Before a miraculous recovery from cancer made him more famous than ever, the Dr Feelgood guitarist fired up 70s rock with proto-punk playing and divisive songwriting
• Wilko Johnson dies aged 75
• Obituary: Wilko Johnson
When the Guardian interviewed Wilko Johnson in 2015, he expressed concern that he might now be viewed “as the Cancer Bloke rather than a guitar player”. You could understand his unease. The astonishing story of Johnson’s diagnosis with terminal pancreatic cancer in 2013, followed by his seemingly miraculous recovery after a doctor who happened to be in the audience at one of his farewell shows suggested he visit an oncologist for a second opinion, had made him more famous than he had ever been: a “100-1 shot for the title of Greatest Living Englishman”, as one critic put it, who had first wowed the general public with the calm, philosophical acceptance of imminent death he displayed in interviews after his diagnosis, then cheated death entirely.
But, really, there was no danger of anything overshadowing Johnson’s importance as a guitarist. When other musicians attested to the life-changing impact of seeing Dr Feelgood live in 1974 or 75 – and everyone from Paul Weller and Joe Strummer to Suggs from Madness and Bill Drummond of the KLF did – it was always Johnson they singled out. Their late frontman Lee Brilleaux was a brilliant vocalist and performer, but Wilko Johnson was Dr Feelgood’s visual focus. The oft-repeated line is that, with their cheap suits and air of menace, Dr Feelgood looked less like rock stars than villains from The Sweeney. More accurately, they looked like three villains from The Sweeney who had been forced to keep an eye on their boss’s unpredictable nephew: Johnson, who careered around the stage, mouth permanently open, eyes bulging with the effect of amphetamines beneath his pudding-basin haircut, raising his guitar to his shoulder as if it were a gun, occasionally colliding with his bandmates as they affected to ignore him and glowered at the audience.Continue reading...
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