This feature originally appeared in Songlines #110 (August/September 2015) p8. Download a pdf here.
Former Public Image Ltd bassist Jah Wobble, aka John Wardle, is predictably outspoken when he talks to Alexandra Petropoulos about how he first discovered world music and his frustrations with the music scene (Photo: Alex Hurst)
Bassist John Wardle is better known by the name once drunkenly bestowed upon him by Sid Vicious, and is most famous for his time with the post punk group Public Image Ltd (PiL), which he started with Johnny Rotten after The Sex Pistols broke up in 1978. Both Lydon and Wardle shared broad musical tastes with an avid interest in reggae and world music, and this helped inform what would become regarded as some of the most innovative post punk music of the time.
Wardle’s openness to new and different sounds is well-known and is in fact superbly illustrated in his recently released box set, Redux. Across six CDs, the anthology covers his nearly 40 years of music, featuring everything from his time with PiL to his world beat days, with some spoken word thrown in for good measure. And it’s his interest in world music that has me call him up for a chat.
It seems world music was a part of Wardle’s life early on. “I grew up listening to the Dubliners. My mum was a big fan.” And the first single he bought was Burl Ives’ ‘Froggie Went A-Courtin’. But for more exotic sounds, he turned to shortwave radio. “I used to listen to stations like Radio Cairo, and I’d hear Oum Kalthoum. [Her music] was incredibly exotic and mind-blowing, those Egyptian strings coming over the ether.”
As much as world music captivated him, he confesses that the industry was an unfamiliar world. “The world music scene is terribly middle-class, and you’ve got a lot of upper-class overseers, so it’s a bit stuffy. It reminds me of a guy in a pith helmet with a butterfly net.” As someone from a working-class background, who was known as a ‘wildman,’ these were not easy waters to navigate. “I find it an absurd world. I mean, I’m pretty good at it, but people often think it’ll be a world I swim comfortably through, but far from it. I have to avoid it, sometimes for years on end, because it’s just so horrible.”
It was during one of these breaks from the industry, after he stepped back from music into a series of normal ‘day’ jobs in the mid-80s, that Wardle first came across one of the artists on his playlist. Salif Keita’s debut album Soro was released in 1987 while Wardle was working as a guard for London Underground. It offered a perfect soundtrack to late-night shifts. “I think it’s aged very well and I love that. It’s a great combination of old Malian folk melody with modern synthesizer.”
Another of the tracks Jah Wobble has selected for his playlist is one he stumbled across rather fortuitously. He heard ‘Reflejo de Luna’ by the electro-tango group Alacran while in a health spa in West London. “It really hit the mark and I had to Shazam it to find out what it was… it’s really very hip and intelligently put together.”
Wardle does not so easily remember when he first stumbled across the highly-charged music of the Moroccan Gnawa. “I can’t remember where I first heard it, but when I heard Gnawa, it absolutely blew me away.” One of the first artists he uncovered was maâlem (master musician) Mahmoud Guinia. He was at once drawn to the fast, hypnotic bass lines of the gimbri. One of Wardle’s proudest moments was playing with Guinia at a sacred music festival in Japan. “I played bass, and they probably thought, here’s another daft Western bloke with an electric bass… but I killed it. And they turned round and were like, ‘what the fuck? OK.’ It was really amazing.”
While speaking of spiritual, meditative music, Wardle launches into a conversation about Buddhism. “I am a Buddhist… I’m always loath to say it because I’m probably the world’s worst Buddhist – an angry Buddhist. Like a learner driver that’s always denting the car and promises to drive better next time, that’s the kind of Buddhist I am. But at least I have a go. I give myself that… I like some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, some of the ceremonies and the whole thing of offering a mandala, offering everything – the world, your world – over.” The track he has selected here is of the Gyuto Monks Tantric Choir singing a mandala offering, the symbolic offering of the whole universe. “I like the music because it’s so unusual, so pure, so profound. It kind of goes beyond music, it’s not something you’d listen to in the way you’d listen to Brian Eno. It’s ceremonial… There’s something about it that stops you in your tracks and makes you aware of the spacious nature of mind.”
Keeping his sights towards the East, Wardle also selects a track from the project that won him the very first Songlines Music Award for Cross-Cultural Collaboration in 2009 – The Chinese Dub Orchestra. It very much started out as a family affair; his wife, Zi Lan, is Cantonese and an acclaimed guzheng (zither) player and sons, John and Charlie, are both musicians in the Pagoda Chinese Youth Orchestra established by Wardle’s father-in-law, Mr Li. They would jam together and eventually Zi Lan asked Wardle if he would like to record a few tracks. “I said, yes. She got some money to do that, and then said, ‘Do you want to do a performance in Liverpool?’ I said, OK. And then it just mushroomed. She got Arts Council backing, we went off to China to find performers, and we ended up with loads of dancers… before we knew it, it’d become a whole album and a big tour in 2008.”
It was a straightforward amalgam of Chinese folk melodies, especially from Canton. The track he’s selected here, ‘L1’, is based on a Cantonese melody. “Canton is the food capital of China, but the music is very much the poor cousin of regional Chinese music – unfairly, I think.”
Chinese Dub was released on his own 30 Hertz Records, which he started in the 90s. The latest release on the label is the retrospective box set, Redux, which features his greatest hits with PiL as well as with his global fusion band, Invaders of the Heart, perfectly illustrating just how broad this delightful old geezer’s interests really are.