DJ Taylor: Punk icon Johnny Wolverine's fortunes have taken a turn for the better recently


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The Independent Online

Once or twice a year, usually among the CD racks at the local branch of HMV, somebody – invariably a middle-aged man – having stared at his thinning but undeniably spiky hair and slightly corrugated face, will twitch at Jonathan Wilkinson's leather-jacketed shoulder and timidly enquire, "Aren't you Johnny Wolverine?"

Over the decades, Jonathan has devised a fail-safe manner of dealing with these far-from-unwelcome intrusions. This is to draw himself up to his full height of 5ft 7in, give his trademark V for victory sign and reply, "Yes, I am, actually. Cheers, mate. Ta very much."

This rejoinder is usually sufficient, although occasionally there is a request for an autograph, in which case he can generally be persuaded to scribble the words, "Yours in punk, Johnny W".

Most fans of the late 1970s music scene, and in particular the readers of such publications as Mojo and Uncut, will just about have heard of Johnny Wolverine. Although not quite at the forefront of the era's punk ensembles – the Clash, the Buzzcocks, the Pistols – his band, the Umlauts, whipped up a fair old storm in the months before Mrs Thatcher entered Downing Street, enjoyed two top 20 singles (one of them, "Sticking it to the Man" still gets played by Mark Radcliffe on BBC 6 Music) and would have toured Europe with Patti Smith had not Wilfie the drummer gone Awol and Johnny, as he put it to the NME, been out of his head on fast white powders.

The Umlauts eventually broke up in 1983, by which time the charts were full of pretty boys in ruffs. There followed a bleak period in which Johnny was compelled to labour in various obscure branches of the music industry (record-plugging, tour-managing) and, at one painful juncture, subsisting on the school-teaching Mrs Wilkinson's largesse.

Curiously, over the past few years, his fortunes have taken a turn for the better. The original punks are in their fifties now, with disposable income to burn, and what was once a noise is now a carefully curated nostalgia trail. Johnny's autobiography – Three Chord Wonder, written with the help of a journalist friend – was reviewed in the broadsheets, and there is even talk of an Umlauts box set. Who would have thought that a life lived out almost entirely in retrospect could offer so many compensations? Certainly not the rickety 60-year-old by the HMV bargain bin.