“Punk” music image originators The Sex Pistols imploded on the shores of San Francisco, California in 1978. Vocalist John(ny) Rotten (née Lydon), retreated to another beautiful shoreline, albeit this time in Jamaica. He went on a musical exploration of the then punk complementary movement, that of (roots) reggae. Lydon fell in love with the bass lines, like many around the globe. The popularity only seems to grow for reggae and mutates by the hour in myriad forms across cultures, a pure form of globalization. When Lydon returned to the shores of the UK he hit up Jah Wobble, a fellow Englishman with his musical lens focused on the world at large, to form new “pop” group Public Image Ltd, (PiL).
By December 1978, as the dust settled on the Pistols, Lydon, Wobble, Jim Walker, and Keith Levene (former Clash guitarist) unleashed First Issue, a seething anti-disco album with space echoed vocals rallying against organized religion, Lydon’s former Pistols manager, the impresario Malcolm McLaren, and even the notion of existence itself.
And it was all anchored by the dub-inspired bass of Jah Wobble, a cavernous plodding from the underworld, echoing throughout space and time to offset the shrill, warble-ish barking of Lydon and the howl of Levene’s guitars. First Issue gave US record company executives such a bad case of the screechies and the weepies that it never even saw a proper release until three years ago in America. Most US listeners started their PiL journey via the second record known as Metal Box in the UK and Second Edition in the US… sadly, this was Jah Wobble’s last record with Public Image Ltd.
After Wobble departed PiL he saw himself as free to truly express himself, and in the 26 years since his very brief stint with Lydon’s outfit (which put him on the map) he’s gone on a musical thrill ride with stops at the stations of fellow luminaries like Can members Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit, Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen, U2’s The Edge, and beloved American bassist Bill Laswell.
It was this kind of discography that has kept my interest in one of the world’s living bass heroes. The opportunity finally came to pay my respects on a particularly steamy September evening, the last gasp of a hot summer down at NYC’s Bowery Ballroom. Inside, a group of diehard music nerds with beards, bellies, and spectacles blinked at me like moles poking their heads out into the light of dawn. On a night like any other night… Again… I was with my people.
Jah Wobble was in New York City this night supporting the release of his new record, called Everything Is No Thing, with his present band Invaders of the Heart. It’s a jazzy, funk inspired concoction with the heart of Afropop beats provided by Nigerian drummer Tony Allen of Fela Kuti fame. Truly world music and the live iteration of Jah Wobble and the Invaders of the Heart reflected that, albeit without Allen in tow on the tour.
No matter, this band truly kicked, surrounding Wobble in sound and space as he plucked his vintage Ovation bass, with a big silver Humbucker pickup gleaming in the center like a belt buckle at High Noon. He had on his trademark hat and occasionally secretly sat back on a stool during his band’s two sets. He covered quite a bit of ground, everything from an instrumental adaptation cover of Public Image Ltd’s track “Socialist” to songs from his new album.
To top it off, he even sprung a guest appearance on the audience in the form of fellow musical hero Bill Laswell for a dueling bass party that sprouted smiles from the lips of those in the audience thought to own a permanent scowl. I certainly left smiling, a bright beam emanating from my mouth, guiding my way back across the East River. All my heroes aren’t weirdoes, apparently, as some decide to age gracefully.