Wilko Johnson – As The Years Go Passing By

It’s an anniversary year for our guitar-toting livewire, still firing after a close brush with death. When Pete and the then seriously ailing Wilko last met to talk life and music at his, our man said he thought Johnson would somehow pull through and the two-part interview that we ran ended with Pete the more optimistic of the two. Operations proved successful, Johnson survived and here we are, catching up now for a celebratory Part Three…

Leif Laaksonen

JLTT: Ok buddy – how are you feeling?


WJ: Very well indeed, Pete – and thank you for asking!


I am not right about that much in life – a blues inspiration? – but I am eternally glad that you did recover as I predicted!


Well thank you very much, that’s where events have brought me and there is much to do…


And the solo career anniversary..


Ah! Well it is actually more than thirty years but thirty sounds better for the attention it’s getting! It’s snappier! Thirty three is too long to understand, anyway


We covered an awful lot last time – The Coasters, Mick Green, Wayne Kramer..I saw this great video of The More I Give, I think it’s live in Barcelona


Now and again it is a number we do, yes.. it crops up every few gigs and gets a good response


The song I really love to hear you do is Leadbelly’s Out On The Western Plain..his songs are kind of haunted aren’t they? I do Leavin’ Blues for that reason


Now Leadbelly is what you would term an unusual artist, he stands alone in what he did, doesn’t he really ? His soul feel, the power of his music, his guitar playing is so distinctive and of course he has got this enormous repertoire of great, great old songs. When I do that thing, that thing has been filtered down to me..(Ponders) Now why do I do that ? because of Van Morrison. that’s why. Other people too, but mainly because of Van. We heard Van doing it and so we played it one time for fun. And yes, like you, what an unusual one to do ! And it’s such a strong song it does work really well in a performance. So we ended up with our kind of take on it. Which is I suppose quite a long way from Leadbelly’s recording.The lyrics to me are very philosophical.


He was sophisticated, Leadbelly. Played all styles of songs to all sorts of people. That one I know from Rory Gallagher


Yeah!! There you go, he had his own approach to it. And of all things singing about when I was a cowboy!?


It’s like a mantra, I can get lost inside it..


That’s it, he’s singing about riding around on a horse, but it doesn’t mean that. How many people have been a cowboy? He wasn’t, so it’s all imagination, projection of the spirit..to a silver screen hero. The cowboy figure. The man to look up to, indeed


Can I ask you about the album you did with The Who’s Roger Daltrey? Going Back Home..I keep playing Ice On The Motorway! And do you have a favourite Who song?


Of sorts. I would say…my favourite Who songs would include I Can’t Explain and Pictures Of Lily. That run of early singles – all great


Yes, I love Anywhere Anyhow Anywhere. Sonic impact!


You could just on those grounds suggest any one of them – My Generation, The Kids Are Alright – but I Can’t Explain was the first one and still, it’s so dynamic. And I like Pictures Of Lily because it’s fairly complex, it’s not a three-chord-job and the lyric is full of stuff to think about..you think, yeah, pictures of Lily..it’s about pornography and it’s a kind of joke about that, with someone finding solace in that but then it turns out she has been dead for years, with her images outliving her. It’s about mortality as well! It’s poignant, this beautiful woman is now no more..and all in a powerful rock song!


The economy of it! If now you saw monochrome images of someone striking from the past say Rita Hayworth..that photo taken at that time crystallises absolutely her beauty and poise 


Exactly! That’s why that final phrase of the song ‘dead since 1929’ – beauty, the passing of time. Wow, what a song, wish I’d written it.


AND there’s a father and son relationship element too, the understanding..


Yes the whole song is such a powerful piece of rock music. What’s happened in my case, I was one of many young squirts in the 60s fascinated by blues men..and thought ‘I want to do that’. (Laughs) When Dr Feelgood began that’s where we were going with it all. Pretty much straight American music. And then of course I started to write my own material. In the case of The Who, I guess we were just looking up to the best.


How did you get on with Roger?


Well I didn’t really know him, just through mutual friends. We hadn’t properly met more than a couple of times. Then Roger found out I was ill and came across and said ‘let’s that album we have talked about’. So it happened, very quickly. We had eight days only to do it, he wasn’t fully familiar with most of the material. Cos I was going to die I included all my compositions. So he had to learn those songs and get his own kind of take and phrasing on them and then perform them with no rehearsal or anything. He was a bit freaked out originally as he really did want to attain his own take on these songs and get behind them. We forced him to keep at it and after just a couple of days recording then everyone was getting fantastically keen on the way it was coming out. Roger is what he is, he is a geezer! A very nice guy and man, he worked so hard ! Put everything into it. Plus the amount of effort he puts in to the Teenage Cancer Trust…


I think it maybe helped that he wasn’t over-familiar with all the songs, because he had some room then to shape his contributions


Well exactly! We didn’t want a straight cover of what had been done before, we wanted an own flavour to the project. That is the main thing that he wanted, to come up with something fresh for the numbers.


The Beautiful Madrilena and Come Back And Love Me in my perception have an almost elusive autobiographical tinge…. 


With songs you might have an idea about something that prompts the notion of a lyric. But you have hit on a couple of songs there inspired by or about specific individuals. So there it’s a more personal lyric in each case as yes, they’re about real people..


Can I ask you about one song which to me sounds like it was left off Highway 61 Revisited by Dylan? It’s Underneath Orion. Is this the closest Wilko gets to Bob Dylan?


I think I was driving along in the car this rhythm came to me ..then some of the lyric popped into my head, about the constellations and all that..


With a song like From A Buick 6, you’re kind of sitting next to him aren’t you?


(Warmly) Wow, man – this the kind of thing that..well when I was a kid, a teenager it just blew me away. Songs like that, they sound so easy but they’re not. ‘I got my dark sunglasses..’ just fantastic!


What happened to the recordings you did with my man Wayne Kramer?


Whew! I don’t know..this all happened before the cancer thing, y’see.


Let’s talk about playing technique for a second, I know you’re not one to be high-falutin’ about that, but you very rarely play traditional barre chords


Hmm..I use a chord shape in which you use your first four strings in a shape and then I use my thumb a lot holding down the sixth string and the advantage of this shape is that you can immediately stop that chord, at will. If you mix in little fast licks, the old thumb is there all the time ! It’s just the way of playing in my style, to get the attack going. My playing is all rhythm. Now you can do that with barre chords but for me more often than not it’s using the shape.


And it’s movable! This signature Fender Telecaster model, what are your thoughts on that project?


It’s funny, it took them a long time to get this together, considering how many Telecasters I’ve sold for them over the years! It’s sold a fair few and the guitar I now use all the time is I think the very first one to that spec that they made. It’s fairly standard, I don’t want to mess around changing pickups and all that.


I only change tuning heads when they go, nothing else.


Yeah if something needs a repair or replacement that is fair enough, isn’t it? Typically the pickup selecter switch but you don’t want to mutate the sound of the guitar. I fell in love with the Telecaster sound when I started playing, so me being me I always want the guitar to have THAT sound to it. I don’t want to change it in any way.


Your band – Dylan Howe, he always strikes me as if someone has taken 50 per cent Willie Big Eyes Smith and 50 per cent Mitch Mitchell and his jazz fluency and you’ve got Dylan!


Dylan is easily the best drummer I’ve ever had. I’ve got to this stage of the game and here I am with the best band you could ask for. With Norman and Dylan. He works so hard too, practising paradiddles. He’s got a little studio, y’know You’ll know who his dad is?

Steve Howe, of Yes and Asia

Yeah and he’ll be doing some US dates this year with Steve. So John Roberts from The Blockheads will help us out here and there


As regards Norman, I first saw him playing with his brother in an edition of East Of Eden, Greyhound Fulham Palace Road, RIP. Do you have a favourite Blockheads moment, because that stint was pivotal for you, I suspect?


Well first of all, I remember that the first time I saw them, I did know them just from being around. Ian and Davey, from Kilburn and the High Roads. But the first time I saw them as The Blockheads was playing on a live television show and the next day I was saying to people ‘Did you see that bass player?’ The couple of years I had with them were among the happiest in my life, I would say. We did a big tour of Australia and at the start of each show we’d dark the stage and then start playing

Sex  Drugs & Rock’n’Roll and the reaction was just…phenomenal! When Ian was on form he was just so funny and entertaining…and there I was in the heart of the rhythm section..blissful.

Pete Sargeant

Wilko Johnson
Wilko Johnson


(Thanks Wilko)

Photos Credited to Leif Laaksonen

Wilko Johnson Band play their 30th Anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London, United Kingdom on Tuesday 26th September 2017.

24 HR Box Office – 0844 478 0898

Book Tickets online – www.thegigcartel.com

For our earlier chats with Mr Johnson – http://bit.ly/1QbRomQ

For more information visit Wilko Johnson’s official website here: http://bit.ly/2qskh7E

Wilko Johnson