Music writer, Louder Than War founder, Membranes/Goldblade bass player/vocalist and eco campaigner John Robb was on his bike when I called, dismounting to answer his phone, the two of us quickly getting on to the Government postponing its so-called ‘Freedom Day’, pushed back for an estimated month.
Born in Fleetwood and growing up in Anchorsholme – four miles from Blackpool Tower – John left for Manchester almost four decades ago, but retains a love for his old stomping ground. And as a lad who thrilled to the platform-booted thump of glam rock long before being seduced by punk rock, that’s an apt description.
Speaking to so many artists involved in and around the music business and its fringes these last 18 months, it’s fair to say the arrival of COVID 19 on these shores has affected and impacted upon us all in various ways. Appalling losses and physical and mental health impacts aside, for many music acts it’s also meant postponement upon postponement of pencilled-in live dates. But that’s not quite been the case for post-punk survivors The Membranes, out of action since an early February 2020 live outing in Thessaloniki, Greece.
“It’s difficult, isn’t it. I know everyone wants to do it, but it’s about doing it a way that works properly. Everybody seems to have views on it, but most people don’t really know what they’re talking about, do they!”
True. It seems to me that there are considerably more expert virologists out there than I ever realised, judging by all those detailed posts on social media in recent months.
“Yes, and as for the real ones, everyone seems to think they’re really miserable … but they’re not there to entertain us. They’re scientists, not showbiz people.”
Have you had to re-arrange any live shows or events so far? Or were you purposefully sat back waiting for when the time was right and it’s deemed safer to return to the road?
“Yeah, there have been a lot of festivals shifting, and some have been moved back a year. We did have a 20-date tour lined up. But everything’s more or less kicked into next year, apart from a few club dates, hopefully, for the autumn, and a few festivals from autumn onwards. We still don’t know 100 per cent though.
“There were a few festivals organised recently in Spain and Holland, and that seemed to work, but now there’s this variant, way more infectious but not seeming to put so many people in hospital … yet. Trouble is, we don’t really know for three weeks the long-term effects.
“It looks like two jabs will hold the line, but would you want to be the person who says, ‘OK, fuck all that, I’m going to open up my venue tomorrow!’, then four weeks later everybody’s really ill and it’s your fault?
“The buck doesn’t seem to stop with anybody either. It doesn’t stop with anyone on Twitter, that’s for sure. Ha! Remember all the 5G stuff at the beginning? When even those people realised that was a load of bollocks, they didn’t say, ‘Sorry, I made a mistake there’, they just moved on to another thing. But that’s very ‘now’, having that absolute certainty about stuff you know nothing about.”
When I called John, my daughters had just received their first vaccines, the optimist in me liking to think we were all a little closer to finally being able to fight this deadly virus off.
“Yeah, with everyone over 18 able to get a jab now, that’s pretty amazing, isn’t it. God bless the NHS!”
Indeed, and rather that than anyone else riding on their coat-tails with regard to claiming that success.
“Yes, anyone else who’d like to take the credit … yet deflects all the blame for letting this latest variant into the country, even though they managed to win an election by promising to shut down the borders … which they then left wide open – closing the borders to Pakistan and Bangladesh but -while they’re trying to do a trade deal with India – leaving that one wide open.”
In the midst of all that, have you managed – with the distraction of your website interests and various other projects on the go – to get a few rehearsals in with The Membranes?
“No! I’ve not seen them since our last gig in Greece, about a week before the first lockdown. We knew it was coming. Others were saying, ‘It’s not going to happen’, but I do have the advantage of being good friends with Chris Whitty, because my brother’s a virologist, so I got the inside track.
“Even in 2019 we could see this coming. I don’t know why, but I was looking up online about three in the morning what’s going on, seeing early headlines about a strange disease in Wuhan. Even someone like me – a bit of a fact obsessive – I’d never heard of Wuhan. It looked like the SARS thing again, and hopefully it could be contained, but … you could see it was coming.
“When Andy Gill from Gang of Four died in February 2020, he’d just been on tour in China. Even then I was wondering if he’d caught it. You could also see the arrogance of the West – ‘Nothing’s going to affect us’ – living in this bubble, especially in the Trump-Johnson era. We’re super-beings and all that, yet we got flattened by a tiny strand of RNA, the smallest lifeform you could possibly call life. Ha!”
John, who turned 60 two months ago, formed the first line-up of The Membranes at 16 while at Blackpool Sixth Form College in 1977. But understandably they’ve been a little quiet of late, and it’s been two years since the release of rightly-lauded Membranes double album, What Nature Gives … Nature Takes Away. That said, it’s a record I still play fairly regularly, I tell him.
“Thanks! It’s hard when you don’t fit in anywhere! We don’t even fit into the underground. Ha! We sound too ambitious!”
Do you talk fairly regularly with your bandmates? Dare I ask if you’ve all embraced video conferencing calls?
“I’ve done some songs with Pete (Byrchmore, guitar). We send bits and bobs backwards and forwards. I’ve done projects with other people too, but … I’m in an older band, I’m quite techy but some of the band don’t even have mobile phones with anything other than a phone on it.
“It’s only Pete who knows how to work GarageBand. But I find that (program) kind of changes the way you write. Is the only way to create music for a load of people to stand in a room and play full blast at each other until you all sort of half-agree the best way to do it? Why not write the way a composer would? You hear it in your head and keep adding layers.
“The whole thing really freed me up – I got on with loads of other stuff. If you’re creative, you don’t stop being creative. It takes you into other places. If you’re touring a lot, you tend to spend most of the time looking for vans and van drivers. It’s so mundane. I don’t want to spoil anyone’s illusions, but it’s not like you heard it was with Led Zeppelin!
“And I’ve got this other thing I launched last week, the Green Britain Academy, helping support the creation of 700,000 new UK jobs by 2030, creating apprenticeships. Because hopefully this last year has been a wake-up call, and this is about being optimistic for the future.
“I wrote a book, Manifesto with Dale Vince (Green Britain Academy co-founder/Ecotricity green energy pioneer and the owner of Gloucestershire’s League Two outfit Forest Green Rovers FC). He’s a really interesting guy, we get on well, and we’ve come up with this idea of green populism. Lots of people sneer at populism, but shouldn’t all these ideas be for everybody? It shouldn’t just be about right-wing demagogues. Why don’t we put the good ideas out there?
“The idea is to train people up to help drive all this, creating jobs, not least in places like Stoke-on-Trent, where the industries have gone. Rather than being trapped in the past, we go into a different future. People like Boris Johnson, with the best education in the world, haven’t a clue what they’re doing. But a kid selling drugs on a council estate in Hull probably has one of the greatest business minds in Britain – running a business empire with a mobile phone when you can be shopped for doing it. So why can’t we get that kid not just working but running a business instead? And if you can create apprenticeships that can get people jobs that are useful for the 21st century … that’s the thinking behind it.”
I admire John’s enthusiasm and optimism for a better future, citing back at him the example of how such great advances as the creation of the NHS and Welfare State came out of the rock bottom we found ourselves in during and in the aftermath of the Second World War. That was a period where it was proved that a ground zero approach can often help people sweep the old malaise away and start again on a positive footing. And that took us on to my interviewee talking about his father, one of those keen to replace Winston Churchill from office once the ‘39/’45 war was over, leading to a Labour Party landslide and a new way of tackling life.
“My Dad was in the RAF in the War, and apparently when Churchill came on the radio, he’d switch him off. Yet that’s not quite the story you get on the news these days.”
John’s father was UK-based during the war, training pilots – including Polish and Czech fliers – when he was barely 20, as well as ‘flying alongside V2s, clipping them with his wings to knock them off balance, so they’d crash before they reached the cities’.
“He took down 12, but he didn’t tell us any of that. I found out via the internet. He flew in three different squadrons. He was also in Iceland for a while, training pilots. John’s father was from Poplar in the East End of London, moving to Blackpool to work at ICI. But you could never tell by his accent he was from the East End. Probably the RAF changed that!”
There’s the beauty of a chat with John. One moment we’re on Brexit Britain and the coronavirus pandemic, the next we’re talking green politics, and before you know it, we’re on to V2s. But a little like those heroic RAF fighters, I need to nudge him now and again, albeit in this case to get us back on track rather than knock him off it. And soon we were talking about a recent Record Store Day re-release of The Membranes’ 1988 LP, Kiss Ass … Godhead!, the LP that included his love letter to his Fylde coast roots, ‘Tatty Seaside Town’. Is it right that was Steve Albini’s first studio engineering role outside Big Black?
“It was, other than Urge Overkill, him having shared a flat with the guy from that band. But even before, in 1985 Albini came to the UK on holiday and was trying to get hold of me, wanting me to release the first Big Black record. He was a massive Membranes fan, and always said we were an influence. Not as if anyone believed us – they thought we sounded like them. But just look at the dates on the backs of the records – we sounded like that before he even made a record!
“But of course, coming from Blackpool, it’d be, ‘How could you possibly stumble on anything original when you come from a candy floss town?’. Section 25 had the same problem. They were an amazing band. Their first album was equal to Joy Division, but because they were from Blackpool and Joy Division were from Manchester … there’s no contest! Ian Curtis loved Section 25 though. He was up at their house every week. Again, that’s history though – whoever tells the story …”
At that point, we segued off to talk about The Fall, but you’ll have to wait to see that when my latest book project goes to publication. I’ll carry on instead on the subject of The Membranes again, and the prospect of the band working on new songs.
“Yeah, I don’t think that ever goes away, does it. If you were never in a band ever again, you’d still think of tunes, and pick up a guitar. I wrote three things last night. Whether you ever use them or not … If we get back to rehearsing, we could be recording them in a month or so, but we still don’t know what’s going to happen. Even those festivals in the autumn, you think, ‘Will that happen?’.
“I’ve been to a few socially-distanced gigs, but we can’t sell merch at them because of the interaction. I went to see Squid recently (at Manchester’s Stoller Hall), and they were fantastic. It was in a lecture theatre, everyone five feet apart, but still felt great. And they played it like it was the most intense gig ever. It didn’t affect the way they performed, and it transported you into another place, which is what live music should always do. Unfortunately though, you couldn’t properly go and say hello to people at the end, because we’re in this pandemic situation.”
Not being rude, but last time I saw The Membranes, at The Continental in Preston, you were inviting the audience to move forward a bit as it wasn’t as full as it should have been. Perhaps you had too many shows too close to each other around then, punters picking and choosing which to attend. It just made it all the more special though from a fan’s perspective – all the more intimate as a live experience.
“Well, wasn’t that the joke, when they said gigs will all be socially distanced? Most bands I know were saying, ‘That’s actually more people than normal’. Ha! I don’t think anybody gets 500-plus at a gig unless they’ve had a hit record.”
Then again, those are the kind of shows we remember more than any others – for instance, when a band are on their way up and you’ve caught them at a small venue.
“Yeah, but it’s not like that was the plan. And if you’re making music that doesn’t really fit in anywhere, or you’re not part of a scene, people will have to come and find you. It’s difficult to get to that next level – finding that crossover point without ruining your music. There are so many bands that exist in that very small space. But you can just about get by from one record to the next.”
That said, and I say this time and again to interviewees, the fact that you’re not chasing hits suggests you’re playing now because you want to play and because you love it. You’re not about stardom.
“Well, that would be pointless now. The top-30 is a completely different kind of music … which is how it should be. It shouldn’t be full of 60-year-olds playing guitars! A lot of people of my age will say, ‘The charts are terrible nowadays, I don’t understand them’. But we’re not meant to understand them! Music moves on. Only the album charts tend to have a few more oldies in there.
“That’s the model for most bands – if you’ve had a few hits, you can keep that going. It’s a fairly comfortable existence. Not many people buy your new record, but it keeps you happy, because you’re still creating. Some of those probably only sell as many albums as us, but their hits from 40 years ago or whatever will sell gigs out … which is great. Maybe they’ve got somebody else to hire the van. Ha!”
True, and then you get a band like The Nightingales, probably bigger now than they’ve ever been after Stewart Lee’s recent film project with Robert Lloyd. Surely that provides added hope for you all.
“Yes, they’ve probably got to that level now where all the gigs they’re playing, they can just about sell them out. But how do you get to the next bit? It’s still the same venues.”
The date on your list I’m hoping definitely happens is at the Deaf Institute, Manchester in November, when you have a support band who really impressed last time I saw them – Girls in Synthesis, who played a stonking show at The Ferret in Preston in late 2018. Despite there being less than 100 there that night, they played a blinder, proving so intense. Live footage I’ve seen elsewhere suggests that was no one-off, either.
“They’re a brilliant band, aren’t they! A great sound, and a great intensity to what they’re doing. I’ve seen them a few times. That’ll be a really good night. I think we’ve got maybe four proper gigs up to Christmas, with the rest all festivals, although those are more likely to go ahead. But that situation could all change again in a few weeks. It’s not a very good position at the moment – Manchester’s overtaken Bolton now.
“But when the weather’s alright, you can sit outside. It looks like it’ll be grotty again next week. But you can just get the winter coats back out! I actually have one now. I didn’t want to stay in all winter – I’d rather sit in the park, shivering in a couple of winter coats making phone calls, until I can’t bear it anymore and have to go back in again! Manchester’s been in lockdown or tier three for so long, but when you speak to people they say, ‘Why don’t you just go into a café?’ Because they’re shut, aren’t they! Not like in London! Ha!”
He’s off again, that signature laugh very much in evidence, as anyone who knows John will appreicate. Has there been anything he’s ended up doing these past 18 months, work-wise, that he wouldn’t have even contemplated before, or appreciated as much as he has? Us creatives tend to think outside the box more, but I’ve found that – for example – many who tend to commute for an hour each way to and from work each day are finally questioning why they would do that.
“That side didn’t really affect me. I’ve always worked from home or from cafes. It’s just doing all the other stuff outside music, and that’s really started taking off – like writing books. I wrote a novel, which hasn’t been published yet, and I wrote a book about the history of goth music, which is in edit at the moment, and I’ve an agent now and he’s trying to get my autobiography and memoirs. I’m writing that at the moment to get it to a publisher. And there are a couple of film projects I’m talking to people about. There’s load of stuff going on. I’ve been busier than I’ve ever been this last 18 months. The band was – in a weird way – a distraction from everything else I could possibly do.”
A true innovator, ‘born in the ‘60s, forged in the ‘70s, on the frontline since the ‘90s, embracing the future in the 21st century’, John dipped his toes into music writing on the Fylde coast in Blackpool with his Rox fanzine, which went on to be nationally distributed. He carried on to ZigZag magazine in the early ‘80s, soon regularly contributing to music papers Sounds and Melody Maker – where this scribe started to recognise the name – and for the last decade has fronted independent online rock and pop culture magazine/blog Louder Than War, also a nationally-distributed magazine since 2016.
Regularly spotted on the small screen, he also contributes copy for several national broadsheets, websites and magazines. And then there are his books, including a biography of The Stone Roses translated into several different languages; Death to Trad Rock, an account of the 1980s UK DIY underground; and The North Will Rise Again – Manchester Music City 1976/96, an oral history of Manchester music.
How has Louder Than War been affected by the pandemic? Do you have paid staff?
“Well, everybody volunteers. We don’t make any money. But we’ve subscriptions now, so maybe we’re able to get a bit of money to pay the staff. I don’t want to get paid, but if we do, I want them to get paid first, and me last. This was a site built around live reviews, and right now of course there are hardly any live gigs! But there’s been a lot of great music coming out. This has been one of the greatest years for music, ever. Some of the things that have been No.1, it’s been insane, like Mogwai (As the Love Continues going straight in at the top in early March). It’s been an interesting period.”
There’s also a new publication with my interviewee himself as its prime focus, Iman Kakai-Lazell’s splendid John Robb: Confessions art book described as a ‘collection of works that push the boundaries of what we consider as a book’, the North Lancashire-based artist behind it looking to ‘create a voyage of deconstruction and reconstruction of photos, lyrics and nostalgia’, adding her unique interpretation along the way, to great effect.
While far from a wordy memoir (of sorts), it somehow manages to deliver an intimate portrait of its subject, leading us from John’s family roots and defining childhood through to today’s more philosophical post-punk rocker giving us plenty of insight en route into what makes him tick and generally where he’s at.
Aristotle’s ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’ assertion springs to mind, the JR portrayed somewhat obsessed by science and nature from the start, gathering information from an early age, as reflected in the fella we know today. Here’s a bright kid happy in his own company (‘I still felt like that when I was a punk’), soon feeling more of an outsider, lost in wonder ‘looking at ants and worms and blades of grass or the clouds tumbling across the sky, lost in endless thought … (and) … the spell of concentration’.
The successful 1969 Apollo 11 programme provided an early pivotal moment, told with period humour as he reveals, ‘I’m not sure what was more amazing – the moon landing or the TV being on after 11 o’clock’. And overall it’s a revealing graphic tale of sorts about a boy living by the sea (where ’suburbia suddenly stopped’), reading in secrecy until 4am, glimpses of home life occasionally thrown in, not least his relationship with his folks (characterised notably by a mother and grandmother’s enduring love, a father’s high-bar expectations for his children, and his grandfather’s mesmeric storytelling, with added nuggets drawn from John’s later forays into family history).
Then there are rites of passage such as first love and playground conflict, and a picture that emerges of his values through the interviewees and heroes he cites, from pioneering UK astronomer Patrick Moore to US particle physicist Joe Incandela (‘He unravelled the universe in 30 minutes’), via Mick Jones, Poly Styrene, ‘High Priestess of Punk’ Jordan, and Wilko Johnson.
Along the way, we see first dabblings in writing through Rox, John’s head-first leap into glam then punk, talk of his prototype elastic band-driven cigar-box guitar – his grandfather teaching him first chords on banjo – and an ongoing love for live music, individual takes on fashion, and his ‘biggest achievement to date – being vegan for the animals’. And in a further revelatory moment, he tells us, ‘All art and music is an attempt to escape the grinding of real life, surely!”.
When we spoke, I’d yet to see Confessions, but he was buzzing about it, telling me it had already sold around two-thirds of its print run and talking about its creator … before one more trademark JR tangent.
“It’s from a brilliant artist based up in Arnside. She’s done a book about The Chameleons’ Mark Burgess too. She’s a photographer with this great collage style. I went up there the other week to sign 500 books – sat in this garden for a really nice couple of days.
“If you follow the promenade all the way round from Blackpool, pass Morecambe and head around the corner there … it’s very Lancashire, although not anymore. But I still follow the proper old boundaries of Lancashire, including Barrow and Ulverston. If it’s Morecambe Bay, it’s Lancashire! And it’s super-nice there.”
It is indeed, somewhere I’ve visited on and off over the last 30-plus years, before and since my move up north. But that’s another story, and with that I let this unpaid North West Tourist Board publicist get back on his bike and cycle off to his next engagement, this post-punk (louder than) warlord still with more energy and passion than most people half or even a third of his age. And long may that continue.
For details of music releases from The Membranes, live dates – including that Deaf Institute date with Girls in Synthesis set for Saturday, November 20th – and merchandise, including signed copies of John’s books, head to https://membranes.bandcamp.com/ You can also check out Louder Than War here.