“I’m not supposed to be on my feet now, but I am.”
Wilko Johnson – the guitarist famed as a founding member of Dr Feelgood and later one of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, and also seen in HBO’s hugely successful Game Of Thrones series – was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer at the beginning of 2013 (news). But this news did nothing to slow him down. Taking his doctor’s advice, Wilko gave retirement a try, but it wasn’t for him.
“I didn’t feel very good about being retired, even though I’d only got a short retirement to look forward to,” he tells Clash. “We’re just going to carry on until we can’t.”
Talking to Wilko, it’s hard to evade his matter-of-fact optimism; he’s genuinely inspiring. So Clash goes with it and, instead of focusing on the end, we take it back to the early days, delving into a few of Wilko’s firsts.
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Wilko’s first record – Ray Charles, ‘Hit The Road Jack’
“The first record I ever bought was ‘Hit The Road Jack’ by Ray Charles. I heard it one Saturday morning on the radio and immediately rushed out and spent my pocket money on it. A wise investment actually, because it's a great record.
“Our record player at home was a very primitive affair. It didn't have an auto-change mechanism. You had to put one record on at a time and it probably had a sort of two-inch square speaker somewhere in the side. So if you wanted to hear it with any power you had to kind of lay on the floor and stick your ear next to it. All to the purpose.
“The actual music going on in that song was obviously way above my head. It was a bit later on I started getting to grips with playing myself. And there’s not even a guitar audible on that record. It’s brass and keyboards, but all sorts of things influence me.”
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Wilko’s first date – Them, ‘Here Comes The Night’
“The first time I wanted to ask [my wife] Irene out, I was walking down the road on Canvey Island. I was going round her house to ask her to come out with me. To keep up my courage I was singing ‘Here Comes The Night’, which was a hit song for Van Morrison and Them at the time. I went and asked her out, and it was ages later that somebody pointed out that her name was, in fact, Irene Knight. I'd been walking along singing ‘Here Comes The Night’. I told Van Morrison this little story once: ‘Yes Van, you were encouraging me to get my first date with Irene.’”
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Wilko meets Dr Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux
“I first met Lee Brilleaux when I was about 18. I used to do this thing with my brother, what we called a jug band. It was like a skiffle group – we used to play on the seafront at Canvey Island, busking. One day these three boys came up to us. I was about 18 at the time and these boys were about 14, and they were very interested in what we were doing.
“Now that's a big age gap, if you're 18 and they’re 14, but Lee Brilleaux who was one of these boys, his personality even then was just so… What would you say about it? He was a very… dynamic person. Even then he made a strong impression on me and my brother.
“Lee started his own jug band after that. Then it developed into a band which developed and developed and I ended up joining it and calling it Dr Feelgood.”
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Wilko’s first song – Dr Feelgood, ‘She Does It Right’
“I didn't start writing songs until Dr Feelgood were well under way and we were taking things a bit seriously. The first song I ever wrote was called 'She Does It Right', and I still play it live to this very day.
“I wrote it more or less like every song I’ve ever written since then: it starts with a guitar riff. You get a guitar riff going and you kind of start thinking, ‘What’s this riff saying here?’ and ‘What kind of mood is this?’ And then you build up some lyrics in keeping with it.
“You might think, ‘This song sounds rather amusing… Better write something amusing’. Or, ‘This one sounds very profound and philosophical’, and write something very profound and philosophical. But that doesn’t often happen.”
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Dr Feelgood’s first gig
“We used to play at the Railway Hotel. It was a very grotty pub and they used to keep coming up and telling us to turn it down! The people were just in there drinking, you know, they weren’t really interested in music. That was our first gig.
“I think a little while after that we got another residency at a disco on Canvey Island, which was our hometown, and that of course was more suitable. The people came there for music, so that was our first experience of playing to an audience that actually wanted to listen to us.
“We started finding that we got more reaction from people if we put action into it ourselves. I think a lot of the stage performance of Dr Feelgood stems from those days of just trying to stir people up, really.”
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Wilko joins Ian Dury in The Blockheads
“I knew Ian from when we were playing the pubs. Ian had his band, Kilburn And The High Roads, and they often used to have gigs with Dr Feelgood. After that he went on to form The Blockheads and started releasing records and that.
“I didn’t know the other guys in that band, but one guy was the bass player Norman Watt-Roy, who I’d never met. He was absolutely my favourite bass player. In the corners of time Ian asked me if I would like to join The Blockheads, and I said yes because I really wanted to work with that bass player. He’s still working with me to this very day.
“Norman remains my favourite bass player and he is just a very, very important part of what I do. He is my right arm. Also Dylan Howe, who plays drums with me, is also an ex-Blockhead. So my whole trio is three ex-Blockheads. I don't know if that means anything, but there you go.
“Dylan and Norman are superb musicians. Me, I'm just a skiffler.”
Ian Dury with Wilko Johnson, ‘Sweet Gene Vincent’
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Words: Emily Anderton
Photos: Danny Payne, from Wilko’s final gig at Bingley Music Live, August 31st
Wilko Johnson’s website is here
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