By his own admission, Jah Wobble wasn't let into the Sex Pistols because he was "too much of a yob". The stories that defined him in his 1970s youth were all about nasty violence, drunkenness and self-destruction, most publicly when he abetted his friend Sid Vicious' chain-whipping of a journalist. But when his teenage pal, John Lydon, was forming his second band, PiL, this time recruiting Wobble on bass, he was revealed as far more than a punk-scene thug. Wobble's dub-heavy, paranoically haunted work on their debut, Metal Box, which ushered in the post-punk age, gives him his place in pop history.
But what followed, when he left the band in 1980, showed a need for music as a healing force just as intense as his early abusive nature. With the "eternal rhythms" of the bass guitar as his one constant, mentors from William Blake's ghost to members of Can, and collaborators from Brian Eno to Sinéad O'Connor, Wobble and his Nineties band, the Invaders of the Heart, forged a music that convincingly entangled punk, reggae, Arabic and English folk sounds. The divisions between East and West, and the violent rents in his own soul, seem bridged by this work.
For this one-off gig, a motley, veteran crowd has gathered, relaxed and ready for post-Christmas stimulation. A brilliant DJ set by Gaz's Rockin' Blues, ranging from The Kinks to hard 1940s jazz, gets the juices flowing and people dancing. With our musical minds opened, Wobble then steps into the breach.
He sits to the side for much of the time, looking like a bystander at his own gig. But the deep-dub rumble of his bass is ever-present. A brace of folk songs, "The Unquiet Grave" and "The Blacksmith's Fire", see two high, reedy English female singers float over it, as wood block percussion that could be Celtic, and an Arabic bagpipe wail, intersect in a clear and fluent fusion. Like some Iain Sinclair fantasy, you can picture the reggae-infused 1970s London squats where Wobble first picked up the bass, alongside the songs' more ancient English visions and the exotic sounds that are also part of the capital now.
Two epic performances follow. "Visions of You", with O'Connor guesting on it, was Wobble's only real hit. Tonight, it sees Wobble take centre stage, rasping clearly personal words of rebirth, about someone "no longer drenched in shame". He then urges the sound man for "super bass", and gets it. My trouser legs start to flap in the sonic breeze, and my ears feel the pressure drop. And as the song seems to extend indefinitely, Wobble's obsession with dub suddenly makes sense. It creates a sonic space that is wide, echoing, deep and heavy, a structure that is built for repetition and expansion. Unlike traditional songs, it has no need to end, instead letting Wobble push on into the possible.
"Egyptian Troubadour Song" then shows just how far he and his band can go. Jean Pierre Rasle - "the Frankie Howerd of pipes," says Wobble - takes the lead. His Arabic bagpipes and a hard clatter of drums take off with dervish energy, achieving a wild crescendo. It recalls Brian Jones' 1960s experiments with Moroccan musicians, one of the first crude bonds that led to "world" music. But there's nothing exploitational or academic about Wobble. Because just as the song's tribal beat seems to be running down, besuited jazz veteran Harry Beckett takes the stage, lacing hard, tight ripples of trumpet into the mix. It makes the song the opposite of entropy - building energy off the sparks of the seemingly irreconcilable forms. For a moment, you can glimpse the music Wobble must hear in his head: the inclusive, messy ideal that motivates him. The song, which seems to last half the set, loses coherence eventually, of course. But Wobble's passion to open minds with music is worth some stumbles on the way.Reuse content