In 1979, Public Image Ltd released Metal Box, their second album and one of the true high-water marks of British music. Defiantly uncommercial, its floating-guitar motives, courtesy of Keith Levene, have since been cribbed by everyone from The Cure to The Smiths, U2 and REM. But beneath the transcendency lay Jah Wobble’s relentless, unprecedented grooves, without which everything above would have disappeared into the ether. PiL may well have been Lydon’s band – Wobble was paid just £60 a week for his services – but its sound was built by its bassist.
“I was very lucky,” he says. “I was just a novice. And more power to them [Lydon and Levene]. I think I was in a band with the two worst humans in the history of…”, here Jah Wobble pauses for a moment that contains a good deal of weight, “…in the history of the world, you know?
“But hey. I’m joking, because they did let me get on with it. They didn’t have the attitude of, ‘F—ing hell, we can’t just let him take control of this because he can’t even really play’. They saw it had worth.”
This is putting it quietly. As Phil Strongman writes in the introduction to his 2019 book Metal Box: Stories From John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd, this was “the first real alternative group, the first group as concept, the first successful ‘industrial’ group, the first group as limited company, the first to break big without a manager, the first to self-consciously sweep all before it – for many they were the true Year Zero that The Sex Pistols had been too chord-driven to deliver.”
But life inside PiL was chaotic. En route to a practice session on Tooley Street, Jah Wobble saw Keith Levene zonked out on heroin on a Tube train at London Bridge. John Lydon’s flat in Gunter Grove was a retreat at which he could grab a couple of free beers and a bump of sulphate, but the group’s haphazard business practices meant that his wages were often paid late, if at all. During his two years of membership, the bassist estimates that he played no more than 20 concerts. Following the first, in Brussels, there was a riot; during the second, in Paris, Wobble was walloped on the head by a heavy object.
“Someone threw a frozen pig’s head from the circle of the theatre,” he recalls. “Direct hit. And I didn’t miss a beat. I kept on playing. But I looked down thinking, ‘F—ing hell, what hit me? I thought it was a bottle, but it was a f—ing pig’s head that someone had thrown.”