“We were on the up and up….
Wilko Johnson, at last night’s premiere of “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson”
“The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” is a new documentary, directed by Julien Temple, which tells the extraordinary story of the last three years in the life of former Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. A story so incredible that, were it not true, might be dismissed as an “improbable fiction”. About how a much loved British guitarist had enjoyed a renaissance in his career, only to be told he had terminal cancer. The way he embraced life from that point onwards was inspiring enough. That he lives to tell the tale is incredible.
Julien Temple: “I think there’s a lot of honesty in the film. Incredible honesty about contemplating mortality, and in the value of being alive. That’s as much a part of the film as what it means to die. Wilko was sentenced to death and the way he dealt with that…..it’s not a rock n roll film, it’s a film about being a human being. Everyone’s going to have a friend or a relative, or themselves when it comes to that point, where this film will move them.
Last night was the film’s premiere at The Picturehouse in the West End, and both Julien Temple and Wilko Johnson were present to answer questions after the showing. Indeed this was Wilko’s first opportunity to see the documentary. His verdict?
“This is the first time I have seen it and it doesn’t disappoint at all!”
The film, which will be officially released on 17th July, is another extraordinary piece of work by Temple.
It’s predecessor, Oil City Confidential, was a blazing punk-noir tour de force documentary about the rise of Dr Feelgood, those boys from Canvey Island, or the Thames Delta as they put it, who presaged punk and spearheaded a back to basics movement in the early seventies that the press dubbed “pub-rock”. This film is a companion piece, but also stands alone. Rather than a mere music documentary, it is the story of the life and near-death of one man.
In the words of Julien Temple, Dr Feelgood “were four estuarine John-the-Baptists to Johnny Rotten’s anti-Christ”.
Finding it tough to get booked in music venues without a record deal, they played in pubs, first in their native Canvey Island, and then in London. Whilst other musicians of the time rocked up at Wembley Arena in capes and wizards hats whilst exploring how pretentious a twenty three minute song with six movements could sound (answer: very), their three minute anthems shone like R&B pearls in a topographical ocean of progressive noodling.
They were a formidable looking band with two gangster-like focal points. Wilko Johnson would act out the gunning down of the audience with his Telecaster and mad-eye stare, whilst Lee Brilleaux played the alpha male, growling out life changing songs in a dirty white suit.
They quickly out-grew the pubs they were playing in. After two studio LPs, they got to number one in the charts with a live album, Stupidity. They played Hammersmith and seats got ripped up by a frenzied crowd. By summer of 1976, they were the biggest band in the UK. America was next. They played The Bottom Line in New York and The Ramones opened up for them.
Dr Feelgood were the next big thing, dressed like thirties gangsters with their wolf-like singer and the dangerous manic guitarist.
And then, in a theme to be repeated, just when everything seemed to be going well, it all fell apart.
The relentless touring took its toll. 300-plus gigs and little time off put Wilko under pressure to write songs, relationships in the band deteriorated and in April 1977 Wilko left or was fired from the band depending upon who you believe, at the height of the Feelgood’s success. America remained unconquered.
It all fizzled out a bit after that. They had inspired The Clash and The Jam, but then The Sex Pistols took over the reins. You know the rest.
Oil City Confidential told the story of this overlooked contribution to the nation’s music, and so it seeped into the national consciousness that we had missed something pretty special here.
Wilko’s ebullient personality shone as brightly as the stars he would gaze at in wonder from the purpose-made turret on the roof of his house. His autobiography, co-written with Zoë Howe, confirmed he was a national treasure in the making. He found a new audience with his live shows featuring the blistering rhythm section of former Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe.
Then, just as it was all going so well, it all fell apart again. In early 2013 Wilko announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was unlikely to see the year out.
It is here that “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” picks up the story.
Julien Temple: “Oil City showed how important Dr Feelgood were in changing the way music was made in this country. They were written out of history for a long time and I think Oil City was an important part of bringing them back.
“I hope the film will be as inspiring to other people as it was for me to talk to Wilko. It gave me a great sense of resilience and believing in being a human being and this is the journey you’re on.”
After his diagnosis, Wilko had limited time left. He packed his schedule. A Japanese tour. An album with Roger Daltrey, recorded in eight days and which was the highest charting LP that either of them had enjoyed for over thirty years, reaching #3 in the charts. Then a farewell tour in the UK.
In the meantime, the tumour grew. By the end, it was bigger than Katie Hopkins’ brain. Actually, scratch that. It weighed more than that when Wilko first noticed it.
It wasn’t until a photographer friend suggested a second diagnosis that it became apparent that the 3 kilo tumour might be operable, and that Wilko’s life might be saved.
The film records the journey that Wilko went through. Crucially it captures the period when Wilko believed he didn’t have long left – indeed some of the most fascinating parts of the film are where Wilko is contemplating his mortality. It follows him as he says farewell to fans in Japan and the UK. It also charts how the second, more positive diagnosis came about, and talks to Wilko just a day before his nine hour operation to have the tumour removed.
Interestingly, the film seldom seeks the views of Wilko’s friends and family, but focuses on the views of the man himself.
It is an extraordinary film, full of literary and cinematic references, as you might expect from a Julien Temple film, but really this is a story that needs little embellishment.
The last time I heard Wilko sing “Bye Bye Johnny”, was at one of the “Farewell” gigs at Koko in London. Then, it really did feel like Wilko was saying goodbye. Little did I suspect then that I would hear Wilko sing the song again in 2015.
That was a good moment.
As Wilko himself said last night, “You never know what’s going to happen….”