Wilko Johnson On That Thing

Written by Matteo Sedazzari
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Robert Johnson, the Grandfather of Rock & Roll sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in return to become a guitar legend. Probably one of the greatest rock and roll myths to date. However what is far more important and indeed realistic is Johnson’s life and how an individual became obsessed with music and its performance. This is the real world of rock and roll. As Johnson plyed his trade and sacrifices were made. A legend was born.

One man, whom many regard as a legend and has been on a long pilgrimage of musical fulfilment himself, is guitarist Wilko Johnson. Born in 1947, Canvey Island, Essex. Wilko has been hitting the six string since he was a teenager and captivating the world with his talent since the early 70’s.

Wilko Johnson co founded the legendary rock and roll group, Dr Feelgood in 1971. Dr Feelgood were part of the media coined phrase Pub Rock. Young men taking on the rock and roll of the 50’s and 60’s.

Pub Rock took music back to basics as they played their raw sound in the sweaty pubs of Essex and North London. No thrills or frills, just good old fashioned blood, sweat and tears. It is believed that Pub Rock paved the way for Punk. Whether it did or not, one thing is certain, the Punk explosion commercially eclipsed Pub Rock.

/wilko johnson zani 2Recently at ZANI’s office, the entourage has been listening to pioneers of Pub rock, Eddie and The Hotrods, The 101er’s (featuring Joe Strummer), Kilburn and The Highroads (later to become Ian Dury and The Blockheads) and of course Dr Feelgood. Wilko Johnson’s unique chopping lead and rhythm guitar sound with Dr Feelgood would move and stimulate our souls. It is easy to understand why Dr Feelgood has inspired so many people.

Wilko Johnson left Dr Feelgood in 1977 due to personal reasons. Many felt that the band was never the same after his sudden departure. Since that the fateful day Wilko has carried on performing and records. ZANI, like many others, we became fascinated with Wilko Johnson. Moreover after many hours of listening to his music. We were left with no other option but to track him down and interview him.

ZANI - You’ve been touring for the best part of a year. Has every thing gone according to plan?

Wilko Johnson - I don’t have a clue. I’ve been too depressed to notice anything.

ZANI - Obviously it's something that you enjoy..If you are not playing live do you feel that you are at a loose end or do you dabble in the studio?

Wilko Johnson – We’ve been in a studio recently. I love playing live, this is what I do. Going in a studio is all right, it is something you just do every now and again.

ZANI - Is this tour a good old fashioned one with everyone in a transit van driving up the motorways to the next gig and eating in road side cafes?

Wilko Johnson – We don’t travel in an old transit van. We travel in a nice car with a few nice hotels on route.

ZANI - You play as a power trio with Norman Watt Roy on bass and Monti on drums. Would you like to add more musicians or do you enjoy pushing the boundaries and limits that a three-piece band has?

Wilko Johnson – These guys they are really great players, and it’s good to play with them. I’m happy with the line up.

ZANI - Would it be fair to say that shows are laced with high energy and driven by raw passion?

Wilko Johnson – No, the shows are driven by panic.

ZANI - Panic?

Wilko Johnson – Yea, blind panic, funk.

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ZANI - It’s been recently commented that you smile a lot more on stage these days. Were you an angrier man with an axe to grind in your youth?

Wilko Johnson – My youth is so long ago. I really couldn’t remember.

ZANI - Let us start at the beginning of your colourful career. Everything changed for when you first heard ‘I’ll Never Get Over You" by Johnny Kidd and The Pirates on the radio.

The guitar work of the Mick Green of the Pirates struck a chord, pardon the pun. Please describe that beautiful life changing moment?

Wilko Johnson – I didn’t realises it was going to change my life, but it did. I was walking across the room at home, I was about 15 at the time. They said on the radio "This is Johnny Kidd and The Pirates", this record started. I heard the guitar and I stopped just in my tracks.

I thought fucking hell, that’s the most fantastic sound of a guitar I ever heard. I just said to myself that I want to play just like that. That’s what I did. I started to copy Mick Green’s guitar style. Playing lead and rhythm guitar simultaneously.

ZANI - You worked hard on developing your own style, the chopping lead and rhythm attacks. Did it become an obsession that drove your parents mad?

Wilko Johnson – I was all right when I was learning to play at home, because I could not afford an amp. So I didn’t make too much noise.

ZANI - You were lucky enough to witness the blues and beat group explosion in the 60’s. Apart from Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, what other bands did you find inspiring?

Wilko Johnson – Bob Dylan, I love Dylan.

ZANI - What about The Stones?

Wilko Johnson – The Stones are fantastic. Mick Green showed me the way on the guitar. But it was The Stones who got me into Rhythm and Blues. They were so exciting, and they still are now.

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ZANI - You were living around Canvey Island during the 60’s. An era that many feel was the birth of youth culture after the Teddy boys of the 50’s.

Was there a sudden rise of blues and soul clubs and venues for live bands in Canvey Island or did you have to travel into London to whet your appetite?

Wilko Johnson – There was nothing on Canvey Island. In Southend, this was a good pedal on your bike, there was a fantastic club called The Studio Club. Bands from London, would come down and play, like Georgie Fame and people like that.

My first little bands would get support slots there. They were two very good bands from Southend. One was the Paramounts and the other was Mickey Jupp’s band..Mickey Jupp was a great singer, and he had this great guitarist called Mo Whitman. Who I think is one of the best greatest guitarist I have ever seen.

ZANI - I heard that you always felt that Mo Whitman was a better guitarist than you.

Wilko Johnson – He pisses all over me. The feeling he has got for the guitar is very rare.

ZANI - You have stated that you were a hippy in the late 60’s. Were you a Mod before that, because some of the suits you wore in the 70’s seem to stem from the Mod background.

Wilko Johnson – When the Mod thing was happening. I was still a schoolboy, so I couldn’t afford the clothes to be a Mod.

ZANI - Although you played in several bands in the 60's. You could not find any musicians on the same wavelength. It must have frustrating for you.

So you went to Newcastle University to study English. Did you think that was it or did you view going to University as a stop gap period?

Wilko Johnson - When I went to University, I did not think I would play again. Loads of people have bands that don’t make it. That was my train of thought when I applied to go to University as a teenager. I just loved playing. I never dreamed for a minute, I would spend my life doing it.

ZANI - After University, you travelled to Afghanistan and India. Was that a soul searching mission or did you just want to get out of Old Blighty?

Wilko Johnson – Ha. I just wanted to go out there and smoke a lot of dope. People were drifting and hitchhiking out to India. When I was at University, I was telling everyone that I was going to travel there. I said it enough times, so I had to do it. I was shitting myself when I went. I didn’t think I would get back alive, but I did.

ZANI - Any adventures you want to tell us about?

Wilko Johnson – Loads of adventures but they are probably too boring to go into right now.

ZANI - Would you return to Afghanistan, (which I doubt) or India?

Wilko Johnson – I wouldn’t like to be in to Afghanistan right now. I have not been back to India since then.

ZANI - Your trip to India seemed to do the trick as you returned to Essex, and you met with Lee Brilleaux. Very soon after that meeting you formed the now legendary Dr Feelgood, (named after a Johnny Kidd and The Pirates song) How did the forming of Dr Feelgood, come about?

Wilko Johnson – I knew Lee before Dr Feelgood was formed. After I got back from India, I bumped into Lee in the street one day. He told me that he was playing in a band called Pigboy Charlie Band and his guitar player had left.

We decided to have a go. I knew The Big Figure AKA John Martin, the drummer. I said to Lee that I know a drummer. We got together and started playing locally for a couple of years. It wasn’t really cool to be in a band back then and we weren’t highly regarded.

When we started, I said we have to be just like Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. One of the songs we learnt was their version of the blues song, Dr Feelgood. Sparko, the bass player, thought about calling the band Dr Feelgood. I said it has been used before but it doesn’t matter because no one will notice in Canvey Island.

ZANI - Did you feel with Lee, that you had a partner in crime? Someone who shared your vision and passion for music.

Wilko Johnson – Yes, when Lee and I performed on stage together. Lee was a very charismatic person. He had a great stage presence, and it was very easy to work with him. We never worked at it, it just came natural. That was the fascinating thing about him. It felt right.

ZANI - Just out of interest did Lee ever get the money back he lent Dave Robinson to start Stiff Records, cos no-one ever mentions that part of the transaction.

Wilko Johnson – I have no idea.

ZANI - In the early 70’s, there was a surge of Rock and Rolls bands. This was dubbed, rightly or wrongly, Pub rock. I personally thing the word Rhythm and Blues is better.

Please tell us more about this scene?

Wilko Johnson – We were just doing what we were doing. With Dr Feelgood, we were swimming against the tide anyway. No one thought we were any good.

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ZANI - Were Dr Feelgood friends with the other bands playing on the same circuit, or was there a great deal of competition between the bands?

You mentioned earlier that you viewed Mo Witham from Mickey Jupp’s band as a better guitar player then you. Was that a healthy rivalry?

Wilko Johnson – There was never any rivalry with Mo, just admiration from me. When we started playing in London, we got to know all the bands. I don’t think there was competition. Mind you, we left a lot of them for dust.

ZANI - You’ve gone on the record to say that good music, needs ‘That Thing’, what is that thing?

Wilko Johnson – It’s impossible to define. You just know it, when you hear it.

ZANI - You were born John Wilkinson, and it goes without saying that you changed your name to Wilko Johnson. Was this in homage to Robert Johnson, the man who sold his soul to the devil or did you just enjoy playing with words?

Wilko Johnson – I was just turning my name around, partly because it sounded nicer and I detest my father.

ZANI - You emerged as one of the chief songwriters in the band, and you are an established songwriter. Were you writing songs before you joined Dr Feelgood. Do you have a set formula that you work to when writing songs?

Wilko Johnson – I started writing songs when Dr Feelgood was established. When I write songs, I usually start with a guitar riff. If the riff sounds any good then I write some lyrics.

ZANI - It did not take long for the band to get a deal, due to the ripples you were causing on the live circuit across the UK. During your period with The Feelgoods, 3 albums were released: Down By The Jetty, Malpractice and the live album Stupidity.

All have a cult status, and even Paul Weller has cited Down By The Jetty as a major influence to the early sound of The Jam.Do you still hold these albums dear and which are you most proud off?

Wilko Johnson – I don’t listen to any records that I make.

ZANI - Why’s that?

Wilko Johnson –Don’t know. Though saying that, Down By The Jetty by Dr Feelgood, is the one that I like best.

ZANI - Why were you so obsessed that the words "mono" didn’t appear on Down in The Jetty album? I heard it was the fear that people might think you were a 60’s revivalist band.

Wilko Johnson – You summed it up. The album was mixed in mono, because that is the way the album came out best. We weren’t making a point about anything. If the record company hadn’t written the word mono, on the sleeve, no one would have noticed.

ZANI - Has Paul Weller ever acknowledged your influence to your face?

Wilko Johnson – Yes, he is a very fine gentlemen. I’ve known for a long time that he liked my stuff. The band was invited to his gig at Alexander Palace, and he told me then. He is a very nice guy.

ZANI - Your career with Dr Feelgood came to an abrupt end during the recording of the 4th album Sneakin Suspicion. Did you really fall out with the fellow band members over the recording of Lew Lewis Lucky Seven, or was there more to it?

Wilko Johnson – It was nothing to do with that. That was just some bullshit. There had been a lot of tension that had built up. I was a teetotal then, and they used to like a drink. Lemmy from Motorhead used to say it never worked cos you’re a speed freak and they’re all drunks.

ZANI - You left the band at the end of 1977. Punk Rock was the talk of the day. I understand that you befriended a few punk bands and were mates with Johnny Lydon, Joe Strummer, JJ from the Stranglers, and Billy Idol, to name a few.

Did you think ever think about forming a punk band?

Wilko Johnson – No, I’ve just done what I have wanted to do. Most of those punks bands were pretty young. Part of the attraction of punk was it was simplistic. They were beginners on their instruments and I had been playing for a few years.

ZANI - Although you appreciated Punk, it did overshadow bands like Dr Feelgood and it’s contemporaries. Over time, there has been a snobbery developed by the media towards the pub rock genre.

Do you feel in hindsight, punk halted a great deal of pub rock (I hate that word) bands reaching a wider market or do you think punk was right for the time?

Wilko Johnson – I hate that word Pub Rock as well because it doesn’t mean anything. What did happen with punk though, it was a fling, a sort of event that was going on. Not a great deal of the music has actually survived. There were a few like The Clash that kind of rose above it.

I know The Sex Pistols make such an impact, and everyone went mad about punk. But you don’t hear the records being played a lot any more.

ZANI - Going back to the label Pub Rock. Why do think the media wanted to put a wedge between Pub Rock and Punk Rock. As neither of the musical movements were complying to the Glam rock and Progression Stadium rock bands. In other words, you were on the same side. I fail to understand why the media had to cause just unnecessary rivalry.

Wilko Johnson – I don’t know either. Music to me is just bands. There is no such music as pub rock bands. It was loads of difference bands playing all sorts of music, who happened to being playing in pubs, because that is where the gigs were.

ZANI - Going back to Dr Feelgood. In 1994, Lee Brilleaux died tragically at the age of 42. I presume by the time of his death, you and him were friends again?

Wilko Johnson – We never really spoke after I left Dr Feelgood. I might have met him a couple of times, when we were embarrassed, looked at our shoes and said "How’s it going?"

ZANI - Do you still hold Lee in high esteem?

Wilko Johnson – Of course. It was because of him, one of the greatest things in my life ever happened, Dr Feelgood. I look on the good things, not on the bad shit.

ZANI - How do you feel about Dr Feelgoods playing without one original member in the band. Would you play with them just one more time?

Wilko Johnson – As the band has none of the original people, I don’t know any of the people in it now. It’s a totally different thing.

ZANI - Don’t you feel like getting on stage and showing them how it is done?

Wilko Johnson – (Laughs) They do what they want, I do my own thing.

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ZANI - In 1978 you formed a new band called Solid Senders. Was forming a new band good therapy to get over leaving Dr Feelgood ?

Wilko Johnson – I don’t know. I was very confused then and also quite famous and quite rich. You find when you’re in that position you get lots and lots of wonderful friends, and they are not necessary the best people to be with.

ZANI - What were the highs and the lows of Solid Senders?

Wilko Johnson – It was all lows.

ZANI - You did not like the band?

Wilko Johnson – It was terrible.

ZANI - In 1980, you joined Ian Dury and The Blockheads, replacing Chaz Jankel for a while. How did that gig come about?

Wilko Johnson – I knew Ian obviously from back in the old days. I used to like Kilburn and The High Roads. In addition, everyone knew that The Blockheads were a fantastic band, especially Norman Watt Roy the bass player.

ZANI - It was during this period that you became friends with the bass player Norman, and formed the Wilko Johnson band. Although you were still into making music, did Norman further inspire you?

Wilko Johnson – When Ian asked to me to join the Blockheads, I said yes straight away. One of the reasons that I wanted to join The Blockheads was to play with Norman. When we got together and started doing my music, it was fantastic. Norman makes all my stuff sound twice as good.

ZANI - How would you describe the soul and sound of your current line up in your band?

Wilko Johnson – I don’t know. We do what we want to do. I don’t describe, I don’t think about it.

ZANI - On a muso point, I know you are a fan of the Telecaster guitar. Have you used any other makes of guitar?

Wilko Johnson – No.

ZANI - Why have you stuck with Telecasters?

Wilko Johnson – Because Mick Green had one.

ZANI - I understand you never use a plectrum, that must be hard on your fingers?

Wilko Johnson – They used to bleed a lot, but they are all right now.

ZANI - As you have a unique style of playing, have you ever thought about releasing a songbook?

Wilko Johnson – Sometimes people have said this, and nothing came of it. Sometimes I try to put some guitar lessons on our website. But it’s like riding a bike, easy to do but difficult to describe.

ZANI - What effects and amps do you use to get that Wilko Johnson sound?

Wilko Johnson – No effects whatsoever. On the guitar, both the knobs are turned up full. Plug into the amplifier, and turn all the knobs to about halfway. That’s it.

ZANI - There is new musical label genre on the rise called Punk Rock Blues. A healthily merge of blues and punk, of which you are considered the Godfather. Would you say that Wilko Johnson is hip right now?

Wilko Johnson – (Loud laugh) I cannot imagine me being hip. I just do it, and very glad to still be able to do it.

ZANI - You always have spoken passionately of the influence of Mick Green from Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. You’ve been fortunate enough to play with him and become friends.

How does the kid from Southend feel playing with the guy that turned him to music all those years ago?

Wilko Johnson – He’s a geezer that I know now. I spend a lot of time with him. Obviously when I got to know him, it was like a dream come true. It was "wow man, I’m sitting round Mick Green’s house, and Mick Green is sitting round my house"

ZANI -What do you think the future holds for you and the band?

Wilko Johnson – Just more of this. That’s all I know what to do.

ZANI - Finally Wilko, 3 words that sum up Wilko Johnson?

Wilko Johnson – What a guy.

Well he is certainly is that. Wilko Johnson has lead and continues to, an interesting life. A journey which has taken him around the world with his guitar.A trip in which Wilko has seen friendship shattered and new bonds made. He has experienced the high and lows of being in a band. The pros and cons of success. Encountered hardship and joy. Yet the main thing that kept him going has been his music. He is a true blues man.

Wilko Johnson talks like his music, short, sweet and straight to the point. There is no evading the questions or sentimental reminiscing. What you see with Wilko Johnson is what you get. You can sense a complex side, but his energy over rides the darkness.

Every now and then ZANI could see a glint in his eye as he spoke with zest about his craft. Wilko is humble about his status as a guitar hero, and dismissive that he is a living legend. Johnson is flattered that his music has influenced a great number of people. In the same breath, he is enthusiastic about his influences and how important they are to him. Wilko is a fan, who loves to play music. After all, is that not what being in a band, is all about?

The ZANI entourage witnessed Wilko, Norman and Monti at work at The Half Moon in Putney."The venue is packed to the rafters. Tension fills the air and the hustle and bustle of the gig drives the crowds’ adrenaline. The band performs and the place is united with the music.

When Wilko breaks from singing to perform a gutsy guitar solo he patrols the stage, taking no prisoners. Pacing up and down with vigour and determination. The crowd goes mad. Wilko starts to perform his trade mark jerky movements, the crowd goes madder." This was Wilko’s domain, and no one could enter it. No one would dare to. Wilko Johnson might not regard himself as a legend, but that night he was. A prodigy that Robert Johnson would have been proud of.

©Matteo Sedazzari/ZANI

Read 7914 times Last modified on Wednesday, 07 April 2021 13:04
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Matteo Sedazzari

Matteo Sedazzari

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