thu 07/12/2023

Remembering Wilko: unforgettable encounters with the Dr Feelgood guitarist | reviews, news & interviews

Remembering Wilko: unforgettable encounters with the Dr Feelgood guitarist

Remembering Wilko: unforgettable encounters with the Dr Feelgood guitarist

Following the death of the legendary musician, our writer recalls the most disturbing gig he's ever been to

RIP Wilko Johnson (1947 - 2022)

Looking back on the most exciting, atmospheric and musically challenging gigs I’ve seen to date, there are several contenders in each category. But for the distinction of THE MOST DISTURBING GIG I’VE EVER BEEN TO there is only one possible option: the night in autumn 1973 when I saw a band called Dr Feelgood supporting Ducks Deluxe, a bluesy soully pub rock band in – of all places – Surbiton Assembly Rooms.

The NME, then the Bible of pop, were talking up Pub Rock, a back-to-basics, real music in small venues movement, as the thing of the moment, and a bunch of us from school, maybe six, went along, thereby doubling the size of the audience. 

Christ knows what I thought a band called Dr Feelgood were going to be like. But nothing in that era of bombed out Sixties hangover, of cheese cloth, crushed velvet and still hippy-dippy festivals prepared me for the band’s jagged, unremitting bastard R&B, let alone the total out-thereness of their performance.

To my mind they didn’t even look like “musicians”. No crinkly tresses or loon pants, just mean and drab-looking blokes in slacks and bomber jackets who looked like they'd just wandered out of some really hard pub. The singer stood growling at the floor in the half-light at the front of the stage. But never mind him, I couldn’t take my eyes off the guitarist – Wilko Johnson, as I later learned him to be – with his slack jaw, haunted, staring eyes and robotic movements. It must have been one of their earliest gigs, but Wilko already had his whole schtick completely together, the tight black suit, pudding basin haircut, head jerking in time with their snarling, jackhammer riffing.

I stood there in that bare, bleak almost empty hall thinking, who the hell are these people and what institution have they been let out of? It was only years later I realised they – or at least Wilko – actually had been let out of an institution.

Everything about Dr Feelgood was the exact reverse of what you expected in that time of endlessly expanding hair and meandering concept albums. Short hair, narrow trousers, negligible soloing and brutally perfunctory songs. Can you see where this is going? It was in many ways punk, two years before the Sex Pistols’ first gig.

Not that there was anything remotely amateurish about Dr Feelgood. Even I, in my prog rock-induced stupor, could tell they were frighteningly terse and cohesive. As they sliced into Riot in Cell Block Number 9, with Wilko waving his telecaster around like a tommy gun, it felt at once deeply creepy and brilliant in a way I couldn't remotely get my head round.

Ducks Deluxe were pleasant enough in a laid-back country soully way. Glaswegian soul man Frankie Miller, who later had a couple of minor hits, did a cameo. But I was too unsettled by the support band to even start to enjoy it.  

Next time I saw Dr Feelgood maybe 6 months later, they'd been all over the NME. Every conscious youth in Britain knew about Canvey Island and Grenson shoes. It had become pantomime. But the sheer shock of that first sighting still lingers raw in the mind. 

That was the night I realised – in not so long retrospect – that pop music wasn't going to be an endless sad wind-down from flower power. Punk wasn’t quite an afterthought, but after Dr Feelgood nothing felt that shocking or surprising.

Decades later – around 2010 - I had an opportunity to discuss that gig with Wilko at another surprising venue, a distinguished British painter’s memorial bash at the Royal Academy. Wilko was in the process of becoming an eccentric British folk hero, with his passions for Astronomy and the Anglo-Saxon language, helped out by his extraordinary appearance in Julian Temple’s Dr Feelgood rockumentary Oil City Confidential.

I was standing looking at one of this old feller’s paintings, when I turn, and there's Wilko, looking exactly like Wilko Johnson, also studying the painting. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."

"I wasn't expecting to see me here!" he says, all affable, just like he is in Oil City Confidential, but 10 times as intense. 

A bit of small talk then, "I saw you playing years ago..." 

"Oh Yeah??!!" his face is suddenly an inch from mine, eyes wide. I feel like I've been plugged into an electrical mains. 

"Yeah, yeah.... Surbiton Assembly Rooms supporting Ducks Deluxe."

"O-OH YEAH! Didn't Frankie Miller come on and do a coupla numbers?" 

"Yeah, he did."

"I heard him talking to Sean Tyla (leader of Ducks Deluxe) in the corridor. Oo's this FAAKIN' Dr Feelgood? says Sean. Don't worry, says Frankie, we'll FAAKIN' blow 'em off stage.

"As I recall," said Wilko airily, "the reverse proved to be the case." 

The sheer shock of that first sighting still lingers raw in the mind

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Great tribute, thanks

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