Jah Wobble - Redux: Anthology 1978-2015

by Rob Taylor Rating:9 Release Date:2015-05-25

As a bass player of 36 years standing, Jah Wobble’s career cannot be abbreviated onto one disc or LP. More so because his wide ranging musical vision makes him the David Attenborough of his artform. Sound sculptor, archivist, collaborator, and master of the low-end bass, Jah Wobble’s sound is iconic and instantly recognisable. Who among you has not heard the bassline on ‘Public Image Theme’ or ‘Careering’?

Jah Wobble’s last compilation, I Could Have Been a Contender, was released In 2004. It was a three-disc set. His latest, Jah Wobble Redux Anthology 1978-2015 runs to six discs, thematically programmed and sharing only five tracks in common with the earlier compilation - an important point for fans to note.

For those who don’t know, Jah Wobble is actually John Wardle, but Sid Vicious had trouble pronouncing his name, and given Wardle’s affection for dub and ska as a young man, the accidental bastardisation of his name created an identity apposite to Wardle’s aspirations as a musician.

As a lad growing up in the East End, Wobble managed to control a tendency towards excessive self-destruction through drugs and alcohol, at least to an extent where his musical gift almost always had primacy. His keen intellect, and ability to read the motivations of others is conspicuous from reading the autobiography Memoirs of a Geezer.

For instance, his tenure with Public Image Ltd saw him exposed to the worst kinds of corporate exploitation and self-abuse among his bandmates: John Lydon trying to compensate for Malcolm McLaren’s plundering of the Sex Pistols’ business assets, by adopting a similar business model with Public Image Ltd; the band becoming an ‘umbrella’ company, making each of the band members personally liable for recording debts etc, but somehow only enriching Lydon to any significant extent. Wobble learnt much from the business motivations of others, and set about taking more personal control over his music. Hence much of Jah’s music has been released on his label, 30 Hertz. 

Listening to the Public Image Ltd tracks on disc A (glibly titled ‘Greatest Hits’) of Redux Anthology 1978-2015, it’s fair to observe that Lydon, Wobble and Levene each contributed something special to the band. Wobble’s loud, rumbling, funky bass-lines, as much informed by transcontinental sounds as Western rock music, Levene’s richly harmonic guitar and rock ‘n’ roll credentials, and Lydon’s brilliantly unsettled vocal presence.

Wobble certainly doesn’t begrudge Lydon his place in musical history, but does question the extent of his autocracy over Public Image Ltd. When Public Image Ltd reformed a few years ago, Lydon offered Wobble a salary of £1,500 a week to play on tour with them. The personal insult implicit in this arrangement re-opened wounds which hadn’t properly healed. Needless to say, Wobble skipped the tour.

Of course, there’s much more to Jah Wobble than Public Image Ltd. Redux Anthology 1978-2015 is a fitting testament to the breadth of Jah Wobble’s musical interests and talents. Wobble’s projects are shrewdly chosen and show exemplary taste. The disc entitled 'Jazz' is so close in creative scope with the jazz-funk excursions of 1970s Miles Davis, as to be barely indistinguishable from the great man’s jazz-funk albums, Live Evil, Agharta, and probably even Tutu.

Which is not to say that Wobble’s jazz compositions are a contrivance, or show a lack of self direction. Far from it. Wobble’s bass is actually very close to the funk and soul sounds of the best of Davis’s bass players, most notably Michael Henderson. You can hear that in his other musical projects. Funk is never far from dance, or at least danceability, and Wobble’s collaborations with Julie Campbell aka Lonelady (the album Psychic Life) showcase the versatility of Wobble’s elastic basslines. 

A whole disc entitled ‘World Roots’ is dedicated to Wobble’s collaborations with the likes of Natacha Atlas, Baaba Maal, and the Nippon Dun Ensemble. Using his band Invaders of the Heart as a vehicle to explore global rhythms, Wobble’s rubbery bass playing stretches right around whichever composition he plays, and remarkably, with very few exceptions, his bass is never incongruous or dissentient to the origins of the music. 

Take for instance Wobble’s affectionate collaborations with the Chinese Dub Orchestra, where the bass binds with the metallic treble of the traditional chinese instruments, giving them body and warmth. Or the subcontinental rhythms of the wonderful 'Alsema Dub' (with Bill Laswell), over which a simple bass-line perfectly pitched and looped draws more attention to the authenticity of the music’s origins than any perceived dilution of the music for western ears. This is where Wobble succeeds brilliantly. He sculpts the sound of his bass in a way which doesn’t intrude upon the other musical elements, but nonetheless retains a big, prominent and individualistic sound. 

Personally, I found the title of disc B, ‘Eighties’, a bit scary, and my fears were momentarily confirmed with a silky, overproduced take on ‘Blueberry Hill’. Really though, it’s a minor speed-hump. 

Disc F, entitled ‘Cover Versions’, is a warm-hearted tribute to Wobble’s musical influences, including great versions of 'Theme to Midnight Cowboy' and 'Theme to The Sweeney' with Wobble’s roisterous signing off “You’re nicked!” There’s also a homage to the ska/bluebeat music of his youth on ‘Liquidator’. 

The boxset contains a beautiful 55 page booklet in longbox format. Jah Wobble introduces and annotates each track, and the photos are wonderful. 

Wobble is often typecast as a ‘world musician’, which is ironic because Jah Wobble personally believes that the ‘world music’ industry is controlled by cardigan-wearing middle-aged toffs. In the proper sense, though, Jah Wobble’s music is without boundaries. He is both a creative spirit, and a truly international artist. Redux bears that out.

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