Wilko Johnson

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Wilko Johnson
Wilko Johnson 01.jpg
Background information
Birth nameJohn Peter Wilkinson
Born (1947-07-12) 12 July 1947 (age 71)
Canvey Island, Essex, England
Occupation(s)Musician, actor, guitarist, songwriter
  • Guitar
  • vocals
  • piano
Years active1970–present
Labels United Artists
Associated acts
Website wilkojohnson.com

Wilko Johnson (born John Peter Wilkinson, 12 July 1947) [1] is an English guitarist, singer and songwriter. He was a member of the pub rock/rhythm and blues band Dr. Feelgood in the 1970s.

Pub rock is a rock music genre that was developed in the early to mid-1970s in the United Kingdom. A back-to-basics movement which incorporated roots rock, pub rock was a reaction against expensively-recorded and produced progressive rock and flashy glam rock. Although short-lived, pub rock was notable for rejecting huge stadium venues and for returning live rock to the small intimate venues of its early years. Since major labels showed no interest in pub rock groups, pub rockers sought out independent record labels such as Stiff Records. Indie labels used relatively inexpensive recording processes, so they had a much lower break-even point for a record than a major label.

Rhythm and blues, commonly abbreviated as R&B, is a genre of popular music that originated in African American communities in the 1940s. The term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African Americans, at a time when "urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat" was becoming more popular. In the commercial rhythm and blues music typical of the 1950s through the 1970s, the bands usually consisted of piano, one or two guitars, bass, drums, one or more saxophones, and sometimes background vocalists. R&B lyrical themes often encapsulate the African-American experience of pain and the quest for freedom and joy, as well as triumphs and failures in terms of relationships, economics, and aspirations.

Dr. Feelgood (band) British rock band

Dr. Feelgood are an English pub rock band formed in 1971. Hailing from Canvey Island, Essex, the group are best known for early singles such as "She Does It Right", "Roxette", "Back in the Night" and "Milk and Alcohol". The group's original distinctively British R&B sound was centred on Wilko Johnson's choppy guitar style. Along with Johnson, the original band line-up included singer Lee Brilleaux and the rhythm section of John B. Sparks, known as "Sparko", on bass guitar and John Martin, known as "The Big Figure", on drums. Although their most commercially productive years were the early to mid-1970s, and in spite of Brilleaux's death in 1994 of lymphoma, a version of the band continues to tour and record to this day.


Johnson and Dr Feelgood were an influence on the English punk movement. [2] [3] [4] Paul Weller has said of Johnson: "Wilko may not be as famous as some other guitarists, but he's right up there. And there are a lot of people who'll say the same. I can hear Wilko in lots of places. It's some legacy." [5]

Punk rock is a rock music genre that emerged in the mid-1970s in the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia. Rooted in 1960s garage rock and other forms of what is now known as "proto-punk" music, punk rock bands rejected perceived excesses of mainstream 1970s rock. They typically produced short, fast-paced songs with hard-edged melodies and singing styles, stripped-down instrumentation, and often political, anti-establishment lyrics. Punk embraces a DIY ethic; many bands self-produce recordings and distribute them through independent record labels and other informal channels.

Paul Weller English singer-songwriter, Musician

John William "Paul" Weller Jr is an English singer-songwriter and musician. Weller achieved fame with the punk rock/new wave/mod revival band The Jam. He had further success with the blue-eyed soul music of The Style Council (1983–1989), before establishing himself as a solo artist in 1991.


Music career

Born in Canvey Island, Essex, Johnson went to Westcliff High School for Boys and played in several local groups, before attending the University of Newcastle upon Tyne to study for a BA in English Language and Literature. His undergraduate course included Anglo-Saxon and ancient Icelandic sagas. [6] [7]

Canvey Island civil parish and reclaimed island in the Thames estuary in Essex, England

Canvey Island is a civil parish and reclaimed island in the Thames estuary in Essex, England. It has an area of 7.12 square miles (18.44 km2) and a population of 38,170. It is separated from the mainland of south Essex by a network of creeks. Lying only just above sea level it is prone to flooding at exceptional tides, but has nevertheless been inhabited since the Roman invasion of Britain.

Westcliff High School for Boys

Westcliff High School for Boys (WHSB) is an 11–18 selective academy grammar school for boys in Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex, England. In September 2001 the school was awarded "Beacon" status for its breadth of achievements and quality of work. The school was classed as a "Humanities College" in early 2007 and received a further specialism in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) on 1 April 2009. The school converted to academy status in 2010.

After graduating, he travelled overland to India, before returning to Essex to play with the Pigboy Charlie Band. The band evolved into Dr. Feelgood – a mainstay of the 1970s pub rock movement. [6] After returning from Goa, Johnson worked in 1972, for less than a year, as an English teacher. [2] [8]

India Country in South Asia

India, also known as the Republic of India, is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by area, the second-most populous country, and the most populous democracy in the world. Bounded by the Indian Ocean on the south, the Arabian Sea on the southwest, and the Bay of Bengal on the southeast, it shares land borders with Pakistan to the west; China, Nepal, and Bhutan to the northeast; and Bangladesh and Myanmar to the east. In the Indian Ocean, India is in the vicinity of Sri Lanka and the Maldives; its Andaman and Nicobar Islands share a maritime border with Thailand and Indonesia.

Goa State in India

Goa is a state on the southwestern coast of India within the region known as the Konkan, separated from the Deccan highlands of the state of Karnataka by the Western Ghats. It is bounded by Maharashtra to the north and Karnataka to the east and south, with the Arabian Sea forming its western coast. It is India's smallest state by area and the fourth-smallest by population. Goa has the highest GDP per capita among all Indian states, two and a half times that of the country. It was ranked the best-placed state by the Eleventh Finance Commission for its infrastructure and ranked on top for the best quality of life in India by the National Commission on Population based on the 12 Indicators.

In 1965 Johnson bought his first Fender Telecaster from a shop in Southend, Essex for £90 (equivalent to £1,712 as of 2018). [9] [10] He still plays a vintage 1962 Fender Telecaster with rosewood fingerboard which he bought in 1974, shortly after Dr. Feelgood signed their first record deal. [11] Originally of sunburst-coloured body with white pickguard, Johnson later refinished it in black and added a red pickguard.

The Fender Telecaster, colloquially known as the Tele, is the world's first commercially successful solid-body electric guitar. Its simple yet effective design and revolutionary sound broke ground and set trends in electric guitar manufacturing and popular music. Introduced for national distribution as the Broadcaster in the autumn of 1950, it was the first guitar of its kind manufactured on a substantial scale and has been in continuous production in one form or another since its first incarnation.

Johnson developed his own image, coupling jerky movements on stage (his so-called "duck walk") with a choppy guitar style, occasionally raising his guitar to his shoulder like a gun, [12] and a novel dress sense (he favoured a black suit and a pudding bowl haircut). He achieved his playing style by not using a pick but instead relying on fingerstyle. This enabled him to play rhythm guitar and riffs or solos at the same time creating a highly percussive guitar sound. It evolved from a failed attempt to copy Mick Green of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, a guitarist whom Johnson greatly admired. His Bo Diddley-influenced style formed the essential driving force behind Dr. Feelgood during their initial years, including the band's first four albums, Down by the Jetty , Malpractice , Stupidity and Sneakin' Suspicion , all released between 1975 and 1977. [13]

Bowl cut haircut

A bowl cut, or bowl haircut, is a simple, plain, and short haircut where the hair is cut with a straight fringe on the front and the rest of the hair is the same length all the way around or is cut short on the sides and back. It is so named because it looks as though someone were to place a bowl on the head and cut off or trim all of the hair to a very short length.

Guitar pick

A guitar pick is a plectrum used for guitars. Picks are generally made of one uniform material—such as some kind of plastic, rubber, felt, tortoiseshell, wood, metal, glass, tagua, or stone. They are often shaped in an acute isosceles triangle with the two equal corners rounded and the third corner less rounded. They are used to strum chords or to sound individual notes on a guitar.

Fingerstyle guitar technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips

Fingerstyle guitar is the technique of playing the guitar by plucking the strings directly with the fingertips, fingernails, or picks attached to fingers, as opposed to flatpicking. The term "fingerstyle" is something of a misnomer, since it is present in several different genres and styles of music—but mostly, because it involves a completely different technique, not just a "style" of playing, especially for the guitarist's picking/plucking hand. The term is often used synonymously with fingerpicking, although fingerpicking can also refer to a specific tradition of folk, blues and country guitar playing in the US. The terms "fingerstyle" and "fingerpicking" also applied to similar string instruments such as the banjo.

The live album, Stupidity, reached number one in the UK Albums Chart, but although Johnson played on Dr. Feelgood's first 5 single releases, including "Roxette" and "Back in the Night", the only single to chart during his membership of the band was "Sneakin' Suspicion". He left the band in April 1977, following disagreements over the tracks to be included in the Sneakin' Suspicion album. [14] Johnson maintains that he was kicked out of the band, while the remaining band members claimed that he had left voluntarily. [2] [7]

In 1977, he was a founding member of Solid Senders, with keyboardist John Potter, bassist Steve Lewins, and drummer Alan Platt. They signed to Virgin in 1978 and released the album, Solid Senders that year. [15] The Wilko Johnson Band played at the 'Front Row Festival', a three-week event at the Hope and Anchor, Islington in late November and early December 1977, featuring many early punk rock acts. [16] This resulted in the inclusion of two tracks by The Wilko Johnson Band ("Dr. Feelgood" & "Twenty Yards Behind"), on a hit double album of recordings from the festival. The Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival compilation album (March 1978) which reached number 28 in the UK Albums Chart [17]

In 1980, Johnson joined Ian Dury's band, The Blockheads. Around 1984 he then re-formed The Wilko Johnson Band, joined by Blockhead bassist Norman Watt-Roy and Italian born drummer Salvatore Ramundo. 'Sav' Ramundo left the band in June 1999 and was replaced by Steve Monti (future Curve and The Jesus and Mary Chain drummer). Johnson's second album, Ice on the Motorway, was released in 1981, and his EP "Bottle Up and Go!" with Lew Lewis followed in 1983. Several albums were released on European labels over the next decade. In 1992, Johnson appeared at the Eurockéennes music festival, and the following year at GuilFest. The album Going Back Home appeared on the Mystic label in 1998. He began to cut back on his concert appearances in 1999, and released the album Don't Let Your Daddy Know (Live in Japan 2000) the following year. [15]

The studio album Red Hot Rocking Blues was released in 2005. This contained covers of classics by the likes of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lead Belly. Throughout 2005 and 2006 the band teamed up with The Hamsters and John Otway to take part in 'The Mad, the Bad & the Dangerous' tour. He played Club Bang Bang at the 100 Club on 6 October 2006, and played throughout the UK, Europe and Japan, including twice a year at the 100 Club. [ citation needed ]

Johnson appeared in the Julien Temple-directed documentary film Oil City Confidential (2009), where he related his memories of Canvey Island and Dr. Feelgood. The reviewer Philip French described Johnson as "a wild man, off stage and on, funny, eloquent and charismatic", [8] while Temple described Johnson as "an extraordinary man – one of the great English eccentrics". [18] Reviewing the film for The Guardian , Peter Bradshaw called it "the best rockumentary yet" and said that "the most likeable thing about this very likeable film is the way it promotes Wilko Johnson as a 100–1 shot for the title of Greatest Living Englishman". [19]

On 2 October 2010, it was announced that Johnson was to support The Stranglers on their 'Black & Blue' UK tour starting in March 2011. In April 2011, he played several sold out shows as part of the Kilkenny Rhythm & Roots Festival in Ireland. [20]

Johnson published his autobiography, co-authored with Zoe Howe and titled Looking Back at Me, at the end of May 2012. [7] He appeared in the BBC4 documentaries Evidently... John Cooper Clarke and Punk Britannia in May 2012. [4] On 24 August 2012, Johnson and his band were due to headline the Blues stage at Rhythm Festival, but the festival was cancelled on 3 August due to poor ticket sales. [21]

Railway Hotel, Southend-on-Sea, pub sign featuring portrait of Wilko Johnson Wilko Johnson pub sign.jpg
Railway Hotel, Southend-on-Sea, pub sign featuring portrait of Wilko Johnson

Johnson stated in early 2013 that he had terminal cancer, and announced he was going on a farewell tour. On 22 March 2013, he played what was announced as his final show guesting with Madness on the television programme Madness Live: Goodbye Television Centre which was broadcast on BBC Four. Afterwards he stated that he would not be able to perform his two final homecoming shows at Canvey Island due to ill health and would not be performing again. [22]

However, on 13 July 2013, he performed an unannounced hour-long live set with Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe at the Village Green Festival in his home town of Westcliff-on-Sea. [23] In addition, he occasionally performs informal unannounced sets at his local pub, the Railway Hotel in Southend. In July 2013, the pub replaced their sign with a portrait of him painted by local artist Jack Melville, in honour of his long-term support of the south-east Essex music scene. [24]

Johnson also played a set on the final night at Wickham Festival in Hampshire on Sunday 4 August 2013, where he was invited by the Blockheads on stage to play a song. Johnson has announced a further tour with Howe and Watt-Roy during the spring of 2014. [25]

In March and April 2014, Wilko, together with Watt-Roy and Howe, appeared on several UK dates as support to the "Frantic Four" (the classic line-up of Status Quo on what was billed as their last ever tour). In September 2014, after a meeting in Southend-on-Sea with Alan McGee, who described Wilko as "one of his all time heroes, and a national treasure", Wilko signed to Creation Management. He performed "All Through the City" and "Going Back Home", with his classic duckwalk, at Jools Holland's annual Hootenanny for New Year, 2014-15.[ citation needed ]

Acting career

For his acting debut, Johnson was cast in the role of mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne, in both the first and second season of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones , [26] [27] after the producers had seen him in Oil City Confidential. He related that "'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'." [28] He appeared in four episodes: "The Kingsroad", "Baelor" and "Fire and Blood" (season one, 2011), and "Blackwater" (season two, 2012). [29]


Johnson's musical style underpinned the early years of Dr Feelgood. A style that has been cited as one of the founding influences of the British punk movement. Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers says "I often say to journalists there is a bridge between the old times and the punk times. That bridge is exclusively the Feelgoods, it allowed us to go from one thing to another. That's the connection, the DNA." [2] This influence was explored in the 2009 documentary about Dr Feelgood, Oil City Confidential. Reviewing Johnson's autobiography, Mark Blake of Q magazine said "In the mid-70s the band's brutish R&B and their guitarist's eye-popping thousand-yard stare inspired a young John Lydon, Paul Weller and Suggs from Madness. Looking Back at Me secures the man born John Wilkinson's reputation as one of British rock's most unique characters. Wilko recalls his childhood on Canvey Island and how he followed the '60s hippy trail to Goa ... before helping invent punk with Dr Feelgood." [3] The BBC4 three-part documentary series Punk Britannia , first aired in May 2012, also stressed the importance of Dr Feelgood as "pub rockers, a generation of bands sandwiched between 60s hippies and mid-70s punks who will help pave the way towards the short, sharp shock of punk". [4]

In February 2017, The Wave Pictures released a vinyl EP titled Canvey Island Baby, which featured five covers of Johnson-penned tracks and an additional song, the title track written by the band's singer/guitarist David Tattersall. [30]

Personal life

Johnson lives in Southend. He married his childhood sweetheart Irene Knight when they were teenagers, and the couple had two sons, Matthew and Simon. Johnson was widowed in 2004 after his wife's death from cancer. [2] [18] [31] [32] He is interested in astronomy, painting and poetry. [2] [3] [31] Johnson's son Simon is also a guitarist, playing in Southend-based band Eight Rounds Rapid. [33]


Johnson was forced to cancel a show in November 2012 when he was rushed to hospital with an undisclosed ailment. [34] He was diagnosed in January 2013 with late stage pancreatic cancer, and elected not to receive any chemotherapy. [35] [36] [37]

On 25 January 2013, he gave an interview to John Wilson on the BBC Radio 4 arts programme Front Row . He discussed his cancer, and said doctors had told him he had nine or ten months to live. He talked about his "farewell tour" of the UK set for March, and how his diagnosis had made him feel "vividly alive". [38] After the tour was over, he announced he would spend his final days recording a farewell album with the Who's lead singer Roger Daltrey. [39] The album, Going Back Home , was released in March 2014. "I thought that was going to be the last thing I ever did", he later told BBC News entertainment correspondent Colin Paterson in October 2014. [40]

However, Johnson did not have the more common adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. It was later discovered that he had a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor (PanNET), a less virulent and more treatable form of the disease. [41] Johnson underwent radical surgery to treat his illness, and the doctors were hopeful that his prognosis would be good. [42] At the Q Awards on 22 October 2014, Johnson accepted the "Icon Award" and announced that he was "cancer-free" having undergone "removal of his pancreas, spleen, part of his stomach, small and large intestines and the removal and reconstruction of blood vessels relating to the liver". Johnson said: "It was an 11-hour operation… This tumour weighed 3kg – that's the size of a baby! Anyway, they got it all. They cured me. It's so weird and so strange that it's kind of hard to come to terms with it in my mind. Now, I'm spending my time gradually coming to terms with the idea that my death is not imminent, that I am going to live on". He added that he was still recovering from the operation and when asked what he would do next replied: "I don't know really". [40]


Albums and EPs (as a band member)

Dr Feelgood

  • Down by the Jetty (January 1975)
  • Malpractice (October 1975) – UK No. 17
  • Stupidity (1976) – UK No. 1
  • Sneakin' Suspicion (1977) – UK No. 10
  • All Through the City (2012: box set of all four Dr Feelgood albums Johnson wrote and played on plus unreleased material, "much of it garnered from Wilko's understairs cupboard.") [7]

Solid Senders

  • Solid Senders (1978)

The Wilko Johnson Band

  • 2 tracks on Hope & Anchor Front Row Festival (1978)
  • Ice on the Motorway (1981)
  • Bottle Up and Go! (EP, 1983)
  • Pull the Cover (1984)
  • Watch Out! (Live in London) (1985)
  • Call It What You Want (1987)
  • Barbed Wire Blues (1988)
  • Going Back Home (1998)
  • Don't Let Your Daddy Know (Live in Japan 2000) (2000)
  • Red Hot Rocking Blues (2005)
  • Portobello Shuffle: A Testimonial to Boss Goodman and Tribute to the Deviants & Pink Fairies (contribute a cover of The Pink Fairies "Portobello Shuffle" [2010, Easy Action, EARSBOSS001]
  • Blow Your Mind (2018)

Ian Dury & the Blockheads

with Roger Daltrey

Album as a guest musician

See also

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