Wilko Johnson: Punk Rock Patient Zero 1947-2022

Remembering the iconic, resilient Dr. Feelgood guitarist

Wilko Johnson (Image: Chess Records)

Wilko Johnson was Punk Rock Patient Zero. This is not hyperbole.

The English Punk Rock movement that emerged in 1975 and ’76 was created by musicians (and non-musicians) who were inspired to play by Wilko Johnson; who saw in his staggering, caffeinated-zombie stage movements a model for their own alternative to the extant, decaying Plant/Coverdale cockstrut model; who wanted to imitate his roaring, chopping-board overdrive mechanic strum, which somehow spoke to the deepest heart of rock’n’roll while revealing a path to an ecstatic, streamlined future; who were in awe of the way he condensed rock’n’roll to the most tightly wound extreme. Because that’s what you heard when you first heard punk rock, yes? It was the way we always imagined rock’n’roll would and should be: It ran, it rolled, it burst without fading, it buzzed without flowers, it went from A to B and back again, again and again, it went uphill and downhill at the same time, it was the visit to the dentist and the candy store at the same time, and it ended before it could be anything else. And we heard that in everything Wilko played, and we said, we want that, we want an entire movement in that image. 

This is not hyperbole: Without Wilko Johnson, friends, there would be no Joe Strummer, no Paul Weller, no Stranglers, certainly no Costello (who not only adapted Wilko’s guitar style but his stage act, almost litigiously), there would be none of the bands who saw Wilko play in Dr. Feelgood and thought, I want that, I can do that, I can thrash and hiss and holler and stomp. 

This is not hyperbole: If it was 1975 or ’76 and you were forming a band and you knew something had to change (or if you knew nothing and wanted immediate satisfaction), there were, essentially, only a very small handful of guitarists you sought to model, a small handful of guitarists who could be put on a high but accessible pedestal: Of course, there was Mick Ralphs, Johnny Thunders, James Williamson/Ron Asheton, Townshend and Dave Davies, but mostly, mostly in the U.K. circa ’75 – ’77, it was Mick Ronson and Wilko. That’s who you wanted to be.

Essentially, all roads in the first crop of Punk Rock guitarists lead back to this pair. The ones who roared – Steve Jones and Mick Jones, for instance – leaned towards Ronson; the ones who blurred, chattered, buzzed and sawed an’ went chop-chop-choppa-chop, then ones who played in a Saint Vitus Dance frenzy – Joe Strummer, Paul Weller, Hugh Cornwell, Brian James – were Wilko’s children. The bands these people formed owe an enormous debt to Wilko Johnson. And of the whole list, Wilko was the most accessible, the most radical (he utterly streamlined the instrument, he used it as a rotary sander/power drill/surgical saw opening up Chuck Berry’s chest), Wilko was the one who coupled the quadruple-time overdriven attack with a radical stage presence, Wilko was the one that was perfectly punk rock before there was even punk rock. 

 

 

The great Ira Robbins summed up Dr. Feelgood – who Wilko played guitar with between 1971 and 1977 – with this wonderful phrase: Dr. Feelgood were Punk Rock’s proof of concept. Everything we came to associate with Punk Rock – rapid rhythms; discarding absolutely all instrumental or stylistic frills; the utter absence of hippie fashion or prog flairs and spaceships; an absolute reduction of rock’n’roll to stock and bone; a frenzied race from the start of the song to the end with an absolute minimum of rainbows, streamers, indulgence, or solos; is all wholly evident with Dr. Feelgood, as it is with utterly no other acts of the era.

What the Troggs had sought to create on “I Want You,” what the Kinks attempted on “Beautiful Delilah,” what the Sonics or the Trashmen aspired to, well, this is what the Feelgoods did as a matter of course, as a rule, with no aspiration to anything else but a celebration of the purity of fat-stripped Sun Studio boogie. If there was a machine that you just plugged in and it played rock’n’roll without any distraction that somehow the process would result in movie stars or tabloid stars or concept albums, that was the Feelgoods. The Stones, y’see, or even geniuses like the Pretty Things or the Sensational Alex Harvey Band, somehow insisted on themselves, made you notice and admire their work; the Feelgoods just did it. They just did it. They were the patent, the product description for rock ‘n’ roll. They just did the job. Until Billy Childish’s various outfits emerged in the 1980s, no one else would have such a grasp on the purity, the condensation, the absolute marrow of rock’n’roll. 

There is likely no better way to put Wilko’s extraordinary, profound influence in perspective than do a wee bit of the ol’ micro-focus on just one song, one single: “She Does It Right,” released by Wilko and the Feelgoods in March of 1975. 

I would contend that the release of “She Does It Right,” this tightly wound spring of frills-free over-stimulated R&B, almost certainly marks the point where existing pub rock, glitter, glam and garage vapors coalesced into the spark of punk rock. There’s a direct line from the appearance of this song to the fires of ’76 and ’77. Other songs, albums, and singles from 1975 and earlier certainly impacted Punk in a profound way; but because of the incendiary, instant reaction “She Does It Right” caused, because of how it was rock’n’roll and nothing else in a way virtually no other contemporary recordings were, it is literally the spark that started the Punk Rock era.

True, in the mid-1970s there was a flourishing of exciting and progressive music that sought to repudiate the indulgences and fripperies of the existing rock landscape; but to accurately pinpoint the Mayflower Rock of Punk Rock, the Sea of Tranquility of the ’76 Revolution, we must find that there is a flag planted in “She Does It Right” by Dr. Feelgood. The Feelgoods played Punk Rock, they played the sound you heard in your head when you imagined what punk rock would sound like. If you visualize the early Stones and (especially) the Pretty Things as a coiled metal spring, the Feelgoods wound that spring so tightly, virtually to the point of snapping; simultaneously, they removed virtually all traces of late-’60s/early-’70s whiskey flab from the roadhouse band sound (and that was, truly, their innovation; they aspired to nothing but rock’n’roll; consider how the Stones entire tabloid/jet setting future seems to be built into their earliest work, everything after “Not Fade Away” seems like a rehearsal for St. Tropez, doesn’t it?).

 

VIDEO: Dr. Feelgood “She Does It Right”

What makes the Feelgoods (and Down by the Jetty, their debut album) not just hyperactive but transcendent is the Wilko’s playing. Instead of playing old-school boogie rock with the shortnin’ bread slur of Richards or Thunders, Johnson played with a manic, constantly strumming trebly chop that in it’s own way is as reductionist as the work of Johnny Ramone or Neu! He was the true Sonic Reducer, he played r’n’b like he was running a race and that race took him as far away from Eric Clapton or even Keith Richards as possible, while simultaneously taking the boogie-churn of Slade and making it sound like it was a 33 1/3 played at 45, sent out on an ice floe where one’s teeth chattered at 78rpm. The Feelgoods bit down on covers and compatible originals with an unprecedented speed, economy, and an almost desperate desire to get from A to Z as quickly as possible. “She Does It Right” is a dentist-drill burst of ultra-streamlined R&B, and although it has a foot in Hamburg Beatles, it also has a bigger foot in the imminent punk explosion.

“She Does it Right,” recorded at the end of 1974 and released very early in ‘75, exemplifies the best of the Feelgood’s pioneering sound: It’s a three-chord blurt of mad R&B that careens downhill faster than a fat kid in a shopping cart, and it sounds like someone’s heart accelerating while they pee on an electric outlet. When you coupled Wilko’s wiry blender guitar with the ultra-streamlined rhythm section and song structure of Dr. Feelgood (drummer John “The Big Figure” Martin, bassist John “Sparko” Sparks and vocalist Lee Brilleaux), you had four reductionists who turned early Stones/Pretty Things/Sonics R&B into a forty-yard dash run by skeletons on speed. Arguably, Wilko-era Feelgood is the greatest R&B band of all time, somehow the bridge between Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Motörhead (and arguably, only Motörhead or Billy Childish truly understood how little rock needed, yet how MUCH you had to do that little); what the Ramones did for bubblegum, or what Kraftwerk did for the Beach Boys, or what Lightning Bolt did to the entire post-La Monte Young alternative rock movement, Dr. Feelgood did to R&B; they were Surfin’ Bird, done to an extreme, done over and over and over.

When they were good, they were perfect, and inarguably, they are the band you can point at and say, “There, that’s where Punk Rock begins.” All of which would be, well, didactic and academic nonsense if the Feelgoods didn’t make such perfect Punk Rock, didn’t understand in extremis that rock’n’roll meant a little done a lot, again and again, without taking a breath, and then doing it again, and never stopping to do anything else.

Oddly, there are those who just know Wilko Johnson for his strange and wonderful turn as actor, with a small but very noticeable reoccurring role is a stone-faced executioner on Game of Thrones; and still others who will honor his heroic battle against cancer, for the last ten years; and even others, still, who only discovered him in 2014, when he recorded a fascinating if disappointing album with Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home, which sort of sounds like the High Numbers doing NRBQ doing Georgie Fame, though, sadly, it’s only about a third as good as you want it to be (though it’s totally worth watching clips of the live shows to promote it).

We all can remember the amazing Wilko Johnson any way you want, but this is how I remember him, and how I honored him in life, and in the future: The entire object we call Punk Rock owes him an enormous debt, he is the pilot light for punk rock, and like Johnny Ramone, he took the guitar in entirely new directions, reducing it to something stunningly original yet easily reproduceable, that you could take into your own bedroom and garage; he handed you, and so many, many others, the key to change the world. 

 

 

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Tim Sommer

Tim Sommer is a musician, record producer, former Atlantic Records A&R representative, WNYO DJ, MTV News correspondent, VH1 VJ, and founding member of the band Hugo Largo. He is the author of Only Wanna Be with You: The Inside Story of Hootie & the Blowfish and has written for publications such as Trouser Press, the Observer and The Village Voice. Learn more at Tim Sommer Writing.

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