In the U.K., Europe and Japan, former Dr. Feelgood axeman Wilko Johnson rightly enjoys “legendary” status. In the U.S., however, he’s a relatively little-known cult figure. This is ironic, since Johnson’s work in Dr. Feelgood was a primary influence on some of New York City’s most important first-wave punk bands.
Blondie drummer Clem Burke, while on vacation in the U.K., picked up a copy of the first Dr. Feelgood album, Down by the Jetty, shortly after its release in 1975. He recalls playing it at parties — where key members of the NYC punk cognoscenti would regularly be in attendance — and raving over its stark, back-to-basics rhythm and blues. The skinny-tie minimalist image, the short, punchy three-minute songs and even the album’s cover art were all noted for future reference by the likes of Blondie, the Ramones and the Heartbreakers.
But what goes around comes around, and before the release of Down by the Jetty, the Feelgoods had been gigging as a typical Stones-alike R&B band. When the Feelgoods backed British Sixties one-hit wonder Heinz at the 1972 London Rock and Roll Show, Johnson experienced something life-changing. Hidden on the bill were Detroit proto-punk iconoclasts the MC5.
“That gig was so pivotal for me,” Wilko says. “When I saw the MC5 on stage, they blew my mind, man. Wayne Kramer! His clothes, stage movements, presence, had a huge influence on my stage presentation.”
Possessed of one of the most instantly identifiable sounds in rock, Johnson — arguably the U.K.’s premier Tele-meister — had been cruising through his career with his own hardcore fan base. Following his memorable appearance in Julien Temple’s Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential in 2009, something about his onstage, wide-eyed, psychotic demeanor struck a chord with the producers of Game of Thrones and they cast him in the role of mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne. Life was looking up.
That took a rapid turn when Johnson was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2013. The guitarist took this life-changing revelation on board and altered his life — finding a euphoric joy and appreciation that informed his every act. His 2014 album, Going Back Home, recorded with the Who’s Roger Daltrey, revisited Wilko and Feelgood classics and made its way onto a host of album-of-the-year lists.
He was on a farewell tour of the most literal kind in 2014, with tickets impossible to get ahold of — such was the overwhelming emotional response — when a fan who also was a cancer specialist contacted him to see if he’d be interested in a risky surgical process. To quote a line from a Dr. Feelgood classic, “If this doesn’t cure you it’ll kill.” It cured him.
Fender gave Johnson his own signature Telecaster in 2013. It’s the only guitar he uses. “Yeah, one of the first ones they made,” he adds. Meanwhile, his old faithful Tele has been retired. “Oh yeah. I’ve only ever owned six guitars and I’ve still got four of them! Two old Teles, the signature model and an old Strat. I love Strats and the way they look, but for what I do, the Telecaster is perfect.”
The arrival of Blow Your Mind this past summer was exactly what fans had been waiting for — an album of previously unreleased songs. “I had a few songs already written,” he says. “Often we’d be on the way to the studio with nothing planned and just improvise, see what developed.”
The instrumental “Lament,” with its soulful Stax vibe, is a particular delight. “Yeah, with the instrumental stuff, it all came together really quickly. When you’ve got such a fantastic band, everything just evolves naturally.” Bassist Norman Watt Roy is himself a legendary figure, a former member of Ian Dury’s Blockheads, which is where he and Wilko first hooked up during Wilko’s short spell with Dury in 1980. “I just love the way [Norman] makes my songs sound,” Wilko adds.
Drummer Dylan Howe is the son of Yes axeman Steve Howe; there’s an irony in a prog-rock god’s progeny playing in a basic, hardcore R&B band. “Ha! Me and Steve [Howe] are the same age,” Johnson says. “I’m old enough to be Dylan’s dad!”
Anyone who’s ever loved Wilko’s music has got a major treat in store with Blow Your Mind. After the audience-broadening appeal of the Daltrey collaboration, hopefully this release will cement his new-found status and finally get him the recognition he deserves Stateside.