By Paul Rigg
THIS INTERVIEW WAS RECORDED AND PUBLISHED IN MARCH 2019
Wilko Johnson (12 July 1947) is an enormously loved and respected guitarist and singer. He was a founder member of Dr Feelgood in the 1970s and played rhythm for Ian Dury and the Blockheads in the early 80s, before forming The Wilko Johnson Band around 1984.
In 2013, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, he responded by refusing treatment, going abroad on tour, and recording a ‘final album’ with Roger Daltrey of The Who.
Then however, through an unlikely coincidence, he met an oncologist who told him he may survive if he underwent a highly risky ten-hour surgical intervention. He chose to go ahead, the operation was successful, and he has not looked back since.
Wilko Johnson kicked off the UK leg of his tour on 28 February. He is joined by Squeeze guitarist and frontman Glenn Tilbrook in Britain. “It is good to be on the same bill again...we are from the same milieu,” says Johnson, enthusiastic to talk with Guitars Exchange about his love of life on the road, his album, and what it is like to play guitar with a three kilogram tumor in your stomach…
GE: What new project have you been working on recently?
WJ: My group [The Wilko Johnson Band, with Dylan Howe and Norman Watt-Roy] ended up in England at the end of 2017, we did the Albert Hall and then we went to Japan and did a tour. Getting back on the road has been really good because to tell you the truth when I’m not actually playing I just sit around and mope. So anyway, we’ve now got some gigs coming up in the UK to support the new album called Blow your mind.
GE: Do you have any particular favourite tracks on it?
WJ: The album was made in a very similar style to the album I did with Roger Daltrey. I did it with the same people: Steve Weston on harmonica, Mick Talbot on keyboards and the same producer Dave Eringa. We did it in much the same way, we went in and did it in just under two weeks. It is all new material - but then again you could say it is the same old thing! (laughs) But I am pretty pleased with the way it turned out and people who have heard it say it is very good so, you know, I will take their word for it!
GE: It is well known that you survived a serious cancer scare, and I know your fans will want me to ask you about your health. How are you doing these days?
WJ: Fit as a fiddle! I go back to Addenbrooke hospital every six months and they do scans and things, and keep an eye on me; but my health is fine so far, thank you very much.
GE: I recall you saying that on your ‘farewell tour’ you had to balance your guitar on your tumor to play. What was that like?
WJ: (laughs) Yes, it was one of those crazy things. It sounds silly but I was used to standing with my guitar kind of horizontal against me, and then I found that it was actually pointing out towards the audience. I tried to make it flat again but it kind of rolled against this great big bump when I was playing - and my tumour was pretty big, it was the size of a melon and it was sticking right out. You think you can forget about these things when you are playing but you can’t because the guitar is kind of rocking back and forward and the tumour is going ‘here I am!’, you know (laughs). And I’m thinking: ‘you’re going to kill me’!
GE: You could say it gives a new perspective to the word ‘rock’ in rock n roll…
WJ: Yes, rock n tumour! (laughs)
GE: Going back to your childhood, could you tell us about your first guitar?
WJ: I am left-handed and my first guitar was left-handed, but I was really useless with it, and everyone at school could play better than me. So I decided to play right-handed and tell myself that I’d only just started, so I wouldn’t feel quite so silly. I then got my real first guitar which is called a Watkins Rapier – it was a sort of an English imitation Stratocaster, quite good actually – but that’s long gone, I don’t know what happened to that one. But I still in fact retain every other guitar I’ve had since, which is about four guitars I think: I’ve got three Telecasters and a Stratocaster.
GE: I understand that you were very impacted by Mick Green – and developed your style from that; what specifically influenced you so much?
WJ: When I started to learn how to play, the mechanics of it, one day I heard a Johnny Kidd and the Pirates record on the radio and I was absolutely rivetted by the sound of the guitar. I was very excited about it and I wanted to find out ‘who is doing this?’ And I dicovered it was this character Mick Green and he had this special way of playing – the band just had one guitarist and he did this thing where he could play rhythm and lead guitar at the same time. So I started to find all the records I could with him playing on and I tried and tried to copy him - my musical ambition back then was to be exactly like him - but, no man, I couldn’t do it. I gave it my best shot and I kind of ended up with my style.
GE: Later when you think about your time with Dr Feelgood when do you consider your happiest moment?
WJ: There were a lot of happy moments back then. First of all when we were just a local band, when it was all just good fun; and then after a couple of years when we started to play in London and we suddenly became very popular very quickly because we were different. What we were doing was just straightforward rock n roll, very simple, very energetic, unlike what most people were doing. We were in the newspapers and that was exciting, we were like ‘woo-hooo, I’m a star!’ – yes, that was pretty good. And then you start selling records and you see yourself in the newspaper and on the television and you start wondering ‘what’s this all about?’ and the next thing we know we are touring America, and really not such good friends anymore. It went from high to low, you know.
GE: You left Dr Feelgood after an argument – was that the end of your relationship with the band or did it continue in anyway?
WJ: I was getting isolated from the band. I just had a different way of looking at things. I was a songwriter, and I had a lot of worries that they didn’t understand, and there developed this animosity between me and Lee Brilleaux, the singer; I don’t know what it was all about, but we couldn’t stand each other, you know. One guy would walk into the room and the other guy would walk out, that kind of a thing. And then it all came to a head when we were recording our fourth album. We were in Rockfield Studios and this huge argument broke out, there was a lot of resentment, and this went on all night long, and in the morning they chucked me out of the band. So that was that.
GE: Did you have any more contact?
WJ: I met Lee on one or two occasions after that, but we never reconciled. We went our separate ways.
GE: Last night I was watching Dr Feelgood’s 1975 ‘Live at Kursaal’ again and was struck by the power and energy of your live performances. Did you prefer playing live to recording in the studio?
WJ: Absolutely. Always. There is no comparison. Obviously it is good fun making records - you write songs and record them and all that - but to me the real kick is in the performance, and I have always looked at myself as a performer, first and foremost.
GE: Many see you and Dr. Feelgood as the precursors for the punk movement in Britain, what is your opinion about that period?
WJ: The whole punk thing started happening while we were touring America, and I had started hearing reports about these bands. Then, after Feelgood bust up, I started to meet all these people – The Clash and the Pistols; I shared a flat with Jean-Jacques Burnel from the Stranglers - and I found out that all of them in one way or another had been influenced by Dr Feelgood, so I was a bit of a godfather at the time. I think those bands are great; what they took from Dr Feelgood - which to me is one of the most important things - was the energy, the total energy.
GE: In 1980 you joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads; how did playing guitar with Dr Feelgood compare with playing with Ian Dury?
WJ: What was good about playing with the Blockheads was that I had always been a front man, and joining the Blockheads I just became part of the rhythm section, which was great because what I do really is rhythm, and they had one of the greatest rhythm sections going, with Charlie Charles on drums and Norman Watt-Roy on bass. In fact when Ian asked me if I would join, one of the real attractions to joining was to be able to play with Norman Watt-Roy. I had some great times with them because they were just a great band.
GE: Was there any record you particularly enjoyed playing on?
WJ: When I joined they had just done ‘I wanna be straight’ and we went on Top of the Pops, which I’d never done before.
GE: Then amazingly at a time when you expected to be in a very bad way you decided to record an album with Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home. Why did you choose Roger Daltrey to record the album that you thought would be your last?
WJ: A few years ago I bumped into Roger at an award ceremony. I didn’t know him very well and we were just talking and he said ‘we should make an album together’ and I said ‘yeh, that would be good’. We made several attempts to do it but Roger is a very busy man and it never came about, so the idea was put on the shelf. When I got cancer Roger called and said ‘hey man, we should do that album’ and I said ‘well, we better do it quick as I’ve only got two or three months to live’, and we went on to do it.
Obviously it was very weird for me because I decided that seeing as I was going to die the material was going to be all my songs, as a little bit of a memorial for me. It was strange because playing on the album was really great and then I’d walk out into the night and think ‘fuckin’ hell, I’m going to die’. I didn’t even think I was going to see that record released. Then I thought ‘well I’m going to die but I’ve had a pretty good life and here I am finishing up making an album with Roger Daltrey, so I can’t really complain’. It was such a kick doing it, and then I didn’t die and the record was very successful; I think the second best selling album that year. Although I kind of missed all that because I was having my operation – I was laying in a hospital bed, full of morphine and tubes and things, and people were coming in and giving me silver and gold disks and I was going “really good man!”
GE: ‘I Keep it to Myself’ and ‘Going Back Home’ have been very popular on Youtube – why do you think that is?
WJ: I didn’t even know that. I have no idea. I’m afraid I’ve never caught on with this Youtube thing, I don’t even know how to work an Iphone, but if that’s the case then jolly, jolly, good.
I think the whole album is fine with me. It was not like a normal record because normally you worry about doing it, selling it, and then promoting it, and none of that applied. It was a mad experience in the middle of an even bigger mad experience.
GE: Is another album possible? Daltrey said in one of his interviews ‘i’ll be there when he is ready’…
WJ: Roger is a very busy man, but maybe things could go that way.
GE: Out of interest have you ever jammed with Pete Townsend?
WJ: I met Pete Townsend for the first time after I had done the album with Roger. Since I was a teenager I’ve been a big fan of The Who, and I think Pete Townsend is one of the great guitarists and also a showman. And both things are really important for me. We did meet briefly but we didn’t jam together, no. Maybe next time.
GE: Turning now to your guitars, have you always been faithful to your 62 Telecaster?
WJ: I still have that guitar, it is the one I always want. I now play an official Fender Wilko Johnson red and black Telecaster. And the reason for that is because Mick Green used to play it.
GE: There is a Youtube video with nearly 500k views showing your guitar technique where you say ‘I learnt this at 18 and that’s all there is to it’…
WJ: (laughs) Yes, that’s about right…
GE: …and a commentator underneath has written ‘the only problem is no-one else can do it’ – what’s your response to that?
WJ: This baffles me, I have made a couple of attempts to do tutorials with audiences. What I do is very simple and in the old days when people came up to me and said ‘how do you do that?’ I thought ‘it’s obvious’. Then for the first time I saw myself on film and I thought ‘I can’t see what I’m doing!’ But I assure you it’s very simple (laughs).
GE: Regarding your gear, which is the amp you can’t live without?
WJ: I use a Cornell amp, a special Wilko one in red and black, it’s a combo, it has one speaker, 40 watts; I just absolutely love the sound. These amps are hand-built, there are no printed circuits in them. Do you know how you know a good amplifier? You just plug into it without any fiddling around, put everything to about half way, and you should get a really good sound. And this amplifier is like that.
I don’t mess about with the sound, everything on my amp is set at number 7, and my guitar is turned full up and the switch is on the back pickup, and I don’t alter that sound all the time I’m playing.
GE: Do you ever use any pedals?
WJ: Nooooo!! I am a guitar player, not a cyclist.
GE: Would you give any specific advice to new guitarists?
WJ: Find a guitar and amp you like, get your sound and play rhythm - later on you can become sophisticated.
GE: Are there any new and upcoming guitarists you rate highly at the moment?
WJ: I am no different to most old people; my musical tastes froze in about 1972. (laughs) I was in Amsterdam time ago and we were in a bar and I saw a girl playing really great – she had the feeling. She was playing acoustically without any amplifiers. I was shouting out; man, she was great!
GE: Did she know it was Wilko Johnson cheering her?
WJ: One of the guys in this little group recognised me and was talking to me afterwards. She was very young and perhaps he had to explain to her who I was: ‘that English bloke making all that noise!’
GE: Apart from your musical legacy, you studied ancient Icelandic sagas at university, have a deep interest in astronomy, and have acted in Game Of Thrones, playing the mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne: do you have any big ambitions remaining?
WJ: No, not really, no. The first thing I did when I thought I was dying was to go to Japan, because I really love it there. During that year I think I went to Japan four times, but I don’t have any ambitions to see anywhere else. I like to look at the stars through my telescope but they were there already, and they will be there when I’m gone.
GE: This is a question for Game of Thrones fans – might you return in later seasons?
WJ: I really enjoyed it; but I think the story has whirled along without me, so I don’t suppose I’ll be doing that again. But it was great.
GE: Finally, when you look back on your career in music what do you think of as your happiest moment?
WJ: (laughs) perhaps I shouldn’t tell anybody. You know you have some happy moments when you are on the road! (laughs)
Guitars Exchange closes the interview by thanking Wilko Johnson for his time and wishing him all the best for his future, and he responds in his typically warm and cheery way: “you’re very welcome, thanks mate.”
Tour dates and ticket link.