Basso profundo

Rock byRichard Cook

As a rule, bass players are not among rock's innovators and frontmen. John Entwistle, John Paul Jones, Bill Wyman: these are the famous ones, and they didn't do that much (Paul McCartney was another matter). In the 1980s, two men, working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, broke that mould as thoroughly as it could be sundered. Jah Wobble and Bill Laswell both started by operating in the customary quiet-guy role in ground-breaking units, Laswell in the New York group Material, Wobble as part of the notorious Britishers Public Image Ltd. Each has gone on to a pivotal position in the creation of rock as a worldbeat phenomenon, fusing east and west (and probably north and south as well) in sonic mixtures for which each has a naturalistic knack that leaves many competitors sounding forced and glib.

Laswell, who is also something of a celebrity producer, is more rooted in free jazz and urban-conflict music. Wobble, who had no experience before PiL, is at once less worldly but curiously transcendental. His albums, now a formidable list, are the richest, juiciest kinds of exotica. His densely layered tracks can sound utterly simple and direct, yet at their best they can be trance-like and intoxicating.

Wobble (the extravagant name is a cover for plain John Wardle) has never seemed much like a rock music bassman. Though he was outdone in PiL by the singer John Lydon and the guitarist Keith Levene, those in the know soon realised that it was Wobble's inquisitive methods that gave the group most of its substance. He has gone his own stubborn way ever since, never settling for long into any one project and marshalling a nomadic cast of performers and kindred spirits for whatever music he has on his mind.

I still jealously guard the cassette-only release by his post-PiL group the Human Condition, which didn't last long, perhaps because he had grander conceptions in his ears. Around that time, I sat in his front room listening to a track he'd put together out of some speech and music he'd taped off the radio, threading an irresistible rhythm of his own over and through it. "I wanna get some birds in and give it some of that," he shouted over the top, while doing a shuffle that looked like a hula dancer who'd been sampling some of the local retsina. A Londoner, raised a Catholic, Wobble has a knack of rooting his travelogues in a place not far from home. Much of his snake-hipped grooving has a shop-round-the-corner feel, as if you'd expect it to be on sale at the Greek grocer's.

Last year's album Umbra Sumus (30 Hertz, Wobble's own label) is a bewildering jumble of pieces that seem to have been called in from around the world, but the titles include "St Mary-le-Bow", and the sleeve photos, which look like a mysterious metropolis shot in deep shadow, are actually a view across east London. Wobble's latest opus is called Deep Space (also on 30 Hertz), and amid a conjuring of nebulas and star clusters, there is the delirious Wobble worldbeat. Overlaid with flutes, pipes, crumhorns and what he calls "atmospheres", the leader uncoils his bass parts, recorded with an old-fashioned fatness and vibrancy which - for all the studio trickery on display - makes one hear these pieces as the work of accomplished, real-time bands. He once again calls in the drummer Jaki Liebezeit, the rhythmic heart of Can, which cements the impression that Wobble is one of the few genuinely to build on the legacy of those German masters. Where some of his records have sounded bitty, this one feels whole and full. And there, on "Disks, Winds and Veiling Curtains", is Bill Laswell himself, sifting various loops and treatments around one of Wobble's inimitable three-note riffs. A thrilling piece, which offers a sense of something coming full circle - going right round the world, perhaps.

Jah Wobble's Deep Space play the Purcell Room, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (0171-960 4242) on 29 May

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning