Memoirs Of A Geezer
The Guardian – 10th October 2009
It’s difficult to recapture how exhilarating yet forbidding John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Limited, actually sounded in 1978. The electric bass was the defining sound of PiL: deeply plump and utterly to the fore. The bass lines were not technically dazzling, but they were of a complete harmonic originality. This was the trademark sound of the 19-year-old John Wardle, better known as Jah Wobble, who could only play sitting down and had first taken the bass seriously when asked to join the band by his old college mate, Lydon.
Like the group’s guitarist, Keith Levene, Wobble was that rare thing, a true original on his instrument. His bass sound had its own remarkable identity right from the beginning. By the time of Metal Box in late 1979 – three 12-inch records packaged inside an embossed metal film canister – PiL had pretty much dispensed with verse and chorus, a startling move for a band that would regularly appear on Top of the Pops. Forged around long and compelling bass vamps, Metal Box remains a landmark album in modern music; unique and improvisational, its youthful alienation and iconoclasm were accepted by both punk rockers and the avant garde.
Memoirs of a Geezer describes the spiritual and material journey of a working-class lad from Stepney: from his upbringing in the 60s and 70s, through the badlands of the music industry and the Thatcher years, to his current contentment. But rather than another tale of redemption by a spoiled celeb, this autobiography – articulate, funny and sharply intelligent – reads like valuable cultural historiography. Here’s Wobble on his tragic teenage friend Sid Vicious, who invented the Jah Wobble stage name by drunkenly slurring his real name: “In terms of 20th-century iconography, Sid’s cartoon-like image is right up there, almost on a par with Marilyn Monroe’s up-skirt shot. Sid’s narcissistic attitude foreshadowed the postmodern zeitgeist of our age that is epitomised by the kitsch, dumbed-down attitude that pervades much contemporary culture. The subtext that lies beneath the sarcastic presentation of a Graham Norton or a Jonathan Ross . . .”
It’s telling that Wobble makes no distinction between the “straight” periods in his life and his years as a jobbing musician. By 1980 he had walked away from the madness of being in a top rock band, with all its fringe benefits (though sparse financial gain), and into a council tenancy in Shadwell. He was burdened by mistaken self-doubt about his worth as a musician. A man who always liked to begin his Pimm’s with soda too early in the day, he soon spiralled down into blackouts and paranoia, and went through Alcoholics Anonymous in the days before rehabilitation was viewed as a titillating publicity stunt. Cleaned up, finally sober and with a young family to support, he joined London Underground as a guard and later drove courier vans. Throughout this period he continued to plough his own lonely musical furrow, with little interest from record labels. He led innovative bands such as the Human Condition – a sort of dub/heavy metal group – and the Invaders of the Heart, using “Middle Eastern” scales and arrangements and featuring huge, thumping basslines that “would literally make your trousers flap”. Eventually, so-called world music became fashionable and people caught up with what Wobble had been doing since 1982. By 1994 he was headlining Glastonbury with a large, multiracial band.
As a memoir of a changed east London, this book is loving, knowing and finally deeply disturbing. Like the rest of the country, the East End had gone through an ideological collapse, from the Wapping dispute to the evaporation of a mainstream political left. Wobble’s grounding in his culture and his class awareness bring a lively, confrontational edge to the writing. In class terms, Wobble reconfirms the music industry as being like our other “creative industries”: an administrative bureaucracy established so that those on generous salaries – often from privileged, naive backgrounds – can steadily exploit the talents of those who are not on salaries. Wobble describes an encounter with Peter Gabriel, when he inquired about a session he once played for Gabriel’s record label: “I asked what had happened in regard to the stuff with the Cameroonian player. Suddenly the old ‘toff shell’ came up. It was as if I was the gardener and had asked a damn impertinent question and he got all cold and frosty. In an instant I saw another side to him . . . suddenly he appeared to me as if he were an art collector, like Charles Saatchi. Only instead of acquiring paintings he acquired music.”
In 1995, with a hit album, Take Me to God, and collaborations with Björk, Sinéad O’Connor and Brian Eno behind him, Wobble played alongside John Coltrane’s saxophone partner Pharoah Sanders on the majestic solo album Heaven & Earth. Then he walked away from the limelight for a second time – just as, as a 20-year-old, he had walked away from the charismatic aura of PiL. He formed an independent music label and still releases a steady range of albums each year.
Jah Wobble has already created one of the most remarkable and idiosyncratic discographies of any musician in Britain during the last 30 years. Memoirs of a Geezer helps to define the questing, sometimes troubled soul behind those legendary low frequencies.
The Independent – 27th September 2009
A post-punk raconteur gets straight to the point
Long-standing readers of these pages will remember Jah Wobble as an entertaining and wayward book reviewer for more than a decade, covering crime, football, psychogeography, the East End and, of course, music. I met him in the summer of 1997, having invited him to a literary festival to discuss William Blake, whose work he had set to music – including a reggae version of “The Tyger”. Wobble’s writing was always eccentric and amusing, and he possesses the knack (not all that common) of being able to write in his own speaking voice. There isn’t a dull page in this slyly entertaining memoir. Wobble is the ultimate punk and post-punk raconteur, and for those not lucky enough to spend time with the great man, this book – in which he sounds off all over again about crime, football, psychogeography, the East End and, of course, music – is a terrific substitute.
The book begins when the tearaway Stepney boy meets John Beverley (Sid Vicious) and John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) at Kingsway College, and goes on to be one of the “faces” of the punk scene. If anything, Wobble downplays his friendship with Sid, whose death doesn’t even merit a mention. Perhaps this is just the effect of looking at much mythologised events down the wrong end of time’s telescope. The most interesting part of the story for many readers may be the brief and brilliant heyday of PiL (Public Image Ltd), which launched Wobble as an influential and revered bassist. However, the band took a lurch in the direction of Spinal Tap with its co-opting of the shop manageress Jeanette Lee, with whom Lydon and the guitarist Keith Levine were smitten. “I thought that it was fucking mental. She couldn’t play anything, couldn’t sing.” He concedes that she was “reasonably pretty”. But with a megalomaniac singer, smack-head guitarist and a Tap-like tendency to shed drummers, the band was already doomed.
Wobble’s character assessments are always entertaining, whether it’s Lydon (“I don’t think that John can help himself with regard to money”), Brian Eno (“he is not, in my opinion, without talent”) or Iain Sinclair (“he had what I felt was a rather sneering attitude to regular people”). Most of my favourite anecdotes are here, including the time he shared a haunted house with Lydon, and the mayhem that ensued when Wobble took a friend as “personal roadie” on tour to curb his drinking. Otherwise, the drinking and drugging years are lightly stepped over: “It got really ugly and messy. There’s a lot of stuff I won’t go on about,” he writes piously. (A song lyric from the period is quietly harrowing: “They call me John, but I am alone, not even a person.”)
A hard-won sobriety led to new musical horizons and a measure of spiritual insight, which fortunately for the reader doesn’t hobble Wobble’s I-am-right-they-are-all-wrong certainty, or his Cockney humour. And, if some of the lairiest stories aren’t here, there is at least some insight into the central tragedy of his life: “To this day I still avidly follow Tottenham … as I always say, you change your house, you change your motor, you even change your wife, but you never change your team. You’re stuck with the useless bastards.”
The List – 3rd September 2009
Within the first paragraph of this look-back over a particularly distinctive life and musical career, John Wardle has been born in Stepney, E1. And within the first page-and-a-half, his mum has had their house exorcised (but not a ‘full-on pukka exorcism’, mind) like most people sort out ‘an insurance policy’. Behind every fact there is a story and with every story comes another sharp comment that springs off the page the same way a good pub raconteur ambushes you with words.
The story of his pseudonym is one of the least interesting; it’s the one everyone knows, about a drunken Sid Vicious mispronouncing his real name. Yet he looks back upon early meetings with his fellow Irish-rooted Londoner John Lydon and their subsequent work in PiL, his collaborations with the likes of Can and Sinead O’Connor, time spent as a jobbing bassist in the 90s and his sometime alcohol problems with a diarist’s attention to curious detail.
The Cultural Pick
Jah Wobble, as he has been dubbed since Sid Vicious’ drunken slurred attempt at saying John Wardle, is one of the infamous ‘four Johns’ who met at Kingsway College of Further Education in North London in 1973. The other three were John Lydon¾meeting whom Wobble describes as one of the few “Stanley/Livingstone moments” in his life¾Vicious, whose own transformation from John Beverley had come courtesy of Lydon who in turn became Johnny Rotten, and John Gray.
Of the three that became defined by their nicknames, Wobble has been happiest within the skin of his, “the ‘jah’ was perfect because I was such a big reggae aficionado,” he writes, “I thought that it was perfect, it stood out, and I knew people would never forget it.” Whilst post-Sex Pistols, Lydon’s right to use the name ‘Rotten’ became part of a protracted legal battle with Malcolm McLaren, which was only resolved in Lydon’s favour in 1986, and it could be argued that it was Vicious’ submersion into the character of his nickname, of which Wobble writes, “in terms of twentieth-century iconography Sid’s cartoon-like image is right up there,” that contributed to his untimely end.
Which is not to suggest that the first 50 years of Wobble’s life covered in this book have been plain sailing, as the subtitle underscores they have been full of music, mayhem, and a life very much lived oscillating between the highest highs and lowest lows. The key formative trigger for Wobble to play bass guitar, for which he is most well known, was seeing Bob Marley & the Wailers at the highly influential gigs at the Lyceum in London in 1975, and in particular the rhythm section of Aston and Carlton Barrett. Wobble bought his first bass in 1977, but it was a telephone call early the following year that instigated his musical career when Lydon asked him to join his new band, Public Image Ltd.
He played on the first two PiL albums, First Issue and the highly innovative and continuingly inspirational Metal Box, before leaving the band in 1980 to embark on a prolific solo career which has included his bands The Invaders of the Heart and the Human Condition, the album Rising Above Bedlam which was nominated for the inaugural Mercury Music Prize in 1992, losing out to Primal Scream’s Screamadelica. Though Wobble had also played on the latter as part of an equally extensive and eclectic list of collaborations he has undertaken including Sinead O’Connor, Can, Bjork, Baaba Bal, and Brian Eno.
Over the last thirty plus years performing, recording, and writing as a bass player, singer, composer, poet, music journalist, and also through founding his own record company 30 Hertz Records, Wobble has been for better and at times for worse exposed to every facet of the music industry and Memoirs of a Geezer is as much an insider’s story of the seismic changes the industry has been through from Punk to Rave to digital downloads, as a cautionary tale as to how to keep your head above the water of its whirlpool. Which isn’t to say there haven’t been moments when the tide has engulfed him – though he’s been sober now since 1986, his alcoholism contributed to a suicide attempt and the breakdown of his first marriage.
Burnt out by the music industry and in attempt to stabilise his life in 1986 Wobble worked briefly as a cab driver and a courier before getting a job on London Underground – amusingly announcing to a packed rush hour platform at Tower Hill, “I used to be somebody, I repeat, I used to be somebody.” An allusion to the film that is both a favourite and one that he draws parallels with, On the Waterfront, and Marlon Brando’s character Terry Malloy a promising boxer who is forced to take a dive, and ends up working as a docker surrounded by corruption on all fronts. As this book illustrates Wobble has always stood his ground when faced with anyone or anything with whom he disagreed, in younger days he did not pull his punches and though in later life the punches have become metaphorical they are no less iconoclastic in Memoirs as he tells it exactly as he sees it from Punk, Sex Pistols, McLaren and his PiL band mates through a host of other music and literary figures including Richard Branson, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Iain Sinclair.
It is not only the reverberations of Wobble’s passion for the bass guitar that flow through Memoirs of a Geezer, but also London, and more specifically the East End, his birth place. Which for forty years, despite a few forays ‘up West’, was not only his home but also provided him with inspirations, challenges, and wake up calls in equal measures, and despite the dramatic changes that it has undergone since the war, which Memoirs vividly charts, a point of stability until eventually that too was irrevocably hindered and he moved to Stockport with his second wife and children. There are flashes throughout Memoirs of a Geezer of another great documenter of London and, if one likes, another dandy geezer, Julian Maclaren-Ross, and in its sense of place and reflection of both sides of the coin of Maclaren-Ross’s most well known and influential writings, Memoirs of the Forties.
Memoirs of a Geezer is an engaging and salutary tale of taking the knocks but refusing to be cowed, a reflection both on the creative processes of making music and the inherent battles in getting that music to wider audiences, and a fascinating and highly evocative cultural history, of people and places many of whom and of which have now changed beyond recognition. But part of the book’s strength is that it is written by a man whose intention is not to document the past and sit back with his pipe and slippers, but whose life has already been so full, that in order to embrace the next half century he needed to download the last, in order to give him a blank canvas, free reign, or what you will, for whatever comes next, which is certain to be just as full of music, mayhem and life.
Guy Sangster Adams
The Metro – 23rd September 2009
John Wardle, nicknamed Jah Wobble by Sid Vicious, was the boy behind the booming bass in Public Image Limited, the band that rose from the embers of the Sex Pistols.
But while Wobble’s brief and almost entirely unhappy time with PiL is duly raked over in Memoirs Of A Geezer, that period is merely a backdrop to one East End lad’s careering adventures in the music biz.
Though he rather overestimates his place in the rock music firmament – Wobble’s world-music fusion experiments are a niche taste at best – it’s hard not to warm to the candour with which he tracks a life story which has survived alcoholism and endless back-stabbing, to emerge with a healthy perspective on the excesses of a misspent youth.
If you can get past Wobble’s extended muso musings, he has much to offer as an incisive character assassinator. Brian Eno, Richard Branson, Peter Gabriel and Sean Hughes are all pithily put to the sword, while John Lydon is nailed as a kindred spirit of Brian Clough and Margaret Thatcher.
All these years after PiL imploded, anger is still an energy.
Dub be good to me
There’s plenty to talk about with John Wardle. His work with the initial line-up (and limited company of) Public Image Ltd is first off dealt with fairly swiftly but, typically, without pulling any punches. Later, the bassist’s alcoholism is laid out very nakedly on the page, so what emerges is an out-of-control and occasionally insufferable drunk whose life and music was infinitely and irrevocably altered by his predilection to alcohol.
This honesty and forthrightness is the book’s greatest strength in an uneven narrative that occasionally veers into some surprising rants that encompass his regularly-stated East End roots via snatches of Eastern philosophy and relationship with a peripheralvision god. Chronologically, we get a decent amount about Wobble’s time on the trains and his sober 90s creative rebirth; yet last year’s absolutely cracking Chinese Dub project is limited to only a few pages at the end. It would have been great to get more insight into how that project and its musicians came together, and the biography ends on an unsatisfying note as a result. Wobble is an engaging narrator but the feeling is that there’s much more waiting to be discovered.
London Lite – 22nd September 2009
HAD YOU stood on Tower Hill Underground platform during the mid-Eighties, you might have heard these words over the PA: “i used to be somebody, i
repeat, i used to be somebody.” That somebody was John Joseph Wardle, bassist with Public image Ltd, the band forged from the ashes of the Sex Pistols. Born into working class Stepney, Wardle became Jah Wobble thanks to an intoxicated Sid Vicious; his love of reggae and dub made the moniker
stick. Perhaps because he quit drinking in 1986, Wobble’s memoirs are more lucid than you’d expect from a boy who ran about Seventies London on a diet of speed and Jack Daniel’s, hanging with Johnny Rotten and guitarist keith Levene. Wobble traverses the ups and downs of PiL, his solo forays into jazz, reggae, world music and spirituality and his stint as a Tube driver (see above) when the cash ran out. John Lydon recently announced the reformation of PiL without Wobble. Juggling his own record label, successful musical collaborations, four kids, a post as an independent book reviewer
and now a diverting tome of his own, Wobble is far too busy to live in the past.
Martha De Lacey
Songline – October 2009
If punk can truly be boiled down to the instruction: “Here are three chords. Now go form a band,” that ethos can be applied to autobiographies, too. More than 30 years after his bass playing introduced Public Image Ltd to the Top 10, John Wardle (Jah’s given name) is making the most of his finely honed talents as a raconteur, celebrating 50 years of ‘music, mayhem and life’. To get to the meatiest parts, however, you will want to progress through the childhood years in multicultural Whitechapel and even the inertia-filled days with PiL. Wobble comes into his own when he emerges from post-punk and digs deep into the Middle Eastern, Jamaican and Asian music that filtered through the London air before he could play bass. Unsurprisingly, given Wobble’s reputation for ‘unpredictability’ during the volatile 70s, there are a few people – many of them highly regarded in world music circles – who are going to come away with their noses out of joint. This son of the East End would not have lasted long in the diplomatic corps. He has little time for former public schoolboys whose neo-colonialist attitude shapes much of what we listen to, and here he vents his frustration with their playing, their dancing and their tendency to want to take control in every situation. Even if you don’t recognise – or totally disagree with – his descriptions of people in the business, this rare nod to pluralism is a breath of fresh air (or, at least, as guilty a pleasure as a dirty joke). And who wouldn’t want to have taken Sean Hughes down a peg or two? Anyway, those he admires – Can’s Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay, for example – are give fulsome praise.
One caveat is that he gives too little space (30 pages) to the past dozen years in which he has set up his own label, released more than 25 albums of undeniably intriguing individuality, reconfigured his domestic life, remained true to punk and become a respected elder statesman of music Volume two should be a rattling good read.
Wire – October 2009
“It took the emphasis away from my head and ‘thinking’,” is how Jah Wobble describes his first experiences of playing the bass, holed up in a squat in London in the late 1970s, reverberating the instrument against a bed headboard after selling his amp for beer money. This account of mindless reverie, and the lovably daft book title – suggested by The Wire’s Clive Bell, a frequent collaborator in recent years – might lead you to expect a glazed, through-a-glass-darkly chronicle of the punk and post-punk years. But Memoirs Of A Geezer much more subtle. Keeping the ego in check has been a central battle in his life, whether in creating a new identity for his instrument- vibrations rolling in the direction of least resistance rather than gritty, muscular heft: the feelings all in the gut rather than the mind – and, ultimately, escaping the alcoholism which nearly swallowed him in the mid – 1980s. His deep immersion in the maternal spaces of bass worked against the blokeish division of labour in rock groups and the music biz generally, and he’s ultimately remained a restless outsider, albeit a sporadically influential one, since leaving Public Image Limited in 1980.
Wobble’s writing is punchy and often extremely funny – punk is quickly dismissed as more or less a load of bollocks, and referencing the number of ex-public schoolboys in the World Music industry, he complains about the underlying lack of urgency “so typical of the ‘resting toff’”. It’s the terse voice of a man staking out his own territory, and his account of the PiL years is colorful but fairly brief. The book doesn’t unlock the secrets of Metal Box so much as functionally report its construction, although much relish is applied to the self-mythologising of PiL and its shoddy group politics, the latter often exacerbated by Wobble’s boozing and aggression.
Unsurprisingly, he’s happiest when describing his bass playing, which turns out to be weirdly revelatory. His compulsive tendencies and his constant struggle to keep them in check manifest themselves in the obsessively smooth, symmetrical shapes and open strings of his basslines – all trademarks of “Public Image”, a truly astonishing debut single.
Wobble’s restlessness kept him moving on even when it wasn’t necessarily in his best commercial interests. Brief collaborations with Can’s Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay in the early 1980s were followed by the awkward but timely global concoctions of The Invaders Of The Heart and 90s cameos on Primal Scream’s “Higher Than The Sun” and The Orb’s “Blue Room”. The basslines on those tracks – creaseless and endless, as if being unfurled from an endless Mobius strip – make you regret that, after PiL, this greatest of recent bassists never found a stale group of collaborators truly his equal. If he didn’t always manage to fit in, it’s a tribute to the opaque, irreducible vibrations he introduced to post-punk, which by their very nature resist containment and commodification.