Wilko Johnson is back from the dead and still on the road
Wilko Johnson's Blow Your Mind is his first LP of new material in 30 years, a follow-up to acclaimed 2014 album Going Back Home, with legendary Who frontman Roger Daltrey. MALCOLM WYATT talked with the R'n'B guitar legend about the power of rock'n'roll and survival against all odds
Five years after being diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, Wilko Johnson is still very much with us, in the form of his life. In fact, he’s celebrating the release of his first LP of new material in three decades, ‘the album I never thought I’d get to write,’ with a new UK tour, even though, as he put it, ‘I’m supposed to be dead!’
You may know the story. A second opinion led to pioneering life-saving surgery on a supposed inoperable tumour, Wilko eventually declared cancer-free, losing none of his lust for life under the knife.
Dr Feelgood’s original guitarist, renowned for his distinctive chop-guitar, wowed us in 2014 alongside Roger Daltrey on Going Back Home, reworking various R’n’B covers, many his own.
Was your teenage self a little over-awed, recording with the lead singer of The Who?
“Of course! I’d been given 10 months to live, and we did the album in the 11th month! I was thinking, ‘This is it – this is the last thing I ever do.’ I didn’t expect to see it released. Sometimes I’d step out into the darkness, walk around, kind of think, ‘I’m gonna die.’ But I’ve had a pretty good life, and to end up making an album with Roger, a hero when I was a teenager, was like, ‘Well, you can’t complain!’”
Still performing with fellow ex-Blockhead, Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums), last September Wilko celebrated his 70th birthday with a sell-out at London’s iconic Royal Albert Hall.
“My birthday means nothing, although a few didn’t even expect me to reach 37! But that was great, with that obvious symbolic significance of the venue. It’s quite worrying – you don’t want it half-empty. But it was selling quite well, then we got John Cooper Clarke on the bill. I think that tipped the balance.”
But no way was that a farewell, and within a couple of months his band laid down their new LP.
Wilko was half an hour from Oxford when I called, en route with his bandmates to that night’s show.
“We’ve just toured Finland, working in new numbers from the album, and it went down well. We played last night in Bath and that did, too.”
The new album, like the last, features Wilko, (Yes guitarist Steve’s son) Dylan and Norman, plus Steve Weston on harmonica and ex-Style Council keyboard player Mick Talbot, with Dave Eringa producing.
I play Going Back Home fairly regularly, I told him, as much as I do those wondrous early Feelgood LPs.
“A lot of that’s to the credit of Dave Eringa. We really thought it was going to be the last thing I ever did, and it’s probably the best thing I’ve done.”
That album took barely eight days to record, while this one took a fortnight.
“I honestly think with rock’n’roll – certainly the kind of thing I do – that’s absolutely the best way to do it. Just go in and play, don’t sit there analysing it, trying to improve this or tweak that. Get a good feel, and if you’ve got a good producer and engineer, they’ll record that. That’s the way.”
This weekend he plays Manchester Academy, his band supported by ex-Stranglers frontman Hugh Cornwell, Mike Sweeney and the Salford Jets, and Mollie Marriott.
Ever play with The Stranglers in your early days?
“I have on occasions over the years and got to be great friends with (Stranglers bassist) J-J Burnel. Once or twice I got up and had a twang with them.”
I saw Hugh’s trio at Preston’s 53 Degrees five years ago. There’s something so powerful about a three-piece – as proved by yourself, The Jam, Cream, and many others. Ever
“The thing I’ve always liked is it’s as basic as you can get, requiring each member is strong in his own department and you can lock in together – not always easy. When it clicks together … it’s very … free! You only have to look at each other, follow where you’re going. You get more spontaneity.”
Dr Feelgood made a big impression on the early UK punks. Were you aware of how influential you were?
“You’re just doing what you’re doing. You don’t know who’s in the audience. But there were many of those people who went on the next year to create the punk thing. So yes, I think we can claim we had quite a bit to do with the instigation of that era. It wasn’t about huge light shows, multi-keyboards, all that – it’s simplicity and energy. And most of the punk bands – the Pistols, The Damned, you name them – became friends, hanging out in my flat with J-J – we’d have all these punks of various varieties coming in.”
All these years on, Wilko’s still – as the new LP suggests –blowing our mind via live performances and his songs, despite that health scare. Clearly the specialist who operated didn’t steal his mojo.
“It’s been a very strange five years. We came out of the slough of despond of the ‘80s, travelling Europe playing small clubs. We started really getting somewhere.
“Then, getting cancer … it’s a bit of a drag. We ended up doing a farewell tour, very emotional. You walk on stage and you can’t really go wrong. People have genuine affection. That’s really touching and gave me strength while going through that. This band’s absolutely the best I’ve ever had. Norman and Dylan are great, we fit together. We ain’t flash, man, we play rock’n’roll, but do it pretty well.”
Wilko Johnson, Hugh Cornwell, Mike Sweeney & The Salford Jets, and Mollie Marriott, hit Manchester Academy this Saturday, May 12 (on stage 5pm), with tickets (£25 advance) via the box office on 0161 832 1111 or https://www.manchesteracademy.net/order/tickets/13331624/wilko-johnson-and-special-guests-hugh-cornwell- and-band-manchester- academy-2018-05- 12-16-30-00
For all the latest from Wilko Johnson head to http://wilkojohnson.com/ or keep in touch via Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/WilkoJohnsonBand or Twitter via https://twitter.com/wilkojohnson