Wilko Johnson’s second act was every bit as belligerent and explosive as his first | Alexis Petridis

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When the Guardian interviewed Wilko Johnson successful 2015, helium expressed interest that helium mightiness present beryllium viewed “as the Cancer Bloke alternatively than a guitar player”. You could recognize his unease. The astonishing communicative of Johnson’s diagnosis with terminal pancreatic crab successful 2013, followed by his seemingly miraculous betterment aft a doc who happened to beryllium successful the assemblage astatine 1 of his farewell shows suggested helium sojourn an oncologist for a 2nd opinion, had made him much celebrated than helium had ever been: a “100-1 changeable for the rubric of Greatest Living Englishman”, arsenic one professional enactment it, who had archetypal wowed the wide nationalist with the calm, philosophical acceptance of imminent decease helium displayed successful interviews aft his diagnosis, past cheated decease entirely.

But, really, determination was nary information of thing overshadowing Johnson’s value arsenic a guitarist. When different musicians attested to the life-changing interaction of seeing Dr Feelgood unrecorded successful 1974 oregon 75 – and everyone from Paul Weller and Joe Strummer to Suggs from Madness and Bill Drummond of the KLF did – it was ever Johnson they singled out. Their precocious frontman Lee Brilleaux was a superb vocalist and performer, but Wilko Johnson was Dr Feelgood’s ocular focus. The oft-repeated enactment is that, with their inexpensive suits and aerial of menace, Dr Feelgood looked little similar stone stars than villains from The Sweeney. More accurately, they looked similar 3 villains from The Sweeney who had been forced to support an oculus connected their boss’s unpredictable nephew: Johnson, who careered astir the stage, rima permanently open, eyes bulging with the effect of amphetamines beneath his pudding-basin haircut, raising his guitar to his enarthrosis arsenic if it were a gun, occasionally colliding with his bandmates arsenic they affected to disregard him and glowered astatine the audience.

 (L-R) Lee Brilleaux, John B Sparks, John ‘The Big Figure’ Martin and Wilko Johnson.
Dr Feelgood successful 1976 … (L-R) Lee Brilleaux, John B Sparks, John ‘The Big Figure’ Martin and Wilko Johnson. Photograph: Estate of Keith Morris/Redferns

On 1 level, what Dr Feelgood did was precise straightforward. They played the benignant of bushed and blues and rock’n’roll covers that Britain’s bushed groups had played successful the aboriginal 60s, earlier the advent of psychedelia had made popular a much analyzable and ostensibly intelligence business: Route 66, Bonie Moronie, I’m a Hog for You Baby, Riot successful Cell Block Number 9. Johnson wrote archetypal worldly successful the aforesaid vein, arsenic if each the philharmonic developments that had taken spot since the mid-60s hadn’t happened: Roxette, She Does It Right, Back successful the Night. He besides had a happening astir lyrics that attempted to imbue his location municipality of Canvey Island with the benignant of mythic aura the blues and rock’n’roll had conferred connected the Mississippi delta. “Stand and ticker the towers burning, astatine the interruption of day,” ran the atmospheric opening enactment of All Through the City: a statement of staring astatine the Shell Haven lipid refinery portion coming down from amphetamines.

It was elemental idea, but that was the point: to supply a stark alternate to the progressively grandiose ambitions of progressive stone (music, Johnson dismissively suggested, that “sounded similar birds twittering”), 1 that suggested thing indispensable and potent had been mislaid on the way. And yet Dr Feelgood didn’t dependable retro. They sounded similar a merchandise of the mid 1970s, arsenic if immoderate of the desperation and nihilism of the epoch of stagflation and pub bombings had seeped into the bones of the aged songs they played. It was, arsenic Brilleaux memorably enactment it, euphony “about atrocious luck” and Johnson’s guitar was the cardinal ingredient: playing without a plectrum, helium perfected a taut, staccato, slashing benignant that seemed riven with pent-up aggression.

It proved to beryllium a immense power connected punk. Quite speech from the British artists gobsmacked by seeing Dr Feelgood cutting a swathe done London’s pub stone circuit – they were bound to basal retired connected a country that dealt mostly successful laid-back rootsy Americana – Blondie’s drummer Clem Burke bought their 1975 debut medium Down by the Jetty connected a travel to Europe and recalled the amazement of the Ramones and Richard Hell erstwhile helium played it to them connected his instrumentality to New York. Indeed, it proved to beryllium a immense power connected post-punk, too: Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill ever credited Johnson arsenic the cardinal inspiration connected his ain jagged, hugely assertive playing.

The large irony of Johnson’s vocation was that the punk country helium helped animate scuppered Dr Feelgood’s ain commercialized progress. For a moment, it looked arsenic if they were going to beryllium immense – the unrecorded medium Stupidity went consecutive to No 1 successful October 1976 – but, arsenic Johnson aboriginal noted, “it didn’t hap that way. All of the information pins and bondage cogwheel … that was different world”. He near the set helium had formed successful 1971 midway done the signaling of the follow-up to Stupidity, Sneakin’ Suspicion. The flashpoint was expected to person been the different members’ dislike of Paradise, a opus Johnson had written astir his unconventional romanticist arrangements – ostensibly a paean to his woman Irene, it besides included the enactment “I emotion 2 girls, I ain’t ashamed” – but determination were deeper underlying issues.

Wilko Johnson performing successful  Sheffield successful  2016.
Wilko Johnson performing successful Sheffield successful 2016. Photograph: Neil H Kitson/Getty Images

A alternatively much delicate and bookish fig than his onstage persona suggested, Johnson suffered from depression: his inclination to retreat into himself caused friction with the hard-drinking Brilleaux. Dr Feelgood carried connected without him, scoring a one-off Top 10 deed successful 1979 with Milk and Alcohol, portion Johnson’s vocation ne'er took disconnected successful a mode that reflected the sheer grade of his influence. He spent a play arsenic guitarist successful Ian Dury and the Blockheads, adapting his guitar benignant to suit their funk-influenced sound, and co-writing the azygous Sueperman’s Big Sister, but it didn’t past long. “Mr Johnson could beryllium a spot of a ballerina,” was Dury’s retrospective assessment. He cheerfully blamed himself for the “chaotic” authorities of his consequent solo career: helium ne'er had a manager, “stumbled from 1 incorrect determination to another” and recorded lone sporadically, acknowledgment to his “fairly lackadaisical attitude”.

That changed earlier his crab diagnosis, acknowledgment to Julien Temple’s 2009 Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential. For 1 thing, it contained a batch of thrilling unrecorded footage that revealed to anyone excessively young to retrieve it first-hand conscionable however breathtaking Dr Feelgood had been successful their 70s prime. For another, Johnson emerged arsenic precise overmuch the eccentric prima crook among the interviewees: quoting Shakespeare and Milton, revealing himself to beryllium fluent successful Old Icelandic, discussing his emotion of astronomy and showing the satellite the observatory helium had had built connected the extortion of his different unassuming terrace house. It led to a relation successful Game of Thrones and a surge of involvement successful his euphony that was compounded further erstwhile helium announced helium was dying. Rather than playing clubs, helium recovered himself filling the Royal Albert Hall. Going Back Home, an acclaimed collaborative medium with the Who’s Roger Daltrey that Johnson assumed helium wouldn’t unrecorded to spot released, went gold.

The renewed involvement successful Johnson ne'er waned, adjacent erstwhile it became evident helium wasn’t terminally ill. A 2nd Temple-directed documentary, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, was different hit. He continued playing large shows and released his archetypal medium of archetypal worldly successful 30 years, 2018’s Blow Your Mind, connected which Johnson’s playing sounded each spot arsenic belligerent and explosive arsenic it had successful 1975. Rather than overshadow his creator achievements oregon the pivotal value of Dr Feelgood, arsenic helium had feared, the saga of his unwellness conscionable seemed to person highlighted them to a acold wider audience. It was, helium wryly conceded backmost successful 2015, “a fabulous vocation move”.

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