Wilko Johnson, guitarist for Dr. Feelgood, dead at 75

Wilko Johnson, guitarist and singer for the British pub-rock band Dr. Feelgood, died Monday at the age of 75. The news was confirmed in a statement posted to Johnson’s social media accounts.

“This is the announcement we never wanted to make, and we do so on behalf of Wilko’s family and the band with a very heavy heart,” the post reads. “Thank you for respecting the Wilko family’s privacy at this very sad time and thank you all for being such a huge support throughout Wilko’s incredible life.”

Born in Canvey Island, Essex, England, Johnson attended the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and graduated with a BA in English Language and Literature. After spending some time traveling abroad in India, he returned to Essex where he joined a group called Pigboy Charlie Band, which eventually became Dr. Feel good. The initial lineup included singer Lee Brilleaux and bassist John B. Sparks, with drummer John Martin joining soon after. Within two years they were mainstays of London’s pub-rock circuit. Their first two albums, Down by the pier and Misconduct (both released in 1975), were well received, but their breakthrough came with 1976’s Stupiditya live album that reached No. 1 in the UK, Johnson stayed on for another album, 1977’s Sneak suspicionand then left after the band’s disagreements.

Over the years, Johnson performed and recorded with various bands, including the Solid Senders, Ian Dury’s Blockheads and the Wilko Johnson Band. His latest album, Blow Your Mindwas released in 2018. Johnson also starred and appeared in the first and second seasons of Game of Thrones.

In early 2013, Johnson was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, at which point he revealed that he had about 10 months to live and that he had chosen not to undergo chemotherapy. That same year he went on a “farewell tour”. In 2014, he teamed up with WHO’p Roger Daltrey for the 2014s Going home again, which featured re-recorded versions of Dr. Feel good songs. “I thought it would be the last thing I ever did,” Johnson shared BBC back then.

He was told by doctors in 2014 that his cancer had been misdiagnosed and was more treatable than first thought. That year he underwent a successful 11-hour operation, although he often spoke of how his experience shaped his attitude toward the eventual end of his life. “I didn’t mean to feel that way about death,” he said The Guardian in 2015. “That’s the way it got to me. One of the ways I dealt with it was absolutely accepting it and thinking, ‘Okay, they’ve told me this thing is useless — if I have 10 months left to live, I just want to do it, I don’t want to spend 10 months running around for second opinions or false hopes.’ In a way it was a kind of comfort zone, accepting that I was going to die and that all the issues of mortality had been sorted out for me. I don’t know if it communicated anything positive to people, that’s great, but I did.’ I don’t intend to.”

Johnson continued to perform until his death, most recently on a tour of England.

Since the early days of his career in Dr. Feelgood, Johnson’s approach to guitar playing – a choppy, R&B style that relied on his fingers, not a pick – inspired countless other musicians, including John Lydon, Joe Strummer of Clash and Jam’s Paul Weller. He also influenced American bands such as Blondie and television.

“Wilko might not be as famous as some other guitarists, but he’s right up there,” Weller once said. “And there are a lot of people who will say the same thing. I can hear Wilko in a lot of places. It’s quite a legacy.” After Johnson’s death, many artists – e.g Jimmy Page and Billy Bragg – expressed condolences.

In an interview earlier this year, Johnson talked about how his outlook on life had changed since his recovery. “Back then, I would sometimes sit by myself and have these moments of deep thought,” he said Swindon Link. “You think about things and they’re really deep and basic thoughts. God knows what those thoughts were now, but I know they were deep! Now I’m back to another consciousness—I’m back in the world again.”

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