POP / Bass: the final frontier: Jah Wobble's music melds Wapping and all points east. Marek Kohn talked to him about the world in his backyard

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The Independent Online
In matters of management, Jah Wobble is a traditionalist. Memos, noticeboards, departments, directors; he values them all for their own sake, the way the British used to do, as entities that approach closer to their ideal form the further they remove themselves from any vestige of purpose.

In Wobble's band, the Invaders of the Heart, the old ways are preserved, although its personnel is as mongrel as a Liberian tanker crew, hailing from Colombia, India, Algeria, Norway and various points in between. Wobble's synthesis does not just embrace East and West, but ancient Britain and the world of the next century.

Anyone can make a collage, of course, it being the principal artform in an age of surfaces. But if you have taken the trouble to collect the likes of Baaba Maal from Senegal, Dolores O'Riordan from the Cranberries, Jaki Liebezeit from Can, not to mention the ubiquitous Chaka Demus and Pliers, a cut-and-paste job sells everybody short. Wobble considers that his music has 'authenticity', a word that leads to interminable critical debate, but can in this case be truthfully replaced by 'integrity'.

You need to be indefatigably observant and relentlessly sociable to make records like Wobble's, to be open to different sorts of music and to bond with the musicians who make them. It's a sort of energy familiar among Londoners, as seen most recently in Danny Baker. But whereas Baker turned himself into a human information superhighway of trivia, his punk contemporary Jah Wobble opened the doors of perception to the godhead. The deity gets name-checked on the new album more often than in Songs of Praise. 'Becoming more like God' is the album's refrain.

But what god is Wobble speaking of? It's certainly a pan-religious deity, extending far beyond the Catholic one that Wobble, then known as John Douglas, was brought up to worship. Now Wobble talks about karma, about the dimensions missing from Western consciousness. Yet however Eastern his vision becomes, it retains an unmistakably East End perspective. He tells an anecdote about hiring a car in the United States. At the end of the ride, the driver demanded dollars 10 or dollars 20 over the agreed fee. Wobble pointed this out - and insisted on paying a further dollars 20 on top. 'I thought, that's another dollars 20 that you owe the world, you prat.'

Like many journeys towards God, Wobble's included a sojourn in the underworld. His has been a career of two halves. The first began with an epiphany, when the 19-year- old Wobble first picked up a bass guitar. Immediately, it felt right. 'It was the only thing in my life I knew what to do. It still fascinates me. Every time I pick up the bass, it's as if for the first time.'

Wobble never particularly liked rock music, which chronically undervalues the bass in favour of guitar solos and Western egos. In the Seventies, bass consciousness for white kids like John Douglas came from reggae. He learnt that 'all roads lead to the bass. It links everything.' The discovery he made as a neurotic teenager was that the instrument seemed to gather up the frayed threads of his psyche as well. 'That was the one thing that used to temporarily pump the power back in and integrate stuff, the one time my conscious mind would stop being like a video on fast forward.'

And straight away he pitched into John Lydon's Public Image Ltd. With their contrary and chaotic personalities, PiL were hardly a fab foursome, or good company for a wayward lad. 'I was quite a likeable young man, I think, bit of a handful,' he reflects. The veil of time has fallen over just what constituted a handful in Wobble's book. But he tells stories about his acquaintances' more recent doings which underline the truth that one man's prank is another man's atrocity.

Over the next nine years, Wobble's character progressively deteriorated. There was booze, there were stimulants, and there was 'a really bad attitude'. 'I'd become an arsehole, basically,' he summarises. 'I just turned 28 when the old game was finally up. It was like my own surrender of Singapore. Head bowed and walking slowly towards the searchlight with my hands up, so to speak.'

He cleaned up his act and looked forward to an ordinary, adequate life, with a couple of daughters and a proper job. This was the point at which he descended into the underworld. Wobble joined the London Underground, where, as its posters once proclaimed, it's warmer below. As well as being a place where he could be reborn as a humble working-class dad, it was one of the last redoubts of the old Britain that was being flattened above ground, not least by the lorries roaring past him into Rupert Murdoch's Wapping fortress. 'It just felt incredibly cosy,' he recalls. 'It's a world of tea urns and dark dusty rooms. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.'

He admits to flashes of jealousy when he visits people in hospital. Visiting a ward the other week, he recalls: 'I actually felt this anger rise; I was looking at these old people and I was thinking: 'You bastards, it should be me]' I like institutions] It's Mum, it's Mother; you know where you are.' For the same reason, he confesses that he misses the Berlin Wall. 'I knew where I stood]'

The music crept back into his life while he was on the Underground. He would wander round the marshalling yards at night listening to Salif Keita's Soro album, and as white musicians leapt on to the world music bandwagon, he became convinced that he

could do better than them. Just when Wobble qualified as a Tube motorman, he quit the day job and embraced the musics of the world; of the Middle East, of Spain, of India, Ireland and Algeria.

The Wobble synthesis received its acknowledgement from the record industry in 1992, when the Rising Above Bedlam album got a round of good notices and a shortlisting for the Mercury Music Awards. Its successor, Take Me To God uses similar ingredients to better effect.

The key to its greater success is that Wobble set out to make it a more integrated album. That doesn't mean a smoother, sweeter album, but one which synthesises both the angelic Middle Eastern voices and Wobble's gravelly poetry. 'I love everybody,'

declares the Buddha of Bethnal Green, describing a vision in which the plebs of the capital turn into deities: 'I see an accounts clerk from Tooting, I see Zeus.' Tongue in cheek, yes; but it happens now and again, he says. 'Perhaps I'm psychotic, actually. You do get that absolute flash of love. Lasts five minutes or so.'

He likes to go on long walks around London, exploring. Of all the mysteries of the East, though, the one that fascinates him most at the moment is the Lakeside shopping centre at Thurrock. He's toying with the idea of finding a local hotel, so that he can spend a weekend in the temple where the everyday deities of Essex gather.

'Take Me to God' is released on 16 May by Island Records

(Photograph omitted)

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