Album Reviews

Jah Wobble – I Could Have Been A Contender

(Trojan) UK release date: 23 August 2004


“Bass. How low can you go?”. Never as low as the seismic, subterranean rumblings of Jah Wobble (or John Wardle to his mum) on this stunning three-CD retrospective, which covers his 26-year career from post-punk, world music, folk, reggae to something distinctly his own.

Christened Jah Wobble by a drunken Sid Vicious, his first musical steps were the giant strides of joining the fractious, furious and defiantly revolutionary Public Image Limited, fronted by John Lydon, a phase that is represented here by the defiant Public Image and the frankly terrifying Poptones.

Jah Wobble was integral in the line-up, pushing the bass away from the bitter nihilism of punk into sonic and melodic extremes that embraced everything including dub reggae, film soundtracks and Stockhausen.

Following his departure from PIL there came a series of diverting collaborations and notable solo albums, earning him a reputation as being a maverick bass-slinger for hire. After problems with drink, he abandoned music and disappeared underground, in every sense of the word, to work as a driver on London’s Tube trains.

Re-emerging five years later with The Invaders Of The Heart, a hit with the rubbery eastern hypno-tune Visions Of You (vocals by Sinead O’Connor) and a new-found respect from his musical peers, he seemed like a man reborn. His pioneering influence inspired the eclectic/ethnic dance fusion of Transglobal Underground, the dub terrors of African Headcharge and the whirlygigs of Afrocelt Soundsystem.

Jah Wobble has always been a renegade figure, from his violent past in the troubled PIL, through to his singular pursuits, exploring different cultures of music. He has been accused of being part Renaissance man, part dilettante, but in fact he is something much more troubling to the music press: an individual.

Albums devoted to William Blake, Celtic Poets, Laos reggae are not merely some Peter Gabriel style cultural cherry-picking – this is from the heart. Wobble is a true visionary in the sense of William Blake, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus and Can, all artists who were not afraid to step into the unknown and be ridiculed.

Thankfully this compilation isn’t some self-indulgent prolonged bass “workout”, more one man’s journey through a musical world with ears wide open to new influences that attract his heart and head, not his wallet. For that alone he deserves some respect. For the music to be an invigorating, mesmerising headspin is a bonus.

The music takes a widescreen look at the world, with discs 1 and 2 essaying his more bitesize creations, leaving disc 3 for the more expansive instrumental tracks. There are excursions marrying dub, free jazz and his own brand of spacious, experimental music, music that is always driven by his loping bass-lines, providing a hook amidst the occasional chaos.

Personal favourites are Visions Of You, the dub re-reading of Tyger Tyger, the spectral How Much Are They, the Celtic melancholy of Funeral March, the sublime chillout of Gone To Croatan and the spoken word bleak humour of A13.

It’s true that Wobble was not blessed with the best singing voice, but he does weave an intriguing figure on the more philosophising tracks with his East End London twang bringing any pretensions soundly back to earth with a smirk. Who else could write a love song to a highway on A13?

Occasionally tracks do lapse into merely average, the droning Happy Mondays-ish Betrayal Dub and the Blacksmith Dub being the worst offenders. But for a triple CD there is much here to inspire, impress and get lost to in one man’s sound world.


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