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  • Ilyana Glanville

‘You Don’t Have To Throw A Brick Through A Window To Change The World’: An Interview With John Robb

We were recently able to sit down with John Robb and talk to him about his latest book “Do You Believe in the Power of Rock & Roll?: Forty Years of Music Writing from the Frontline.” During our chat he told us, in great detail, about his love for this city of ours, along with his best stories from his time as a writer.

Firstly, thanks for taking the time to chat to us! Could you quickly introduce yourself and give us a quick overview of what you’re up to at the moment?

"Hi, of course! I’m John Robb, I’ve been doing music for years, I had a band called The Membranes and a band called Gold Blade, and I’m still involved with both of those! They were inspired by punk rock; obviously punk rock does change your life. I then did a fanzine (Called Rox) and from this I was able to move onto being a music writer, then last year, I wrote a book all about Goth – which has done really well and is like a bestseller. Then from that the idea behind this book and this tour is to go out and talk about my life in music, my life and lots of tangents surrounding those topics!"

"But in between all of this I’ve done lots of TV, Radio and written lots of books. But then I’m also doing a green campaign called Green Britain, which is teaching people in apprenticeships and in schools all about doing things in a much greener and eco way, but without being really heckly about the whole thing. I’m working on that at the moment with a friend of mine, Dale Vince, who runs Eco-tricity. He’s a really interesting character, he was a traveller for 15 years but ended up being Britain’s leading Eco-Industrialist by building windmills!"

You certainly are very busy! As you are coming to Sheffield on your book tour, I wanted to ask if you had any main inspiration for your book? Or if you pulled from all areas of your life/career?

"I mean it’s just me really. Someone who’s grown up through music and out of the power of music and how it really changes you. So, I’ll talk about how, when I first saw Punk, I like many kids in my generation was into glam rock and would watch it on Top of the Pops. But then, punk came along, and it made you actually want to go out there and do it. So, I talk about the first gig we (The Membranes) played, and we had no idea what we were doing at all you know! We couldn’t play chords or scales; we didn’t know how to plug into amps as we’d never plugged into an amp! So, we totally played out of tune, and it was a complete mess. But really it was a pure statement of punk rock and how powerful it was and how it actually made teenagers go out and do something that was actually pretty scary, like going out on stage."

"Even though, you know, we’d never played musical instruments in our lives, and to me that was the revolution of punk. It’s funny now because punk bands are really musical, aren’t they? Especially American punk bands, you go and see them, and they have perfect harmonies, and it’s all very polished. Which is fine! But it’s interesting because when we started it was so DIY. I love the idea of DIY and people making their own society, and you can really stretch that across all society, don’t wait for the government to facilitate a change in your life just go out and do it yourself! This was all stuff I learned from punk rock, it was a really powerful message and that’s what really inspired me."

Keeping with the DIY ethos, do you think there has been a big shift across music in general and that in some cases maybe the DIY element has been lost?

"No, I don’t think that. Nobody who was truly DIY ever really ‘broke through.’ Some people did of course, but not many! It’s always been the underground of people creating this little network of music venues and music scenes of the music they want to listen too. That’s still there, it’s still here now, and it’s as strong as it ever was, if not stronger. I was thinking about this the other day, people were talking about all these venues closing down, but weirdly I’ve found there to be more venues now than there ever was. I don’t think it’s easy running a venue though, there are a lot of problems involved in it, but in the '80s you’d go to Birmingham for example and there would be one venue that you could perform at!"

"Now you have a choice, I think that now there’s more people in more bands and there’s more space for people to do stuff in. I do think now the problem is that there’s too many people in too many bands so therefore people’s expectations can’t be realised. You can’t have 10,000 bands all sustaining themselves. I do think it’s great though that everyone’s in a band, and it’s great that there’s still people creating this culture and stuff, but it makes it difficult if they all expect to make a living out of it you know, because it can’t stretch that far."

As we are a Sheffield based magazine, I have to ask what’s your favourite memory of Sheffield, past or present?

"Oh well I’ve got loads really! I used to go out with someone in Sheffield, so I know Nether Edge really well from the Early '80s, I would go over there for a few days at a time, and I have really fond memories of that! Because you were so skint then, you’d walk in and out of town. That road with all the antiques shops on it that goes from town to Nether Edge was my favourite. The Leadmill of course through all its different incarnations and decades has always been a key space. So, I remember that from the early '80s, and they used to let the bus drivers in free because across the road used to be the bus depot!"

"That’s from when it was the socialist city of Sheffield and you could get the buses for about 5p, so I don’t actually know why I walked everywhere! But it was great for everyone, no matter how far out you lived there was cheap transport and that was really unique at the time. I remember going to some really great gigs in Sheffield over the years, Cabaret Voltaire, stuff like that. I saw them play at the university. Probably my most favourite thing though is something I did last year for my Goth book actually; it was in a mausoleum in the middle of the graveyard. It was an amazing space! The best thing about that is, Sheffield is in the book, because the thing was it actually didn’t exist, but there are things that feed into what people see as Goth now."

"Cabaret Voltaire were never ever a Goth band, but they influenced a lot of bands who people see as the epitome of Goth bands. I loved this idea that in a house in Sheffield in 1974, these teenagers in Cabaret Voltaire were making this really Avant Garde music. There was no one to ask how to do it, they just got cassettes and chopped them all up and made them into music anyway, and I find that so interesting!"

John then went on to talk to me a little bit about Jordan Mooney who was instrumental in the beginnings of punk. She worked with Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood at their shop SEX. Jordan sadly passed away in 2022.

"Me and Jordan always talked about how Jordan herself was a walking work of art, she didn’t have to put a record out or dance. She just had to walk down the street (Jordan famously rode the train from Brighton to London in a see-through PVC rain mac, which at the time was ground-breaking). It’s inspiring, the people who say no I’m not going to take this anymore. You don’t have to throw a brick through a window to change the world."

"I think in a weird way it was probably easier in the '70s with that shock value, because a lot of people would have hated it – but then a lot of people would have been like, "woah! Something's going on here, I don’t know what it is, but I feel moved by it". I think waiting for stuff to change doesn’t always work, sometimes you just have to go off and foster your own skills and stuff. That’s something that she always did. I went to Jordan’s funeral and her brother did this amazing but very moving eulogy for her, Jordan was really into cats, so it was the nine lives of Jordan – One was a punk icon, Two was the sister, Three was the vet. So, you know it’s all these different lives that she lead."

"When she died someone went onto Facebook and said that I’m really sorry to hear that my local vet has died – someone went on and said that’s Jordan! The punk icon! The other person had no idea that Jordan was the punk icon and the person who saw Jordan as a punk icon had no idea she was a vet. So, she somehow led these two totally separate lives. But they all make sense and overlap really, the way she was a vet, which was just so Jordan, everything was different versions of the same thing in a way."

"She was an exotic presence on the punk scene and then 40 years later she breeds these exotic rare cats with the same meticulous attention to detail and the same amount of love she gave to everything. She was an amazing woman, and I was close friends with her for about 15 years. Furthermore, she was so incredibly funny, and you always believe that when you meet those sorts of people for the first time that they’ll just be so snooty, but she was nothing like that! She had such a Carry On sense of humour, and she was pretty silly in a great way!"

What’s your best story from your time as a writer? Whether that be when you ran your fanzine Rox or when you wrote for the music papers.

"I guess the story everyone always wants to hear is from when I interviewed Nirvana. I was the first person in the UK to interview them! I phoned them up at his (Kurt Cobain's) mum’s house before the first single came out, and I had no idea they hadn’t done an interview, but I also had no idea that anyone was going to like them! They were just a local band, they were signed to Subpop Records and most people though that they (Subpop Records) had done a misstep, as this band was not as good as the other bands."

"But I was sort of captivated by his (Cobain's) voice, he sounds like an 80-year-old man singing in an 18-year-olds body, it just sounded wise and teenage at the same time – that’s the first thing I thought was amazing. 9 months after this interview we flew out to New York to do a feature on them, and we went to the flat they were staying in at the time as they were supporting TAD on tour, and they were all staying in this one room, punk rock DIY style! We said to the PR guys, where are we staying? And they said you’re staying here. So, we slept on a floor for 5 days next to Nirvana – I didn’t have any sleeping stuff, so I had to sleep under my coat with my rucksack as a pillow! We got to know them pretty well as we were helping them carry the gear in and out the flat, and we went to the gigs. We saw them play at Maxwell’s in Hoboken and there was about 20 people watching, they were amazing! They trashed all the gear, and it was really exciting."

"But there was no idea that this band were going to be more than a weird cult band that I would write about in Sounds. There was no idea that they were going to be the biggest band in the world. Within 2 years, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ comes out and it just goes insane. Looking back, you kind of get used to these things happening, it’s like of course Nirvana is massive, but at the time the jump they did was massive! Where I live in Manchester, I live right next to the University. I still see students wearing Nirvana T-shirts, and he does just look like a sort of Rock’n’roll Jesus, doesn’t he? I always think it’s funny as I walk past them as they have no idea that this weird looking old dude was the first person to interview that band on their T-shirt. It’s mad how well American bands do, like The Offspring sold 12 million albums which is just madness. But none of those bands could touch Nirvana, they were way way better than all those other bands. He just wrote really great songs, and they were just quite rough sounding, and his voice was amazing."

"It goes through the generations, in 30 years’ time Nirvana will be like The Beatles are, they’re one of those bands that every generation gets a handle on and understands. They won’t seem of a period; they just seem eternal. Whereas bands like Blink-182 are very much of their period, with the Americans getting punk slightly wrong. That was another thing about Nirvana actually, they got the thing about Punk - a lot of modern American punk bands polish everything up, it still sounds good don’t get me wrong, but they made everything really raggedy, raw, and exciting. Even though Nevermind is really well produced, it still sounds raggedy and that’s because of his voice – he’s such a great singer, and you can hear all the emotion in a voice, he really opens himself up. I don’t think that did him much good, but it made for good music."

"I think when bands do get massive people forget how important they are, because they see them everywhere, they’re all-prevailing. But, when you actually step back you do think, fuck that was actually something pretty special."

John Robb will begin an extensive UK tour this week, later visiting our very own Leadmill on 10th April. Tickets can still be purchased for the Sheffield date here.


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