Jah Wobble: “You’d have lords and ladies snorting coke with bricklayers and gangsters”

Experience the former PiL bassist’s favourite walk around London

“I would spend hours walking around Wapping listening to all sorts of music on my Walkman,” wrote Jah Wobble in his autobiography Memoirs of a Geezer. “I spent a lot of time alone and would really be off in another world. Beautiful theories and truths would come to me as I walked.”

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After he left Public Image Ltd in late 1980 it was to the streets and rivers of London where the bassist and polymath went for inspiration. He’d listen to Miles Davis and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, seeking knowledge for his own post-punk explorations. The music that followed has been as influential as it has exploratory – from the pioneering world fusion of Invaders of the Heart and the Chinese Dub Orchestra to his recent book of poetry Odds & Sods & Epilogues. Since the late 1990s, his ever-expansive projects have been released on his own 30 Hertz Records label, which will now release the results of more than 30 years of cross-cultural and avant-garde music in a retrospective box set.

Born John Joseph Wardle in Stepney in 1958, his family moved to the Clichy Estate in Whitechapel in the mid-1960s. It was in the East End that his love of Jamaican music was born, through Blue Beat records he bought as a young suedehead from local record shop Paul For Music; he was soon inhabiting the illicit world of blues parties, where he first heard bass as it could sound. “Heavy bass had an effect on me that was essentially visceral. I felt and perceived it at gut level,” he recalled. Travelling to the West End in baggy tapered trousers made by a Greek tailor in Dalston, he would become a regular at Crackers on Wardour Street in the mid-1970s.

He found a shared love of black music with an early acquaintance at Westminster Kingsway College, but the thought of playing music himself was a long way from his mind when John Lydon told him he was starting a band. “At that time, very few working-class kids would have considered forming a band,” he wrote. While he became a regular face at both the Roxy and Sex, he quickly became bored by the limitations of punk. By 1977 he was developing a love for the music of Stockhausen and Ligeti rather than the three-chord garage bands that predominated. His love of avant-garde music combined with a growing interest in the bass playing of dub titans like Robbie Shakespeare and Aston “Family Man” Barrett. He bought his first bass not to join a band but due to a fascination with low frequencies, so when Lydon started a new experimental band to rip up the rulebook, he called on Wobble.

I grew up in a pokey little council flat like everyone I knew

On First Issue and Metal Box, Public Image Ltd created an exploratory sound born from a love of music from the outer reaches – be it the krautrock of Can or the dub of King Tubby. In Rip it Up and Start Again: Postpunk 1978-1984, Simon Reynolds writes: “Wobble’s bass lines became the human heartbeat in PiL’s music... that simultaneously cocooned you and transported you through the terror ride”. But by 1980, the band’s creative spark had waned for Wobble and he set out on his own. His first collaboration was with Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit: the ‘How Much Are They?’ EP that became anthemic at underground New York clubs like the Loft. It was a scene Wobble would become familiar with during a trip there in 1983 to record the ‘Snake Charmer’ EP with Czukay and U2’s the Edge. Another left- eld disco hit in New York, it was produced by Francois Kevorkian, who introduced Wobble to the city’s underground clubs.

His first own project after leaving PiL was two cassettes of bass-heavy, avant- garde music with three-piece the Human Condition. He had begun experimenting with Middle Eastern modes for his DIY Jah Wobble’s Bedroom Album, which, along with the eastern dub dance of the ‘Invaders of the Heart’ 12" provided a clue to his next direction. It was around this time that Wobble discovered the music of Egypt through Radio Cairo, and the cassettes he bought on Edgware Road would provide the soundtrack to his walks around London. Invaders of the Heart was the name he chose for his band on a series of LPs that anticipated the ‘world music’ fusions of the 1990s. Beginning with Rising Above Bedlam in 1993 and best realised with Take Me to God the next year, this cross-cultural project has taken him from Laos (Molam Dub) to Ireland (The Celtic Poets).

Outside of Invaders of the Heart, his various solo productions and collaborations have been even more extensive – working with producer Bill Laswell on 1996’s ambient dub album Heaven & Earth (featuring Pharoah Sanders and Bernie Worrell); writing choral parts in Latin for Requiem; releasing an LP of the poetry of William Blake, the original cockney mystic. And London’s spiritual pull has continued to inspire Wobble’s own creativity on his walks. For Spinner (1995) with Brian Eno he created a soundtrack to match the atmosphere of his strolls along the river Lea. While now based in Stockport, he makes regular trips to London where he continues to walk to find inspiration. With camera in hand he invited us on one such walk to reflect on his London.

So, John, we begin our walk near a bust of artist James McNeill Whistler on the north side of Battersea Bridge.

Yes, we walked here from the Chelsea Arts Club that was formed by Whistler. He was very much in the company of Monet at that time. It’s very apt that the statue should be looking at the river – he loved the Thames and would stand right on this spot to contemplate it and paint. He was a real Anglophile, originally from Massachusetts. I love Whistler, especially his Nocturne series of the Thames by night. The statue swirls around Whistler’s feet, suggesting water so, as well as being his likeness, it’s a paean to impressionism.

We’ve just walked west down the south side of the river.

We’re looking under the old Cremorne Bridge. Most people now call it Battersea Railway Bridge. Just over there you had Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea, 100 yards from where Whistler lived on Cheyne Walk. There would have been a strong smell of cinnamon around here because of all the bakeries. The Gardens were considered a bit licentious, especially at night. Things used to get a bit out of order with drunk people throwing each other in the river. It was a real buzzing place. It was very bohemian and Whistler loved it around here. He loved the river, especially at dusk, as I do. It’s beautiful.

Turner also loved the river, of course.

Yes, he was doing incredible paintings that went beyond impressionism. If we walked west we’d come to Brentford, where he lived. I love the way he and other impressionists looked at the world. There’s no fixed structure, and that’s a big deal to me. That’s the way I look at the world now. Everything is moving and always changing. That is why these walks mean so much. When you walk you get into a meditative state and have visions I think are akin to the impressionists’.

When did you start meditative walking?

In the 1970s. We’d go into the West End and I’d walk back east. I’d walk around the Docklands where the old warehouses were, in the middle of the night. There’s something evocative about urban walking. You can stop anywhere and hone in on strange things, features of brickwork or a little view onto the river. Like where we are now, just on some stairs looking down to the river. It’s got a great ambience.

We’re just past Wandsworth Bridge by a little inlet. What is this place?

This is a very interesting place. We’re at Bell Lane Creek, a small branch of the Thames tributary, the river Wandle. In the Bronze Age, this was a sacred spot. There have been lots of bronze objects like swords and axes found here so it looks like it was an old ceremonial site. People worshipped the river here. I find this creek one of those little spots that has a weird vibe. Certain areas resonate and this is one. For some reason those spots are often dilapidated post-industrial places. Everyone knows the tourist places but with a city like London you can always find your own personal spots that nobody else really knows about.

How important are these little corners as space becomes swallowed up?

What you had in the 1970s were squats in these rundown grand squares. And you had private space. That’s when things get interesting, when things aren’t controlled, when space isn’t controlled. That’s why I find these little areas more interesting than your normal parks and all that civic niceness. I like all the untainted wildness where things somehow came together in a weird way to create something. That’s much nicer than the environment being completely controlled and ordered. It’s the same with culture – it’s nice when things are allowed to develop naturally.

We’re now looking towards the north side of the river to Chelsea.

Yes, that’s World’s End Estate. It was, of course, very near [Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop] Sex. The great thing about Chelsea back then, which has gone now, was the great mix. It was a very arty area going back to the days of Whistler and before. As the punk thing developed, it was a very bohemian area second only to Notting Hill. You could forget east London, unless you wanted hard drinking and that culture.

If you wanted louche intermingling of the classes you’d go to Chelsea. When you take the shackles off, it all gets funky. You’d have lords and ladies snorting coke with bricklayers and gangsters. It was like the film Performance, though that was set in Notting Hill. That vibe was still very much there with punk. You’d come over here and get this real, fascinating interface between all those worlds, black and white, upper class and lower class – lots of hedonists, basically.

And just west of World’s End you have Lots Road Power Station.

That was one of the two stations that generated power for the tube system.

A short walk from there and you’re into Chelsea Harbour. There’s a middle-class estate there where Ballard set one of his later novels [Millennium People]. It is completely bland, dead in the same way as the flats near the Royal Docks on the east side of town. It’s just horrible, there is no sense of community, it’s transient, it screams loneliness.

We’ve walked to the north side of the river at Pimlico. What is this place?

This is Ebury Bridge on the borderlands where Pimlico merges into Victoria. We are overlooking the railway lines with Battersea Power Station in the background. I just love the view down to the tracks from here. You can see there where they park the trains at night in the depot. That’s where a lot of the West End homeless and out-of-town ravers without funds for a bed used to get on the trains and get their heads down for a few fitful hours sleep. For some reason even kids I knew in east London used to come over here when they found themselves without an abode.

We are now by Dolphin Square.

MPs used to stay here in the 1960s. It has a really rather strange atmosphere that to me is evocative of the Cold War era. I’ve stayed in the apartments here a few times and did find one or two of the staff rather taciturn. They spoke to me in the offended way government staff would speak to novelist Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer, the upstart working-class character played so well in the films by Michael Caine. I found it inspiringly drab both inside and out. There are a lot of corridors and you could easily imagine that 1950s/60s smell of overcooked cabbage hanging in the air. A feeling of patient tedium possessed me when I stayed here. I think anywhere that has been frequented by politicians and bureaucrats starts to resonate with that slow-cooked tedium.

We’ve jumped on a bus in the rain and are now headed east via the DLR. What did you want to show us here?

We are in Silvertown by the Tate & Lyle factory. It used to be incredibly bleak here and I loved it. When I was a mini-cab driver about 1984, I used to come out here and do a regular job picking up a parcel in the dead of night and taking it to Heathrow. The whole thing had this great atmosphere. There was a railway line in the middle of the road, and you had all steam belching up out of the ground and smoke coming out of chimneys. It’s a real disappointment to see it blocked by a high wall. It lies near the Thames Barrier and there’s an amazing place around the corner, full of satellite dishes of massively varying sizes.

While we’re between spots, can you tell me how you got into William Blake?

People had been telling me to check him out. I knew he was the bloke who wrote ‘Jerusalem’ but because the Tories had appropriated it I assumed he was some stern upper-class Victorian, certainly not one of mine. I couldn’t understand why people thought I’d like him. But a friend gave me a copy of Songs of Innocence and not long after I was working on a piece of music and couldn’t quite get a handle on what to do with it. That was the start of my spoken-word work with William Blake, it was a mystic kind of journey to me. He was also, of course, a great walker. So what we are doing today is what Blake did. He walked circles around London. He saw angels in Peckham, got mugged in Bethnal Green, he wrote poetry and sketched up on Highgate and Primrose Hill – so he really covered some miles.

Where are we heading now?

We have just come through Limehouse on the train; this is a great way to take photos, I do it all the time. My old man’s family was from here and my mum’s was from Wapping. This is my old manor in Shadwell, we are looking down on this crazy postmodern juxtaposition of new buildings and old council estates. When I lived here, 1980-1994, it was the poorest ward in the country. There were no bus routes through Wapping or Shadwell. It’s still hardly the most salubrious of areas, but you should’ve seen it then. There was, however, a good pie-and-mash shop and a chippie. When I was a drinking man I was a regular at the Old House at Home public house. The area is best known for Watney Street Market, long past its best days. Until recently, there was a proliferation of yellow police signs warning people not to use their mobile phones or to dawdle, because of muggers.

How did the area affect you creatively?

I grew up in a pokey little council flat like everyone I knew. That’s one of the main reasons I got into dub, to get away from the confined space where you haven’t got a lot of room. And that was the thing with poor people and most of the people I knew – nobody had enough room. The one thing about dub was that it opened up space, it was a form of escape, as was literature at the time. I read a lot to expand my mind, to go beyond the confines of where I was. I used to go to Bancroft Road library when I was very young, maybe five or six. But there’s still a part of me that wants to be back in a council flat. That was my natural habitat.

What are the waterways down there?

Limehouse Cut, which lies between the Thames and Bow backwaters – now, of course, with the ubiquitous expensive new builds on its banks. When I lived in east London I used to go walk around the canals and Bow backwaters on a daily basis. I loved that derelict post-industrial landscape, it really had its own magic. Hardly anyone knew the Bow backwaters back then – it was a strange area, there was something quite occult about it. It was a very private space in which to walk but the Olympic Park changed all that. The way there was along Hertford Canal or via Limehouse Cut. The backwaters resonate with history; Alfred the Great once drained and diverted the rivers in order to stymie Danish longboats, and Queen Matilda bridged them.

What were your other favourite walks?

I used to walk down through Wapping to the old Port of London Authority houses where my mum once worked. They’re set around a little square that opens onto the Thames. The views from there, even by the standards of Thames vistas, were extraordinary. You are at the peak of the curve that is the shape of Wapping, and Tower Bridge lies straight ahead of you as you look west. The old PLA houses are now private and have been for many years. Public access to the square was stopped back in the early 1990s.

What’s the significance of this building?

We are on the corner of Brick Lane and Fournier Street. I used a photo of the sundial that’s now in the Jamme Masjid [Great Mosque] for Umbra Sumus (Sum of Darkness) in 1998. This building epitomises the demographic changes that have taken place in the East End over the last 100 years. In 1898, the Methodist Church at Fournier Street’s eastern end became the Maz’ik Adath synagogue. The building had been constructed as a Huguenot Chapel in 1743-44, and also saw use as a Protestant church. It was in the 1970s that it became a mosque.

We are now back where we started. Would you say you feel more at home in west London than east now?

As much as a place thing it’s an age thing, really. But yes, the East End I knew is a foreign country somewhere in the past. When I go back to east London, it’s been turned inside out, everywhere in London has. I’m an East End boy but since I moved up north 15 years ago, the west is my manor when I’m in London.