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Jah Wobble: In Conversation On Get Carter At 50
Fergal Kinney , August 5th, 2022 14:58

As Get Carter turns 50, Jah Wobble reflects on Ray Budd's minimalist jazz score in conversation with Fergal Kinney

As British audiences went to see Get Carter in March 1971, the crime film’s atmosphere of pervasive corruption and national decay was one matched by the news, and would persist across that decade. It was written into the headlines of that month alone. Heath’s Conservative government had reluctantly nationalised Rolls Royce after the flagship luxury car manufacturer had gone bankrupt. The Stoke Newington left terror cell The Angry Brigade had claimed responsibility for bombings at the home of Conservative politician Robert Carr and at the Department of Employment office. For the first time, postal workers had been out on a strike which would last two months. Tyneside, where most of Get Carter was filmed, had woken up that decade to find out exactly what the previous decade’s modernising regeneration of the city had been built on. Bribery, corruption, jerrybuilding. T Dan Smith, the dazzling Labour city council leader at the centre of it all would be forced to resign all of his political offices a few months later. Though just outside of Smith’s remit, the Trinity Square car park and shopping centre in Gateshead that would feature in the film – as hulking and imposing as any of Get Carter’s criminals - had been part of a series of commissions that had bankrupted their property developer.

That all of this seemed to seep into the film was no accident. Director Mike Hodges had been on the front line of British reporting as a producer/director Granda’s strident, campaigning current affairs show World In Action. As well as documentary, he was interested in the American b-movie, films that “used the crime story as an autopsy on society’s ills”.

Not everybody at the time observed the breadth of Hodges’ vision. Reviewing the film in the Observer, George Melly confessed to enjoying the film, but comparing it to “a bottle of neat gin swallowed before breakfast. It's intoxicating all right, but it'll do you no good". Aided by an innovative press campaign seeing ‘CAINE IS CARTER’ emblazoned on Routemaster buses, the film was a success above expectations for a directorial debut. Audiences were thrilled by it. The young Jah Wobble was one of them.

Aged 13 at the time, the film left an impression on the bassist, bandleader and cultural polymath that has endured for half a century. He has twice recorded versions of Roy Budd’s minimalist, hypnotic theme from the film, once describing it as one of the basslines “that contain the whole mystery of creation within them”, and earlier this year he introduced the new 4K restoration of the film at the BFI Southbank.

The Quietus: Hello John.

Jah Wobble: Everybody’s talking to me about that film again, it came up just a few days ago. Millennials I know are just discovering it and falling in love with it. And I guess the thing that people are interested in is the social conditions and what was going on. The context, the historical context it took place in was everything. There was that huge programme of public rebuildings. The slum clearances.

Particularly in Tyneside, you had T Dan Smith and The Brasilia of the North.

The whole T Dan Smith thing, there were all sorts of shenanigans going on at that level, with the amount of public money. I know the flats we grew up in, they had completely the wrong kind of bricks, so my mum ended up getting bronchitis because they had water pouring out of all the walls. It was jerry built, you know? You had all of that going on, that gangster culture still very prevalent – the Kray twins, the Richardsons, the Quality Street gang in Manchester. Proper traditional old gangs.

At the same time, I remember what I sensed was the film was a precursor to capitalism, to free market economics. A lot of gangsters are people who love to make money. That whole thing with Cyril Brumby was interesting, someone who’s in between worlds. A slot machine guy who starts to go into legitimate business. You’re a big man but you’re out of shape. But everything I suspected about the film, it being a very thoughtful classic, was confirmed when I got the DVD, which had Mike Hodges’ commentary to it. And he confirmed all of that, he saw Cyril Brumby as a new kind of Englishman.

There was that kind of mentality, those people who demanded a Thatcher before Thatcher came. They needed a leader like her – deregulate everything. One of the things that’s suggested in the film, deep in the background, is that kind of tension between the state and free market economics. That was what was going on in our lives.

Mike Hodges did his National Service with the Fishery Protection squadron. That took him to places like Grimsby, Hull, Lowestoft, North Shields and it radicalised him. He was a young Tory from the Home Counties and had no idea what was really going on in his country. He became your kind of classic late ‘50s angry young man after that.

I had no idea. I had no idea he’d been a Tory.

And I guess that from that, you get this very extreme portrait of the North.

Well the reason I could identify with it…I remember with The Likely Lads, the opening credits was all wrecking balls and council flats going up. In the East End, if you were from Salford or the East End of London or from Birmingham you’d identify with that. All of those places had slum clearances. You recognised something in the North. You had Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Look Back in Anger, what they described was what you could call working class life. With that came a kind of exuberance. The whole point of having Michael Caine in the film was because in the 60s you had working class people like Michael Caine coming to the fore. And you have John Osborne! Who of course, for me, steals the film as an actor. You don’t give a man like Jack a drink in a piddly little glass, give the man a bottle.

For me, what all this did, it gave you very positive role models. And the feeling that you could progress in life. It was really good. The two cliched routes were sport – football and boxing – and music. There was a feeling that through the arts you could somehow go into the world and express yourself. And that there were sympathetic entities, organisations and people who would facilitate that. That’s now gone. We live in such a shitty fucking post-Thatcherite world.

I didn’t go up North until I got into music. I remember all Northern cities were like Kings Cross in London, they were sooty, from the trains. They were grimy, run down, sooty, gloomy. But kind of full of drunken exuberance. That’s working class culture, I come from a time when you had a strong working class culture. You’d travel up North and you’d have something in common.

What are your memories of seeing the film for the first time, would it have been on its original 1971 release?

I thought I saw it on the telly, but mates of mine say I went to see it. All I remember is it having a huge effect on me. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. I made the judgement for myself that it was an amazing film, I really believed it.

I live up North now, but the picture was more complicated then. You had coal fields in Kent, you had steelworks in Corby, if you went to Portsmouth it was a very working class place, you had working class communities everywhere. Miners in Cornwall, all that stuff. I look back at that world. I was politicised and I’d read D.H. Lawrence. I knew you had to self improve and take responsibility for yourself. I knew education was a powerful thing.

You had working class institutions like Birkbeck, where I did my mature course. You had evening classes, adult learning centres, all well funded. You had a feeling you could go forward in the arts. You could progress into life and have a life. The younger mob coming through are fucked, we’re very much back where we were, except there’s a bigger middle class. But, as in America, that middle class is very vulnerable. And they know it.

Of course the Trinity Square car park in Gateshead is important, and is now gone. I believe it’s a large Tesco now. Did you ever get to visit?

I feel very linked with lots of places and Newcastle is one of them. One of my favourite places to play, normally every year at The Cluny, I’ve been going there for years. I discussed the car park at the BFI screening of Get Carter recently. There was a Geordie guy there. I thought it was listed, the car park, seen it, been in it. But apparently it’s come down. I wasn't aware. I remember seeing it, going in it. Something like that should be a monument. I quite like brutalist architecture, Trellick Tower. I could see why you’d want to keep them up. That’s the visual aspect of dub, the space between the buildings measures the reverb and the delay somehow.

You’ve recorded and performed Roy Budd’s main theme from Get Carter. What were the things you found interesting in the score?

Let’s get right to the essence of it right away. It’s got tablas on it. Somehow as a young man I was attracted to Indian culture, and Indian music. Tablas especially resonate with me. So that was probably the first time I heard tablas with bass. It was standup bass, not electric, but the first time I’d heard tabla with bass and drum kit. And only Miles was doing that at that time! Only electric Miles. It’s an amazing thing. The other thing is it’s jazz, but it grooves. It’s like when I heard Expansions by Lonnie Liston Smith, those soul jazz funk crossover singles that I’d get in the early seventies. I like jazz where you don’t have the bass going up and down the scale. I get fed up with that. You’ve actually got a bassline. It’s got a modal quality to it. It grooves, it hypnotises it.

So you’ve got a classic B-line. I suppose it’s in E Minor. So many great songs are in E Minor, lots of great jazz or folk rock stuff is E Minor or A Minor. It’s not modulating or changing all over the shop, it’s just absolutely classic. That opening sequence on the train, it’s got the dynamic of a wonderful pop video. It’s one of the world’s greatest actors who understood the power of small gestures. He’s polishing his spoon and taking his pills. What’s that for, indigestion? That suggests a complex guy. Just that dynamic, and the track slows down, Roy Budd’s obviously scored it to the film. That little sequence, 3 minutes or something, it’s breathtaking, it’s exhilarating in the way that a music video would be a few years later.

I’ll tell you one thing, the tough guys in it. You’ve got John Bindon, George Sewell, do you know about John Bindon? He knew Princess Margaret*. These were proper geezers. The one I don’t know is the one who plays Peter. He looks fantastic, he looks like all the geezers in the East End where I lived. Geezers like that, the council flats, they were jump up merchants. They were out doing armed robberies. You knew they were fucking trouble, really stylish looking fuckers. Now putting those people in the film. That’s a statement. It really is. It’s like Mike Leigh, there’s almost a Mike Leigh kind of thing going on. You can imagine that he’s allowed them to have a bit of a say in how they talk, how they’d approach the parts. What I’m struggling to say is that the film is as much a social documentary, and it’s quite three dimensional. Using John Bindon, with Princess Margaret and everything, it’s saying a lot about class. It’s very smart. It’s very clever. Sometimes you make an album at a particular point at a particular time and you use particular players and it makes the whole thing three dimensional, deep and meaningful. It opens up so many avenues, especially for a working class bloke. And you look, and Cyril Brumby won the war. Or most of the battles. That small time, cultureless mentality. We’re now stuck between Truss or Sunak. Cultureless.

*the Fulham gangster John Bindon caused a national controversy during the mid 1970s, pictured wearing a t-shirt saying Enjoy Cocaine whilst holidaying with Princess Margaret on the island of Mustique. Bindon’s long term girlfriend Vicki Hodge would later enter into a relationship with Prince Andrew.