Thursday, February 28, 2013

'Vinyl Rules!' Episode Four - Wilko Johnson

Regular readers (assuming of course that I have any!) of these hallowed pages will be well aware of my admiration for the guitar playing talents of Wilko Johnson. I first became aware of the great man's playing when I came in from school one day early in 1975 to be confronted by the sight of Dr. Feelgood on 'The Geordie Scene'. From the moment I saw him flailing at a Fender Telecaster with a maniacal bug-eyed stare whilst careering jerkily across the stage I was hooked - and the rest of the band weren't too bad either. I discovered that the band came from a semi-mythical place called Canvey Island and had released an album called 'Down By The Jetty' which was clad in a stark black and white sleeve and had been recorded in mono. I loved it. My mates didn't and thought I was mad. I've followed his career avidly ever since.

After he left Dr. Feelgood in 1977 he put together The Solid Senders and released a single and an album on Virgin Records. The 'Solid Senders' album is readily available on CD and very good it is too, especially when you factor in the six-track live album that accompanied the first vinyl pressing and is included on the CD re-issue. Sadly this edition doesn't include the single 'Walking On The Edge' which is a shame since it's a terrific reworking of a track that first appeared on the final 'Feelgoods-with-Wilko' album 'Sneakin' Suspicion'. The B-side saw the first appearance of the Wilko classic 'Dr. Dupree' which later featured on the album in a slightly different (remixed?) form. It remains unique in the Wilko cannon with it's reggae-inspired rhythms and somewhat surreal lyrics penned by Hugo Williams. It's importance as a Wilko song is underlined by it's appearance in virtually every live performance since it's release (an accolade also bestowed upon 'Everybody's Carrying A Gun' from the album) and it's an audience favourite to this day. Overall a great single - and there's apparently a promo video for the A-side although I for one have never seen it. Maybe one day? In the meantime click here for some marvellous live footage of the band around this time (which was when I first saw him play, having been just a bit too young to catch him in The Feelgoods) and links to footage from the rest of the show.

With the demise of The Solid Senders Wilko joined Ian Dury And The Blockheads for their 'Laughter' album and tour before teaming up with Lew Lewis to form (you've guessed it!) The Wilko Johnson / Lew Lewis Band. I saw them a couple of times and they were as great as you'd hope they'd be, but sadly the partnership was to be short-lived - Lew didn't stick around but Wilko continued with Russ Strutter on bass and Alex Bines on drums, releasing the 'Casting My Spell On You' / 'Looked Out My Window' single and the 'Ice On The Motorway' album. I think the album might well have been available on CD at some point (Wilko's back catalogue is very difficult to pin down!) but I'm fairly sure that the single tracks remain vinyl only. The A-side takes it's cues from the version recorded by The Pirates way back in 1963 (it came out the next year along with 'My Babe' as their 'solo' single released when they were backing Johnny Kidd; have a listen to it here - the influence of the late great Mick Green on Wilko's playing is all too apparent as you hear here) while the b-side made it into the live set for the next few years with a particularly fine version appearing on the excellent 'Watch Out!' live set. The 'Ice On The Motorway' album is well worth a listen (if you can find it!) and again several of the songs have been live staples ever since.

From there Wilko teamed up with uber-bassman Norman Watt-Roy (who he still works with today) and drummer Salvatore Ramundo to form what for many was the classic line-up of The Wilko Johnson Band - click here for a fabulous clip of them in action. These days Dylan Howe is behind the kit, and they remain one of the best live acts that it's possible to witness. In the wake of the brilliant 'Oil City Confidential' documentary he's getting more recognition than ever these days, even appearing in the T.V. series 'Game Of Thrones' playing a mute assassin (!) as well as being the subject of a Facebook campaign for him to replace Patrick Moore on 'The Sky At Night'. Strange but true. He remains a  brilliant musician and an iconic live performer who has stayed true to himself and the music he plays. The outpouring of support that followed the announcement that he's suffering from terminal cancer shows just how much he and his music mean to many people, and with the farewell shows on the horizon the level of interest in his work will surely only increase.

NB - I actually wrote most of this a couple of days before the announcement earlier last month that Wilko is suffering from terminal cancer. I'd intended to post it in early January, and after much musing in the meantime have decided to leave it more-or-less as originally written, adding only the last line and tidying it up here and there.

1 comment:

jeffen said...

Okay I've just started working trough all those links and I'm already dizzy. Great work!