Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Resurrection Disco: Jah Wobble on His New Version of Metal Box

Photo by John Hurst

Today is the 42nd anniversary of Metal Box, the second album by Public Image Limited (PiL) and easily one of the most innovative albums ever created by humans. Don’t believe me? Well, consider the fact that one of the most mind-blowing releases of 2021 is a reimagined version of the damn thing...

Released last Friday by Cleopatra Records, Metal Box - Rebuilt in Dub is the latest album by original PiL bassist and veteran sonic alchemist Jah Wobble, who has reworked and re-recorded eight of the original album’s 12 tracks (plus two earlier PiL numbers) with help from former Siouxsie and the Banshees/Specimen guitarist Jon Klein (who, along with Wobble, also contributes drums). Of course, recording a new version of Metal Box in 2021 is a bit like repainting the Mona Lisa – and a surprising move from a man who didn’t have a shred of interest in revisiting PiL material just a few years ago.

“I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole,” he says of the not-too-distant past. “I would have been sniffy – offended – if anyone had dared to say I should go back and do PiL stuff.”

That all started to change about a decade ago when he slowly began adding PiL tracks here and there (and often in drastically reworked fashion) to the repertoire for his long-running solo band, Invaders of the Heart. Then came the extraordinary 2017 Invaders of the Heart album The Usual Suspects, which ended up featuring three PiL covers. (Anyone reading this must check out the album’s mesmerizing version of 1978’s “Fodderstompf” at least once in their lifetime.) Along the way, he gradually retooled some of the arrangements for the Metal Box-era PiL tracks he brought back to the stage.

The idea to go full bore into a (nearly) complete re-do of Metal Box was not a response to Wobble’s renewed interest in PiL, but rather an idea pitched to him by Matt Green at Cleopatra. Wobble’s relationship with the label began via his appearance on last year’s all-star Pink Floyd tribute album, Still Wish You Were Here. (Here’s something you probably couldn’t have imagined: The album’s rendition of “Have a Cigar” features Wobble alongside former Damned drummer Rat Scabies, former Billy Idol guitarist Steve Stevens, former Yes/Moody Blues keyboardist Patrick Moraz and – get this – Dream Theatre’s James LaBrie!) Much to the eventual joy – and, let’s face it, utter fucking shock – of PiL fans the world over, Wobble jumped at the chance to actually give Metal Box another go.

“I think [Matt] was surprised, because I think he thought I would say, ‘I don’t know; I need to think about it.’ I said yes because I already had an idea of what I would do with that.”

What Wobble did was create a fresh-sounding album that honors Metal Box’s magic while incorporating new levels of esoteric flare. Interestingly, four songs from the original album (“Bad Baby,” “No Birds,” “Chant” and “Radio 4”) are absent from Metal Box - Rebuilt in Dub in favor of including a double-shot of new versions of “Public Image” and “Fodderstompf” off 1978’s First Issue. While bypassing 25 percent of the album may be a head-scratcher to some, Wobble believes this decision brought a sense of cohesion to his latest endeavor.

“I just thought what I got there was a nice balance. That was the balance as a kind of thematic record […] I thought I was going to miss [the other tracks], but as I worked with it, I thought, ‘This is feeling right’ - the tempos and the fills and everything. I altered some of the tempos, and some of the keys are different from the originals. They segway into one other nicely.”

Metal Box - Rebuilt In Dub features guest appearances by Invaders of the Heart member George King and his wife, Katy, who adds violin. Keiko Yamazaki provides backing vocals on "Fodderstompf." Klein’s work on the album grew out of his heavy participation as a tutor with Tuned In, Wobble’s community music project based in the London Borough of Merton.

“We’ve been doing that in South London for the last few years. It was my idea to get older people who were maybe socially isolated to play music again. Well, it’s turned out to be a really successful venture; we get women, young women and men come. It’s a very wide range of people – some people who maybe got homeless issues through to people living in the nicer, leafier parts of South London who want to come and play. It’s like a club, really. Jon’s a fantastic guitarist, and we really work well together. We’ve worked on a couple of things together, and he’s become a good friend of mine. As lockdown progressed, we couldn’t continue with Tuned In because of COVID. So, Jon and I started doing it on Zoom with people. Not everybody had the wherewithal to sign up for Zoom and do it that way, but we did it and made lots of recordings.”

When Klein received Wobble’s offer to come on board for Metal Box - Rebuilt in Dub, the guitarist’s response was swift and enthusiastic.

“Jon was heavily involved. I would send him stuff back and forth for the guitar parts. He put some of the drums down as well. It was really the two of us in tandem.”
Perhaps the greatest thing about Metal Box - Rebuilt in Dub is that the drums on it absolutely kill – a massive feat when considering the talents of those who played on the original album. In addition to Wobble keeping the beat on “Careering” and “The Suit,” Metal Box featured drumming by Richard Dudanski (The 101ers) and David Humphrey (Sparks/Mike Oldfield/Reflex). Then-PiL guitarist Keith Levene even jumped behind the kit for “Poptones” and "Radio 4." This revolving door of percussionists in the studio was finally closed with the arrival of future Pigface/Killing Joke/Ministry skin basher (and longtime music industry entrepreneur/onstage spitting enthusiast) Martin Atkins, who joined the fray in time to perform on the track “Bad Baby” and become as “permanent” a PiL member as anyone not named John Lydon could ever hope to be. Wobble is quick to speak highly of Atkins’ impact on the group.

“It was such a fractious kind of band; it was so mad that you’d just feel that somebody wasn’t going to fit in. We needed a drummer for the American tour as much as for the last track or two of that album. So, he come along. I wanted somebody steady. It’s so hard to find good drummers, I think. He had a great hi-hat, and he was very influenced with Disco. That got him the gig. His timing was good; he’s a good drummer. The first drummer in the band, Jim Walker, was very, very good. He was really the band drummer. No one [else] fitted in up to the point Martin came in, to be honest. It’s not knocking any of them. There was a guy, Dave Humphrey, who was a nice guy, but he was quite straight. Very good drummer; he played on ‘Death Disco,’ I think – a couple of tracks. But it was such a mad group at times; it was difficult for someone who’s very straight […] A lot of drummers tend to be quite straight; there aren’t a lot of bullshitty grey areas in the way you’ll find with guitarists – sorry, I’m joking! Martin was a nice guy. Thank God he was there; otherwise, I would have been triple lonely on that last tour [I did with PiL]. He was a guy I could have a beer or breakfast with.”

While PiL sporadically exists to this day (albeit in a vastly different form), it is fair to say that many of the group’s die-hard followers cite First Issue and Metal Box – and the original Lydon/Levene/Wobble incarnation – as the peak of the band’s career. (Of course, many fans would argue that 1986’s Bill Laswell-produced Album is also pretty goddamn sensational – something that Wobble readily acknowledges as well). PiL’s late-’70s era represents a rare – and often volatile – combination of personalities operating under unconventional circumstances. In Wobble’s mind, the original trio’s odd creative existence is precisely why the band ultimately translated so well to vinyl at the time.

“We didn’t have a manager. Can you imagine? We were quite aggressive towards the record company at times, like, ‘Get the fuck away! We’re gonna do what we’re gonna do.’ I was a fledgling player who was allowed to bring my fledgling talent to the fore. That wouldn’t have happened in many bands; I would have been ordered to play root notes of the guitarist’s chords. So, that was fantastic. It was very kind of off the wall. You’ve got these three weird individuals floating around London at the time. Somehow, these three oddballs then go into a studio without too much supervision. There was a producer there to start with, but we had no real respect […] It’s funny; I fancied the job with the bass, and I had an idea of how sounds could be mixed somehow. It was a confidence there that one wouldn’t normally have with other areas. I think things happen where there’s a coming together of a number of factors. Somehow, those factors are allowed to come together in a very organic way.

“Art historians always say that music follows the visual arts; it lags about 30-40 years behind, generally,” he adds. “I think we very much had the sensibility of the hedonistic, crazy fucking Abstract Expressionists of the ’50s.”

Now, 42 years after Metal Box, the world is still largely catching up to what Jah Wobble and the rest of PiL created so long ago. And at 63, he remains fully immersed in the world of sound and its endless possibilities.

“I find such solace in the music, and the music really inspires me as the nearest fucking emanation of that supreme consciousness – call it what the fuck you will. By always staying with that, you’re closer to the source and you're likely to be true to yourself.

EMAIL JOEL at gaustenbooks@gmail.com