John Robb cuts the unique profile as an artist, presenter and music commentator in a way no one has done before. His strong Punk ethic, together with an ever-switched on musical radar has made Louder Than War the website it is today.
So it was great to get the chance to turn the questions on him, and find out how he’s covered so much over the years, and the recent banter at the Stone Roses press conference.
Today you’re known for working within the music industry as a writer, for TV work, as a producer, manager, DJ, and obviously as an artist. How do you see yourself and what you do – an artist / journalist, TV presenter / artist…?
Well I really like playing music and writing songs, that was what punk inspired me to do. That was the great thing about punk; the DIY ethic, the idea that you could make your own art, anyone could do it, I still believe in that idea now. All the other stuff I do is part of the same process, if you play music you can write about it and talk about it, then you write for the press or do your own website. You want to help your mates or great young bands you hear as you travel about, it’s all part of the same process. I also believe you can do anything, punk taught me to have no fear, you just do it.
Was it always music for you growing up as a kid? As someone so totally enthusiastic and connected to music what were the bands and artists that started it all off for you?
I first loved glam rock, watching all the great bands on Top Of The Pops – from the obvious ones like Bowie and T-Rex to the ones that people always sneer at but I still love, like Slade and Sweet and even Mud, Hello and The Arrows and groups like that who made great stomping glam records. My favourites were Mott The Hoople though, still totally love that band. Then punk came along and I was totally buzzing, the Pistols and The Clash, but ultimately The Stranglers whose dark psychedelia really made an impression and that bass sound…!
Though strongly associated with Manchester it’s coastal neighbours Blackpool where you grew up. I guess you have some great memories growing up there, endless summer holidays and a back-drop of great music.
Mmm…living in Blackpool wasn’t a summer holiday! It was like living in a normal big town but with every summer loads of people turning up and going crazy, trouble is we were into punk and they were into Little and Large! We had some run-ins with holiday types who didn’t really get our punk rock style. In the summer the pubs wouldn’t let you in because they were geared to people wearing ‘I Shot JR’ hats and carrying dog leads with no dogs in them. We had a great punk and post punk scene though with my band The Membranes, Section 25, One Way System, The Fits and a bunch of others. Blackpool has a unique musical history from Jethro Tull to the quiet keyboard players from Soft Cell and the Pet Shop Boys. Apparently it’s the eleventh most successful musical town of all time in the UK.
In the 50s and 60s it was the main showbiz town outside London – George Formby, who was the biggest star in the UK, lived and performed there, The Beatles played there fourteen times, Frank Sinatra played there, Jimi Hendrix – by the time I grew up that had all gone! We used to go and watch Blackpool play for years in what must have been the coldest and wettest ground in the country, and when punk came along we saw a way out of the civil service which was what we were all geared up to do. When I go back I love the town though.
The punk movement inspired you to put The Membranes together in ’77. the ‘Do It Yourself’ attitude very much appealed to you didn’t it.
DIY was the most important political thing that came out of punk. Punk empowered people, made them feel like they could do something, you didn’t have to be hard/cool/talented or hip, you just had to go and do it. That message is still important now. When we first formed The Membranes we were 13, 15 and 16, we thought tuning a guitar was putting the machine heads in a row. We played our first gig in Kirkham and it was the first time we had ever plugged into amps, we were the most naive people in the world, I was so naive that I believed in rock n roll and I still do.
At The Stone Roses reunion and the recent press conference the banter between you and the band was great. You’ve always seemed to have had an understanding with the band haven’t you?
Well I’ve known them a long time. My band rehearsed next door to them when they started, even before they had played their first gig. One day I had to borrow some guitar strings and popped in to see them, I already knew Pete the bass player at the time because he used to stock my fanzine ‘Rox’ in Paperchase which was the shop he worked in at the time. We thought the rest of the band looked a bit handy so it was a bit tense, but as soon as I went in the room they were really friendly, just like they are now. Turns out they thought we were a bit psychotic – which we were then!
The weird thing is we were a Top 10 indie band then so we were like the mini big time band and they were the struggling locals. From there on I wrote about them in Sounds when I started being a music journalist and supported them on their rise, championing them when no-one else would.
I think Reni said, “Give that man a mic,” and there were comments about your ever-sharp appearance wasn’t there?
I got to ask the first question at the press conference so asked about what new tunes they had. They said the above and something about me looking ‘cyber handsome’ which I didn’t hear at the time but everyone told me about afterwards. There was some banter about that and then we talked about new songs and stuff about how everyone was doing.
Then later on Reni mentioned Dirty North who are a great young band, and I was so astonished that I butted in and we had some more banter and we talked about them and another great young band from Manchester called Frazer King. I was saying these should be the support bands for the gigs.
Like a lot of people I’m made up with the comeback, but what do you make of the sheer joy throughout the UK due to these four lads playing again? Is it really that important? Can they still inspire?
They have already inspired people, everyone has a spring in their step. It’s proof of just how good rock n roll can make you feel, the myth is fantastic and they are genuine folk heroes who left with unfinished business and returned as one of the biggest UK bands of all time. No-one really understood how big this is. The new album will deliver and all the young bands who have been shoved aside by the X Factor culture have a chance again.
I first became aware of your work through the books, then discovered you’d appeared in many music documentaries, presenting on Sky, as well as contributing on The Culture Show, becoming a heavily relied and quoted upon music commentator. How have you cultivated that, and what makes a good music commentator?
God knows how any of this stuff happens. There is no plan, I’m a music obsessive, but also know about loads of other stuff – from history to culture to art to sport – you should sit in with us when University Challenge is on (laughs), and have a very good memory. I have been there and seen so many major things first hand. I follow my instincts and take no notice of fashion, there is no cultivation unless you count listening to music all the time of all styles and being able to recall vast amounts of stuff. There are loads of different types of good commentators with different reasons why they are good, some people come across well on TV and some don’t, some get on because they live in the right place and know the right people and some get on because they know their stuff. There’s a reason for everything.
In fact the book The Stone Roses And The Resurrection Of British Pop and The North Will Rise Again are personal favourites, as well as the big selling Punk Rock; An Oral History. You’ve written some highly rated books, but which ones have been your favourites?
For me The Oral History Of Punk is my favourite, because that is the music that I grew up with and it was great to connect with all those people, although I knew most of them already. It’s such a fascinating and key period where everything changed for the better and its energy changed people’s lives in so many different ways, and I tried to find out why in that book. The Roses book is another favourite; it’s a great story of a great band, who in some senses are the last punk band to make it from that generation. They may not sound how everyone perceives punk, but the attitude is all there and they empowered people of the next generation.
…and since 1994 you’ve successfully toured and released with your band Goldblade, headlining punk festivals all over the globe, building the reputation for energetic performances and dedicated fans…
We are a cult band, we will never get in the mainstream – radio won’t play our style of music, we are too noisy for alternative stations. So we tour and the gigs are great, wild celebrations of punk rock. It all gets a bit crazy out there, a bit loose and a bit out of control and that’s the whole point. Life is so full of restrictions that music when it really takes off is when you are wild and free – shamanic lunacy, feral and loose, that’s the place to be.
What is the most rewarding – journalism, TV work or still being in a band?
Creating music and playing live. When that mosh pit goes off the chaos is pretty exciting, when you are surfing that energy is exhilarating.
You must have had some fantastic interviews over the years, like the interview with Joe Strummer on a night out. Too many to mention I bet, who was the best and who was the worst you’ve interviewed?
Never had a bad interview, always get a rapport with the bands, they know I don’t bullshit and that I know my stuff. Even John Lydon was cool when he realised he wasn’t going to get asked the same boring stuff and we talked about Can and Captain Beefheart.
So where do you get the energy to cover so much?
I love rock n roll but don’t do the rock n roll lifestyle. Also great music makes me feel ecstatic and I have to communicate it.
Are there plans for your website, Louder Than War, to start their own label and live events?
Label on its way, Louder Than War Records. First releases will be from Deadbeat Echoes who are a really good garage band from Cheshire who sound like a Manchester band crossed with The Misfits and psychedelia. Rats On Rafts are a fab young band from Holland who are like Franz Ferdinand and John Peel post punk. Raised On Replicas are like a punky lo fi version of Pulp, and there are some punk bands. We are doing a live event, some small stuff at the moment and then a huge one in 2013, details soon!
The extraordinary thing is that you’ve seen it from the days of the music fanzine all the way to the internet. What has the net meant to you and what you do?
I wish we had had the internet in the punk days, we would have had a revolution then. We would spend all our time writing letters and posting them, everything is in fast forward now and I love that.
You also became a mediator on The Tony Wilson Experience; an event in Manchester celebrating his life. Would you say it is people like yourself and Clint Boon who are sort of filling that void Tony left, that reliable source of Manchester music info.
I’m here if anyone needs any help. I’m not from Manchester though, I’ve lived there for 27 years but I’m Blackpool really and would never want to claim to be part of the city’s own heritage, I’m passing through in love with the place and its music culture, the punk rock in me recoils from establishment.
So what’s next John? Are you writing any more books, more shows with Goldblade, you’ve had your own radio show so how about your own TV show?
I’m moving fast, always stuff to do. There is always talk of a radio and TV show, people endlessly ask me about that – just waiting for the powers that be to let me loose on the mainstream.