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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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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