Straight-talk­ing, straight-play­ing Dr Feel­good gui­tarist Wilko John­son is a true rock ’n’ roll sur­vivor. Here, with Block­heads bassist, Nor­man Watt-Roy, he talks through us some mem­o­rable mo­ments

Guitarist - - Interview - Words Rod Brakes Pho­tog­ra­phy Adam Gas­son

Wilko John­son rose to no­to­ri­ety in the 1970s as a found­ing mem­ber of the maverick, back-to-ba­sics rock ’n’ roll band Dr Feel­good – his trade­mark no-non­sense gui­tar chops shoot­ing straight from the hip in con­trast to a soon-out­dated back­drop of mu­si­cal grandios­ity. Hav­ing left the band in 1977, he went on to form Solid Sen­ders, be­fore join­ing The Block­heads a few years later.

Mean­while, in be­tween carv­ing out his own style as a ses­sion player for Roger Dal­trey, The Clash and Mad­ness, longserv­ing Block­heads bassist Nor­man Watt-Roy be­gan a mu­si­cal part­ner­ship with Wilko, which has – against the odds – sur­vived to this day, as the pair have now been tour­ing and record­ing to­gether for more than 30 years.

With a new al­bum cur­rently in progress and ex­ten­sive tour­ing un­der­way, in­clud­ing a date this Septem­ber at the Royal Al­bert Hall, the Wilko John­son Band three-piece, also com­pris­ing drum­mer Dy­lan Howe (son of gui­tarist Steve Howe), show no signs of slow­ing down. While re­treat­ing to their tour van for a few quiet mo­ments, Wilko and Nor­man join Gui­tarist at the an­nual Rock Against Cancer con­cert in All Can­nings, Wilt­shire to dis­cuss the highs and lows of their decades-long jour­ney. You guys have been work­ing to­gether for a long time now – how did it all start? Wilko: “What hap­pened first was I bumped into Ian [Dury] and told him I was a bit down in the dumps. I was think­ing of quit­ting and he said, ‘Lis­ten, The Block­heads are down the stu­dio at the minute – do you wanna come along and make a sin­gle with them?’ And I went, ‘Wow!’ be­cause I was a raving fan of Nor­man, but I didn’t know him, right? I just re­mem­ber see­ing a live Block­heads show on the telly and I re­mem­ber the next day go­ing, ‘Did you see Ian Dury? Did you see the fuckin’ bass player?!’ And so I was re­ally, re­ally ex­cited and I thought ‘Yeah, I’d like to go down just for that!’ So I went down and they asked me to join the band. Me and Norm were just mates straight away, weren’t we, Norm?” Nor­man: “Yeah, we’re good mates, we al­ways got on well. He toured with us for about two and a half years. And all the time Wilko was tour­ing with The Block­heads – we did Aus­tralia, all over Europe and Eng­land – he had his band, Solid Sen­ders and they were still go­ing at the time, too. He’d come off a Block­head tour and go straight on the road with his band! And I used to love it. I thought, ‘He’s got it, man – he just keeps work­ing!’” Wilko: “Well, [Solid Sen­ders] had got to an­other point later where I just thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to leave it.’ I had four gigs left with them, I think, and my bass player went off and joined Ed­die & The Hot Rods [laughs]. I thought, ‘The hu­mil­i­a­tion is com­plete now.’ So I had just these few gigs left and I hadn’t seen Norm for a cou­ple of years, but I de­cided to phone him up and said, ‘Can you fill in with us for four gigs?’, which he did and we just never stopped since then.” Nor­man: “It went so well. The very first gig we ever did was at The Half Moon in Put­ney, which is still go­ing – great gig. I re­mem­ber Wilk said, ‘Look, we don’t need to re­hearse – just start and then you fol­low me,’ and I went ‘Okay!’ And that’s what we did. It was fuck­ing great [laughs]! It was re­ally good. It’s just kind of pro­gressed and now it’s over 30 years on the road to­gether. It’s bril­liant. And The Block­heads are cel­e­brat­ing their 40th an­niver­sary tour this year!” You’re both well known for hav­ing in­stantly recog­nis­able styles – how did that de­velop? Nor­man: “I know peo­ple say I’ve got a style and all this, but I don’t think you kind of re­alise you’ve got a style, do you? To me, I’m just do­ing what I’ve al­ways done and try­ing to do it bet­ter all the time.” Wilko: “Ac­tu­ally, it is kinda dif­fer­ent – I gotta say that. It might feel nat­u­ral to you, but I’ve played with a few bass play­ers and it is dif­fer­ent.” Nor­man: “I don’t know… It’s the free­dom I love, play­ing with Wilks. He just plays what he does and then I can do what­ever I want. I love it! And then I lock in with Dy­lan, be­cause he’s a great drum­mer. I worked with him in The Block­heads and with Wilks… We never talk about it! We’ve never re­ally talked about it!” Wilko: “Re­ally, we don’t re­hearse, man. I mean, it’s just so sim­ple, y’know?”

Dr Feel­good ap­peared to have a sim­i­lar, ba­sic ap­proach – how did that come to­gether ini­tially? Wilko: “I hap­pened to bump into [Dr Feel­good vo­cal­ist] Lee Bril­leaux out on the street one day and we started talk­ing. He had a band that wanted a gui­tarist and I thought, ‘I’ve got a gui­tar,’ so we went and put this band to­gether and called it Dr Feel­good. It was purely, ab­so­lutely for fun. I mean, I was an [English] school­teacher at that time and Lee was a solic­i­tor’s clerk, Sparko was a brick­layer and The Fig­ure was an ice cream man!

“We kind of got the thing to­gether that we were do­ing, although it wasn’t very fash­ion­able then. This was the early 70s and big pro­duc­tion mu­sic was very pop­u­lar, but we didn’t have any of that. It was so ba­sic, but we in­stantly caught on and were pack­ing the places out be­cause we were just so dif­fer­ent from what­ever else was hap­pen­ing – we were so vi­o­lent and silly.” Nor­man: “Dr Feel­good were just like these four hit-men! I mean, this was all mid-70s – it was pre-punk. You knew a lot of the young guys be­fore they were punks, didn’t you? They were all watch­ing Dr Feel­good, be­cause it was no bull­shit rock ’n’ roll. Ev­ery­one else was do­ing all this mega-pro­duc­tion stuff and it had all gone over the top with that, whereas they were just get­ting on and do­ing ba­sic shit. And I think they liked that.” Wilko: “In 1976, [Dr Feel­good] was suc­ceed­ing and tour­ing quite a lot of the time, but the whole punk thing de­vel­oped when [Dr Feel­good] were tour­ing Amer­ica. When I got back from tour­ing, I even­tu­ally got chucked out of the band and I was walk­ing down Ox­ford Street one day and sud­denly these three geezers came run­ning up. One of them is Joe Strum­mer and he said, ‘You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are! What are you gonna do now?’ I said, ‘I know who you are, man – I’ve seen you in the pa­per.’ Quite quickly I started mak­ing friends with all of these dif­fer­ent bands. They were all well into Dr Feel­good.” Nor­man: “I ended up work­ing with Joe. I did [The Clash] San­din­ista! and Cut The Crap. And when he heard I was work­ing with Wilks he went, ‘Whoa!’ I mean, he bought his gui­tar from Wilks. He called him­self Strum­mer be­cause of Wilks!” Wilko, what was the first gui­tar you bought? Wilko: “The first gui­tar I got was a left­handed gui­tar for about 10 quid. I am left­handed, but then I got a chance to buy a sec­ond­hand Watkins Rapier for about 17 quid, which was right-handed, so I thought, ‘What I’m gonna do is learn to play righthanded and I’m gonna tell my­self I’ve only just started, so I won’t feel such a twat.’ I learned to play with that thing in a way. Then I got into Mick Green [of The Pi­rates] and I just re­ally wanted a Tele­caster. There was this Tele­caster in the Southend mu­sic shop win­dow that was £107. I’m talk­ing 1965. That was an enor­mous price then.

“I’d been us­ing this gui­tar with Dr Feel­good and it got to the point where I thought, ‘I don’t wanna take this on the road any more – there’s too much sen­ti­men­tal value.’ So, I just said to the roadie, ‘Go and get me a pre-CBS Tele­caster.’ An hour later he came back with a 1962 Tele­caster and I just got it re­sprayed black. I had the idea of the red scratch­plate be­cause I used to wear a red-and-black shirt at the time – I was all an­ar­chy then!” What gui­tar are you us­ing on stage at the moment? Wilko: “I use the Fender Wilko John­son Tele­caster as my num­ber-one live gui­tar. It was the first one ever made, I think. I love it. But I wanted an ex­act copy of the old [redand-black 1962 Fender Tele­caster] and Joe Dob­son at Joseph Kaye Gui­tars made me one. I usu­ally have it by the side of the stage as a backup, in case some­thing hap­pens. It’s so good! They’re nice, Te­les, aren’t they? Just nuts and bolts. No muck­ing about.”

“You wake up in the morn­ing and the first thing you think is: ‘I’m gonna die.’ And you freak out for a bit and then you get up…” Wilko john­son

Nor­man: “Joe [Dob­son] also made me a replica of my old 1962 Shore­line Gold Fender Jazz Bass and I’ve mainly been us­ing that ever since. I love it – it’s re­ally good. It’s got ‘Faith & Grace’ on the head­stock – rhyming slang for bass. That’s what Ian [Dury] used to say to me, ‘Go get yer faith ’n’ grace!’ I was us­ing the ’62 Jazz Bass up un­til then, but I sold it to Colin Greenwood of Ra­dio­head. As a spare Jazz I have a [The Bass Cen­tre] Block­head Bass and I carry that around some­times.” Did you use a 1972 Fender Precision Bass pre­vi­ously with The Block­heads? Nor­man: “Yeah, I used that P-Bass when I did Hit Me [With Your Rhythm Stick] and all The Block­heads stuff. The Bass Cen­tre make two basses: they make a copy of my old Precision that they call the Rhythm Stick, and they make a copy of my old ’62 Jazz they call the Block­head Bass.” Is your setup as sim­ple in the stu­dio as it is on stage? Wilko: “I’ve al­ways liked to record as we would set up on stage. When we did the al­bum with Roger Dal­trey [Go­ing Back Home], there wasn’t any over­dub­bing or fid­dling about – very min­i­mal.” You re­mained pro­duc­tive record­ing that al­bum and tour­ing, de­spite the cancer… Wilko: “The al­bum I did with Roger was the first part of my ex­tra time! The first 10 months they’d given me had gone by and I was think­ing, ‘Oh man, I’m gonna die, but I’ve had a good life.’ I didn’t think I was gonna see that al­bum re­leased – I just thought, ‘The end is com­ing soon.’ I mean, the tu­mour was big and I was ready to go.” Nor­man: “Af­ter the op, he’s ly­ing there and it’s a suc­cess and I told him, ‘Your al­bum’s do­ing re­ally well!’ He’s ly­ing there with all these tubes in him…” Wilko: “Yeah, so while it’s all hap­pen­ing and the al­bum’s get­ting re­ally suc­cess­ful, I’m just ly­ing there all groggy, like ‘Oh… Good.’ [laughs]” Talk about a come­back al­bum! Nor­man: “Com­ing back from the dead!” Wilko: “It’s weird – when I was given a di­ag­no­sis I was calm. But in that moment the uni­verse changes. It makes you see things dif­fer­ently. You start un­der­stand­ing what is im­por­tant and what is not. I look back on it now and it seems like a dream. You wake up in the morn­ing and it’s the first bloody thing you think: ‘I’m gonna die.’ And you freak out for a bit and then you get up. I couldn’t think, ‘How can any­one fight this?’ be­cause you’ve got to, ob­vi­ously.

“Em­manuel Huguet, the boss sur­geon at Ad­den­brooke’s [Hos­pi­tal], is the most im­pres­sive guy I’ve ever met. I knew he could do it – I had ab­so­lute faith in him. It was a mas­sive 11-hour op­er­a­tion and they took out my pan­creas, my spleen, half my stom­ach, some gut and a tu­mour that weighed 3.25kg that was the size of a melon! Oh man, it knocks you out – I got so thin! It took a long time to get back, but as soon as I was half-fit we did a ben­e­fit gig in Cam­bridge for the Ad­den­brooke’s Hos­pi­tal and then grad­u­ally started go­ing back on the road.” What’s in the pipe­line, mu­si­cally? Wilko: “We have started do­ing an al­bum. I think it’s gonna be good. We’re quite ex­cited about it.” Nor­man: “Yeah, we’re in the middle of this new al­bum – it’s sound­ing good at the moment. We’re go­ing to Ja­pan af­ter that and we’ve got a lot go­ing on with fes­ti­vals in the sum­mer.” Wilko: “We just wanna get on and do it. No muck­ing about!”

“Dr Feel­good were just like these four hit-men! I mean, this was all mid-70s – it was pre-punk” Nor­man Watt-Roy

Wilko: “I fuck­ing hate the term ‘pub rock’. It’s not a kind of mu­sic, it’s a kind of venue!”

Nor­man Watt-Roy: “It’s the free­dom I love, play­ing with Wilks…”

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