I interviewed Wilko in June 2012 as the book ‘Looking Back at Me’ with Zoe Howe was launched.
The last four years have certainly been a challenge for Wilko as he battled cancer. I met him again in August 2013 just before what many felt could have been his final performance at Bingley. His spirit was unbreakable and his performance was almost spiritual.
The interview originally featured in Wrexham Leader, Wrexham.com and Louder than War but it’s still one of my favourites so it’s worth another read.
Hopefully 2017 will see Wilko, Norm and Dylan back out on the road doing what they do better than anyone.
Dave, December 2016
There are few performers in modern music who really deserve the ‘legend’ title, but I was recently lucky enough to speak to one of them. With over forty years experience in the music business to call on, Wilko Johnson is able to talk in an engaging, fascinating and very humorous manner about his influences, time with Dr. Feelgood, his solo career and a wide range of other topics that has led to him being described as ‘the Renaissance Man of Rock and Roll’.
‘Looking Back at Me’ is the recently published book by Wilko and Zoe Howe that tells the story of Wilko’s life but does so much more too. Going way beyond the traditional autobiographical style, we are treated to a maze of stories, anecdotes and moving personal reflections that takes us almost inside the consciousness of one of this country’s greatest living musicians. All this is accompanied by a range of images and strikingly beautiful photographs to make it an essential part of any music fan’s library.
Emerging from Canvey Island in the early 1970’s, Dr Feelgood made a massive impact and influenced many of the Punk generation including Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Jam, Blondie and The Ramones. Wilko Johnson quickly attracted great attention, not just because of the energy and originality of his stage performance, but also due to his signature guitar style that combined rhythm and lead styles and influenced many aspiring guitar heroes. Wilko also proved to be a powerful song writer and, after his departure from Dr Feelgood in 1977, continued as a solo artist to prove himself as one of Britain’s leading R and B performers.
In addition to learning about Wilko’s love of art, astronomy, poetry, science fiction and a range of other subjects, ‘Looking Back at Me’ shows the huge respect that others in the music business such as Robert Plant, Alison Moyet, JJ Burnel, Keith Levene and Whispering Bob Harris have for Wilko and his influence. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to see Wilko live would understand why he is held in such esteem as he and his band of Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe, both ex-Blockheads, are simply one of the best live acts on the circuit.
It was another wet and miserable June afternoon when I spoke to Wilko, but he was quickly able to brighten my day .The first question was about his book:
‘Looking Back at Me’ has an amazing impact, both visually and in the subject matter. Did you plan it to come out like this, or did it evolve during the writing process?
Wilko: Oh it definitely evolved. We initially wanted something extra to T-shirts to sell at gigs and Zoe Howe, the wife of my drummer, was given the task of putting things together. She deserves the credit for how it’s turned out as we originally wanted a sort of story of my life in rock and roll but I’ve got loads of stuff around and she would look through all these things and then interview me and try to transcribe my ramblings into something. Mostly Zoe would find something, nudge me and I’d start jabbering away, but so much of what I say seems inconsequential in writing, you can’t imitate characters as you would if you were telling a story but Zoe deserves all the credit for making it into a life story beyond just music and it has this sort of ‘scrapbook’ effect now that means you can just open it and dive into different parts of it. It wouldn’t have happened without Zoe.
Did you find the process of reflection difficult at times?
Wilko: Well, Julian Temple made a film about Dr. Feelgood called ‘Oil City Confidential’ a couple of years ago and recently EMI have put together a Dr Feelgood Box Set (All Through The City). I’ve never really dwelt on those days and this is the first time I’ve really had to think about it. I was looking for old Feelgood tapes that I hadn’t heard in years. Listening to them for the first time in years was very strange I can tell you, it was like suddenly being back there. What came back to me was what a worrying time it was for me. We’d got to Number 1 in the Album Charts with the live album, ‘Stupidity’, and I didn’t know which way the band would go after that, but I felt responsible for us and writing new stuff. Looking back now I can see clearly what was happening and I think ‘you silly twit’. The others were clearly trying to get me out but they cleverly waited until all my songs and guitar parts were recorded and in the can before they did the deed. I felt really hard done to at the time, but looking back now I just feel a twinge of pity for this poor fool sitting there and waiting to be sacked without realizing it. I’d really like to be able to go back and give myself a clip round the ear for being so stupid really. But, I suppose the film, the box set and book all coming so quickly has led to me looking back a lot more than I’ve ever done. I’m really pleased with how the book turned out, it’s different from a rock and roll memoir.
Do you still feel in touch with the young Wilko?
Wilko: Sometimes I find myself jumping back in my mind to being 21 again and I turn into that guy and it’s like the years haven’t happened. It’s a weird thing really. I kept a diary every day from 1972-74 and looking at it now it’s just crazy. I’d get really uptight and worried at the time about things that didn’t matter at all and there are whole pages about these things, but there are other things that only get a couple of words that would go on to turn my whole life around. I really want to slap that guy around the head for stressing about pointless things, it’s like looking at someone else.
It’s the same looking back at Lee Brilleaux. I didn’t dwell on Feelgood after we split but doing the interviews for the film and book I had to talk about Lee and it made me realize how much he meant to me and how close we were. A lot of what happened to me is because of him and us just bumping into each other. If it hadn’t been for Lee I may be a professor of Medieval History now. I thought when I got to this age I’d be really wise and sitting in this study with shafts of light coming through. Students would come to me to seek advice and I’d mutter some words and they’d shout ‘WHAT A GUY!’ and leave rejoicing at the wisdom I’d dispensed. It hasn’t really turned out like that at all.
Many artists cite you as an influence, but who influenced you when you were starting out?
Wilko: Mick Green of Johnny Kidd and The Pirates would be my main one I suppose. When I was learning guitar I heard him and thought ‘wow, I want to play just like that’. I never saw gigs or people playing guitar on TV when I was learning, it just wasn’t like that then. You had to listen really closely to records and try to work out how it was done. Also I suppose The Rolling Stones influenced me and I’ve never really tried to play Blues music but I love it and listening to that influenced me too.
You have a distinctive guitar style, did it develop naturally or was it endless practice?
Wilko: Possibly natural but it all developed clumsily. I don’t use a plectrum as I’m left-handed so I’d already turned the guitar round to learn it and a plectrum would probably have been too much, like walking and chewing gum at the same time! As a teenager you practice and practice because you dig it and then suddenly something just clicks and you’re off. Now there’s so many more ways to learn like Youtube. Our bassist Norman plays a lot but I only ever really play guitar now when I walk on stage or maybe occasionally when I write, though even then the chords will be in my head already. I don’t rehearse really, I can’t practice running up and down in my bedroom, there’s too much clutter in there.
The term ‘Pub Rock’ seems to me to be a lazy generalization to describe a certain type of guitar music that preceded punk. What is your view?
Wilko: You’re a man after my own heart, I can’t stand the phrase. It must have been coined by some journalist somewhere and it just stuck. What people don’t realize is there was only ever about 6 venues in London town that are relevant. They hear this term and they think it’s a type of music. I’ve known of fans coming over to Britain from somewhere like Scandinavia wanting to see a ‘pub rock’ band and you’re like ‘erm sorry, there’s actually no such thing’. It was just a certain kind of venue, an established scene at a specific time where people knew they could go and see live music. But there wasn’t necessarily a similarity in the music, there was funk, jazz, country, blues and every band was different. We certainly didn’t just play in pubs, far from it. It’s just an easy term that we seem to be stuck with.
You have one of the strongest rhythm sections around in Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe, does this help keep your motivation?
Wilko: The band’s been getting better and better in the last couple of years. Dylan is in the same class as Norman as a musician and it means the live performances are spot on every time. I get a massive kick out of playing with them, it keeps me going. I don’t think I’d bother without them really, I mean when you think about it, it’s a bit silly isn’t it still doing this? I’m 64 years old!
Is there a recording or a performance that you feel really captures what it is you’re about?
Wilko: I never really listen to my own recordings to be honest. Once a record is made, you’ve done it and you can’t change it so if you listen you’ll tend to hear things you could have done differently and that will annoy you. You can’t dig your own stuff and I can’t stand hearing myself, or watching myself either – I had to be forced to watch ‘Oil City Confidential’ at the premiere and did so through my fingers!
With performances, it’s just moments really. It can be in some club somewhere or in a massive venue with thousands of people. I suppose one I’ve mentioned a few times would be a Feelgood performance in Avignon, France in 1975. This was our second tour I think and it was a big festival, we had hired a plane to get there. The French thought we were really hip. We weren’t top of the bill but there was still big expectation in the crowd. I’ve always said that when things are going good for you, they really go good and this seemed to be one of those days really. We walked on stage just as the sun was going down so there was this fantastic twilight and amazing atmosphere. I can see it perfectly now just talking to you, just like I’m there. We played a great set, went down really well and as we were walking off stage I noticed this stunning girl in the crowd and just beckoned her and she came with me. As I said, when things are going good for you, they really do.
One of the many things the book reveals is your talent as an artist, is this something you still do?
Wilko: I don’t do paintings now, but it was something I had serious ambitions to do when I was younger. I had no training but thought if I work hard at it I might just get the technique. I had an idea of what I wanted to do and it would have taken a lot of work, but I think I could have got there. Anyway, Feelgood started getting big so I had a choice to make between art and music as there was no chance you could keep both going. What a choice it was, sitting in a damp lonely attic somewhere, looking miserable and cutting off my own ear, or sitting in the back of a Cadillac with loads of girls and free champagne.
Your love of astronomy stands out in your book, alongside some great pictures like the ones of the moon.
Wilko: I got into it really with this cheap pair of binoculars. I was out one night with my lad and saw Jupiter and its’ moons and just thought ‘bloody hell!’ I was hooked and just wanted to see more and more really. I wanted to see the rings of Saturn but you do need a proper telescope for that sort of thing really. The light pollution in Southend is very bad so you can’t even see half the stars. Instead of moving into the countryside, which would be far too much trouble, my answer is to get a bigger and bigger telescope until now I can’t actually get a bigger one on my house.
Julian Temple says that he thinks you’d make a great TV presenter for something like ‘The Sky at Night’ because of your enthusiasm. What do you think?
Wilko: That’s a lovely thing for Julian to say but at the end of the day I’m just an amateur. When I sit down I want to watch an expert, someone who really knows what they’re talking about and I’m not one really. I could tell a few funny stories about my telescope I suppose, and I’d be very enthusiastic. Maybe it’s something I’d like to do once as astronomy is something I’d always encourage people to do, but really, I’m not the guy to take over from experts. It’s a bit late to change direction now for me.
You’re described in the book as the ‘Renaissance Man of Rock and Roll’ and now you’ve added acting in ‘Game of Thrones’ to your list of achievements.
Wilko: Yes that’s great fun. There may some more, I think they’ll make another series but my character will probably be killed off soon as they all seem to be eventually. My part is really easy as my character’s had his tongue cut out so I just have to stand round looking mean, which I can do no problem. It’s a really big production and it’s amazing to see how it’s made and all the technique that goes into it. There’s a lot of standing around though and that’s bloody hard when you’re wearing a really heavy chain mail suit, a big leather coat and a sword on my back. I’m there trying to look all tough and mean and I’m just thinking ‘my bloody back is killing me’.
You’ve been in the business a long time and seen just about everything, do you have any advice for young and upcoming bands?
Wilko: Now that’s a tough one, I gave up trying to reason why long ago. I suppose one thing would be, if you ever play a bum note, keep a determined expression on your face and glare at the keyboard player.
And finally, with the tour in the near future, what can audiences expect when they come to see Wilko Johnson live?
Wilko: Three chords, twelve bars and a lot of whizzing about!
That seemed a perfect way to end the interview and very typical not only of the modesty, warmth and humour that Wilko exudes, but also his ability to summarise his wealth of experience perfectly. These are compelling reasons for investing in his book, ‘Looking Back at Me’ and catching him on his upcoming tour to enjoy one of Britain’s outstanding live acts.