Friday, March 07, 2008

Some kind of hero

Sometime early in 1975 I came home from school to a sight which, without sounding too melodramatic about it, (imagine me sounding too melodramatic about something- perish the thought dah-ling!) literally changed my life. On the T.V. was a show called 'Geordie Scene' which featured a live performance by a band, the like of which I had never seen before. A gang of 4 besuited herberts rampaged through songs utterly unlike any that I'd ever heard, in a manner that made them appear to me to be more like villains from 'The Sweeney' (the playground cult classic cop show) than the pampered pop stars usually seen on telly. The drummer looked like a getaway driver, the bassist like your mad uncle who always causes trouble at weddings and the singer obviously had a gun on him somewhere. But it was the guitarist that won hands down in the lunacy stakes, his bug eyes staring out from beneath his pudding bowl haircut as he skittered backwards and forwards seemingly only restrained by his curly guitar lead as he sprayed machine gun riffs into the unsuspecting teenage audience. His guitar sounded as though it was being played with a razor blade.
The group was called Dr.Feelgood, their guitarist was called Wilko Johnson and I thought they were probably the greatest thing that I had ever seen. I went into school the next day raving about them the way that you do at that age (still do sometimes in my case!) but most people who'd seen the show didn't like them, thought they'd looked a bit odd for a pop group and said I should 'get into' bands like Yes and Genesis- but I'd tried listening to that sort of music and all it had done for me was send me back to my old Beatles singles that I'd had since I was a lad. No, this was the music for me, especially that song that they'd played that was called something like 'Rock Set'; it had sounded a bit like there were two guitarists playing even though there was only one. I liked that a lot. I still do actually...

I first saw Wilko play live in, I think, 1977. He'd just left Dr. Feelgood and had his own band- the poster advertising the gig at Brunel University had said 'The Wilko Johnston Band' but we all knew it was him. In the intervening couple of years I'd met a few other people who liked the same type of music as me- in fact there were suddenly lots of people about who said that they'd liked it all along, but I knew they hadn't because if they had I wouldn't have been made to feel like a virtual outcast every time anybody mentioned music. I've seen him play lots of times since then; in fact I've probably seen him play more than I've seen any other guitarist. I've also been in the support band a few times too over the years and got to talk to him here and there. We even tried each other's guitars once. I saw him play again last night, at The Horns in Watford. I hadn't seen him play for over a year, but that doesn't matter because when Wilko plays, the clock stops. Well, my one does anyway. I last saw him at The 100 Club the year before last; I was in the gents toilet after the show when Suggs of Madness fame came up to me and roared something like 'Eric Clapton plays The Albert Hall and Wilko Johnson plays the 100 Club, what's that all about then eh?' I was about to reply when he was attacked by drunken fans and fled into one of the cubicles- but it's an interesting question as I've rarely seen Wilko give a performance that was anything less than brilliant but I've seen E.C. in his drunken years all over the place and about as far from being 'God' as I am. (I should perhaps also say here that Clapton's also been responsible for some of the best electric guitar playing that I will ever see or hear- but that's another story as they say) Last night Wilko wasn't anything less than brilliant yet again with his guitar still sounding as though it's being played with a razor blade (incidentally he doesn't even use a plectrum; I'll show you how he does it if you like, he showed me once, in the corner of the dressing room at Brunel when The Price supported him there in 1989- one of the best moments of my guitar-playing life) and still with only a curly guitar lead saving him from total oblivion. As always bass guitar god Norman Watt-Roy had jaws dropping left right and centre with a unparalleled display of virtuosity (East was standing a yard or so from him- he told me afterwards than his face was aching from smiling so much) and Monti's drums never once wavered from the beat- but it begins and ends with Wilko and that guitar. It's still a black Fender Telecaster with a red scratchplate (he paints them himself!) and it's still played with an energy that someone half his age would struggle to summon up. I've been watching people play music for over 30 years (gulp!) and the only guitarist I've ever seen that I find more inspiring than him is Pete Townshend, and that's saying something. He didn't play 'Roxette'- that's what the song was actually called- but that just means that I'll be back next time to hear it. So that's ok.

Watching Wilko Johnson play makes me feel as though all I ever want to do is play the guitar. Have you any idea how much that means to me?

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