Mark: Tonight, we’re chatting with Wilko Johnson, who is not only celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Wilko Johnson Band, he’s also celebrating his 70th birthday with a concert at the Royal Albert Hall on the 26th of September this year. It’s an absolute pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with you. And thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules and chatting with us here on the Rock and Blues by Hughes Show
Wilko: Hey, you’re welcome.
Mark: You famously said I’m supposed to be dead, having been diagnosed in late 2012 with terminal pancreatic cancer. But despite the doctors predictions, you continue to perform and present yourself with a new zest for life.
In 2013, you announced that thanks to a second opinion and subsequent life saving surgery, you were cancer free. But are you fully recovered at all? Okay, now?
Wilko: I am absolutely. So it’s a little bit difficult to kind of get my head around, you know, like I did spend it slightly more than a year expecting to die. It was absolutely certain. And they told me that I couldn’t do anything for me. I was going to die. So I just got on with that. And a lot of crazy things happened that year, one of which was bumping into this surgeon who put me on to the people at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, who took a look at me and said they felt they could operate on this tumour, which by then was huge. Actually, it was just melon. It was crazy. It was about to explode at any moment. And they said that they could do it. It will be a major operation and in fact a bit of a groundbreaking operation. It’s never been done before. All of these procedures together.And they did it. And you know, I found myself waking up in a hospital ward thinking, oh, I’m alive.And then and then a few days later, Mr Hugo the surgeon came into my room with a sheaf of papers and some of my friends were sitting around the bedside visiting me and Mr. Hugo said these papers from the laboratory.And they they had the results of the operation. And I felt this moment of fear. And he said, yes, we believe we have removed all the cancer.We all started cheering and waving our arms to go to work. And Mr. Hugo was kind of saying, he’s a very serious man and a fantastic guy, just kind of nervously nodding and smiling at me.They had saved my life. And I go in every six months or so before the scans and went for one quite recently, actually. And it’s absolutely free of cancer.
Mark: That’s fantastic. It’s absolutely fantastic. And congratulations then it must have been kind of like a surreal moment when that all happens, you know, from going from one extreme to another.
Wilko: Yeah, well, I mean, the whole year was just crazy. Yeah. Fantastic. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s full of stuff.
Mark: Could you give us a little background on yourself and how you started out in music and who your influences were?
Wilko: Well, I was a teenager in the 60s and I like a lot of teenage boys. I fancied myself with an electric guitar. I think we’ve actually proven that it was one day of school. I saw somebody with an electric guitar and I was talking about music only when I was looking at this.
And I was absolutely fascinated by all these strings and knobs. And I thought oh man I’ve gotta have one of these. So I think I kind of pestered my parents for next Christmas, got a very cheap and shoddy guitar and started learning to play it. And I wasn’t very quick on the uptake. Actually, everyone at school seemed to be able to play better than me.
Anyway, as I was learning, I did start kind of getting actually interested in music and I discovered things like rhythm and blues. and Stuff and because I mean the Rolling Stones and everything, you know. And anyway, one day I heard played on the radio record by Johnny Kid and the Pirates and I heard the guitar and I was absolutely riveted by the sound of this guitar. And I found out that this guitarist was called Mick Green. And I decided, well, that’s what I want to be exactly like him. And so I just found every record I could find his playing on and just trying to copy and trying to copy. And I couldn’t do it, but I kind of ended up with my version of it,
And by then I knew that the music I really loved was kind of straightforward, simple, R&B I that means someone else these days.
Mark: So you always wanted to be a musician?
Wilko: No, That’s the thing. I didn’t think most people as I say you learn to play and you have some bands when you’re at school and all that and in fact. But, you know, I never I never, never even dreamed of doing it. You know, there’s a serious thing. And in fact, when I went to university, I left my guitar behind and I left it. I didn’t think I would ever play again. And it was only like after university and after being a hippie in India and stuff like that, I came back to Canvey Island, my hometown. bumped into this character Lee Brillo who had a band, he said let’s form a band and we just wanted to play this kind of simple stuff which was not very fashionable at the time, but we wanted to do it.
And so we put the band together and I don’t know who it was and someone said let’s call it Dr. Feelgood. It kind of went from there.
Mark: And I read somewhere, I think that they evolved from a band called Pig Boy Charlie wasn’t it or something like that.
Wilko: Well Lee Brillo had a band called. Well, what happened was before I went to university, I used to have what we call a jump band, a kind of skiffle group and me and my brother and another guy with a guitar and a tea chest bass and a harmonic playing on the street. And we were doing this one day, which is when these young fellows came up to us very curious about what we’re doing in one of these young guys was Lee.
And anyway, and then I went off to university as I say I’d not been playing anymore. And sometimes when I would come home during the vacations, I would see that this little band of theirs. It was a Pig Boy, Charlie. It was kind of playing around locally. And so I wasn’t actually part of that band myself, although perhaps I’m part of inspiring it.
Mark: Do you know, whatever happened to them,
Wilko: Not a clue
Mark: How do you maintain your enthusiasm after all these years and recording and playing live to the level that you still do?
Wilko: Well, I mean, the one thing I see playing live is what I like to do is just why I started doing this. I enjoy performing and I’m probably I’m actually happy because I’m miserable so and so.
But, you know, yeah, I like performing. I like. Yeah, yeah I like that. I like that rock and roll, you know.
Mark: You decided to I mean, you were in Dr Feelgood from, what, seventy one to seventy seven and you made four albums and then you went off to sort of like from the beginnings of the Wilko Johnson Band, the Solid Senders. And then you joined Ian Dury’s Band the Blockheadsin the 80s. You continued gigging all the way through. But what was the sort of like deciding factor that made you want to leave, Dr. Feelgood at what seems to be the top of the wave?
Wilko: The deciding factor was that they threw me out! you’ll have to ask them about that, well you can’t ! anyway It was during the making of our third album. Stupidity
It is a live album that’s gone straight to number one on the release. And we were kind of teetering on the edge of the big time.
And we were making our fourth album and during the making of the album, a terrible argument happened and all night long.
And then in the morning I found that I was out of the band and, you know, I always felt, as I said, I never I never intended to be a musician or play in bands. And I always thought when I was doing it, I thought Dr Feelgood it’s going to be my only band because I really like this. But, you know, and anyway, then I found myself, with, you know, a fair amount of success had happened. And you know, what am I going to do, what can I do, you know?
Well, all I can do is just carry on and play the guitar and, you know, Dr Feelgood was a very special band and you can’t recreate a thing like that. And so, you know, I did my best I got a band together and played, but gradually, you know, kind of my 15 minutes was up, you know, and I kind of I found myself where, you know, going round the world, playing at smaller gigs, you know, clubs and whatnot.
You make a good living, by the way, andI was happy with that. I didn’t have any more ambitions. But then it went on like that for a while. And I just happened at that time to bump into Ian Dury who I knew from the old days. And I’m telling my old man, I think I’m going to quit, you know, blah, blah. And he said to me, now, the Block Heads are in the studio right now, why don’t you come down and make a single with the Blockheads?
And I thought, oh, yes, I like to because I love that bass player. I mean, I didn’t even know his name but I knew he was my favourite bass, Norman.
I went down and I did make a single with them. And then after, I think I was just checking out actually, but anyway Norman then asked me to join the Blockhead’s, which I did.
And so suddenly I was back up and kind of doing it, doing big stuff and actually fantastic band and great man, great band to play with. And it was great because I was just in the rhythm section not in front anymore. I just the rhythm section, you know, but what a rhythm section. You know Norman What-Roy, Charlie Charles on the drums and of course it was the beginning of a lifetime of friendship and association with Norman What-Roy.
Mark: And if I can just take you back to Dr Feelgood, if you could turn back time, would you do things differently there or would you think it’s happened for the best, if you know what I mean?
Wilko: Oh, like I mean, you know, you get along with anybody, you look at your life if you wish, you know, like something. But the fact of the matter is that life happens like that.
And yes, I suppose it’s yes, I don’t like to look like that, but I mean, I do regret that happened at that moment because as I say, we were on the edge of America, you know, we’re on the edge of getting pretty big and course it all stopped. You’ve got a you have to kind of think.I wonder what might have been you know, but now you know that happened.
Mark: I mean, if they decided to call it a day, Dr. Feelgood, this is and stop and do like a farewell tour, would you be interested in guesting in that?, you know, just for maybe a one off or something like that for the good old days?
Wilko: Probably not. Probably not.
Mark: Okay, just turning on to the Blockhead’s, then you explained to us how that all came about. What was it like to be at the forefront of that new genre of music that sort of like tore up the rule book almost, you know?
Wilko: Well, I mean, it was great. It was great trying to say it was great to to play with the Blockheads, you know, that I’d had Dr.Feelgood and then I’ve kind of been going on my merry way. Right. But to suddenly be back and it is a great band right at the top of their game. You know, it was pretty good and as i Say a lot of good times to them
Yeah, yeah, I was pretty pleased to be I mean, you know, and mean we did we did a big tour of Australia.
And Ian was very, very big at that time. And it was done very well. You walk in on these shows, you have some introduction, stupid music playing or something, and then just and then just suddenly goes bam right into Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll and the whole place erupts.
You think, oh wow, you know, this is like this is pretty significant. This song you it’s just absolutely great. Great fun to play it.
Mark: I just bring you up to date a little bit. In 2014, you had a hit album Going Back Home, a collaboration with Roger Daltrey. It went to number three. And given the success of that CD and the tour that followed it any plans to do a follow up album or perhaps with Roger or any other collaborations in mind,
Wilko: Actually, Roger, is a very busy person, actually. And in fact, the album came together under such strange circumstances, you know, as I said, I was actually about to die.And it’s kind of got that out of my mind. But thinking, you know,it’s pretty groovy only kind of finishing up making an album. with Roger Daltry.
That album was I don’t know it’s strange I never thought I’d even see it released. And then,actually I did see it released and then suddenly oh man it’s gone straight to the top of the charts, a huge bestseller. And it is in fact looking like probably the biggest selling record I’ve ever done. And in fact right about the moment I went into hospital for my operation? So kind of all that was happening. You know, I’m lying on this bed all full of tubes and what not, people are coming in, with silver disks and things and I’m like yeah yeah I kinda missed it, you know.
But anyway, obviously people, the record company and what not wanting another one.
I think the circumstances of that record were you couldn’t reproduce them. And it was great, the great thing about it. But you never know, it might happen, you know. But certainly we have this last week we’ve just started to work on making a new album ourselves. And I actually I’ve been pretty excited about that because I you know, for weeks I don’t know, we had quite a bit of time off, you know, I’m a miserable man. you know look at sunshine ,the flowers or flowering andI’m thinking bloody summer. And quite miserable. And I’m not even saying, oh, man, we got to go in and start working on material for this album. And then I’m looking at my notebook on the floor and I can’t even touch it, I can’t even pick it up anyway. So we went in and started playing and I’ve got quite excited about it and I think it’s going to be pretty good.
So we will be doing that over, well what’s coming up? I don’t know. I would probably do the festivals in the summer, unfortunately,
Mark: Can I ask you a bit about your acting career, if you don’t mind? Because for me, you were in one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in my life when you were in Game of Thrones is Ilad Payne. I could not believe that when I saw that live on the telly, what was it like to be involved with that?
Wilko: Well, I mean, that was a weird thing. I don’t know. I think it was I don’t know from somewhere I was asked to go to London and audition for this part.And what they described is an American TV series. I didn’t know anything about them. I have never, ever done any acting or anything before.So anyway, so I came to London and I read anyway, I got the part. It was really good fun. Sorry I’ve been told to wind this call up sorry I’ve got another one coming.
Mark: We’ll just mention it. So then one last question. If I may, 26th September at the Royal Albert Hall, what made you choose that as a venue? Because it’s almost the antithesis of the early pub rock days.
Wilko: I mean, that’s all down to our agent it’s all his scheme. Oh, but of course it’s the Royal Albert Hall. a thousand holes When I was in Blackburn, Lancashire.
Wilko: so you know, this Summer to celebrate the birthday. Perfect. OK,man, thanks for your time. It’s much appreciated. Thank you. Bye.