Jah Wobble exclusive: Sartorial memoirs of a geezer

The publication of this year’s best autobiography – Jah Wobble’s intriguing and inspirational Memoirs Of A Geezer – has coincided with John Lydon‘s decision to take  Public Image Ltd on the road for the first time in 17 years (bassman Wobble and fellow founder members guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Jim Walker are not taking part).

 

What with Undercover’s recent PiL-inspired clothing range, it seems timely to celebrate the fantastic visuals delivered by Wobble  to match the towering music he has created over the last three decades.

 

In this exclusive interview with Wobble, we also explore the importance of PiL photographer/design director Dennis Morris and a figure who has remained in the sartorial shadows for far too long: Kenny MacDonald.

 

//Jah Wobble, east London, 1981//

We also have a copy of Wobble’s book to give away; details below.

<a href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=ylOCIP54PIQ">http://youtube.com/watch?v=ylOCIP54PIQ</a>

It’s well documented that Wobble – real name John Wardle – knew Lydon long before he joined the Sex Pistols when they were part of the teenage gang the Four Johns (including John Beverley aka Sid Vicious and John Gray) knocking around east and north London, following football and voraciously consuming music from Can to Hawkwind to Big Youth and beyond.

 

//Public Image Limited, summer 1978. Photos: Dennis Morris//

In 1974, the Johns paid a visit to hairdresser to the rock elite Keith Wainwright at his Chelsea salon Smile and had matching haircuts. “Round about that period me and my mate Ronny were wearing pleated Army trousers from Laurence Corner, the ones American GIs would wear,” says Wobble.

“It was a soul boy look, very smart with cap sleeve t-shirts and those half sandals/half shoes, not the plastic beach sandals which some people wore. They were horrible.”

With The Great Gatsby influence merging with the Glenn Miller revival, the teenage Wobble scoured the second hand clothes shops of Brick Lane on Sunday, picking up drape jacketed 30s and 40s suits.

 

//Jah Wobble, 80s//

Although he was at the epicentre of the punk storm, Wobble avoided adopting the fashions of the era. “It just wasn’t my cup of tea,” he says. “I’m from the East End. It’s in our DNA to sport the Terry Venables look: smart grey jackets with black polos, loafers and well-pressed trousers.”

When he was recruited into PiL, the original line-up jibbed at the punk uniform with an absurdist appearance. Lydon, for example, wore hand-painted shirts supplied by Mark Gray.

 

//Front and back cover, both sides of inner, First Issue, Public Image, Virgin Records, 1978. Photography and design concept: Dennis Morris//

For the sleeve of debut album First Issue, photographer Dennis Morris – who also created the band’s enduring logo and was responsible for the packaging for second album Metal Box – conceived a plan to present the four members as cover stars of various magazines.

Wobble is depicted as a Ronald Coleman-moustached matinee idol in a Vogue pastiche, wearing a blue pinstripe suit he’d had made for himself the previous year.  “You didn’t get many 18-year-olds doing that,” he says. “It was perfect for that shoot. Dennis was very important to PiL. He understood the humour and chemistry of the band and bought in Terry Jones from Vogue to help style it, which made it proper.”

 

//12″ Metal container sleeve, Metal Box, PiL, Virgin Records, 1979//

Kenny MacDonald was another integral figure, producing tailored traditional style menswear with a twist long before it became the High Street norm. He was introduced into the circle by sometime PiL member Jeanette Lee, who had managed King’s Road store Acme Attractions with her then-boyfriend Don Letts.

 

//Letts and Lee, Acme Attractions, Kings Road, London, 1976. Photo: Sheila Rock//

“Kenny was very quietly spoken and thoughtful, a real London bloke,” says Wobble. “You would not get someone like him anywhere else in the world at that time. He was absolutely London.”

MacDonald was such a fan of classic movies that he put on screenings himself at the Kings Cross cinema The Scala.

“It was interesting because he was a black bloke into the public school look, making fake Jockey Club ties and talking in a upper-class accent,” says Wobble.

 

//Jah Wobble, 90s and 80s.//

“That was strange and somehow great. And he’d always do the unexpected. When everyone else was producing pegged trousers, he did a straight-legged, conservative cut. When everyone was wearing low, long thin lapels down to one button, quite 50s, he made a higher cut jacket, slightly uptight, very English.”

<a href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=jWDKnmVnXr0">http://youtube.com/watch?v=jWDKnmVnXr0</a>

MacDonald’s flamboyant masterstroke may well have been the giant and brightly coloured Teddy Bear fur coats he made for the band; John Lydon sported the red version for a performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Wobble’s was in green and yellow “like something worn by Flanagan & Allen. Oh man. I wore it with a Homburg from a local Jewish outfitter, a Daniel Hechter suit and walked into The Globe public house; they all  started singing Underneath The Arches!”

<a href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=UdYngwGUWzo">http://youtube.com/watch?v=UdYngwGUWzo</a>

Through the 80s Wobble checked for Daniel Hechter, buying suits two at a time from his Bond street shop, and into the 90s had a wide variety of suits made in the Far East, one in Versace logo material.

“It had this Roman element with the beautiful dark blues and gold,” he says. “And it was mixed with the East, which is very sensual; I love silk.

 

//Jah Wobble 2001//

These days he still has bespoke suits made in the Far East and persists in hunting down quality second hand clothes.”I’m like those older guys who chase young women: I play the percentage game. They’ll keep knocking on the door until they get one, though of course the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

<a href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=rSWJpZXeGvs">http://youtube.com/watch?v=rSWJpZXeGvs</a>

“I keep going into second-hand shops and about one in every hundred visits pays off: you come across a fantastic, hardly-worn Armani suit or something.”

<a href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=UAzvry448Lk">http://youtube.com/watch?v=UAzvry448Lk</a>

He is also a great fan of Missoni. “I have quite a few jackets; there’s something wonderful about their interwoven material, it’s kind of like the stuff Kenny was doing. Not predictable grey and black.”

 

//Chinese Dub tour, 2008.//

For last year’s acclaimed Chinese Dub live extravaganza, Wobble and his wife, the ghuzeng player Zi Lan Liao,blended authentic eastern styles and artistry into a visual tour-de-force to match the spectacular nature of the music.

<a href="http://youtube.com/watch?v=VcXIzA-KD3w">http://youtube.com/watch?v=VcXIzA-KD3w</a>

And what about the stubble? Some might argue that Wobble’s refusal to shave was his most radical visual contribution of the post-punk era, given the silent new wave “no facial hair” diktat of the times. By doing so he predicted the 80s “designer stubble” fad by a good few years.

“Initially it came about through laziness, but then I started to use a trimmer,” he says. “In those days it was akin to luxuriant prairie grass. Now it’s like bramble. If you try and carry it off you look like old man Steptoe!”

To win a copy of Wobble’s most excellent book, mail your answer to the question below to : the look@rockpopfashion.com.

We’ll pick the lucky winner from a Homburg on November 24. Best of luck!

Q: Which item of clothing is also the title of a track on PiL’s album Metal Box?

madame said,

November 12, 2009 @ 10:19 am

Ooooh, i know that it’s !!!!! Great post, Paul….I bought Metal Box at Virgin Records in Portsmouth in ’79, in fact I think I conned my Mum and Dad into getting it for me for Christmas much to their bewilderment! It still sounds soooooo modern, in fact I’m going to play it now………….x

rockpopfashion said,

November 12, 2009 @ 11:36 am

Well that’s you in the hat then Pippa.
I got my copy in Loppylugs in Edgware – still haven’t quite recovered/got my head round it.

Tim B. said,

November 12, 2009 @ 5:42 pm

Fantastic post Paul! I’ve sold many pieces of vinyl over the years, but one thing I’ll be holding onto is my Metal Box.

johnny deluxe said,

November 17, 2009 @ 9:21 am

i bet there were a lot of cans underneath christmas trees that year, i know i had one too that way,,,it meant you knew what you were getting!, great stuff as ever, and i wanna winna wobble….

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