Interview: John Robb

Manchester-based writer, presenter, musician and TV pundit JOHN ROBB “accidentally made a career out of rock ’n’ roll” and is about to take his tales and observations on the road with his Do You Believe In The Power of Rock n Roll? spoken word tour. RESOUND caught up with John last week to chat about his life at the frontline of music over the last 40 years.

So what is it about rock ’n’ roll that’s drawn John into its web for pretty much all of his life? “For my generation, rock ’n’ roll was the most easily accessible art form even if you didn’t have any real talent,” laughs John. “It was an easy way to express yourself, especially in the north of England at that time (the ‘70s and early ‘80s), and probably Scotland too. Instead of admitting what you felt, you could say it in a few chords or through some obtuse sort of poetic lyricism.” John was soon lured in and started a band, becoming bassist, and later, vocalist of The Membranes, who formed in the late 1970s, then in 1995, Goldblade, though he confesses that in the early days their sound was a bit hit or miss, thrashing away at their guitars until they eventually created something that sounded alright. 

Of course, image went hand in hand with the music, and for some bands this came before they’d even picked an instrument such as Andrew Eldritch, who designed The Sisters of Mercy’s logo before he’d even written a note, and Jarvis Cocker who’d penned the ‘Pulp Master Plan’, hot on the heels of his illustrated ‘Pulp Fashion Guide’ before he could play a single chord on the guitar. John tells us,

Image was core to the British culture. I’d seen pictures of punk bands in the music press before I’d heard any of them but I still kind of knew what they’d sound like just by the way they looked whereas in the US most bands wore jeans and t-shirts. It didn’t tell you anything.”

Around the late ’70s John also began writing about music “to try to understand why I liked some stuff I shouldn’t have”, setting his up his own fanzine, writing for various publications including SOUNDS and MELODY MAKER, and penning numerous books on music and culture including Punk Rock: An Oral History, The Stone Roses And The Resurrection of British Pop, The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996 and latest tome The Art Of Darkness: The History Of Goth. Now running music website Louder Than War, he says, 

there’s something about the vibrations and sounds of music that are very powerful…it constantly takes you by surprise and you can overthink it, but sometimes you have to just cut the crap and admit that it sounds f**king great to you!” 


One memory of his time at SOUNDS John won’t forget is interviewing Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, the first interview the band had done. He laughs as he tells us “I remember going to my friend’s record shop to order the first Nirvana single (1988’s Love Buzz) and everyone saying ‘oh no, this isn’t a good as Mudhoney!’” But that didn’t faze John, who was drawn to Kurt’s vocals.

I’m one of these people who jump in with two feet and don’t really care if it’s the right thing to like or not – if it affects me then I like it”.

After arranging the interview, he rang Kurt up at his mum’s house, which in turn led to another interview with the band in New York nine months later when they were supporting fellow Sub Pop grunge outfit Tad, Nirvana unaware of the impact they were about to make on the music world. 

John grins as he tells us he ended up crashing on the floor of the tiny flat the two bands were sharing and at the time thought it was all a bit of a drag, the Tad guys taking up most the the space. Of course, looking back he realises just how well he got to know Nirvana and how lucky he was to have a birds-eye view of their early days. But despite his pleas, and the fact that Nirvana’s record company were saying that they could be as big as Sonic Youth, Tad appeared on the cover of SOUNDS, taking precedence over Nirvana… Nevermind, the rest, as they say, is history.


Chatting about Kurt Cobain gets us on to the subject of Mark Lanegan, who The Membranes supported in 2019. During that tour John and Mark spoke about Kurt, who was a close friend of Mark’s, John recalling Mark telling him that on the day Kurt died, he’d gone round to his house and had never forgiven himself for not kicking his door down when he didn’t answer. “Mark said Kurt would always answer the door. They shared a house together when they lived in Seattle, all on heroin, listening to blues records and decked out in wedding dresses!” Ah, picture the scene… 

If things had turned out differently, John reckons that Kurt’s musical style and path would have been similar to that of Mark’s. “His voice would’ve been similar as he got older, and I imagine he would have played more acoustically,” something which was hinted at in the infamous Nirvana MTV unplugged session. “I imagine he would’ve played intimate, powerful music – similar to Mark’s but to bigger crowds because of the Nirvana influence, but effectively occupying the same space.”


With both these legends gone and what feels like a growing number of deaths in music being reported every month, how does John deal with this, given that he’s often having to write obituaries for friends? “I can’t keep up with the obituaries. I used to write about these hopeful 20 year olds when they were starting out and now 40 years later I’m writing their obituaries. It’s really sad. For so many people you feel like you know these people when you love their art so much, but on top of that I do actually know some of these people as friends.” 

Going back to Mark Lanegan, he tells us,

I suppose in Mark’s case, I got quite close to him on the tour, not super close like the inner circle but we had a massive mutual respect. In fact The Membranes were one of his favourite bands.”

He looks surprised as he says this. “To be honest, I thought he was just being polite or taking the piss when he said that but it turned out he actually meant it. He told people later that he couldn’t believe he actually had The Membranes on his tour.” John smiles as he admits “it’s quite mind-blowing that it meant so much to him because we’re just a little band. But thinking back he used to watch every sound check on that tour – but again we thought he was just being polite and making us feel at home.”


Around the late ‘80s John also coined the term Britpop, before the ’90s scene as we know it had even taken off, though writer and DJ Stuart Maconie also claims to have come up with the term. However, John acknowledges that Stuart “probably did make it up, unawares” a few years later, using it in SELECT magazine… maybe they should just put it down to a case of great minds and all that!

John confesses that he’d previously used ‘Britpop’ as a joke, going on to say “SOUNDS did a thing about a new British punk scene called Punk Core and I used the word Britpop as a joke on that really. Music’s really hard to describe, as Frank Zappa said. I mean, you can describe it but sometimes the words aren’t normal words. Anyway Britpop became a thing, as these things tend to…It’s the same with ‘goth’, it was coined by the NME as a joke, referring to the alternative music scene of the time in alternative clubs”. 

Of course not every musician wants to be pigeonholed like this but as John explains, there are benefits to belonging to a certain scene. “There’s a duality to it… I don’t think bands mind being part of a scene which gets them out of the local pub and onto the national circuit but at the same time they don’t want to be imprisoned by that scene.” He goes on to say, 

a lot of bands were formed before the scene turned up, like Siouxsie and Banshees who were around six years before goth was a thing. At the end of the day, if you say your band has a goth vibe, I don’t then expect them to then spend the next 40 years trapped within that. It’s an adjective more than a prison, innit?” 

He hits the nail on the head there, though when it comes to goth, even Robert Smith is in denial…or is he? 


With numerous anecdotes, many of which he’s no doubt keeping up his sleeve for his tour, John recalls the story of someone who worked with Robert Smith, and said to him “Robert, you are a goth” and Robert denied it. He then said “look Robert, you hate garlic, you dress in black all the time and you stay up all night. You’re the most goth person in the world” and Robert goes “well, I suppose I am really, aren’t I?” 

Robert Smith of The Cure, Not a goth… apparently! | Pic: Calum Mackintosh

Of course, goth is a subject close to John’s heart, with the publication last year of his latest book The Art Of Darkness: The History of Goth, which has seen fans of the darker side of post-punk unite up and down the country to listen to him talk through the ins and outs of the scene. Inevitably this has led to some heated debates on what’s goth and what’s not, and it’s fair to say it’s not an argument that will be settled any time soon unless you’re a member of Fields Of The Nephilim. But anyone who went along to one of his chats on the book, which he’s still out touring in Europe, will be drawn into his latest tour which will no doubt have a dark flavour at times. 


John’s 2023 history of alternative rock, Do You Believe In The Power Of Rock ’n’ Roll? is stacked with interviews spanning 40 years, inspiring his latest tour which will feature a mix of stories from his life in music and Q&A session with the audience though some dates will also include a local guest who he’ll interview, adding a local flavour to the show. He assures us that no two nights will be the same, especially with his canny knack for digressing. “There will be some staples and lots of tangents” he says, explaining that he has a setlist of around 30 topics which he’ll pick and choose from but admits that after the first topic he’ll probably go off on one of those tangents…yep I have no doubt, John!

Anyone who’s a fan of The Membranes will know of John’s fascination with the universe and nature, with albums such as 2015’s Dark Energy/Dark Matter and 2019’s What Nature Gives…Nature Takes Away inspired by a conversation with CERN member and particle physicist Joe Incandela, who John met while doing a TEDx talk. “Joe wanted me to tell him about the Buzzcocks, his favourite band, but I said only if you tell me about the universe”, John explains, a tad excited. “It was the most mind blowing, mind boggling conversation taking in the multiverse and…” At this point I try to reel him in but his wee face is almost bursting with joy for a subject he’s clearly obsessed with. ”It makes your head spin in a fantastically psychedelic way”. And therein lies the connection back to rock ’n’ roll. 

With this in mind, it comes as no surprise that some of his special guests will touch on his interests on his tour. The Edinburgh event at the Voodoo Rooms will include a Q&A with Edinburgh University palaeontologist Steve Brusatte who wrote The Rise and Fall of Dinosaurs. “Steve’s buzzing at the moment with the discovery of a pterosaur on Skye” John tells us. At this I fear another tangent, especially when he reveals that he could talk about pterosaurs for three hours, his fascination with them possibly due to their similar quiffed hair styles. Finally he brings it back to music, laughing “it’s kind of rock and ancient rock on the tour”. 

Pterosaurs… a topic best avoided unless you have some time on your hands.


The great thing about John’s life is how he’s never really planned any of it, rather he’s worked hard and followed his heart. “I didn’t really get into this as a career. When I was 16 I didn’t think wow punk rock, it’s great, I’m going to do a DIY career, rather I thought wow punk rock is great, why don’t I have a go at being in a band. Similarly, oh look there’s a fanzine, maybe I could write one – it was all haphazard.” As for now, how does he feel when people discuss the collapse of music journalism. 

It’s the topic of the moment but it’s never been easy to sustain a career being a music writer – maybe people in London find it easier but the rest of us have always been on the outside, spending a lot of time living on passion… passion and chips for tea!”

He goes on, “in my day there were the four big music papers plus John Peel to introduce youth to new music but now there’s around 400 music web sites, internet radio stations and the likes of 6 Music – every one of them an equally small cogg with the same amount of influence. With Louder Than War, if we can turn people on to music and bit of culture then we’re winning, and same with the Goth book – read it and listen to the songs/bands mentioned.

Never one to take time out, John’s back working on a novel he started writing during the pandemic, describing it as “a children’ s story that’s not for children..a psychedelic trip through mythical England,” adding “I love words, I love language and myths and fables. I thread it all in there, like how the universe was formed and lots of stuff about nature. It’s more of an explanatory book – stretching out the last two Membranes albums in mythical book form.” As always, there’s the link back to music!

It’s pretty clear John Robb has plenty to talk about and his new tour promises to be both entertaining and enlightening. However, maybe avoid mentioning the big bang theory unless you’re happy to dig him out of a mammoth rabbitsaurus hole at the crack of dawn. You have been warned…

Words and interview: Shirley Mack  @musingsbymarie
Pictures: Calum Mackintosh

Check out our Membranes review from February 2022 ››

Here’s John Robb’s latest tour dates…with the possibility of more later in the year.


  • 22 Selby Town Hall
  • 23 Chorley Theatre
  • 27 Kendal Brewery Arts 
  • 28 Sale Waterside
  • 29 Halifax Square Chapel


  • 10 Sheffield Leadmill
  • 11 Pocklington Arts Centre
  • 12 Buxton Pavillion Arts
  • 18 Worcester Huntingdon Hall
  • 19 Bristol Folk House
  • 20 Southampton The Attic
  • 21 Cambridge Junction
  • 23 Colchester Arts Centre
  • 24 Norwich Arts Centre
  • 26 Chester Storyhouse Garrett
  • 27 Liverpool Philharmonic (Music room)
  • 28 Leeds The Old Woollen


  • 2 Brighton Komedia 
  • 3 Woolwich Works 
  • 4 London 21 Soho 
  • 9 Edinburgh Voodoo Rooms 
  • 11 Nottingham Lakeside Arts