Guitarist Wilko Johnson, best known as a founder member of pub rock pioneers Dr. Feelgood, passed away on 21st November 2022. Graeme Stroud unravels the man and his legacy…
Essex rockers Dr. Feelgood formed as far back as 1971, releasing their first album, Down By The Jetty, in 1975. Considering their basic blues-rock sound, no-nonsense arrangements and cut-price presentation, (Down By The Jetty had a monochrome cover for goodness’ sake), it’s incredible how much impact the band had. They may not have invented the genre that would become known as pub rock, but they were its foremost pioneers, and effectively defined it. Their defiantly blue-collar background and East End gangster image powered not only the pub band look, (Nine Below Zero were Feelgood lookalikes), and mod revival, (think Paul Weller and the Jam), but they have been credited with influencing the entire punk movement with their stripped-down sound and defiant mentality. And although they hit the peak of their commercial success before the seventies were out, with their 1978 album Private Practice and its most famous single Milk And Alcohol, the classic line-up was already behind them – because for many, if not most, fans, there was only one guitarist who mattered – Wilko Johnson, a skinny, mop-haired youth with a magnetic stage presence and an utterly distinctive guitar style. Wilko didn’t pick the strings with a plectrum like a conventional blues player, or pluck them daintily like a folk hippy; he bashed them unceremoniously with his forefinger, like a flamenco-playing bullfighter who is trying to do both things at once. With this sound, accompanied by his restless hyperactivity on stage, twitching, striding around the stage and leaping high into the air, his whole aesthetic was unique. What’s more, he wrote all the songs.
Wilko was born John Wilkinson on Canvey Island in Essex in 1947. When he was 18, he met Lee Collinson, nearly five years his junior and still at school, whose family had just moved to Canvey from West London. Collinson would grow up to become Lee Brilleaux, Dr. Feelgood’s charismatic front man until his death from cancer in 1994, at the age of just 41. For all Wilko’s on-stage antics, he attributed the band’s success squarely to Brilleaux, as he told me in an interview for Rock Society magazine in 2017: “Everything Dr. Feelgood was to become, actually radiated from him. There was that thing with me machine gunning the crowd with my guitar and that, but all the time I was bouncing off of him. He was an extraordinary person.”
Most pub guitar players were heavily influenced, consciously or otherwise, by Eric Clapton, but Wilko was more of a Johnny Kidd and the Pirates man, basing his guitar style on Kidd’s guitarist Mick Green, who preferred not to use a plectrum. This is often given as the basic factor that defines Wilko’s heavily percussive rhythm style, but to be honest, thumping the strings with a flailing finger doesn’t automatically impart that choppy beat; neither does the use of a pick necessarily make it impossible; it was just Wilko’s personally-developed style and that’s all there is to it.
Down By The Jetty was quickly followed by Malpractice the same year, then the live set Stupidity in 1975, still often considered Feelgood’s magnum opus and first real statement of intent. There was only one more album to feature both Wilko and Brilleaux after this; Sneakin’ Suspicion in 1977, and then Wilko was gone. For whatever reason, Wilko and Brilleaux started rubbing each other up the wrong way quite early on, and although Wilko found it hard in later years to quite figure out why, it got to a point where they couldn’t stand to be in the same room. John ‘Gypie’ Mayo took his place and the band went on to stardom; Wilko formed the Solid Senders, who recorded their sole, eponymous album in 1978, although he usually gigged under the name the Wilko Johnson band. Wilko wasn’t just a pseudonym; he had legally changed his name to Wilko Johnson years before, leaving his previous persona behind, and his children are legally surnamed Johnson.
Nevertheless, his career was in the doldrums at this point and he was definitely feeling the cold, until a meeting with punk poet Ian Dury gave him a chance at a new direction.“Back in the late ‘70s, when my career was not doing very well,” he explained,“I bumped into Ian Dury, and he had started achieving this big success. I told him how miserable I was, and he said why don’t you come down and make a single with the Blockheads?” For all Dury’s punk sensibilities, his band was a slick and professional outfit. From the outside at least, the rough and ready guitar slinger didn’t look like a comfortable fit, but Johnson leapt at the chance, largely because of his admiration for Dury’s bass player, Norman Watt-Roy. In fact the single, I Want To Be Straight, peaked at a creditable no. 22 and Johnson impressed enough to be let in on the Blockheads’ next album, Laughter, in 1981. “I think they were kind of checking me out with this single,” he said. “Working with that rhythm section was superb, and my time with the Blockheads was happy!”
All this effusive praise of the musicians bypasses the fact that Dury himself had a reputation as being one of the hardest and meanest people to work with since Genghis Khan, and his unpredictable behavioural streak was really hitting its stride at this era. Wilko himself had shown a stubborn enough side with the Feelgoods to make pistols at dawn a real possibility, but he and Dury got on famously, and Wilko’s admiration for the man was undiminished by time. “Obviously he had a very, very dark side to his character – especially after one drink too many, which was usually one. I think he was the most offensive person I’ve ever met when the fit was on him! But I don’t know, his life was a complicated thing… Yes, he could be dreadful sometimes, but I think when you consider what he did for the world, he’s allowed these moments.”
Nevertheless, Wilko only recorded that one album with the Blockheads, and resurrected the Wilko Johnson Band in the mid-eighties, taking bassist Watt-Roy with him. They continued to write, record and gig throughout the years, becoming a regular fixture at blues festivals, without ever making much impact on the public consciousness, and none at all on the charts. Wilko’s legacy may well have faded into obscurity were it not for Julien Temple’s 2009 rockumentary about Feelgood’s early days, Oil City Confidential, which put Wilko back in the public consciousness and even led to an acting role as a mute executioner in the fantasy TV series Game Of Thrones.
And then, in 2013, everything changed: he was diagnosed with an aggressive, inoperable and terminal pancreatic cancer. For Wilko, there was only one way to handle this bombshell: he resolved to go down with his boots on, refused chemotherapy and embarked on a last tour that would last as long as he was still vertical. As news of his condition hit the media, he also started to attract the kind of musical recognition that arguably should have been his all along, culminating in a triumphant collaboration with Who frontman and rock star extraordinaire Roger Daltrey in 2014. Their album Going Back Home, in which Daltrey growled his way through the pick of Wilko’s back catalogue with Canvey native Steve Weston blowing the harmonica, steamed to no. 3 in the charts.
But then something strange and completely unexpected happened – Wilko ran out of gigs before he ran out of life. Addenbrooks hospital in Cambridge re-ran the tests to find out why he was still breathing, and revealed that his cancer had been somewhat misdiagnosed, and although still appallingly serious, may actually be operable after all. Nevertheless, although the different procedures had been performed before, they had never been performed together, and the whole operation took 11 hours. In 2014 came the incredible news that the procedure had gone ahead, been a success, and Wilko was clear of the disease, albeit also missing an extensive list of internal organs.
It was a long road back to recovery, but in 2016 he published his first book, a memoir titled Don’t You Leave Me Here: My Life, and in September 2017 he celebrated his 70th birthday by playing in the sumptuous surroundings of the Royal Albert Hall in London for the first time. After such a powerful, triumphant return to the fray, it seems all the more unbelievable that Wilko’s mortality has caught up with him at last – his family announced on 23rd November that he had passed away two days before; no more details have so far been forthcoming. Expect to hear the pounding early Dr. Feelgood beat coming from speakers near you.
Wilko Johnson was born 12 July 1947 and died at home on 21 November 2022 at the age of 75.