‘For years people have been going on and on in the punk scene about the bankers fleecing us and everyone put it down as hippy talk but now everyone knows about it, it’s been completely blown open. But what makes it worse is that nothing’s changed‘ – Niall McGuirk talks to John Robb of Goldblade.
The first time I came across John Robb was in 1984. He was in a band called The Membranes. I had been to Blackpool on holidays with my parents and saw some posters for this band. It was in promotion of their single Spike Milligans Tape Recorder. I was instantly intrigued. The poster was a mish-mash of caricatures, I don’t think anything else could have been squeezed into that page. There was one record shop in Blackpool and back then travelling to the UK meant getting as many records as possible. I had orders in from everyone but one of the 7″s not on order was this Spike Milligan one. I bought it and was energised. There was an excitment, a discordant racket that went all over the place. With lyrics not quite as straight forward as smash the system or meat is murder there was an allegiance to the punk community in everything the membranes did. John also published his own zine, ROX. I got as many copies as I could and have been following his material ever since.
In the intervening 29 years (I know)… he has released many records, zines and is the author of quite a few books, namely Death To Trad Rock about that glorious era and Punk, an Oral History. He has also written extensively on the Manchester Music scene and is the paste that many of these wallpaper shows on music and culture use as the knowledgeable one on the scene.
He is also starting to appear on the speaking circuit and is a free lance journalist for many music magazines. Since 1995 he has been in Goldblade whose new album “The Terror of Modern Life” is out now on Overground Records
Hi John, how are things?
Been all over the place, was in Istanbul last week, home to play some gigs and then off to New York next week, bit of charging about really
Hows the album going? Happy with the sound of it?
Album has got about 40 great reviews so far, for us its the best one. It sounds really raw and exciting. Its got the proper bass sound. We did it originally with Harvey Birrell and had a massive fall out with Southern. We then managed to leave Southern, we knew that you could leave a label and re record your record and the first label can’t put it out and we managed to get out of the whole thing. We are now with Overground.
Do you still believe in the Power Of Rock’n’Roll?
Quite defiinitely, but it depends how you define rock and roll, so many different versions of what it is, I don’t think we are dealing in a retro thing. I believe in the power and the sound of it. The way it can lift you up and create space for some sort of change, definitely the kind of punk rock aspects of it.
On your website you proclaim to be still fighting the punk rock war. What does that mean?
We have got a bit of criticism for that, like Japanese soldiers in a trench 40 years after the war is over. Maybe that’s a bit true, what’s everybody else doing that’s any better? We still believe in all those great things that came out in the punk rock period, the idea that music is more than just a career opportunity, that it had something about it that could inspire and empower peolple like the way it inspired and empowered us as well. You kind of hope that your music does that to other people, you hope that your music is in a context as well. It’s not just a bunch of blokes playing songs. It has to be a bit more than that.
What effect has music had on your life?
My life sums it up really. It puts you on an interesting trajectory and an interesting adventure as well. I suppose it’s the aspect that its a creative thing, it’s great to be doing something that’s creative. I’m kind of amazed that after all these years that we still have the space to do it and make a record that’s been so acclaimed after 36 years of making music.
From writing letters and listening to Membranes for me years ago. it’s great to see you’re still doing that 30 years on.
One of the interesting things about it is that you can be linked to different places. it’s not neccesarily people living next door. Someone in Tokyo or Los Angeles or Dublin can connect with what you’re doing. We semi-reformed The Membranes a couple of years ago to do gigs here and there and by me playing bass in the Membranes made me realise the power of the bass, it has infected Goldblade like a virus. We have ended up with a record that’s inbetween the two bands. It’s a punk rock album and also a post punk album. It’s the closest mix to both sort of bands. We got a really good review that said it’s like a tribute to all the styles of punk. I quite like that cos it goes from stuff that’s quite hardcore to stuff that’s dislocated like post punk, to stuff almost like black metal or drone rock or SunnO. Punk kind of shattered into loads of different mini scenes and somehow we’ve managed to capture all those bits onto one record in a weird way.
It’s 5 years since the last album but you’ve been doing a lot of gigs – why the delay?
The album was meant to come out last spring but Southern kept stalling and we had a fall out so we had to go to another label. It was good as we got to re-record it again. Harvey did a great job with the first one but by the time we did it again the band were so hot from touring the record was even more powerful. Luckily it’s the kind of music that doesn’t date. It doesn’t operate in a time zone does it?
Is there a story to each song? Where do they all come from?
It’s a reflection on the kind of times were witnessing, there’s a darkness and uncertainty in the world and that’s reflected in the music and lyrics. Each song is about specific things. The first song, this is war could be about ballroom dancing but it could be about the ballroom dancing of war, the tango of war. It’s kind of obtuse. I was never interested in writing directly about things because we’re all massively into Captain Beefheart as well, all the surreal stuff. So we say some of the surreal stuff rather than saying ‘oh the government is shit’ over and over, which kind of works in a way for some bands but it wasn’t something we were ever interested in doing.
These are times where there is nothing to believe in. I was reading this thing from Russia where there’s a lot of fake prophets running around, fake shamen, people believe in them and I thought that’s kind of interesting cos if you extend that to the west where you have celebrity culture which is a kind of lightweight version of it, so ‘the shamen are coming’ is kind of about that as well.
‘Someone stole my brain’ is more of a punk topic, it’s a comment on the way everyhting is so mind numbing and how everyone is eating like baby food and watching child-like programmes on television like the X Factor.
‘Serious Business’ is autobigraphical in a sense, about growing up with punk rock and reggae in a sense, listening to John Peel when we were kids growing up in Blackpool and how different kinds of music came to us at once. being in a band and all the certain aspects of counter culture. It’s like a potted history of the last 35 years of counter culture shoved into three verses.
There seems to be a few references to The Clash in there?
There’s a few but people are finding more than we thought there would be. We really like the Clash but we probably like The Stranglers more and there’s more references to them musically. Maybe Serious Business could be a clash thing but there’s also a Ruts thing as well in there. It’s all part of the DNA of the record cos we grew up with those bands. There’s also Alternative TV and Killing Joke and all those bands we grew up with years ago. It’s like a photograph of 35 years ago, that’s the roots of it but it continues on as you get to other styles of music. There’s probably bits of Black Flag and Minor Threat in there and other bands from 25 years ago and other types of music we listen to now. Obviously the drone rock music, SunnO stuff in there as well. That crept in with the deep tuning on the guitars and the drones on the title track as well. Although we did our own version of it and took it somewhere else.
A Goldblade gig has a great sense of community – what’s the intention behind that?
It’s a punk rock thing. It was always about sharing the space. One of things in punk rock is that the audience is just as important as the band really. It wasn’t about rock stars and the serfs queueing up to buy stuff afterwards. I suppose in a mini sense that still goes on but it was more about sharing a communal feeling or celebrating the music. That’s an important part of what we do and we try and make it feel like that aswell. It’s great when people connect with what you’re playing but it’s great when you connect back as well. The energy goes round in a circle.
Is playing on a big stage different?
Not really you can definitely break the barrier down, by the time you get into a stadium which we very rarely play it gets more difficult. Having said that we’ve played festivals wth a fence at the front and when you go down to the front it exaggerates the breakdown of barriers which in a wierd way makes it simpler.
What’s your impresion of Britain in 2013 as opposed to when you started playing music in 78?
Some aspects its kind of wierdly similar, because of the recession and the Tory government. Although at that time there was a Labour government in power but it didn’t feel particularly Labour. There’s been a certain breakdown in society with the financial stuff. The world sometimes can look a scary sort of place. There’s definitely a polarisation going on and unfortunately a lot of it is going towards the right. These are very uncertain times. I was just thinking about it in relation to the album title the other day. The key word that you read everywhere is terror. Linking that back to punk the key word back then was clash and that’s how the clash got their name. I was thinking if the whole thing happened again right now they key word you’d be using instead of calling yourself The Clash would be The Terror as that is the word you see unfortunately over and over again in Britain, every day and every headline. It’s a defining word of these times.
I think the establishment has been found out now. For years people have been going on and on in the punk scene about the bankers fleecing us and everyone put it down as hippy talk but now everyone knows about it, it’s been completely blown open. But what makes it worse is that nothing’s changed. I think those people are just untouchable, that’s the problem. They don’t care anymore. it’s like the way they used to ban records but why would they ban records anymore it makes no difference does it?
What are you up to these days?
Istanbul was a music conference. I was on a panel and it was discussing musical cities. I was talking abut Manchester, someone was doing Seattle and someone else doing Istanbul. It was talking about how scenes occur. It was quite interesting debate about music. I did a Q+A with Steve Gullick who took the Nirvana pictures. There’s always interesting stuff going on outside the music.
Any more books on the way?
The next book will be a digital book of the blogs I did on the Justice for 96 tour I did with Mick Jones last year. There was about 15 gigs that Mick did last year of Clash songs, with the Farm backing him up. That was all over the UK and we went over europe with the Stone Roses. It’s a great rock and roll story but also a powerful emotional story as it’s about the 96. It’s great that Mick did all that Clash stuff. No-one got paid. Mick will only ever play Clash songs for a reason. He could easily go out and play in a Clash style band and get pretty big crowds, obviously without Joe it’s just not the same but he could go out and play Clash stuff but he won’t do it for the money he will just do it for a cause. He said those songs were written for a reason.
The final decision that the courts had when they overturned the previous court decisions was not to do with that tour, it was to do with the mothers of the 96 people who died. I think the tour helped in a sense, as it kind of entertained the people that were involved in the campaign and empowered them and made them feel a bit better. I think the people of Liverpool felt great as outsiders came to town and played songs and said “Look we’re on your side”. When the Stone Roses played I think it was powerful because they are Manchester United fans and there’s a lot of rivalry. They felt it was good that Man Utd fans were with them. The one rule of politics is never take on the mothers and they found that out, you can’t beat the 96 mothers.
There’s talk about doing an autobiography at the moment. There’s a lot of very good stories. You wouldn’t have to know who I was to get the stories. It’s a book about a quest from punk rock onwards.
John is also the brains behind http://louderthanwar.com a mix of music, books, films (hey not too dissimilar to thumped)
Louder than war is going really well. There’s lots of people helping out now so we get loads of hits. There’s a good flow of articles, there’s a lot of stuff on it. It’s real eclectic as well which is really important. I don’t want it to be just one thing. When you were growing up with something like John Peel it was great because it was really eclectic. When you listen to so called Alternative Radio now it’s kind of wierd as it only play one sort of music. It only plays indiemusic and they have specialist shows at three in the morning to pretend it is more alternative than it is. What I used to love about peel is it was on about 10 oclock at night and you put it on and you’d be listening out for the new Stranglers album and you’d get to african music 4 minutes later. That was its strength and we want to relfect that on the site so we’re open to any ideas of any types of music really
What’s happening with the Membranes?
Membranes have this amazing gig in Manchester on July 20 where we are going to explain the whole of universe from beginning to end. It came about after I did this TEDx talk and I met this guy doing the Higgs Boson project and he explained the whole of the universe in about 20 minutes over dinner. How it started, what’s happening to it now and how it all ends. It all ends in all the photons all split and for eternity there’s this brilliant white light. It sounds like a religious idea of heaven, with these white ligths that goes on for ever and ever and ever. I was thinking ‘wow that would make for an amazing idea for a gig’. I met a local artist whose gonna do an art installation for it. We’re going to bring the higgs boson project over to do an ‘in conversation’. We’re going to have Science experiments like those science programmes in the 70’s where you get three ping pong balls and a bunsen burner and explain how the universe was formed. Really simple things that can explain complex ideas and then the Membranes will play along to a film of the universe, virtually a whole new set. Two old songs and four new ones so it’s a pretty mindblowing event. We’ve had loads of offers to do it in different places. It’s somewhere between a museum piece and a gig. It really works with the Membranes music as with those songs you can do what you like really, so the stuff we’ve got written for it is psychedelic in parts but heavy at the same time. We’re not a band that can tour much but we may bring the Membranes over to Dublin in the Autumn as well.
When Goldblade played in Dublin 10 years ago I was amazed by Johns routine. He had brought a lot of his own wholefoods over and his breakfast of muesli and soy yoghurt following his jog around the estate I live in was an inspiration to someone like me aspiring to stay healthy as the grey hairs appeared.
You Still keeping fit John?
Of course, helps you think straight. Definitely with vegan power. There’s a lot more of us now.
What are the Goldblade plans now that the album is finally out?
All way through the summer there’s gigs and some festivals, then we will tour in the autumn. In the old days you’d bring a record out and everyone would buy it in the first week. These days there’s so much stuff out there and the way people access music is so different that records drift in and they go up in an arc instead of down in one so you get loads of good press and people go “yeah I see your record has got good press I’m gonna get hold of it in the next month or so.” In the old days your record would be over after a month but now they last forever. You see that with really big bands, they tour records for 4 years now. They way people consume music is so different, you’d be selling records and people come up and go “yeah I love your new record I got it on Pirate Bay” and you go “yeah thanks mate!”. or they watch a clip on youtube or send mp3’s around which is cool as it gets your music around, which is why you can keep touring your record over and over. It’s a longer slower process to get your music out there.
There’s less record shops too, which were a focal point for people. I cast my mind back to Blackpool in the mid 80’s, I travelled over and got to hear bands like the Membranes of Husker Du and spoke to fellow travellers about what labels to watch our for.
There’s a few record shops dotted around. The ones who knew what they were doing like Action in Preston or Picadilly in Manchester are still alive but every now and then you hear of another one which has shut down which is a shame really isn’t it. They were like the backbone of the culture for years. All cultures come out of space and you have to have a space where people meet but I suppose the space where people meet now is onlne. It’s kind of still there but it’s changed to a different way. Its kind of good really as pop culture was always about technology. The 7″ was once new fangled technology. You can still play rudimentary music but you have to understand how to get it out to people. It’s a completely different process to what it was years ago, it’s not fanzines, it’s not record shops. Fliers are still quite effective but there’s other things you can use now, and the internet can be very good for that stuff. It’s interesting to see un-techy bands get this whole younger audience because either they or their fans have understood how to use the internet for them and it’s made a real difference. We played with the Stranglers at the roundhouse and they sold it out completely. They’ve done their longest British tour for years and sold out most gigs and that has to be down to the internet. The fans have organised around the band and pulled people in. The band has become an internet community and the idea is that you are the media. It’s not hoping that three people in the NME like your record, you just ignore them and get on with it yourself. Especially if you’re a bigger band and you’ve got a bit of a name for yoursef it makes it a lot easier, you just get on with it then don’t ya. And with twitter you could get information out to 50 – 100 thousand people with twitter. It’s a very powerful medium.
And so we left it at that. Goldblade’s new album is a blast of punk history and is now available. Tower Records in Dublin are stocking it so if you’re nearby then check it out