Wilko Johnson

The former Dr Feelgood guitarist & Blockhead Wilko Johnson has recently been in the news for lots of non-music reasons
“I’m supposed to be dead now.”
So said Wilko in a recent interview, having been diagnosed in late 2012 with terminal pancreatic cancer. But despite the doctors’ worst predictions he continued to perform and present himself with vigour and a new zest for life.

The man from Canvey Island, who studied English at Newcastle University before doing a bit of travelling, could have been a retired teacher by now, sucking on a pipe and whittling away at his pension. But no, Wilko was lured into music by the dark magic spun by his first Telecaster, bought from a music store in Southend, Essex, soon after becoming the strutting, grimacing, six-string rhythmic powerhouse behind Lee Brilleaux in Dr Feelgood.

Feel good? Audiences certainly did in the mid ’70s as Wilko duck-walked his way across countless stages and venues in the UK, with Dr Feelgood in the vanguard of the pub rock movement, performing the gutsy down-to-earth rock and roll that was a welcome antidote to the faltering prog-rock era.

Heavily influenced by legendary guitarist Mick Green from ’60s rockers Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Wilko employs a finger-style, chop-chord strumming action (the ‘stab’, as he describes it). This allows for chords and lead to be played at the same time, giving a fluency and a distinctive sound very unlike the cleaner swat of a pick.

With this economic sound, coupled with that black-suited, scowling look, and the yards he covered across the stage pausing only to twist the guitar lead out from under his feet, Wilko became one of the guitar heroes of the era. His influence was felt in bands up and down the country, and later in the emergent punk revolution (Joe Strummer of the Clash bought a Tele after seeing Wilko play).

Feelgood had four successful albums in Wilko’s time, then followed a busy creative period playing in an early incarnation of the Wilko Johnson Band, the Solid Senders, before he joined Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads, in 1980.

All through the ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium he continued to gig in the UK, Europe and Japan. But it was when Julien Temple’s award winning Oil City Confidential came out in 2009, with Wilko emerging as the film’s star, that the world once again sat up and paid attention to his extraordinary talent.

In 2010 when Roger Daltrey and Wilko found themselves sitting together at an awards ceremony talking about raucous old school British rhythm & blues. “It turned out we both loved Johnny Kidd & The Pirates,” says Roger, name-checking the turn-of-‘60s creators of Shakin’ All Over and Please Don’t Touch. “They’d been a big influence on both our bands. That heavy power trio sound, backing up a singer; it’s a British institution. No-one does that better than us.”

They decided on the spot it would be a great idea to collaborate together on an album but both being busy men, the idea drifted away.

When The Who finished a sold-out world tour Daltrey was delighted to discover that Wilko was still well enough to fulfil their ambition of making an album together. “Roger jumped up and said, ‘Let’s do it,’” says Johnson. “He knew this lovely little studio called Yellow Fish in Uckfield. Unfortunate name for a place, but a great studio.”

Because of the seriousness of Wilko’s prognosses, the album was recorded last November in a week, using Wilko’s crack touring band of Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, with ex-Style Council and Dexy’s keyboardist Mick Talbot also guesting. Wilko credits the producer, Dave Eringa, with pulling it all together in such a short time. “Everyone got on famously,” says Johnson, “it was a great atmosphere.”

The album mostly featured re-makes of vintage Wilko gems, including the Feelgoods’ All Through The City, Keep It Out Of Sight and Going Back Home – the latter co-written in 1975 with Johnny Kidd & The Pirates’ guitarist Mick Green – plus Everybody’s Carrying A Gun, originally recorded by his post-Feelgoods group The Solid Senders, and the solo ‘80s rockers Ice On The Motorway and I’m Going To Keep It To Myself. There is also a hidden gem, the heart-wrenching ballad Turned 21, which has never been properly released or performed live.

In April 2014 doctor’s discovered that Wilko’s pancreatic cancer was a rare, much less aggressive, form and carried out a pioneering 10 hour operation that may have saved his life. Wilko is currently recuperating at home in Essex.

www.wilkojohnson.com

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