Feelgoods missed out on Wilko cash
Cut up: Wilko Johnson
Former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson was about to sign a deal giving his bandmates a share of his songwriting royalties when they fell out and split up.
It’s one of many anecdotes that appear in his just-published book Looking Back At Me, which started as a collection of photos but has become much more as the musician – who’s enjoying a new lease of life as Ilyn Payne in the TV series Game of Thrones – shared his memories with co-author Zoe Howe.
Johnson says: “I had got quite rich because of songwriting. Before we’d done the last album I had gone to the publishers at United Artists and said to them, ‘I’ve made a fair bit of bread from these songs, and I’d never have written them if it hadn’t been for the others, and I think they should share it. Can you write up some kind of contract where we share out the publishing money for this album?’
“They were a bit taken aback but it just seemed reasonable to me. Fortunately, we hadn’t sorted that out by the time we broke up, so they never got their share.”
Here are nine more things we didn’t know about Johnson until he wrote his book…
1. His school form master didn’t want him to leave when he did, writing on his report card: “He believes it is his duty to revolt. In principle this is reasonable enough but in practice it is very foolish. He shows most character when trying least to be one. I wish him luck and hope others will find his cynicism equally stimulating.” Later, when Johnson became a teacher himself, he inspired kids to enjoy Shakespeare, and some of them wrote poems for his birthday.
2. An avid astronomer with his own large telescope in a dome on top of his house, he’s a fan of the moon. “It is the most familiar object in the universe. Every single human being who ever lived with eyes to
see has gazed upon it – Pharaohs and cavemen, savages who worshipped it; the great intellects of Ancient Greece who tried to measure it; Newton, Einstein, everybody in this room. Everybody has stared and wondered at that thing. Future ages will gaze at it when we’re gone… weather permitting.”
3. He was an activist in one of the first-ever eco protests, against oil refineries – and was even arrested with his brother in an early campaign. Of a later one he says: “It was great. We got on the Six O’Clock news and everything. These people were freaking. They called the police and these cops came and we said, ‘We’re from Canvey Island, we’re protesting.’ We told them what we were doing: ‘Look, it’s women and kids, we’re not causing any violence, we’re not doing any damage.’ And they were great, they just left us alone. That was a big success.”
4. Wilko knows what God looks like – although, despite being an accomplished painter who once wanted to make his living as a caricature artist, he’s never drawn the deity. “When we were kids I remember looking at the clouds from the fields on Canvey Island. I remember my sister saying, ‘If you see something moving, it’s God.’ It was round about this time – I don’t know if it was actually then – I suddenly got this image of God in my mind. I could draw this image, although I never have. It’s like a two-dimensional thing, almost like a monochrome stained glass window, lots of lines. Silly thing… but God: I know what he looks like.”
5. He was never bothered about the rest of Dr Feelgood’s heavy drinking, even though he preferred speed. “I don’t care what state people are in as long as they can do their thing; but anyway, I was getting separated from them and naturally they were throwing all that back at me. The one time I can remember we were arriving at Heathrow on our way somewhere, and I was in a very good mood for some reason and I walked in and they were having a coffee, or probably a drink, and I walked in and I smiled and said, ‘All right!’ I went towards the counter and as I went I heard them say, ‘He’s fucking speeding again.’ Because I was smiling.”
6. He hates war but he’s fascinated by guns, and has a Webley pistol once owned by author William S Burroughs. “We had air pistols and we’d be having gun battles and all sorts. I mean, they’re dangerous… but we’d shoot at road signs, anything. Then there were the pea-shooters. I can remember once we did a gig at LSE and after the gig we were all covered in these peas we’d been shooting each other with. In Lisbon we were playing James Bond, climbing out of balconies into the next room to ambush people! Funnily enough, Russ, the bass player, two or three years later, found he was having trouble with his hearing. He went to the doctor and they pulled out of his ear a dried pea.”
7. When he was interviewed for award-winning Dr Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential, it was the first time he’d seriously considered his musical legacy with the band. “They gave me a DVD of the film after they made it, but it stayed in its cellophane. But when they showed it at the South Bank for the first time, obviously I had to be there. I was sitting next to my son Simon, and I’m looking at it through my fingers – I’d actually never seen Dr Feelgood before. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, good group!’ I elbowed Simon and said, ‘Get a load of that!’ I thought it was great. The impact it’s had on people who’ve seen it… attitudes change, they do!”
8.He thinks the worst thing about filming Game of Thrones is the chain mail… “I’m wearing this bloody chain mail over a long woollen t-shirt, and it’s heavy – it’s about four pounds. But the ridiculous thing is on top of that they’ve decided to give me this lovely long leather coat. I’ve got this sleeveless coat on, and all you can see of this bloody chai -mail is the sleeves. Why didn’t they just give me some sleeves? That’s probably the main thing on my mind. Fucking chain mail.”
9. He married Irene Knight when they were still teenagers and had to get permission from their parents. She paid more towards his first real guitar than he did: “She used to have a post office savings book. I said, ‘Listen, draw the money out of your post office account and I can pay for the guitar!’ It was an absolute secret – if her parents had found out, oh man… So Irene really paid for most of the guitar. And I never paid her back. But I made a few bob from it.” Irene died of cancer in 2004 and Wilko continues to raise funds for Salisbury Hospice Care Trust, who looked after her.
Looking Back At Me is on sale now from Cadiz Music Ltd.