For John Wardle, a 30-plus-year career in music began in 1973 when he met John Lydon and Sid Vicious at Kingsway College in London. It was from Vicious that he gained the name Jah Wobble, after a drinking session and, more importantly, the loan of his first bass guitar — the foundation for his distinct rock/reggae basslines that would become a defining element of the U.K.’s post-punk scene of the late ’70s and ’80s.
Impressed by Wardle’s way of combining his love of dub reggae with a D.I.Y. punk ethos, Lydon invited him to join Public Image Ltd in 1978. Two albums, including the legendary Metal Box, later, Wardle quit. For a while, the wild, anarchic bassist looked set to become one of rock’s many casualties. Drunken brawls alternated equally with illustrious session and recording gigs, until one day, in the mid ’80s, when Wardle promptly left music to work for London Transport while he sobered up.
Ever since he returned to the industry a few years later, he has been busy, working across genres, garnering a Mercury Prize nomination and launching his own record label, 30 Hertz Records. No stranger to new collaborations, the 53-year-old Londoner teamed up with Julie Campbell (also know as LoneLady) for his new album Psychic Life.
The original Cockney rebel talks with eMusic about Larry David moments, finding the archetypal singer, returning to post-punk, and sobering up.
How did your collaboration with Julie Campbell come about?
I’d gone to Warp Records originally about some ambient music which I don’t think we even got onto the CD player. I think the guy might have asked me about Public Image. I said I’ve always got my eye out for a great singer who can cover that area and has the personality; it’s like waiting for some idealized version of some archetypal being — you’re looking for this someone who can really sing and has got that spikiness and gritty urban quality, and some genuine force of personality. And he said, “We’ve got this girl here.” She went by LoneLady.
I looked her up on YouTube, and thought, “This is amazing.” The guy set up a meeting. I just thought obviously they were looking for a producer, but they’d got the impression I was forming a group. As if I’d form a post-punk group at 50-odd! So we were at cross-purposes at first. I thought she was looking for a producer/collaborator and she thought I was forming a group and looking for a singer. So we said “Let’s just make a record, then.” So that’s how it happened. It was a Larry David moment.
If she’s your “archetypal being,” she must have impressed you.
When I first heard her, it was obvious that she was intelligent. She had thought about the sound; it was a pared-down aesthetic, which I like — it tends to mean you can get to the essence of things, and there’s no posturing. I told her my views on post-punk and said that there should be some spoken word. I had an idea she’d be good with lyrics. She had a big book of lyrics and they were actually typed. There were torrents of them; it was slightly scary, like that scene from The Shining. I thought, “Oh god, she’s a proper poet! She’s really for real. We can really make something here.” I wasn’t even sure that she knew me or Public Image Ltd. Increasingly you have to realize that you’re quite ancient and people in their 20s or even 30s won’t know who PiL are. It turned out Julie was a big PiL fan.
What did you identify with in Campbell’s lyrics? Was it a post-punk aesthetic?
What I liked about punk and post-punk was it was ok to express angry feelings against things and it was all very non-conformist, as in the Romantic poet period. In their case, they railed and articulated against the industrial revolution and early stage capitalism, and we rail against late stage capitalism in a heartfelt way. There’s a strong sense of alienation in Julie’s writing that I obviously identify with. Through my teenage years I felt marginalized so I identified with marginalized people. I always tended to get on with immigrants.
And you also share a love of walking?
I’m a long distance pedestrian, Julie is as well. Very much so. I like urban walking best of all.
Some of the weird places that are going into decay. Canals and derelict buildings resonate; they’re very haunted and you go off into another world, you see the city from another side.
And that’s influenced your music.
Very much so. It informed it and the music was sometimes reflected back at it. I produced Brian Eno — I think I was the only person to ever do that, with Spinner — and that album came from those walks and was actually made to walk through that territory. It’s funny because there’s a Jah Wobble forum and just in the last few days it’s kicked off with a load of people talking about how music affects your walking, how you look at life and how it kind of opens you up. They were talking about electric period Miles Davis; big swathes of music that are fantastic for having on your headphones and walking through the city.
You set out to make a post-punk album with Psychic Life. What aspects other than spoken word were important?
I thought it should have one or two numbers that were very modal and quite brutal, and should have Keith Levene’s guitar on them. It has a dark, rather sombre sound. I’m thinking “Albatross” off the Metal Box album, I’ve always really liked that. And mutant disco, of course, that’s a great post-punk genre. PiL were undeniably very influenced by the disco era — I certainly was &38212; and so that had to be on there. But the singer has got to carry that and be able to sing, which we never had in Public Image. We didn’t have a proper singer, so I wanted somebody who could cover that spoken edgy thing, but also has a quality voice. I don’t think there are many that are big on voice, have got the attitude and the words. Know what I mean? I’m an idealize-everything, romanticize-everything kind of bloke. I’m more like a Frenchman.
Former PiL guitarist Keith Levene plays on the album. How did you feel about reconnecting with him after his history of drug abuse?
To be honest, worried, because of the drug thing. I asked “Are you really clean?” And he said to me, “When I say I’m clean, I’m really clean!” He appears to be. Just over a year ago we made contact again and he’s trying and I’m trying. He’s done everything, it’s all kind of worked, and we’ve booked to go out to Japan in January.
We’ve got some unfinished business. We always played very well together, we got on well when we were in squats together, we’d team up and always be able to play something interesting so it’s a case of ‘can we still do that?’ I think the answer’s yes. When I left PiL I didn’t tell people to fuck off. Although he could be quite a treacherous bloke at that time, I still stayed in contact right up until the ’90s. It was only then with the junkie thing going on I said, “Keith, get lost.” There’s a bloody myth about heroin that you can take it and still function. I think Charlie Parker is the exception to the rule and even Charlie Parker would have probably made more, better music if he hadn’t been on smack. And I think a lot of Keith’s focus went at that time. Now he seems completely focused on playing; he’s always got a guitar in his hand.
There was talk of you reforming Public Image Ltd. How close did you get to that?
It was a one-off conversation. I got a phone call from John [Lydon]. He already had it mapped it out. Loads of records came out with the PiL moniker in the late ’80s and early ’90s and I really don’t want to have anything to do with that, to be honest. Stylistically it’s not the stuff I’m into. I was there for the first two albums; that was the sound. So to be quite frank, that’s what I would be interested in — that sound, and the development of that sound. I said to him, “I don’t think this will happen on any level.” The way you would normally expect those reformations to take place is to play Metal Box, but it’s very important, for a bloke like me, that we do a new thing as well, that’s genuinely challenging the status quo. And Mark [Gray] said “yeah, but Keith has a well-documented history in drug abuse.” Haven’t we all? It’s a big issue — how the hell do you replace Keith, such a one-off bloke? Keith had a very big part to play. How would you make it work? But obviously it didn’t even come down to that. On every level it was a non-starter for me.
Otherwise it becomes what you refer to as “museum music” — that’s a great phrase.
You’ve got to invest in a new thing otherwise you’re just staging an old album. You might choose to do Metal Box, but, before you even do that, you get together and make sure you’ve still got a thing going on. And then you start making new stuff so it’s fresh and you start to take things forward. Nostalgia’s an awful thing. And also if it’s just a money-making thing I think that’s horrible.