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With his brand new book 'Looking Back At Me' casting its wistful eye on a colourful career that is also explored in the recent Julian Temple DVD 'Oil City Confidential' and with the recently released Dr. Feelgood box set 'All Through The City', things have never been busier for the mercurial former Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson.

And aside form his new found career as an actor; he's also got the busiest date sheet in living memory. Not bad for a rock icon approaching his 65th birthday. But it is with his beautifully illustrated book, co-written by Zoe Howe that Wilko finally reveals himself to his fans, from his essential love of R&B via his travels on the hippy trail to India, to his love of poetry, painting, literature, (Shakespeare), sci-fi, astrology and astronomy etc.

Clearly the manic Canvey Island's guitarist is anything but your regular rocker. Inspired by Mick Green, and Micky Jupp guitarist Mo Witham, Wilko's musical journey started in the in the mundane world of r&b covers, moved to a steep learning curve with Heinz, before he went on to inspire a generation of punks and later rediscovered his own zest for music with Ian Dury before finally enjoying a belated but significant upswing in his solo career.

Wilko Johnson
Photo: Steve Monti

The book started with photos, did those memories make you decide to expand it beyond your music or was that partly due to Julian Temple's film?

I think it was very much to do with the film really, because when that started working on it, it made me look back. I'd never done that before because after the Feelgood's I didn't want to do any more than just keep that time as a lovely memory, but the film started me thinking about the past.

Also this year I was working on assembling the Dr. Feelgood box set and the same thing happened as I was going over relevant stuff linked to the past. I mean some of it I hadn't seen or heard for 35 years, so there was a lot of emotion.

So eventually we decided to do a book but initially it was going to be just a piece of merchandise maybe like a cd or t shirt. But then Zoe (Howe) started coming round and rooted through the pictures and then almost without me realising it she was interviewing me as well and recording me blathering away, and so it all became a bit more than just a piece of merchandise.

The book has a stream of consciousness feel which works well. Was that how you presented your anecdotes to the author?

In fact that Zoe did that, it was her idea. She gathered together all the material and via the photos, clippings etc we started the book.

Was this a work in progress before the Oil City Confidential film?

No the book came after the film because the film started bringing the old memories back to me and I've got to say it seems to have had a beneficial effect on our current situation as bigger groups of people are coming out to see us.

And how is the Feelgood box set selling then?

Remarkably well from what I can gather, especially as when I last went to EMI to get some they only had 30 copies left

The book also reveals quite a bit about you and your non musical passions such as astronomy etc. Would all that have been in the book without the film?

It's all the result of the way it all happened, the gathering together of the material and the way Zoe put the text together, it all sort of spread out beyond just music. It was a bit like my life story and I think the fact that I was rambling on led to covering other stuff. I think it turned out to be a more colourful narrative than it might otherwise have been.

That's a great story about you Robin Trower and Micky Jupp being in a band called The Jam, would it have worked musically?

Musically, probably not (laughs). I was a schoolboy back then and they were the guv'nors, especially Micky Jupp. I was a lot more timid then than I am now, so I'm not sure.

You stopped playing music for 5 years while at Uni, when most people would have seen that time as an opportunity to get a band together. Did you lose interest?

Well I did take my guitar with me and I put up some notices on the notice boards offering my services, but I literally got no replies, so I put my guitar under my bed and it might still be there but for the fact I bumped into Lee Brilleaux in the street years later and he started talking about the idea of doing a band. I said yeah, I remember the idea of the band.

It was when I came back from India and I got back home and my misses got us a council house. I really didn't do much for the best part of a year or so, apart from take acid (laughs)

Funnily enough the day Lee bumped into me and said let's give it a bash, my mum found me a teaching job in the local comprehensive school. I think it was about Xmas time and by the summer I was quite enjoying teaching but I was earning about £3 to £4 a week with the band, so I thought yes let's give this a go.

Wilko Johnson
Photo: Steve Monti

In the book you say; 'If I do this Rock & Roll I'm just not going to put in the required work, I'm very lazy anyway'. And yet you did most of the work on the first Dr. Feelgood's album 'Down by the Jetty', certainly in terms of writing, art work etc.

Well it's true I am basically a lazy person, partly because I'm quite a miserable person. I usually wallow in my misery, but then when something happens I will do it.

I was ok working to deadlines like we did later, but without that it's different. Years later when I was leading my own band and didn't really have a record deal as such I'd write songs but there was no real deadline to be met for a record company, so some of the songs never got recorded..

In regards to Dr. Feelgood and Canvey Island you also say; 'The whole thing was a game, a pretence'. Did you ever think that maybe the other guys in the band didn't feel the same way?

I'd have to think about that quote, 'cos what I think it was about was the difference between when we first started and how we projected ourselves when we finally got to London. We must have spent about 18 months playing locally before we really formed as a band and knew what we were going.

We'd be doing occasional local gigs and in the meantime we'd get stoned. We had this Blues Brothers type fantasy and this was well before the Blues Brothers thing happened actually.

Wilko Johnson

So we had the image of the suits, the petty criminal image, all that kind of trip and we kind of exposed it to the oil city idea. We basically glorified Canvey Island. You know it was a place some people despised and it was the wrong end of town, so yeah there was a fantasy and a kind of pretence I suppose.

But by the time we started doing gigs in London and probably because we were a new band on the London scene, we made an impact. So our background was an important part of that. I think what I really mean by that quote was that in reality I was a graduate that happened to live in Canvey Island, I wasn't a hit man (laughs).

You deride the term Pub Rock when applied to bands (rather than venues), yet surely as a concept of bringing music back to the people it would have appealed to you?

The point was that people (the media) portrayed Pub Rock as a kind of music, when in fact it was really just the venues that housed a lot of really diverse and interesting music.

I mean there was a really good scene in the pubs in London with established musicians playing in different scenes. It was an excellent situation as people were coming to the gigs just for the music. But Pub Rock wasn't a kind of music a such, 'cos there was diversity, there was punk, rock, r&b reggae, country and some really off the wall bands like Kilburn & the High Roads and us of course.


I mean I didn't know anything about recording techniques really, but I knew what I wanted which was to set the band up, no overdubs and do it all in one go, bam! My view was if you couldn't nail it in 2 or 3 takes don't bother.

Dr. Feelgood's first album 'Down By the Jetty' was cut live. Were you playing most of that material before you recorded it?

Yes and that was the way I wanted the album to be recorded, live! But when we came to make the record multi tracking was well established.

When you think back, 'Sgt Pepper' was only recorded on a 4 track and when we started recording the norm was for 16 tracks or even 32 tracks. So the normal way then was to start with the drums and then the bass would go in and then the guitarist would do something like 10 different guitar tracks. It was all done bit by bit and I hated that.

I thought about the records I loved and the way they were recorded and weren't done like that. My idea was that the band was the music and it should be right in front of you, one guitar, one bass etc.

I mean I didn't know anything about recording techniques really, but I knew what I wanted which was to set the band up, no overdubs and do it all in one go, bam! My view was if you couldn't nail it in 2 or 3 takes don't bother. But my point of view caused a lot of trouble at the time.

We were going through the Feelgood box set recently at Abbey Road and I was listening to some studio outtakes and one session in particular that I couldn't even remember doing, but it had multi track techniques on it.

I remember they asked us to do a couple of tracks their way back then (which was stereo). I listen to them the other day and they sounded horrible, I mean you can hear the overdubs, it's all bit by bit and they ironed out all the mistakes and essentially they lost the feel.

Wilko Johnson
Photo: Steve Monti

Regarding the 1975 album 'Malpractice', why did the others want to get rid of Vic Maile at the time, especially as his forte was recording live albums?

Yes I know and I really don't know why that was. I mean that's why they wheeled him in, in the first place 'cos he was a good, well respected live engineer.

But the second album was different to the first 'cos I was a control freak at the time and really I ended up doing it all. But by the time of this album I stepped back a bit, I kind of realised it was a bad thing doing what I was doing. I was too domineering and was going to take a step back.

But they didn't want him and they wanted to sack him and I said, 'what do you mean?' it's just wasn't in the spirit of things…I don't know…I said, 'you can't sack him it would be bad for him'. I was specially thinking of the fact that we were a band on the up and that would have looked bad for his career, but also because he was a nice guy too. But I think I was getting a bit sidelined by then too and I was over ruled.

Wilko Johnson
Photo: David Coomes

By the time of 'Stupidity' our live album, I said to the band, he recorded the live tracks so we should use him. I wanted Vic back and when the time came to do the album I ran into him in a hotel near Marble Arch and we talked, and he told me what I suspected that the others had said it was me that wanted him sacked, so it was all very strange. We cut it live and it went to number one.

You also seemed to let go of the reins at the time, especially in terms of imposing your ideas on the album. Why was that?

Well I realised I'd been very domineering early on in our career and it was time for a change.

Regarding the band's subsequent success, did you feel comfortable with the critical recognition when it came and being recognised as a successful person in a happening band?

Yeah. I think by the time it happened I got used to NOT paying attention, I mean I didn't read the reviews at all, because if someone praised you in public it was probably bad for you and when someone was having a go at us, it hurt.

And on top of that I'm not a great socializer you see. But if I did go out to say Dingwalls for example, and I walked across the floor to go to the bar and you realised everyone was looking at you and saying 'that's Wilko etc etc', I've got to say its felt fucking great! (laughs)


A lot of the bad feeling was actually between Lee and me. I mean there was true animosity and we couldn't stand being in the same room as each other.

Was Dr. Feelgood big in France mainly because of their image or because France has a love affair with retro music and rockers like Vince Taylor, Gene Vincent and Johnny Halliday?

Well the French have always had a kind of…bohemian image, the black clothes the characters, the whole thing.

Going back to the band relationships, it got to a point where you hated each other, but don't a lot of hard working bands have to go through that kind of thing? The Stones are an obvious example, but I guess being childhood friends made it doubly difficult for you?

A lot of the bad feeling was actually between Lee and me. I mean there was true animosity and we couldn't stand being in the same room as each other.

There's weren't many blazing rows as such, but it's wasn't nice. We started out as friends but it gradually turned. And yeah you do have to go through that band thing of being in each others pockets, touring night after night etc, but this was different.

For example, I've spent all these years with Norman (Watt-Roy) and our friendship is just as strong as it always was. But with Lee things just became intolerably heavy.

But as I say in the book when Lee died and we all went up to Canvey Island and the Feelgood club and I sat with Sparko and Figure and we ended up playing and there was a big gap where Lee should have been…I just thought what did we do?'

You tried to get Lee B to write songs, but early on you were something of a control freak, were you just exhausted to write later on?

Right from the beginning the band started out doing R&B covers and it wasn't until we played London that we started writing our own songs. And when you manage to write a couple of songs and it works it encourages you to do more, but I wanted Lee to write too. He was capable of doing it, he was a witty, funny guy and he had a quick intelligence.

So were you able to talk to Lee meaningfully about anything outside of music?

Oh yeah, anything that pals talk about. We'd have a laugh, he was a funny guy and pretty good company.

Wilko Johnson
Photo: Jerry Tremaine

But he did write for the band much later?

Yeah but not in my time with the band. I would write half a song and sit down with him and I thought that maybe we could work on it together, but it didn't ever work like that.

In fact I've never really collaborated with anyone else apart from The Blockheads. Ian (Dury) worked on the songs with the band and on one occasion he said to me, come round to my place and we'll write something. Now Ian would write lyrics on his old typewriter and he'd show you what he'd done.

For me this was great because normally the lyrics were harder to do than just working out some riffs etc. You always had to think about whether they are they going to be funny or heavy, or whatever and that's the trick.

He would have these funny lyrics and I would take a look at them and I could almost picture the song. So I'd say to him let me take them home with me and work on the song. It was like a dream for me, it was so easy compared with what I had to do before.

Yet in your post Feelgood career you didn't write that much?

That was partly because of the record deal situation after my first album. I had a short lived deal with Virgin and after that with no real record deal there was no deadline so nothing much happened.

The book suggests you are something of a renaissance man. Did you think your musical ambitions and outlook in general was always different from the other Feelgood members?

Well only in so much as everyone has there own personality. We were all different. For example, Lee was a solicitor's clerk, I was a teacher and Sparko was a brick layer before we were in the band and we were all basically working class people from Canvey Island.

But maybe because I was the songwriter it meant that a lot of the things seemed more urgent and important to me than they realised. Then there would be an argument and they'd say; 'what the fuck are we doing anyway?' It all got too much by the time of 'Stupidity'.

Things worried me like we'd had success with the first album but then soon you were working to deadlines and I worried about the new songs being good enough, but the rest of the band didn't seem to realise that. I would come up with a new song and they'd think, well that's what Wilko does, and they'd have no understanding of what it takes.

By the time of 'Sneakin' Suspicion' you and Lee were at loggerheads. Do you think the band could have been managed by anyone other than Chris Fenwick? Or was there never any question of any outside help?

It wasn't something we thought about. Well I knew we had come to the end of the road with Chris by a look he gave me at the time.

Wilko Johnson
Photo: Jerry Tremaine

To quote from the book; 'We were looking at each other and I knew at that moment, I was gone, man, he hated me'.

But up until then we'd been on the road with a little family of 4 to 5 people who represented our whole universe. It was unique and after it was suddenly ejected I really didn't know what to do and I've not really had much of a planned career since.

We were working on what was our 4th album and CBS had come into the picture They'd signed us for America and they were going to make us big (laughs), but the band was about to split up.

When we were actually recording the track 'Sneakin Suspicion' the American producer Bert de Coteaux came in and asked me; did you record that track? I said yeah, and he said, that's a million seller. So I was thinking for a while I was going to be millionaire.


I remember going down 5th Avenue in Manhattan in a stretch Lincoln limo - I mean the real sort before Essex girls got hold of them - and there I was thinking, for a bunch of guys from Canvey Island this is pretty good.

What did the other band members think?

Well they all went along with it at the time but eventually it all blew up.

I often read in music bio's that success happens very suddenly, did you cope well with that as a group, or was it one of the reasons for the eventual split?

Yeah I think we did cope and we enjoyed it. It was all part of the fun and it was really what it is all about (laughs). Like I said in the book, I remember going down 5th Avenue in Manhattan in a stretch Lincoln limo - I mean the real sort before Essex girls got hold of them - and there I was thinking for a bunch of guys from Canvey Island, this is pretty good.

But even then I was also getting isolated from the rest of them and I guess that made me pretty difficult to get on with. Originally we established ourselves with a strong family feeling. We had some of that strength and we had something to prove and we were mates, but once you lose feeling it all falls apart.

Are you fulfilling any of your ambitions with the current band that you never did before?

I have to say working with this band is as near to being as happy as it is feasible for me to be. I had to get over Irene's death and I never stop thinking about her, even when I'm on stage, though when I'm on stage its not so bad. It's like being in a different world and it's still a good feeling being up there and playing.

Interview April 2012 © Pete Feenstra & GRTR!

Wilko Johnson's autobiography 'Looking Back At Me' is published by Cadiz on May 30th. For further info visit -

WILKO JOHNSON - EXCLUSIVE BOOK SIGNING at Rough Trade East on Wednesday 30 May 2012

Wilko will sign copies of his new autobiography "Looking Back at Me" at Rough Trade East at 6pm on Wednesday 30th May.

The signing will be followed by a Q&A and a half hour set with his band featuring Norman Watt-Roy (bass) & Dylan Howe (drums).

Rough Trade East, Dray Walk, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL. Tel: 020 7392 7790.


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