Support Blues in London
Shop for anything here and
we get a
small commission

NO EXTRA COST TO YOU!

 

 

 



Wilko Johnson Main Image



March 2006. Words Rick Webb. Photos Andy Hall


Six months ago, on a mission for this website, I sat down with the Immortal Lee County Killers and the Black Diamond Heavies, two American bands associated with 'Punk Rock Blues' (interview here). I asked them if they'd ever heard of Dr. Feelgood, the band in which Wilko made his name during the mid seventies playing angular, energetic, blues/R&B that was as much a precursor to punk as it was a link back to the blues of the past. Dr. Feelgood hadn't penetrated their mid-American, mid-twenties consciousness until, whilst here on tour, someone had shown them a DVD. Their animated response was "They're fucking on fire man! Wilko is out of his damn mind."

15 years previously my own first Wilko experience - apart from the Feelgood hits that had been on the radio in my suburban seventies - was doing a support gig for him at a club in my hometown of Southampton. Me and my mate Blisterin' Bob were amazed as Wilko, by now without the Feelgoods, launched into an extraordinary, intense, relentless set that started hard and just kept going. He did, indeed, seem to be out of his damn mind, but it looked like a good place to be.

He played with an energy and attitude that was so lacking in the many of the people you'd see playing 'blues' in those days. Over the years since I've seen him a few times, often in not especially 'fancy' establishments, but he still never let up. Now, with 'Punk Rock Blues' on the rise, it's an inspired bit of programming to include him in a Spitz Festival which is featuring a diverse range of styles and attitudes within a blues context.

He's a link that can bridge the gap between the 'Nu Blues' types and the old farts. He's always been a reminder that blues could/should have a bit of bite. It was in the 70's, and it's probably even more so now. Go and see him, and his incredibly band... You'll be amazed.

Wilko Johnson and Band


Where do you think you fit within 'The Blues'?

Wilko: I always used to call it Rhythm & Blues – R&B, but that means something else now, so I don’t know, it’s 'Beat Music' or something. I learned to play in the mid sixties, and I listened to blues musicians, I still do, I love it, but it's always been a great mystery to me how they did it, and I never really tried to play it, but it obviously strongly influences a lot of what I do – the songs that I write have some connection with that, in that there's no more than three chords! But I don’t think of myself as a 'Blues' player… that that makes you think about someone playing 'Dust My Broom.'


Well yeah, but now there seems to be all these 25 year old guys doing this weird punky thing and calling it the blues…

Wilko: Well good music's got what I call 'That Thing' – any kind of music can have it – where it just get's you, and blues has got a lot of 'That Thing' and if people can pick up on that and then play their own interpretation then that’s got to be a good thing.


With what you've always done, whilst it obviously comes from an American R & B tradition, does seem to be very distinctly British as well… Is that a conscious thing?

Wilko: Well that's just the way it comes out. But you've got it – I guess we’re 'British Beat'!. When I write songs I like them to come out of that American thing but I'd never write songs about riding a freight train or that kind of thing, I write about what I know.

Wilko Johnson sequence 1


So white British guys have got as much right to this music as anybody?

Wilko: Totally… I don't know much about the history of music but if you look at where the blues came from, obviously it came from Africa, but then you've got people from Africa, in America, hearing Scottish folk tunes and stuff like that and these things bounce back and forward. Although most of them were crap, the British bands in the sixties that made such an impact in America were really teaching them something.


Quite often you hear Americans say "Well I'd never heard of the blues until the Stones came over…"

Wilko: Exactly. There’s nothing that says it has to be this type or that type of person… If you can understand ‘That Thing’ and then start playing, then 'That Thing' will inspire you.

Wilko Johnson sequence 2


Who were the people who had 'That Thing' that inspired you…?

Wilko:
Well there’s Mick Green, of Johnny Kid & The Pirates… That was the time I was really into the blues music. I consciously tried to imitate him when I was learning to play. The first time I heard him I absolutely froze - he sounded so 'American'! Then when I found out more about him I discovered he has this special technique of playing the rhythm and and the lead all in one. I want to play just like that, but I did it wrong and ended up with my own way of doing it! Also, when I was a little lad learning, there was a great band in Southend called The Orioles, which was Mickey Jupp's band - he was very very good... but he had this guitar player called Mo Witham and this guy, I think he remains one of the best guitarists I've ever seen, if not THE best...

Johnny Kidd and The Pirates record cover

When the Feelgoods first started and I was telling everyone about him, saying "This guy's twice as good as me, he's fantastic" we went to see them do a kind of revival gig in Southend and Mo came on stage, plugged his guitar in, and did a little twang to test the amplifier. I turned to Lee (Brilleaux, founder, with Wilko, of Dr. Feelgood) and said "I was wrong - he's not twice as good as me - he's ten times as good!"


Did they ever get beyond playing in Southend?

Wilko:
Well Mickey Jupp made a couple of albums but they didn't really go far. Mickey Jupp is one of the greatest singers you'll ever hear, and a great songwriter - a bluesman really, he can sing like Elmore James!


By that time you'd been listening to Elmore James and Muddy Waters and the like then?

Wilko: The thing to understand is that, in the mid sixties it was really the Rolling Stones that started all the interest the interest in the blues. When the Stones first came out I probably had my first guitar by then, but it was hearing them and then checking out where it came from, and starting to hear things. There was a great influx if records then, John Lee Hookers, and Muddy Waters and that, and getting them was like a revelation - it was great, like magic. Up to then it had all been really drippy stuff - 'I wanna hold your hand' or whatever, and then suddenly we're hearing 'Dimples'.

Wilko Johnson Sequence 3


I wouldn't have put you in the same sort of era as Mick & Keith though?

Wilko:
No, they would have been prefects when I was a schoolboy!


I think I read somewhere that you went to India for a bit... Was there a 'Peace & love' period for you?

Wilko: Yeah, 1969, I was a hippie! I went to Katmandoo... Afghanistan is a good place, at least it used to be!


But then the Feelgood thing starts happening and it feels like you really weren't part of all the Claptoney, beard stroking blues kind of things at all?


Wilko:
Well, when the Feelgoods started I was just playing the way I play. In fact I'd more or less quit playing about four or five years before - I went to university and I couldn't find a band so I just stopped playing - I didn't think I'd do it anymore. Then I just bumped into Lee and we started this band, and my thing was doing doing R & B and trying to play like Mick Green.

We got this band together and said "Look man, we've gotta be just like Johnny Kidd & The Pirates". So I'm learning all these tracks and then we thought we should learn some pop songs, so we could get some work! Then Lee put this Little Walter album on and it started and I thought "Fuck this pop stuff man, we're gonna play that!".

Around that time I think all the local bands were dressing up in frocks and singing about going to Mars - we didn't want to know about that! Most people in Southend thought we were quaint, or stupid or something, but we knew what we were doing.

Wilko Johsnon band 2


Then by 1976 all everyone can remember is Punk, and it feels like you were kind of part of that...?

Wilko:
Well we were sort of in front of it really - we established ourselves in '75, but I remember around that time Dave Higgs of Eddie & The Hotrods came round to my place and he was saying "We had this band supporting us, they were called The Sex Pistols", and I can remember thinking that was a bloody good name! Next thing I know, I'm in New York and I bought a copy of the Daily Mirror and the front page was all outrage about the Sex Pistols - 'The filth and the fury'.

So that was all happening when we were touring in America a lot, so I didn't really know any of these people, but I got to know a few of them later. When I got chucked out of the Feelgoods at the beginning of 1977 I started meeting a lot of people - John Lydon, Joe Strummer... Jean Jacques Burnel (The Stranglers) used to share a flat with me. I had Billy Idol sleeping on my floor! They were all quite well disposed towards me - I think a lot of them had been given an impetus by seeing the Feelgoods.

 


Now we've got this Rock Rock Blues thing going on and here you are playing with all these acts that have been emerging in the last few years. Was this something you've been aware of?

Wilko:
No! I'm very unaware of most things, usually, but I'm very glad to hear it - lots of blues being played... It's gotta be a good thing. If people are playing guitars, then that's a good thing. Maybe my son won't sneer at my so much, now I'm hip again!


How business? It seems like you're playing a fair bit...

Wilko:
Well, it's perked up... When my wife got sick we cancelled a load of work, but since we've been back, fortunately we've jumped into a lot of work. We're big in Japan - gawd bless 'em! They treat you like stars... Nice hotels and that...

Norman Watt Roy, Wilko Johsnon Band Mony, Wilko Johsnon Band


We've been listening to your last record 'Red Hot Rocking Blues' at lot at Bluesinlondon towers in the last few days and it really comes across that you guys enjoy playing together.

Wilko: Well, that was just a load of stuff we had lying around... We were going to Japan, this band over there that used to support us became very very huge - Thee Michelle Gun Elephant - they started a record label and they wanted something from us, so that's how that came about.


There are some interesting covers on that record, but mostly you do your own stuff, do you think of yourself as a songwriter or a guitarist?

Wilko:
I'm a songwriter... But songs are funny things, sometimes they come and sometimes they don't . The guitar bit comes first though - you get a nice riff and then you think what it's saying something stupid, something tuff, whatever... but pretty much all we do in our live set is original... When we're playing I like to think we're putting across something of our own...

Are you still into it... Do you still crave 'The Thing'?
Oh yeah, I really like it. I still g
et a real kick out of playing with Norman (Watt-Roy, bass) and Monti (just Monti, drums)... The reason I joined The Blockheads back then was so I could play with Norman! I love it it, I love playing with 'em... And if these young guys are getting into it too, and doing it, then that's a good atmosphere for us to play in.



Support Wiko, Bluesinlondon, and The Irene Knight Memorial Fund for Salisbury Hospice with these T-Shirts specailly designed for this site by our graphics chaps - Frank Design. Only £14.90 + delivery. Click on a shirt for order details

A couple of CD selections:

 
Greatest hits  

 
Newest one  

More information on Wilko's website: http://www.wilkojohnson.org.uk

More photos at: www.andyhallphoto.com

Location, thanks to Emily at www.caravanstyle.com