March’s Black and Blue tour is approaching fast and we thought it would be an interesting idea to interview the special guest artist, R&B legend Wilko Johnson. Wilko’s old friend and flatmate JJ added his own memories of the period and their longterm friendship as well. Despite the conversation taking many interesting tangents, we pretty much kept to topics such as Pub Rock, the Feelgoods and the mystery that is Canvey Island…
Dr Feelgood were fiercely proud of their roots in Canvey Island, Essex. What’s so special to you about Canvey?
Wilko: Growing up in Canvey Island was always a little bit shameful to me. My mother felt that she had been dragged down there by my father, who was a soldier. I passed the eleven plus exam, went to Grammar school in Southend and you were kind of looked down on coming from Canvey. But when the music started, it was a pretty cool place to come from, you know, down in the swamp!
I love the Thames estuary, it always looks beautiful to me, no matter what the weather’s like or what time of year. As soon as I made some money I moved off Canvey to Southend, I can tell you that! Canvey is actually reclaimed land, built by the Dutch in the 17th century, so I was born below sea level. My music has a submarine element to it…
Following your return from travelling on the Hippy trail around India, you became a teacher. How did you enjoy the job?
W: I loved that job. It was in 1972 and I was about 23. I did it for less than a year. There were some great girls at the school… (long pause for reflection) There was this one girl, she was sixteen, not in my class, who I asked out as soon as I stopped teaching!
You have a unique playing style. How did your technique develop?
W: I learnt to play by trying to copy Mick Green of the Pirates. When I started to learn to play the guitar, I didn’t know anything about music-I just fancied myself with a guitar. When I first heard Johnny Kidd and the Pirates on the radio, the record was ‘I’ll never get over you’ (JJ recalls and sings it). The guitar solo came and I just froze. The sound of the guitar rivetted me. That weekend, when they appeared on TV on Thank Your Lucky Stars, I found out that he played all the guitar parts. I was completely enamoured and I wanted to play just like that.
So, I wanted to be like Mick Green but I couldn’t get it right, found my way around it and ended up with my own style…
The Feelgoods were amongst the front runners of the Pub Rock scene. How would you define the term Pub Rock as many bands had started gigging on the pub circuit before the term was coined?
W: I always hated that expression.For one thing, back then, I was strictly teetotal so I wasn’t too keen on pubs… Also it was talking about a kind of venue not a kind of music. At that time, every bloody band had a different angle. They said ‘Pub Rock’ as though it was a kind of music. Its always been a silly term to me.
JJ: They started using it as a pejorative term-looking down their noses at it. That was so wrong…
Dr Feelgood released three studio albums and one live album in just over two years when you were guitarist. What made the band so prolific?
W: I dunno…. JJ’s probably had the same experience. It’s great when you do your first album, you’ve got all this stuff that you’ve learnt. Then you have the terrible problem of doing another one that you haven’t had time to develop or feel sure of. We did our first album ‘Down By The Jetty’, by the second one, ‘Malpractice’, we were getting better known and touring the States. Then we had to do the third… I hadn’t written any songs and we decided that the obvious thing was to put out a live album ‘Stupidity’. It was what everyone wanted as we were a live band. It went to number one.
JJ: That must’ve been the last live album to get to number one!
W: It was during the making of the fourth album that the band exploded, we had a big argument and I was thrown out…
Both the Feelgoods and the Stranglers were signed up to UA records by A&R man Andrew Lauder, who signed many other well known bands too. Was he just in the right place at the right time or did he have an eye for new talent?
W: When the Feelgoods started playing in London, we established ourselves as a band and we were getting press and everything. People were hesitant to give us a record deal as it was unlike what was going down at the time.
JJ: That’s typical! They always follow a bandwagon, they don’t understand when they see people getting excited by something.
Andrew Lauder was a music fan, he collected records and he went to gigs. He didn’t look at marketing trends, he just went with his gut instinct. One of the reasons record companies don’t exist anymore was that they were run by accountants who didn’t fucking care about music they just wanted short term return on investments. He went to pubs and clubs, looked at bands and if he liked them he took a punt. If he fucked up, he fucked up. He wasn’t worried about losing his job. That was the difference.
W: Absolutely right. He was a music fan. Other people didn’t know what to do with Dr Feelgood but he just went for it. There were many similarities with the Stranglers and us. We were a band coming from out of town, not from London, we weren’t known musicians and we just did our own thing.
As regulars of the London pub circuit, which was your favourite venue and why?
W: I’ll always have a special feeling for the Kensington, that was the first place where we had a residency. We used to play there every Saturday night-it was the first one we started doing regularly.
JJ: Had to be the Hope and Anchor. One time we played the Lord Nelson, we were driving past the Hope and we could see Kilburn and the High Roads loading their gear in. We said ‘One day we’ll play there’. We got our first residency there on a Sunday night, they didn’t have gigs on Sundays but they took a punt on it. There was definitely a vibe there. The other one was the Red Cow, which is no longer exists.
And the Nashville Rooms. When you had a residency, you started seeing familiar faces. You realised they were actually coming to see you not just to be entertained by whoever was playing…
W: It makes you feel like you were somebody. I remember this one time we were playing the Kensington and a taxi pulled up. I couldn’t believe that people were coming to see us who arrived by taxi!
The punk explosion was often credited to influences from across the Atlantic. Do you feel that the frenetic British pub rock scene was far more of an influence on the fledgling movement?
JJ: As much. Our point of reference for the Stranglers were different to the other bands, who claimed it was Detroit and New York. Really, for the Stranglers, it was West coast and the Feelgoods. Very few of the other pub rock bands we could relate to. A lot of the attitude was done by the Feelgoods, they were the sole British flag in those influences. I think the Pistols claimed Iggy and the New York bands, fair enough. The Stranglers had the Doors and a lot of the psychadelic stuff, Beefheart and the Feelgoods.
What did you think of Dr Feelgood?
JJ: When Hugh and I first saw the Feelgoods in Guildford, it was like an epiphany. They were getting a reputation as a great live band. When we saw them, it was what the fuck rock and roll should be about. Exciting, with a bit of edge and in your face. They looked great and had a great attitude. Back then everyone had started to disappear up their own arses, huge guitar solos and millions of pedals. It took us back to the spirit of what it was all about. The chemistry of those four people, it worked perfectly. We were gobsmacked!
W: I remember when JJ told me that he had first seen the Feelgoods. He said we were really puzzled by us, a couple of guys with real urban angst and a bass player with a ‘semi-professional moustache’! (cue much laughter from both)
JJ: That’s what we used to call them! I remember when Dave first turned up and auditioned for the Stranglers, I said to Hugh ‘Oh my god, there’s a guy with a semi pro moustache’!!!
I often say to journalists there is a bridge between the old times and the punk times. That bridge is exclusively the Feelgoods, it allowed us to go from one thing to another. That’s the connection, the DNA.
What did you think of the punk explosion?
W: I thought it was great. When I saw the success we were getting with the Feelgoods, I thought it would lead to another R&B thing. In fact, what they took from us was the energy. The punk music was kind of primitive.
Most of the punks had taken the energy, the physical ferocity from the Feelgoods. But they were just twanging away whereas the Stranglers had obviously been listening to music. How much music survives from those days? These guys, the hits songs like Peaches and stuff, are even known to youngsters today. Everybody knows Peaches…
To what extent did Amphetamine Sulphate fuel your respective bands in those days?
JJ: After you… (both laughing)
W: Somewhere between 90 and 95% I think!!! I can’t speak for the others but it was always my weakness. In the sixties, when I started indulging in stuff, I could never understand speed freaks, because I was psychadelic. I thought I would never end up taking stuff just to make me feel good, which is what I ended up completely doing…
JJ: Funnily enough, your persona on stage was not artificial. It was like ‘What the fucks he on? Is he naturally like that or has he got a problem?’ It was a true reflection of the person.
Not so much with the Stranglers, we couldn’t get hold of it. We were stoners and took acid. When we were subjected to London influences, there was powder. We didn’t know what it was, sometimes they called it coke, but it kept you up for two days!
Both: Don’t try this at home!
When/where did you first meet?
W: At this legendary flat in West Hampstead, I was lying in bed with ‘herself’ (Wilko’s wife Irene) and this hand came through the door with a joint! I knew JJ was moving in because (Choosey) Susie had told me. I knew about the Stranglers and everything. That was when we first met.
I remember this one occasion in the flat, JJ came back one time, they had been abroad. Their first album had come out and there was an absolutely disgraceful review in one of the magazines. It was insulting, badly written, it was shit, they’d really given it a pasting. JJ was upset and he asked me if I’d seen it. Naturally he wanted to go and destroy everyone concerned with it! I said ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ve been up to the record company and I’ve seen that your record is selling really well. That’s your reply!!!’ The last laugh was with the Stranglers…
How long did you cohabit for?
W: That was my London establishment if you like. I had my wife and child back in Southend. I used to spend about a quarter of my time there.
JJ: Just under a year, then the thing with Susie happened and it all got ugly (this event inspired the lyrics to Five Minutes). It just wasn’t the place to stay anymore…
Were there any regular famous visitors to your place?
JJ: I remember I came back from a gig once and you were holding court in the front room with parts of the Clash and the Pistols. At the time, there was a kind of war between the Stranglers and the Clash and the Pistols. I nearly threw my toys out of the pram. I huffed and puffed and went to my room! Because they all loved you…
W: For some reason, a lot of the punk bands used to turn up round this place. When I got up in the morning, well not the morning, whenever I got up, I’d be stepping over Billy Idol and all these people…
JJ: He didn’t do AM very well! Sometimes Billy Idol and Steve Strange used to share a single bed quite a lot, because that was all Susie had at the time. There was all kinds of stuff happening…
W: There was all this rivalry going on. All these punk bands would come around and slag each other off most viciously. It was very funny!
You left the Feelgoods early in 1977, just as the band was hitting a commercial peak. What was the reason for your early departure?
W: We were recording our fourth album. Things had been getting strained. Lee Brilleaux was a fantastic guy, we started out as great friends. That’s what I always look back on. I never did him any wrong and he never did me any wrong. For some reason, it ended up that we couldn’t be in the same room together.
Lee and I were trying to be friends again. I had started writing songs and we went down to Rockfield to record. Two or three days later, they all came back from the pub. I didn’t go as I was teetotal. I sensed that there was something going on… They all took it in turns to argue with me, all night long. What we were arguing about, for the life of me, I don’t know. By the time the morning came, everybody had adopted positions and I was out of the band. After it happened I was absolutely lost, it’s like losing your family.
Did high work load and constant gigging take their toll?
W: It was always on the road when things started to get strained. I didn’t drink and I’d be in my room doing whatever. They’d all be down at the bar cursing me.
JJ: Its always intense on the road. You’re living with each other for so long. Little things become important and big things just get forgotten.
November ’77 saw the now legendary Front Row Festival at the Hope and Anchor, a mainstay of the London pub circuit. Both your bands played the three week festival. What memories do you have of the event?
W: Almost none! I played with my subsequent band. I remember we were called to attend a big photo session of all the bands. I was in such elevated philosophical state, I decided I didn’t want to go so I sent a cardboard cut out of me from a shop display. If you look at the picture, I’m a cardboard cut out!
JJ: None at all, except United Artists wanted our mums there in the photos and they offered to fly my mum in from the South of France. The only other thing I remember is there was a little reception party, I had three girlfriends turn up at the same night. I fucked off leaving my mum to sort out the mess!
W: He was a bit of a lad!!!
Following nearly 10 years heading your own band, you joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads in the mid 80s. Why did you choose to join someone else’s band?
W: It was their fault! The famous occasion when the Stranglers played the Rainbow when Hugh was incarcerated. It was a fantastic occasion and there were so many musicians that you’d heard of but never met. It was a great scene. Ian Dury and Davey Payne (Blockheads’ sax player) were there. Ian asked me if I’d like to come down and make a single with the Blockheads backing me. As it happens, I was a devoted fan of Norman Watt-Roy (Blockheads’ bassist and now member of Wilko’s band) and I loved his bass playing. I went down and we made the single. I think they were checking me out, as Chas Jankel had left. Ian asked me if I wanted to join the Blockheads and I said ‘Yes!’ Some of the best times, the most fun, that I’ve ever had.
There were lots of problems from the past in the band, there were all these fights which I just stood apart from and could be amused by. I remember this occasion in Dublin where there were rucks about something or other. Davey Payne had knocked Ian out against a wall as he was unsteady on his feet. Ian’s glasses were diagonal on his face! I attempted to make a speech saying ‘Listen, I fucked it up with one great band, blown apart over nothing. I’m fucked if its going to happen again.’ It got resolved and we carried on… It was so much fun.
You regularly play gigs at the iconic London venue, the 100 Club. What did you think when your heard the recent news of its possible closure?
W: It was absolutely shameful. There was also a threat to close the Half Moon Putney (another London pub venue). They should not be allowed to do that. These places are cultural assets to London, people come from all over the world to go there. You think of the 100 Club, its iconic, all the people who played there. To stop the place for some kind of sordid business reasons is all wrong. I mean, you wouldn’t bloody close the Tate Gallery! One of the things that this country can be proud of is what we’ve done with rock and roll, we lead the world. To people around the world, its just as significant as Covent Garden for opera.People abroad would be appalled. Its scandalous…
JJ: Agreed. Its alive, its living.
Were you surprised that Julien Temple decided to chart the early Feelgood days in the documentary film Oil City Confidential?
W: When Chris, the Feelgoods’ manager, told me Julien wanted to do it, first of all I was surprised as he’s a famous, prominent guy. I thought ‘How can he do it as there was very little footage from the early days?’. He told me he wanted to go to the oil plant in Canvey Island, at night, and interview me in front of the oil tanks with me and Lee from thirty years ago projected on them. What an experience!
JJ: Its a great movie…
W: He’s a very clever guy, he makes it up as he goes along. The result was, well what can I say? I avoid watching films of myself, they’d given me a DVD of the film but I didn’t watch it. The first time I saw it was the premier at the South Bank, I went along and I was sitting next to my son. The live clips were the first time I’d seen Dr Feelgood live really. I was digging my son in the ribs saying ‘Go on, get a load of that!!!’ Its done us a lot of good. It captures what it was like, in Canvey Island. I can’t admire the bloke too much.
Oil City Confidential-the Feelgoods documentary
Julien Temple’s documentary about Dr Feelgood makes essential viewing, whether you’re a fan of the Canvey combo or not. The last of a trilogy of Temple films detailing the music of the mid seventies, it follows his previous documentaries on the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer. Temple has a real knack for setting the scene of that era in undersea Essex, using both stock footage from the period as well as interviews with the original line up (Briileaux’s filmed prior to his untimely death in 1994). In addition, there are various clips of the stunning live act in their Wilko heyday which underline their importance to the birth of the punk explosion. Interesting and inspiring in equal measure…
Its quite clear to viewers of the film that you were upset that you failed to rekindle your friendship with Lee Brilleaux before he died in 1994. Do you regret the breakdown in your relationship?
W: Absolutely. After we split up, and I had to go my own way, I was determined not to be bitter about it, which is boring really. I just wanted to remember what was one of the great things in my life. There were all the stupid arguments that happened, I try not to think about them, I can’t even remember what they were about. They were one of the best bunches of guys I have ever known, I’ve got so many memories that make me laugh even now.
When Lee was dying, we hadn’t seen each other since I left, I wanted to go and see him but it just never happened. Obviously I will always regret that. We went to the funeral. After the funeral, we went to Canvey Island. There was a party with all these people from the past, like Andrew Lauder. I remember we played. I realised it was me, Sparko and Figure and a space in between. I kept looking at the empty space in the middle of the stage. It felt absolutely great and absolutely sad…
A while later on, I was sitting with Sparko and Figure. We looked at each other and said ‘Guys, what did we do?’ It was very poignant..
You were reunited at last year’s MOJO awards where JJ presented Julien Temple and yourself with an award. Is it satisfying that Dr Feelgood are now getting some recognition after all this time?
W: Well, yes! Often people have said to me that Dr Feelgood started something going, we played a part in the story. One of the great things about rock and roll is that its absolutely transitory. We’re not working for future ages. Anything in rock and roll is exactly is important as it perceived to be. Sometimes you can be perceived to be the greatest thing in the world, and that’s what you are. Other times you might be forgotten, and that’s what you are. Its useful to keep that in your mind. I’ve never walked around feeling disgruntled because I’m not as famous as Billy Idol was or something like that…
JJ: You don’t want to be as famous as Billy Idol!!! I’ll tell you a story about Billy… We were quite good mates at one point. We hadn’t seen him for years as he lives in LA. He was headlining Guilfest about four or five years ago. We were, as ever, the eternal bridesmaids on just before the main act. Whether it was Blondie, Madness or Motorhead. This particular year it was Billy Idol. We were backstage and this big American bouncer type came into the backstage and said ‘Everyone clear the area please. Mr Idol would like the whole area cleared’. We all said ‘Fuck off, try it!’ He went back and reported to his master who threw a wobbly and stayed in his limousine. Then he went onstage and slagged us off. What was all that about? All that old LA bollocks!!!
Do you think that Mr Temple’s next film should document the Stranglers’ career?
W: Whether its him or not, someone should! These guys are significant and, although they were associated with the punk thing, they weren’t really a punk band. C’mon man, their music has lasted a lot longer, let’s make no mistake about that!!! Certainly somebody should set this down. If Julian did as gooder job as that, it would be a great thing…
How long have you had a passion for Astronomy?
W: When I went to Australia in 1979 with Ian and the Blockheads, we were on a long flight which got severely delayed. I was out of my tree with jetlag and I thought ‘Fuck, different stars!! Its the southern hemisphere’. When we got to the hotel, it had a rooftop swimming pool and I rushed up there to look at the sky. I lay down and looked at the southern stars. I thought there’s millions of them. Lots of the stars were coloured and seemed to be swarming around. The whole sky was alive. After a couple of minutes I realised that they were fireflies attracted by the pool lights!!
Two or three years later, I went to New Zealand to play. Before I went, I thought that when I see the southern sky again, I want to be a bit better informed. I got obsessed with this idea. I thought ‘Is the moon upside down in New Zealand?’ Think about it, its a tricky problem. One night, I saw the full moon and it was upside down! Of course, to do that, I had to learn what it looked like here first.
I used to look at Jupiter and see it’s moons through some of my son’s cheap binoculars. It was absolutely fantastic. Three or four years ago, I was sitting one night, with Lew Lewis (harmonica player on Old Codger) actually and I thought ‘This house has got a big garden, I’m going to get a telescope’. I went onto the Internet and bought a telescope with a computer in it, which you press a button and it points where you want it. What I really wanted to see was the rings of Saturn. One morning before dawn, I finally saw it and it was such a kick. I’ve been getting bigger and bigger telescopes ever since…
JJ: You mentioned Lew Lewis. I first met him when we saw him play in Brighton in about April ’77. We were there with the Finchley Boys. I think Sham 69 played as well. We got him in with George Melly. They got on really well. They completely trashed the studio. It was TW studios in the basement, we opened the door and he just dived through it. He’s a real character!
Who’s the better bass player- JJ or Norman Watt-Roy?
W: They’re both geniuses and that’s the end of it.
JJ: Norman is a fantastic bass player! He came backstage and told me he was better than me.
W: Norman is incredibly good. I joined the Blockheads just to be able towork with him. There’s no side to him at all, he’s a good bloke. Its a hell of kick playing with him.
JJ: Completely different style to me. You can’t compare the styles. He does things I can’t do and I do things that he can’t do.
W: I’m not going to say anyone’s better than this guy. He is JJ and Norman can’t do that!!!
Thanks very much to Wilko and JJ for both their time and their reminiscences. Its obvious that the pair are really looking forward to touring together in March…
Personal note: If Gill Boother is reading this piece, Wilko asks that you contact him please…
Thanks to Gary Knighton for his help with questions
Photo credit 100 Club Chris Kench
JJ and Wilko, West London, January 2011