Wilko Johnson: 'Once, I'd have been whizzing – but not now'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

He rocks, paints, writes, even acts. So what's up with the former Dr Feelgood writer, wonders Ian Burrell

Like a zoo animal patrolling the perimeter of its cage, Wilko Johnson is padding round and round in circles, having leapt from his leather armchair and vaulted the wooden steps to the raised level of his living room. At the age of 64, he still has nervous energy to burn.

"One habit I've got, which I exercise all the time, is that I pace about. I walk about, see, I go like this ..." he says. "And it's always in an anti-clockwise direction, right? I've even checked this out in Australia, right? And I still go in an anti-clockwise direction, and so I think I must have one leg shorter than the other. I've tried pacing in a clockwise direction but as soon as my mind drifts, oh it's not right."

Wilko – the machine-gunning guitar hero who sent shockwaves of energy through the pretentious 1970s British rock scene and inspired a generation of punks – is demonstrating how he prepares for his inimitable live performances. "So, about half an hour before we go on stage, that starts and I start walking about."

It is 35 years since Wilko's falling out with his bandmates in Dr Feelgood signalled the end of the most intense and creatively rich period of his career, but he is suddenly back in the spotlight. Julien Temple's 2009 documentary Oil City Confidential told Dr Feelgood's story through the prism of the Shell Haven oil refinery that overshadows the band's hometown of Canvey Island. The film, which drew parallels between the mudflats of the "Thames Delta" and the Mississippi swamps of their musical roots, renewed interest in the original Feelgoods (Dr Feelgood still tour, though with none of the original members). EMI has released a box set of classic material and Wilko has produced an autobiography with writer Zoe Howe, Looking Back at Me. He has even popped up in the fantasy TV drama Game of Thrones.

During the summer he will take to the festival circuit with the Wilko Johnson band and, even though a bald pate has replaced the trademark pudding basin haircut, his performance retains the wild gesturing and frantic strumming, a feature he mimics repeatedly in conversation. He still doesn't use a plectrum and his hand bears a recent scar. "I did that somehow on an upstroke – the E-string cut through my thumb."

As ever, he's wearing a black shirt, black trousers and black ankle boots. At the end of the room is a guitar in the Wilko colours of red and black. "It's anarchy you see, the red and black flag of anarchy." On the way into his suburban Essex house I had noticed the anarchy symbol, a circled "A" painted on his garden wall alongside the slogan "Venceremos" ("We shall overcome"). "That's my bourgeois revolutionism, see? I have written my slogans on the wall, but nobody can see them, only me, because I've written them on the inside," he says, with a rapid-fire laugh.

In the classic Wilko pose on stage, his eyes are popping and he is pointing his Fender Telecaster at the audience like a Sten gun, gliding to and fro on the end of his red guitar lead. "The way you were looking at people, you were doing that because that was what people want," he says, making his hand into the shape of a gun. "When you're kids playing cops and robbers you're using your fingers as your gun and you know you are just playing but ... don't it feel like a gun? You really, really do it! And it's exactly the same on stage! It's no machine gun, man, it's a Telecaster!"

The audience understood that and, despite the aggression in songs such as "Riot In Cell Block #9", there was rarely trouble at Feelgood shows. Wilko mentions an exception when the band's late singer Lee Brilleaux jumped into the crowd to confront a man with a knife who had started a brawl. "Lee took the knife off him without interrupting the show – which shows quite a bit of class, I think."

It was a bitter personality clash between Brilleaux – who died of cancer in 1994 at the age of 41 – and Johnson that caused the break up of the original Dr Feelgood in 1977. Wilko now sings lead vocals with his band, and when he speaks of Brilleaux, it is with admiration. He admits to an emotional moment when watching Oil City Confidential, a recollection that makes him twiddle his fingers. "There was this sequence and it was just me and Lee Brilleaux on stage together and suddenly I got this powerful flash and I remembered what it was like to be on stage with him. It was fantastic. I always think that he really was the wellspring of Dr Feelgood."

Wilko was the band's songwriter, coming up with enduring classics such as "Roxette", "She Does it Right" and "Back in the Night". Brilleaux wanted to be like Howlin' Wolf, only in a dirty white suit, and fired up on a few drinks and a Canvey Island attitude. When Wilko wrote, it was with him in mind. "You're upsetting me now," he says, welling up a little.

After the split, Wilko was such a distinctive figure in rock that he had plenty of offers. "I was really hot – you would not believe the people that were pursuing me and offering me I don't know how many millions." But he didn't capitalise on that interest, and although he enjoyed some good times playing with Ian Dury and the Blockheads, his career meandered along "the line of least resistance".

The death of his wife and childhood sweetheart Irene, from cancer eight years ago, hit Wilko hard. The opportunity to gig gives him only partial respite from that sadness, so he looks on his latest successes with a certain detachment. "Once upon a time I would have been whizzing about, really pleased with everything, but now I don't have any hopes or ambitions – that's absurd," he says. "I take a benign and avuncular interest in it."

Looking Back at Me also reveals the myriad cultural touchstones of a working-class rock'n'roller and deeply complex man. Wilko once had ambitions to be a painter and a poet, and the publication of the book is the first time that his artwork has been seen outside his home. On the roof of his house is a dome with a large periscope where he spends hours studying the stars. On the table in front of him are a chess set, a copy of Private Eye and a book on the Aztecs. At university he studied the Icelandic sagas and he still likes to read Anglo Saxon poetry. As an answer to the Anglo Saxon text The Battle of Maldon, which records an ancient Viking victory, Wilko once wrote some verses on the great moment in Canvey history that was the Battle of Benfleet in AD894. "I thought 'This great victory needs a poem, so I will write it in alliterative verse style, pseudo Anglo Saxon'. Christ, how embarrassing."

But Johnson the poet is never far from the conversation. He is a mine of Shakespeare quotes (he was a schoolteacher before he joined Dr Feelgood), and, in his Estuary accent, draws on the Elizabethan Sir Philip Sydney when he talks about the way his fellow band members regard his torments as a song-writer: "They don't see all the 'Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,/ "Fool," said my muse to me," Look in thy heart and write" ...'."

What next for Wilko Johnson? More acting, perhaps – he played a mute executioner in Game of Thrones and so enjoyed the experience that he would love a belated career as an actor. "I have all this Shakespeare lodged with me and useless ... perhaps I could play Romeo?" he ponders, and judders out his machine-gun laugh.

Wilko Johnson's autobiography 'Looking Back at Me', co-written with Zoe Howe, is published by Cadiz Music tomorrow. He tours the UK from 11 Oct. Tickets: www.thegigcartel.com.

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'