It’s 35 years since music writer, Louder Than War founder and Membranes/Goldblade bass player/vocalist John Robb left the ‘Tatty Seaside Town’ later celebrated on 1988’s Kiss Ass … Godhead! LP. But he clearly still has plenty of time for his old patch.
One of the first songs to be publicly aired from acclaimed new Membranes double LP, What Nature Gives … Nature Takes Away is the evocative ‘A Murmuration of Starlings on Blackpool Pier’. And it just so happens that John is currently working on a new arts project in the resort, helping chronicle the history of the Fylde coast’s musical legacy (with more details about that project here).
What’s more, The Membranes are set to play Blackpool pub venue The Waterloo on July 5th, and return again for the Rebellion Festival at the nearby Winter Gardens in early August.
Born just up the coast in Fleetwood, John grew up in Anchorsholme, barely four miles from Blackpool Tower, the iconic location from the top of which The Membranes launched 2015 LP Dark Matter/Dark Energy (becoming the first band to play there). And he played a key part in the Fylde resort’s more recent story, forming his band in 1977 – aged 16 – while at Blackpool Sixth Form College. But he knows full well the area’s cultural heritage goes way back before punk rock inspired this Tangerines fan to get involved.
“Blackpool’s got a really interesting musical history. People tend to forget what came out of there – like Jethro Tull, (elements of) The Pet Shops Boys, Soft Cell, and a great post-punk scene. We were around then, and Section 25.
“And there are lots of other interesting stories, such as the Jimi Hendrix gig you see clips from, setting fire to his guitar on stage at the Opera House, when he was touring with Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd.”
I understand there was a Gene Vincent link to Blackpool too (the feted rock’n’roller based on the North Shore while appearing there in the mid-‘60s, by all accounts).
“I think he was living there a bit, and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates had a club there. It was a showbiz town then. George Formby was the biggest pop star before rock’n’roll, but chose not to move to London but Blackpool, because that was the epicentre of showbusiness, which you can’t imagine now. What Manchester has now would be the equivalent now.”
Incidentally, North Londoner Johnny Kidd, died aged just 30 in a road accident near Bolton in October 1966. He’d been a regular visitor to Blackpool, including a summer spell with The Pirates in the summer of ’64 at the Rainbow Theatre, on a Larry Parnes bill topped by Joe Brown and his Bruvvers and The Tornados. It was around then that he bought into The Picador club (strip joint, say some) near the railway station. But that’s another story (and brilliantly told on Adie Barrett’s website).
Getting on to Manchester, that’s where John Robb’s at these days, having moved there in 1983. And this Saturday, June 8th, he’s hosting the third annual Membranes and Friends Festival there, a five-hour multi-band event – nap-handed, in fact – also acting as the official launch party for his band’s new record, taking place just across the road from Oxford Road station at the Ritz on Whitworth Street West. But how would John compare his adopted city’s scene in the early ‘80s with how it is now?
“It’s massively different now. There are more venues, with 30 or 40 in the city. It too has become an acknowledged musical epicentre. In the post-punk era it had key game-changing bands, but you have to remember Joy Division weren’t that big.
“Now if there was an Ian Curtis hologram or something, he could play stadiums and be bigger than U2. I’ll go to Russia and every kid there loves Joy Division. But before Ian died, they were playing clubs to 100/200 people a night. It was a brilliant scene, but for not that many people.”
Joy Division famously supported fellow Manchester outfit Buzzcocks on their Autumn ’79 UK tour, and I seem to recall my brother and friends missing them in favour of the usual pre-show pint at the nearby Angel Hotel. That was probably the case for a fair few support bands over the years. Is that why we need to get down by four o’clock for this joint-Membranes and Friends and LP launch event at the Ritz?
“I think so. I know for a lot of tours the support band are by and large just an afterthought, but we don’t even use the term ‘support band’. They’re just bands sharing a space. Every band’s equal. It’s not a case of padding the bill out. There’s a reason why everything is there.
“Each band on that bill is a band I’m really into. I don’t know if that’s a measure of anything, but they’re there because we really like them. We could quite easily flip the bill round the other way. It wouldn’t make any odds to me.”
Of his hand-picked guests, John describes Henge as ‘Hawkwind on acid … more acid, if you can imagine that!’, Queen Zee as ‘pretty amazing, sort of warped sex-punk’, and Glove, who have put out releases on his label, as ‘amazing, sort of Slits crossed with Patti Smith’.
He was also full of praise for late additions Liines, back for a second straight year, late replacements for Lawrence from Felt’s Go-Kart Mozart.
“Last year, from the first band all the way through people were discovering stuff they’d never heard before, and the big breakthrough was Liines. They were amazing, and (subsequently) a Sleaford Mods tour got them out around the country. It was great to see the rest of the country catch on.”
The same goes for recently-reformed The Pack, the pre-Theatre of Hate and Spear of Destiny punk band of past WriteWyattUK interviewee Kirk Brandon.
“Yeah, great. In a weird way he’s become one of the undiscovered talents. He has a cult following but really should be doing things like Stiff Little Fingers do every year at the Academy.
“He’s one of the greatest singers, he’s operatic, he’s like nothing else. He’s on our new album, and just did that in one take. You hear elements of punk in there, a bit of Johnny Rotten, but Pavarotti at the same time. I don’t think there’s many people in that corner! Ha!”
I enjoy talking to John Robb. his best quotes often followed by a laugh that those who know him well will hear as they read this. A true entertainer.
As well as added strings, the new Membranes LP also features a Manchester-based British and Irish Modern Music Institute (BIMM) choir, who are also set to feature this weekend, their latest appearance with the band.
“Because it’s local we can make this one work. It’s a pretty epic set and the Ritz is fantastic for doing this. It perfectly frames what we’re trying to do. It’s my favourite venue in Manchester.”
I agree. It’s fairly big but somehow retains its intimate vibe.
“Yeah, big and intimate at the same time. A contradiction, but right in this case. And in a weird way a lot of rock music suits the old music hall type places.
I recall The Subways’ lead singer, Billy Lunn, jumping off the balcony there for a spot of crowd-surfing. That great leap forward still haunts me. You have to have a lot of faith in your fans to try that.
“Ha ha! It’s amazing how often that doesn’t go wrong!”
When I called John, I’d only got as far into the new album as the splendid ‘Strange Perfume’ promo video and a brief taster of the ‘Murmuration of Starlings’ track, so asked him to tell me more about the record.
“It’s a double album about the beauty and violence of nature, and it’s been getting pretty amazing reviews. Every time I look at my emails something else has pinged up.
“You never know when you make a record whether it’s gonna just shoot across everybody’s heads. You just try and make the record you want to make yourself, but this time it’s ‘Oh fucking hell, people actually understand what we’re trying to do here!’ Ha ha!”
And that builds nicely on the positive reception you got for the last record (also released via Cherry Red Records).
“Yeah, and with the nature of The Membranes we always try to move forward. No point in repeating ourselves. This album’s more about the choir and the amazing harmony of the human voice. When you get 20 people sing the part at the same time, it’s a transcendental experience … quite beyond … at the highest level of sound as possible … pure harmony. And in these discordant times we’re living in, pure harmony is an interesting concept.”
When Public Service Broadcasting released their Race for Space album in 2015, I asked J.Willgoose Esq. where they could possibly head next after tackling the moon, stars and planets. As it turned out, they chose deep underground and the Welsh coalfields for 2017’s Every Valley. And you too seem to have come back down to earth this time after exploring the outer universe last time – channelling the world of nature.
“Yeah, we’ve brought it back down to earth, but in a sense it’s just another corner of the universe. We all talk about the universe being somewhere else, but we’re in the universe. The chair you’re sat in now is actually part of the universe.
“It’s the same with nature. You think it’s outside your window, but you are nature. We’re just animals who build caves and wear clothes. We’re not above or below. We’re just part of the whole thing. And it’s quite good to grab yourself back in with that reality.”
Quite right too. And while they didn’t manage to get Sir David Attenborough on this record, they did entice self-styled ‘Environmental troublemaker’, BBC nature presenter, music fan and all-round good egg Chris Packham along. The next big thing, yeah?
“In the context of what we’re doing he is the best thing, because Chris is a massive fan of punk and post-punk, and that’s how I met him. I interviewed him about his 10 favourite punk gigs for the website. It worked out we were both born on the same day. We’re also both massively into nature, so you can see there’s an inevitability that this was going to happen at some point.
“He didn’t really want to do it first. He said, ‘I’ll leave making records to the professionals.’ He’s such a worrier, such a perfectionist, but sent me the part, and I said, ‘That’s amazing’. He got the gist of the album in one paragraph. We spliced it into a track, and it sounds ace.”
There’s a great recent video clip of him, introducing his (and my) favourites The Undertones recently at Southampton’s Engine Rooms, while plugging socio-political movement Extinction Rebellion. He seemed fairly nervous in that stage announcement, but I guess it was nervous energy.
“I think for him those punk bands were so iconic in his life that he would be nervous in that situation. I don’t think he would be nervous in any other situation. That thing that affects you when you’re 16 affects you your whole life. It’s such a big deal.”
It’s a double album this time. Had you set out for that to be the case?
“No. but there were just so many songs that actually worked. In an order as well, so we kind of trapped ourselves into it having to be a double album. It would be far easier to make a single album with two instruments, but somehow this set its own course really.”
Does that mean – as a big Clash fan – you’ll be carrying on down the ‘40 years on’ line, moving on from a double album to a triple album, Sandinista! style – next year?
“You can only let the music dictate really. Sandinista! was flawed in parts, but kind of works and has to be what it is, y’know. And the idea of doing a triple album in the middle of punk was great as well. – when there were rules as to what you were allowed to do and not so.”
These days, co-founder John – his distinctive bass a cornerstop driving their distinctive ‘dark matter post-punk’ sound – is joined in The Membranes by long-time bandmate and fellow Blackpool lad Nick Brown (guitar, on board since 1982), plus Peter Byrchmore (guitar) and Rob Haynes (drums, both ex-Goldblade, from Birmingham and Manchester respectively), the latter pair joining in time for a My Bloody Valentine-led 2009 All Tomorrow’s Parties reunion.
We’ll also get the BIMM choir on Saturday, but what about Kirk Brandon – will he be joining them for an on-stage cameo?
“I’m gonna try and talk him into it.”
Last time I bumped into John was after a spectacular Mott the Hoople Class of ‘74 show at Manchester Academy, Ian Hunter’s Rant Band joined by 70-something legends Luther ‘Ariel Bender’ Grosvenor on guitar and Morgan Fisher on keyboards. And it just so happens that Ian turned 80 this week. He’s a lesson to us all about living life to the full as long as you can, right?
“He’s amazing, isn’t he. I interviewed him before that gig, and there’s no sign of slowing down. For many 80-year-olds, just getting out of a chair is difficult. The way he talks too. Some people pause because they lose track, but he’s not like that. It’s like talking it to someone who’s 40.
“He seemed totally on it. And at the gig, he was stood up nearly two hours. It’s quite intense doing a gig, and that’s physically powerful. And that gig was fucking amazing for what it was. I don’t care if he was 80 or 40, that was great! A proper rock’n’roll show with songs he did really passionately.”
Was there an element of you – like many others – reliving your youth in there? I recall you talking about Mott’s influence in our last conversation, not least getting to meet bass guitar hero Pete Overend Watts, who died shortly after, aged 69.
“A little. I was in the moment, and even though they were old songs it didn’t feel like a nostalgia thing. You can see a new band about for three months or you can see an old band playing 50-year-old songs and they’re just gigs. If a band plays in the moment with a passion, that’s what it is. You can’t get around that.”
It’s about doing it for all the right reasons, I guess, like a lot of the early punk and new wave bands still doing the rounds. The Undertones – who in recent years have engaged The Membranes as a support act – are just one great example of that.
“I think that generation of bands finally learned how to deal with their legacy. And ‘Teenage Kicks’ is a great song, so why not play it, y’know? Whereas with what I do, we just play one old song, changing that around. But we’re not lumbered with any hits! We don’t have 10 hits that people want to hear.
“It’s a disadvantage in that it makes life harder, but it’s an advantage because it gives us the freedom to do what we want. For bands like us and our ilk it’s all about the quest to move forward. But I don’t think either has got any moral higher ground. It just depends what works for your band.”
Finally, at a time when regional newspapers and the music press seem to be really struggling, your own Louder than War website and magazine provides a positive indicator that there really could be a future for independent sub-cultural writing after all. As a fellow writer who came from the fanzine world (Rox in his case) originally, I take something from that. It’s far from rosy surviving as a freelance writer, but you seem to do just that, bucking the trend.
“Yeah, but it’s not easy. You don’t make money out of websites. They’re a passion really, like instant fanzines in a sense, with larger, worldwide readership. But that doesn’t mean you can survive off the back of it. The passion is trying to get those ideas out to as many people as possible. We’re living in an odd time where people don’t get paid for working. The fuckers won, didn’t they!”
I’ve seen that in sports journalism too, for writers and photographers. People with good enough cameras and a desire to scribble off match reports are often just happy enough getting a byline on a story or photograph. As a knock-on effect, the chances of getting paid for those services are far slimmer.
“And as with music, once people don’t pay for something, they’re not going to start paying for it afterwards. Sustaining any kind of creativity in the 21st century is difficult. You feel for people who come into all this from less privileged backgrounds. How do they start?”
That seems a dispiriting line to end on, but all the time there are impassioned ‘doers’ on the scene like John – TV and radio’s go-to cultural talking head, author and musician – I reckon we’ll be okay. The DIY punk spirit lives on, against all odds.
For December 2016’s feature/interview with John Robb on this website, head here. The Membranes, Henge, Queen Zee, Liines, The Pack, and Glove, play The Ritz, Whitworth Street West, Manchester, on Saturday, June 8th (4pm-10pm). For details try The Membranes website or the event’s Facebook page. And for tickets try SeeTickets or Skiddle.