Watch Out!: The Wilko Johnson band in action, coming to a venue near you (Photo: Leif Laaksonen)
I should warn you before you get any further that there’s an underlying current of adulation in this here feature/interview. Another day and another musical hero brought to book (or the WonderWeb in this case), as I spend an all-too-quick half-hour in the telephonic company of bass guitar marvel Norman Watt-Roy.
But if you’re okay with that, come with me on this latest internet journey from Bombay to Sala Apolo, Barcelona, o’er the hills and far away … on to Cheltenham Town Hall by April 27th, the last date I see in Norm’s diary for now with guitar legend Wilko Johnson’s band.
Rock’n’roll and rhythm & blues are certainly here to stay, judging by the outcome of recent health trials and tribulations for both Wilko and Norman. Chances are that you’ll know the story of Wilko’s miraculous return from near-death after a mighty battle with a cancerous tumour. Julien Temple directed a fantastic documentary about it, and the tale was retold on these pages in August 2016 (linked here). I was then back in touch with the artist formerly known as John Wilkinson in May 2018 (linked here), celebrating the release of his first LP of new material in three decades, Blow Your Mind.
But what about bandmate Norman’s own health battle? Well, we’ll get to that in good time, this Anglo-Indian master of the bass guitar fretboard having shed light on many career highlights with me ahead of the band’s latest UK tour, their trio completed by Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitar legend Steve Howe), shows at Teatro Barcelo, Madrid; Sala Apolo, Barcelona; Centro Cultural de Belem, Lisbon; and Casa de Musica, Oporto, followed by the first UK dates at Buxton Opera House (February 28), Warrington Parr Hall (Friday, March 1st) and Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion (Saturday, March 2nd), splendid settings all.
Following Wilko’s miraculous recovery, the original Dr Feelgood guitarist has enjoyed a rousing return to the live arena, including a UK No.1 album with Who legend Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home, a sold-out show at the Royal Albert Hall to mark his 70th birthday in July 2017, then that acclaimed LP of his own.
See Wilko live and you can’t help but marvel at his frenetic stage wanders and finger-style, chop-chord strum (the ‘stab’, as he describes it), a distinctive mix of simultaneous chords and lead picking. But you’d be equally impressed by Dylan’s rearguard action and Norm’s wondrous bass ambles, the former session man a true artisan of the four-string kind.
The pair first joined forces when Wilko had a short spell with Ian Dury’s band – Norman having been on board as a Blockhead from near enough the beginning, and right beyond Ian’s sad death in 2000. Wilko went on to form his own trio, Norman soon a key ingredient there too.
I caught him at home in Fulham, South West London, the day before he jetted off to Spain and Portugal with the band, warm-ups for a busy 2019 schedule with Wilko back home. And I pointed out early on how the first couple of times I saw him live was with Wilko rather than The Blockheads, not far from his manor, at the Kennington Cricketers in January ’86.
“Oh, the Oval Cricketers, brilliant gig! We used to do that once a month, regular, that and the Half Moon, Putney and the Powerhaus …”
The Half Moon was the other one I was going to mention, in late December ’87, another special night, with Salvatore Ramundo on drums in those days.
“I live just around the corner from there. I got to know Wilko when he joined the Blockheads in ’79, and we went all over the world. And while he was with us, he’d go out on the road with his Solid Senders. He never stopped working.
“Then around ’84 or ’85 his bass player left him, and I wasn’t here, but he asked my missus if I’d be up for four or five gigs he had left, and she said, ‘I’m sure he’ll do it.’
“Actually, I was in Germany with The Clash at that point, with Joe Strummer, doing their last album, Cut the Crap.”
Ah, the album most Clash fans wish had never happened.
“Well, it wasn’t really The Clash – it was Joe on his own with a load of other players really. But that’s when I started with Wilko. It started with those gigs and then they just kept coming in, so we kept doing them.”
I recall such a buzz at those shows I mentioned, everyone so excited to see Wilko do his stuff on a stage, not least his moves. And there was a live album I bought, Watch Out!
“Yes, I think some of that was recorded at the Half Moon or The Cricketers. So you go back a bit.”
Well, sort of, but I was only born in 1967, at which stage I gather you were with a band called Living Daylights.
“Yeah, I was about 16 at the time. I started playing at school with my brother. We had a band and I was playing rhythm guitar, with (brother) Garth playing lead. Bass players were quite hard to find, but when I was around 14, I started teaching a friend of my brother’s who bought the bass and the amp the shop had.
“We said, ‘Look, if you buy that, you can join our band’. We forgot to ask him if he could play though. But I’d started showing him what to do, and after about a week he had big blisters on his fingers and said, ‘You can keep the bass. I don’t wanna be in the band anymore!’ My brother then said, ‘Norm, you’ll have to play bass,’ and that’s when I started out and fell in love with it.”
What was it about the bass that you loved? And did you have bass heroes then?
“Well, we also had this soul band, and learning all those lines I didn’t know who was playing – it would have been James Jamerson and Carol Kaye – but I loved those lines, they were just so melodic and counter-melodies to the songs. I just loved it. It was something I could get my teeth into. Even people like Paul McCartney – what a melodious bass player!”
Was that with The Greatest Show on Earth?
“No, first was the Guyatones, then the Living Daylights, then we had The Sonny Burke Outfit (backing a US artist whose CV included soundtrack co-writes with Peggy Lee on animated Disney classic, Lady and the Tramp), this little soul band where we’d back all these so-called American singers. My brother got in touch with an agency, and they were supposed to be from America, but some were from Brixton or Stoke Newington, putting on American accents! But they did all the Tamla and Stax stuff and that was a great schooling. We toured all over Europe. We’d do American GI bases around Germany. We spent months out there.”
In fact, Living Daylights had a single on the Phillips label in early ’67, ‘Let’s Live for Today’, while two years later The Greatest Show on Earth were with Harvest, the single ‘Real Cool World’ released in February 1970, a hit in Europe and a No.1 in Switzerland. Two TGSOE albums followed that year, Horizons followed by The Going’s Easy. But there were complications before all that for young Norman.
“Oh yeah, the thing was that when I first went to Germany with my brother, on my first passport – I’ve still got it, actually – I had to have a special licence from the Home Office, because I was only 14 or 15 but playing in these clubs I shouldn’t really have been in. But it was allowed as I had someone older in the band kind of looking after me.”
A bit like George Harrison’s situation when he first played in Germany?
“Yeah, I can relate to George! It was a nine-piece soul band and a fantastic schooling, working like that and playing all that kind of material – great stuff to learn and play.”
Have you got kids of your own these days, Norman?
“No, but my brothers and sisters have, and I’ve got around five bass players in the family, all very good, and my sister’s son is 21 and really good now – he’s learned all my stuff! And my cousin plays, and his children, he’s done some really good stuff.”
And I’m guessing you wouldn’t still be out there if you weren’t still enjoying it 50 or so years down the road.
“No, I love, I love it! It’s fantastic, and funnily enough it’s got easier. I think when you’re young you just expend all this energy, but when you get older you learn how to pace yourself. And being on the road is great fun.”
You’ve lost some great mates over the years though.
“Oh yeah, like Charley …”
That’s who I was set to mention first. My first Ian Dury and the Blockheads gig was one of two benefit shows for Guyana-born drummer Charlie Charles’ family after his death from cancer, held at Kentish Town’s Town & Country Club (The Forum these days) in September 1990.
“Yeah, that was with The Blockheads and Wilko’s band.”
Then my next was in August ‘92 when you were supporting Madness, the night they reckoned the crowd reaction to ‘One Step Beyond’ triggered an earthquake, that first Madstock event in Finsbury Park, North London.
“That’s right, and I toured with Madness as well after that. Bedders (Madness bass player Mark Bedford) kind of quit for a while and they asked me to go on the road with them. I did a couple of tours and did three or four Madstock shows with them after that first one.”
And last time I saw you was in March 2013 at Preston’s 53 Degrees with a post-Dury Blockheads line-up led by Derek ‘The Draw’ Hussey, when I recall a lot of talk mid-show about Wilko’s on-going battle with what was believed to be terminal cancer.
“Yeah, and I love the Blockheads as well. It’ll be 19 years this March since Ian died. We felt we couldn’t really replace him as such, he was such a one-off. So we didn’t really do anything for about a year, but we had so many hits on our website and that saying, ‘Please do some gigs – we’ll come!’ and while there seemed to be a lot of tribute bands around, there wasn’t anyone doing a tribute to Ian, so we thought, ‘Let’s go out there and try and keep the music alive’.
“And as one of Ian’s best friends, Derek just slotted into it. He was a poet as well, and they wrote together, and for nearly 20 years he’d come on the road and look after Ian, bringing him on and off stage, and many times Ian made him sing three or four songs at the end with him. So he knew several of the songs and we said you’ve got to come with us. The first gig was at Dingwall’s, with loads of support, like Phill Jupitus. It was a case of remembering all the lyrics, so we had Derek, Phill, Mark Lamarr, Keith Allen, all getting up. We did a few gigs like that, and it gave us such a buzz that we decided to keep going with Derek.”
It struck me then just what a tight band you were, but that’s not so surprising considering your collective history, not least with you, Mickey Gallagher (keyboards) and fellow Geordie John Turnbull (guitar) going right back (initially with Charlie).
“Well, we did the Loving Awareness project with Ronan O’Rahilly, and me and Charley were doing a lot of sessions for songwriters and stuff, and it was us who met Ian and Chaz (Jankel) and basically we demoed and made New Boots and Panties in a couple of weeks.”
I should fill in a few gaps there and mention that between The Greatest Show on Earth and Loving Awareness there was Glencoe, Norman joining them in 1972, his bandmates including guitarist John Turnbull. They released two albums, Glencoe, and The Spirit of Glencoe, plus three singles, and recorded four BBC Radio 1 sessions for John Peel. Then, in 1974, Glencoe joined forces with Mickey Gallagher, forming the nucleus of the band – with the addition of Charlie Charles – that became Loving Awareness, managed by Radio Caroline’s Ronan O’Rahilly.
So tell me more about that session with Charlie that led to an introduction to Ian and writing partner/guitarist Chaz. I’m guessing you were aware of Ian through his work with Kilburn and the High Roads.
“Oh yeah. I was doing a session with Charlie, some songwriter wanted us to put bass and drums on his song, and we were re in this little studio in Wimbledon called Alvic, run by two engineers, including Vic Sweeney, the drummer in the Alan Bown Set, and he really dug Charlie’s drumming and saw us as a great rhythm section. He knew Ian and Chaz and knew they were looking for a rhythm section and felt we’d fit the bill, asking if we’d like to come down that Monday and meet them. We’d heard of Ian from Kilburn and the High Roads and I’d seen them at the Tally Ho! and really liked them. I thought they were so different, like nothing I’d ever seen before. So I said we’d love to, and that’s when the four of us met and made that album.
“But when Stiff decided to release it (in 1977) we had to put a band together, so Ian and Chaz knew Davey (Payne) from Kilburn and the High Roads, and got him in, while we mentioned how Mickey and Johnny had been playing with us for the last three years in Loving Awareness, and doing various projects, so basically that was the beginning of The Blockheads.”
Of course, Ian wasn’t the easiest of characters to get on with though.
“Yeah, he could be difficult at times, but … I don’t know … we were like brothers. We spent so long on the road. We’d argue and things, but I loved him to bits. It was his words. He was such a master with lyrics. One of the first I saw when I first met him that time at Alvic, he had this big sheet of paper with all his lyrics, I picked up one, and it was ‘Billericay Dickie’. I started reading it and thought it was amazing. ‘Clever Trever’ was another. I just fell in love with his words. Unbelievable! I’d never heard anything like it.”
Let’s go back even further, and touch on your own roots, in post-independence India. I realise you left when you were very young, but do you remember anything from those early days in Bombay?
“Well no, but I have pictures of India, and remember standing on a veranda, waving to my brother and sister as they were going off to school. But I left India when I was three years and nine months. We came to Southampton, then drove up to Highbury. We had a flat there, where I started my schooling at St Joan of Arc, off Blackstock Road.”
I recall a similar story from Spike Milligan, talking about leaving India and ending up in Catford, South-East London, albeit at the age of 12 in 1931. It must have been a mighty shock for your family.
“Oh yeah. We arrived in November 1954. Me and my brother had never seen snow, and the place was covered in it. ‘Wow, this is cold and white!’ So strange after Bombay. We’re what you call Anglo-Indian, and both Mum and Dad were in the Royal Air Force in India. That’s how they met. They were both born in Calcutta, as it was known then.”
Ever been back?
“I never have, although my cousins have. We’ve no family there now. We all came over. Funnily enough, my brother’s son went for his honeymoon two years ago, and went to look where we lived and actually found the flat. The woman who lived there invited him in and they sat and had a cup of tea and took loads of pictures. Unbelievable – the veranda was still there and everything, all these years later.”
Is your brother Garth still playing guitar?
”Unfortunately, health stopped him playing, but he played with all these 60s bands and did a lot of tours with the Solid 60s shows, long tours playing Australia, Indonesia, Japan, all over. One of the last was a three-month tour, but he was having problems with degenerative discs in his back. He’s 71 now. But if it wasn’t for that, he’d still be playing. He still happily plays at home though.”
Yet you’re still going strong, and I’m guessing this tour is still about the Blow Your Mind album. Is there another in the offing?
“That’s all down to Wilko. I’m amazed he came out with so many good songs. After all these years he can still write a great song.”
I guess you were on the circuit with Dr Feelgood back in the day.
“Oh yeah, when I was with Glencoe. I remember seeing them many years ago at The Kensington, but one I really remember was Wilko with the Solid Senders after he’d left the Feelgoods, down at Dingwall’s. I’d go down and watch him. Lew Lewis was in the band then. Fantastic.
“Funnily enough, I’d go down there with Kosmo Vinyl. The two of us really dug Wilko, and there was a period after Chaz had gone off to do his own thing with A&M, when we needed someone else to come into the band, and Kosmo suggested Wilko.
“Hugh Cornwell was in prison at the time, having been busted, and there was a benefit show to raise money for bail. Ian was involved, and when he was down there he saw Wilko in the corner, looking quite down. He said, ‘What’s up, Wilks?’ and he said, ‘My band’s broken up and I’m thinking of giving it all up.’ So Ian invited him down to the studio we were in, in Fulham. Wilko said yeah and ended up staying for a couple of years.”
Are you still in regular touch with Mickey Gallagher?
“Oh yeah, we’ve just finished a load of gigs and have loads more coming up this year. There’s four of us originals – Mickey, Chaz, Johnny and myself – and we’ve got Derek, John Roberts on drums and Gilad (Atzmon) on sax. We’re doing lots of festivals too.”
Main Man: Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy’s collaborator of many moons (Photo: Laurence Harvey)
Between Wilko’s commitments and those with The Blockheads, you’re not going to be at home much this year.
“No, but I love it that way. When my wife died 10 years ago, I said to Wilko, ‘Keep me busy!’ And the Blockheads do too. And I love it on the road. If I had a gig every night I’d be the happiest guy in the world! I sit at home and play all day, even when I’m not working. I just love it so much.”
Might you be following up 2013’s Faith & Grace album (featuring Norman’s own band) at some point?
“Yeah, that really came about because of Wilko’s illness, and after the operation when he had a year off to recuperate. I had a couple of instrumental ideas I wanted to record, and Gilad is a brilliant producer as well. So we went to a studio at his house and he loved it so much he suggested we did some more. I felt I didn’t have enough material, but he suggested playing a few of Ian and Wilko’s covers as well. So I did ‘Roxette’, ‘Billericay Dickie’, and so on. It kind of got shelved when my wife died. She’d encouraged me to do it, but later Gilad pushed me into finishing it and when Wilko was recuperating it seemed the right time. So I put a band together with Gilad and Asaf (Sirkis) on drums and Frank (Harrison) on keyboards.”
I was reminding myself this morning of the promo video you did, shot live at the Half Moon in Putney.
“That’s right, and I took the band on the road, here and in Europe, then Japan, where me and Wilko have played so many times. They love him out there, and we’ve done 38 or so tours there. So we did the Fuji Rock Festival and some in Tokyo and Kyoto, and really enjoyed all that.
“As for doing any more … I just don’t really have the time. It’s the same with my band. They’re all constantly working and they’re fantastic players, doing jazz gigs and all sorts. To get them to commit to me for a month, and for me to pay them … I was very lucky that I got them to do all that. And it kept me busy too.”
Besides, Wilko’s still keeping you busy all these years on. And yet I think we all feared the worse when he got ill.
“Well yeah. Unbelievable, the whole thing. He was basically given six to eight months to live, and he accepted that. The growth he had started out the size of a fist, and it grew and grew, to the size of a football. But it didn’t hurt at all, and he was still doing gigs 15 months after his diagnosis. That was when Charlie Chan, this cancer surgeon, saw him and said, ‘Something’s not right. You should have been dead six months ago, but you’re still doing gigs!’ He wanted him to see this specialist friend of his, Emmanuel Huget, at Addenbrooke’s (Cambridge), the one who did the operation and saved Wilko’s life after this 12-hour op.
“I remember them saying, ‘We’ve done all these operations very successfully individually, but never on one person at once, but we think you can handle it.’ And they got it all … this seven-and-a-half pound growth … and he’s been cancer-free since. I think he likes life even more now. And being on the road is an absolute joy.”
We can see that from your demeanour on stage.
“Well, funnily enough I had a heart attack, while playing with Wilko at Hampton Court (Lido) in 2017. I wasn’t in any pain. We were coming up to the end of the set and I just felt really weak. I told Wilko, ‘I can’t play’. I took my bass off and Wilko looked round and said to Dylan, ‘Do a drum solo!’ I came off and they called an ambulance and I got rushed to hospital. The guy in the ambulance was looking at his machine, saying, ‘You’re actually having a heart attack now, Norman. I said, ‘Am I? I’m not in any pain’. But within three hours they’d operated and put this stent into my arteries and I was fine. I took a month off then we went to Japan and started another tour!
“They took me to St George’s at Tooting, because they knew I lived in Fulham, and that’s one of the best for heart care. I later got to know my surgeon, Zoe, very well, and she told me it was a minor heart attack, but I was very lucky to be surrounded by people and for the paramedics to be there, being an open-air festival. She said there are people who have felt a little funny, gone to bed and died in their sleep, so I was very lucky.
“Since then, people have said how the Grim Reaper’s tried to get both me and Wilko, and failed! I think it was Charles Shaar Murray who wrote, ‘Wilko stared Death in the face and saw Death back down’! I thought that was brilliant!”
Well, between yourself and Wilko’s recent experiences, there’s a mighty advert for the enduring importance of ongoing free NHS care for us all, surely.
“Oh, fantastic! It’s something we should definitely never lose and something that we’ll always support. And we do charity gigs for Addenbrooke’s and all sorts of things, and donate stuff – me and Wilko.”
I could have happily carried on talking to Norman for another half-hour, going deeper into his days with Glencoe and the early-‘70s Peel sessions, and discovered more about his session work – not least memories of work with Mickey Gallagher on the Sandinista! sessions at Electric Lady, New York City, and later Clash works.
Similarly, I’d have asked about the part he played, in more ways than one, in making Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’ the mega-hit it became, and work over the years with the likes of Nick Lowe, Rachel Sweet, Jona Lewie, The Selecter, Wreckless Eric, Nick Cave, Viv Albertine … the list goes on.
But I had an appointment straight after to speak to Glenn Tilbrook, lined up as support in a solo capacity for this Wilko Johnson tour. Accordingly, I ended by wondering if there was anything in particular I should ask Glenn.
“Well, just tell him to keep writing really. He’s such a great songwriter.”
So is there anything he should know about sharing dressing rooms with you, Wilko and Dylan, seeing as he’ll be out there with you for several dates?
“Where? Is he? Oh brilliant! D’you know, I didn’t even know that! Oh, fantastic! We’ve met Glenn during past events for the Teenage Cancer Trust, which Roger Daltrey started. We’ve met there a few times. Oh well, that’s all good then.”
Three’s Company: Norman, Wilko and Dylan, still eager to Blow Your Mind, all these years on.
The Wilko Johnson band play Warrington Parr Hall (01925 442345) on Friday, March 1st, with special guest Glenn Tilbrook, 45 years after he first linked up with Chris Difford to form the much-loved Squeeze. For more about Wilko’s wanderings in 2019, head to http://wilkojohnson.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook and Twitter.
For a 2014 reappraisal of Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ back-catalogue, head here. You can also try Richard Balls’ excellent Sex & Drugs & Rock’n’Roll – The Story of Ian Dury. (Omnibus 2000), its author (interviewed here in 2014) also responsible for Be Stiff – The Stiff Records Story (Soundcheck, 2014). You can also track down a copy of Looking Back At Me (Cadiz, 2012), the autobiography of Wilko Johnson, written with acclaimed rock writer (and drummer Dylan Howe’s other half) Zoë Howe, learning more about her books here.