’m pretty sure we did a matinee performance for the underage people.
And instead of having the usual intro music to come on to, we played the theme tune from A Fistful of Dollars and Iggy would come on.
But by the time he’d come on, in that Iggy Pop style he has, there was all these kids dressed as scouts down the front.
And they started singing Happy Birthday, and for a split second he was dumbfounded and then he turned to the band and said ‘well fuck you’ and we went straight into Kill City.
I met some really cool people there, in fact we played there with the Pistols really early on. We played upstairs and there weren’t that many people there, but I skived out of packing the van and when I went downstairs there was this whole thing going on.
Yachts were playing and I was stood there having a drink and everyone was waiting for me. I got in the doghouse with everyone over that, but I met Clive Langer, Maybe Ian Broudie and Jayne from Pink Military.
It was good to realise that there was this thing outside of London. In our capital city ways, we may have been too high minded to think there possibly could have been.
But also likewise I remember going down to Newport or Bridgend in Wales, we did a series of gigs there and I met Steve Strange for the first time and got chatting to him.
And they were the same, they looked like punks before punk had been invented. And he asked where we were playing next, and it was a gig in Burton on Trent.
We stayed in Wales and by the time we got up, he was already in the car park waiting for us. He actually helped us carry the gear in, which I doubt he ever did since [laughs].’
Were you aware at the time, when you were playing these gigs, of the effect you were having on people and the outburst of creativity that you left in your wake?
‘You know what, I don’t want to sound big-headed, but yeah I think so. We knew we were polarizing people somehow.
We had this self-confidence, maybe not so much on my part personally, but Steve was the biggest ne’er do well in London. He was the spirit of the Sex Pistols, John put it all in words, I came up with the tunes and Paul provided the backbeat and kind of went along with what Steve said.
They were a double act and to me, they were always like Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, which was fine by me as I liked Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble.’
How do you feel about the way the Sex Pistols and punk turned out over the years to now, where we can still feel the ripples from what you did?
‘Good I suppose. I don’t really know any different. I remember reading some interview with Keith Richards and the interviewer asked him about the price of milk, and he replied ‘Don’t ask me mate, I’ve been a rock star all my life, what would I know’
And I don’t know any different, I’ve always been saddled with the Pistols thing. I’m proud of it, but it’s a bit of a double-edged sword because here we are talking about that rather than what I’m doing now.
And I kind of hate it for that sometimes. A little bit.’
Well back to your new album then. There’s quite an old school rock n roll feel running through it.
‘Maybe so, I like all that kind of stuff. I’ve tried to do something slightly different within the confines of what I like and do and the people I’m playing with and get the songs across. My favourite song on the album is Speak Too Soon, which is kind of earthy and quite up.’
My favourite is Wanderlust at the moment, although that could change – there are some catchy riffs on there.
‘That’s a bit of an older one that I’d never really recorded before, that’s kind of my hats off to Roadrunner, but not by Jonathan Richman, but by Junior Walker and the All Stars. I do like the bluesy kind of stuff sometimes.
I’m chums with Pete Wylie, although I haven’t seen him in a long while. But I’m a big admirer of his, and he called one of his album Songs of Strength and Heartbreak and that’s what I subscribe to lyrically, finding a way through the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Pete Wylie does the most fantastic version of a Gilbert O’Sullivan song, Alone Again Naturally, just him and an acoustic guitar. It’s heart-rending.’
Matlock has a huge library of tales he can tell about his time in music, with every mention of a band of a city inspiring more anecdotes of a life well lived. And more tales are doubtless being generated as he continues to tour and make music.
Do you still keep up with new music?
‘I do, my kid’s in a band and they play me new stuff and it sounds alright, rocky kind of stuff. One of the bands I played with in Canada were really good, and the name is fantastic too. They were called Ringo Deathstar. And Ringo went to see them. [laughs]
I met him, I was helping out his son Zac, and his dad actually plays pretty good guitar. We did a showcase gig for the record we were making at Raymond’s Review Bar we were telling Zac we needed to go on stage. And he was saying ‘no, no I’ve got to wait for my dad’ and I thought ‘wait for your dad?’ before remembering who his dad was! ‘
Well according to your schedule Glen, you’re late for a radio interview now.
‘Have I? oh blimey, I didn’t know that. I’d better go then’
And with that Glen Matlock says his goodbyes and heads straight into another interview, no doubt adding further to his fatigue and world weariness. It says something of the man that he is still prepared to put himself through such a punishing schedule to promote his work. He is obviously still proud of his work if a little frustrated that it is not naturally finding a wider audience.
Reflecting on our conversation later, I think to myself that one of the common threads that runs through the lives of people who were caught up in shaping the early days of punk is that of the huge difficulty dealing with the huge void that followed when their part in it all seemingly came to an end.
Steve Jones and many others turned to heroin to fill their days, The Slits’ Ari Up retreated to Borneo, living with a tribe almost completely cut off from civilisation while others abandoned music completely, turning to other careers. Others were not so lucky and didn’t manage to make old bones at all.
Matlock’s approach to all this has been to keep his head down and keep making music. There is a certain dignity to this calm and steady approach, one that shows that Matlock has managed to avoid the pitfalls of his profession with ease.
We wish him well in his quest to carry on doing what he does, especially when what he does is release top drawer rock n roll in this manner.
Glen Matlock has left his past behind him and has, as always it seems, still got an eye on the future and a place in his heart for rock n roll.
Ahead of a UK tour, Sun 13’s Banjo spoke to bass legend Jah Wobble about a busy 2020, Chinese dub and pushing the borders.
Jah Wobble is something of a renaissance man.
First learning to play the bass as part of John Lydon’s post-Pistols band Public Image Ltd, he has explored the edges of World Music, Dub, Post Punk and anything else that may have caught his magpie eye.
At the age of 62, Wobble still has a crowded diary for 2020, starting at The Cavern on January 16.
Before this, we spoke to him about his plans for the year, being a nuisance and Sinead O’Connor’s Chi.
Wobble is a talker.
Before our interview started properly, we had already been talking for getting on 10 minutes, taking in such subjects as commuting, cell phone coverage and cooking.
He frequently starts off on one subject only to be distracted by the ideas and connotations this subject sparks. He asks almost as many questions as he’s asked and seems genuinely interested in the replies.
An interview with Jah Wobble isn’t one-way traffic, it is a conversation.
is back catalogue is so large and diverse, that my first question is really to pinpoint what he will be bringing on his upcoming tour.
What’s your latest musical project, what are you bringing to The Cavern?
“I’ve just put it up on Bandcamp today, it’s an album called Ocean Blue Waves.
The title is from a painting I did and we’ll be doing a couple of numbers off that. There’s a number called Take My Hand, it’s kind of a rocky number, and then the title track of the album, which is very jazz-funky, but quite earthy as well, I don’t like over sweet jazz funk.
So that’s the latest project and then I ‘m doing a thing with the family. My missis runs the Pagoda Centre in Liverpool, so moved to Liverpool when she was about 13, 14. She’s a really, really good musician.
And my sons, one boxes a bit and the other’s a good footballer and we’re all musicians. And they play Chinese instruments and western stuff as well, so we’ve done a family album. We did one called Chinese Dub in 2008 and this is kind of like the follow up. It’s pretty fantastic mate, if I say so myself.
So I’ve got plenty going on.”
How is it making music with your family?
“Actually, it used to drive me up the wall, but this time it’s been fine. I’m 61 now and I think I found it a lot harder 11 years ago. And my boys were younger as well, so they might have been a bit naughty, but now everyone’s sensible and they know what they’re doing.
And the older I get the more I get on with my wife really, she’s easy going. There are times when you’re younger you know, you clash when you’re making music. And I defer to them with this, the Chinese melodies and stuff.
That’s how this all started, they would come back from Pagoda with this old Chinese melody, March of the Generals, and I would deliberately fuck about with it, change the arrangement. And everyone liked it and said ‘Do you want to do a record?’
And ever since then I’ve been thinking at some point we should do it again. And you never know how long you’ve got left, so let’s get it together now. So that will come out I suppose in Spring time.”
It’s going to be a busy year for you.
“Yeah. And I’m doing a thing in South London called Tuned In, which is a community project. A friend of mine works for Merton Council, he’s quite senior but he gives a toss, gets involved you know what I mean? So we hit the ground running with a load of people.
It was designed for old blokes, you know – divorced, used to play in punk bands, probably drink a bit too much, a bit isolated, living in tower blocks and all that and thinking ‘let’s get them out of their flats, get them active.’
The funny thing is though, we’ve got the old blokes, but we’ve got youngsters coming as well, we’ve got the homeless coming. And it’s a jam session, but it’s so successful we’re building a studio to record in and we’re running recording courses and I’m going to make an album.
It’s going to be a proper album and it’ll be in every way brilliant! I can’t wait to start that.
So I’m doing that Monday to Wednesday and I’ve got the shows booked in Thursdays to Saturdays. Sundays a Scrabble day. And we’ve got a few jaunts abroad planned so I’ve got to keep myself in nick. I’m a little bit scared of the schedule coming up.”
I first saw you playing at Manchester Belle Vue back in ’78 with Public Image, and you kind of grew up in public as a musician, didn’t you, you were learning you craft on stage back then.
“Yeah, very much. And when I left PiL I was lucky, I went to work with Can and everything and I had a strong idea about how things should work, what kind of shape the music should be.
I always speak in terms of shapes and patterns rather than chords, which I came to realise years later is quite a mediaeval way, early music way. It’s a very modal way. I think that came with the OCD I had when I was younger.
When I left PiL, apart from doing that stuff, working with Holger and Jaki, The Edge and Francois Kervorkian, I started working with The Human Condition with Jim Walker. That was a big part of learning my craft, playing live with the prototype Invaders of the Heart.”
I’ve gone back on Fender Precision now. That happened when I went over to America, I can’t be bothered travelling with a bass anymore and I got fed up with the Ovation because they’re so heavy.
So I travelled to Toronto and the promoter got me a really fantastic vintage Fender P and I just fell in love with it again.
All the old stuff was done on a Fender P, so I ended up sounding like I haven’t since back then, and funnily enough, it got me into the mindset I had then. And what I was thinking is how inventive I was back then and I’ve got that back again. More than I think I have for quite a while.
And playing with Tuned In as well. There are some very good musicians there and some of the players there are unique and they get you playing uniquely as well. And it’s got me enjoying it, it’s a fantastic rehearsal for me, it’s been quite inspiring. And it’s very inventive.”
Speaking of being inventive, we looked back at the 40th anniversary of Metal Box recently. What are your memories of making that record?
“PiL had a really good feel-good factor to start with, and then the drugs and drink started creeping in. I’ve probably talked about that a lot, so I’ll be careful not to dwell on that. I was part of that, I’m not in any way trying to be holier-than-thou or anything, but by the time we did Metal Box a lot of stuff had soured. But when we got together, we could rise above it.
So all this stuff about us being in the studio and absolutely hating each other wasn’t really true. I did get pissed off with people at the time. And with John [Lydon], John could be a bit lazy at times. But when he got on it, he was great.
With Keith [Levene], he’s very bright and I think I was half bright and we never had to talk much about it. When we came to Metal Box, there was no regular drummer and I think there was a feeling of ‘we can go to there, to here or we can just jump to there.
And ‘to there’ meant not being mannered, not being bourgeois, let’s just jump straight to the heart of the matter, do something very deep and very primal.
And John’s lyrics, like Careering, were fantastic. Poptones is my favourite. John came up with those lyrics and we knew it was something special. Very expressionistic.
I still like to learn more about art and music and I heard that visual art sets the scene, the impressionism or abstract expressionism, and music catches up with it 30 odd years later. And I think PiL were very much in tune with the 1950’s abstract expressionism, nihilistic and looking to break beyond formal structure.
So we knew it was a special kind of record and it was really out there. And I went on developing the bass.
When I left I thought ‘how ridiculous, we’ve got so much potential but it’s so crappy I’m leaving, we don’t work, we don’t do gigs, we’re just lounging about.’ But actually, I’ve come to realise we were done.
I don’t mean that the everyone else was done but I carried on, I don’t mean it like that, but we were done with that thing at that time, it was enough. It makes it more special that there wasn’t a Metal Box 2.“
After that you collaborated with a lot of people, Sinead O’Connor, Can, Primal Scream, The Orb. What sticks in your mind as producing the best music, or perhaps the best people to work with?
“Bill Laswell for sure. And I can tell you why, I can tell you a story. I’d known Bill for a while, maybe eighteen months, a couple of years, and we were talking about art and about Jackson Pollock, who he really likes.
And he broke into Jackson Pollock’s studio and he scraped a bit of paint from the floor, you can imagine what the floor was like, and he put it in a matchbox. He showed it to me and I thought ‘this geezer’s for real’ and a lot of people you feel are not 100% real, there’ll be soft soaping you a bit and they’ll try to convince you they’re a great artist, but he’s for real.
I’ve met some other great people, I’ve worked with Baaba Maal and Natacha Atlas, Sinead O’Connor, who I saw break a membrane on a mic, and it was the sheer supernatural power of Chi that broke it.
Jaki Liebezeit is the most amazing person I’ve ever worked with, we were hand in glove.
The last time I saw Jaki was in Liverpool and I held him out of a hotel window by his lapels while he smoked a joint, so he didn’t set the smoke alarms off.
I said ‘do you trust me?’ and he said ‘I trust you onstage and off’ and I held him while he smoked his joint.”
Do you change the way you play depending on who you collaborate with?
“Yeahhh, to an extent. You have got your own DNA, but if you try to get me to be Jaco Pistorius I just can’t do it. I haven’t got the musicality or the knowledge of keys, let alone the technique of running through those keys.
But you try and be amenable, you try to meet people halfway and kind of fit. But there are times where you’re working as a session player and you’re there to do a job and you might have to change your sound slightly and fit in a bit. Often the compromise will be not playing what you think is the better line, but you’re quite restricted.
And that’s where the likes of Paul McCartney, Ronnie Lane and Glen Matlock, they’re British bass players who are great at playing 4 chords imaginatively.
And Ashton ‘Familyman’ Barrett had that, he’s my favourite bass player. They were proper songs Bob Marley wrote and Ashton ‘Familyman’ Barrett would phrase the b-line along, he was the most musical of Jamaican bass players with his phrases.’
Speaking of Glen Matlock, there is something I’ve always wanted to ask you. Is it true that John Lydon originally wanted you to replace him after he left Sex Pistols, but the rest of the band were too scared of you?
“Apparently so, yeah that’s right, but nobody told me at the time. I was quite wild you know, I was a wear out, I was a nuisance and it would have been the biggest mistake ever. PiL was much better because I had a blank canvas.
When John disappeared, I knew he was hanging around the Kings Road and he came back to the college of further education where we were and I said ‘Where’ve you been?’ and he said ‘I’m in a band.’ And he might as well have said he was training to be a 747 pilot! So he was in a band and I went down a week or two later to see them rehearse and I thought ‘this is going to be fucking terrible’
’ve got that thing about being nice to people, being quite emphatic. I’m a narcissist but I do read situations and I know when to be nice, but I thought ‘it’s bound to be shit. Don’t tell him it’s shit’, so I was ready to tell him it was great.
When I got there the first person I saw was Matlock and I thought ‘fucking hell, he’s really good.’ He was the best one of them, the most musical, you know he could play tunes on the bass and knew what he was doing. He was great and kicking him out was a really mad thing.
They were a great band the Pistols and Matlock was a big part of that.
I see him occasionally, he’s a nice bloke. A bit taciturn, but I think everybody is from that generation of punk and post punk, in London especially. It was like they’d all been given the winning lottery ticket that was then duly torn up in front of them. None of them made any money, it was all a big disappointment, you know.
With PiL it was ‘wayyy, we’re in the top ten’ and I’d moved out of my squat back in with my mum and dad and everyone was saying ‘what are you staying there for, you’re on Top of the Pops?’, wondering where’s the money gone. And all I wanted was a bit of money so I could rent a gaff somewhere, that would have done me.
But I put my name down with the council and they gave me a ‘hard to let’ for two bob a week, which was fantastic, so that did me.
But [joining the Pistols] would have been a big mistake, it wouldn’t have worked well. The PiL thing was much, much better for me to develop.
It was a very fortunate situation, where you’re a rookie but the majority of what happens gets based around what you’re playing, it was fantastic, it built me up.”
And what a build up it was. I can think of no other musician who was placed at the centre of such a storm of expectation, attention and scrutiny while learning their instrument. The fact that Jah Wobble did this so spectacularly and that he came through it all with his sanity and credibility intact speaks volumes to the man’s character and the force of his personality.
I also struggle to think of a musician who has charted a course through so many different types of music and managed to make this part of his journey rather than some disjointed attempt at session work.
He seems to have arrived at a good place in his life, where the love of his family and his place in music allow him to be himself and to still make the musical journeys he loves.
What we can expect of his upcoming shows and what follows them is open to guesses, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it will involve one of our most genuine and idiosyncratic musicians doing what he thinks is right and what continues to push the borders.
Jah Wobble is a legend. The fact that he is also an engaging and thoughtful individual is just a bonus.