Interview with John Robb

Photography by Danny Allison

I’m waiting in Manchester’s Cornerhouse café in Manchester. John Robb is due any time. He’s hard to miss. He’s a well-known face in the music industry. With the trademark mowhawk John cuts a distinct figure wherever he appears. He talks music, writes about music and plays music in his current punk band, Goldblade. He often talks at music events and has written several books including The Stone Roses And The Resurrection Of British Pop. Arriving in the café, he’s as sharply dressed. The teas arrive and we’re already talking music,

“Punk is a big inspiration for a lot of people my age.” He says. “Before that, being from Blackpool, to be into music, that seemed like something only people from London did, people from outer space. Of course people had done it before, but you just didn’t realise it at the time. The great thing about punk was that it was D.I.Y. You could do it yourself and you didn’t have to get permission. I think that’s an important message these days. I know a lot of bands still have that message but its important to realise that if you want to create something, you can do it. You don’t have to wait for Simon Cowell to tell you that you can do it. I don’t think anything creative should be controlled. It should be completely out of control because if you’re feeling pent up, it’s a great way of getting things out. People seem to think that to be successful you have to sell loads of records. Well nobody is buying records! It’s certainly not the case. It’s that idea of success. I think it can be as simple as getting in front of people and playing music. There’s this thing in this country, where people don’t tend to be very expressive, but are very good at making music. Maybe we express things in music more than any other art forms. There are lots of people in bands. The ones I am interested in are the ones who just get up and do it – you don’t have to have loads of talent, the key is to get up and just do it. We learned that through punk. It was the first staging post of the idea that you could just get on stage and make a racket.”

John is a passionate man, like you’d expect from someone as respected as he is. He continues,

“You had this whole raft of people my age who learned and made their own individual music. I mean, The Stone Roses – that came out of punk. Ian Brown isn’t technically a musical person, but he makes great music. It sounds right when he does it. He is very punk. Music is a funny thing, it’s about transferring energy from one person to another. You don’t have to be a virtuoso piano player. You can go on stage and just talk to people.”

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Music communities fascinate me. Mods, rockers, rappers, indie kids – so many societies within one art, over the years. What of the social side of things, the pull to one place for many people? John says,

“It’s a reason to go out, isn’t it? You get out the house to see music or play it. It’s a danger now, it’s getting really expensive to go out and more people are staying in.”

Earlier this week, I was browsing his music website, featuring reviews, blogs, news articles and features – Louder Than War, when I chanced across an open letter, to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from The Rolling Stones.  The letter questioned the high pricing of tickets for their forthcoming headline tour, at well over £100. I ask him who can afford such prices, almost rhetorically. He pauses momentarily and says,

“Well that would be bankers, waving a bottle of champagne around… It’d be the most un-rock and roll gig ever. Music needs to be communal. I love the Rolling Stones. They’ve created some of the greatest songs of all time and are kind of a blueprint for a rock and roll band. But the greed side of it upset me a bit. Once you have £800 million in the bank…how much more do you need? Its funny how in these times, everyone rightly slags off bankers, yet you have footballers and bands that are even richer and seem to be exempt from the same criticism. You should always be paid as a musician but there comes a point when it gets too much. What about reasonable ticket prices as a thank you for the support over the years? You don’t want music to end up like football where it’s just corporate. Football grounds are like supermarkets. Music has adopted that model in bits and bobs, but the thing about music is that it always rallies against that. What sets music apart from most other things is that it touches the most non-creative people and helps relieve aggression. In America it tends to be largely college kids that get into music. In England, people from all different backgrounds get into it. The Beatles were a great example of that. It breaks down all the cultural and social differences.”

His letter was a simple method of voicing everyone’s mutual feelings, on the internet, on a platform where people could comment, share thoughts. That’s all it needs to be. Air those views. Returning to the topic of the music business right now, John tells me that shortly, following a campaign last year, any venue can host live music without a license. This can only be good news. He says,

“It’s totally a good thing. If you bring a guitar into a room and start playing, something happens, it can be quite profound. I mean, we’re in the middle of a recession and I think we need music more than ever when it is such an uplifting thing. It can be something that people will excitedly wait months for.”

interview for blog

Is there a shortage of expression, a lack of artists addressing social issues in their work? John says,

“In some ways it’s better than it used to be. In the seventies it was so super controlled. I was thinking about this the other day, with the whole Jimmy Savile thing. In those days there was a band called Gang Of Four. They had a line in one of their songs that said, ‘The rubbers in your top pocket.’ Top Of The Pops told them to change it. They refused and it never happened. So you had Jimmy Savile as presenter telling them not to sing about condoms whilst he’s doing whatever he’s allegedly done with fourteen-year-old girls. It’s a warped morality we had with that kind of censorship. You were thinking, ‘why are these people deciding what we can and can’t hear? Even then they were a bit creepy. Today you still get stuff that people won’t play. It’s funny, for example, the BBC are far more towards the left than they used to be, but they still can’t play music that is in line with that. It’s not like there are many songs inciting that we should go and kill people, they’re just saying, ‘it’s a little bit unfair!’ In the days of the Sex Pistols and punk, it was frustrating because we couldn’t get on the radio. We’d say, ‘ah well John Peel will play it.’ But with the internet, people have somewhere to share things and I think eventually it will start to break through. We’re in a huge period of change, but nobody really knows what the change is yet.”

How does John feel personally about his art and expression? His website is very popular and makes him a very busy man.

“Through music and writing, I can always say how I feel, you know? That’s the great thing about having a blog, you have a space where you can actually get things out. It needn’t be heavy. It can be anything, maybe, ‘this is a great tune, or this is a rubbish tune,’ or you might just be pissed off. You can use the internet to build a campaign if there’s something you feel strongly about. It can be political or it can be just feelings. It speaks for itself that people find it easier to get their feelings out in front of 10,000 people, in a stadium than in a one to one conversation.”

Check out more of John’s work at

Photography by Danny Allison

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