Blow Your Mind: Wilko Johnson Talks

❉ Legendary former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson returns with ‘Blow Your Mind’, his first album of new material in 30 years. 

“While I was at Addenbrooke’s Hospital recuperating, when I should have been dead, the Roger (Daltrey) album was doing very well. So, I was resting, and getting back into things, when the record company suggested another album. I think they wanted another Roger album, but Roger is a very busy man, so I said I’d do my own”.

“My guitar style, has been there since the very beginning” Wilko Johnson states. “I heard Mick Green, with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, I tried to copy Mick Green, I wanted to sound like that. So you could sum up my style as a guy who tried to copy Mick Green but never quite succeeded [laughs]”

Johnson needn’t be so modest. His is a guitar style of rhythm/lead freneticism, a staccato playing fresh with energy, dynamism, speed, virility and frisson. Best known as guitarist and chief songwriter for Dr.Feelgood, Johnson’s choppy guitar playing has similarly  graced the works of The Stranglers, The Blockheads and Johnny Thunders. His reputation as one of the best British guitarists of his generation is justified, both on record and in concert.  I saw him play at Glasgow a few weeks ago, encompassing vigour and charisma, agile with fingers, jocular in voice, a fine stand alongside opener Hugh Cornwell.

“Sometimes, I miss Lee Brilleaux” Johnson says of his Dr.Feelgood bandmate. “Not only as a singer, but as a person, he had presence, physical presence and stage presence. So, that I miss. Quite faux de mur.  But if he’s not there to sing them, well, then, I gotta do it. I knew Hugh since the seventies, I was good mates with Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers, we shared a flat, so we’ve known each other a long time and we want it to be a good show”.

He has a new album, one which even he admits he’d  never see come to life. Diagnosed in 2013 with cancer, he gave an interview with Front Row, detailing he didn’t have long to live, opting to give a farewell tour. In 2014, he released Going Back Home, a collaborative effort with Roger Daltrey, both thinking it would be Johnson’s last. “As it happens, we had to do it quickly, get in and put it down. We didn’t have the time otherwise, we both thought this was it. But it was good for the music, quick and fast. Which is how rock should be, get it down, not sitting around too much in the studio talking. It’s better that way”.

As curtains closers go, it would have been a very fine one, Johnson’s fiery playing vigorous with Daltrey’s sultry vocals (who was in finer form than any album since Who Are You). But fate played a different card. In 2014, it was announced that Johnson was cancer free following a radical surgery. “They saved my life at Addenbrooke’s Hospital” Johnson effuses. “While I was there recuperating, when I should have been dead, the Roger album was doing very well. So, I was resting, and getting myself back into things, when the record company suggested another album. I think they wanted another Roger album, but Roger is a very busy man, so I said I’d do my own”.

Blow Your Mind is the result of that conversation, a raw, cavernous cascade of guitar greatness and rock escapades. Lead single Marijuana is a raw, ultra placed raving blues track, complete with killer harmonicas and Dylan Howe’s rubbery, elastic drums. “There were songs I was writing, thinking I would never do anything with them because of the cancer. One night, I was playing to the guys and Dave Eringa, my producer, said it was a good song. So, that’s why we did that one. It’s about awaiting death, but it sounds a bit more jolly than that. We took some ideas from the Roger album getting it done quickly, recording the album in thirteen days”.

Dave Eringa might not be one of the better known producers in rock, though his involvement with the Manic Street Preachers, Ocean Colour Scene and Kylie Minogue in the nineties suggests this is a producer who knows how to cut them. Johnson and Eringa first worked together on Going Back Home, an album which profited both parties immensely. “Dave is the man” Johnson effuses. “I didn’t know of him before, the record company selected him, as he was standing around, I suppose, so they gave him the album. Man, he’s such a great producer, he’s a musician himself. When we play him a track, he knows every bloody bar of it, he can write it down and organises it so well. He can get a great sound, this guy, I don’t know how a producer does it, but he does it so well. That session was hard work, in thirteen days, but good fun, everyone was rocking into it. Everyone was doing their thing, it wasn’t you do this, you do that. So, there’s me, Norman Watt-Roy on bass, Dylan Howe on drums, Steve Wetton doing harmonica and Mick Talbot is there too”.

Fresh and fierce, Mind brims with musical direction and execution. It may have Johnson’s name on the cover, but this is the sound of a band playing with preciseness and life. That’s The Way I Love You flies with rock pop ballast, Slamming runs with driving pianos and breaking guitars. Beauty is textbook Dr.Feelgood, guitar choppings at the fore, while Low Down (most interestingly) segues spoken poetry with surly blues backgrounds. There’s a symmetry between the musicians, as Johnson suggests, especially the manner with which Johnson’s choppy rhythms splice with Watt-Roy’s lead, articulated bass playings.

“I first met Norman in the Blockheads” Johnson reflects. “When Ian Drury asked me to join, the thing that excited me most was playing with that rhythm section. The first time I watched the Blockheads on t.v., I couldn’t stop raving about that bass player, he plays so well. I love playing with Norman, not just because he’s such a good musician, but because he’s such a good mate too”. Watt-Roy and Howe are touring with Johnson as a trio, both playing with Johnson with musical flair one wouldn’t normally see in a touring band.

Johnson has no intention of stopping. “I want to see if this record succeeds in any way” Johnson says. “It’s been a long time since any record of mine sold in such a way. I just want to, just keep playing. I should have been dead three or four years ago, so, I’ll just keep doing this and keep playing!”

❉ ‘Blow Your Mind’ by Wilko Johnson is due for release on 15 June through Chess Records/ UMC. RRP £10.99 (CD).

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