WILKO JOHNSON – Part Two
Following up on Part One, Wilko and Pete talk about more musicians and the art of Rocking Out….
Do you remember in 72’ a rock and roll show at Wembley?
I was just watching the video the other night…Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Chuck….
Some friends of mine were appearing at it- the MC5, from Detroit. They had been talking to me about what they might play. I said you do realise that rock and roll here means the more traditional / Teddy Boy stuff and what Americans see as rock and roll is not quite the same thing ? Rob Tyner was a bit surprised by the reaction they got, from the diehards. Because they weren’t playing just old jukebox hits, the Five did a lot more than that. Did you ever meet Wayne Kramer?
I did indeed, because the MC5 absolutely knocked me out when I saw them. I knew who they were. I knew their records. I went out and saw them and went ‘Wow Yes!’ they had a bad time from the TeddyBoys throwing tins at them and stuff. And I went down afterwards and saw Wayne Kramer and I said look man I just gotta tell you that’s one of the greatest ****ing shows I’d ever seen. You’ve just really done my brain in there, it really made me think..’. And he was saying to me if we’d just had another twenty minutes with them, we would have won them over. I said man you’d never have won them over, they’re called TeddyBoys and they’re arseholes and you’ve just gotta play Eddie Cochran and Chuck Berry note-for-note nd then they’re happy. Don’t matter how badly you play it, they’re happy doing their stupid dancing in their crepe-soled shoes. If you get the MC5 video that came out a year or two ago, there’s a bit that’s quite moving actually and it’s Wayne Kramer driving around Detroit in a big old car and talking about the history of the band. And he comes to the bit when he’s talking about England and things are going really, really bad for them. And he comes out with this thing about ‘these here Teddyboys’. I thought I told you that man! He took my lesson on board..and yours it seems, Pete ! .
When you were writing for Dr Feelgood, the songs that you were producing were just tailor-made for forty five rpm singles weren’t they?
That’s what the music is, three minutes, three and half minutes to each song. They naturally structured themselves like that. You’ve got to write an entirely different thing or you’ve got to expand it artificially somehow. But generally you’ll find that any song that you write, certainly in rock and roll has said what it’s got to say within three and a half minutes
Yeah. Which meant that your sets were chockful of nugget after nugget…
( Laughs ) Well you have to rack up a lot of three minute songs in a set, yeah!
What fascinated me is that you seemed to be at your absolute best- outside your own compositions- when you were doing Coasters songs. I’m thinking ‘Hog For You Baby’ and ‘Riot In Cell Block No. 9’…
I never saw them but yes I was always very fond of The Coasters. The whole set-up with King Curtis, the guys and also Lieber and Stoller’s songs. Absolutely great….
And of course, that touch of humour
Exactly !! they were everything. They were very witty and it used to make me wonder how they could keep thinking up these really funny ideas. They were really mean as well. They were really street level. To get that kind of humour out of say, shopping for clothes and young blood and stuff like that. Ordinary everyday activities
Girlfriend trouble, being bawled out at school – I could relate to that far more than some Dingly Dell Jon Anderson type lyric. You’ve always dressed in black and what I wondered was whether that was maybe a nod to Johnny Cash?
No. It’s simply because black always looks good and …that’s the end of it !
Which Dr Feelgood tracks do you consider represent you at your best ?
I really couldn’t say, they’re just songs , y’know ? I mean, there are songs that are really popular and I suppose you gotta like them in a way..it’s very funny to be round the other side of the world and see a big crowd of people grooving to words you wrote in a little notebook…but I don’t think I thought well that one was really any better than others
When people asked me about you and hadn’t heard you, I used to play them ‘Roxette’ because of that rat-tat-tat rat-tat-tat driving tempo…they would say “Jeez – they sound like they’re breaking out of jail ! ‘ I said that’s one thing they have in spades….post-Feelgoods, I remember buying an album of yours which had ‘Dr Dupree’, which I just love
(Breaks into grin) Ah yeah ! I always do that one…might have been my most enduring song
What inspired that ?
I co-wrote this song with a poet Hugo Williams ..I’d written the tune but I couldn’t get a lyric that was suitable for Lee Brilleaux..so it was just kinda hangin’…then Hugo wrote the first two verses and I wrote the final verse..he thought of the title..it was I guess about me, about someone being singled out and stared at ..and drowning ! and not much caring about it..the final verse I wrote it’s about suicide..a favourite idea of mine, where I go over to this marshland, down by Canvey Island…in which I go there, sit down and face the setting sun and blow myself away..and there’s a little bit of that in it. But what it’s all about really…we don’t know….
Well Gary Brooker will tell you he doesn’t know what ‘Whiter Shade of Pale’ is about…
(Emphatically) Well, Pete – it is what is known as ‘A Millstone’..and it hangs round Gary Brooker’s head for ever and ever !
( We talk briefly about Procol and Wilk mentions that at one point Robin Trower wanted the two of them to start a band. But Johnson was about to go to University, so it didn’t come about – PS)
What about ‘Ice On The Motorway’ ? an incident maybe ?
Naah….like a lot of my songs it comes from a riff…I got up in the middle of the night, I had had an argument with this bird and I went down to the kitchen to get a sandwich and I suddenly had this riff in my head..like an earworm…dang dang dang dang dang ! I thought, I’d better jot this down and I sung it into a tape machine..then the next day found it and wrote the song
Some of the best art comes from struggle..symphonies, poems, paintings
Yeah that’s right – with me, sometimes if a difficulty arises, I’m like wanting to just walk away, do something else. I suppose if you’ve got an idea you really believe in and you are having difficulty realising it, you may struggle a bit then…(Laughs) I’d rather not struggle, me – I’d rather have everything my own way
Can me talk about your current band ? ( Norman Watt Roy bass and drummer Dylan Howe)
(Warmly) Well Norman..in the mid-80s Ian Dury asked me to join The Blockheads ..I knew Ian but I’d never met Norman and he was my favourite bass player, I’d seen him play and he knocked me out. I thought Yeah !!! a great band AND they were doing very well at the time
..and also gave me chance to work with this bass player and the drummer Charlie Charles and it was very very good.. we immediately became friends..so when a coupe of years later I was in the doldrums a bit and I phoned him up and said Hey man do you wanna do some gigs ? and he said Yeah and we just carried on..like 1985 and then a couple of years ago we got Dylan Howe, who is…( sighs) so good and he really made a difference to the band, you can feel it in the audience. He’s not a flash drummer..just bloody good. It’s incredible what difference a good drummer can make, people don’t often realise
Well you don’t need a drummer trying to play flashier than everyone else..that doesn’t help the song..
No, exactly !! it’s worse though with guitar players..these characters that are doodling away up to the 57th fret !…and won’t bloody well shut up!! And they don’t know anything about rhythm…and EVERY bloody one of them sounds the same to me..
They make me recoil….
Well if a piece hasn’t got feeling then it’s not going to grab you on any level..technique alone, no matter how good, how accomplished, can’t do it. But if you get someone like Django that’s got technique AND genius, well…..some people can play very very fast but actually they’ve got nothing to say
Built in to your style though is that hard-driving rhythm thing…well, it’s unique to you really..because with the other players out there at present nobody is really using aggressive rhythm the way that you can. So do you feel apart from what else is going on ?
Well to me it’s always been the only way I can do it..at first I wanted to sound like Mick Green that’s how it came about, but I have found out in the last two years or so that there are some amazing actual teenage bands coming up that it transpires are very heavily influenced by the Feelgoods. And I hear some of these guys playing and I think ‘You little b*****d ! it’s sounding really good ! (Laughs) but the kind of guitar I like..there’s a few of them coming up now, so that’s..encouraging
A friend of mine called Leigh from Flying Squad, he wanted me to ask you how you felt about this kind of strange reassessment or whatever of Dr Feelgood and you in particular, in the ‘Oil City’ film project
(Thinks) Hmm. Well..Julien Temple, part of his motive was that he was big Feelgoods fan and he always felt that for one reason or another we had kind of slipped out of history…when they talk about punk music and whatnot…but largely that was their fault, they should have quit when the quitting was good.. ( Wilk’s view of the current Dr Feelgood is aired, I won’t be going into print with this, sorry – PS) Now with Julien making the film, well for various reasons it concentrated on me..and there was things happening around that time, Dylan Howe coming in on the drums..and the band got better..and overall yes, it was a good time…it kept going up and up and up ..and then I went and got cancer !!
Most of us including Leigh felt it was about time more folk woke up to what you could do ..it was a positive thing for Wilko Johnson..as a fair play matter, really
There is now new thing under the sun..but it’s nice to think that if people are following your influence rather than another, yeah there’s something nice about that..but at the moment
there is a lot on my mind…not just music, Pete but The Universe ..I must say I’m feeling fine, I’m just not looking forward to this cancer starting in earnest..which will probably happen some time in the summer..I want to get this album done..get the Farewell Tour done
…and then I will probably go on holiday…we just started the new record yesterday, did about five songs and I think it will be roughly like what I always do, three chords and go !
Besides Norm and Dylan I will have Wes Weston on the harmonica and John Denton on the piano..that’ll be later next week
Well I aim to be at one of your Koko gigs in London, Wilk – to cheer you on..
(Laughs) Well, I hope I can be there too !!
A postscript :
Since this chat with Wilk I have seen him play twice at Koko – second time with Leigh Heggarty present on the bill as he is guitarist with the mighty Ruts DC – AND at a jazz show at Royal Festival Hall. You would think every time it was his first time on a stage, such is his drive and energy. It’s also fun to see youngsters recognise him from ‘Game of Thrones’ ! If you get a chance to see him play ‘Out On The Western Plain’ the old Leadbelly song just savour how he makes it into a hypnotic, polyrhythmic mantra of a blues. I met up with Wayne Kramer at the Blues Kitchen a few months back and he has been helping make a WJ album, he has nothing but good to say of his English friend. ALSO Wilko is performing with Who legend Roger Daltrey soon at London’s Shepherds Bush Empire. Now THERE’s a pairing ! the touts seem to have all the tickets and want four-figure sums to part with them .
Thanks Wilko ( and thanks Peter, GRS )