The music world was primed to mourn the passing of Wilko Johnson in 2013 when he was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and chose touring over chemotherapy, determined to go out all guns blazing – until a doctor fan, observing his vitality on stage, suggested he get a second opinion. It transpired his cancer was operable and, to his bewilderment, Johnson, also known for his role as Ser Ilyn Payne, the mute executioner in Game of Thrones, received his own stay of execution.
However, nine years later, rumours of Johnson’s death have not been exaggerated and the world has lost an influential player and geezer philosopher of the highest order, aged 75.
Johnson was the one-of-a-kind guitarist and songwriter with Canvey Island rhythm’n’blues bruisers Dr Feelgood – mainstays of the British pub rock scene of the Seventies, whose aggressive back-to-basics approach to rock’n’roll chimed with the budding punk scene of 1976.
As a guitarist, he did the work of several men, his fingerstyle playing allowing him to play lead and rhythm parts simultaneously. Suited, booted and bowlcutted with a permanently bug-eyed expression, he was the Feelgood’s sharp black-clad foil to growling frontman Lee Brilleaux in his crumpled white suit. The jerky, pinballing restlessness of his duck walk and machine gun manoeuvres with his guitar conferred an eccentric and intimidating edge to his onstage persona, which influenced wired punk performers such as Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and Paul Weller as well as next generation frontmen such as Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand.
However, Johnson was revealed to be something of a gentle giant in Julien Temple’s 2009 Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, as well as a Chaucer and Milton-quoting literary scholar who, in a sign of his bloody-minded commitment to his passions, had studied Old Icelandic so he could read the sagas in their original language.
“More than anything Wilko wanted to be a poet," said Who frontman and Johnson collaborator Roger Daltrey on hearing of his passing. "I was lucky to have known him and have him as a friend. His music lives on but there's no escaping the final curtain this time.”
Johnson was born John Peter Wilkinson in Canvey Island, a low-lying Essex coastal resort which flooded in 1953, with 59 fatalities. For Johnson, however, this was the Thames Delta, also dubbed Oil City for its numerous oil and gas terminals which would go on to inspire some of his industrial dreamscape lyrics. He may have grown up swimming in black gold but he was also looking at the stars, and later built an observatory on the roof of his house.
Johnson attended Westcliff High School for Boys and went on to study English Language and Literature at Newcastle University. After graduation, he travelled the hippy trail to Goa and Kathmandu, then worked briefly as an English teacher. But another more primal interest was calling. Influenced by the pioneering rock’n’roll guitarist Bo Diddley, Johnson had bought his first guitar in 1965 and played in local groups before joining Dr Feelgood in 1971. He spun his birth name around to create his blues-fuelled stage moniker and wrote signature Feelgood tracks such as the taut Roxette and live favourite She Does It Right. These economical rhythm’n’blues blasts were a brute alternative to the prevailing prog rock winds of the early Seventies but Dr Feelgood were not lone rangers, finding common cause with their fellow pub rockers Brinsley Schwartz and the Ian Dury-fronted Kilburn and the High Roads, who paved the way for the London punk revolution to come.
Johnson recorded three studio albums and one live album, Stupidity, with the band – tellingly, it was the live album which hit the top of the charts in 1976, a testament to the band’s incendiary performances. The following year, Johnson left – or was kicked out, depending on which version of events you believe. As a teetotaller among booze hounds, he had never quite fit in which was, of course, part of his appeal.
He quickly formed another band, the Solid Senders, before joining Ian Dury’s Blockheads for a stint in 1980. But his own Wilko Johnson Band became his long-term touring vehicle, playing to small but loyal audiences on and off through the Eighties and Nineties.
Johnson’s profile rose again when he emerged as the star attraction of the acclaimed Oil City Confidential. This led to his casting in Game Of Thrones, appearing in the first two seasons as King’s Landing executioner Ser Ilyn Payne – no lines required, as his character had his tongue cut out. Quoth Johnson: “They wanted somebody really sinister who went around looking daggers at people before killing them. That made it easy. Looking daggers at people is what I do all the time, it’s like second nature to me.”
He published his autobiography, Looking Back At Me, in 2012 but a year later there was a remarkable twist in the tale. Johnson reacted to his terminal cancer diagnosis with beatific acceptance. His lifelong depression alleviated and he felt “vividly alive”. With the pain of his wife Irene’s death from cancer in 2004 still very much in mind, he eschewed chemotherapy so he could go on tour instead with his two amigos, Blockheads bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe (son of Yes guitarist Steve), and planned his final recording, the Going Back Home album with Roger Daltrey.
Against expectations and following an 11-hour operation to remove a 3kg tumour, Johnson lived to see its release, as well as publish a 2016 memoir Don’t You Leave Me Here and release Blow Your Mind, an album of originals, in 2018. Interviewed again by Julien Temple for the documentary The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, he appeared almost perplexed to be alive but acknowledged the whole unlikely episode had been a “fabulous career move”.
He is survived by his sons Matthew and Simon.
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