John Robb is one of punk rock’s great renaissance men: vocalist with Goldblade, journalist, author and spoken-word performer, there seems little he can’t turn his hand to – but for the purposes of this feature we’re looking at John as lead bassist with visionary post-punk maniacs the Membranes, a band that he formed at the age of 16 in 1977 with school friend Mark Tilton, with whom he also self-published the Blackpool Rox fanzine.
“I originally had a Woolworth’s K bass for a couple of months, but started pulling it apart,” he explains, of his first bass, which he famously built himself. “I hated the shape of it and wanted a violin bass like Captain Sensible had on the back of the Damned album. But there was no way of buying one, even if one turned up in Blackpool, so I resolved to make my own, even though I had never made a musical instrument before. The body was virtually a piece of driftwood from the beach! A piece of maple wood I found and carved into the shape of a violin bass with a penknife while sitting out on the street in the long hot summer, and then I took the electrics from the Woolworth’s bass and put them inside, screwed it all together and stained it with dark varnish, and then I took the neck off the Woolworth’s bass and put it into the body. God knows how it worked: I had never done anything like that before…”
He adds: “Someone we knew in town was older than us – the guitar player from the great rockabilly band, the Riverside Trio – and he said to put a DiMarzio pickup in there to get more clout from the sound, so I somehow wired that in and it blew our minds! It was like 100 Lemmys brawling with 100 JJ Burnels, coming out of this small Ohm Pukka bass combo that I was using. That sounded great as well: a small combo, made by some Manchester-based company, that growled like a bad-tempered lion. When the speaker eventually blew, it never sounded the same again.”
If you’re familiar with the Membranes, you’ll know they peddled an intriguingly off-the-wall take on punk, with the bass as the central point of focus, creating huge dirty soundscapes that stretch as far as a hallucinating mind can imagine, and influencing many a punk band that have taken up sonic arms since. But what of John’s own influences when he was first learning this revered instrument?
“It always comes back to JJ Burnel,” he says, not unsurprisingly given the huge Stranglers vibe on early Membranes releases such as the 1981 ‘Muscles’ 7”. “There’s a lot of great bass-lines to choose from: ‘Peaches’ is so overplayed, it’s easy to forget how good that bass-line is. ‘Down In The Sewer’ is my favourite though, for its dexterity, rhythm and sound, and sheer brooding darkness – and that’s just the bass! There’s that weird zig-zagging funky bit in the middle: it’s an amazing piece of work… dark, oily and weird, and yet it still works as a piece of music.
“Back then, it was all the key bass players in punk and post punk I was listening to. It was a new language. But I think the Stranglers changed the shape of the sound when they cranked the bass up to lead on their early albums – that was a key influence on post-punk that they don’t really get enough credit for. There was also all the dub reggae at the time and, at the other end of the scale, Lemmy. There were lots of bands that were parallel to us when we started, with great bass shapes in their songs like Killing Joke with Youth and, of course, Jah Wobble, Bauhaus, XTC, Adam And The Ants with the Dirk Wears White Sox album and many others. I also liked the way early Einstürzende Neubauten used the bass as the only conventional instrument in their metal percussion assault, Tracey Pugh from the Birthday Party was a great bass player… and the Fall. It’s hard to remember if these were contemporaries or just all in the same gene pool, but we were all sort of in the same place at the same time, discovering the key power of the new way of playing bass. Nowadays Les Claypool is killer, and also Swans, as well as many Mancunian bassists.”
The Membranes went on to release six albums, each seemingly more deranged and challenging than the other, before splitting towards the end of the 80s, and then reforming in 2009, when My Bloody Valentine asked them to play the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. With their new album, Dark Matter/Dark Energy – their first in over 25 years – there are a lot of bass-lines to choose from when John is asked to nominate his own personal favourite.
“In the first period, the bass-line on our 1984 single, ‘Spike Milligan’s Tape Recorder’ was the best, just for the sheer wall of sound. That homemade violin bass had a real power and tone to it: the maple wood was great for resonance, and even though it shouldn’t have worked it sounded stunning. When we took the final mix home and played it, we jumped around the room all night with excitement and kept playing the intro over and over because it sounded so fucking good – the bass comes in like an avalanche! I remember when we played the Marquee in 1984 and even Lemmy, who is one of the great bass players of all time, was stunned by the sound of the bass. It’s a shame it got stolen from our shared house in 1990… a strange thing for someone to steal, as it only ever made sense in my hands.
“Saying that, the bass I have now is a 1977 Fender Precision and it really growls; it sounded great even before it was plugged in for the first time, a real monster. Even when we do soundchecks, and me and drummer Rob have jams, people come in from other rooms in the venue and ask what the hell that sound is! I love just clipping the strings and playing it almost as a percussive instrument – it makes such a great noise. The violin bass I used to have was unique and it was hard to replace, but this Precision I have now actually sounds better: it sounds heavy and gnarly, but it’s easy to get different sounds out of. I play it through a Marshall bass head, Ampeg speakers, and sometimes a Rat pedal with just a touch of distortion on it.”
The new album has some superbly imaginative bass playing on it, from the dark dub twists of ‘In The Graveyard’ through the grinding riff assault of ‘21st Century Man’ and the lead bass growl of ‘Do The Supernova’ to the high-register minor key runs of ‘The Universe Explodes’, there’s something for everyone, whether punk rock floats your boat or not.
“The whole album is built around the bass; it’s a total reaction to the death of the bass caused by all those two-piece guitar/drum bands!” says John proudly, before adding, by way of conclusion, “The spirit of the band is the same now as back then: we don’t follow rules. I think the most important thing in any reformed band is to not so much to copy your sound as your spirit… the spirit of adventure! Of course we know a lot more nowadays, but we use that knowledge. We have more skills now, but they don’t get in the way. We know how to make the music more intense and tougher and also more diverse. People say they can’t believe how good the band sounds these days, which is great. It also has to be about energy, and the energy of ideas as well, and we didn’t want to be a retro band holding onto to some mythical rose-tinted past. We had to move forward – but the bass is still very much the key instrument.”
Dark Matter/Dark Energy by the Membranes is out now on Cherry Red Records. John Robb is currently working on a book about post-punk, as well as a collected book of his journalism and a book of punk photographs.