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Wilko Johnson – 11/2022

Wilko Johnson (Dr. Feelgood) was born John Andrew Wilkinson on 12 July 1947 in Canvey Island, Essex, UK. One of his earliest memories was of the 1953 floods, which hit low-lying Canvey badly and caused many deaths. His father, a gas-fitter, was “a stupid and uneducated and violent person”, according to his son, and died when Wilko was a teenager. Canvey became a romantic place in Johnson’s mind, with its lonely views of the Thames estuary overshadowed by the towers and blazing fires of the nearby Shell Haven oil refinery. Johnson and his contemporaries dubbed the area the Thames Delta, in homage to the Mississippi Delta, which spawned the blues musicians they admired.
He first began playing the guitar after watching the Shadows on television, then later was inspired by Mick Green, guitarist with Johnny Kidd & the Pirates. Green’s knack for mixing up lead and rhythm guitar parts had a clear influence on Johnson’s technique. Wilko instinctively began to play left-handed, but forced himself to switch to right-handed. When he found that playing right-handed meant he could not hold a plectrum, he perfected a way of flicking his fingernails across the strings, which helped him to play the speedy, slashing rhythms that became his stock-in-trade.

Wilko nurtured academic ambitions alongside musical ones. He attended Westcliff high school for boys (his mother “used to scrub floors at the gas company to pay for our grammar school uniforms”) and went to Newcastle University to study English. He wrote his own poetry and aimed to write novels, though he observed that his appreciation of great literature meant that “the presumption of trying it myself is inhibiting”. His conversation, which involved much gesticulation and dramatic facial expressions, would often be punctuated by quotes from Blake or Langland’s Piers Plowman, and he taught himself Old Icelandic in order to read the Icelandic Sagas. He spent some months teaching English at a secondary school around the time Dr Feelgood formed, but fell foul of the headteacher because of his long-haired, student-like appearance. (Later in life, he developed a keen interest in astronomy and built an observatory on the roof of his home in Westcliff-on-Sea.)
After university he traveled overland (the Hippie Trail) to India (partly inspired by hearing about his father’s experiences in the army on the north-west frontier), and soaked up his fair share of opium and eastern mysticism. Returning to Canvey, he played in Pigboy Charlie Band, a jug band with his brother, and met Brilleaux (then using his real surname, Collinson), future Feelgoods bassist John “Sparko” Sparks and the group’s manager-to-be, Chris Fenwick, who had formed a jug band of their own. Brilleaux’s outfit evolved into an electric R&B band, and they asked Wilko to join them on guitar. In 1971, Dr Feelgood was born. The band evolved into Dr. Feelgood – a mainstay of the 1970s pub rock movement. After returning from Goa, India he worked as an English teacher. It was then that he adopted the stage name Wilko Johnson, a close anagram of John Wilkinson.

Johnson developed his own image, coupling jerky movements on stage, his so-called “duck walk”, with a choppy guitar style, occasionally raising his guitar to his shoulder like a gun, and a novel dress sense: he favored a black suit and a pudding bowl haircut. He achieved his playing style by not using a pick but instead relying on fingerstyle. This enabled him to play rhythm guitar and riffs or solos at the same time creating a highly percussive guitar sound. It evolved from a failed attempt to copy Mick Green of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, a guitarist whom Johnson greatly admired. His Bo Diddley-influenced style formed the essential driving force behind Dr. Feelgood during their initial years, He also developed a tight stage rapport with the Feelgoods’ vocalist Lee Brilleaux, who was helpfully signposted by his contrasting white – or once white, at least – suit. Johnson said he “felt like a lot of the power I had in whatever I was doing was radiating from him”. It was their partnership that drove the band to huge success in Britain just before the arrival of punk.
Dr Feelgood launched themselves on the back of the “pub rock” vogue, a back-to-basics mix of sweaty rock and rhythm & blues typified by the likes of Ducks Deluxe and Ian Dury’s band Kilburn and the High Roads. It was a refreshing antidote to the somnolent progressive rock of the era. Dr Feelgood released their debut album, Down By the Jetty, in 1975, containing nine of Johnson’s songs, including the singles Roxette and She Does It Right, neither of which got into the charts. They followed it later that year with Malpractice, which featured several blues and R&B non-originals alongside another batch of Johnson’s tunes. One of Johnson’s was their third single, Back in the Night, a perennial favorite in live shows. The album gave Dr Feelgood their first chart position (No 17), and proved influential on New York musicians such as Richard Hell, the Ramones and Blondie.

Since the stage was the natural home for the hard-gigging Feelgoods, it made sense for the next album to be a live recording. Stupidity (1976) was a mixture of their own songs and cover versions, not least Leiber & Stoller’s Riot in Cell Block No 9, which had become the vehicle for a trick by Johnson of mock-machine-gunning the audience with his guitar. Johnson was adamant that the recording should sound raw and live and should not be tarted up in post- production, a stance that paid off when it rocketed to No 1. To their own amazement, Dr Feelgood had become one of the biggest bands in Britain.
However, the album Sneakin’ Suspicion (1977) proved to be Johnson’s swansong with the band, following acrimonious arguments during its recording. In particular, Brilleaux objected to Johnson’s song Paradise, in which the songwriter, who had married Irene Knight when they were both teenagers, admitted that “I love two girls, I ain’t ashamed”. Johnson’s erratic and moody behavior while on tour had already caused friction, and he left Dr Feelgood in April 1977. Johnson maintained that he was kicked out of the band, while the remaining band members claimed that he had left voluntarily. Sneakin’ Suspicion reached No 10 on the album chart, and in 1979 the group enjoyed a top 10 singles hit with Milk and Alcohol, but the whirlwind arrival of punk had made them look outmoded. “I look back on Dr Feelgood sometimes and I would do a lot of things differently,” Johnson said in 2012. “Oh man, I was intolerable.”

Later that year (1977), he was a founding member of Solid Senders, with keyboardist John Potter, bassist Steve Lewins, and drummer Alan Platt. They signed to Virgin in 1978 and released the album, Solid Senders that year. The Wilko Johnson Band played at the ‘Front Row Festival’, a three-week event at the Hope and Anchor, Islington in late November and early December 1977, featuring many early punk rock acts. This resulted in the inclusion of two tracks by The Wilko Johnson Band (“Dr. Feelgood” and “Twenty Yards Behind”), on a hit double album of recordings from the festival. The Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival compilation album (March 1978) which reached number 28 in the UK Albums Chart.

In 1980, Johnson joined Ian Dury‘s band, The Blockheads and then 4 years later reformed the Wilko Johnson Band in 1984 joined by Blockhead bassist Norman Watt-Roy and Italian born drummer Salvatore Ramundo. (Ramundo left the band in June 1999 and was replaced by Steve Monti -future Curve and The Jesus and Mary Chain drummer). Over the next 25 years the unit would release eight albums and an EP, mostly on minor European labels, though their main focus was playing live shows in Europe, Britain and Japan. Johnson’s second album, Ice on the Motorway, was released in 1981, and his EP “Bottle Up and Go!” with Lew Lewis followed in 1983. In 1992, Johnson appeared at the Eurockéennes music festival, and the following year at GuilFest. The album Going Back Home appeared on the Chess label in 1998. He began to cut back on his concert appearances in 1999, and released the album Don’t Let Your Daddy Know (Live in Japan 2000) the following year.

The studio album Red Hot Rocking Blues was released in 2005; this contained covers of classics by the likes of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson, and Lead Belly. Throughout 2005 and 2006 the band teamed up with The Hamsters and John Otway to take part in ‘The Mad, the Bad & the Dangerous’ tour.
Johnson appeared in the Julien Temple-directed documentary film Oil City Confidential (2009), where he related his memories of Canvey Island and Dr. Feelgood. The reviewer Philip French described Johnson as “a wild man, off stage and on, funny, eloquent and charismatic”, while Temple described Johnson as “an extraordinary man – one of the great English eccentrics”. Reviewing the film for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw called it “the best rockumentary yet” and said that “the most likeable thing about this very likeable film is the way it promotes Wilko Johnson as a 100–1 shot for the title of Greatest Living Englishman”.

Johnson was cast in the role of mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne, in both the first and second season (2011-2012) of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones, after the producers had seen him in Oil City Confidential. He related that “‘They said they wanted somebody really sinister who went around looking daggers at people before killing them. That made it easy. Looking daggers at people is what I do all the time, it’s like second nature to me’.” He appeared in four episodes.-

On 2 October 2010, it was announced that Johnson was to support The Stranglers on their ‘Black & Blue’ UK tour starting in March 2011. In April 2011, he played several sold-out shows as part of the Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival in Ireland.
Johnson published his autobiography, co-authored with Zoe Howe and titled Looking Back at Me, at the end of May 2012. He appeared in the BBC4 documentaries Evidently… John Cooper Clarke and Punk Britannia in May 2012. On 24 August 2012, Johnson and his band were due to headline the Blues stage at Rhythm Festival, but the festival was cancelled on 3 August due to poor ticket sales.

Johnson was forced to cancel a show in November 2012, when he was rushed to hospital with an undisclosed ailment. He was diagnosed in January 2013 with late stage pancreatic cancer, and elected not to receive any chemotherapy. He reacted to this death sentence with remarkable stoicism, possibly shaped by the fact that his wife and high school sweetheart Irene had died of cancer in 2004, and Johnson had never reconciled himself to her loss (“the only time I don’t feel heartbroken is when I’m playing,” he admitted).

He talked frankly about his condition on BBC’s Radio 4’s Front Row. He discussed his cancer and said doctors had told him he had nine or ten months to live. He also talked about his “farewell tour” of the UK set for March and how his diagnosis had made him feel “vividly alive”. With his ultimate demise in mind Johnson announced he was going on a farewell tour. On 22 March 2013, he played what was announced as his final show guesting with Madness on the television program Madness Live: Goodbye Television Centre which was broadcast on BBC Four. Afterwards he stated that he would not be able to perform his two final homecoming shows at Canvey Island due to ill health and would not be performing again.
However, on 13 July 2013, he performed an unannounced hour-long live set with Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe at the Village Green
Festival in his home town of Westcliff-on-Sea. In addition, he occasionally performed informal unannounced sets at his local pub, the Railway Hotel in Southend. In July 2013, the pub replaced their sign with a portrait of him painted by local artist Jack Melville, in honor of his long-term support of the south-east Essex music scene.
Johnson also played a set on the final night at Wickham Festival in Hampshire on Sunday 4 August 2013, where he was invited by the Blockheads on stage to play a song. Johnson announced a further tour with Howe and Watt-Roy during the spring of 2014. In March and April 2014, Wilko, together with Watt-Roy and Howe, appeared on several UK dates as support to the “Frantic Four” (the classic line-up of Status Quo on what was billed as their last ever tour).

In hindsight it seemed that Temple’s documentary Oil City Confidential in 2009 had a galvanizing effect on Johnson’s profile and later life. He toured supporting the Stranglers in 2011, and played some sellout gigs at the Rhythm and Roots festival in Kilkenny. In 2012 he published an autobiography, Looking Back on Me, co-authored with Zoe Howe. He was also recruited for the HBO TV show Game of Thrones, appearing in four episodes as the royal executioner Ser Ilyn Payne. This called upon Johnson merely to look sinister and kill people, since Payne had had his tongue cut out and had no dialogue.

Following the tour dates, he teamed up with the Who’s Roger Daltrey to make the album Going Back Home (2014), which included favorite Johnson songs from Dr Feelgood and his solo career. Both artists seemed to be goading each other on, since Johnson’s guitar work was as clipped and fiery as it had ever been, while Daltrey hurled himself into the songs with abandon. Daltrey commented that Johnson is “one of those British guitarists that only the Brits make. Wilko is a one-off, he really is.” The album reached No 3 in the UK, making it Johnson’s highest charting release outside Dr Feelgood.

Wilko “confessed” that he thought it would be “the last thing I ever did”, but in September 2014, after a meeting in Southend-on-Sea with Alan McGee, who described Wilko as “one of his all time heroes, and a national treasure”, Wilko signed to Creation Management. His story had taken another dramatic twist when further tests revealed that he was suffering from a less virulent form of cancer than previously believed, and doctors were confident it could be operated on successfully. He underwent a complex nine-hour procedure that included the removal of a tumor weighing 3kg (6.6lbs), and after a long convalescence he was declared cancer-free.
“It’s so weird and so strange that it’s kind of hard to come to terms with in my mind,” he said. “Now, I’m spending my time gradually coming to terms with the idea that my death is not imminent, that I am going to live on.”

-At the Q Awards on 22 October 2014, Johnson accepted the “Icon Award” and shared that he was “cancer-free” having undergone “removal of his pancreas, spleen, part of his stomach, small and large intestines and the removal and reconstruction of blood vessels relating to the liver”. Johnson said: “It was an 11-hour operation… This tumor weighed 3kg (6.6lbs) – that’s the size of a baby! Anyway, they got it all. They cured me. It’s so weird and so strange that it’s kind of hard to come to terms with it in my mind. Now, I’m spending my time gradually coming to terms with the idea that my death is not imminent, that I am going to live on”. He added that he was still recovering from the operation and when asked what he would do next replied: “I don’t know really”.-

He performed “All Through the City” and “Going Back Home”, with his classic duckwalk, at Jools Holland’s annual Hootenanny for New Year, 2014–15.

Paradoxically, the depression that he had suffered from since childhood had abated after his cancer diagnosis. When he got the all-clear, the depression returned. “I knew I was really getting better from the cancer when I started getting depressed again,” he noted.
In 2015 Johnson made another film with Temple, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, focusing on his unexpected survival. In 2016 he published the memoir Don’t You Leave Me Here, and in 2018 he released the solo album Blow Your Mind. He was still performing regularly with his band until September, two months before he passed away on 21 November 2022.

• Paul Weller said of Johnson: “Wilko may not be as famous as some other guitarists, but he’s right up there. And there are a lot of people who’ll say the same. I can hear Wilko in lots of places. It’s some legacy.”

• Billy Bragg said, “His guitar playing was angry and angular, but his presence – twitchy, confrontational, out of control – was something we’d never beheld before in UK pop. Rotten, Strummer and Weller learned a lot from his edgy demeanour.”

• Alex Kapranos, lead singer of Franz Ferdinand said, “His unique, wired playing & stage presence thrilled & inspired many guitarists, myself included.” Broadcaster Bob Harris said “Wilko was absolutely unique. His energy and spirit were incredible.”

• Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers says “I often say to journalists there is a bridge between the old times and the punk times. That bridge is exclusively the Feelgoods, it allowed us to go from one thing to another. That’s the connection, the DNA.”

• Fans of Dr Feelgood in the band’s mid-1970s heyday hardly needed reminding of Johnson’s accomplishments. He was never a guitar virtuoso in the vein of Jeff Beck or Eric Clapton, but he was one of the most distinctive British players in the history of rock’n’roll, having perfected a hair-trigger style that combined stark, percussive chords with pin-sharp riffs. To that, Johnson added an intimidating stage presence. Invariably clad in a black suit, eyes staring out across the audience like searchlights, he roved around the stage with robotic remorselessness.

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