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Wilko Johnson - Working Class Hero

Issue #51

Dr Feelgood took the “Pub Rock” scene by storm, with their energetic stage presence leaving audiences in shock. This was a very new sound and approach in the early 1970s and had an unprecedented impact on the music scene that would develop several years later in the guise of Punk and New Wave.
Jamie Humphries

Often credited by many as a forefather of new wave and punk, Wilko Johnson has had a career spanning almost five decades. To compliment our exclusive interview, Jamie Humphries takes a look at one of the most remarkable performers in the history of British music.

Wilko Johnson has had an incredible career to date. From playing guitar for two of the most influential “pub rock” bands of the 70’s to forging a healthy solo career, that's seen him collaborate with the cream of British rock. Now as he approaches his 70th birthday and a solo headline show at London’s' Royal Albert Hall, Wilko is looking stronger than ever!

Born John Peter Wilkinson in 1947, Wilko wasn’t exposed to much music growing up in his hometown of Canvey Island, Essex, England. However, after seeing a fellow school student play the guitar, he began to learn with limited success, initially starting left handed.

After concluding that the other kids sounded better than him, he put his guitar practice on the back burner, turning his attention to University and travelling.

Johnson began playing again in his late teens, (now right handed), and quickly began to develop his unique percussive rhythm style, mixing chords with lead breaks. His decision to play with fingerstyle, with no pick, helped his to developed his “choppy” syncopated aggressive rhythm style that has become a trademark of his sound.

Dr Feelgood formed in in 1971, by Wilko and vocalist Lee Brilleaux. The band took their name from an album by American blues artist Willie Perryman.  Around that time, Wilko had discovered the music of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and was mesmerised by the guitar style of their guitarist Mick Green. Wilko has stated that his unique voice on the guitar was a result of his failed attempt at impersonating Green’s style; a happy accident, but an accident that form the driving force behind early Dr Feelgood music.


Wilko played a 1962 Telecaster, he purchased his first, buying his first by paying off weekly instalments of whatever money he could get together each week. His love of 62 Tele’s continued, purchasing a second guitar when Dr Feelgood were first signed to a record label and further cemented his image with his choice of guitar colour; black with a red pick guard, a colour scheme inspired by black and red shirts the band where donning on stage. This colour scheme has remained consistent throughout his career and has been honoured by Fender guitars with the release of Wilko’s signature black and red 62 Telecaster as well as his custom amp from Denis Cornell.

Dr Feelgood took the “Pub Rock” scene by storm, with their energetic stage presence leaving audiences in shock. This was a very new sound and approach in the early 1970s and had an unprecedented impact on the music scene that would develop several years later in the guise of Punk and New Wave.

Johnson was the main composer with Dr Feelgood, penning many of their most popular early tunes. He appeared on the band's first four albums; 'Down at the Jetty', 'Malpractice', 'Stupidity' and 'Sneakin’ Suspicion'. 'Stupidity', their first live album was a testament to their rising popularity, reaching number #1 in the UK album charts in 1976.

'Sneakin’ Suspicion' was to be Wilko’s final album with Dr Feelgood, and Wilko departed from the band following irreconcilable differences, with different stories surrounding the departure from both camps.

Wilko needed a band, and formed Solid Sender in 1977, releasing just one album under the same name. Following this short-lived project, Johnson began to front his own band The Wilko Johnson Band, which he continues to do to this day.

Wilko states that he fell on hard times, and he was facing the prospect of having to get a “real” job. Wilko bumped into Ian Dury, front man of the legendary Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and upon enlightening him on his situation, Dury invited Wilko down to the studio to record with the Blockheads. Replacing guitarist Chas Jankel, recording with the band on their album ‘Laughter”. Following his time with the Blockheads, Wilko began working with bassist Norman Watt-Roy, who has become a permanent fixture in The Wilko Johnson Band.

In 2013, following an illness, Wilko was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given just a year to live. Opting not to undergo treatment, he instead embarked on a farewell tour and entered the studio with The Who frontman Roger Daltrey. He had met Daltrey at an awards ceremony a few years previous, and with their shared love of the music of Johnny Kid and the Pirates, they agreed to record together at some point. Time was running out for Wilko, and Daltrey agreed to make the project happen. Their collaboration resulted in the album 'Going Back Home' which was released in 2014 to rave reviews, earning a gold certification in the UK, as well as being positively received in the US.

A chance meeting with a fan at a show lead the way to a secondary examination, where unbelievably it turned out that Wilko’s cancer had been wrongly diagnosed. He under went an eleven-hour procedure to remove the tumour, and miraculously was given a clean bill of health, which has brought a new lease and love of life.

As a result of his success with Daltrey, Wilko has a new record deal, and his career has never been better. He's even taken an acting roll in the hit US television series “Game of Thrones”.

Wilko has enjoyed a very varied career. His unique voice on the guitar has inspired generations of musicians and music fans, influencing the likes of Paul Weller, Joe Strummer, The Stranglers and Madness. A unique character, with a strong individual image, sound and style; Wilko Johnson is a well-deserved icon of British music.

Wilko Johnson Band celebrate their 30th Anniversary Concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 26th September. Book tickets from www.thegigcartel.com or call the 24 HR Box Office: 0844 478 0898

 

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Issue #51

Wolf Hoffmann

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