Electric Guitar Review is sad to report the death of Wilko Johnson (born John Peter Wilkinson) original guitarist of 70’s British R‘n’B stalwarts Doctor Feelgood, at the age of seventy-five.
The band emerged from the pub rock scene, where new emerging groups were presenting an antidote to the flaccid and overblown excesses of progressive rock, offering instead back-to-basics rock and r‘n’b performed in the back rooms of smoky city pubs, with relentless power and enthusiasm.
Wilko’s unique guitar style was the bedrock of the Feelgood’s stripped-back, gritty rhythm and blues sounds. A natural left-hander who forced himself to play guitar right-handed, Wilko found himself unable to hold a plectrum properly, so he developed a unique hard, fast, strumming action that raked his fingernails over the strings, whether slashing out staccato rhythm chops or pinning down his spiky brief top-end solos, the playing action was the same. Accompanying that singular guitar technique was Wilko’s habit of simultaneously glaring at the audience like an East End hard man, while weaving backwards and forwards on the stage, with an agility and speed that suggested he must have eyes in the back of his head.
Wilko proved a difficult bandmate for the Feelgoods, and after a brief couple of years, Johnson quit the band for short-lived stints with The Solid Senders and with Ian Dury And The Blockheads, before forming a more settled setup with the Wilko Johnson Band, concentrating on Wilko’s first love of playing live shows in Europe and Japan, where the band maintained a sizeable following.
His receding hair led Johnson to shave his head, which together with his piercing stare, strong features, and his overall menacing visual persona, led him to a brand-new cult fame through an acting role in HBO’s Game Of Thrones, where he played mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne.
In 2013, Johnson was rushed into hospital and diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer, and given less than a year to live. Philosophically resigned to being reunited with his beloved wife Irene who had died of cancer in 2004, Johnson arranged a farewell tour, followed by a successful album with The Who’s Roger Daltrey. Further medical tests confirmed the inaccuracy of the initial prognosis, and major surgery for the removal of a less virulent tumour gave Johnson a further eight years, giving him time to play further live shows. Johnson also used his time to write a moving autobiography, Don’t You Leave Me Here focusing on the love of his life, his beloved wife Irene. He also made a film about his survival – The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson, and he released a final album Blow Your Mind. Wilko continued to play live shows until a few weeks before his death. He is survived by his sons Mathew and Simon.
For fans of British roots music in general, and unique guitar playing in particular, Wilko Johnson’s determinedly frill-free guitar playing, coupled with his intimidating stare and backwards-launching stage craft, means he remains a unique and exhilarating addition to the long line of brilliant British guitarists who have graced us with impressive visual imagery and instantly identifiable playing techniques in equal measure. His influence on the following punk rock revolution was noted by punk and New Wave luminaries including The Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones, and Frank Infante from Blondie. With his distinctive red guitar lead and unassuming reputation, Wilko Johnson wore his innovative technique and influence lightly. He will be missed by anyone who enjoyed his live work, but will live on through the legacy of his recorded music.