Not only is John Wardle – better known by his stage name Jah Wobble – one of the top talented and influential bass players in the UK, with a career that spans over four decades, he is also one of the most equally cultured and down-to-earth celebrities you’ll ever have the chance to hear speaking.
Well-known for being one of the founding members of legendary post-punk band Public Image Ltd – which was created together with John Lyndon, Keith Levene and Jim Walker in 1978 following the split of The Sex Pistols – John eventually walked away from music in the mid-80s after suffering from a long-term battle against alcoholism.
He went on to work at London Underground, enrolled in a B.A. in Music and Philosophy, got sober and eventually made a big comeback to the music industry years later.
Since then, he has worked with musicians such as Sinead O’Connor and Dolores O’Riordan – as well as with talented avant-garde singers like David Bowie’s pupil Ozark Henry, and he currently plays as a solo artist with his own reformed band, The Invaders Of The Hearts.
The latest album of Jah Wobble and The Invaders Of The Hearts – which comprised of George King, Martin Chung and Marc Layton-Bennet – is titled Ocean Blue Waves, and the band has also performed on John’s son GZ Tian’s track Tokyo Girl which came out on the same day as Ocean Blue Waves, on the 27th of March 2020.
The conversation I had with John lasted nearly two hours, but it could have virtually lasted two months: we discussed music, politics, Brexit, star signs and many other topics, and he basically ended up interviewing me.
Obviously, for your (and my) own sake, the part about me has not been included in the article, but what really knocked me out about this man is his vivid intelligence, his total honesty and his complete absence of hypocrisy and sympathy, even while discussing someone controversial like Sid Vicious, who was one of his closest friends, gave him his first bass guitar and also invented his stage name “Jah Wobble” after a night of drunken antics.
Hope you’ll enjoy reading him as much as I’ve enjoyed speaking to him, and may the post-punk be with you!
How are you, John? How are you keeping your spirits up during lockdown?
I’m not bad, thank you. I’m a Londoner and I have a little flat I use in London, which I cannot use at the moment obviously, it is better to be up here in the countryside right now with the Coronavirus lockdown because there is a little more space and fresh air, whereas in London there it is a greater density of population. It’s obviously easier for Corona to thrive in such a situation. London’s casualty figures are high: all the deaths I know about with friends and family at the moment are in London. Quite a few people close to me had it, they have been very poorly, and anybody who had Coronavirus has an issue, even when they come out of hospital they are still ill and it never seems to stop. They are still in bed four or five weeks later and have all kind of weird issues with memory. It’s a strange virus. It seems like everything it’s stuck now, but I think Coronavirus was very poorly handled by the government here. In my family, we knew about that since the beginning; my wife is Chinese born and one of our close relatives was in the city next to Wuhan, as news broke about the virus. So we knew from the beginning that something serious was happening, that something was going on, but nobody seemed to be worried here in the UK. It’s a very strange thing, we (the band) were still working at the time, but I felt like we shouldn’t have been. This is crazy, anyway. The police here are being very very heavy at times, and some individual police officers seem to really love enforcing lockdown. But when it comes to catching proper criminals maybe they are not as good.
Same thing we say in Italy with regard to Mafia: if you were chasing Mafia the same way you’re chasing random runners on the beach here, you would have got rid of Mafia 100 years ago.
The police in terms of the last few years here in the UK have been incredibly challenged as far as I can see: often no quick action is taken (or very poor in terms) of criminality such a burglary. A lot of this (both the crime and the poor response ), is due to austerity measures introduced by Tory governments. I’m lucky enough to have a house with a garden, when it’s sunny it’s very nice. But for people in small apartments in the city, it’s another story, oh, for fuck’s sake! Let them walk in a park, let them sit on a fucking bench. People will generally respect the social distancing rules, but if you are stuck in an apartment with kids or even on your own, you need to go outside and you need to sit on the grass, and is not the end of the world, you know Anyway, what’s going on is really, really crazy. On the other hand, the Irish have been very well with this, they are really sensible, they even cancelled St. Patrick’s Day – and the Germans, as usual, have been horribly efficient and sensible, and it seems they’ve been doing a good job. But as for me, I’ve been very busy with a lot of gigs recently, and right now I can do some stuff I wanted to do for a little while it, so it’s become like a spiritual retreat.
Are you recording anything new at the moment?
Yeah, I’ve got a new track called Lockdown and I am recording three new tracks, as well. I’ve got a little studio here but I can’t get in the studio because my younger son is in here all the time. He’s a great guy, he lives in London he goes to the university, he makes music and was also a professional footballer, when he left school. He plays for a hospital university football so he knows a bit about the plight of Co-vid patients, from his teammates. My eldest son lives in Liverpool and the three of us just makes music all the time. We have a family album coming out next, which is a bit of fun, you know, that type of family album like when you go to somebody and ask them to show you the family album with family pictures, like this series called The Partridge Family that was airing years ago, so we kind of have fun with it. But apart from that, we have all been busy, my wife is involved in a community centre in Liverpool so she is really trying to get masks sent front line NHS and to vulnerable people and all of that. You know, in a way, it’s kind of more family time for us now, and even if we are locked down, I’ve got the new album coming out. The single ‘Dim Sum’ is out next week.
Ocean Blue Waves has just been published. How would you describe it?
Yes, the latest album was published in March 2020, and it is refreshing for me to talk about that album. You know, 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: it’s been a great year, a great few years, and we were all looking forward to playing the album at these very big festivals, but now with the lockdown, we can’t do that. It’s such a shame, and for a lot of musicians this is a very very tough time, and I’ve got a feeling that it will be a long time before musicians can come back. But, anyway, 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.
What kind of music are you listening to right now and where do you get your inspiration from?
Generally speaking, I don’t listen to groove music, I may very much listen to things such as melody, mainly classical, and 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 which is really playful – I like it sometimes when people make playful music and don’t try to be heavy or doing something like deep or meaningful. And so, something of the stuff I am working on my own right now is just playful, and this remembers me when, in the 1970s, I would go to little music stores in Edgware Road, in London and I would buy music where you had people playing the electric instruments and guitars and saxophones and producers such as Mohammed Al Wahab mixed that with Middle Eastern instruments. And yes was pretty playful.
Are there any artists you particular would really like to collaborate with, at this stage in your career?
Well, there aren’t, actually, I am just happy with whatever comes up, and this is a nice feeling. I am 61 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… they were are all born in April, you know?! Actually, all my friends are born in April! I don’t know why it’s that.
I do know why it’s that. It’s because you are Leo, and they are Aries, and this is such a great (but dangerous) match.
Yes, I am Leo, and what are you?
I’m Leo too, so I know that.
Oh! And you are from Italy, are you?
I heard that Italy is the country of Leo, you know? But then you are 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 doesn’t last with Leo.
Maybe it’s because the prime minister here, 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 you know what’s the problem with them? They look like there’s here now, and they suddenly go on on a different angle.
That’s typical. Gemini people are totally unreliable. Donald Trump is also Gemini, by the way.
You know, 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.
So very true. On another note, where did you get the name The Invaders Of The Heart from?
I watched a documentary in 1982 on the BBC 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 use fresh ingredients, just like pasta dishes, but if you try too much it is not going to be working. And if you listen to our music, it’s very simple, rhythms are very simple, but done well. Jazz can be a disaster area if you don’t get it right, and so in the latest album I was like “let’s just play”, while, for example, back in the 1990s, I want 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 a little bit eclectic to conquer back the English folk tradition.
In your opinion, 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, you know, I am thinking about people like Pollock. Art historians always say that music is 30 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 fucking crazy, so punk would be a dream, a strange dream you would be woken up from someday – you 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.
Something to happen in Britain like what?
Britain was for most a pretty austere place at the time, and snd I think, a lot of our music in the 1950s and 1960s was a pale imitation of American music, there was a provincial aspect of it, you know. That all changed in the swinging sixties of course, with The Beatles and other. In 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 punk came and shook it up. You can see it with Brexit now: the Brexiteers like to see themselves as punk. And that they 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 it was – funnily enough – quite conservative and wanting to replace three-chord rock and 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.
I interviewed former Sex Pistols’ bass guitarist Glen Matlock and he said something similar. He said that from the very moment punk become bourgeois and middle-class, it was totally screwed up.
Yeah, and I and think it’s a very English thing. Brexit is another very English thing in another embarrassing kind of way. As I wrote in my book “Memoirs of a Geezer: The Autobiography of Jah Wobble: Music, Mayhem, Life” about the estrangement of the working classes here, if you look at the Ukip, it’s 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 being bullies, then there’s always a reason why people are bullies, it’s because people are unhappy. Unhappy people want to spread it (unhappiness) around. And 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. These are quite disenfranchised times politically. there are many people, many young people now that are not politicised, or eve. Politically aware, but you have to be politically aware. I know in Italy, in your country, politics are very extreme. Italy is a very politically aware country.
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 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. 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, you know, so it’s perfect symmetry.
But again on Brexit, certain things do not seem to have anything to do with the European Union as an institution. Decisions such as cutting the UK out of the Erasmus Programme have nothing to see with economics. It just sounds like plain racism.
Yes, exactly, this is 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, you know, but come on, you know, you have to be intelligent, the way they 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 fucking shit and there’s no point in listening to this bullshit.
You got back into music after getting sober and graduating with a Master’s Degree as a mature student.
Well, I got sober in October 1986. I was already making part-time music by March 1987. And then I did the degree in 1996. So quite a time after. Initially, after getting sober, I worked on the underground in London. After that, I did a tour and left the underground. I was then, apart from a particular driving job I did, working at jobs that I hated and that felt like a prison, and 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 being 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 have you learned from your days working in the London Underground?
Oh, I loved that job, 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 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 straight job I ever had, they are the best employer, they offer decent standards livings and work conditions, a nice canteen, and you can just do your job and then do other things, and it’s nice, you know.
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. 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 anyway as a musician!
At some point, you wrote book reviews for The Independent and The Times quite regularly, so have you ever considered a career as a journalist?
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, for the Leo, actually, but anyway, I did reviews for a good 10 or 12 years, and anyway, you end up making friends with journalists too as they interview you. Journalists have an inquiring, inquisitive mind and conversations with them is quite interesting, and I often end up interviewing them, it’s quite interesting, even if not as much as it used to be, though.
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 happens, I never really pushed myself forward with punk because I was never inspired with 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 is a very good player 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.
And what happened next?
I didn’t know that there had been talks at the time to pick me to replace Glen Matlock in the Sex Pistols, which it would have been useless because when I first heard The Sex Pistols, Glen Matlock was actually the most impressive musician there. John has a great guitarist Steve Jones and Paul Cook’s 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 you 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.
Have you got any personal memories about Sid Vicious you think his fans would find interesting?
We were at a college of further education together, it was London’s Kingsway College, it was a good college, ideal for drop-out kids, but I didn’t get any qualifications 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, 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, that kind of stuff, and he was also seeing a psychiatrist. So, he was hanging out with me all the time because John (Lyndon) 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.
Was Sid Vicious really seeing a psychiatrist at such a young age?
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 him 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 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 thinks so”. Of course, we were having a game, and it’s 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.
There’s a lot of sadness in that, to be honest.
I did a documentary on it for BBC Radio 4 in 2009. It is called “In search of the true 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, kindly giving 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 in a park bench for Sol I care ”.
Oh my God.
There was a very difficult situation of drug abuse. I went to their house in Hackney with Johnny Lyndon and in the 1970s and she was using drugs heavily. I think Sid was using drugs as well at the time, and he was almost 16 and I was like: oh my god. And then 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 was 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 office with.
And what kind of picture is that?
That is weird, you know, because he was born close to Covent Garden, he went to primary school in Piccadilly, 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 behaviour you get around drugs, you know.
Do you miss him?
No. If I’m going to say that, then I’d be lying. But I couldn’t imagine it was his karma to go in that way, 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 was this guy – behind the icon – that I called my friend, was I really aware of him? What was the true story? And at that time, and 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 fucking things you do in your life and you wouldn’t react the stupid fucking 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.
★ If you are into punk, post-punk and hard rock, you will also love our interviews with Prince’s musical director Morris Hayes, Skunk Anansie’s Skin, The Lumineers, Imelda May, Sex Pistols’ Glen Matlock, post-punk musician Stephen Emmer and Bruce Foxton and Russell Hastings from The Jam
★ For more stories about music legends, also have a look at our interview with Danny Zelisko, the concert promoter who has worked with everybody, from Alice Cooper to Stevie Wonder, from Pink Floyd to Guns ‘N Roses