Last of the Mohicans - John Robb Interview
Last of the Mohicans - John Robb InterviewViva!’s Justine Butler discovers how the strictly hardcore punk singer, musician, writer and vegan, John Robb has a very soft centre
John Robb is an award-winning journalist, TV presenter and radio commentator. He was frontman of The Membranes, the band he formed in 1977. Now frontman of punk rock band Goldblade and author of bestselling books, The Stone Roses and the Resurrection of British Pop and Punk Rock - An Oral History. In 2011 John launched the online rock music and pop culture website louderthanwar.com. Famously, he coined the term ‘Britpop.’
John was late for our meeting and was very apologetic, his politeness belying his tough image. He’d come directly from the House of Commons with Bristol’s Labour MP and fellow vegan, Kerry McCarthy. He explained why he couldn’t get away earlier: “You have to stay with whoever you’re seeing at the House, you can’t just wander off.” We found a quiet corner in the Soho restaurant and he explained how he first got interested in music and why he went vegetarian.
John was born in 1961 in Fleetwood, a suburb north of Blackpool, where he went to sixth-form college. His earliest memory is of being on Fleetwood prom at about the age of four: “It was raining,” he laughs, “so that could have been almost any day for years on end…”
He doesn’t come from a musical family, although his Dad, who grew up in Poplar in London’s East End, had such a talent for singing that he was awarded a place in the choir of St Pauls Cathedral. His Dad’s taste for classical music never clicked with John and in the 1970s it was glam rock – T.Rex, Slade, Mott the Hoople and the like.
In 1976, he saw newspaper pictures of punks and thought they looked amazing – and knew just what punk would sound like solely from the pictures. When he then heard The Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK he described it as an avalanche of sound.
Clothes of course, he loved the clothes and Vivienne Westwood’s infamous boutique, Sex, on the King’s Road in London: “They were designer clothes, exclusive clothes that nobody could afford but they were like works of art. It was fashion but also anti-fashion.”
John is proud of his Northern heritage and reckons that Northerners didn’t really wear the punk uniform but would just get stuff from Oxfam: “Pretty much like what we wear now,” he says, gesturing to his black drainpipe jeans and creepers. He cuts a striking figure with his suit jacket and black sleeveless shirt beneath – and, of course, his distinctive Mohawk-style hair:
“Nowadays, people think you’re quite smartly dressed but we got beaten up for looking like this back then.” Perhaps not surprisingly, he has great sympathy with the Sophie Lancaster Foundation campaign which was set up in memory of the 20-year-old who was fatally attacked in a park near Manchester in 2007 for no reason other than her appearance.
John was drawn by punk’s DIY message and formed his own band, produced a fanzine and organised his own gigs. “Before then,” he says, “most people thought musicians were from London or outer space - which could have been the same thing in 70’s Blackpool.”
At their first gig they didn’t know how to tune their guitars so just lined up the machine heads (the knobs that tighten the strings) in a row. It didn’t seem to matter.
He liked everything about punk: the style, the music, the politics, which encompassed right wing, left wing plus anarchists! But for him, there was an overriding idealism at the heart of it all and a kind of nihilism:
“It felt like nuclear war was just round the corner and the world was going to end by the time we were 25. So everything was fast forward, trying to cram in as much as you could before the world ended. But then it didn’t,” he laughs heartily.
There was a darker, sometimes aggressive, side to punk and he acknowledges this darkness in everybody who is into it. “It’s multi-faceted, and part of me is like Sid Vicious and part of me is like a hippy. Punk has always been very contrary and you even argue with yourself,” he laughs, “about music, records, artwork and the clothes. He questioned everything and still does. “We’re certainly not as boring as the X-Factor people”, he says with a smile.
As a journalist, John has interviewed heavyweights on the punk scene. Joe Strummer from The Clash was a really decent and interesting bloke. “He talked about hallucinogenic mushrooms, politics and tried to buy my coat off me for £400.” John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), was more challenging, spending the first 20 minutes sneering and putting on the pantomime act people expect. Then he started talking about nature and the things that really interest him and switched from Johnny Rotten to John Lydon. He has a down-to-earth humility about him.
John Robb is not interested in hero-worship: “Punk was about no more heroes, wasn’t it?” he says. “What about all the nurses who get paid shit, treated like shit and do a really shitty job? It moves me to tears how good they are. I don’t mind if they get a bit tetchy sometimes, I’d be tetchy on a 12 hour shift wiping people’s bums!”
John turned vegetarian in 1986 and feels it should have been sooner. He’d lived next door to an abattoir in Stafford: “The cows would look at you when you passed and before then it hadn’t really occurred to me that they were sentient beings who knew what was going to happen to them. That’s not right is it?” He points out how British people are so sentimental about some animals - when they see lambs they say “Ahhh!” and then go home and eat them. “I think if people had to kill the animals they ate then most of us would be vegetarian, wouldn’t we?”
He has been vegan for six years, trains a lot and says the guys at the gym ask him what he eats: “I’m stronger than most of them and when I say tofu and beans they can’t believe it. I hate that idea of vegans as pasty-faced characters that wear sandals.” Which accounts for his talk at the upcoming London Vegfest in October, ‘Vegan Power! How to not eat meat and not wear sandals.’
John’s favourite meal is brown rice, steamed veg and grilled olive tofu. “Sickeningly healthy isn’t it?” he laughs. “Being a northern bloke, you weren’t really brought up to cook but it’s been fantastic learning. I put my rice on, my cut veg goes in the bamboo steamer, do some work and in five minutes go back and eat my tea.” He’s laughing at himself!
There are three veggies and two meat-eaters in Goldblade but they all tend to eat vegetarian when on tour. John says: “Rock and roll is really un-rock and roll as most people take sandwiches with them.” He has his tofu, bread and soya yoghurt and knows where health food shops are in most cities. “If you’re stuck, you just eat banana sandwiches, don’t you?”
“Rock and roll is really un-rock n roll; most people take sandwiches with them”
Currently touring, playing festivals and running his website, John is organising a Celebrate the NHS tour. He also wants to set up a museum that celebrates Blackpool’s history: “I’m proud I come from a town that has made people happy for 130 years. I love George Formby, I love Blackpool, I love music from the ‘30s and I love all its theatres.”
How does he juggle everything? An iPad is the answer! And to relax? “I like running and lifting weights - it’s quite meditative - but I get a massive adrenalin rush on stage. In fact, I feel more at home on stage than in real life!”
In 2008 he recorded a Christmas single with the late X-Ray Spex singer, Poly Styrene, also a vegetarian. “It was a great song and Poly was ace – she did it in one take. I was heartbroken when she died.” Poly died from breast cancer in 2011.
So what is he really proud of in his life? Of keeping his bands together and touring; still making music in his 50’s; not obeying the rules and not compromising. He couldn’t have done anything else, he says. However, the thing that makes him happiest is the decision to become vegan: “Because of the animals, taking control of my life really and not just doing what I was expected to do.”
His Pop and Politics session, an evening of food, talk and debate with politicians and musicians is just about to start, so I leave him and Kerry McCarthy to their Spaghetti aioli. It’s going to be an interesting night!