Dr. Feelgood
Wilko Johnson Feelin' good again - Beat (décembre 1977)

Propos recueillis par Peter Douglas © Beat

This man is back with a new band. He tells Peter Douglas about the rise of Wilko the unknown and the fall and rise of Wilko, manic R&B guitarist of high repute...

The black pinstripe suit, the black shirt (tieless) buttoned up to the neck, the tousled hair and the lantern jaw were unmistakeable. Wilko Johnson stood ill at ease in the Covent Garden office of his publicist that gloomy Friday afternoon. Maybe it wasn't so much nervousness that Wilko was suffering from as the feeling that he had been dragged out of bed at his home in Southend at an unreasonably early hour. Like most musicians, he is a nocturnal creature. His wide-awake midday comes when the rest of us are dragging our weary corpses home from a day’s work. He hits the sack when everyone else is thrashing around trying to thump the alarm clock into silence.

But here he was, waiting to be interviewed by me in a sparse, chilly little room upstairs where the sadistic Alan Edwards consigns all journalists, presumably with the idea of getting rid of them as quickly as possible.

Yobbos

Up we went. Wilko huddled into what was once an armchair; l perched on a hard wooden seat. We talked for a while about Canvey Island (about which I know nothing) and Ramsgate (about which he knows very little). However, I now know that Canvey Island, where Wilko was born and went to school, was the last place in England where malaria was endemic. The area is actually reclaimed marshland - very flat and desolate. Stren ely, though, those who were there find it hard to leave. There's that community feeling which exists in isolated areas that no-one from outside ever visits or would want to visit. The region produced the Paramounts, later to become Procul Harum, Robin Trower included, and more recently Eddie and the Hot Rods, and somewhere in between, Dr. Feelgood.

Wilko began to tell me about his schooldays. It seemed the best place to start. "I think the first thing I can remember happening was at school. I went to this geography lesson, it was in a different room from usual, and at the desk I sat in, someone had been making an electric guitar in woodwork, and it was just leaning on the desk where I was sitting. So I started twanging on it, and it seemed like a really magic thing, and I really wanted to get one.

I can also remember Gary Brooker, who went to that school. I was in the first year when he was in the fourth. He was one of the school yobbos I was frightened of, and there was this old grand piano in the school corridor, and I remember seeing him playing "What'd I Say". That's probably the first time I heard rhythm and blues, and that kind of intrigued me.

Anyway, that Christmas I blagged my parents to get me a guitar, which cost about a tenner. Now the thing is, I'm left-handed, so I started off playing it this way round, and I was struggling along like that for get- ting on for a year. So when I went to get a better guitar, which was the legendary Watkins Flapier, I couldn't afford to get a left-handed one. But I found this really good Second-hand one, and it was the right one. So I thought, Well, I'm useless anyway, so I might just as well change over and play the other way round - start learning again, then I could kid myself I'm just beginning, and I'm not just a pathetically slow learner.

So I started playing right-handed, and this had a really weird psychological effect on me. When I picked the guitar up it was like one of these comedy sketches about someone trying to open a deckchair, turning it this way and that - I didn't know which way to hold it. And also it means you wake up in the morning feeling like you’ve been turned inside out. And you walk around all day feeling like there's something awkward going on, but you can't understand what it is…"

I listened on to this remarkable tale, and gradually became aware that Wilko is one of those people I had heard about from other journalists but never actually met : the Lazy Interviewer’s Dream. Rather than waiting for questions, Wilko sits and tells stories until you can think of something to interrupt him with. Trying to get in a question was like attempting to board a crowded tube train just as the doors are closing. This isn't to say that he is garrulous. It's just that you don't want to interrupt in case you miss something. Meanwhile the story was continuing.

"I knew by then what sort of music I wanted to play. And also I'd heard this Johnny Kidd and the Pirates record, and I'd decided that I wanted to play just like that guitar player, and so I started on my long journey to becoming the poor man's Mick Green. I sat in my room playing Pirates singles at 33, copying all the licks. I’m still doin' it actually !"

Embarrassed

"It went on like that until it was time to leave school. I was going to go to university. Funny, cuz Robin Trower came round knocking on my door and asked me to join this group, and I said I couldn’t cuz I was going to university. Then he went off and meanwhile Gary Brooker had done "A Whiter Shade of Pale", so Flobin went off and joined them."

Wilko tucked his books under one arm and went off to university. There he tried to get a group together, but a postcard he pinned to the notice board provoked zero response. He gave up the idea. All his musical aspirations had so far come to nothing, apart from a brief liaison with a pianist called Potter back home. The musical climate was changing in any case. R&B was last year's thing. The psychedelic age was dawning. Wilko finished his studies, went travelling for a while, but ended up, inevitably, on Canvey Island, wondering what the hell to do with the rest of his life. One day he met Lee Brilleaux in the street.

"He'd had this group with Sparko (the Feelgoods' bassist) and it had just split up. Now funnily enough, Dave Higgs, who's with Eddie and the Hot Rods now, was living in my council house at the time. We were planning to get this group together, see, but neither of us had got anything together - we just talked about it, and maybe Dave would build a speaker cabinet or something. But we never did anything. So I was talking about that, and Lee was talking about this group that broke up. And I was thinking, Oh I wish he'd ask me to start a group, and apparently he was thinking the same thing, but we were both too embarrassed to make the first move. We were both making out that we didn't give a fuck any more. So a couple of nights later Sparko comes knocking at me door, and says, Do you wanna start a group ? And I said Yeah, yeah ! That was the beginning of 1972, and so we started Dr. Feelgood off."

Their first gig was a Sunday residency at a pub in Pitsea ("a very appropriate name - it was the pits, folks") but even at that stage they had in mind to make a living from it. The initial idea was to play pop tunes sprinkled with the R&B they actually wan ted to play. But such was their lack of faith in Lady Luck they decided it w0uldn't make any difference what they played, since they weren't going to get the work in any case. So they played exactly what they wan- ted: blistering, white-hot rock and roll. For a while they were backing Heinz, the blond Ger- man singer who was quite well-known in the early sixties but had since faded into total obscurity.

Nevertheless, the gigs they scored with him were the best, because they at least got them out on the road from time to time. About eighteen months later the band had graduated to the London pub circuit. From here it was merely a logical progress toward national fame and, ultimately, a no. 1 album with "Stupidity".

"The scene was so different then. If you weren't part of The Business, you didn't have a hope. I mean, we were getting great big reviews and articles in the music press, and nobody would offer us a contract. It's just the opposite now, which is great, y'know. I think we can take a little bit of credit for that. And so I think that‘s one thing we did."

Slouching

Part of the reason for the Feelgoods' meteoric rise after arriving in London was the variety of their audiences up until then : the gigs had been a mixture of school dances and British Legion clubs, and they learned how to play in such a way as to go down well in front of anyone. Then there was the stage act. In those days most bands were into the we’re only here for the music, man pose, which meant that the only movement that took place was at the beginning when the band came slouching on, and at the end when they went slouching off. OK, there was the occasional Uriah Heep down-on-one-knee guitar hero stuff, and the flailing dreadlocks of a thousand Robert Plant lookalikes. But that was it. The era of genuine high-energy had not yet arrived. So what made Dr. Feelgood different ?

"Our whole philosophy behind doin' it was for everyone to enjoy themselves. In the early days we'd turn up at a gig, and there'd be hardly anyone there, and people wouldn't really care that much about what we were doing, and it was so rare for us actually to get up and play that we thought, well if they're not gonna get off, we are. And if you start leapin' about a bit it's much more exciting to be playing. And it creates a bit of a stir. When you do that it catches people‘s attention. You're kind of underlining what you're doing with the music. And by the time we started playing in London, we knew that what we did worked in front of almost every kind of audience. The band was tight. And we didn’t realize it at the time, but I see it now - we had this weirdness that attracted people. But we were all absolutely unknown, and it was a big advantage."

It must have been hard, though, to break out of the rut of doing just rock standards from the fifties and sixties. You needed to have something of your own, something that involved more than merely copying from the past. And Wilko was aware of this.

"I've made various boneheaded attempts throughout me life to do something or other creative. Now when I got this group going it was like a hobby. It was something you did on Sunday in this pub in Pitsea and forgot about the rest of the time. But after a while I realized that it had become an obsession, and it had totally taken over all my energy. And as I always need to have some kind of expressive outlet, it had to be that. I'd never thought of writing songs before. I just started doing it - trying to write songs that were completely true to the rhythm and blues tradition, but were my songs, that had something to do with me.

That was difficult at first. It used to be annoying - people would criticize you for writing 12-bars or three-chord type things. But really ifs very very difficult to write an original 12- bar. I mean, anyone can stick in a lot of quirky chord changes and things like that, and say they're being original. But really a lot of stuff like that is much more forgetable than an OK 12- bar, because it hasn't got the guts. The reason that so many 12-bar songs have been written, and people keep returning to them, is that it's absolutely the perfect chord progression for rock and roll. No-one's ever gonna find a better one, and that’s fine by me. But only about three of my songs are actual textbook 12-bar progressions. The rest of them are varied in some way or other, but near as fuck it is to swearin' they're all 12-bars !"

Argument

While Wilko was talking I'd been trying to think of a way to bring up the subject of his split from the band, and that last remark provided me with the perfect opportunity. At the time of the split, the row which led to it was reported as being over one of his own songs which the others didn't think should be on the new album. Was this really why he left ?

Well I dunno what it was : the fact of the matter is, I didn’t leave the Feelgoods - they chucked me out. And I don’t know why, to this day. There was an argument about a song on the album, yeah. But two of them, Sparko and Figure, weren't even there when that argument took place. And in fact I haven't seen them since. I was coming on pretty strong with my side of this argument - but then I always do when it's something I believe in - and the next thing I knew, it had turned into this big confrontation, with the manager sayin', 'Either you back down or you’re out'.

And then they all disappeared, and I found myself continually phoning Chris, the manager, saying, Can’t we meet and talk about this? And he was going, Well there's nothing to talk about - I hate you - this kind of thing. And it went on for a couple of weeks after we came away from Flockfield - just these phone calls goin' on. And I never did get to see the others or talk to them, and it finally got to the point where it was obvious they just didn't want me in the group any more, and that was that."

Accident

"Anyway, when it was finally obvious that the end had come, Chris said, Let's not have any slanging matches about this. So I said, OK, I won't say anything. I was a bit sick about it anyway. So I didn’t say anything, and the next thing I know, they're saying in the papers that I'd left !

After I'd woken up to the fact that I wasn't in that group any more, I thought to myself, I got into this rock and roll thing by accident, I like accidents in life, I like not knowing what's going to happen next - and I thought, maybe it's time to get out. But than I realized I hadn't a clue what I could do next, cuz I just hadn't been expecting this. So the obvious thing was to try and carry on, and I didn't know how you did it. I didn’t know how you went about findin' al group…

But anyway, sure enough, Potter, the piano player, turned up at my door. And remembering times gone by I said, Yeah, yeah, let's start a group again. We'd always had this thing together - his piano and my guitar. He's the only other lead instrumentalist that I'd ever been able to work effectively with. On account of trying to be Mick Green and that, I didn't like rhythm guitars, cuz fm a rhythm guitarist really."

Also at this time, Wilko was finding out who his friends were, as one always does when the chips are down. Having never been one of the liggers - about-town the claims never to have been in the Speakeasy in his life), he still found moral support from true mates like Mick Green and Lemmy. The latter introduced him to Steve Lewins, who was in the process of quit- ting The Count Bishops. At the same time, a drummer called Alan Platt turned up. They all took to each other immediately, and so, just six weeks before this interview, the new band had taken shape. The team was completed by the addition of a roadie called Glum, and Bobs, the former tour manager of Motorhead.

Democratic

"So it ended up there was six of us. Everyone was prepared to give everything they'd got to do it. So I said, Right, we're all gonna be equal. lt's not gonna be like the normal scene where someone makes some money, buys themselves a backing band and leaves them on wages while they cop the bread. I just said, We’ll stand and fall by our own efforts, and everybody’s gonna have a share of it. The six of us got a partnership where we're all equal."

Well hold on now, Wilko. The band's named after you, isn’t it ? Does that make it a genuine cooperative effort ? ''I didn’t want that. You see, we're so democratic that I thought of this fabulous name for the group, and they didn’t like it ! I'm not saying what it is, cuz I’m still trying to convince 'em it's the best name. You see, if I say it, someone else might use it !"

The new band won't be a million miles from Dr. Feelgood in approach : his songs, made famous by his association with them, will figure in the set, as will a number of new ones penned by Johnson and Potter since the split. The collaboration on song writing is a relatively new thing for him.

"It gives you such a broad scope. If you’re the only one in a band writing songs… everyone gets periods where they dry up, and you just cannot think of anything original, and you try and write a song, but you realise you' just rewriting something you've done before. And if you're the only one doing something in a band, that can get awfully depressing, and frightening, cuz you know there's gonna be nothing coming from anybody else, and that causes you to dry up even more. But where you've got several people doin' it, you know that if you can't necessarily think of anything, someone else will have an idea that can be worked on."

Naturally enough, the new band has altered Wilko's perspective on the kind of music he wants to write and play. Perhaps his perspective had already altered at the end of the time he was with the Feelgoods, and it took them to realize it though the lad himself was oblivious to the change. Was he going beyond them ?

"I think one thing that's always important for anyone in a rock group is to realize what your limitations are, and playing within them. You might as well do something that's not quite so clever, cuz that's in fact a lot more clever - to work well within your limitations. Everyone in Dr. Feelgood realized it was a limited thing that we were doing. After the live album, I didn't want to deliberately progress for the sake of progressing, because I think that often leads to musical nonsense."

Observations

I wanted to carry on playing r&b in our kind of way. But I knew that for myself and for other people listening I wanted to expand it a little bit - say a little bit more in the lyrics maybe. I've always had two kinds of songs : you’ll have songs like "She Does It Right", which is straight rock and roll cliché songs about how great girls are. And then there's songs like "All Through The City", which are like observations of life. And I wanted to get a bit more of that in, maybe, just something a bit new. And it was very very difficult we were touring America, and I can't write on the road and America brings me down something cruel - well, it did then…

"Well, I was still writing a lot at Rockfield, I was just keeping ahead of the sessions, it all came at the last minute. The were recognizable Dr. Feelgood things, but they were opening up new areas. One of the thing the argument was about was that what I thought they were doing was going right back t the youth club instead of trying to do something stronger." He paused for a second. "And er, also doin' other things that I didn't believe in."

He wrote a song called "Paradise" which he considered lyrically and rhythmically said more than usual, whilst remaining in the tradition of energy and excitement. It was also autobiographical, though in a way which only people who know Wilko would appreciate. But the band didn't like the idea. It was too personalized.

But that's all in the past. By the time you read this, WiIko's new band, with or without a new name, will be gigging around the country - preferably in venues with no seats. "I want to try and escape from the trap you get into of having to do bigger and bigger gigs, and gradually losing touch with everybody, and becoming a big soppy star. And also I wanna prove this band can make it on its own merits, and that we’re not bein' launched with a hype."

Offers

At the time of writing, they don’t have a record deal, and the band is being subsidized out of his own pocket. Wilko hopes that they will be paying their own way before his money runs out. There's been no lack of offers, but the one they accept will be the one with the least strings and the most artistic freedom.

"When it comes down to that sort of business, it should be stressed to everybody that you should get a lawyer. Or the Musicians' Union. The Musicians' Union provide an excellent legal service. You do need someone who’s been trained in the law. I mean, I don’t expect my lawyer to get up and play a 12-bar solo, and I'd have just as much effect in looking at a contract !"

The trip

"The whole thing about rock and roll, though, is the trip. You've just gotta get the best trip you can out of it, and not get diverted from what you originally wanted to do by the crazy business. I promise everyone I'm never gonna play the Hammersmith Odeon ever again !"

Wilko Johnson travaille sur un nouvel album
11 Mai 2017

Nouvelle biographie sur Lee Brilleaux
27 Novembre 2016

Docteur Wilko Johnson
20 Novembre 2016

31 Décembre 2017
Wilko Johnson
Les concerts à venir...
... sur le site officiel


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© Dr Feelgood & Lucie Lebens - Tous droits réservés
In Memory of Lee Brilleaux & Gypie Mayo