John Wardle became Jah Wobble, it is said, courtesy of a drunken mispronunciation of his name by the late Sex Pistol Sid Vicious, and duly became the bassist in that band’s singer John Lydon’s, new project, Public Image Ltd., after the Pistols’ implosion.
An oft-troubled character, Wobble left PiL in 1980 and spent the rest of the decade on various projects including Invaders Of The Heart. His jobs at the time included working for the London Underground, but by the 1990s he had recommitted to music.
Wobble was always more than a mere post-punk grappler, and he has collaborated with a host of diverse musicians from Brian Eno to Baaba Maal.
One of his most-acclaimed recent projects was the stunning 2008 LP, Chinese Dub, a hybrid of original music from the Chinese Dub Orchestra – where his second wife Liao Zilan was a ghuzeng virtuoso – sitting on top of his distinctive boomy, clubby bass-lines.
Wobble’s other roles include writing – he has had poetry published, as well as a well-received autobiography – and academia. Not bad for an East Londoner who was once supposedly better-known for his prowess with his fists while under the influence.
How times have changed: We've met him, and he's a very affable fellow.
Must-have album: Public Image Ltd. – Metal Box/Second Edition (1979)
“It’s iconic, isn’t it?” Wobble notes of this album, not unreasonably given its immense stature among fans of leftfield post-punk music.
“It’s got its own unique sound and it really is ‘me’. I’ve used Ovation Magnums for the last few years then went back to a Fender Precision recently. It makes me play like I did back then. The bass-lines are very fresh, I was full of enthusiasm – and I still am.”
The P-Bass, Wobble adds, makes him naturally reach for octaves and chromatic work in his lines. String-wise, he’s graduated over the years toward flatwounds and nylons, finding them less harsh on the fingers over a three-hour set.
“If you’re doing loads of sixteenths, or faster, you can soon wear your fingers out,” he accurately explains, “and you end up with blisters, no matter how tough your fingers get, and it’s really difficult to play. Flatwounds strings aren’t anywhere near as abrasive.”
The chromatic runs and octaves on this album are, he explains, somewhat inspired by the then-current sounds of disco and Tamla Motown, with the classic Poptones showing how he is able to explore both of these persuasive elements.
Worthy Contender: Holger Czukay, Jaki Liebzeit, Jah Wobble – Full Circle (1982)
Wobble’s post-Public Image Limited collaboration with two members of Can remains as intriguing as it is wonderful, almost four decades after it was first released.
“I was starting to progress as a player,” he explains. “Inner Space in Cologne, Germany, was the first studio I used which had no separation between the live and control room; I was concerned about tracks leaking into one another. But the best Can stuff was done straight to stereo on four-inch tape, so it was all about texture and vibe."
He remembers it fondly for the chance to play with Liebezeit, who is the best drummer he’s ever worked with.
“Drums have a huge influence on the bass when you’re playing with a master musician. It was completely organic, so we would just play. There’s all kinds of weird stuff going on, but somehow our DNA entwined and it became the most natural thing in the world.
“Holger said ‘Play first, think later’. It’s not a jam as such, because that implies self-indulgence, but was so easy with Jaki, with a clear mind – Zen, indivisible and empty – and yet from that quiet place it propagates and creates.”
Cool Grooves: Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart – Rising Above Bedlam (1991)
By 1991, the bassist was wielding the Magnum as his bass of choice, a hefty instrument which became something of a trademark for his sound.
“I felt completely on top of my bass game by this point,” he says. “A track like Erzulie, for example, had very fast playing, high up the frets, and I had a feel as a player going from half-time dub then almost playing conga patterns. It was the first time I felt like an artist as well as a bass player, and everything came to fruition.”
The LP was shortlisted for the 1992 Mercury Prize and marked something of a turning point, professionally and personally, for Wobble.
“I had drink and drug issues, but in October 1986 I got clean and sober, and eventually got a major deal again. By that time, as a musician and artist I felt like I was where I needed to be again,” he recalls. “All those struggles knock you backwards, but I’d caught up with where I was supposed to be and it was a wonderful feeling, because I’d felt like I’d thrown it all away. Since then things have been great, and I’ve been free to do any record I want.”
The sense of freedom all over this album bears testament to this statement.
Wild Card: Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart – Ocean Blue Waves (2019)
The most recent Invaders release had a fairly long lead time in its original genesis. "We’d recorded an album with Bill Laswell a few years before, but I wanted something more intense, more toward those Miles Davis records of the Seventies,” he explains.
Straight after that tour, the bassist found himself in his natural habitat of the recording studio and decided to make another record.
“We recorded some songs that were deliberately quite fusion-y in Bill’s studio, and I put some vocals on them. There was a very West Coast American sort of vibe on some of them – and there’s even an out-and-out rock anthem, believe it or not. It’s giving yourself a certain license to have a bit of fun, and you then end up going into whole new territory.”
The P-Bass was the weapon of choice. “The rock track is a very simple bass-line, then there’s another track in 5/4 which is very melodic. I’m comfortable playing bass: It’s not that I’ve done stuff way out of my comfort zone, which wouldn’t be good. If I’m recording a project, and someone’s asking me to play slap bass all over it, I’m like – get a slap guy to do it. What the hell are you doing with Jah Wobble?”
Avoid at all Costs: Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Ensemble – Chinese Dub (2008)
Let’s make it clear: This is a beautiful record. The musicianship, the melding of cultures and ideas, the sound and the concept are gorgeous, but it wasn’t an easy album to make – which lands it in this unfortunate category.
As Wobble explains, “I only had the singers for two days, in my home studio, so I really had to edit things a lot afterwards because they all had to go home again.” A huge amount of engineering work went into compiling it.
“I thought, I’ve done all I can – but then it won an award. A lot of it was me cutting and pasting at home in order to make this record, which was funny.”
It was a family affair, too, with Liao Zilan and his musician children bringing Chinese melodies back from a trip to the East. He then added his own bass-lines to the songs, which occasionally caused consternation within the musical family.
“We got a grant to go and record the orchestra,” he adds. “The Arts Council enabled us to go to China and come back with Chinese performers. Somehow we managed it; I did a lot of work in my little studio on my Yamaha workstation. I had to make it work, and of course it’s the one that won the fucking awards!”
- Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart's Ocean Blue Waves is out now.