- The Observer June 20th 2004
- by Sean O'Hagan
Richard Jobson first made his mark as a member of a violent gang, then became a punk star, a poet and a model. Now, at 43, he seems to have found himself as a film-maker with a semi-autobiographical story about fighting and drink.
One of my abiding memories of Richard Jobson is the first time I saw him on Top of the Pops .
It was 1978 and his post-punk group, the Skids, had entered the charts for the first time with 'Into the Valley'.
It was a strange and effortlessly pretentious time in British pop culture and few bands were stranger or more effortlessly pretentious than the Skids.
'Into the valley / betrothed and divine,' sang Jobson, sounding like Robert the Bruce fired up by punk rock and speed on the eve of Bannockburn.
What sticks in my mind is not his declamatory delivery, nor his odd skipping dance, nor even his knee-high tan leather boots, but the fact that he had his initials monogrammed on his Star Trek-style top.
This suggested a man immune to accusations of pretension, someone so convinced of his singularity he had it imprinted on his chest for all to see.
More than 25 years later, Jobson can still come across as someone not lacking in self-importance, though thankfully his dress sense is more elegant.
These days, he divides his time between a spacious flat in Edinburgh's Old Town and a family house in rural Berkshire, where he lives with his Italian wife, Francesca, and their children.
He has lost little of his adolescent self-determination and, you feel, does not suffer fools gladly.
Whatever he has achieved, I would hazard a guess, has been by sheer force of will as much as innate talent. At 43, he seems finally to have found himself.
'I'm a late developer,' he says over dinner, for which he has changed out of the three-piece tweed suit he wore earlier for the photo shoot into a cashmere Crombie, matching polo top and immaculately creased trousers. 'I have taken my time getting where I am but it's come all right in the end.'
Jobson has just written and directed two feature films, the first of which, 16 Years of Alcohol, is released next month, having garnered good reviews on the international festival circuit.
It is an unashamed art movie, a semi-autobiographical account of his violent childhood and late adolescence as a member of an Edinburgh street gang.
It is slow and meditative at first, then fast and violent, and is threaded through with a semi-poetic voiceover.
It is also undeniably moving and, in places, soul-bearingly honest.
He has also completed a low-budget martial-arts gang movie called The Purifiers, set in the not-too-distant future in a dystopian city divided into zones and ruled over by gangs, one of which lends its name to the title.
Apart from the gang element, the two films could hardly be more different, one a personal exorcism of sorts, the other a stylistic homage to the action films by John Woo and Beat Takashi that he loves.
Both, though, are a testament to the force of Jobson's will.
'I've been preparing for this a long time and I'm very clear about what I want to achieve,' he says. 'When I do meetings, I can get my ideas across crisply and concisely; I have no trouble with that stuff at all.
On set, I have a clarity of purpose that makes actors comfortable.
It all fits finally. I feel very safe where I am right now.'
Where he is right now is intriguing, not least for those of us who have kept one eye on his long progress through the swampy terrain of media land, with diminishing returns over the intervening years.
After his initial brush with pop stardom, Jobson had a creative rebirth of sorts as a performance poet, then a stint as a model for the likes of Commes de Garçons.
In the mid-Eight ies, he was one of the early faces of 'yoof TV' on shows like 01 for London, then seemed to have settled into a career as a film reviewer and interviewer on Sky TV.
'I was on film sets all the time, with the likes of Scorsese and Hackman, just watching and learning. I'd accrue stuff and it has all stood me in good stead.'
From time to time, I would bump into Jobson, usually after hours, usually after a drink or two, and find he was as mouthily literate as ever, someone whose cool exterior didn't quite conceal the spiky, slightly defensive individual underneath.
He was, and remains, a particular kind of aspirational Celt: a self-made man who had to work hard, and leave a lot behind, in order to reinvent himself.
Born and raised in Fife, just over the water from Edinburgh, Jobson is the youngest of five brothers.
His father was a miner and his mother worked on the docks.
They were of Irish Catholic stock though they settled on a predominantly Protestant housing estate.
'All my friends were diehard Hearts supporters,' he says, 'but I was never into that.
I was always perfectly aware of who I was and where I was from. I
t was always Hibs or Celtic. But the sectarian thing was never an issue.
It was music that united us, music and clothes.'
It was his older brother, Francis, who died recently and to whom the film is dedicated, who initially hipped him to the right sounds and the right clobber.
The violence, though, he took to all by himself.
'There's a mechanism in the male dynamic that's drawn towards that stuff,' he says.
'I find it really odd when people deny that.
It seems almost unreal now but for a young guy living in a completely grey world, it was an incredibly liberating experience in many ways and one that translated beautifully for me into rock'n'roll.'
It was punk rock that lifted the 16-year-old Jobson out of the gang and on to the stage.
He met the other three members of the fledgling Skids on an Edinburgh street corner and, seeing his cropped hair and bovver boots as indicative of a proto-punk attitude, they asked him to join.
'They were like a pub rock band then, but for me it was all about energy and sensation.
It gave me that same buzz as the fighting. Just to get up there and do it, it felt natural. Aggressive showmanship, that's what it was all about'.
We trade memories of punk for a while, agreeing that the era has been over-intellectualised.
'Too many people deconstruct punk as an art school, middle-class existence,' he says, touching on class, a subject he will return to more than once, 'That Jon Savage book on the Pistols [ England's Dreaming ].
I read that and thought, fine, but what about the rest of us who weren't from that world, who saw it in another way, as a means of expressing rage and frustration without understanding where that rage and frustration came from, never mind what it meant.'
The Skids, though, were from punk's second wave and always seemed to have one foot in that arty camp.
The lyrics, the clothes, the Sturm und Drang of their early songs all suggested ambitions - or pretensions - way beyond the parameters of punk nihilism; likewise Jobson's many manifestations after the group split, with the short-lived Armoury Show, then as a poet-cum-performer.
'The feeling for a while in Scotland was that he was a traitor to his class,' says Ian Rankin, the crime novelist who was a Skids fan and remains an admirer of Jobson's.
'After the Skids, he went to London, took his clothes off in a play, wrote poetry, became a male model, while Stuart Adamson [the guitarist] went to Dunfermline games and started Big Country.
That was the perception for a while, but I can see now that Jobson's a restless soul, an artist, and he has stuck to his beliefs.'
Was Jobson embarrassed by some of the things he did when he was younger?
'Oh fuck aye,' he replies, shaking his head and laughing, 'most of it.
From the gang stuff to the band stuff, never mind the whole sequence of poetry records.
But, you know what? I admire that young guy. He was fearless.
In those days, people didn't worry about being labelled pretentious.
There was no career plan and, because of the lack of media, you could evolve and be pretentious and get away with it.'
While he was in the Skids, Jobson started going out with, and soon after married, Mariella Frostrup, then a press officer, now, among other things, The Observer 's agony aunt.
'I couldn't believe my eyes the first time I saw him,' she says, laughing.
'He was this slightly pizza-faced, space suit-wearing intellectual.
Six months later, we meet up and he's wearing tweed and inviting me to have tea with him.
He'd move on from being the overdressed rock star to the intellectual man about town.'
The Skids, Jobson says now, 'had a natural lifespan and we crammed a lot into it'.
After two years, their musical leader, Stuart Adamson, left to form what would become Big Country.
'He was a proper musician, I was just a chancer,' says Jobson.
'My problem was I identified more with other people - Joe [Strummer], John [Lydon] - than with my own group.
In retrospect, I should have been more proud of who I was and what I had achieved.'
This late reappraisal may have much to do with the sad events of the past year or so, in which both Stuart Adamson and, more recently, John McGeogh, the gifted guitarist who played with Jobson in the short-lived Armoury Show, have died.
'It's been a tough few years,' says Jobson.
'I was just grieving for my brother, Francis, and becoming accustomed to a new sense of loss, when I heard about Stuart.
That was such a shock. The incomprehensibility of it.
This was a guy who had a mortgage, a wife and a family when we were all trying to live some mythic punk lifestyle.
He seemed level-headed, grounded.' Had they kept in touch?
'I hadn't seen Stuart for a while so I wouldn't like to speculate but the feeling is he was used to a certain level of success and it was changing dramatically.
Even so, I can't make sense of it.'
After the Skids, Jobson seemed determined to remake himself as a poet.
He performed at Richard Strange's club, Cabaret Futura, and put out a string of albums for the arty French label, Les Disques du Crepescule.
How would Frostrup define the Jobson she knew then?
'He was a tough Scottish kid who had had been given a taste of his own possibilities by punk,' she says.
'What I remember above all was his energy.
He had this burning need to reinvent and improve himself, not just to read all this great literature, but to argue and discuss and dissect it all the time.
He was still spoiling for a fight, mind, but at the same time as wanting to discuss Hiroshima Mon Amour. It was bloody exhausting.'
Their marriage lasted three years. Frostrup was 21 when they split.
'It was,' she says, 'an incredibly important relationship for me.
I think we fell together through loneliness, both of us struggling desperately to be something we had to create.
I think Richard was stranded for a time after the Skids. He didn't fit in with the lads in the pub, nor with the so-called London intellectuals.
We both had that gruesome experience of being condescended to by that lot.'
With 16 Years of Alcohol, it seems Jobson has finally defined himself.
'I was ready, I guess,' he says. 'I had written Tube Tales for television and produced Heartlands, which Damien O'Donnell made.
I was watching and taking note of things every day as a producer and it just seemed wrong how money was thrown around and how things were done very traditionally every stage of the way.
I approached 16 Years in a very different way - a tiny amount of money used effectively, most of the investors guaranteed their money back really quickly, a few great actors who didn't mind not getting paid a lot if they believed in the script.'
Though the clothes, the settings, the music are all meticulously recreated, the film was made for just £400,000.
You could call it a downbeat romantic elegy for a squandered life. And, intriguingly, despite the title, it is violence, not alcohol, that is the defining force of that life.
'It's about a guy who stands up in an AA meeting and says, "My name's Frankie, I'm a violent man,"' elaborates Jobson. 'That's crucial. He doesn't say, "I'm an alcoholic."
He's trying to find a cure for the mechanism that allows him to prosecute a distilled violence on somebody else.'
Though Jobson insists Frankie is an amalgam of himself and his brother, Francis, the violent core of the film, seems rooted in his own upbringing.
'I don't want to be accused of glamorising this stuff,' he elaborates, before doing that, 'but the most creative thing I was involved in before music was violence.
Since 11 or 12, I belonged to a 60-strong gang called AV Toi - that's a martial arts name - and we fought with other gangs in a pretty ritualised way.'
Having spent a good part of my adolescence avoiding people like his younger self, I ask why he was drawn to the thug life and why it still holds a fascination for him?
'It wasn't down to peer pressure, or socio-economic factors, or any of the things that middle-class sociologists always insist it is,' he says.
'If I'm honest, I'd say it was just sensational fun.'
Not, I counter, for the guy on the receiving end. 'No, of course not.
There are things I did I feel ashamed about now.
I prosecuted violence against certain people who didn't deserve it, and that violence was clinical and almost detached.
Then again, I paid the price many times myself.'
If the film is in part an exorcism of his younger, violent self, did it provide any answers to why he embraced violence?
He thinks about this for an uncharacteristically long time, say about five seconds.
'I had a bit of trouble at home, so I probably sought some familial identity elsewhere.
Looking back, I can see that I didn't really feel I had a sense of home except when I was with the lads.'
Given that he joined the Skids at 16, he must have been one of the youngest of the crew.
'Yeah, and I was the guy who made the older guys laugh. I can see now that it was something to do with approval. It goes back to family again. I thought my brothers were cool, but they thought I was a little shit who just got in the way. I guess that had something to do with it.'
I asked Frostrup what she thought of 16 Years of Alcohol.
'I was overwhelmed. I think that Richard, like many working-class people who reinvent themselves, spent a lot of his adult life running away from his beginnings.
Now, he's confident and secure enough to turn his upbringing into something that isn't a negative, that's honest and really quite beautiful.'
16 Years of Alcohol is released on 30 July