We got the news that today the great rock’n’roll guitarist Wilko Johnson had died, aged 75. For people like myself whose musical development was transformed by punk in the 1970s, Wilko played a crucial role, with his band of the time, Dr Feelgood. They pre-dated punk, and get classified as pub rock, but they re-acquainted many of us with the three minute rock’n’roll song, after a few years immersed in metal and blues rock – or even worse in some cases, prog rock. For me Dr Feelgood, along with Eddie and the Hot Rods, paved the way for punk, and that, in turn, opened a lot of doors, not least to reggae.
Wilko left Dr Feelgood quite early, in March 1977. He was replaced by John Mayo, and the Feelgoods had quite a lot of success after that. They have been through endless permutations ever since – singer Lee Brilleaux died in 1994 – and are still going. They retain a hardcore fan base and have an annual Dr Feelgood weekend in Canvey Island, from whence they emerged in the early 70s.
The band made three great albums in the mid-70s; Down by the Jetty, Malpractice and the live album Stupidity, which took them to No1 in the charts. Down by the Jetty will always be my favourite, with She Does it Right one of the great rock’n’roll songs in my view, Wilko’s staccato rhythms driving the song along. The cover photo for the album, taken on Canvey Island, is a classic, conveying the essence of the band. From then on, second hand jackets and thin ties were de rigeur!
I saw the band for the first time in, I think, 1976 at Leicester de Montfort Hall. I was still at school not far away from Leicester at the time. I can’t remember all that much about the evening now, other than the wild-eyed presence of Wilko, those riffs and the duck walk, adapted from the likes of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddly. And his electrifying partnership with singer Lee Brilleaux, growling out the lyrics and doing unspeakable things with his microphone. One of the great rock’n’roll duos.
Wilko pursued his own musical career after leaving the Feelgoods, and played with Ian Dury for a while in the early 80s. A few of us saw him at the Lexington, on Pentonville Road, in February 2011 as part of a series of concerts sponsored by Word magazine. He was brilliant, of course, still banging out those choppy chords and doing his version of the duck walk, wielding his guitar like a machine gun. And he still played a few of the old Feelgood favourites, including She Does it Right. A couple of years after that he announced he had terminal cancer; but fortunately, after a few operations, the cancer receded, and he was able to carry on doing his thing.
Something I didn’t realise until now was that Wilko appeared in four episodes of Game of Thrones in 2011 and 12 as a mute executioner, Ser Ilyn Payne. Prior to that he appeared in a Julien Temple documentary, Oil City Confidential, in which he shared his memories of Canvey Island and Dr Feelgood. Some of the production on that was a bit florid, but it is good viewing.
In 2016, Kath and I, with Jon G and his wife Maggie, had a walk around Canvey Island. It got pretty gruelling by the end; but the highlight was on the beach front, where there was a mural in honour of Dr Feelgood. It’s why Jon and I wanted to go – to pay homage to this rock’n’roll band that changed our teenage lives.
So rest in peace, Wilko. You were one of the greats, and inspired so many of us. A true embodiment of the spirit of rock’n’roll.
Great guitarist- sadly never saw the original Feelgood but saw the Wilko Johnson Band at the Crystal Palace Bowl. Then with you at the Lexington which was excellent. Machine gun guitar riffs and a real zest for living life- thanks for the memories Wilko. RIP.🎸
Very good and touching tribute, John. Though they were never quite my thing, I always understood the brilliance of Feelgood, and I appreciate why they inspire such devotion. (I love that mural.)
We’ve already spoken about a possible Canvey Island hike, maybe in the spring? I’ve never been, and it would be really good to go and raise a glass to the great man.