On the evenings of March 6 and 10, 2013, Koko in London’s Camden Town opened its doors to 1,500 music fans who knew they were about to witness an extraordinary event. The venue – known as the Music Machine in the punk days and the Camden Palace in the ’80s and ’90s – has down the years seen many legends play its stage, from Ellen Terry the Victorian actress, to The Goons who recorded some of their BBC shows there, to The Clash, Madonna, Prince and many more. But this week the honour was reserved for a man with a special place in the hearts of lovers of raw, honest, exhilarating rock’n’roll music: Wilko Johnson.
Wilko ‘Live at KOKO’ DVD available NOW
The electricity around these shows acquired extra voltage due to a sad and poignant fact: just a few weeks before, the former Dr Feelgood guitarist and songwriter announced he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had only months left to live. The Koko gigs were thus promoted as the very last shows of a short ‘Farewell’ tour, the final chance for fans to see Wilko perform live on stage. As it turned out, against the odds, the guitarist mercifully remained fit and healthy enough to gig sporadically throughout the rest of 2013, bringing pleasure to fans everywhere from his home town of Southend, Essex to the Fuji Rock festival in Japan. But at Koko, no one was to know that – and even if they did, the incredible atmosphere in the room would no doubt have been the same…
Johnson had learned of illness in January, after which he took a short holiday to Japan, where he played a couple of gigs to raise money for the country’s tsunami disaster relief fund. The trip helped him look upon his diagnosis philosophically and raised his spirits.
“All my life I’ve been a depressive person, suffering terrible depression,” he says. “But since my diagnosis I have been on this high and I haven’t come down. The day before I left Japan, I got in this car and went up to this Shinto temple. These mountains looked like a Chinese painting with misty divisions, a very fine snow was falling, with the sun shining through, it was golden. Apart from the school kids there was no one about. I was looking over a temple roof and there was one of the best [carved] dragons I’ve ever seen. And I was just in the moment, and that moment was so perfect. All those little niggles in life, like worrying about your tax return – all gone. Completely irrelevant, laughable. Every day now makes you feel very alive.”
By his own admission, Wilko’s life has been an extraordinary one that’s given him “more than anyone could ever ask for” as part of Dr Feelgood and beyond. A loveable loner and working-class intellectual inclined to reciting Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton, he was born the son of a gas-fitter on Canvey Island, Essex in 1947. Johnson had already read English at Newcastle University, walked the hippy trail in India and worked as a teacher before the Feelgoods came together in 1972. At a time when sequined jackets, long hair and even longer guitar solos were becoming the rage, the Feelgoods came rampaging out of Canvey to provide the perfect antidote.
Their image was sharp and mean – a bunch of dodgy jack-the-lads out for trouble, all moody stares and beer-stained suits; their music just as menacing – rough-house, stripped-down R&B of a kind that had gone out of fashion a decade before.
The Feelgoods started out playing cover versions of classic R&B – Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley et al – but soon Wilko had come alive as a songwriter in his own right, taking Canvey’s earthy seaside atmosphere and bleak industrial landscape – its oil refineries, tankers and jetties – for his inspiration. “I wrote the songs for our singer Lee Brilleaux to sing, I had his voice and persona in mind,” he says. “I’ve never written a song about jumping on a freight train, but I’ve incorporated the landscape round here where I live, which I find quite romantic. The person in my songs is an ordinary guy, subjected to all the terrible things women can do to you.”
Wilko’s classic, speed-freak R&B originals – She Does It Right, Roxette, All Through The City, Back In The Night, Going Back Home – were accompanied by a manic stage persona and an incredible rhythm guitar style, which incorporated stabs of lead playing while he strummed the strings without a pick. “My mission in life was to be exactly like [Johnny Kidd & The Pirates guitarist] Mick Green,” he explains. “I thought, ‘You people think I’m clever, but I’m just copying the right guy.’ Now in my old age I realise there was something good going on there.”
All Good Things
After four albums for United Artists, Down By The Jetty, Malpractice (both 1975), the Number 1 live LP Stupidity (1976), and Sneakin’ Suspicion (1977), Wilko parted company with the Feelgoods amid much bitterness on both sides. “I think they lost it, they threw me out, they planned it,” he fumes. “The final argument that split the band came just after they had all my new songs in the can. They never missed a step – they did the Hammersmith Odeon gig we were due to play with a new guy [Gypie Mayo]. I was in a terrible state for months.”
Wilko got his revenge (of sorts) when he played a gig at Bradford University soon after. “The Feelgoods were playing at the town hall, which was near our hotel,” he recalls. “We’d been to our soundcheck and on the way back to the hotel there was a queue round the block. So I leaned out the window and said, ‘You don’t want to go there, it’s a load of old rubbish!’ And people were cheering! I sneaked into the gig and stood by the sound desk, and loads of people had seen me and were turning around away from the stage to look at me. I had to leave because it was embarrassing. But the sound guy said, ‘It ain’t half as much fun without you.'”
By now, as he confronted an uncertain future without his old band, Wilko’s influence on the punk movement sweeping the country was coming to light: it was he, it emerged, who’d inspired The Clash’s Joe Strummer to play a Telecaster and fix the audience with a manic stare, while Paul Weller was never shy about admitting that Johnson’s writing and stage energy was a touchstone for The Jam’s blue-collar Mod rock and his own guitar playing. The Sex Pistols were also massive fans. “I thought I’d be consigned to the dustbin of history, but all those people turned out to be very friendly and I was a kind of mentor for them,” he smiles. “But it took a long time after the Feelgoods before I started seeing myself like that. [Fame] happened fast, and people would come up and say, Can I have your autograph? And you think, ‘You’ve made a mistake, mate, it’s only me.’ I always felt like a fraud.”
In 1978, Wilko formed the Solid Senders, whose self-titled (and only) album featured the mesmerising, mystical R&B-reggae hybrid Dr Dupree, before he was invited a year later to become an honorary member of Ian Dury & The Blockheads for their Laughter album and the subsequent world tour to promote it – “great times,” he says. After that, he returned to performing in clubs under his own name, with the Blockheads’ Norman Watt-Roy as his trusted bass player (which he continues to be till this day, of course), content to be a cult act, and happy to go where life takes him.
“I’ve always just let things happen, I’ve never had a proper manager until the last two years,” he explains of his 30-year or so solo career. “I don’t have a direction in things and by the ’80s I had no special motivation to go into a studio. If you want to make a record you need someone to book a studio – sometimes I’d tell Irene [his wife who succumbed to cancer eight years ago] and she would talk to someone. But it would all happen very haphazardly and a lot of the time it just didn’t happen. I was on the way out, anyway. I thought, ‘Fuck it, you go in a studio and then the silly bastards will just slag it off because your time’s gone.’ When I’m writings songs, like I am, and I’m looking through my notebooks, I keep finding more songs that never came to fruition.”
Last year, before his diagnosis, Wilko’s story took an unexpected turn when he was cast as the King’s executioner, Ilyn Payne, in the HBO sword and sorcery series Game Of Thrones, an experience he says he loved. “They’d seen me in [Julien Temple’s Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential] and thought I had the right face. It was great being in the middle of this big production number, and I didn’t have any lines to learn as the character is a mute. I just had to give people dirty looks – I can do that. What a great job.” But his illness has prevented him appearing in the latest series, robbing us of a wonderfully natural screen presence. “I’m sad I can’t do it but the cancer happened and that put an end to it.”
And so to these ‘farewell shows’ at Koko. So many people were jammed in to see Wilko – to enjoy his music, pay homage and thank him for the pleasure he’s brought to so many of us down the years – you could hardly get near any of the bars or find a decent spot to see him. He came onstage to a deafening roar and a standing ovation (not that there was anywhere to sit down) before his hour-and-20-minute set rushed by with the guitarist glaring, grinning and manically bowling across the stage in customary style, while Norman pulled funkily at his bass strings and Dylan Howe kept the rhythm tight (“he’s the best drummer I’ve ever worked with,” says Wilko – and he’s worked with more than a few very good ones). The Feelgoods hits inevitably got the biggest cheer, and then a tear came to the collective eye when Johnson exited the stage to an emotional rendering of Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny, waving as he went. It was a profoundly moving experience, it must be said, whose atmosphere this Live At Koko DVD perfectly captures.
From Wilko’s point of view – loveable eccentric he is – it was, amusingly, just another gig. “I never got emotional, even at the end, playing Bye Bye Johnny,” he says. “I was just digging it ‘cos everyone was having a good time. It never got sentimental.”
After the Koko show he was going to retire, he explains, “but I got fed up. You’re walking along the street thinking, ‘Who am I? Why am I? I’m just a bloke walking down the street. When I did the farewell tour I was hoping to stay fit, and I got to the end and I felt fine. Then the summer festival season came along, and the Japanese agreed for me to do Fuji Rock, then there were other shows that were offered.”
So when will Wilko Johnson knock it on the head?
“I have to listen to what the doctors say. When I got the diagnosis, I said, ‘How long have I got?’ and they said, ‘Six months, eight months’. I don’t know when it’s going to hit me. When it hits me that’ll be the end. So I’ll take it gig by gig.”
Extraordinarily, on 13 and 14 October, 2013 returned to play again at Koko, in equally emotional circumstances, and performing similarly enjoyable and poignant sets. What a great privilege to see him play again. May Wilko’s brilliant and unique light shine on and on…
Pat Gilbert, October 2013