Wilko Johnson, R.I.P.

Wilko Johnson (ne John Peter Wilkinson), the British guitarist whose unorthodox style was an inspiration during the mid-70s transition to punk rock, died last week at the age of 75.

Johnson was a focal point of Dr. Feelgood, one of the leading acts of what was called the “pub rock” movement. Pub rock was a reaction against what many saw as the musical and visual excesses of the progressive and glam rock scenes. The music was rootsy, sometimes with an English spin on R&B, and the look was simple as well. No capes and platform shoes for these guys — Dr. Feelgood often dressed in suits, which did nothing to disguise the fact that they came across as working class hard men, of the sort it would be unwise to heckle.

(L-R: Johnson, Lee Brilleaux (vox), John “The Big Figure” Martin (drums), and John B. “Sparko” Sparks (bass). Let history record that I envy Martin’s nickname.)

The band never really made it in the States, but had several hits in the U.K., including “Back in the Night” and “Milk and Alcohol.” In many ways, Johnson’s guitar work drove the band. Oddly enough, he didn’t use a pick, preferring to play fingerstyle in a manner that allowed him to switch constantly between rhythm parts and lead lines. He was also a commanding, even threatening stage presence, wielding the guitar as if it were a machine gun. He was almost the antithesis of the guitarist-as-gearhead stereotype — he ran his guitar directly into a solid-state, transistorized amp, of the sort typically used by players who can’t afford high-end equipment. When an interviewer asked him about using (effects) pedals, Johnson snapped, “I’m a guitarist, not a [very naughty word] cyclist.”

As I mentioned earlier, the pub rockers and their stripped down approach were a key influence on the UK punk and New Wave scenes. Joe Strummer of the Clash had played in a pub rock band, and the pub band Brinsley Schwarz provided members of Rockpile, the Rumour, and Nick Lowe’s backing band. Johnson, meanwhile, went on to join Ian Dury and the Blockheads and had some solo projects. He even did occasional acting gigs, including a brief part as an executioner in Game of Thrones: “They said they wanted somebody really sinister who went around looking daggers at people before killing them. That made it easy. Looking daggers at people is what I do all the time, it’s like second nature to me.”

By then, Johnson’s look had changed from the “pudding bowl” haircut of the Feelgood years to a close-cropped, even shaved appearance. Part of this may have been the result of medical issues — he was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in 2013, although it was later discovered to be a less virulent ailment. At the time, however, he had every reason to believe he was dying, and commented later that discovering he wasn’t had challenges of its own. Even then, he spent what he thought were to be his last days in the studio, doing an album of covers with the Who’s Roger Daltrey.

Johnson is survived by two sons, and was predeceased by his wife Irene, who died in 2004. He is the second of the original Feelgoods to die; lead singer/harmonica player Lee Brilleaux died of lymphoma in 1994. Meanwhile, a version of the band (containing no original members — a rock version of the Ship of Theseus) continues to record and tour.

I think I’ll close this post with one of Feelgood’s biggest hits, a track that demonstrates the group’s no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners approach. This is “She Does It Right.”

So long, Wilko — thanks for the music.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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4 Responses to Wilko Johnson, R.I.P.

  1. These guys are incredible! I’ve got to on YT and find the rest of their stuff. I’m as excited now as I was a few years ago when I first discovered the early 60s recordings of The Sonics 🙂

  2. Absolutely! And thanks for sending the whole concert!

  3. Oh, man, these guys are great! I watched the whole video, which I rarely do anymore. Thanks so much, Prof!

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