Meet punk forefather Wilko Johnson
Wilko Johnson is a jewel in the crown of contemporary rock ‘n roll history. His recent memoir ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here’ charts the extraordinary life and career of someone who has profoundly shaped our understanding of every musical epoch since the 1970s.
A founder member of influential blues rock outfit Dr Feelgood, Johnson inspired a generation of musicians with his distinctive guitar style and scowling stage presence.
In early 2013 Wilko was suffering with pancreatic cancer and given 10 months to live. Four years later, he is is working prolifically and about to release new album ‘I Keep it to Myself’: Best of’ on Chess Records. Now in his 70th year, we talk to Wilko about his musical journey, the Dr Feelgood days, working with Roger Daltrey, his acting stint in ‘Game of Thrones’ and being given a second chance at life.
Q. What first inspired you to pick up the guitar and play music?
It was an accident, really. Like many people I learned to play guitar having been influenced by bands playing when I was a kid. For me, it was people like The Rolling Stones. I started off in my home town of Canvey Island and got a band together - playing mostly rhythm and blues but, never with the thought of playing professionally.
After a couple of years we heard there was a bit of a music scene in London. At that time we had the look and sound of the band pretty much sorted so when we got to London we stood out - that was the birth of Dr Feelgood.
Q. You talked of the birth of Dr Feelgood as a pretty straightforward process. However, there were many stories about how you came to leave the band. What’s your take on it?
They got rid of me in a sneaky way. One night there was a big argument and by the time morning came around I was out of the band.
I loved Dr Feelgood so when the end came I wanted it to be amicable – in the press anyway - and I just left it at that. Then a couple of weeks later I see all these stories and interviews about how I’d left the band and how I was hard work blah blah. I never responded because I never wanted to stoop to that level.
It’s funny because when I was writing my book I forced myself to remember what happened andI suddenly realised …hang on a minute, those bastards! They did me wrong! (Haha).
Q. To a large extent, the general reaction was in your favour with a lot of people saying your guitar playing effectively made Dr Feelgood what it was. What are your thoughts on that perspective?
A lot of people were saying that I was Dr Feelgood and I was what defined the band but, that’s not true. I mean, performance –wise, I used to take my cue from the singer, Lee (Brilleaux). He was the focus of it. He had this nervous, violent energy and I used to bounce off that.
One of the good things about Dr Feelgood was that it was a band. It wasn’t one person. Everyone contributed something and you only had to look at us to see that we belonged together.
Q. Dr Feelgood’s music was credited as one of the links between rhythm and blues music and punk. Is this something you can relate to, personally?
We were just playing purely for enjoyment. Of course, we were influenced by American rhythm and blues and drawing inspiration from the Chess Records thing. That was our favourite music. We weren’t trying to prove anything and we ended up becoming successful. It’s up to other people to put reasons and meanings to it but, in the end, it was kind of mindless.
By the time Dr Feelgood was about, it was the mid-seventies and the people who were listening to us went on to create the punk movement and I think we were a part of that journey. Whether that’s something to be proud of I don’t know!
Q. Your guitar playing and onstage performances have been cited as major influences on the likes of John Lydon and Paul Weller. How did you come to develop your style?
I was playing the music for sheer joy of it. The sound and the look and the performance came naturally. We never sat down and said ‘let’s wear cheap suits’. We just learned everything onstage responding to the crowd and the feeling in the room.
Q. How did your collaboration with The Who's Roger Daltrey on n‘Going Back Home’ come about?
When I went through my encounter with cancer I ended up bumping into Roger Daltrey – the only time I’d really met him. Eventually, Roger said that we should do an album together and I thought to myself “yeah, that’ll be a good”.
We tried to get it together a couple of times but nothing really came of it. However, when Roger heard that I’d been given ten months to live and he got back to me and sort of demanded we do the record and I said “yeah, as long as we do it quick!” - so we did. It took about 8 days all in all. I thought it would be the last thing I ever did. But things changed.
Anyway, Universal who distributed, The Who owned Chess Records and we thought it would be a great thing to release through them. If you told me at 16 or 17 years of age that I’d be releasing something on Chess Records I would never have believed you!
Q. That must have been a strange recording process. How do you reflect on it now that your alive and well!?
Well, the cancer news surprised me and everyone around me. When I was diagnosed I was given 10 months to live and I was making the album with Roger in the 11th month so I was already in extra time! There were two thoughts - I was thinking ‘oh man, I’m gonna die’ but I also thought ‘oh well, I’m making an album with Roger Daltrey. It’s not a bad way to go out!’. It was so beyond weird – sitting there dying making a record with Roger Daltrey. I had to pinch myself to see if I’d already died and gone to heaven!
Q. Many people will now know you through the series ‘Game of Thrones’. Can you tell us how you ended up acting on the world’s biggest TV show?
I’d never done any acting or anything like that before then all of a sudden I got a call to go to an audition. So I had a look into it and I reasoned it was for some small American TV show like ‘Xena Warrior Princess’. So I went in and they took some video of me looking fed up and that was it ‘you’ve got the job’ they said haha!
It was great fun to do and then I realised that it was this enormous thing. I’ve never seen it myself. I hardly remember doing it! I’m not really interested in looking back at what I’ve done. I don’t even listen to my own records – I find all that stuff a bit toe curling to be honest!
Q. We won’t force you to look back or listen to anything but can you tell us (after a long and varied career) what your personal highlights have been?
The beginning in London. From Dr Feelgood being in obscurity to everyone talking about us and coming to see us play – that was pretty amazing. Our third album ‘Stupidity’ going to straight to number 1 was also a high point. It all got a bit frothy after that!
You can’t really look back and say ‘that was a great memory’ - you’re kind of making a conclusion of the present. I’m very conscious of that nowadays as I’m not even supposed to be here!
I Keep It To Myself - The Best Of Wilko Johnson is out March 10.
Image - Leif Laaksonen