Wilko Johnson: Here and Now
‘I’m supposed to be dead!’ So said Wilko in a recent interview, having been diagnosed in late 2012 with terminal pancreatic cancer. But despite the doctors’ worst predictions he continued to perform and present himself with vigour and a new zest for life. In 2013, Wilko announced that, thanks to a second opinion and subsequent life-saving surgery, he was cancer-free.
“Man, there’s nothing like being told you’re dying to make you feel alive.”
The man from Canvey Island, who studied English at Newcastle University before doing a bit of travelling, could have been a retired teacher by now, sucking on a pipe and whittling away at his pension. But no, Wilko was lured into music by the dark magic spun by his first Telecaster, bought from a music store in Southend, Essex, soon after becoming the strutting, grimacing, six-string rhythmic powerhouse behind Lee Brilleaux in Dr Feelgood. Throughout the mid-70s, Wilko duck-walked his way across countless stages and venues in the UK with Dr Feelgood in the vanguard of the pub rock movement, performing the gutsy down-to-earth rock and roll that was a welcome antidote to prog-rock.
Heavily influenced by legendary guitarist Mick Green from ’60s rockers Johnny Kidd & The Pirates, Wilko employs a finger-style, chop-chord strumming action (the ‘stab’, as he describes it). This allows for chords and lead to be played at the same time, giving a fluency and a distinctive sound very unlike the cleaner swat of a pick.
With this economic sound, coupled with that black-suited, scowling look, and the yards he covered across the stage pausing only to twist the guitar lead out from under his feet, Wilko became one of the guitar heroes of the era. His influence was felt in bands up and down the country, and later in the emergent punk revolution (Joe Strummer of the Clash bought a Tele after seeing Wilko play).
Feelgood had four successful albums in Wilko’s time, then followed a busy creative period playing in an early incarnation of the Wilko Johnson Band, the Solid Senders, before he joined Ian Dury’s band The Blockheads, in 1980.
All through the ’80s, ’90s and into the new millennium he continued to gig in the UK, Europe and Japan. But it was when Julien Temple’s award winning Oil City Confidential came out in 2009, with Wilko emerging as the film’s star, that the world once again sat up and paid attention to his extraordinary talent.
His career took another twist in 2010, when he was offered an acting part in the hit series Game of Thrones, playing the role of mute executioner Ilyn Payne. He appeared in 4 episodes shown in 2011 and 2012. In the same year, Wilko and biographer Zoë Howe released the book ‘Wilko Johnson: Looking Back At Me’, a coffee-table book of Wilko’s favourite memories and images. The book was published by Cadiz.
2014 saw the release of the hit album ‘Going Back Home’, Wilko Johnson’s collaboration with Roger Daltrey which went to Number 3 in the UK album charts. The pair decided to work on the album together not just because they were both huge fans of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, but because, as Wilko was still believed to be dying from cancer, it was believed that they’d ‘better get on with it’. Also on the album are Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe, both members of the Wilko Johnson band, Steve ‘West’ Weston and Mick Talbot (Style Council). It was produced by Dave Eringa.
In 2015, Wilko and Julien Temple teamed up again for the documentary The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson, a film which explored Wilko’s diagnosis of terminal cancer, and the unexpected reprieve that followed. The film would become quite the hit, captivating audiences whether they saw it on the big screen or on BBC 4, and earning a ‘Kermode’ award in 2016.
Wilko’s new memoir, ‘Don’t You Leave Me Here’, is due for publication in Spring 2016 via Little, Brown.
Born to an Anglo-Indian family in Bombay in 1951, Norman came to England with them in 1955 and spent the next four years living in Highbury, North London. Most of his youth was, however, spent in Essex. By age 11 he was playing rhythm guitar with his brother Garth in a local band. He listened to a lot of music, but his first love was American soul. Back in London in 1967, aged 16 and now playing bass, he and Garth formed The Living Daylights, a psychedelic outfit with a pop edge.
They were good enough to get regular gigs around London and even released a single, Let’s Live for Today. Later in ’68 Norman and Garth went on to form a nine-piece soul group – The Greatest Show on Earth – cutting two albums and releasing several singles. One of these, Real Cool World, reached Number 1 in the charts in Switzerland!
In 1972 Norman joined the band Glencoe and worked with guitarist John Turnbull. Glencoe released two albums and three singles before disbanding after two years. It was then that Norman, together with Turnbull, keyboardist Mick Gallagher and (later) drummer Charlie Charles became The Loving Awareness, under the management of Radio Caroline director/guru Ronan O’Rahilly. In 1976 they released their only album, Loving Awareness.
The formation and history of that band is another story, but it eventually led, through chance encounters and some session work, to the formation of Ian Dury & the Blockheads, bringing Norman, Turnbull, Gallagher and Charles together with Dury and Chaz Jankel. Adding saxophonist Davey Payne, who had been with Dury in Kilburn & The High Roads, the band went on to release some monster hit singles, together with their seminal first album New Boots and Panties!! on the way to becoming one of the top ‘New Wave’ live acts.
During the late ’70s and into the ’80s Norman was also much in demand for session work, appearing on albums such as Rachel Sweet’s Fool Around (1978) and on the track ‘Nutted by Reality’ on Nick Lowe’s Jesus of Cool. He also guested on Jona Lewie’s number one single You’ll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties.
It was in 1980, when Chaz Jankel left the Blockheads and was replaced by Wilko that the rapport between Wilko and Norman resulted in him later becoming a member of Wilko’s own band. A position he still fills, although he now also tours and works with some of the most respected musicians in the UK. His own album, Faith & Grace (rhyming slang for ‘bass’) was released in 2013, “…a career summary of his time with The Blockheads, Wilko Johnson and his sessions for the likes of The Clash and Frankie Goes to Hollywood…” said one reviewer.
Vist Norman’s Official website here – normanwattroy.com
“One of the best drummers of his generation”
Dylan Howe is a British drummer (born in 1969) best known for leading his quintet and other jazz groups since 2002 and his tenures with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, Steve Howe and Wilko Johnson, coupled with extensive session work since 1990, playing with Nick Cave, Damon Albarn, Ray Davies, Paul McCartney, David Gilmour, Beth Gibbons, Gabrielle, Hugh Cornwell and Andy Sheppard amongst many others.
Recently Dylan played on the no.1 album Going Back Home by Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey, with sell-out shows at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire and Royal Albert Hall. The album has now sold in excess of 150,000 units and a follow up is planned for later in 2015.
In 2014 Dylan released his highly acclaimed new album: Subterranean – New Designs On Bowie’s Berlin. A radical new take on the instrumental cuts from David Bowie’s 1977 albums Low and “Heroes”.
This new album (his sixth) is the natural progression from his acclaimed 2010 Stravinsky adaptation The Rite Of Spring for piano and drums, and his Blue Note styled hard bop quintet albums Translation – Volumes 1 and 2.
It has garnered universal international acclaim – with official endorsement from David Bowie himself – stating: ‘That’s a top-notch album you’ve got there. Really.’
Dylan toured the record in late 2014 in the UK with many sold out concerts and has a number of dates in 2015 with the project, including London’s Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre in February as well as European festival shows later in the year.
2016 is looking to be a busy year for Howe with worldwide touring with Wilko Johnson, touring with his own group as well as a new album release with the Steve Howe Trio.
★★★★ UNCUT, MOJO, TIMES, GUARDIAN, INDEPENDENT, JAZZWISE, BLUES & SOUL
‘Howe, always inspiring and invigorating in any genre.’ ‘THE GUARDIAN
‘(‘DH) rightly acclaimed as one of the best drummers of his generation.’ RONNIE SCOTTS
‘Dylan Howe makes it new. The way he plays it, it’s as if Be-bop were still hot and wet from its Harlem womb – he plays time from the heart.’ ROBERT WYATT
‘A funky little bastard.’ IAN DURY
‘You’re playing beautifully…so solid.’ JIMMY PAGE
‘Dylan Howe is a fantastic substitute for the sadly missed Charley Charles behind the kit.’ THE INDEPENDENT
‘The brilliant Dylan Howe on drums.’ Jools Holland (Introduction on Later With Jools)
‘The best new young drummer to emerge since Phil Collins or Stewart Copeland.’ YESWORLD