Wilko Johnson, Scorching Guitarist and Punk Pioneer, Dies at 75
Wilko Johnson, the searing yet stoical guitarist for the British band Dr. Feelgood, whose ferociously minimalist fretwork served as an early influence for punk-rock luminaries in the 1970s, died on Nov. 21 at his home in Westcliff-on-Sea, England. He was 75.
His death was announced on his social media channels.
In 2013, Mr. Johnson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given 10 months to live. A cancer specialist in Cambridge, England, soon discovered a rare form of tumor — Mr. Johnson called it, at six and a half pounds, “the size of a baby” — and removed it in an 11-hour operation.
He lived for nearly another decade and took an unexpected detour into acting, playing Ser Ilyn Payne, a mute executioner, in the first two seasons of “Game of Thrones,” as well as recording and touring with Roger Daltrey of the Who.
His legacy, however, is rooted in his tenure with Dr. Feelgood, a rowdy pub-rock band of the 1970s whose high-adrenaline take on rhythm and blues helped lay the groundwork for the punk-rock revolution to follow.
In performance, he cut a wild-eyed figure. Often clad in a black suit, Mr. Johnson, who was prone to amphetamine use in his early days, appeared equal parts robotic and manic onstage, glaring murderously at the audience while pacing the stage frantically.
His staccato guitar phrasing formed a sound all his own. Mr. Johnson, who was born left-handed and learned to play right-handed, avoided basic rock staples like barre chords and even picks, relying instead on quick, aggressive finger strums — he called them “stabs” — on his black Fender Telecaster. His playing was explosive, as percussive as it was melodic.
“Wilko Johnson was a precursor of punk,” the British singer and songwriter Billy Bragg said on Twitter after Mr. Johnson’s death. “His guitar playing was angry and angular, but his presence — twitchy, confrontational, out of control — was something we’d never beheld before in U.K. pop.”
Mr. Bragg added that John Lydon (otherwise known as Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer of the Clash and Paul Weller of the Jam “learned a lot from his edgy demeanor.”
The volcanic approach of Mr. Johnson and his bandmates — the singer Lee Brilleaux, the bassist John Sparks and the drummer John Martin — helped make Dr. Feelgood a must-see band on England’s pub-rock circuit in the early 1970s.
The band’s second album, “Malpractice” (1975), reached No. 17 on the British album chart. The live album “Stupidity” rocketed to No. 1 the next year, providing “the antidote to all those prog-rock double concept albums,” the British music writer Clinton Heylin wrote in an email, “and not a guitar solo in sight.”
While his guitar sound was forward-looking, Mr. Johnson drew from the soulful sounds of the past, working out demons from a difficult childhood on Canvey Island, a once-thriving resort town at the mouth of the Thames that became a hub of the petrochemical industry.
“My first inspiration was the blues, but I realized I couldn’t write about freight trains and chain gangs,” he said in a 2013 interview with the London-based music magazine Uncut. “There weren’t any in Canvey. So I tried to keep it all in Essex, to get the landscape, the oil refineries, into songs.”
Wilko Johnson was born John Peter Wilkinson on Canvey Island on July 12, 1947. His father, a gas fitter, was violent and abusive, Mr. Johnson recalled in a 2013 interview with the British music magazine Mojo.
“I hated him,” he said. “He wasn’t just uneducated, he was stupid with it. The older I get the more I look like him. Every time I shave, I see that bastard looking back at me. So I thought by eradicating his name I could start my own dynasty.”
Mr. Johnson often discussed his struggles with depression, which he said in one interview was “certainly rooted in my childhood.”
“But I don’t think you should blame that,” he added. “You grow into an adult and you are what you are, whatever the influences.”
By the time his father died, when Mr. Johnson was 16, music had already become an escape for him: He played guitar in local bands while attending Westcliff High School for Boys, where, he said, his mother “used to scrub floors at the gas company to pay for our grammar school uniforms.”
He went on to study English at Newcastle University, where he taught himself Old Icelandic so he could read the Icelandic sagas. It was one of many antiquarian literary interests in which he would indulge over the years. Mr. Heylin said he once found Mr. Johnson backstage during a soundcheck reading “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” a 14th-century romance written in Middle English. “So much for the image of a bruiser who took up the guitar,” he wrote.
After a trip to India following his university graduation, Mr. Johnson changed his name and joined with the other three musicians to form Dr. Feelgood in 1971. By the middle of the decade, the band was rolling in Britain but had failed to make a mark with record buyers in the United States.
Yet the band was not unknown across the Atlantic. In a phone interview, the guitarist Chris Stein of Blondie recalled a party in 1975 at his band’sde facto headquarters, a loft on the Bowery near CBGB, the seminal New York punk club, before any of the major bands from that scene had made an album.
“We were having a huge party, and everyone in the scene was there — the Heartbreakers, the Ramones, probably some of the Talking Heads,” he said. “It went on all night.”
Halfway through, Clem Burke, Blondie’s drummer, showed up after returning from a trip to London. He was enthusiastically waving a copy of Dr. Feelgood’s new album, “Malpractice.”
“We put that on and played it repeatedly,” Mr. Stein said. “Everyone was transfixed. It was so simple and raw. I remember people saying, ‘This is what the Ramones are going to sound like when they make a record.’”
Dr. Feelgood would not last long enough to ride the new wave it helped inspire. Rifts between Mr. Johnson and the other members came to a boiling point in 1977.
“I think they lost it, they threw me out,” Mr. Johnson told Mojo. “The final argument that split the band came just after they had all my new songs in the can.” He added, “I was in a terrible state for months.”
Mr. Johnson formed a new band, the Solid Senders, which released an album in 1978. He served a stint in Ian Dury’s band, the Blockheads, appearing on the group’s 1980 album, “Laughter.” He released “Ice on the Motorway,” the first of several albums under his own name, the next year, and he performed for decades with the Wilko Johnson Band.
In 2009, the director Julien Temple released a documentary about Dr. Feelgood, “Oil City Confidential,” which “promotes Wilko Johnson as a 100-1 shot for the title of Greatest Living Englishman,” Peter Bradshaw wrote in a review in The Guardian.
Mr. Johnson’s survivors include his sons, Matthew and Simon, and a grandson. His wife, Irene Knight, died in 2004.
While his pub-rock legacy became something of an obsession for rock connoisseurs and historians, Mr. Johnson experienced an unlikely career renaissance after his 2013 cancer scare. The album he made the next year with Mr. Daltrey, “Going Back Home,” which included songs from his Dr. Feelgood days as well as later compositions, reached No. 3 in Britain.
“He’s one of those British guitarists that only the Brits make,” Mr. Daltrey said in a 2014 British television interview. “Wilko is a one-off, he really is.”
By that point Mr. Johnson had found an unlikely home on premium cable, earning a role on “Game of Thrones” despite having no acting experience.
“I got offered this part and it was a brilliant part, because the character that I play has had his tongue cut out, so I’ve got no lines to learn, right?” Mr. Johnson he said in a 2011 interview with the entertainment website Geeks of Doom. “I say, ‘What do you want me to do?’ ‘Just go around giving everyone dirty looks.’ I go, ‘I’m very good at that!’”