Jah Wobble (John Wardle) was a close friend and confidant of John Lydon when he was still Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols were on the fast road to hell in a handbasket. When the singer ankled the group in 1978, he, Wobble and ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene formed Public Image Limited, where the budding bassist first noodled with his trademark — a dub-influenced murky brand of languid low-end madness that he has perfected, but barely altered, in the two decades since.
Wobble stayed with PiL for nearly three years, departing after the band’s tour in support of 1979’s Metal Box (aka Second Edition). He then spent half a decade producing uneven solo records and collaborations with the likes of Can alumni Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, U2 guitarist the Edge, and Gary Clail and the stable of On-U Sound artists.
The 1978 pre-PiL 12-inch with Keith Levene, filmmaker (and future Big Audio Dynamite member) Don Letts and someone called Steel Leg is a bizarre assemblage of dub reggae and noisome doom-funk that has Levene playing drums and guitar while Wobble adds bass, synth and vocals.
Wobble’s anti-musical playfulness on The Legend Lives On is matched only by his horrid vocals. But then again, that’s the appeal: the return to the DIY, no-rules punk tradition. Wobble accentuates his reggae pretensions, fiddles with electronics and overdubbing and plays shadowy, threatening bass. If nothing else, Wobble has major anti-style.
V.I.E.P., which sounds like outtakes from the album sessions, reprises the LP’s “Blueberry Hill.” Twice. “Sea Side Special” is notable for its professionalism and use of brass. But the EP is for completists only.
Far more indicative of Wobble’s real talent is the four-song 12-inch made with Can men Jaki Liebezeit and Holger Czukay in 1981. Manifesting a dour modern landscape, Wobble’s bass buttresses the dark tunes with style and precision that balance his earlier solipsistic sloppiness. Freed from ego, Wobble teeters at last towards art.
Unlike his previous projects, A Long, Long Way is sweetly pop-like, treading on Joy Division territory (with assistance from guitarist Dave “Animal” Maltby). Especially interesting is “Romany Trail,” which mixes “Peter Gunn” jazz and modern sensibilities. Top-notch.
The Bedroom Album was recorded alone — you guessed it — in the master’s chamber, with Animal providing the only outside contact. A cross between a legit solo studio job and the kind of one-man-band who plays on street corners, the LP finds Wobble building unstable and atmospheric polyrhythmic instrumentals over which he intones ponderous lyrics with only the barest glimpses of melody or meter. The lengthy record requires a lot of patience, but is not without undercurrents of charm or appeal.
In collaboration with producer Francois Kevorkian, Czukay, Liebezeit, Animal and U2’s guitar star (among others — Wobble certainly appears to make friends easily), he pounds out far slicker dance-rock on Snake Charmer, but it’s all for naught, as the record is overstaffed and overstuffed, mixing repetitive rhythms with extraneous sounds to achieve audible boredom.
Wobble underwent some kind of transformation around the end of the ’80s, when he ended a period of supporting himself in such unglamorous jobs as driving a London taxi and sweeping a train station by founding his first full- time band, the Invaders of the Heart, with guitarist Justin Adams. They recorded a debut album (using keyboard/percussionist David Harrow and Urban Dance Squad drummer Michael Schoots) in Holland. Originally released only in Belgium, Without Judgement is an accessible 70-minute exercise in avant-garde experimentalism, sparse aural atmospheres informed by acid-house trance weirdness. Wobble’s plodding bass and Adams’ steady playing mingle with minimally deployed tape loops and synthesizers. Some pleasing pop sounds are to be found in this vast landscape (“So Many Years”), as are danceable numbers and tongue-in- cheek jabs at the English (“Burger Bar”) and commercial culture. Keep an ear open for brief, uncredited appearances by a number of people, including someone who sounds remarkably like ex-Pop Group vocalist Mark Stewart on “Bungalow Park.”
Consolidating the group as a trio with Adams and keyboardist Mark Ferda, Wobble made the ambitious Rising Above Bedlam a refreshing departure from some of the flat, occasionally tedious and self-conscious material he lobbed out in the ’80s. The album is founded on North African rhythms, embellished with Latin, Middle Eastern and other stylistic elements. In the booklet, Wobble describes his self-appointed mission with spiritual fervor: “Music is a force in itself. My responsibility is to tune into this force, this power greater than myself, and by way of imagination help to make it of this time and place.” That’s a tall order, which the album unsurprisingly fails to fully meet. Still, what it lacks in imagination, it makes up for in charm.
Among the guests are Sinéad O’Connor. She’s an asset on “Sweet Divinity,” but in “Visions of You,” she sounds like an irritable pond goose, while Wobble’s clumsy lead vocals (he’s more suited to musical speech than actual singing) could be Peter Lorre trying to make a desperate return to Rick’s Cafe. The strongest tracks include the Iberian spice of “Relight the Flame,” which is held up almost entirely by vocalist Natacha Atlas (later of Transglobal Underground), whose multilingual talents and unusually versatile range could have been used far more effectively. The Middle Eastern flavor and post-punk reproachfulness of “Everyman’s an Island” also make for a terrific listen, as does the title track, which eschews international influence to momentarily resurrect the fractious sounds of Metal Box.
Take Me to God reconfigures the band as a floating collective with Wobble the only track-to-track stalwart; it broadens the first album’s stylistic range while adding disjointed theological twists. God, who appears to have bolstered Wobble’s resolve to be our conduit between the timeless power of music and the here and now, makes frequent lyrical appearances throughout the first portion of the lengthy disc. Wobble intones that he himself “is the music and the music is me” on “God in the Beginning,” then announces “I’ve just remembered who I am,” followed by a chorus of “Becoming more like God, becoming God” in “Becoming More Like God.” Along with Atlas’ return for “When the Storm Comes,” the addition of singers Ximena Tascon and Anneli M. Drecker (among others) considerably tops Rising‘s vocal variety. Gavin Friday also stops by for a couple of songs, as does Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries. The record takes on far too much to be thoroughly solid, but it is still recommended.
Produced in part by Bill Laswell, the eclectic and enervating Heaven & Earth contains only two vocals (by Atlas and Najma). The album is otherwise instrumental in structure and ambient in tone. While preserving the international breadth of the two previous records, Wobble and his cohorts delve into trancey soul-funk, turntable scratching, quiet-storm elevator mush and other surprising realms, notably giving a spotlight to jazz great Pharoah Sanders’ soprano sax and flute in the somnolent 15-minute “Gone to Croatan.” As Wobble grows increasingly sophisticated, his music gets less predictable — and, in this case, a lot less stimulating.