On Boxing Day 2012, I sat in my friend’s lounge enjoying a post-Christmas get together and the company of other friends. One of them was a music producer, and inevitably we got talking about music, groups he had managed and personalities. He told me that Wilko Johnson was doing very poorly but that he couldn’t tell me much more.
Then, maybe something about my reaction or his own feelings made him share much more than I had bargained for — the fact Wilko had pancreatic cancer, which was terminal, and that I must not tell anyone for the moment. To be frank, it was not as if I had followed Dr. Feelgood or Wilko all my life, or anything. Yet, when I heard how ill he was, I felt upset.
Though I had not met him, Wilko had always “been there.” As one of the seminal guitarists of the pre-punk and post-punk eras, Wilko Johnson’s style set the tone for many to follow and for me, he was part of the background to my youthful flirtations with music — first with Dr. Feelgood, then with Ian Dury and the Blockheads.
His manic, feet-shuffling traversal of the stage at lightning speed became both a source of amusement and admiration. His guitar playing was, and is, awesome but I think what is so good about Wilko is his personable and honest approach to life. He readily admits to having his own heroes — bass player Norman Watt Roy of the Blockheads was one — and other musicians like Paul Weller cite him as a major influence. There were some people Wilko has wanted to work with for ages, including Roger Daltrey. Wilko’s response?: “Let’s do it.” He now plays regularly with Norman Watt-Roy, he is gigging with Paul Weller in T in the Park in July 2014 and he has made an album which has taken the charts by storm with the Who’s Daltrey.
I found myself breathing a small sigh of relief when, in spring 2013, Wilko announced that he had terminal pancreatic cancer to the world because I no longer had to keep it to myself. The response of the British public was an outpouring of love and support — social media became full of messages of support, hope and sympathy. Yet, Wilko remains pragmatic. He has said he will not die on stage and will quit if he becomes too ill.
He also said, poignantly, that if he believed in an after-life he would have perhaps taken steps to join his wife Irene, who died in 2004. Instead, Wilko has said his diagnosis has made him feel more alive somehow. He was given perhaps ten months to live at his diagnosis in late 2012, and yet elected not to receive chemotherapy — because he would rather feel better and live shorter than go on for longer but feel sick. The fact that he is still with us, and looking good, speaks to Wilko’s determination to live every second. It’s deeply inspirational.
Going Back Home, mostly of songs written by Wilko and all of them featuring Daltrey on vocals, was one which I was not sure what to expect. I would not have paired Daltrey and Wilko naturally. However, from the first time the vocals come in over the guitar chords, the listener understands that this was an album which had to happen. If it had never happened, it would have been one of the biggest losses to the industry.
Johnson’s rockin’ rockabilly rhythms, enthusiastic riffs and cracking solos are made for Daltrey’s evocative, energy-driven vocals — and perhaps even more now that Daltrey has developed just a touch of the tenor tone about his vocals here and there. That adds a maturity to the songs, which is brought out wonderfully. Going Back Home is one of the best albums I have heard in a long while.
The opening title track was written by Wilko and Mick Green, and has Dr. Feelgood stamped all over it. Familiar riffs and rhythms so redolent of Wilko resonate. Daltrey sings it with enthusiasm. Steve Weston’s harmonica solo to end the song ending is simply brilliant. “Ice on The Motorway” (Johnson) is a rockin’, rolling, foot-tapping song, sung with gusto and guttural intensity by Daltrey. “I Keep it to Myself” (Johnson) is almost made for Daltrey and suits his mature vocal range well. Again, the harmonica of Steve Weston makes the middle section soar and, throughout, the song the infectious energy is apparent.
Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window” is an inspired choice as a vehicle for Daltrey and Johnson. Daltrey brings anger, depth and passion to the vocals whilst Johnson’s intense, energetic guitar works wonderfully alongside the harmonica of Weston. “Turned 21” (Johnson) is a sad ballad, followed by a return in “Keep On Lovin’ You” (Johnson) to a more familiar Wilko feel. “Some Kind Of Hero” (Johnson) is perfect for Daltrey — and is a typical tale of a guy looking for a good girl and finding the opposite(!).
“Sneaking Suspicion” is a brilliant song, allowing Daltrey to extend his vocals, getting the meaning into the words whilst Johnson’s guitar is, as ever, suitably placed to offer perfect back up. “Keep It Out Of Sight” is perhaps the most structured song on the album, and is followed by “Everybody’s Carrying A Gun.” The album finishes with the wonderful “All Through The City,” which is upbeat, positive and instantly listenable.
Going Back Home (issued earlier this month via Hip-O Records) is an album full of hope. Both Daltrey and Johnson excel, and what strikes the listener most is the total lack any hint of hopelessness — almost to the point where that very fact is poignant in itself. This is an album made by two consummate musicians, backed by the enviable talents of Watt-Roy, Dylan Howe (ex-Blockheads) on drums, Mick Talbot (ex-Style Council) on piano and Hammond organ and Weston on harmonica, all of whom are clearly playing together.
Going Back Home is perhaps not meant to be taken particularly seriously — and I somehow don’t think Wilko would want everyone to try and find hidden depths and meanings in the words of some of the songs. This is great fun and raucous music at its best, and definitely a “Feelgood” album.
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