Interview: Wilko Johnson
A shorter version of this interview originally appeared in the Nottingham Post.
I looked up your dialling code, so I know I’m calling you at home in Southend. What sort of place have you got? Is it a rock star mansion?
In my more imaginative moments, yes. It’s in a fairly normal street, but my house is the one with battlements. I defy the world from here. Actually, they’re a bit of a con. My house has got a flat roof, where I’ve got my telescope and my observatory. It looks like a little fortress. But if you go up on the roof, you’ll find that actually the battlements are only six inches high.
They’re not really going to repel the continental invaders, then?
Not really. I couldn’t practically pour boiling oil down on them. But I could put up a bit of a show.
Are there any rock star trappings inside? Are you the sort of person that puts framed gold discs on the walls?
Well, one thing that I’ve always thought was really horrible and vulgar – he says, like the fox with the sour grapes – was those bloody gold discs. Would I put them on my wall? No. I gave them away. Some people really dig ‘em, but in fact they’re rubbish – he said, with all the venom of somebody who hasn’t sold a record for about five hundred years. (Laughs)
Does living alone suit you well?
Actually, it does. Sometimes I sit here, and I go “Oh man, I’m so lonely in my fortress here!” But on the other hand, I can do whatever I like. If I want to shoot all the light bulbs out with my air pistol, I can do it. And nobody’s going to tell me off.
Yeah, but no one’s going to sweep the mess up for you, either.
Yes, and the house does turn into a slum, on a regular basis. I’ve kind of reverted to studenthood. But you can’t do anything about it. You think: hang on, this was all tidy a little while ago. And now it’s covered in fast food containers, old newspapers, and things that are probably best not investigated.
Generally, I stay indoors. People are always telling me off, because it’s gloomy here, in my castle. You can’t even draw the curtains. They’re actually nailed across the window. So I’m in this gloom; I kind of creep about. Upstairs, where my bed is, I’ve got this huge television. I connect it up to my laptop, with my astronomy program, and it becomes the window of my spaceship.
There was a supernova the other week; did you catch sight of it?
I’m afraid not. I caught sight of nothing, because it’s been so cloudy. Although actually, I thought I was being clever, because I recently acquired a solar telescope. So I can look at the sun.
I thought that was the one thing you should never do…
Oh yes. We must tell the public, and have a little announcement in a special box: never, never, never look at the sun through a telescope. This thing I have is a special one. If you look through it, you can’t see anything; it’s black. But when you point it at the sun, you can see the sun. It’s pretty good, except the sun is obscured by clouds, just as well as the stars. So I haven’t been doing a lot of astronomy this week.
Have you ever moved away from Essex, or have you been a lifelong resident?
I was born on Canvey Island, I grew up on Canvey Island, then I went to university at Newcastle for three years. Then after some wandering about, we came back to Canvey Island: me and the missus. Then the next thing I know, I made some money from doing rock and roll. So she buys a house up in Southend, within spitting distance of Canvey Island – which is probably the best distance. So I’ve stayed in Essex, but I do like Essex. It’s rather flat.
Flat lands scare me. I want to have a few hills around.
Well, there you go; you’re from up the bumpy bit. I get among hills, and I feel a bit overpowered. I like to see a big sky, a big horizon. Preferably with oil refineries. Then I feel comfortable.
Julian Temple’s documentary film (Oil City Confidential) about your former band Dr Feelgood was very well received. How closely were you involved with the making of it?
When I was told that Julian Temple wanted to make this film, my first reaction was surprise. Dr Feelgood largely existed before the days of video cameras, and there wasn’t a lot of footage of us. And Lee Brilleaux is dead. So how can you do it?
Man, what a guy! The first thing he wants is to film at the oil depot on Canvey Island, in the night time. He was going to project movies of Dr Feelgood onto the side of these big oil tanks, and interview us. What an experience! If you grow up on Canvey Island, you’re always aware of the oil works, but you never go there. So to go in there was a kick. To go in there in the night time, and then to stand there with these great big films being projected, of me and Lee Brilleaux from 35 years ago, was absolutely surreal. I could have stood there all night.
So I thought, well, this guy’s good. Julian gets you to say all sorts of things. I don’t know how he does it. He sort of insinuates himself into the conversation, and I find myself revealing all sorts.
Anyway, the film took some time to make, but I was never involved in the making of it, and I didn’t see any of it, even when it was completed. They gave me a DVD, which I didn’t watch.
So you don’t like looking at footage of yourself?
No. Or reading, or listening to records. The thing is: if you’ve made a record, or done a show, it’s done. There’s nothing you can do about it. So I just like to leave it there, for the universe to either ignore or applaud. I don’t wanna know.
Anyway, when the film was premiered – as we say in the business – in the National Film Theatre in London, of course I had to go and watch it then. You drink champagne, and you take your place. So I’m watching it through my fingers. I was sitting next to my son, and there’s all this stuff from before he was born. And it was the first time I’d ever actually seen Dr Feelgood. And I’m looking, and I’m thinking: pretty good! And I’m digging my boy in the ribs. I’m going: go on, get a load of that. I think it’s an excellent film. I’m very, very chuffed with what he’s done.
Has the film led to renewed interest in your work?
Certainly it was one of Julian Temple’s motivations. He felt that Dr Feelgood had been rather airbrushed out of history, and he wanted to reassert them. So, for instance, I’m finding a lot of younger people are coming to see the gigs now. And I go down Tesco’s, and people are going “Look, there’s Wilko Johnson! Can I take a picture of you with my telephone?” There was one young lad, a shelf stacker. He says “Oh wow, man!”, and he’s shouting out across the store, “Get me a felt tip! I want to get an autograph!” So I creep into Tesco’s now.
I always thought that Dr Feelgood’s legacy had been a bit overlooked, especially in terms of how it helped to inspire the British punk movement. Everyone will talk about Iggy and the Stooges and the New York Dolls, but people never used to talk about the Feelgoods. Did the British punk forefathers acknowledge your influence?
Well, they did. I’d started to hear about these bands, and then it wasn’t long after that that Dr Feelgood exploded – or imploded, or whatever it did – and I was out of the band. And I was thinking, oh man, I wonder what all these new bands think about me? Do they relegate me to the dinosaurs that they are attacking?
But then I started to meet people. I shared a flat with Jean-Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers. Then I was walking in Oxford Street just after the bust-up had become public, in the rain, with my little boy on my shoulders. Suddenly, Joe Strummer comes running up. He goes to me, “You don’t know who I am.” I says, “Yes, I know who you are; I’ve seen you in the papers, man.” He says, “Well, what’s going to happen, what are you doing?” I says, “I don’t know.”
And so I got to meet him, and also the Pistols, and all these people, and I found out that actually, they all rather dug Dr Feelgood. The year before they’d all got going was the year that we were playing in London a lot, and I think most of them had seen us. I think what the punks took from Dr Feelgood was the energy.
In fact, with this flat I had, I used to have half of them sleeping on my floor. I’d get up in the morning, and I’d be tripping over Billy Idol. So I think it’s fair to say that we were quite a big influence on that whole thing.
You were back in touch with The Stranglers earlier this year, as you supported them on tour. How did that go?
It was great, because I’m old friends with Jean-Jacques. Last year, Oil City Confidential won the Mojo award, for being a brilliant film. I went with Julian to receive this accolade, and Jean-Jacques was presenting it. We hadn’t seen each other for about twenty years, so everyone was slobbering over each other. Shortly after that, he invited us to support them, and we were saying, why haven’t we done this before?
The shows went great; they were all sold out, and I think we put on a very enjoyable show. The Stranglers! DUR DUR DUR… (sings the riff from Peaches)
People normally describe your music as rhythm and blues, but today’s R&B stands for something very different. Do the Beyonces of this world have any right to call themselves R&B?
Actually yes, they do. R&B was really an American term for black music. It bounced over to England, with the Rolling Stones and all that, and that’s what we’re doing: it’s rhythm and blues. I started realising a long time ago that this term was a bit nebulous. What do I call my music? I call it beat music. I’m a beatster.
How musically open-minded are you? Is blues your first and foremost love, or do your listening habits range far and wide?
I’m no different from most old folks. I know nothing about anything that’s happened in the last twenty-five years. And being a rhythm and blues person, when I was a teenager: what a snob! It’s got to come from Chicago, or it’s no good. It’s like: how many rhythm and blues fans does it take to change a light bulb? It’s ten: one to change the light bulb, and nine to say it ain’t as good as the original. That would sum me up, in a way. I’m probably still a bit of a snob.
I think we’re all welded to the music of the time we were growing up.
Yes, and you can’t do anything about it. Every now and then, I might see or hear somebody that’s new to me, and it brings you up with a start. But generally speaking, I think you stick in your comfort zone, don’t you? Three chords and twelve bars does it for me.
What is it about the blues that has led to this lifetime love affair with the genre?
I don’t know. Like most Sixties people, I first started hearing it because of the Rolling Stones. When the Stones came out, it was just so exciting. At school, we all started growing our hair long. And then you think: what is this music that they’re playing? Then you start checking it out, and you start to hear the music from Chicago: Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, right through to Bo Diddley. It was just so powerful, and it made the kind of pop music that I’d heard before seem a bit trivial. I remember thinking: wow, this is the thing for me. And that was it. It knocked me out then, and it still does now. I’ll put on some Howling Wolf, and it will give me a tingle.
Like most old folks, I got into my own kind of bubble back then, and I still exist in it. For pure kicks, I’m going to play a record from a long time ago. It’s wrong of me, probably, but I don’t go searching out the latest sensation. But I’m sure they’re very splendid. Good luck to them!
You went through a bit of a hippy phase in your younger days. You did the Katmandu trail, for instance. Do you retain any residual hippy values?
I can still do a full Lotus, actually. I’m sitting on the carpet. Ooh… aah… yes, that’s it! Silly old fool.
That was a good scene. Oh man, I’ve got some beautiful memories of Afghanistan: the country, and the people there. And it’s just been so tragic, to see the way that country has been brutalised. Those people are really friendly, and they dig you, and I think it’s going to be a long time before an Englishman can go to Afghanistan and get a friendly reception. It’s a tragedy.
I guess you’re getting to that stage when people start calling you “one of the great survivors”. What would the Wilko Johnson of his twenties have made of the Wilko Johnson in his sixties? Would he be surprised at how things had turned out?
Absolutely. I’m playing in this local band for a couple of years, and then it starts happening. And of course you think: wow, this is great. I was twenty-five or something, and I’m thinking: yeah, this will be good for four or five years. I’ll have a good time, make a lot of money. If somebody had said to you: actually, you’re going to be doing it when you’re sixty-four, you would have laughed in their face.
But then again, if somebody said: one day, Bob Dylan’s going to be seventy… that still doesn’t sound right to me.
See also: my Dr Feelgood feature for The Guardian, January 2010.