Writer and musician John Robb has spoken to NME about his spoken word tour, being the first person to interview Nirvana, the infamous Oasis vs Cable fight, and his ongoing belief in new music.

Robb is an author, journalist and member of punk legends Goldblade and The Membranes. Starting out in zines, he went on to write for the likes of ZigZag, Melody Maker, Sounds and The Guardian among others. He has also penned books on The Stone Roses, The Charlatans and the history of goth music, and runs his own website LouderThanWar.

Currently, he’s on the last leg of his UK spoken word tour for his latest book: Do You Believe in the Power of Rock & Roll?: Forty Years of Music Writing from the Frontline.

John Robb in Berlin,(Photo by Martyn Goodacre/Redferns)

“There are plenty anecdotes and stories in there,” Robb told NME of the show. “I always put in the Oasis story about how I was first person to hear [1995 second album] ‘(What’s The Story) Morning Glory’ in the studio, then they got in a massive fight with the band I was producing – Cable.

“That’s been in the papers a few times over the years. Oasis actually split up briefly that night after that fight, but I was the only sober person there so I can remember it in almost exact detail!”

Robb continued: “I don’t blame Liam Gallagher one bit for what happened. He was very patient with Cable, but he got so drunk and they kept saying how terrible the album was and they threw a load of pasta at him, then he went mad.”

Noel Gallagher and Liam Gallagher of Oasis
Noel Gallagher and Liam Gallagher of Oasis, at a photoshoot in a hotel in Tokyo, September 1994 (CREDIT: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images)

Another story at the centre of Robb’s book and live show is about how while working at Sounds, he was the first ever journalist to interview Nirvana back in 1989 – before flying out to live with them for five days nine months later.

“I saw them play a gig at Maxwells in Hoboken to about 20 people,” Robb recalled. “It was an amazing gig. I slept on their floor and spent five days hanging out with them so got to know them really well, which made for a much better story.”

Cutting to the core of his memoir, 62-year-old Robb described it as “the story of a generation, of my generation”.


“A lot of people got into punk in a small circle in London, but it hit harder in small towns,” he said. “We were really naive. Growing up in Blackpool, I had no idea how to be in a band or how to be a writer. You just did it anyway. That was the glory of punk. It got you on a stage, you’d never plugged in an amp, you didn’t know what chords or scales were, you didn’t know how to tune up.

“We were only 16 and it must have sounded awful, but to me that’s the real revolution of punk: it got a load of nerdy outsider kids to get up and make stuff. It was the same for writers; if you didn’t go to college then you just started typing and sticking it all together. You’d get it wrong, but that’s how you get it right.”

The esteemed writer also gave NME the skinny on his thoughts on The 1975‘s Matty Healy, being an early champion of Fontaines D.C., and his relentless drive to discover new music.

NME: Hello John. How’s it going?

John Robb: “Great, thanks. I was just reading on NME about [The 1975 frontman] Matty Healy trying to save Night & Day in Manchester. He can be a bit of a prat, but there is an idealism in him that you don’t see in a lot of other mainstream bands. They’re like that generation’s U2 in that sense.

“When you’re in that position and become a spokesperson for your generation, it’s a weird pressure. You can’t put a foot wrong. Who’d want that? We’re in a pop period at the moment, so it’s a different kind of person that hogs the mainstream.”

It’s great to see a lot of bands with substance making waves. Are you a fan of Fontaines D.C.?

“Yes, I was going to put their first single out. It’s never come out and I still have the tracks. I’m really glad actually, because the timing was just perfect when they did it 18 months later. The label [Partisan at the time, now they’re signed to XL] was bigger and everything was just right.

“I used to go to BIMM [the music institute where the band were students] to do these one-to-one sessions, and Grian [Chatten, frontman] came four times in a day. He was dead young and super keen, and back then they were just called Fontaines and had more of a Ramones and Buddy Holly thing about them. I love them. They’re a great band and are consistently getting better and better. That’s a hard trick to pull off, isn’t it?

“They’re young and exciting. I love IDLES but they’re all in their 40s now. KNEECAP are amazing too. I know all of their management so hear about their escapades every day.”

Mick Jones and John Robb speak on stage during the benefit event 'Justice Tonight' in aid of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign at the Scala in Kings Cross on December 8, 2011 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)
Mick Jones and John Robb speak on stage during the benefit event ‘Justice Tonight’ in aid of the Hillsborough Justice Campaign at the Scala in Kings Cross on December 8, 2011 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Jim Dyson/Getty Images)

Your stories almost paint you as the Forrest Gump of the ’90s – always there at these key historical moments…

“If you grew up in a small town during punk, you’d already missed everything. After that, you don’t want to miss anything. I’d always make sure that I was there when things were happening. I spent all those years frustrated as a teenager, 50 miles away from Manchester where stuff was starting to happen, or 100-200 miles away in London that felt like an alien city in the ‘70s.

“After that, I had to be where it was happening, and I developed an instinct for when things would happen. Often though, things will come to you. I didn’t go and seek out Fontaines, he came to me for half hour talks on how to put a record out. He played me his tune and it was brilliant. If you’re into music and really enthusiastic about music all your life, then bands will come to you. They’ll trust you not to slag them off as that’s such a tragic thing to do, but you can also be the first fan of a band. There’s a responsibility in telling a new band they’re amazing.”

Does that spirit stay with you?

“It’s sad when you get older and a lot of your friends go, ‘Music nowadays is all rubbish and not like when we were younger’. What are you going on about? You were into punk and your parents hated it. Do you really think that 10,000 years of culture peaked when you were 17-years-old? It’s just a mad way to think. Rose-tinted specs are the worst kind of specs.”

Every generation finds a way to have its own moment. How have you kept up with that?

“It’s a constant evolution in music. There’s always someone doing something good out there. You might get to a point where you haven’t heard anything new or good in two or three months and think, ‘Maybe it’s run out’ – but then you’ll be sat outside having a cup of tea and a 16-year-old kid will give you a link to his band’s music on a napkin written in biro. That happened to me and it was really good! It’s always out there.

“Trouble is, there are so many bands now. There are plenty of ‘six out of 10’ pretty good bands, but if you’re a genius band then you’re lost in this sea of pretty good bands. As a punter, that’s not a nightmare because you always get to see plenty of pretty good bands – but you’re always looking for that game-changer.

“Music is now so old, that you’ll have 15-year-olds into Led Zeppelin and new stuff, plus some underground rap they found on TikTok. It’s not one specific thing that’s sparking the revolution – it’s all of these things happening at the same time.”

John Robb performs with The Membranes performs at O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)
John Robb performs with The Membranes performs at O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (Photo by Lorne Thomson/Redferns)

Do you feel like an ‘Oasis’ moment of a new band exploding and dominating culture is possible in this current climate?

“Oh 100 per cent. Anything could come out. You couldn’t predict Oasis before Oasis. I knew them back then. I had the early demos and they were great, but the vibe back then was a very London-centric way of thinking that every city had a scene and then would have to wait 30 years until you heard from them. Therefore, Oasis couldn’t make it.

“As Noel Gallagher once said to me, ‘The London music media had the stage set up for Britpop with Blur and Suede, then we turned up uninvited and they never forgave us’. The context of that is that there could be a weird combination of individuals out there making something that’s about to capture a whole generation’s imagination. It’s always about to happen.”

And it must have felt that way with Nirvana too?

“Yes. For two years, they were playing to about 20 or 30 people everywhere. Then ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ came out as one of the greatest rock songs ever, up there with The Beatles as a game-changer. No one predicted Nirvana becoming the biggest band in the world, but then it was just a completely natural evolution.”

Do you sense history as its happening or is it more after the fact?

“Probably after the fact. You see the cultural resonance of it, but you definitely sense the excitement of it as it’s happening. As a pop culture fanatic who’s been reading the newspaper since 1973, I always used to wonder, ‘What was it like to be there?’ You know, like Sex Pistols at The 100 Club in 1976. You’re expecting this huge youthquake then you’re out and having a great time at gigs and club nights and you realise, ‘I’m actually in the middle of one of these huge things. I’m in the eye of the hurricane’.

“When everyone you know is suddenly catapulted to the top of the tree, it’s an exciting thing to watch. It’s great to see The Stone Roses go from dole culture to the most important band in the country, or [Happy Mondays] Shaun Ryder going from something only a few people in Manchester can understand to becoming a popstar. It was all so unlikely, but exciting.

“I’ve always been into the underground, but I wish it wasn’t the underground. I wish it was the mainstream. When you think about it, The Beatles were an underground band that became the biggest band in the world and it made the world a much better place. I want to see the game-changers and brilliant minds at the top, not the boring people.”

When was the last time a new act really caught you off guard?

“I remember seeing Hot Wax when they were 17 in Hastings and they were just absolutely brilliant. There’s so much going on in Ireland right now. It’s the hottest place in our little wet corner of Europe. I did a couple of book tours there last year and everywhere I went, people were giving me amazing music. That post-Lankum scene is really happening.

“There are loads of great bands that aren’t going to become the biggest thing in the world, but that doesn’t matter. As a writer all you can do is say, ‘This has blown my mind’. It’s not my job to say ‘This is going to be the biggest band in the world’, because you don’t know that.

“When I saw Nirvana play that gig in New York, I didn’t think that would happen – it was just so exciting and that’s all you can say. You have to go with your instinct. Nirvana could have been one of those obscure bands that only I liked and I’m still trying to get people to listen to. Give them a go; one day you’ll get it!”

The remaining dates of John Robb’s Do You Believe in the Power of Rock & Roll? tour are below. Visit here for tickets and more information.

9 – Edinburgh Voodoo Room, with Paul Simpson
10 – Barrow the Forum, with Paul Simpson
11 – Nottingham Lakeside Arts
27 – Corsham Pound Arts Centre, with Terry Chambers (XTC drummer)