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Wilko's feelgood factor

Wilko Johnson
Still rocking: Guitarist and songsmith Wilko Johnson

In the early 1970s, the Essex band Dr Feelgood were hailed as the saviours of rock'n'roll. Forty years on, their former lead guitarist and songwriter Wilko Johnson has an autobiography coming out and the band's early records are about to be rereleased. Music broadcaster Mark Coles popped round for a chat.

I remember it vividly. I was 15, I'd just picked up my weekly music paper to discover, with horror, that Wilko had quit Dr Feelgood. 1977. It feels like yesterday.

So it was a tad surreal, 35 years on, to find myself round at guitarist Wilko Johnson's Southend-on-Sea home listening to his version of events back then. "I didn't leave, they threw me out and then told the newspapers that I'd left," he insisted.

Back in 1977, Canvey Island R&B band Dr Feelgood were at the top of their game. Blues revivalists with short hair and even shorter songs, they stood out like a sore thumb when they started out in 1971, at the height of the prog rock era.

They soon earned a reputation for being one of Britain's best live bands, a three-chord, 12-bar blues bridge that helped pave the way for punk a few years later.

Wilko Johnson (left) performing with Dr Feelgood, December 1976
Wilko Johnson (left) performing with Dr Feelgood, December 1976

"This thing we were doing ran a bit counter to the record industry view of what a band should be. I felt we were spearheading, or maybe we were cricket batting," Wilko laughs.

"I thought it would lead to a rhythm and blues revival like what the Stones had done in the 60s. I think punk took a lot of attitude from Dr Feelgood. The whole idea that music could be done very straightforwardly, very simply."

Dr Feelgood were working on their fourth album Sneakin' Suspicion, the follow-up to their number one chart-topping live album Stupidity, when something snapped. "For the life of me, I don't know why," Wilko, now in his mid-60s, declares from his sofa, mug of coffee in hand.

"This animosity had grown up between myself and (singer) Lee Brilleaux. We'd been touring America hard and we couldn't stand to be in the same room together. I don't know what it was all about. We were great friends.

"It seems ridiculous now. You're doing really good, making great music, selling records and travelling all over the world and then, suddenly, you have a hissy fit and that's it."


If you ever play a bum note, keep a determined expression on your face and stare at the keyboard player

Wilko's tip for young musicians

Dr Feelgood carried on without him, using a series of replacement guitarists even after singer Lee Brilleaux's death from cancer in 1994. As for Wilko, he's been on a Bob Dylan-style never-ending live tour, albeit slightly lower key, ever since.

"The support band came up to me the other day," he says with a smile. "They asked how long the tour was. I went, well it's been 28 years so far."

But two years ago, Wilko Johnson suddenly found himself back in the spotlight. Director Julien Temple's acclaimed film documentary Oil City Confidential about the early years of Dr Feelgood turned the guitarist into an unlikely star. "Ever since then, I've been having to give guided tours of Canvey Island," he shrugs. "It's strange."

This month he is busier than ever. The latest leg of his never-ending tour kicks off in Buxton on 5 April. EMI are bringing out a four-disc box set, All Through The City, containing Dr Feelgood's first four albums together with some unreleased material, much of it garnered from Wilko's understairs cupboard.

The Alabama Shakes, with Brittany Howard
Rock'n'roll's latest hot tip, Alabama Shakes

"Actually it's stirred up some powerful memories - listening to what went down then, strange feelings.

"I like this one called Small Gains Corner," he says, a glint in his eye. "This has lain in the dusty data banks for many a year. That's the way I wanted Dr Feelgood to go. It's a very wild sound."

As well as the music rereleases, there's also a book. After the success of Oil City Confidential, Wilko has been persuaded to pen his autobiography with co-writer Zoe Howe.

"Its quite scrapbooky in nature," she says, "but I hope the book reflects a lot of things about Wilko that people aren't expecting".

Like his love of Shakespeare, early Anglo-Saxon literature and ancient Icelandic sagas which he studied at university in Newcastle before forming Dr Feelgood.

"What can I say about this literature. Its really great and everybody should check it out," he enthuses, before launching into the Icelandic lyric of a song he is halfway through writing, called Eric The Red Cut Your Leg Off Blues. I think he's joking.

Back to basics

When I ask if he thinks Dr Feelgood's time might be about to come again, a new generation of music fans now discovering the band's music from the mid 1970s, Wilko says he doesn't know. "It was a long, long time ago," he insists.

But every decade or so, music throws up a band that gives the record industry a much needed kick up the backside - a band that tries to reconnect with music's raw, primal rhythm-and-blues past, and helps remind us of where pop and rock actually came from.

The Rolling Stones in the 1960s, Dr Feelgood in the early 70s, punk rock, elements of Britpop in the early 90s, the White Stripes in 2001 and now, in 2012, it seems a new American band, Alabama Shakes, who are about to launch their debut album in April to near deafening acclaim and hype from just about everyone going.

The Rolling Stones
'It all goes back to the Rolling Stones,' says Wilko

Adele, Bon Iver and former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant are among those reportedly singing their praises, excited by the band's back-to-basics, retro R&B approach to music making. Actor Russell Crowe even turned up to their recent London concert.

So, does Wilko Johnson see a link between them and what he was doing back in the 70s? "Yeah. The good music, the good things that come out always relate to the origins. It all goes back to the Rolling Stones.

"Every decade or so there's going to be some people who've learnt from the phase before, who've been scratching their heads for a while and who've come in. Yes, it all goes round and round."

As someone who's been through it all before, does he have any advice for these new R&B revivalists, the latest young musicians to be touted as the saviours of rock'n'roll?

"Advice for young musicians?" he asks with a mischievous look. "Yes, I've got some advice. If you ever play a bum note, keep a determined expression on your face and stare at the keyboard player. No-one will ever know."

Wilko Johnson's tour kicks off on 5 April in Buxton. His autobiography, Looking Back On Me, is due out at the end of May. The EMI Dr Feelgood box set All through The City is released on 2 April.

You can listen to Mark Coles' weekly music programme, The Shed, online at www.markcolesmusic.com


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