John Wardle, better known by his stage name Jah Wobble, is one of the most influential bass players in the UK and is especially famous as a founding member of the legendary post-punk band Public Image Ltd which he created in 1978 with John Lydon, Keith Levene and Jim Walker following the split of The Sex Pistols.
After a long-term battle against alcoholism, he then walked away from music in the mid-1980s, went on to work for the London Underground, enrolled in a BA in Music and Philosophy, got completely sober and eventually made a big comeback to the music industry years later.
Since the recovery, Jah has collaborated with the likes of Sinéad O’Connor, Dolores O’Riordan and David Bowie’s pupil Ozark Henry, and is currently playing as a solo artist with his own reformed band The Invaders Of The Hearts, whose members also include George King, Martin Chung and Marc Layton-Bennet.
The release of the album Ocean Blue Waves by Jah Wobble & The Invaders Of The Hearts in 2019 offered the opportunity to arrange this interview with John about music, politics, Brexit and everything else you can think of, including The Sex Pistols‘ late bassist and immortal punk icon Sid Vicious who was one of his closest friends in the 1970s; he gave John his first bass guitar and also invented the stage name Jah Wobble for him after a night of drunken antics.
May post-punk be with you all, and may Sid rest in peace.
John, is punk rock dead?
For me, punk music was very conservative, and that’s a funny thing. I realise now from the mindset of post-punk people that it was an attitude, like the abstract expressionists of the 1950s – artists like Pollock. Art historians always say that music is thirty years later than the visual arts, since the visual arts lead the world, as it was with the Impressionism and early Expressionism movements, so there is always a visual side of it that comes first and so you have to think more of what came in the 1950s, in a way, rather than about what came just before punk. We had this revolutionary attitude because all of us would agree that the world we lived in was fuckin’ crazy, so punk would be a dream, a strange dream you would be woken up from someday – like it or not. Rich people would be woken up from their dream now, and things were not going to be the same for a lot of people afterwards, so the time culturally was really good, everything was really smart and you needed to really have something to happen in Britain and in London. Britain was for most a pretty austere place at the time, and I think that a lot of the British music in the 1950s and 1960s was a pale imitation of American music, there was a provincial aspect to it. That all changed in the Swinging Sixties of course, with The Beatles and others. With regard to the punk era, you had a lot of middle-class Englishmen with an attitude leaning towards faux virtuosity, so you ended up with these prog-rock bands, playing horribly complicated music, and then punk came and shook it up. You can see it with Brexit now: the Brexiteers like to see themselves as punks that are shaking up the bourgeois establishment, but I think they are being hoodwinked by figures in the background, via social media. Anyway, punk came along and was just like “fuck you”, but the actual music in itself was – funnily enough – quite conservative and wanted to replace three-chord rock ‘n’ roll, and post-punk was more like the abstract expressionist breaking way to get a boundless world. So, for me, punk in essence just means change, sudden change, brutal change and not being afraid to change. It’s a very long answer the one that I’m giving you but no, punk is not dead, the attitude isn’t dead. It’s fun because, at the beginning when minorities and people you would call marginal were into punk, it’s when punk was at its best, but when the daddy’s boys and the boys with the big boots came in, that’s when it went to shit, really.
Glen Matlock of The Sex Pistols made a similar observation regarding Brexit in his interview.
I think it’s a very English thing. And then again, Brexit is another very English thing in another embarrassing kind of way. As I wrote in my book in 2010 [Memoirs of a Geezer: The Autobiography of Jah Wobble: Music, Mayhem, Life] about the estrangement of the working classes in the UK, if you look at the UKIP [the Eurosceptic, right-wing populist political party for UK independence], it is not nice under the surface. You have to be brave in life sometimes whenever you get any group of people whenever in the world being racist or bullies, then there’s always a reason why people are bullies, it’s because people are unhappy. Unhappy people want to spread unhappiness around. I mean, as for me, what I did when I was unhappy, during my drinking years, was at times very dangerous, very irresponsible, so I would not want to appear holier than thou. But what happens with Brexit is exactly what happens when you allow this self-righteous, destructive, disruptive kind of attitude to run riot, it’s just spiteful, vindictive and racist, and it really bothers me because I am in a mixed family and I reached the point where I don’t talk to other extended family members and old friends because of this. I’m afraid, I had sympathy for that disenfranchised working-class segment of society in the 1990s but now come on – you have to be intelligent, and the way they have allowed themselves to be seduced by – I even struggle calling it right-wing – because this is just some kind of stupid, square kind of nationalism, it is really not what this country is about: provincial, uneducated, it’s fuckin’ shit and there’s no point in listening to this bullshit. And generally speaking, these are quite disenfranchised times politically, there are many people, many young people now that are not politicised, or even politically aware, but you have to be politically aware. I know that in Italy, your country, politics are very extreme. Italy is a very politically-aware country, and we are becoming a little bit more like Italy now with the extreme left and extreme right, I find a lot of what you’d call modern left-wing are really boorish, angry, childish, unreasonable, and they’re never really going to take the power here like that. And that was the problem with Jeremy Corbyn, and Brexit was a perfect storm and some of the old left wings helped to facilitate Brexit, while Boris Johnson is a typical old Etonian private school educated guy. This is how Rome falls, in the end: you have pestilence, you have fire and famine, and various kinds of barbarians are at the gates of democracy. That’s how the cliché, that’s how Rome falls. In any case, we have become like a virus on the face of the planet, we’re destroying the lungs of the Amazon rainforest, so it’s perfect symmetry.
How was it to switch to a job in public transport after having been a musician?
Oh, I loved that job at the London Underground, I still miss it. I was in South London; at first, I was a station staff working in the District and the Piccadilly lines in stations such as Mansion House, and I was sent out as a relief station manager very early on, so it was not just collecting tickets and sweeping the platform. I loved the underground, everything was working out for me there, I still miss it, it was the best job I ever had, they are the best employer, they offer decent standards of living and working conditions, a nice canteen, and you can just do your job and then do other things, and it’s nice. This was all after I quit drinking; I got sober in 1986 and I graduated with a Master’s Degree afterwards. I was already making part-time music by March 1987, and then I obtained my Degree in 1996 as a mature student. Initially, after getting sober, I worked on the Underground and after that, I did a tour and I left the Underground; I gave myself a year to try to get back into music, and it happened! It happened within months, incredibly. I was like: I don’t want to be at the age of 40 and still be in the shallow end of the music business and still struggling to get my project going. I thought I would give it a year, and it worked.
What was your dream job as a child?
I think I wanted to be a footballer actually, more than anything else, and actually, believe it or not, I would have loved to drive a trunk, and the other was to become a merchant seaman and go see the sea. And that was a very typical thing where we lived, it is anywhere you have docks, and I was told that if you are a sailor, you travel all over the world and you get drunk, and I was like: I’d like to travel the world and get drunk! And I did it anyway as a musician!
At some point, you wrote book reviews for The Independent and The Times. Have you ever considered a career in journalism?
No, actually, I didn’t, I am very naïve when it comes to CVs and pushing and setting a strategy to advance in life, I’m not very good at it. I think it’s like William Blake’s proverb: the fox provides for himself but God provides for the lion, and for the Leo, actually, as my star sign is Leo. Anyway, I did book reviews for a good ten or twelve years and I ended up making friends with journalists too as they interviewed me. Journalists have an inquiring, inquisitive mind and conversations with them are quite interesting, and I often end up interviewing them, it’s quite interesting, even if not as much as it used to be, though.
Where do you draw your musical inspiration from?
Generally speaking, I don’t listen to groove music, I may very much listen to things such as melody, mainly classical – there are so many good composers out there. And also some ambient music, which I like because it doesn’t try to sound like music, but it just floats like that, you just set the tone and when you get to meditate on it, it’s like a big jump. I also might be listening to singing bowls, I quite like stuff like that. Yesterday, I worked on a new track that is really playful – I like it sometimes when people make playful music and don’t try to be heavy or do something deep or meaningful. And so, something of the stuff I am working on my own right now is just playful, and this remembers me of when, in the 1970s, I would go to little London music stores in Edgware Road and buy music, and you had people playing the electric instruments and guitars and saxophones and producers who mixed that with Middle Eastern instruments. And yes, it was pretty playful.
Where did you get the name The Invaders of the Heart from?
I watched a BBC documentary in 1982 about the journey of the gipsies from India to Spain, as some of them went to the Balkans and others went to the Middle East, and the ones that went to the Middle East were making music and used to say that they music invaded the heart. I thought “I love that, I’m going to call my band The Invaders of the Heart”, as I love this gipsy music. There was something in all those written melodies that captivated me, and at the time I was ready to fuse music just like a self-taught young chef smelling spices in markets. And sometimes, you know, maybe tastes don’t work, but other times when you get them to work, they are sublime. And this is what I’m still doing, just mixing up spices. You know, sometimes you have this Italian way of just being simple and using fresh ingredients, just like pasta dishes, but if you try too hard then it is not going to be working. And if you listen to our music, it’s very simple, the rhythms are very simple, but done well. Jazz can be a disaster area if you don’t get it right, and so in the Ocean Blue Waves album I was like “Let’s just play”, while, for example, back in the 1990s, I wanted to mix everything up like a painter, I had a lot of energy, I was like “this is my thing and I am going to show everything that I can do here”. Irish and Scottish folk traditions are huge, but English folk tradition was largely taken over by Victorian middle classes, so I was like: “Let’s make some good folk music here”, but let’s make it a little bit eclectic to conquer back the English folk tradition.
How would you describe your album Ocean Blue Waves?
It is refreshing for me to talk about that album. Most artists are pushing their records by telling backstories about them, but in this album, we don’t have any backstories to tell; this is just a document about where and how the band have been playing in a way that we really love to play over a great few years, and we were all looking forward to playing the album at these very big festivals. This is how the album was born, it was just the band playing their own thing, playing in a relaxed way. There is one exception to that, and it’s a track called Take My Hand that I wrote on my own, and that was something that I kind of composed on my own in a very simple way, while the rest of the album was made by the rest of the band.
Are there any artists you would like to collaborate with?
Well, there aren’t, actually. I am just happy with whatever comes up, and this is a nice feeling. I’m in my sixties and I haven’t got a burning desire to go and make a certain record, which is kind of nice, it is actually a nice feeling. So I enjoy making music very much, I have a nice time making music and I am still inspired and energised by it, but I am very happy just to see what happens and what comes along. And I think in the last few years, anyway, The Invaders of the Heart and touring have been a big part of the thing for me. The other guys in the band are all younger than me and they are nice guys, and they were all born in April, you know? Actually, all my friends are born in April! I don’t know why it’s that.
It’s because you are a Leo and they are probably Aries. It’s a great match.
Yes, I am Leo, and what are you?
I’m a Leo as well.
Oh! And you are also from Italy! I heard that Italy is the country of Leo, did you know that? But then you are a Leo, so you get it. You know how Aries people can be rude and direct, how they confront you, how they battle you – but this is not a problem for me! I really really really like that, I think it’s fine. I have a little problem with Gemini people, instead.
Gemini are too volatile for Leo.
Maybe it’s because Boris Johnson is Gemini, and I am left-wing.
Jeremy Corbyn is Gemini, too.
Oh well, yes. Actually, I also got people who are friends of mine who are Gemini. But do you know what the problem is with them? They look like there’s here now, and they suddenly go on from a different angle.
Donald Trump is also Gemini, by the way.
Actually, I wasn’t really into star signs but I just couldn’t help that there is a core relationship: I mean, all of my friends are Aries, and this should mean something. Leo is good but can be the worst: Leo is the worst if they’re frustrated, and I think this is what came out with me, I think this is the backstory of when I was drinking. You become childish and frustrated easily, like an unhappy lion in the zoo. We are the kings of the jungle so we need to be like kings and queens when we deal with people, but without being patronising.
How does it feel to have been part of a band that made the history of post-punk such as Public Image Ltd?
When I look back, I think it was fantastic but I was not in a good state just before that, I was turning into an unhappy Leo, a frustrated Leo. At 17-19 punk happened, I never really pushed myself forward with punk because I was never inspired by the music, I just thought you could do something more abstract in a way, and certainly not song-based. I was beginning to think that you could structure sounds and build sounds, vertically like a picture and I was already thinking that way, and then I started playing with John [Lydon] and Keith Levene who are very good players and they let me do my own thing and John was probably surprised by how good I was. I am lucky I have got a natural propensity to play bass, I do like this instrument very much, but then I was living in squats, I was drinking too much, I was using drugs a little bit, and this wasn’t good. So PiL was great for me, it opened a door. I didn’t know that there had been talks at the time to pick me instead of Sid Vicious to replace Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols, which would have been useless anyway because when I first heard The Sex Pistols, Glen Matlock was actually the most impressive musician there. John has a great guitarist named Steve Jones, and Paul Cook is a great drummer, they were impressive. But in Glenn, they had a great rock bassist. So, getting into Public Image Ltd instead for me, was absolutely perfect. I was very fortunate, it gave me a clear direction. There are not many things you get the opportunity to do in life that fit like a glove, and it’s good karma to do the thing that you love to do. I was very lucky to find my thing, and bass is really my thing.
What kind of memories of Sid Vicious do you have?
We were at a college of further education together, it was the London’s Kingsway College, it was a good college, ideal for drop-out kids, but I didn’t get any qualification from that college and I was pathetic, really, then I went to Birkbeck University and got a Bachelor’s Degree later as a mature student as I said earlier, years later, so I finally made good, I atoned for my sins, you know. So, Sid – who at the time was called by his own name, John Simon Beverley – came over from another college. It wasn’t easy for him, he was a really badly behaved kind of guy. His mum was a junkie, and he was obviously on the radar of social services, I think he probably had a social worker talking to him, that kind of stuff, and he was also seeing a psychiatrist. So, he was hanging out with me all the time because John [Lydon] had kind of left him, and I think it was a bit weird because Sid really wanted to be the singer in The Sex Pistols, and John – who was very charismatic – had got the gig, and then Sid had been blown out a little bit, and John kind of disappeared over to West London. Sid didn’t really want to hang out with me, he really wanted to hang out with John, he was left with me, and I had a girlfriend by then, he was left hanging out with me and my girlfriend, but he was the kind of guy that could get you into trouble quite easily. He’d be confrontational with people and didn’t have much to back him up, and so he was seeing this psychiatrist, a guy, every week, a couple of times a week. One day I went to the psychiatrist with him, and the psychiatrist said to me: “I’m so glad you came, I know that you have some interest in Sid, have you? You’ve got girlfriends, you play football, could you talk to Sid, please, and just encourage him to take a part in life, maybe, to take him with you more, and help him to do things because he says he has nothing to live for and he’s talking about suicide”. What I said to the psychiatrist was that maybe suicide was the best option with Sid and that maybe it made sense. Of course, Sid and I had talked before about it, but the psychiatrist wanted me to explain to him that life is worth living. This poor psychiatrist was a nice guy, and he looked astonished, he looked horrified, and we both sat there with very poker faces, straight faces. Poor guy, he was really upset, and I was like: “I don’t know if Sid has anything to live for, I think he’s a pathetic person”, and then Sid looked at the guy and said, “See? I am a pathetic person, he’s my friend and he thinks so”. Of course, we were having a game, and it was horrible really, and in the end, once we left, we were laughing out loud, but I realised years later that many times a true word is spoken in jest. It was all a part of a dull game when he was really talking about suicide, and now I realise that. And it’s not funny, and this is the best of the heaviest stories about Sid, and it’s heavy because there’s real sadness in that.
“The best of the heaviest stories about Sid” would make a good headline.
You know, I did a documentary on it for BBC Radio 4 in 2009. It is called “In Search of Sid” and is very good, it’s available on Vimeo, I think. I mean, you need to be careful about what you say when you are doing something for the BBC, because there are so many compliance regulations, but nonetheless, it’s a very good programme, there are people in it that really knew him, most of which are my old friends, and I didn’t even know that one of my old friends in London looked after him when his mum kicked him out – it’s such a small world. There is also an interview with Sid’s mum which is quite heavy, that I accessed thanks to my good friend Jon Savage who kindly gave me access to his archive, and she is like, “So Sid went to London’s Kingsway College? No, fuck, it’s not true if he did, I’d known about that”. But he did, and she had no idea, and she then kicked him out. And apparently, he had said “But mum, where will I sleep?”, and she was like “I don’t fucking care, you can sleep on a park bench ”. There was a very difficult situation of drug abuse, I went to their house in Hackney with Johnny Lydon in the 1970s, and she was using drugs heavily. I think Sid was using drugs as well at the time, he was almost 16 and I was like: “Oh my God”. And then as things progress over the years and you end up in a band with people taking drugs – I mean, there is evidence of lots of drugs of drug-taking by lots of the people on that scene at that time – and you had casualties of course. Eventually, my oldest mate died well before his time, there were a lot of cheap drugs on the market towards the end of the punk era and it really became an issue. With Sid, after you go back many years, you gradually build up a picture of the guy that you sat in the psychiatrist’s office with.
And what kind of picture is that?
That is weird because he was born close to Covent Garden, he went to primary school in Piccadilly [central London], but then he moved with his mum to Ibiza which was a very junkie place at the time, and then they moved to Tunbridge Wells and then to Bristol, so when Sid came to London aged 14, he had a Bristol accent. And when the mum kicked him out, he stayed with another friend of ours who I didn’t even know knew him, so when you go back it all looks like a movie, it wasn’t an easy life around all the various dysfunctional behaviours you get around drugs.
Do you miss him?
No. If I’m going to say that, then I’d be lying. I couldn’t imagine it was his karma to go in that way [Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose in 1979 aged 22, just months after his also drug-addicted girlfriend Nancy Spungen had been found stabbed to death] but what I do feel is much more compassion towards him. The reason we did that documentary was to answer the question: Who was Sid? I knew this guy, I got drunk with this guy and had some fun with him, but who was this guy? He then became a rather one-dimensional icon. So when I made that documentary I genuinely wanted to know who this guy – behind the icon – that I called my friend was; was I really aware of him? What was the true story? And at that time, and at all times, you observe things a bit deeper than you might initially realise and that deeper realisation means for me the real experience of meditation because, that’s the beginning, that’s asking “What was that thing that has always been there? This observer”. And “What’s that thing that I’m observing? What’s this thing that is kind of neutral?” And of course, if I have that, Sid had that. And everyone must have that. So, therefore, there is essentially no real difference between any of us.
And in the end?
And in the end, if you’re able to experience it more, you wouldn’t do the stupid fuckin’ things you do in your life and you wouldn’t react the stupid fuckin’ way you react in life, where you’re not dwelling in that. But unfortunately, you’re lost in your petty little world that you don’t pay attention to people and you miss little things, so I made the BBC Radio documentary to clarify what Sid was about. People say I knew Sid well, but did I? Probably not at the time. What’s really the story? I already feel we did a good thing by just trying to tell his story.
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