Beeb Farewell: Wilko Johnson during his guest slot with Madness at Broadcasting House last month (Photo: BBC)
WAS it really a month ago Madness were fighting off the bitter winter elements outside Broadcasting House, with their special guests including a certain guitar legend?
You had to fear for Wilko Johnson on such a freezing cold night with very little Spring about it, his hectic schedule interrupted by this milestone live BBC TV appearance.
It was all part of the 65-year-old’s on-going campaign to stick two fingers up to the monster that is cancer – pancreatic in his case, and terminal – as the Nutty Boys invited the ailing 65-year-old to join them on their eponymous cover of Prince Buster classic Madness.
As the snowflakes fell around them, Suggs announced over Woody’s drum beat to a truly-chilled (to the bone) crowd the imminent arrival of the ‘greatest British r’n'b guitarist of all time – bar none’, and on he ambled in dark suit, dark shirt, his trademark black Fender Telecaster with red pickguard around his neck. A sight to warm the cockles for sure.
Needless to say, Wilko played a blinder too, chopping out the ska beat on his customised six-string, the red flex stretching as he hithered and thithered around the stage, before lining up alongside Bedders and Chrissy Boy, that amiable grin never far from his lips.
Unfortunately, that might have been his final public appearance – although I’d love to be proved wrong on that score – with the two Canvey Island homecoming gigs set to follow called off late doors due to an almost-inevitable slide in his health.
His management reported a couple of days later that Johnson had cancelled for health reasons, and won’t return to the stage.
Facing Facts: Wilko Johnson (Photo borrowed along with the logo at the end of this article from his official Facebook page)
Wilko told Essex-based Echo News: “I only performed one song, but it was freezing. The wind was blowing up an absolute gale. It was whipping into my face – how Madness performed for an hour I have no idea. It was very very, very cold; and I think this is why I feel down.”
It was only back in December that Wilko discovered his cancer was terminal, deciding against a painful programme of treatment for what he felt might just secure another few months of poor health. Instead, he announced a farewell UK tour the following month, with plans for one more album and a live DVD too.
He was all set to take the stage at the sold-out Oysterfleet Hotel after the Madness gig for two nights, joined by Alison Moyet. But it was not to be, and Wilko added: “It is really upsetting not to perform for the people of Canvey at the end. I really wish I could have done it. If one little bit of me thought it was possible I would have done it.”
But if that Beeb bye-bye was the last live show for Wilko, so be it. There was certainly a tear in my eye, and thanks to his Camden Town comrades for inviting him on.
However he sees his days out from here – and I can only wish Wilko the least possible pain in the coming months – he’s already done enough to secure his place in the great musical hall of fame, and I’m just so glad I got to see him live a few years before.
Quite a few years before as it happened. I’m not quite old enough to have been rubbing shoulders with The Clash, Sex Pistols and The Stranglers at those seminal Dr Feelgood performances in the burgeoning village of London.
I also missed out on his most recent three-piece band’s tour, alongside Blockheads legendary bass player Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe. But I at least saw the Wilko Johnson Band a couple of times in the mid-’80s.
At that point he was touting 1985 mini-LP Watch Out! and, later, 1987′s Call It What You Want, in tandem (or trandem perhaps?) with Watt-Roy and drummer Salvatore Ramundo. And that first time I clapped eyes on him at Kennington Cricketers will always remain with me.
I loved that SE11 venue, situated alongside the Oval Cricket Ground, seeing so many great gigs there back in the day, not least a storming That Petrol Emotion show and rousing appearance by soul legend Geno Washington and The Ram-Jam Band.
At the latter, I recall one-time Dexy’s Midnight Runners inspiration Geno hollering at one point how he was going to do ‘this next song sideways’. It made little sense, but on the other hand somehow did, and if there was anyone else qualified to perform songs sideways, I guess it would be Wilko.
Long Gone: The Cricketers, Kennington, unfortunately no longer with us (Photo: Stephen Harris/http://www.closedpubs.co.uk/)
He proved that when I caught him at Kennington, and while I knew a bit about the Feelgoods at that point, starting with their post-Wilko era and working backwards to the sublime She Does It Right and so much more, I’d never seen them live.
I also knew Wilko – real name John Peter Wilkinson - from his spoken intro on Ian Dury & The Blockheads’ I Wanna Be Straight (brief and to the point, you could say), but certainly hadn’t seen him perform. And boy, could he perform.
First I knew of it was the expectant voices around me, saying, ‘Here he goes. Watch him!’ And then he was away, the first extended guitar riff marking his impressive sideways ‘skitter’, as if sweeping up the stage (which in a sense he was), made all the more spectacular by the fact that I couldn’t see his feet so he appeared to be floating across the stage.
That adds credence to the description of him and Feelgood frontman Lee Brilleaux as ‘two planets which would occasionally collide’. It was like watching some sinister character from an American b-movie getting around via hover-board. Maybe.
What’s more, that staccato sound he conjured up with his bare, bloodied fingers – no plectrums for our Wilko – on his Telecaster defined his special sound. And what a sound.
My old diaries tell me that Cricketers gig was in January 1986, and that I also got to see the Wilko Johnson Band in late 1987 at Putney’s Half Moon, another great atmospheric London venue of yore. Great days.
As it turned out, just a few days after his Broadcasting House cameo with his old Camden mates, I was on hand at Preston’s 53 Degrees as ex-band-mate Watt-Roy paid tribute to Canvey’s finest in an emotional intro to Sweet Gene Vincent, further dedicated to fellow cancer victims Ian Dury (who died in 2000) and original Blockheads drummer Charley Charles (who died in 1990).
If you add to that sad equation the fact that Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994, and Wilko’s beloved wife Irene died of the Big C nine years ago, you can only guess what Wilko must have felt when he received his own diagnosis.
The Brilleaux and Johnson story is told so powerfully in the wondrous 2009 Julien Temple-directed Oil City Confidential documentary, a fitting tribute for all time to an extraordinary Essex duo. Well worth seeking out if you haven’t yet caught it.
With lots of typically Temple-esque tangential twists and visual turns, Wilko proves to be the star of the show, talking us through – in his own inimitable style – all that being ‘born below sea level’ entailed.
From mystical mentions of Kent – that ‘promised land’ across the water – and the night lights of Shellhaven, plus an early love of blues and rock’n'roll, we get to understand something of the influences on a young lad born on the wrong side of the Thames.
Oil City Confidential also sheds light on Wilko’s unique picking style, a primary love of Howling Wolf and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates translated into something that in turn went on to influence the whole punk and new wave movement.
Prog and glam said little to these jug-band veterans (as Wilko put it, ‘rock’n'roll’s not about The Hobbit’), Lee’s strong on-stage persona perfectly complemented by Wilko’s inventive songcraft and live presence.
Wilko comes over as a complex character for sure, in a tale that includes teenage marriage, North-East studies, Far East hippie travels and drug experimentation, environmental political activism, a spell as an unorthodox schoolteacher, and an ever-present love of astronomy, literature and art.
But for all those complicated strands, the Feelgoods stuck with good, honest r’n'b – more A13 than Route 66 – and their live fan-base steadily built and led them to NME adoration and a United Artists deal in 1975, Down by the Jetty just being the start of their recorded output.
By the time second LP Malpractice followed, Lee, Wilko, Sparko and the Big Figure were living the dream, confident enough to release the live Stupidity as their third long player, and it going straight to No.1.
The crunchy followed the smooth, and a ’76 tour of America led to major rifts in the band, Lee and Wilko in particular at loggerheads, paying the price of an estimated ’1,000 shows in six intense years’.
When Wilko stopped writing songs, they were knackered – in more ways than one – the final rows during the recording of Sneakin’ Suspicion proving fatal, with Wilko leaving in 1977 as the new wave movement they inspired hit the big time.
The band went on without him, even registering their biggest hit in Milk and Alcohol, and any lingering hopes of reconciliation and reformation disappeared with Brilleaux’s passing in Leigh-on-Sea at the age of 41.
Some 19 years later, Wilko – who published his autobiography Looking Back At Me last year - is fighting his own battle. But now is not the time to be downcast about his story.
I can’t pretend to be the first to get my pre-obit in, either, as good friend of this blog Tony Parsons did that at the end of January, determined to pay his own respects to the bug-eyed performer ‘who made this world a better place’.
But what a legacy Wilko leaves behind, that Feelgood sound such an influence on so many bands – heard on everything from The Jam’s debut LP In The City in 1977 through to the first output from 2013 new Irish kids on the block The Strypes.
Wilko recently told the Echo News, “I never intended to follow this path but it all just happened. I was caught up in the fabulous seventies and I have had a great life.”
While there’s potentially a sad ending, the man himself has asked to go out on a high, so it would be wrong to go against that. Instead, I’ll simply say, we salute you, Wilko. You’re a legend.