Having lost three friends to cancer in the past five years, I’m well aware that no diagnosis delivered to the luckless recipient ever states that he or she has nine years to live; cancer diagnosis on the whole tends to deal with months rather than years, and celebrated guitarist Wilko Johnson was informed way back in 2013 that he had less than twelve months of life left to look forward to. Following this announcement, Johnson threw himself into a workload characteristic of someone conscious of the clock ticking; he recorded an LP with Roger Daltrey of The Who, knocked-off in a week due to it not containing any original material, and the result of their collaboration – ‘Going Back Home’ – was released in March 2014, reaching the Top 3 of the album charts, the biggest commercial success either man had enjoyed in over 30 years. By the time of its release, Johnson had already completed what he understandably referred to as his ‘farewell tour’, but it turned out the cancer he’d been informed would kill him was not inoperable after all, and he underwent surgery to have the tumour successfully removed. For several years, Wilko Johnson was a living, breathing survivor of a disease that seemingly remains immune to all that medical science can throw at it – a man who had spurned the double-edged sword of chemotherapy, the delaying tactic that often leaves its victims in a worse state than the actual cancer that provoked it; and now he’s gone at the age of 75.
Despite expressing concerns he’d be largely remembered as ‘that cancer bloke’ as opposed to the explosive axe-man his previous reputation was based upon, Wilko Johnson’s legend was relatively secure as a pioneer, a key figure who served as a bridge between two iconic eras in British pop music. ‘Oil City Confidential’, Julien Temple’s acclaimed 2009 film biography of Dr Feelgood, the band Johnson made his name with, was a reminder of just how important – if briefly – Dr Feelgood were in shaping the change of direction that occurred in the mid-1970s. It provided some intriguing background on the band’s roots, with a particularly fascinating clip from an early 70s TV debate on the future development of Johnson’s Canvey Island hometown in which a long-haired Johnson heckles a pompous politician sticking up for the oil companies that had scarred the landscape of that coastal Essex outpost. The documentary also featured an eye-opening snippet of Johnson as a hired guitarist bolstering the performance of early 60s fifteen-minute teen idol Heinz when he played low down on the bill at Wembley Stadium’s memorable Rock ‘n’ Roll Show in 1972.
John Peter Wilkinson – AKA Wilko Johnson – had already followed the hippie route to India by the time he joined the band that morphed into Dr Feelgood in the early 70s, shortly to become a fixture on the nascent ‘Pub Rock’ scene of the period; perhaps having sampled enough spiritual sustenance, Johnson decided to revert back to the R&B blueprint of British Rock when he began his musical odyssey. Pub Rock was viewed as an affordable alternative to the then-dominant Prog orthodoxy in the UK, offering a revival of the kind of sounds that had been routine in the club scene prior to Psychedelia and then Prog elevating pop to Art and relocating its stage from subterranean dive to vast arena, pricing many punters out of the market. Whilst most acts grouped under the Pub Rock banner pedalled a nostalgic dead-end form of music guaranteed to appeal to few beyond the veterans of the original British R&B boom of the 60s, the Feelgoods were in possession of an agitated urgency that had more relevance to the 70s and was mirrored on the other side of the Atlantic in the embryonic New York Punk scene.
Unique amongst the Pub Rockers, Dr Feelgood gradually attracted a large fanatical following drawn to their energetic live performances. Vocalist Lee Brilleaux was a distinctively menacing frontman, whilst Wilko Johnson was a one-off guitarist, pacing up and down the stage as though he was receiving ECT the minute he plugged his axe in, duck-walking like Chuck Berry on cheap speed; the pair bestrode their platform with a defiantly anti-showbiz ambience that was enhanced by their unusual (for the time) image – dressed in sharp suits and wearing cropped haircuts; it’s often been said that Dr Feelgood resembled a villainous gang of blaggers from ‘The Sweeney’ rather than a rock band of the era, yet this truism places them very much in that violent and brutal mid-70s period instead of the cosy cul-de-sac many of the Pub Rock acts seemed content to inhabit; when Malcolm McLaren was putting The Sex Pistols together, he’d routinely take his snotty young charges to see the Feelgoods live, with the spotlight firmly on Wilko Johnson’s manic contortions as the way forward. Remarkably, the record-buying public followed suit.
In terms of pop music serving as a relevant soundtrack to the chaotic times in which it was produced, maybe the best place to look in 1976 wasn’t necessarily amongst the chart-topping albums of the year. Old timers such as Perry Como, Roy Orbison, Slim Whitman, Bert Weedon and The Beach Boys scored No.1 LPs, as did more contemporary acts like Queen, Status Quo, Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin. And, of course, there was the mighty Abba, complementing their trio of No.1 singles in ’76 with their first volume of greatest hits topping the album charts twice that year. Yet, alongside the more predictable fare of the era was an LP titled ‘Stupidity’, which shot straight in at No.1 and held the top spot for one week in October. ‘Stupidity’ was the only real commercial smash to emerge from the Pub Rock scene and was, fittingly, a live album; it was the third LP release from Dr Feelgood, hot on the heels of two albums that, despite being critically-acclaimed, hadn’t suggested the band were destined to dethrone The Stylistics at the top of the charts; but they did. They hadn’t even dented the singles charts yet, which made the achievement all the more impressive.
For an extremely brief period, it suddenly seemed Pub Rock was where it was at – the sound of the past reinvented and reinvigorated for the future; and then Punk happened. Overnight, thanks to a timely encounter with a pissed-up reactionary name of Bill Grundy, The Sex Pistols stole Pub Rock’s thunder; their sound may have borrowed some of the razor-sharp intensity to be heard on ‘Stupidity’, but it dispensed with the old-school R&B tropes and its snarl was that of the adolescent. Wilko Johnson was born in 1947 – Johnny Rotten was born in 1956; at a time when 30 was considered a cut-off point when it came to pop culture, the younger man won out. Just four months after The Sex Pistols earned their notoriety effing and blinding on teatime TV, Johnson and Dr Feelgood went their separate ways; although the band managed to capitalise on the success of ‘Stupidity’ by remaining a popular live draw and finally scored a Top 10 hit in 1979 with ‘Milk and Alcohol’, their amazing impact in 1976 thanks to the dynamic double-act of Wilko and Brilleaux was limited to that solitary year. Pop music had picked-up its pace again and the Feelgoods were left behind.
Wilko Johnson formed his own band and also had a brief stint in Ian Dury’s Blockheads; unfortunately, the dream marriage of two of British music’s most charismatic eccentrics didn’t quite work out, and Johnson was thereafter a peripheral figure on the music scene, hovering around the same hinterland as the likes of John Cooper Clarke and John Otway. But the Julien Temple documentary on the Feelgoods revived interest in the band and gave them some long-overdue credit for their significant place in the scheme of things; Johnson’s reputation received a boost due to the amusing eloquence he displayed in the film, and even led to him being cast in ‘Game of Thrones’. And then came the cancer, something he himself had already experienced first-hand when it claimed his wife of more than three decades in 2004; Johnson’s philosophical stoicism when confronted by the disease and then his remarkable survival served to seal his status as an alternative national treasure, but his death robs the nation of the kind of character we once had in abundance and now appear to ration. We’re all the poorer for it.
© The Editor