Jah Wobble’s crooked route from punk to jazz

What are the chances of a lad from the East End of London getting into such an expansive breadth of sounds, rhythms and textures, as well as artistic avenues?

JAH WOBBLE: I found punk music very traditional, conservative music. (photo credit: JOHN HOLLINGSWORTH)
JAH WOBBLE: I found punk music very traditional, conservative music.
(photo credit: JOHN HOLLINGSWORTH)
Sometime in 1976, I wandered down from the office where I was employed at the time, for a lunchtime jar of brew. The watering hole in question was a disco-pub in the center of Manchester, England, with the disco side of the operation kicking in in the evenings. However, my quiet pint with a colleague was robustly interrupted by an explosion of abrasive rhythmic sound from the jukebox. I turned round to see a lone spike-haired character doing what I later learned was a pogo dance turn. I don’t recall the name of the band or the number on the 45.
Having been brought up on a stock ‘60s-early-’70s mix of The Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin et al, along with folk, blues, cantorial song and some big band material, I was not particularly enamored with the raucous frustration-driven outpourings of punk rock. But I was truly mesmerized by the raw energy, and by the cavorting punk who appeared to be oblivious to all around him.
Then I heard the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Buzzcocks and The Stranglers, and caught all the fuss and establishment ire fallout. It wasn’t my musical scene but having come through the shallow industrialized decadence of the disco scene, when the dying embers of envelope pushing ‘60s pop and rock were finally and irrevocably extinguished, I got what the punks were railing against. But that still didn’t turn me onto the music, or clamor.
I was surprised to hear John Wardle – aka Jah Wobble, the moniker he got from an inebriated Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious – concur when I voiced that opinion in our telephone interview a few days ago. “I didn’t like punk. I didn’t like it,” he exclaims in an accent straight out of London’s then-wild and woolly East End. What?
Wardle, for the unitiated, is a 61-year-old bass guitarist, singer, poet and composer probably best known for his late ‘70s-early-’80s stint with post-punk band Public Image Ltd. – PiL. The lead singer of PiL at the time was a certain John Lydon, who had caused no end of trouble, and delivered an abundance of feral-sounding decibels – as Johnny Rotten, yes, the outspoken carrot-haired front man of the Sex Pistols.
“Believe it or not, I didn’t like the Sex Pistols,” Wardle reiterates, ahead of his trip here to play at next week’s winter edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat (February 20-22). He will come here with latest cast of his Invaders Of The Heart foursome, with keyboardist George King and guitarist Martin Chung, with Marc Layton-Bennett on drums.
He might not have dug the Sex Pistols, but he was pals with Lydon, and the two shared a love of reggae and world music. The latter comes through in much of Wardle’s work, and he spread out into Indian, African and Arabic music long before “world music” became a bona fide genre.
INSTEAD OF feeding off the anarchical vibes of the punk scene – although he wasn’t exactly the most genteel of characters himself back then – Wardle says he got his inspiration from an earlier artistic ethos. “My theory is that art movements, as we know, supposedly are 30-40 years in front of the accompanying musical movements. So, you had the Impressionists, you had [composers] Berlioz and Debussy 30 years after the painting started.”
The same, he posits, goes for his lot. “I think that the post-punk period, PiL, was the musical version of the abstract expressionists of the Fifties. It was the same sentiment – wanting to smash bloody bourgeois tradition, or something.”
That is an intriguing take on the temporal cross-genre bridge, but not as surprising as his no-nonsense damning viewpoint on a musical style that, surely, no one in their right mind would describe as unimaginative and staid. Or, would they?
“I found punk music very traditional, conservative music,” says Wardle, adding that he also saw the theatrical-comedic side of punk. “To me, it was all those people saying let’s have some fun. It was closer to the Marx Brothers. Seriously. Me, John [Lydon], Sid [Vicious], there was a lot of laughter. We were more like the Marx Brothers. We didn’t take the revolution seriously.”
No doubt that wouldn’t have gone over too well, at the time, with the hordes of young punk fans only too willing to get into some exuberant, free-flowing, insouciant and highly physical moves, often egged on by the vociferous artists on stage. Consider, for example, some of the lyrics of the Sex Pistols’ signature number “God Save The Queen”:
“God save the Queen / She ain’t no human being / There is no future in England’s dreaming.”
That doesn’t sound too much like the stuff of the aforementioned American slapstick sibling troupe.
Eventually, Wardle does expound a little on what most of us considered to be the social undercurrent of the punk movement. “It was about making fun of it, and we were kind of frustrated. I was very class aware,” he notes, although adding that there was a way up the ladder, albeit via a limited route. “With sports and the arts you could do something if you were working class. And that was obviously not right. We railed against the class thing, and the monarchy and all of that.”
Punk music is generally seen as incorporating violence and substance abuse. Wardle went through his fair share of drugs and booze but, thankfully, has been clean for over 30 years.
What are the chances of a lad from the East End of London getting into such an expansive breadth of sounds, rhythms and textures, as well as artistic avenues? Wardle also paints and has dozens of album covers to his name. Over the years he has collaborated with the likes of Senegalese singer and guitarist Baaba Mall, former Cranberries Irish singer-songwriter Dolores O’Riordan and Jamaican reggae musician and DJ Chaka Demus. He has also delved into ambient music, and dance, and has produced singular reworkings of traditional English folk songs.
That exploratory bent has been in the Wardle makeup for some time. Part of that is down to plain old demographics.
“IT’S DEFINITELY some deep thing. There’s no doubt about it. Certain cultures resonate deeply in you. I grew up with Jews around me in the East End. Some of that culture rubbed off. Yeah, it was as much an Ashkenazi, Eastern European culture thing but with the Sephardi Jewish thing. It was also somehow Middle Eastern.”
Wardle was always looking outside the mainstream, and generally found a way to access the sounds that fired his evolving youthful imagination.
“I’d listen to the short wave radio just because of the oscillations [between stations]. People probably think that’s wonderfully avant-garde, but it’s just a typical thing a bright kid in a council flat would do to amuse himself, getting into this other world, this sound world. I didn’t care about the station, I wanted all the static.”
It was a gateway to unlimited magical vistas. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was really the universe. You hear all these short waves from stars imploding millions of years ago, and there were incredible oscillations.”
He may have preferred the interim undulating stuff, but he also caught some actual music too. “I’d hear, for example, Radio Cairo with [Egyptian diva] Oum Kulthoum singing. It would be wild.” The pre-Internet, pre-digital era technology naturally suited the youngster’s eclectic stance on life, and fired his expanding imagination and musical sensibilities.
“With the radio you had that natural fading, you know, as the signal bounces off the stratosphere, which people utilize in dance music to hypnotic effect. Hearing that, it was like dub.”
The latter, says Wardle, pushed him in the direction of his chosen instrument. “I didn’t start playing music, on bass, until I was around 17. I loved the bottom end you heard on some of the early soul records, and you were getting that on the first dub records as well. In 1971, you had the first couple of dub record that came out.”
Living in a multicultural part of London also helped push the teenager along a bifurcating sonic continuum. He got into the West Indian reggae scene in nearby Hackney. “I heard the big reggae sound systems. More than music it was like the sound of the universe. You could feel it deep in the core of your being.”
Wardle was also inspired by some of the A-lister bassists, from different sectors of the global music scene, citing Bob Marley sideman Aston “Familyman” Barrett and Czech bass player Miroslav Vitous as telling influences on his development.
Jazz also came into the Wardle stream of musical consciousness. “I’d listen to people like [saxophonist] John Handy. He did crossover-jazz-funk. And there was [jazz, soul, and funk keyboardist] Lonnie Liston Smith. Then I’d hear he played with [jazz saxophonist] Pharoah Sanders.”
Miles Davis’s electric period offerings also hove into Wardle’s view, and the improvisational element of jazz left its imprint on the bassist’s musical ethos. “I like the being in the moment thing. That, for me, is what jazz is about.”
These days it is far easier to say what jazz isn’t rather than defining exactly what it is. The days of “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” to quote the title of the 1931 Duke Ellington number, are long gone. I have heard many a jazz artist suggest that jazz, with its ever-expanding stylistic and cultural boundaries, is the real world music of today.
That suits Wardle down to the ground. “I feel somehow very connected to old kind of cultures,” he states. “I don’t find that weird. I feel like an international kind of guy.”
For tickets and more information: en.redseajazz.co.il.