Matt Jacobson interviews author, musician, journalist, presenter and pundit JOHN ROBB, who will be heading out on an extensive UK tour in 2024.
John Robb is a many-faceted creature. Not just a well known face from TV but also a best selling author, musician, journalist, presenter and pundit, music website boss, publisher, festival boss, eco warrior and vegan behemoth and talking head singer from post-punk mainstays The Membranes.
His recently released book The Art Of Darkness – the History Of Goth is a worldwide pop culture best seller and his soon to be launched ground-breaking new scheme – the Green Britain Academy, is set to train up people in thousands of Eco jobs whilst Borders Blurred is a gaming and music agency with a twist.
He was one of the leading post punk fanzine writers in the UK with Rox before he went on to write for the rock press with Sounds in the 80s. John was the first person to interview Nirvana in the early 90s and was one of the first to coin the expression ‘Britpop’ and was instrumental in kick starting and documenting the ‘Madchester’ scene with his writing. His music and culture website Louder than War is currently the fifth most-read music and culture site in the UK and at the forefront of diverse modern culture.
I recently interviewed John about Punk, interviewing Nirvana and Liverpool and Manchester taking on London.
What was your first musical experience that you heard that made you sit up and take notice of rock and roll as such?
Well, I’m 62 now, but I was a glam rock kid – without the outfits! But, Top of The Pops was the portal, the go to place. And obviously, Bolan and Bowie but I won’t sit here and say that ‘Starman’ transcended me, I do love the song but I liked all the glam, Slade and Mud – Mott the Hoople, the whole thing. So not one specific song, just every week on Top of the Pops there were two or three things that were amazing. I had no idea which ones were cool and which ones weren’t! Unlike now you can use the internet to work pop culture out, back then, it was you and your schoolmate trying to work out what was what! I had no idea that Bowie was Cooler than Mud – they were just great records! And it was all singles, I didn’t buy albums – although I bought Band On The Run and people took the piss – but 50yrs later it’s a cool record to have! He was seen as the daft one of The Beatles, at the time – but now we see them as equal forces. He was crucial to the whole thing. So in terms of impact it was a mish mash of things really.
In your youth, did you attend any memorable gigs that took your breath away?
Well, it was all Punk and you didn’t see much of that in Blackpool where I grew up. So we had to go to Lancaster or Preston to watch them. I remember going to see The Stranglers in Lancaster and I hired a bus to take everyone, I was 15 and it wasn’t even legal to hire one! nobody gave a f**k, we had around 200 on the bus and they all paid to travel on it so we made money to buy vocal PAs and other bits. The driver looked exhausted before we all got on the bus! (laughs)
Again with Punk, we didn’t know what was cool or not. Growing up in Blackpool, you are far on the outside of everything, it’s not a cool town but I’m proud to be from there. If you’re from Liverpool and Manchester there is a cool you can measure up to, but we didn’t have that in Blackpool.
Trust me, John I’m yet to measure up to it – I’m nowhere near it!
(Laughs), but to us, Blackpool, Liverpool and Manchester seemed exotic places! They were near, but not that near. When I was 16 and a mate had a car he found himself so popular because we could drive to gigs around the North West. And it was great to see the quieter pubs full of Punks!
I know the industry and culture will change with time, but do you feel the romance of music is being lost, vinyl is minimal, no record shops around really, venues closing and streaming and even gig tickets are emailed – has it lost something or am I old and miserable?
Well pop culture had always speeded up, in the 50s it would take a month to record. In Blackpool, we had to order everything. And I hated waiting. In the day it was in weekly updates with Top of The Pops and the music papers, but now it’s updated every two minutes. I don’t want it to stay the same, I want it to change with technology and to move with it really. Waiting for the papers for hours on end wasn’t nice either – I want the music news now!
I believe you were the first to interview Nirvana and then followed them on their career. The news of Kurt’s death must of hit you hard …?
Yes, I interviewed them and remember phoning Kurt in his Mums house for an interview. Later on I was in New York and I stayed with them for three days in this tiny flat, and we were all squashed up on the floor. I remember Kurt Cobain never crashed out, he just curled up in the corner. I loved his voice, he sounded like he was 80 and 18. I got on with him really well, and recently I found the cassette of the interview. I remember it was reported on Ceefax and said there had been a shooting at his house and I thought, who has he shot ?!, but it came out and it was him and I thought they would take him to hospital and patch him up. But, it was a generational moment, they were a force, a generational force. We toured with Mark Lanagan and we chatted so much about Kurt and he had knocked on Kurt’s house the day Kurt died, he regretted not knocking the door down. They were close, they shared a house and it was a bit messed up. But so sad, such a loss.
In terms of others I’ve interviewed, we are Punks, we don’t have heroes but we have respect. I’ve interviewed many artists that I don’t like – before or after, but it’s an artist’s job to make art – and not get on with everyone. Lots of artists may talk shit but I like their music and I like what they do. They don’t have to be the voice of the world, I mean Will Sargeant is funny, dry and witty and Mac is the opposite and entertaining and a handful. The Manics, I’d interviewed in the early days and they had it all mapped out, their manifesto was ready! They were swimming upstream against pop culture and wore skinny jeans when the baggy scene was around us. Today it’s also different, interviewing in a room there are signals beyond words that add to the interview, so on screen, it can lose something. Overall, I’m fascinated by people, interviewing pop stars or just travelling to London – it’s great to chat with people.
You mentioned, not agreeing with people but still liking their music. But in today’s culture, I find people running to quickly cancel anyone they disagree with and there is no room for debate. Albums are being shelved by labels, what are they scared of, we can all have views, but debate is dead. Isn’t this dangerous scene for creatives?
Well there is a lot to unpack there, Matt.
Sorry John – rant over!
(Laughs) – Record labels are mercenary, they dont give a f##k what the artist thinks! If they can sell the record they will sign anybody, as for cancelling anyone – no I’m old school. I remember the days of punk when outrageous things were said. These days with social media, everything is black or white, it has to be one or the other. But it should be open for debate. John Lydon was also outspoken. The world is so fucked up, it cant cope with people stirring the pot. Artists should be able to make records and we should be able to say if we like them or not.
The likes of Morrissey, Bowie, Lennon are heroes to millions – will we find heroes again, and will they break through and be as big or as influential?
People like pop culture for many reasons, we thought the record stars had the answers to everything especially back in the 60s when we all thought John Lennon knew how to save the world. But we are all as confused and fucked up and each other, but they offered a way to explain it and deciphered it.
In the North we are the cultural hub of the planet! Even if we took the Beatles out the equation! Teenages back then couldnt speak to each other and especially men. So music helped communicate something everyone felt – but couldn’t, or didn’t communicate it to each other. The social and political aspect in pop culture is not manifesto politics, its providing hope, community and a soundtrack to a generation which is more important than what’s been offered by political parties.
Pete Burns walking down the streets of Liverpool was and is a powerful political statement. It showed what you can do and achieve and become, it was pop politics. It wasn’t coming up with an economic solution, I mean even politicians can’t do that!
You are coming to Liverpool soon with your tour – what bands are your favourite?
Well so many,The Beatles, The Bunnymen, OMD, and their last album is fantastic. A new band called Keyside, their tracks are mind blowing. Sent to me by Carl Hunter from the Farm. I used to write about the Farm, and they are very smart and clever. And they are all important cultural forces of their own and their new songs are great. The Farm are the nicest people to be with and underrated. I toured with them on the Hillsborough tribute night with Mick Jones from The Clash. The gig in Liverpool was so emotional. It was a driving force behind the campaign but the artists stood back and let the campaign move forward. It was a combined force. It’s the power of music, everyone in the room was emotional. We toured 5 dates and went to Europe and we toured with the Roses. I even ended up singing with Mick Jones. Very emotional.
Liverpool and Manchester are a force to be reckoned with – they have slightly different cultures and accents but there is a respect of music from each city and they are a powerful force, together they will terrify London one day!
In terms of memorabilia, my favourite and prized possession is Morrissey’s shirt from a gig in Liverpool? Do you have any memorabilia yourself?
What the whole shirt – wow! No, I don’t keep anything really – just memories really. I only have a small flat, I still have records that are worth a bit. I understand it’s your connection to something important to you. I’m friends with Chris Packham and he has everything to do with Punk, he has tons of it but I just don’t have the room really. But I understand the commitment.
Thanks John, thanks for your time.
Thanks Matt, really appreciate it.