Melody Maker | Feature | 3 November 1990
"Johnny Rotten telephoned me within hours of splitting the Sex Pistols," begins Jah Wobble, acknowledging the fact that there's a fascinating background story to tell before he can begin to talk about 'Bomba', his new single. "I'd known John for some time and he said he was getting a new group together straight away and that he wanted me come down and play bass. I'd only been dabbling about with the bass for a few months, but
I seemed to have a feel for it and I had lots of confidence, so I just sort of steamed in. Johnny had gone back to calling himself John Lydon, Keith Levine was already on the firm and that was it, that was how Public Image started.
"I played with PiL for two years. To be honest, I'm surprised I managed to last that long. It was nutty right from the very start and it was bound to blow up because we were all basically on different drugs. Johnny came down to see one of my shows at The Marquee a couple of months ago and he hasn't changed over the years. Even after all this time I wouldn't like to be locked in the same room as him for a few hours – blood would flow – but I admire him because he's such a great character and there aren't many of them around in this business these days."
Jah Wobble is himself a great character, "loveable but totally mad" according to his manager. She tells of the time when he left a studio engineer gaffa taped to a chair for 24 hours and Wobble – wearing a lurid turquoise shirt, a brown V-neck sweater and a speckled jacket with a huge red comb poking out of the top pocket, and smoking half a dozen cigarettes to each cup of cold tea – howls with laughter.
Wobble has also pulled numerous musical pranks since leaving PiL in 1980. His solo career began with an indescribably strange version of Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill". The collaboration with Holger Czukay that followed was obviously a far more serious project, but throughout the last decade, working with the Invaders Of The Heart as well under his own name, Wobble's material has veered from the stupendous to the plain stupid. The masterful bass sound of the "Psalms" LP may have equalled that of PiL's "Fodderstompf", but "Snakecharmer", which featured U2's The Edge, was a limp collection of songs. Prince, however, loved it.
"I played with the Invaders in Minneapolis around the time of 'Snakecharmer' and just before we went on this guy came up to me and said, 'Prince is really into your music, man, and he wants to play with you tonight'. I didn't think much of it, partly because I got Prince muddled up with that Sylvester geezer, and I wasn't impressed when this guy wanders into the dressing room with his bodyguards, licks my bass and says, 'Nice and greasy, just how I like it'.
"Anyway, we played the gig and Prince came up and did a couple of songs with us. Afterwards, he said that he wanted me and the band to go over to Paisley Park for a big party, but I just turned to my manager and said, 'Fuck this cunt off, he's a real drag'. Then I went out to find the cheapest bar in town. Jesus, if I'd known then what I know now. If I could only return to that night."
Whatever regrets Wobble may voice when looking back, his immediate future lies in the recently released 'Bomba', unquestionably his finest record to date. The most obvious talking point of the track is his bass – a raw, brutal, almost monstrous power. From the first pluck, there's no mistaking that it's Wobble.
"Yeah, other people have said the same thing, but I really don't know how most of the sounds I get come about. When I'm getting a song together, I always use my intuition at that particular moment rather than sitting around trying to work out some clever line. I've never had a single lesson, I literally picked the bass up one day and did it, so I'm quite a limited player technically."
'Bomba' owes as much to the role of the Invaders Of The Heart as Wobble's bass prowess. A solid backbeat, wave after wave of percussion, ambient keyboards, a few bleeps and some nifty guitar work, both Spanish and psychedelic, are among the other components. The atmosphere of 'Bomba' is Latin, Arabian and African all at the same time. It's a wonderfully exotic concoction and it's difficult to tell what language vocalist Natacha Atlas is singing in.
"It's actually Spanish, but the different musical flavours will probably make some people think that it's Arabic. Natacha is a special talent and she doesn't even seem to realise it. She's got the same fluency and phrasing as Frank Sinatra – one of my favourite singers even though he sounds like a horrible fucking geezer – and she did the vocals in one take. I'll remember it as long as I'll remember Keith Levine doing 'Poptones'. All of my basslines come in off the one like that. It's as if there's a quick push and suddenly there's that groove, that swing, something that's earthy, something that's real.
"I've been interested in a lot of Arabic music for ages, ever since I accidentally tuned into Radio Cairo or maybe Radio Teheran – I never have known which – when I was a kid. I tried to get John and the others in PiL into it but they had this 'Fuck off, it's kebab house stuff' attitude which caused lots of arguments because I felt very strongly about it. In fact, if it hadn't been for hearing that music as a kid, I would never have picked up the bass in the first place. It moved me in a way that rock music didn't.
"But the most important thing about 'Bomba' is that, although it's got all these exotic influences, it's not world music, it's not ripping off some poor penniless fucker in Cairo. That idea stinks. There's a Western power and a technological edge to 'Bomba', it's of this time and this place. It's a record that's here and now."
'Bomba' brings Jah Wobble bang up to date in more ways than one. It's produced by Andrew Weatherall and released on Weatherall and Terry Farley's Boy's Own label.
"The Boy's Own people are very ordinary, down-to-earth blokes. Everything about them is so straightforward that our business meetings never last much more than five minutes. They've got a different attitude to everyone else in the industry and it's great to be working with an organisation that I feel I can trust. It's a little odd because I'm usually very disparaging about record labels – they seem to attract the sort of people who can't do shit – and I've always believed the music business was like an extremely bad BBC2 play."
The single is already one of the most popular club and rave tracks around at the moment. Like Gary Clail, Wobble has suddenly found that a young and totally new audience have taken him to heart. Wobble and Clail are old mates and the two have recently started performing live together.
"Playing with Gary Clail at Spike Island was one of the funniest experiences I've ever had. It was a big PA and Adrian Sherwood had it pumped all the way up. When I came onstage and saw these acid house kids down the front, I just thought, 'Jesus, the poor little bastards, they're not gonna be ready for this'. Sure enough, when I hit the first note, they ran back from those speakers like it was a B-52 strike.
"Mind you, I'm thrilled that these kids are into my music. The first contact I had with the acid scene was when our van pulled up outside a gig a couple of years ago and there were all these E-ed up people waiting to go into the club next door. They were stroking the van like they were out of 'Night Of The Living Dead' and I couldn't work out what the fuck was going on. I got even more confused when I saw this firm I knew from the East End, seriously violent geezers who were now talking about love and peace. I kept thinking, 'Wait a minute, last time I saw you you were cracking open somebody's fucking head with a pool cue'.
"The thing is, I can really relate to what's going on and I think that it's a very healthy scene. I went down to a couple of places with Andy Weatherall the other night and there were all these little football hooligans and their girls, ordinary working class people from exactly the same background as me, getting down and having a good time. It's terrific, it's lovely. I much prefer it to the arsey arty scene. I've always considered what I do to be an artform but it's art for the masses.
"I mean, look at me. I'm 32 years old, I look like a dosser and I'm making almost exactly the same sort of music I was throughout the Eighties, but for some reason I'm incredibly fucking hip right now. It's beautiful, man. It's beautiful and it's totally crazy."