Wilko Johnson, 1947-2022: proto-punk guitar pioneer with a fighting spirit
For a genre that seemed to roar out of nowhere, punk had many fathers. Iggy Pop, The MC5, the New York Dolls, The Modern Lovers. And, in the UK, Dr Feelgood, the Canvey Island R&B pub rockers whose driving energy and subversive attitude fed into the punk movement, and whose legendary guitarist Wilko Johnson died today (November 23) some ten years after doctors had given him mere months to live.
Famed for his choppy, percussive guitar style and trademark ‘duckwalk’ stage move, Johnson was a much-loved figure within the music world. In the wake of his diagnosis with pancreatic cancer in 2012 he set about recording a farewell album with Roger Daltrey (2014’s ‘Going Back Home’), while Paul Weller told Uncut magazine, “Wilko may not be as famous as some other guitarists, but he’s right up there. And there are a lot of people who’ll say the same. I can hear Wilko in lots of places. It’s some legacy.”
Indeed, beyond his immediate influence on punk, Johnson’s stabbing, compulsive chord work bled into new wave acts such as The Jam, Elvis Costello and Gang Of Four and has been dissipated across alternative rock and pop for decades since. The vitality of The Strokes, Vampire Weekend, The Vaccines and Idles, it could be argued, originated at Wilko’s fingertips.
Canvey Island in Essex might not be quite as exotic as it sounds, but Wilko’s early life certainly looked to horizons. His English degree at the University Of Newcastle Upon Tyne included the study of Icelandic sagas and he then travelled to Goa in India before settling back in Essex to become a teacher. Having purchased his first Fender Telecaster in Southend in 1965, he’d played in several local groups as a teenager and swiftly rejoined the pub band community as a member of the Pigboy Charlie Band.
By 1971 the group had evolved into Dr Feelgood, naming themselves after a nickname for heroin (or the backstreet doctor willing to ‘prescribe’ it) and basing their vital British R&B sound around Wilko’s songwriting panache and distinct guitar style, inspired by Bo Diddley and Mick Green from Johnny Kidd And The Pirates. He cut an eye-catching figure onstage too, jerking and jolting around stages in black suit and pudding bowl haircut, firing riffs from his guitar from shoulder height, machine gun style. It was a smart yet confrontational and adrenalised persona which would eventually influence John Lydon, Suggs and all manner of post-punk pop barkers.
Gaining a reputation as one of the most exciting acts on London’s pub rock circuit, Dr Feelgood released their debut album ‘Down By The Jetty’ in 1974. The likes of Blondie, The Ramones, Richard Hell and Bob Geldof have all cited this hyper-charged blues punk record as influential on their work: The Jam covered ‘Cheque Book’ in their pre-fame days and you can spot a copy of it on the sleeve of The Style Council’s 1985 album ‘Our Favourite Shop’. 1975’s second album ‘Malpractice’ made the UK Top 20 and 1976’s live album ‘Stupidity’, dovetailing with the emergence of the British punk scene, topped the album chart.
By the height of punk in 1977, however, Dr Feelgood were in turmoil. None of their classic Wilko-penned singles – including ‘Roxette’, ‘She Does It Right’ and ‘Back In The Night’ – had broken the UK Top 40 and amid disagreements over the track listing for their third studio album ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ Wilko left the band. There remains some confusion over whether he quit or was fired. Either way, he soon launched both Solid Senders (who would release one self-titled album on Virgin in 1978) and The Wilko Johnson Band, with whom he’d play on and off for the rest of his life. One key ‘off’ period came in 1980, when Wilko briefly joined Ian Dury’s Blockheads for their third album ‘Laughter’; by 1984, however, he’d purloined several other Blockheads for his own band.
Though fairly prolific in the 1980s, The Wilko Johnson Band’s studio album output became more sporadic in recent decades. There were ten years between 1988’s ‘Barbed Wire Blues’ and 1998’s ‘Going Back Home’ and thirteen between covers album ‘Red Hot Rocking Blues’ in 2005 and their final record ‘Blow Your Mind’ in 2018. In the meantime, Wilko made several screen appearances which helped gain him the reputation as a wild and charismatic eccentric – his appearance in Julien Temple’s Oil City Confidential documentary in 2009 led on to a role in the first two seasons of Game Of Thrones in 2011 and ‘12, playing mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne. “They wanted somebody really sinister who went around looking daggers at people before killing them,” he explained. “That made it easy. Looking daggers at people is what I do all the time, it’s like second nature to me.”
Following his cancer diagnosis, and amid much fundraising by his appreciative compadres in the British rock world, Wilko began to wind down. He played a farewell tour in 2013 and made guest appearances with Madness and The Blockheads and, having signed to Alan McGee’s Creation Management, on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny show in 2015. Happily, his cancer was eventually discovered to be less aggressive than first thought and surgery saw him declared cancer-free in 2014.
His extra years were a blessing to him and his two sons, and his music remains a gift to the entire alternative music world. As The Stranglers’ Jean-Jacques Burnel explained, “there is a bridge between the old times and the punk times. That bridge is exclusively the Feelgoods, it allowed us to go from one thing to another. That’s the connection, the DNA.”
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