|The Whammy||The London R&B Sessions|
|Dr. Dupree||Solid Senders|
|Walking On The Edge||Solid Senders (bonus live LP)|
|Paradise||Solid Senders (bonus live LP)|
|Down By The Waterside||Rockburgh ROCS220|
|Bottle Up And Go||Ice On The Motorway|
|Can You Please Crawl Out your Window||Ice On The Motorway|
|When I'm Gone||Ice On The Motorway|
|Sueperman's Big Sister||Stiff BUY100|
|Barbed Wire Blues||Barbed Wire Blues|
Contributor: Keith Shackleton
Wilko Johnson is an original. In today’s ‘been there, seen that, ticked it off, next please’ world, it’s hard to imagine the effect he had on us in the early days. I think my first extended exposure to the man was the Going Back Home concert film, which I first clapped eyes on as a supporting feature – yes, we used to get two films per cinema visit, yet if you tell that to t’kids today they don’t believe you – to the Led Zeppelin epic The Song Remains The Same, in Halifax Astra cinema, nigh on forty years ago.
Sorry, I just went a bit misty-eyed there.
Though I’d already heard Dr. Feelgood by then, seeing them perform for the first time, albeit on celluloid, was an experience. Wilko’s lurching, skittering, alien stage presence was compelling, but tremendously unsettling. Of course. You know that. You’ve seen him machine-gun audiences with his Telecaster. You may even have been machine-gunned yourself.
However, you might not have ever lent an ear to Wilko’s near-unlistenable and totally bonkers live cover of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ The Whammy:
… a truly disturbing song and Wilko’s most extreme solo performance. How’s that for unsettling? “My mind’s in NOOOTRAL!” Now, I’m not one for going to a gig and shouting for songs (because you feel like a bit of an arsehole and when does it ever work?) but when I went to see Wilko, I always called for The Whammy. And he always didn’t do it. And no wonder.
His idiosyncratic guitar technique, famously inspired by the simultaneous lead/rhythm style of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ Mick Green, remains indecipherable to the average Joe Punter. A subtle curl and flick of the fingers, some cunning string damping and a whole lot of muscular manipulation produced shrill overtones superimposed on chipped, flinty chords. Inspirational to those who came after: the young Paul Weller blazing a trail with his Rickenbacker checked Wilko. Gang of Four’s Andy Gill and Bill Carter of the Screaming Blue Messiahs channelled Wilko. Noughties post-punk revivalists Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party might just have copped a lick or two as well, don’t you think?
But the Johnson guitar sound, however deft, is chunky and rectangular. You might say basic. Those riffs just ask to be complemented by a sprinkling of glitter, and the menacing stage presence, Wolf-like growl and wheezing harmonica of Lee Brilleaux added exactly that. Post-Feelgoods – the period we shall deal with here, my Dr. Feelgood dissertation coming soon to a web site very near you – Wilko’s best music comes when his monochrome guitar slashing is set against the colourful piano of Mickey Gallagher or John Potter and, latterly, the astonishing bass dexterity of Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy, who transforms a standard rock and roll three piece line-up into something quite extraordinary. Norman’s fluid bass notes are the flesh on the bones of Wilko’s skeletal rhythm. And the lyrics, man … the lyrics. I’m going to let them do the talking, more than a little.
Dr. Dupree was co-written with poet Hugo Williams, featuring Wilko as boy on the burning deck? In the aftermath of the break-up, this popped out on Solid Senders (“Sales Point – Wilko” said the sticker on the cover of my copy), and he absolutely nails it, amplifying the feeling of what he was going through at the time, not really knowing what to do, and wanting to wander down to the estuary and jump right in.
That ship’s on fire, she’s sinking fast
There’s one man standing on the mast
His arms are spread and the flames around his head
He’d better jump before the blast …
They’ll hold the cover if he’s dead
A blazing arrow trailing red
We stand and stare, as he comes back up for air
The water’s closing round his head …
I wanna go down to the open ground
I can see the pictures turning round
And though I know I’ll be out there on my own
This time I don’t care if I drown …
Those aren’t words written for Lee Brilleaux.
Walking On The Edge was originally sung by Lee, on Sneakin’ Suspicion of course, but go back to it now and listen hard … it’s not all there, is it? It’s barely past the demo stage. If there was ever a singer that was definite about what he sung (even though he used words loosely, like rhythm instruments) it was always barked out and on point, but this? Some of the drawn out notes are damn painful and Lee doesn’t sell it. I’m thinking “You’re walking on the edge, man, sing it like you are!” The Figure and Sparko don’t sound entirely comfortable. Stick a slide guitar solo in, bash it out, done, move on. Get out of the studio so we don’t have to be near that guy any more than necessary.
Compare and contrast with the live recording off the free LP that came with Solid Senders. A laconic introduction from Wilko, the title elucidated, you can hear the capital letters. “This one’s called Walking On The Edge … [if you care, and Lee’s not here now, it’s just me].” The Senders whip into it, and right away there’s a world of difference from the surly uncommunicative Feelgoods version. The band are right behind Wilko, and John Denton’s piano works wonders. Tell it like it is, Wilko …
Started out, feelin’ good
Some other mornin’ in another neighbourhood
Can’t remember what went wrong
But I know I’ve been some places and I know I’ve stayed too long …
Paradise – a slice of Canvey and paean to Wilko’s childhood sweetheart and wife Irene, the only song he wrote mentioning a real person, with a shocking and out of place admission in the lyrics – I love two girls, I ain’t ashamed, I ain’t ashamed – which were rewritten after she died. Now, says Wilko, it all makes sense. Here’s the 1979 version:
… and here’s the ‘new’ Paradise with remodelled lyrics:
Down by the Waterside – and we’re off again, down to the delta, in earlier times …
Down by the waterside, tire tracks in the mud
Where my back door promises got stranded in the flood
Out on the shoreline, standing on my own
I looked up and saw the sun go sinking like a stone …
All of that fury, it seems so long ago
We lay down in the quiet where the poison flowers grow
It must have been your words of love that made me sleep so sound
I woke up empty handed as the night came pouring down …
I left it oh so far behind, I never thought I could
Now I just can’t understand what made you look so good
Stand and watch the river flow, go back to my dreams
Away from all those people and their stupid little scenes …
The doomy sound of this one that gets you too, the maracas shaking away, the huge reverb … it’s bloody spooky down by the waterside and in a place like Canvey, with bad memories of the flood, that’s why it feels the way it does.
Bottle Up And Go – a pell-mell dash to end them all, less than two minutes of blazing rock and roll, Wilko spitting out the syllables:
Cater-pillar trac-tors crawlin’ through the SNOW …
Standin’ round lookin’ like they really in the KNOW …
I love the way she does it when she does it really SLOW …
Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window – now I’m not one for agonising over other artists doing Dylan and “how dare they” and who should do what, and why … but this is very fine, nicely splenetic and one of the very best Bob covers. Wilko fits the song, and the song fits Wilko. He’s done a few of Bob’s tunes, though I don’t think he’s ever done Watching The River Flow. That might be a surprise, given how much time Wilko spends in song looking at the Thames. Or maybe not, as Bob seems to have a much more cosy relationship with his particular bank o’ sand.
Sueperman’s Big Sister – see what happens when Wilko is parachuted into a flexible group of stylists, oddballs and individuals. Hey presto, he fits right in, and this song, a co-write with Ian Dury, sounds just like him. Strip away the strings, horns and other adornments and it’s just Johnson-esque rock and roll. Spend an hour or so once again on the fantastic 1980 Christmas OGWT, and watch Wilko flame out on this track, a superb Delusions Of Grandeur, and more. I was very happy he was with the Blockheads, even though they were chaotic times, and it felt right to have a song from that period.
When I’m Gone and Barbed Wire Blues – and we’re back in Canvey once more, Toto.
Down on the island, where the bad stuff grows
Way across the water, I’ll take you over if you wanna go
Don’t you wanna go? … yeah
And these two tunes are here because on stage, they transform into a couple of ravers that show off the essential essence of Wilko and Norman in concert, drawn out so that Norman can dig his fingers into his Fender and squeeze out more amazing riffs, and Wilko can play with the volume and crank the tension knob up and down as he sees fit, until the trio bursts into the finale and we all collapse in a heap, sated.
What dreadful news it was when Wilko was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. We know that our heroes can’t tread the boards forever, but it was shocking to learn that a life and a career might end in such a manner. Because Wilko’s been up there doing what he does for as long as I’ve been listening to music, and a fair proportion of the music I’ve listened to over those years inspired, or was inspired by, Dr. Feelgood, it felt almost like a member of my family was ill.
Wilko took the news on the chin. “Nothing mattered,” he said, “… you are alive and you are existing in the moment. You’re not worried about the tax return. And it’s a bloody good feeling being alive.” (see Guardian clip below) His resolve, from a man who was desolate at the passing of Irene, was extraordinary as he settled into a (thankfully not) farewell tour, a round of recording and filming and, bless him, looking out through the telescope in his observatory to try and catch a few glimpses of things he’d not seen before.
It’s the moment we’re living in that matters, he says, and worrying about the future or regretting the past is just a foolish waste of time. And if that life lesson is the only thing we learn from him (along with the value of always asking for a second opinion), we should count ourselves lucky.
But he rolls on, with his sidewinder stride, his leering vocal delivery and his implausible strumming. Long may he continue to do it right.
Current line-up (l to r): Dylan Howe, Wilko Johnson, Norman Watt-Roy (photo Eric Hands)
The 1980 compilation album The London R&B Sessions (Live at the Hope and Anchor) and second hand vinyl copies of Wilko’s solo album from the same year, Ice On The Motorway, can be found at a variety of prices at Discogs. The CD of Solid Senders includes the tracks on the bonus live LP but is currently only available at a high price. Don’t seem right!