Playing the mind guerilla – back in touch with Wilko Johnson

Five years after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, R’n’B guitar legend Wilko Johnson is still very much with us, in the form of his life, and more than happy to talk about the power of rock’n’roll and survival against all odds.

In fact, Canvey Island’s six-string master is celebrating the release of his first LP of new material in three decades, Blow Your Mind, ‘the album I never thought I’d get to write,’ with his latest short UK tour, even though – as he put it – ‘I’m supposed to be dead!’

You may know the background story. A second medical opinion led to pioneering life-saving surgery on a supposedly ‘inoperable’ tumour, Wilko eventually declared cancer-free, and losing none of his lust for life, stage presence or studio flair under the knife.

The Dr Feelgood founder member, born John Wilkinson and rightly renowned for that distinctive chop-guitar style, last wowed us on record in 2014 alongside legendary front-man Roger Daltrey on Going Back Home, including various inspired reworkings of R’n’B numbers, many his own (he did after all write 20 of the songs on the Feelgoods’ first three studio albums). But for all the adulation of Wilko’s stagecraft and songwriting over the years, wasn’t his inner teenager a little over-awed, recording with the lead singer of The Who?

“Well, of course! That whole thing … I’d been given 10 months to live when I was diagnosed with cancer, and in fact we did the Roger album in the 11th month! I was thinking, ‘This is it – this is the last thing I ever do.’ I didn’t expect to see the album released even. But I had a year that made me think a lot. I remember working in the studio and sometimes I’d step out into the darkness and walk around and you kind of think, ‘I’m gonna die’, and you can’t believe it. But looking at it all, I’ve had a pretty good life, and to end up making an album with Roger Daltrey, a hero to me when I was a teenager, it was like, ‘Well, you can’t complain!’

Still performing with bass legend Norman Watt-Roy (the prime reason for him joining Ian Dury and the Blockheads at the turn of the ’80s) and acclaimed drummer Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitar legend Steve Howe), last September Wilko celebrated his 70th birthday with a sell-out at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall. Another career highlight?

“Ha ha! Yeah! It did turn out to be a good thing. My birthday means nothing, that was in the summer and more of a, ‘Well done, you’ve reached 70!’ A few people didn’t even expect me to reach 37! But the Albert Hall was great, with that obvious symbolic significance of the venue itself.

“We’d not played in London during that year, so we could get the audience in. It was quite worrying – you want to fill it up. You don’t want it half-empty. But it was selling quite well, and then we got John Cooper Clarke on the bill, and I think that tipped the balance. And it was an absolutely great night, a very varied show, with something that everybody there could enjoy.”

But we’re clearly not talking retirement here. Within a couple of months of that show, his band laid down their new LP, and now they’re treading the boards – or in Wilko’s case, seemingly gliding across them – promoting that new set of songs.

Solid Fender: Wilko Johnson doing what Wilko Johnson does best (Photo: Laurence Harvey)

Wilko was half an hour from Oxford Academy when I called, en route with his bandmates to that night’s show. I told him I was enjoying new single Marijuana before I picked up the phone, and was really looking forward to hearing the full album and catching his band live again.

“Yeah, we’ve just toured Finland, working in new numbers from the album, and it went down well. We played last night in Bath and that did too. So we’re quite pleased with all that.”

The new album, like the last, features Wilko, Dylan and Norman, plus Steve Weston on harmonica and ex-Style Council keyboard player Mick Talbot, with Dave Eringa producing.

“We did it very, very quick, in about two weeks in November. I just hope it does as well.”

I still play Going Back Home fairly regularly, probably as much as I do those wondrous early Feelgood LPs. And those albums never fail to fire me up.

“Yeah, I think a lot of that is to the credit of Dave Eringa’s production, although that album was done under peculiar circumstances. I didn’t actually expect to see it released when we were recording it. We really thought it was going to be the last thing I ever did, so I was quite keen for it to be good. And it’s probably the best thing I’ve done.”

Well, there was certainly magic on there, and it sounded naturally good. If this new album took a fortnight to record, what was the timescale with the Roger Daltrey album?

“It was even less. I think we had eight day, other than a couple of tweaks later. And I really honestly think that with rock’n’roll – or certainly the kind of thing I do – that’s absolutely the best way to do it. You go in and play it, and don’t sit there analyzing it and trying to improve this or tweak that. Go in, get a good feel, and if you’ve got a good producer and engineer, they will record that. That’s the way to do it.”

After Oxford there were visits to Norwich, then Bishops Stortford, and this weekend it’s Leeds Stylus (Thursday, May 10th), Glasgow ABC (Friday, May 10th) and then this Saturday, May 12th, Wilko calls at Manchester Academy 1 (doors 4.30pm, show starts at 5pm, with tickets £25 in advance via the box office on 0161 832 1111 or via this link), my excuse for speaking to him, his band backed on the night by former Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell and his own band, Mike Sweeney and the Salford Jets, and Mollie Marriott, daughter of Small Faces legend Steve Marriott. Sounds like a proper charabanc package tour, Wilko.

“Yeah yeah! I love to put on a good show, varied, something that’s gonna be entertaining for the whole show for the audience. That’s what I aim for.”

What with your Chess label imprint, I’m guessing you’re all travelling on a clapped-out old 1950s’ coach, right?

“Ha! No, we’re riding along in a nice Mercedes. It’s a Mercedes of a certain age, but it’s a Mercedes!”

Did you ever do a bit of that label ‘package tour’ thing back in the day?

“Yeah, the first proper tour we did with Dr Feelgood featured us, Kokomo, and Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, alternating the headline each night … although I do have to say that half-way through the tour it was obvious that Dr Feelgood was the big attraction, so we ended up closing the show.”

None of that pulling the leads on the other bands malarkey going on, was there?

“No! It’s just like … y’know, rock’n’roll.”

Seeing as Hugh Cornwell will be featuring with you on this tour, did you ever get to play with The Stranglers in those earlier days?

“I have on occasions over the years, and got to be great friends with Jean-Jacques Burnel.”

Of course, you famously shared a London flat with him at one stage.

“That’s right. And once or twice I got up and had a twang with them.”

And is Hugh a good man to share a dressing room with?

“Well …we just started, but I’m certain that he is!”

I saw him at the heart of his own impressive trio at Preston’s 53 Degrees five years back, and there’s something so powerful about that three-piece set-up – as proved by yourself, The Jam, Cream, and so many others. Ever tried to analyse why? Is it just that you can’t hide in a three-piece?

“I don’t know. The thing I’ve always liked about the three-piece is that it’s as basic as you can get. And it does require that each member is strong in his own department and also you can lock in together – not always easy. But if you get the right people, when it clicks together … I love a three-piece because it’s very … I don’t know … free! You can play around with the arrangements but only have to look at each other and follow where you’re going. You don’t have to have everything strictly arranged. You get more spontaneity.”

When I think back to all those kids who came along and saw you and got that thrill from Dr Feelgood, using a bit of that for their own ends when punk exploded, did you have any idea how much of an influence you were on the likes of The Jam, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, and all those others? Were you aware of how good you were and how inspirational you must be?

“Well, when we were making our name, you’re just doing what you’re doing. You don’t know who’s down in the audience. In fact, in that audience, there were many of those people who went on the next year to create the punk thing. So yes, I think we can claim we had quite a bit to do with the instigation of that era. But when we were doing it, we didn’t know we were doing it. That only came later. It’s not about huge light shows, multi-keyboards, and all that – it’s simplicity and energy. That’s the thing we instigated.”

Did you ever play on the same bill as Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash outfit, The 101’ers in those days?

“The closest I got to playing with The 101’ers was actually after Joe sadly died. We had a memorial gig and I played with the other guys. But I first met Joe after I got dropped out of the Feelgoods. I bumped into him on Oxford Street and he started talking to me. He was quite an enthusiast for the Feelgoods and was asking what I was going to do next. I made friends with them then (The Clash). In fact, most of the punk bands – the Pistols, The Damned, you name them – became friends during that year, hanging out in my flat with JJ – we’d have all these punks of various varieties coming in.”

Going back a little further, seeing as Mollie Marriott’s with you on this tour, did you ever get to see her dad perform live?

“I never did. I tell you another thing – I never met Steve Marriott, really weird, because for so many years we were going around playing the same gigs, and were obviously closely related by the music. But sadly, I never did meet the guy. So that was a shame. And the Small Faces was a really seminal band. But we did a tour with Mollie last year.”

All these years on, Wilko still has the ability to – as the new LP suggests –Blow Your Mind via those electric live performances and songs, giving us an ultimate celebration of life affirmation after his … erm, health scare (to put it mildly). Clearly the specialist who operated on him didn’t steal his mojo.

“Ha ha! D’you know, it’s been a very strange five years for me. The band was succeeding more and more – we came out of the slough of despond of the ‘80s, travelling all around Europe playing small clubs and that. We started to really get somewhere. Then, suddenly, getting cancer … yeah, y’know, it’s a bit of a drag.

“But people have asked me, ‘Did I exploit that?’ And somehow that got into the mainstream press. I don’t know. In many ways, we ended up doing a farewell tour, and that was fantastic. It was very emotional – the audience just knew my time had come and they probably wouldn’t be seeing me again. You walk on stage and you can’t really go wrong. And we didn’t go wrong. People have a genuine affection for you, and that’s really touching and also gave me strength while I was going through that.”

In no way am I playing all that down, but I think I was even more worried for you when you did that open-air gig at the old BBC Broadcasting House with Madness in the Spring of 2013.

“Oh dear, oh dear. You were quite right to be worried! I tell you what, man, I did that gig, and what did I do? One number? Two numbers? And we were in the teeth of this driving rain, coming straight towards us. It was terrible, and I was standing there, thinking, ‘These guys have been standing on stage for an hour.” I had a bad chest and cold for a week after that. It made me really ill, so the Madness guys are either super-human strong or they’ve got thicker skin.”

Maybe they just had a better rider than you.

“Ha ha!”

This new album is your first album of new material in 30 years. That’s worth celebrating in itself. So are these all Wilko ditties or proper band compositions?

“Some are my songs, but a good part of the album was written together with the band. And this band is absolutely the best band I’ve ever had. Norman and Dylan are just great musicians, and we all fit together and take advantage of playing in a three-piece – free. We ain’t flash, man. We play rock’n’roll … but we do it pretty well.”

Is there anyone you still want to work with who you haven’t managed to get into a studio yet?

“I don’t know. The Roger Daltrey thing happened because of all these things – this, that, and the other. And it all just came together and worked perfectly. I think if you planned to make such an album it wouldn’t have been half as good. So if someone else pops up and unusual circumstances occur, why not.  But I haven’t got any schemes in mind.”

Seeing as many people out there know you chiefly as the king’s mute executioner, Ilyn Payne, in the first two series of HBO fantasy blockbnuster, Game of Thrones (the show’s production team hired him after seeing Julien Temple’s wondrous Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential), have you been offered any more acting roles of late?

“Ha ha! I had to go up to London recently, to do an interview. They’re making a documentary about Game of Thrones, now it’s coming to an end. I was sticking in my two pen’north. But I’ve got to say, I’ve never done any other acting before, ever, and absolutely loved that. It was so much fun that if a similar role comes along for an actor who’s got no tongue, so I don’t have to learn any lines, yeah … I could have a go!”

Last time we spoke, this former English teacher told me he was reading Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy. Has he read any good books or plays lately? What passes for tour reading on this tour?

“Actually, last night I was reading Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf. So you never know what I’m going to be reading!”

Live Wires: Dylan Howe, Wilko Johnson and Norman Watt-Roy give it some (Photo copyright: Leif Laaksonen)

This website’s first Wilko Johnson feature was five years ago, with a link here. That was followed by my first interview with the man himself, from mid-August 2016, with a link here. For details of his 2018 live itinerary, the new album, and all the latest from Wilko, head to his website or keep in touch via his Facebook and Twitter links.

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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