Wilko Johnson – an At The Barrier Tribute

The great; the one and only Wilko Johnson left us on 21st November. At The Barrier offers its tribute to a wonderful talent, a huge personality and an all-round good guy.

Like everyone with a love of great music, At The Barrier was deeply saddened when the news broke on 21st November that the one and only Wilko Johnson had passed away. “The One and Only…” is a phrase that is, perhaps, banded around rather too liberally when we speak about musicians that we admire or even love, but, in Wilko’s case, it’s a description that is entirely appropriate. A guitarist with a unique style – he always eschewed the use of a plectrum, preferring instead to achieve his signature choppy sound using his fingers – he bucked expectations right from the start by adopting a pudding basin hairstyle, wearing a dark suit and electrifying the stage with his jerky, robotic movements at a time when the rock guitarist’s uniform included long hair (shoulder-length at least…), brightly coloured clothing and a reverential lack of movement. Wilko was, indeed, a one-off.

Wilko entered my life on Saturday, 12th October 1974, when Wilko’s band, Dr Feelgood, rocked up (and I MEAN Rocked…) at Bolton Institute of Technology to deliver a show that left us astounded, confused and questioning the values that we had, up until that point, taken for granted. The evening had started in the usual manner; support act Rudi Tchaikovsky, had ticked all the boxes: Long hair [√]; Effects-laden guitar solos [√]; Complex arrangements [√]; Keyboard noodling [√]; “Intelligent” dialogue with the audience [√] and so on. But when Dr Feelgood hit the stage, led by a singer clad in a white suit that was, even at that early stage in the band’s career, beginning to show signs of the sweat-and-transit-van staining for which it later became notorious and a guitarist who, to be quite honest, looked like he had been beamed down from another universe, such was his unconventional appearance, manic stare and incomprehensible style and movement – well: we were, as we say up north, Gobsmacked. There was no noodling from this band – the menu was straight-ahead sweaty rhythm and blues. We’d just been given a glimpse of the future although, at first, we didn’t quite see it in those terms.

Most of us couldn’t compute what we’d just seen and the audience reaction that evening was, in the light of what Dr Feelgood soon became, surprisingly muted. We soon learned, however, and so did audiences all around the country. The next time I saw Dr Feelgood was at the 1975 Reading Festival. On the evening of 22nd August that year, they were second on the bill to Hawkwind and they, almost literally, blew the cosmic explorers into an orbit that they never truly ever escaped from. The future had arrived!

John Andrew Wilkinson was born on 12th July 1947 in Canvey Island, Essex. After graduating from Newcastle University, where he had studied English, he followed the hippy trail to India and Nepal, before returning to his hometown to teach English. And, by the way, I’ve always viewed his transformation from plain ol’ John Wilkinson to Wilko Johnson as an early example of the way that Wilko was able to use simplicity to achieve memorable effect. Wilko had dabbled with guitar since the mid-sixties, playing in local R&B bands and, in 1971, he linked up with vocalist Lee Brilleaux and bassist John B Sparks to form the Pigboy Charlie Band, the outfit that would soon evolve into Dr Feelgood.

The Pub Rock scene of the early-to-mid 1970s provided the ideal incubation environment for Dr Feelgood’s gritty, back-to-basics fare, and they flourished, breaking out soon enough onto the period’s vibrant college gig circuit and, once we’d got over the shock, they took off like a space rocket. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine, from the perspective of December 2022, quite what an impact Dr Feelgood – and particularly Lee and Wilko – had upon a music scene that was becoming ever-more stagnated and submerged in proggy self-indulgence. It’s often claimed that the more extreme excesses of prog were brought into line when punk exploded onto the scene, but I suspect that punk would never have got a look-in if Dr Feelgood hadn’t been so effective in rolling that particular wicket.

After the sweaty gigs, a string of peerless albums followed. The band’s 1975 debut, Down By The Jetty, initially received underwhelming reviews as critics struggled to reconcile Dr Feelgood’s recorded sound with the excitement of their stage shows, but opinions were quickly revised as the album’s impact took root. The band’s reputation was cemented further when follow-up album, Malpractice, emerged later that same year but the big breakthrough really came in September 1976 when the band did what just about everyone had been urging them to do and released a live album. Stupidity – that’s what they called it – is, quite simply, one of the best live albums ever. Like all the best live albums, it captures and bottles the feel and the atmosphere of a performance by a band at the peak of its powers and the listener is transported into the middle of the jubilant crowd. The hits are all included – Back in the Night, All Through The City, She Does it Right, I’m a Man, and many more. Wilko is on fire, and delivers what is probably my favourite Wilko moment when he shows just what can be achieved with a single, ringing, note in his solo in I’m a Hog For You Baby. THIS was what the public wanted, and they responded in their droves, thronging the record stores and pushing Stupidity to the number one spot on the album charts.

After Stupidity, Wilko stuck around for one more album, 1977’s Sneakin’ Suspicion, before disagreements with Lee – apparently related to the choice of material for the album – came to a head, and Wilko left the band. At the time, the news of Wilko’s departure was front-page stuff and the end of Dr Feelgood was confidently predicted by many media pundits. It didn’t quite turn out that way – Dr Feelgood remains a going concern to this day – but it’s certainly true that the band were never as popular again and, aside for the 1979 hit single, Milk and Alcohol, they’ve never been anywhere close to replicating the post-Stupidity levels of success.

Wilko, meanwhile, went on to plough his own, unique furrow, initially as the frontman in, Solid Senders, then with the Wilko Johnson Band. For a couple of years from 1980, he was also a member of Ian Dury’s Blockheads. It was as a Blockhead that Wilko linked up with bass player extraordinaire, Norman Watt-Roy and, from 1984, Wilko and Norman were mainstays of the Wilko Johnson Band, an outfit that allowed Wilko to wheel out those golden oldies from the Dr Feelgood halcyon days, alongside more recent material from his solo albums such as Ice on the Motorway (1981), Barbed Wire Blues (1988) and Red Hot Rocking Blues (2005).

Undoubtedly, the most significant turning point in Wilko’s life arrived in January 2013, when he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. Doctors suggested that Wilko had on 9-10 months left to live and, Wilko being Wilko, he chose not to undergo chemotherapy and, instead, decided to embark on a short “farewell” tour. I remember at the time being flabbergasted by Wilko’s bravery in deciding to spend his last days in such a public manner and the scenes in London, Bilston, Holmfirth and Glasgow were alternately celebratory and tearful as Wilko made what everyone assumed would be his final appearances. And the tour wasn’t going to be the last word, either. Wilko recorded a “farewell” album with the help of none other than Roger Daltrey, and the album, Going Back Home, was released in March 2014 to levels of acclaim that were, pretty much, universal.

But every Wilko Johnson story has a twist in the tail and, happily, the twist for this stage of the story was the most unexpected one of all; it turned out that the initial diagnoses of Wilko’s condition had been overly pessimistic. Wilko’s cancer was less aggressive than had first been supposed and, most importantly, was treatable. After a pretty harrowing procedure which allowed the 3kg tumour to be removed, along with a significant proportion of Wilko’s inner workings, Wilko was able to declare himself cancer-free and, in 2015, he was able to resume what he does best – providing a great time for his devoted followers. The last time I had the pleasure of seeing Wilko perform was at the 2016 Cornbury Festival – the audience reception was ecstatic as Wilko once again rolled back the years, strutting and twitching, with his trademark black telecaster in tow, as though the recent traumas had never happened. We’d got him back!

But, the end has now finally come. Wilko died at home in Westcliff-on-Sea, aged 75, on 21st November. He leaves behind two sons, Matthew and Simon and At The Barrier send our fondest condolences to his bereaved family. Julien Temple, the film director responsible for the wonderful Dr Feelgood bio-pic, Oil City Confidential (2009) once described Wilko as “…an extraordinary man – one of the great English eccentrics,” and he surely meant that in the most complimentary way possible. And it’s a measure of the high regard in which Wilko was universally held that other high-profile musicians and contemporaries have added their own eulogies: On learning of Wilko’s death, Billy Bragg said: “His guitar playing was angry and angular, but his presence – twitchy, confrontation, out of control – was something we’d never beheld before in UK pop. Rotten, Strummer and Weller learned a lot from his edgy demeanour.” and Paul Weller himself added: “Wilko might not be as famous as some other guitarists, but he’s right up there, and there are a lot of people who will say the same. I can hear Wilko in lots of places. It’s some legacy.”

And don’t let’s forget – it wasn’t just as musical performer that Wilko stole our hearts. His role as the mute executioner, Ser Ilyn Payne in the HBO Entertainment series, Game of Thrones (Wilko was apparently suggested for the role after one of the series’ producers had seen him in the Oil City Confidential movie) won him plaudits from all around the world. You just can’t keep a strong talent down!

Wilko Johnson – we love you. Rest in Peace, my friend. You’ve enriched so many lives; your peace has been well-earned.

And here’s what I’ve been raving about: Watch Dr Feelgood in their prime, performing I’m a Hog For You Baby. Enjoy Wilko’s stage movements, Lee’s threatening presence and THAT one-note guitar solo, here:

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