Once just a bystanding thug in the crowd, John Wardle astonished all when he picked up bass for his friend Johnny Rotten's new group Public Image Limited, and in fame's high glare proved himself the creative motor of this vanguard unit. Ten years on, Simon Reynolds finds Wobble's own group Invaders Of The Heart continuing the exploration. This article first appeared in The Wire 93, November 1991.
"It was a very angry, neurotic scene, and it was perfect for me!", says Jah Wobble, recalling punk. "I was engulfed in rage. There were a lot of fellow malcontents. I've got very happy memories of it, because I don't know what I would have done without that chance to express myself. I dread to think what would have happened.
"I can't talk about punk sociologically, only subjectively – I just wanted to live. Recently, I popped into a local boozer, and it felt like pre-punk again – a living death, everybody getting tanked up, and then it's back to work in the morning. There's got to be more to life than that. I was very against authority, against formularised structures, and I still am. I'm still very adolescent, without being boringly so. Seeing people in their thirties who haven't matured can be a sad sight. You can't just be against things, you have to offer something as well."
Wobble first emerged as one of the legendary "four Johns" who used to hang out in McLaren and Westwood's boutique: there was John Lydon, John Ritchie (Sid Vicious), the mysterious John Grey, and John Wardle (soon slurred to Wobble). Wobble had something of a thuggish reputation. "I think we were all emotional cripples, back then," he says. But he seems to have rapidly snapped out of that persona, and by the time of Metal Box, the music papers presented him as "the nice one" in PiL: the self-educated, Orwell-admiring East Ender, whose dub-quake basslines were the human heartbeat in PiL's dread disco. Like a rollercoaster carriage, they were simultaneously what kept you safe and what dragged you through the PiL terror ride.
PiL were what Lydon had always wanted the Sex Pistols to sound like: an anti-rockist non-band influenced by dub, Can, Beefheart, Peter Hammill. PiL were a repudiation of punk rock's traditionalism and rhythmic naivete. "I actually thought the Pistols were a fucking good band," says Wobble. "But the Pistols were the only real rock band that I loved. Afterwards, John wanted to play in a band where the bass was loud.
"We used to fuck about with graphic equalizers and customised bass bins, and experiment with putting rock records through the system to see how far you could take the low end. I loved reggae, the bassline moving around the drum beat, which you didn't get much in rock music. Rhythm was always more important to me than melody or harmony. So I picked up the bass and immediately felt very bonded to it. It was very therapeutic, although I didn't understand that at the time.
A self-taught minimalist-by-necessity, Wobble's aspirations collided midway with those of groups like Can, virtuosos who aspired "downwards" to minimalism, who consciously trimmed their playing of excess flash. "The interesting thing about Can is that they got into rock in their thirties, after being trained in jazz or avant-garde backgrounds. And they discovered the importance of rhythm. They discovered that if you reduce your playing, the amount of instrumentation, then the music grooves better. Less can be more."
After his acrimonious, post-Metal Box split from PiL, Wobble got to play with his hero Holger Czukay, Can's bassist, resulting in the 1983 Snake Charmer collaboration. Then there was Wobble's new band The Human Condition, a jazzy, dubby, freeform proposition that took the PiL approach a little further. "It was about keeping things logical – not cold and intellectual, but geared to what truly functions, and gives, and makes you feel spiritually satisfied."
The mid-80s were wilderness years for Wobble. "I was in some ways a very sick young man, in others a very positive and brave young man. I used to go out of my way to upset people, I was very self-destructive. I lost patience, I didn't communicate, I was just a drunken bastard. But then I started to envision this beauty, this new way a band from the West could play. In my head, I could hear these eternal rhythms, but in a context that was very up-to-date and contemporary."
Wobble was listening to North African, Arabic and Romany music, sensing the connections between these sounds and the other things (dub, Can) that moved him. But "the shadow side" persisted, and for a couple of dark years Wobble was working on the London Underground, only occasionally doing a show in Europe, "for a laugh".
In 1987 he met guitarist Justin Adams, another musician who was drifting for lack of the right musical context. "I'd followed a similar trajectory out of punk," recalls Justin. "PiL opened my horizons to black music, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, dub. At the same time, having spent much of early life in Arab countries, I understood what Wobble was trying to do. In fact, just before we met, I'd actually been thinking, 'I'd really like to play with Wobble.' I'd read these sleevenotes he'd written about healing music." The pair immediately bonded musically, and Invaders Of The Heart was born.
The group were still way out on a limb, and there seemed little prospect of making much happen for their music. They played shows, and recorded an album in Holland. It was the acid house revolution – with its trance-dance vibe, DIY approach to technology, and "anything goes" attitude to sampling – that created the kind of climate in which Wobble could re-emerge. "Acid house did open people's ears towards long, instrumental tracks, weird sounds; it brought back the idea that the music was supposed to alter your consciousness," says Justin.
Last year the Invaders "Bomba" single (released on hep dance label Boys Own and remixed by hep producer Andy Weatherall) was a dancefloor hit. At the same time, Charlie Gillett became interested in signing the group to his Oval label, which goes through Warners. Suddenly, Wobble was no longer languishing on the margins.
The climax came with Wobble's guest appearance this summer  on Primal Scream's "Higher Than The Sun". An astonishing single, "Higher" was a resolution of all the myriad changes of the last 15 years, a re-convergence of the post-punk diaspora. In it you could hear shades of Primal Scream's rock classicist phase (Brian Wilson, Love's Forever Changes); the "cosmonauts of inner space" vibe of acid house, Sun Ra, and Tim Buckley's Starsailor; and a lyric as solipsistic as "Anarchy In The UK" (all about being your own god) except that this time the drug vector was Ecstasy not amphetamine. And underneath it all, most thunderously on Andy Weatherall's "Dub Symphony" mix, was the seismic undertow of Wobble – a beautiful irony, since the earliest incarnation of Primal Scream was a PiL copy band.
And now there's the Invaders Of The Heart's enchanting Rising Above Bedlam album. With its seamless melange of pan-global influences, and singing (by Natacha Atlas and, on a couple of tracks, Sinead O'Connor) in French, Spanish, and Arabic, Rising belongs in Jon Hassell's "Fourth World": a post-modern neo-geography where modern technology and ancient ethnic music mingle to form the polyglot pop of the 21st Century.
"Jon Hassell's one of my favourite players," says Wobble. "I much prefer the Fourth World approach to World Music's attitude of treating ethnic musics as museum pieces. We all have an ancient soul, there are these eternal rhythms, but what I do is pick up on those rhythms and bring them up to date. That's the way forward for the world. We've lost so much in the West. There's a great feeling of godlessness. We've lost that communal spirituality. We can learn about that from the Third World. But at the same time, the Third World can learn from us."
Wobble talks a lot about the spirit. Like a lot of his generation, he's made a shift from nihilism towards affirmation, an odyssey from post-punk demystification towards something close to mysticism. Rising Above Bedlam comprehends both aspects of Wobble's history in its title – angst and elation, the here-and-now and the transcendent, social realism and spirituality.
"That's what we go for, a lovely balance between neurosis (which I still love), and the spiritual solution to those feelings of alienation," says Wobble. One of his heroes is the late Miles Davis, particularly early 70s albums like Dark Magus and On The Corner. Miles was a supreme case of an artist who fused nihilism and spirituality; patently a driven, fucked-up person, his music reflected those voodoo energies, yet always grasped out for transcendence. Justin concurs: "What I like about that sort of music is there's this feeling of dread, you feel 'oh no, please don't take me there', but when you release yourself to it, it's beautiful."
Getting more mystical by the minute, Wobble talks about how "everybody has their own musical DNA code", about "redemptive, healing chants", and how you should "allow yourself to give to the world and allow yourself to receive." It sounds incongruous in his down-to-earth Stepney accent, but those piercing blue eyes burn with sincerity.
"It's all about energy flows. Opening up to your female side, allowing spirit to come into matter. The spirit of love, the spirit of God. You can allow yourself to be transformed, and that's where redemption comes in. Allowing yourself to let the ego go, and be born again."
Punk was all about ego: its drug of choice was speed, an ego-reinforcer. It seems like you've gone from that punk mindset (obsessed with being an individual, paranoid because of all the threats to your autonomy) towards a music that's about oceanic feelings, the urge to merge, to blur the borders of the ego.
"Punk was like saying 'fuck off!'. It was about rejection, cos a lot of those people felt very rejected. Punk was like all those people getting their own back. But that's what happens, karmically – you get your own feelings of negativity back, you're trapped in it. Whereas I'm a greedy bastard, I want everything in life. You can't just pretend that neurosis and feelings of rejection don't exist; you have to embrace that. But you've also got to embrace the need to connect, to love and be loved.
"You get people who were involved in the punk thing, and then they think 'this is all so negative', and they decide to become a Christian or a Krishna. And that to me is like deciding to take smack or something. It's another form of unreality. And me, I want everything. You've got to own everything about yourself. And then you can integrate when and where you want to integrate.
"The reason I've put so much work into myself is as much to do with understanding the music as for personal therapy. Punk was doomed to failure for the very same reasons that it had to come into being. Did it fail? I don't think I ever thought it could change the world."
As Greil Marcus put it, punk didn't change the world, but it did change the way some people walked through the world. The journey continues.