Interview: "How I cheated death" by Dr Feelgood legend Wilko Johnson

Then: Wilko Johnson in his Dr Feelgood 1970s prime.
Then: Wilko Johnson in his Dr Feelgood 1970s prime.

Ex-Dr Feelgood legend Wilko Johnson was meant to be dead four years ago.

Since then he’s not only survived but positively flourished.

Now - Wilko Johnson still going strong today.

Now - Wilko Johnson still going strong today.

This plain-speaking but livewire musical offspring of Canvey Island in Essex has even got a message for his Harrogate fans coming to his forthcoming UK tour.

“I know Harrogate. I’ve been once or twice. It’s nice. I like posh.”

Talking to the great man on the phone, Wilko chats about recording with The Who's Roger Daltry, the death of his great hero Chcuk Berry and how he finally admitted to himself that Dr Feelgood had done him wrong.

In rock n roll, it’s said that death is a great career move, but Wilko has prospered by continuing to live, I point out to him, aware that his recent album with The Who’s Roger Daltery, Going Back Home, was his biggest success since guitarist Wilko and the late lead singer Lee Brilleaux led the original line-up of Dr Feelgood to number one with live album Stupidity in 1976.

Wilko, 69, laughs down the line.

“I didn’t do it deliberately. Getting terminal cancer didn’t look like a good career move at the time.

"At first I was going to refuse to have treatment. I was going to die.

“When I set off on my farewell tour in 2013 I was told I only had a few months to live.

"As the year went on Roger Daltry got in touch and said let's do an album of your songs.

"I said "we'd better do it quick, so we did Going Back Home in only eight days in the studio.

"I didn't even think I'd live to see it released.

“But someone paid for me to see one of the top surgeons. It was a big operation. I was in hospital a long time.

“I still have to go every six months for a scan but I got the all-clear and I’m in remission.

“As it happens, interest in my music has already been building up since, Oil City Confidential, Julian Temple’s documentary on Dr Feelgood came out in 2009. I was already big in Japan!”

As for Chuck Berry, well. where would Wilko have been but for Chuck?

Wilko said: "My musical mentors were Chuck Berry and Mick Green of Johnny Kidd and The Pirates.

"I saw Chuck on tour at Southend Odeon in 1964. He came on stage and started doing the duckwalk.

"I just flipped and ran down to the front of the stage. It was so exciting."

With a new, career-spanning compilation just out and talks on-going currently, he reveals, with Universal Records as we speak about a new solo album, Wilko Johnson is in the pink, as happy and energised as the man who wrote r’n’b classics such as Roxette, She Does It Right and Back in the Night and more.

Wilko said: "Back in the Night happened when me and my wife's baby was crying one night and he went off to the other room and it just happened. By the morning I had the whole song.

"Roxette was so silly, it nearly didn't happen. It was inspired by a doo wop song by The Coasters. I nearly didn't record it.

"When you hear a good song you've written you wonder how you managed to do it."

The work of Wilko Johnson is still inspiring new, young musicans today, including The Strypes who played Harrogate's Warehouse Recording Co recently in a presentation by another music legend, presenter Bob Harris.

"I've played with The Strypes a couple of times. They're pretty good.

"There's a few bands returning to that Feelgood thing with that raw energy.

"I saw The Feelgood tribute band. That was really spooky. The lead singer sounded just like Lee. He's got all his mannerisms, too."

Fans who see him at the Barbican in York on April 22 will a man reborn in terms of health and career.

Wilko is even happy to talk about his days of sharp suits and event sharper riffs in Dr Feelgood and what really happened when he, er, left the band.

Wilko said: “When I did my book last year Don’t Leave Me Here, I thought my publishers Little Brown wanted me to write about my cancer experience.

“But they insisted I had to explain what happened in the bust-up with Dr Feelgood.

"I can't remember the arguments but relationships in the band were strained.

“I’d never wanted any bitterness but writing the book made me look back.

“I realised those bastards definitely did me wrong. The band did throw me out."