Wilko Johnson is an experience.
The Telecaster toting, bug eyed, besuited guitarist has recently been given long deserved iconic status thanks to Julian Temple’s brilliant Oil City Confidential film which documents Wilko’s time in Dr. Feelgood.
His kinetic presence in the film, as he runs through the story of the band, whilst being backdropped by their Canvey Island home town is magnetic. It’s a brilliant performance from a king of performance. Wilko comes across as a highly intelligent, highly original, if a little kinetic and far more three dimensional figure than his years in the rock n roll wilderness have presented.
Dr. Feelgood were one of the key bands in British rock n roll. Their stripped down assault was about all there was in the mid seventies and their back to basics approach may have scored them a number one album with the live Stupidity album but little credit for the revolution that they had already started when the punks appeared.
It’s as basic as this, anyone who plays a Telecaster from the mid seventies onwards has copped Wilko’s choice of guitar, anyone who wore a tight suit had copped their look (Blondie admit to this after seeing Dr. Feelgood at a pub gig in 1975) and anyone who took rock n roll back to basics in the late seventies owes the band a huge debt.
Wilko, in turn, had taken that machine gun rhythm from Mick Green of the second line up of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates in the sixties, meticulously learning the frantic riffing by slowing their singles down and copping the licks. In Wilko’s hands these rhythms were cranked to maximum velocity- driving the Feelgood’s cranked RnB to a frenzy.
Wilko quit Dr. Feelgood just when the band should have been huge in the middle of punk and spent the last three decades touring with his own trio, still the RnB purist.
It’s been a long time since he had the big stage in the UK until his former flatmate JJ Burnel gave him the Stranglers tour. Wilko takes full advantage and the years have not knocked any of the edges from him as he runs through all his tricks- from the guitar as machine gun to that jerking walk that is so iconic. His rhythmic, finger picking, chopping guitar still sounds fantastic and his stage presence is enormous. He is given plenty of space by his rhythm section, with Dylan Howe’s driving drums and Norman Watt Roy’s flexible, eye bulging, bass playing that has even JJ Burnel astounded.
It’s a prime example of age improving great musicians. Wilko is on his way to becoming a national treasure and it’s about fucking time.
Headliners The Stranglers are of similar vintage to Wilko and are on fire.
This is not just a greatest hits set, even if the band have plenty of hits to pepper their set with. There is also obscure album tracks and a great new song called Freedom Is Insane which prowls with the band’s menacing bass driven intellect.
The band sound great, 72 year old drummer Jet Black is one of the great British drummers- crossing his pile driving backbeat with jazz inflections and his own clever, complex rhythms- utilising the toms like no-one else. Bizarro keyboard player Dave Greenfield still plays those amazing runs that are original, complex and yet highly melodic. He also does this one handed whilst drinking a pint of beer, cheekily underlining his skill.
JJ Burnel is, of course, the great British bass player who reinvented the instruments role in the band and seems like a man reborn. He waltzes across the stage karate kicking, doing his one leg dance and the Stranglers famous rat walk- still grinding out those famous, complex, yet tough bass lines whilst sharing the vocals with Baz Warne,
Baz himself is the man who saved an institution, a good ten years younger than the band the Sunderland native and former frontman of the Smalltown Heros joined the Stranglers a decade ago truly understanding their value. Warne gave them a new energy and song writing nous and is key to their revival live and their two late period comeback albums, Norfolk Coast and Suite XVI.
On this tour Warne has become the complete frontman, leering like a true Strangler and dominating the stage with his powerful appearance, if he wasn’t sharing the stage with JJ Burnel he would be the band’s stand out frontman. Some say the band is now better than the classic Cornwell days but that’s an unfair comparison, we are dealing with two great but different entities here. The 2011 Stranglers are a great band,there’s no doubt about that-twenty sold out big venue dates is proof of the love for the band. There will be a new album next year and that’s plenty to celebrate.
Finally in their later years the Stranglers are getting their dues. They have not sounded better for a long time and the fire is back, along with the invention and that unique sound. All they need now is that definitive documentary and they will finally get the recognition they deserve. We here at Louder Than War have the idea for that film…just need the budget…