Wilko Johnson is getting ready to celebrate both his 70th birthday and the 30th anniversary of the Wilko Johnson Band with a monumental date in the capital.
Back in late 2012, Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Despite the doctor’s predictions he continued to perform and present himself with vigour and a new zest for life. Subsequently, during this time Wilko went on to record a much-celebrated album with The Who’s Roger Daltrey. In 2013, Wilko announced that thanks to a second opinion and subsequent life-saving surgery, he was cancer-free.
Wilko recently completed a successful UK tour, which has led to the legendary Dr Feelgood guitarist adding a date at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 26th September. This special show will mark the aforementioned landmarks in Wilko’s life and career. For this show, Johnson will be joined by his long-standing band of Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (bass).
National Rock Review recently caught up with Wilko Johnson to talk about his forthcoming date at the Royal Albert Hall, his plans to record new music and his role in US TV smash hit Game of Thrones.
NRR: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us here at National Rock Review today, we really appreciate it. So we’ve got some questions obviously about the show which you are going to be doing at the Royal Albert Hall, and everything that you’ve been up to. I know that recently you’ve just finished a comprehensive UK tour, I was just wondering how the shows went?
Wilko: Well it wasn’t comprehensive, I think it was only about half a dozen gigs, but it all went very, very well and now we’ve just started getting into rehearsals because we want to make another album. So we are going to be doing that and then during the summer, some festivals, then, of course, the Albert Hall.
NRR: Obviously, you just mentioned there you’ve just been announced to perform at the Albert Hall on the 26th September which will the 30th anniversary of your band and also your 70th birthday. I was just wondering how does it feel for you to be making your first headline appearance at the Royal Albert Hall?
Wilko: Well (laughing), the whole thing is kind of weird now. You know I was supposed to be dead three years ago and never thought I was going to get to my 70th birthday and I never knew if I would be playing again, but I’m playing at the Albert Hall, so it’s quite a good feeling yeah (laughing).
NRR: Going back to the 70s; you came out of the Canvey Island pub rock scene back then with Dr Feelgood. Back in those days, did the thought of performing at the Royal Albert Hall ever cross your mind or was it something that you aspired to?
Wilko: (laughing) No, absolutely not …I mean never, never. We were happy to play the Hope and Anchor or sometimes the Roundhouse. No, no, no I never thought that anything like that would happen.
NRR: Having played all different sizes and shapes of venue. I was just wondering what do you prefer? Do you like playing the bigger theatres or do you prefer playing the smaller intimate venues where you can see the whites of people’s eyes?
Wilko: I think that actually the best kind of venue for rock and roll and that is a kind of a big ballroom, where you’ve got a big stage where everyone can see the show, and a couple of thousand people or something, standing up and not sitting down and then you can rock. Having said that, sometimes you can be in a tiny backroom somewhere and that thing can happen where it’s a really, really great gig. Yeah, I like it when there is a nice stage and a room full of folks.
NRR: You’ve got such an incredible band behind you, you’ve got Norman Watt-Roy, who is arguably one of the best bass players I’ve ever seen play and you’ve got Dylan Howe on drums. I was just wondering what’s it like performing with those guys every night, it must be a lot of fun working together?
Wilko: It’s just been absolutely great. I mean I first met Norman back in the 70s. Ian Dury asked me to come along and try out playing with The Blockheads. I thought yeah man, that bass player, I didn’t even know his name (laughing), I would like to play with that guy.
I went down and the next two or three years, I don’t know how long I was with The Blockheads, was just absolutely great – I made kind of particular friends with Norman. Then time went by and I don’t know I eventually found myself …I don’t know it was in 1984 or something, I had five gigs left, and I thought right that’s going to be it. My bass player went off and joined Eddie and the Hot Rods, to make things even worse (laughing).
I hadn’t seen Norman for a couple of years, so I just phoned him up and said can you do these five gigs with me. So he said yeah and we did ’em and we just didn’t stop and we’ve been doing it for forty years or something now.
NRR: That’s incredible like I said he’s one of the best bass players I’ve ever seen play.
Wilko: He’s great, I mean playing with him is such a kick and again Dylan is a brilliant drummer. I mean it’s a fantastic rhythm section, it just makes everything so easy, you know I could just kind of wave my arms about and it would sound good.
NRR: I also wanted to talk to you a bit about Chuck Berry, because often when I’ve seen you perform live you’ve done covers of like “Route 66” or “Bye Bye Johnny”. I just wondered with his recent passing, how much did his music mean to you as an artist?
Wilko: I think it’s actually impossible to fully understand what Chuck Berry did. His guitar playing, I mean his songwriting, he was rock and roll you know and he’s got into the consciousness of most of the world. I’ve seen him play a couple of times and he’s brilliant, what a guy Chuck Berry.
NRR: Obviously, you’ve got a very extensive back catalogue and you’ve just released your new best of which is titled “I Keep It To Myself”. I just wondered out of all of those tracks, what’s your favourite song to perform live and why?
Wilko: (laughing) I don’t even know what’s on it, I had very little to do with that. I don’t know, there are some songs that I might be doing them because your song it’s actually about somebody that you might be remembering them when you are playing it.
I think recently I have really enjoyed, which I don’t think is on that album, the song “Going Back Home” because I wrote that song with Mick Green my guitar hero and Roger Daltrey did this great version of it on our album you know. Because it’s very popular now and yes that one’s a special one.
NRR: Speaking of the Going Back Home album that you’ve just mentioned there. That was a hugely successful album and it went to No. 3 in the UK Official Album Chart. I was just wondering what was it like working with Roger Daltrey and there was maybe talk of doing a second album together is that still in the pipeline?
Wilko: I mean I didn’t know Roger very well, hardly at all in fact, just through mutual friends and things. A long, long time ago, he suggested that we did an album together, but nothing came of it. Then when he found out that I was dying of cancer, he said man we should do that album, I said yeah man we better do it quickly. In fact, it was quick, the record company found like eight days in the studio and we went in and did it. I mean Roger had to do all of those songs, most of them weren’t familiar to him, no time for rehearsal or anything, so it was all very …and yet it was great.
We were just playing for the hell of it, you know I was going to die (laughing). I guess that it came out so well, and it was so successful. All that happened when I had gone into hospital. So I’m lying on this hospital bed all full of tubes and that and people are coming in with silver disks and things (laughing), that was all kind of happening at the same time for me.
NRR: I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about an album you did back in 2005, which was Red Hot Rocking Blues and that was all covers of the likes of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson and Lead Belly. Obviously, you covered a lot of different artists on that one album, I was wondering is there anybody that you will like to hear cover one of your songs?
Wilko: I don’t know … it was great hearing Roger interpret my songs because it was like doing them new. I don’t know, I think that Red Hot Rocking Blues album, what we done was, I had been talking to Van Morrison on that and I was thinking maybe Van could use us as his band.
So we just went in the rehearsal room and bashed out a load of numbers, either his songs or that kind of thing. Then it was kicking around for ages and then there was some record company picked up on it and that’s what it was.
NRR: Speaking of blues, I know that Canvey Island is often referred to as the Thames Delta. I just wondered what was your first introduction to blues music?
Wilko: I tell you my first introduction to blues music, at the school I went to, parked at the end of one corridor was a grand piano and I came walking along there one day and somebody was pounding on this piano. Now, this somebody was, in fact, Gary Brooker. He was playing “What I Say” and I mean it was really good, he has a fantastic voice and a good player. I just stood there, and I’d never heard music like that, ‘Tell ya ma, tell ya pa gonna ship ya back to Arkansaw’, …what! A couple of years later I started finding out about the blues.
NRR: You’ve had a long and successful career in the music industry, and I just wondered with the benefit of hindsight is there anything you would have done differently?
Wilko: I mean if I look back over everything I’ve done in my whole life really, you think oh well all the dreadful kind of muck ups I’ve made and stupid things I’ve done and this that and the other and think oh man, I wish I hadn’t done that or wish I had done this. But the fact of the matter is, you go through your life and you do these things you know and it doesn’t matter. You could start again and you would still do stupid things and things would happen the way they happen. So yeah, there are loads of things I should have done differently or whatever, but there it is.
NRR: You wrote your autobiography Don’t Leave Me Here, I know that was recently released in paperback. I just wondered did you find revisiting all of those highs and lows of your life and career whilst writing the book to be therapeutic at all?
Wilko: Well I tell you it was weird, I had never written a book before and the publishers asked me to do it. So I just started writing away, I thought this is good I’m a writer. Then it got to the sad bit where my wife died and when you are remembering the past and you look back on the past it’s usually you just see scenes or particular days, you never think of things day by day and consecutively. Doing that …oh man it was so upsetting, it was like it was yesterday.
For ages I couldn’t open up the old laptop, I would think no I can’t do it I’m too upset. Then I got a grip and just carried on, I don’t know writing pretty much at random really, I used to do it quite quickly.
NRR: I also wanted to talk to you about Newcastle, as I’m actually based in Newcastle and I know that you went to Newcastle University to study English Language and Literature. I know that you also recently went back to represent the university on University Challenge?
Wilko: Yes (laughing).
NRR: I just wondered do you have any fond memories of the North East?
Wilko: I absolutely love the city of Newcastle, New-Castle (he say’s in a Geordie accent whilst laughing). I love it there, I love the streets, I love the people, I like the way they talk. It was a very happy time of my life as a student, it’s good.
We played there recently, and I’m standing in Exhibition Park where the venue was and I’m taking photo’s of the A1 and that (laughing), it’s really good to me this road, yeah I love the place.
NRR: You mentioned there that you are rehearsing to do some new material and I was just wondering where do you find the inspiration for your songwriting?
Wilko: Well I mean I tell you the truth, for ages and ages and ages like I haven’t been doing anything. As you get older and older you think what am I meant to write about now? I can’t write I love you baby but you done me wrong, I’m 69, but I love you baby (laughing). So there’s things like that.
Getting into the rehearsal room the other day and just playing suddenly it all starts flowing again, and I’ve got some good ideas. Yeah I’ve got three or four songs written and it’s the same old stuff really, but I think it’s up to scratch. I don’t know where it comes from.
NRR: Besides writing and music you’ve also been doing a bit of acting as well. I know that you did several episodes of Game of Thrones. I was just wondering how did that opportunity come about and is it something that you would like to explore again in the future?
Wilko: Well, how it came about I don’t know. I just got this request to go to an audition in London and it was something to do with an American TV series, that’s all I knew.
I got there and I was the only person there and there was one guy in a room with a video camera telling me that there was this character that they wanted me to play was very unpleasant and the good thing about him was that his tongue has been cut out so I didn’t have any lines to learn.
Then the guys are reading me some script and I’ve got to react. I’m looking into the camera and he’s reading to me and I’ve got to look. I’m just thinking you so and so, I’m gonna have you and I look at him like that, and he went great you’ve got the job (laughing).
Going to do it was fantastic, and very quickly I found out it wasn’t just some American TV show, it’s a huge thing, a huge production going on and oh man it was so much fun. It was real good fun, you are all dressed up and it’s armour you know, the sword on your back and all that you know, hundreds of other people and you can really pretend it’s really happening. It’s just like being a kid, wow yeah a sword, you know great.
No, no it was really, really good, unfortunately, my time with the series was cut short by cancer. They did send me best wishes and everything whilst I was lying in hospital, and they haven’t killed my character off, so if they ever do anymore I would like to do another little bit (laughing).
NRR: Yeah, we will wait for that appearance to happen. I was just wondering out of your own personal record collection is there any one album you couldn’t live without?
Wilko: From anybody?
Wilko: Oh dear, there are a lot of albums I love. I don’t know … “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” by Neil Young.
NRR: What else do you have in store for the rest of this year?
Wilko: Well I was just saying, we are going to be getting into this album, and we’ve got festivals during the summer and then the Albert Hall and Japan and on and on and on.
NRR: That’s great and it all sounds very exciting and I’m looking forward to hearing more of whats to come from you guys and good luck with everything you’ve got going on and the Royal Albert Hall and we will catch up with you very soon.
Wilko: Thank you very much.
Wilko Johnson will be performing at the Royal Albert Hall on Tuesday 26 September 2017 to mark Wilko’s 70th birthday and the 30th anniversary of the band. Book tickets from 24 HR Box Office – 0844 478 0898 or www.thegigcartel.com
Website | Facebook | Twitter
Photo: Leif Laaksonen