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

(L-R) Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood performing on Canvey Island, Essex, in 1976.
‘Eyes bulging with the effects of amphetamines beneath his pudding-basin haircut’ … (L-R) Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood performing on Canvey Island, Essex, in 1976. Photograph: Gus Stewart/Redferns

When the Guardian interviewed Wilko Johnson in 2015, he expressed concern that he might now be viewed “as the Cancer Bloke rather than a guitar player”. You could understand his unease. The astonishing story of Johnson’s diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2013, followed by his seemingly miraculous recovery after a doctor who happened to be in the audience at one of his farewell shows suggested he visit an oncologist for a second opinion, had made him more famous than he had ever been: a “100-1 shot for the title of Greatest Living Englishman”, as one critic put it, who had first wowed the general public with the calm, philosophical acceptance of imminent death he displayed in interviews after his diagnosis, then cheated death entirely.

But, really, there was no danger of anything overshadowing Johnson’s importance as a guitarist. When other musicians attested to the life-changing impact of seeing Dr Feelgood live in 1974 or 75 – and everyone from Paul Weller and Joe Strummer to Suggs from Madness and Bill Drummond of the KLF did – it was always Johnson they singled out. Their late frontman Lee Brilleaux was a brilliant vocalist and performer, but Wilko Johnson was Dr Feelgood’s visual focus. The oft-repeated line is that, with their cheap suits and air of menace, Dr Feelgood looked less like rock stars than villains from The Sweeney. More accurately, they looked like three villains from The Sweeney who had been forced to keep an eye on their boss’s unpredictable nephew: Johnson, who careered around the stage, mouth permanently open, eyes bulging with the effect of amphetamines beneath his pudding-basin haircut, raising his guitar to his shoulder as if it were a gun, occasionally colliding with his bandmates as they affected to ignore him and glowered at the audience.

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

On one level, what Dr Feelgood did was very straightforward. They played the kind of rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll covers that Britain’s beat groups had played in the early 60s, before the advent of psychedelia had made pop a more complex and ostensibly intellectual business: Route 66, Bonie Moronie, I’m a Hog for You Baby, Riot in Cell Block Number 9. Johnson wrote original material in the same vein, as if all the musical developments that had taken place since the mid-60s hadn’t happened: Roxette, She Does It Right, Back in the Night. He also had a thing about lyrics that attempted to imbue his home town of Canvey Island with the kind of mythic aura the blues and rock’n’roll had conferred on the Mississippi delta. “Stand and watch the towers burning, at the break of day,” ran the atmospheric opening line of All Through the City: a description of staring at the Shell Haven oil refinery while coming down from amphetamines.

It was simple idea, but that was the point: to provide a stark alternative to the increasingly grandiose ambitions of progressive rock (music, Johnson dismissively suggested, that “sounded like birds twittering”), one that suggested something essential and potent had been lost along the way. And yet Dr Feelgood didn’t sound retro. They sounded like a product of the mid 1970s, as if some of the desperation and nihilism of the era of stagflation and pub bombings had seeped into the bones of the old songs they played. It was, as Brilleaux memorably put it, music “about bad luck” and Johnson’s guitar was the key ingredient: playing without a plectrum, he perfected a taut, staccato, slashing style that seemed riven with pent-up aggression.

It proved to be a huge influence on punk. Quite aside from the British artists gobsmacked by seeing Dr Feelgood cutting a swathe through London’s pub rock circuit – they were bound to stand out on a scene that dealt largely in laid-back rootsy Americana – Blondie’s drummer Clem Burke bought their 1975 debut album Down by the Jetty on a trip to Europe and recalled the amazement of the Ramones and Richard Hell when he played it to them on his return to New York. Indeed, it proved to be a huge influence on post-punk, too: Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill always credited Johnson as the key inspiration on his own jagged, hugely aggressive playing.

The great irony of Johnson’s career was that the punk scene he helped inspire scuppered Dr Feelgood’s own commercial progress. For a moment, it looked as if they were going to be huge – the live album Stupidity went straight to No 1 in October 1976 – but, as Johnson later noted, “it didn’t happen that way. All of the safety pins and bondage gear … that was another world”. He left the band he had formed in 1971 midway through the recording of the follow-up to Stupidity, Sneakin’ Suspicion. The flashpoint was supposed to have been the other members’ dislike of Paradise, a song Johnson had written about his unconventional romantic arrangements – ostensibly a paean to his wife Irene, it also included the line “I love two girls, I ain’t ashamed” – but there were deeper underlying issues.

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

A rather more sensitive and bookish figure than his onstage persona suggested, Johnson suffered from depression: his tendency to withdraw into himself caused friction with the hard-drinking Brilleaux. Dr Feelgood carried on without him, scoring a one-off Top 10 hit in 1979 with Milk and Alcohol, while Johnson’s career never took off in a manner that reflected the sheer extent of his influence. He spent a period as guitarist in Ian Dury and the Blockheads, adapting his guitar style to suit their funk-influenced sound, and co-writing the single Sueperman’s Big Sister, but it didn’t last long. “Mr Johnson could be a bit of a ballerina,” was Dury’s retrospective assessment. He cheerfully blamed himself for the “chaotic” state of his subsequent solo career: he never had a manager, “stumbled from one wrong decision to another” and recorded only sporadically, thanks to his “fairly lackadaisical attitude”.

That changed before his cancer diagnosis, thanks to Julien Temple’s 2009 Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential. For one thing, it contained a lot of thrilling live footage that revealed to anyone too young to remember it first-hand just how exciting Dr Feelgood had been in their 70s prime. For another, Johnson emerged as very much the eccentric star turn among the interviewees: quoting Shakespeare and Milton, revealing himself to be fluent in Old Icelandic, discussing his love of astronomy and showing the world the observatory he had had built on the roof of his otherwise unassuming terrace house. It led to a role in Game of Thrones and a surge of interest in his music that was compounded further when he announced he was dying. Rather than playing clubs, he found himself filling the Royal Albert Hall. Going Back Home, an acclaimed collaborative album with the Who’s Roger Daltrey that Johnson assumed he wouldn’t live to see released, went gold.

The renewed interest in Johnson never waned, even when it became apparent he wasn’t terminally ill. A second Temple-directed documentary, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, was another hit. He continued playing big shows and released his first album of original material in 30 years, 2018’s Blow Your Mind, on which Johnson’s playing sounded every bit as belligerent and explosive as it had in 1975. Rather than overshadow his artistic achievements or the pivotal importance of Dr Feelgood, as he had feared, the saga of his illness just seemed to have highlighted them to a far wider audience. It was, he wryly conceded back in 2015, “a fabulous career move”.

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