by Ian Mann
July 17, 2013
An interesting if flawed evening with the supporting cast of Bell and Jeck providing the surprise highlights.
Jah Wobble, Clive Bell and Philip Jeck, Baptist Church Hall, Ledbury, Herefordshire, 12/07/2013 (part of Ledbury Poetry Festival).
John Wardle aka Jah Wobble is perhaps best known for his one time membership of Public Image Ltd., John Lydon’s post Sex Pistols band. Wobble’s monstrous, rumbling, dub influenced bass lines were a defining feature of the PIL sound, no more so than on the landmark album “Metal Box”.
Since leaving PIL in 1980 Wobble has enjoyed a remarkably diverse and successful solo career which has seen him exploring experimental music (he has a long running association with former Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit), world music, and yes, poetry.
In the early 1990’s Wobble enjoyed a brief period of almost mainstream appeal with his world music flavoured albums “Rising Above Bedlam” and “Take Me To God”, both producing hit singles and achieving chart success. I saw him play a triumphant show at London’s Town & Country Club (now The Forum) round about that time. I can almost feel those bass vibrations as I write and looking back I also remember being hugely impressed with guitarist Justin Adams who has since gone on to become a much respected figure on the world music scene.
Besides experimenting with a bewildering variety of ethnic musics Wobble has always had an affinity for words and poetry and his diverse and extensive discography includes an album featuring settings of the poems of William Blake. There are many similarities between Blake and Wobble, both were/are “Professional Londoners” (notwithstanding the fact that Wobble has since decamped to Stockport) with an underlying determination and need to find something spiritual and meaningful in their home city. Wobble’s spoken word piece “I Love Everybody” from “Take Me To God” is a Blake inspired account of the omnipresence of God and visualising the divine in the everyday, both people and objects (example “a tube of industrial adhesive”). It may even have provided the creative seed for this current project.
Wobble’s penchant for experimentation and the sheer diversity of his output ensured that his moment in the commercial sun couldn’t last. His career has encompassed its ups and downs (at one point in the 1980’s he famously quit music and earned a living working for London Underground) but he retains a large and loyal following, many of whom turned out tonight in the intimate surroundings of Ledbury’s Baptist Church Hall.
This being a poetry festival the emphasis was placed on Wobble’s words rather than his music. His autobiography “Memoirs Of A Geezer” had already proved that Wobble could write well, it’s an informative and entertaining read, one of the best rock biogs around and highly recommended. Wobble’s latest publication “Odds & Sods & Epilogues” covers similar territory, illustrating periods of Wobble’s life in the form of verse, some moving, some mystic and some downright comic. It is his first published book of poetry and comes with an accompanying CD. The work is released by Wobble’s own 30 Hertz record label, the choice of name reflecting its proprietor’s obsession with low end noise and ultra-low frequencies. The label website offers a full overview of Wobble’s solo career . Go to http://www.30hertzrecords.com
Both “Memoirs” and “Odds & Sods” are typical of Wobble’s unique, and now patented, persona of one part hard nut East End geezer and one part global citizen seeking musical and spiritual enlightenment. It’s a fascinating mix with the tension between the two sides of his personality a key component of his popular appeal. A reformed alcoholic, Wobble’s latter years have all been about “the quest”, musical and spiritual.
Tonight Wobble left his bass behind and was content to read selections from “Odds & Sods & Epilogues”. Musical accompaniment came from Clive Bell on a variety of flutes and from turntablist Philip Jeck, both of whom have worked extensively with Wobble before. Bell is also a respected music journalist who writes for Wire magazine.
Delivered in Wobble’s trademark Cockney manner, his tone alternating between the threatening and the compassionate the subject matter touched on alcoholism and addiction, Wobble’s musical history (at one point he reeled off a veritable roll call of musicians) and more abstract concepts ranging from the art of geezerdom to matter transference and the concept of the “post modern age”.
As befits a veteran of the punk wars he didn’t pull any punches whether targeting humanity in general (“humans are full of piss and shit”), or savaging the late Margaret Thatcher for the industrial decline and Tory asset stripping of the 1980’s.
The heavy stuff was punctuated by a stream of surreal and often highly amusing limericks, perhaps not as polished as those of Edward Lear but occasionally laugh out loud funny. In the book many of these are illustrated by the drawings of Richard Shields and here some were projected onto the screen behind the performers, albeit sometimes a little out of sequence.
Behind the narrator Bell’s eerie flutes and Jeck’s electronic glitches and drones provided unobtrusive commentary and colour. Bell’s principal instrument is the Japanese shakuhachi but he also plays a dizzying variety of other flutes and pipes from around the world. Tonight he also utilised the Thai khene, a small two reed Cretan pipe, and a set of pan pipes of unknown origin, but almost certainly somewhere in South America. He’s been part of Wobble’s “Chinese Dub” and “Japanese Dub” projects and has also worked extensively with David Sylvian. More recently he has collaborated with Wobble in a project involving Can’s Jaki Liebezeit and Jochem Irmler of the group Faust. For further information on Bell’s musical activities please visit http://www.clivebell.co.uk
Jeck’s set up involves two vintage 60’s record decks capable of slowing vinyl albums down to 16 rpm. He also makes use of a small sampler keyboard, a table mounted effects unit and various other bits and pieces. The discs he utilises range from Ligeti to Simon & Garfunkel. Born in 1952 he initially trained as a visual artist and came to the art of turntabling relatively late in life, consequently his approach is substantially different to that of younger turntablists/DJs. Jeck isn’t interested in making people dance, he’s more involved in creating nuance and texture, in his hands turntables are used to generate a kind of art music. His work with Wobble is documented on Live In Leuven”, a trio set recorded with Liebezeit in 2004 and released on Wobble’s 30 Hertz record label. Jeck has also released a series of solo recordings and occasional collaborations including a duo with Danish electronic artist Jacob Kirkegaard. More information on Jeck’s work can be found at http://www.philipjeck.com
Wobble’s readings from his book took a little over half an hour, a good deal less than the advertised sixty minute performance. The evening’s host suggested a brief question and answer session with Wobble fielding questions about Lydon (predictably), his London Transport career, his instinctive method of working and dismissiveness of music theory, the use of humour in his poems and music and the possible re-issue of albums by his post PIL instrumental power trio The Human Condition, this last one from my mate Dave Tristram. Like me Dave owns battered old cassettes of what were already pretty lo-fi recordings and they’re pretty much on their last legs. Sadly we won’t be seeing them re-issued on CD unless all the members of the group (guitarist Dave “Animal” Maltby and original PIL drummer Jim Walker) agree to it but Wobble certainly wouldn’t object to them being made available again. As for his relationship with Lydon, a certain froideur remains, Wobble wasn’t part of the recent PIL re-union. A couple of audience members also directed perceptive questions to Jeck and Bell.
Having exhausted questions from the audience in a stiflingly hot room Wobble exited the stage to conduct a signing session in the lobby. It was suggested that Bell and Jeck perform some instrumental music to play us out. By this point many people had left, either to talk more with Wobble or just to escape the heat but this meant that I was able to move forward and get a closer look at Jeck’s set up and at Bell’s variety of wind instruments. For me this closing instrumental section was terrific with some wonderfully atmospheric music, plus the bonus that I could now see everything that was going on. Ironically this hastily arranged coda turned out to be my personal highlight of the evening.
While others continued to talk to Wobble I spoke to both Jeck and Bell, gaining valuable insights and information that I have used elsewhere in this review. Thanks guys.
I never did get to speak to the man himself and if I’m honest the main part of the evening was something of a disappointment. I was expecting at least some playing from one of the most distinctive bassists around, perhaps an instrumental section from the full trio once the poetry aspect had been dealt with. Yes I know it’s poetry festival but surely others must have felt the same way? I was surprised that some of the ageing punks in the audience accepted it all with such equanimity.
As for Wobble’s words, even here I wasn’t quite convinced. Some of the poems and limericks seemed a bit half baked to me. After the perceptive, incisive and hard hitting “Memoirs Of A Geezer” this latest instalment of the Wobble life story seemed a little unnecessary, a bit of an add on/afterthought, a rushed job.
Nonetheless this was an interesting if flawed evening with the supporting cast of Bell and Jeck providing the surprise highlights. Their contributions encouraged me to investigate their music further.