The former Dr Feelgood guitarist, occasional Blockhead, and long-time solo artist was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer in early 2013. He opted not to have chemotherapy on the grounds it could extend his life, but would definitely reduce his quality of life.
He gave a series of emotional interviews and embarked on what everyone, including Wilko, assumed would be his farewell tour. He was certainly seizing every day he could.
But he didn't bank on one of his fans being a persistent cancer specialist, and after further examinations they discovered there could be a way forward.
One 11 hour operation and the removal of a 7lbs tumour later, Wilko found himself with a new lease of life.
Wilko’s renaissance, which began with his star turn in 2009's acclaimed documentary Oil City Confidential about his old band, Dr Feelgood, was able to resume.
With his menacing stage presence and distinctive guitar style, Wilko helped Dr Feelgood rise to the top of the pre-punk pub rock scene during the 1970s. But Wilko left in 1977 – pushed out, in his version of events. There have been stints with other acts along the way, but for most of the past 40 years, he’s played and recorded with his own titular band.
And last year he released Blow Your Mind with his band – their first album of new material in 30 years.
Speaking with The Guide from his home in Southend, Essex, he says: ‘For a long time, I just didn’t make records – I didn’t have a record deal, you know back in the ‘80s. I was happy enough going around playing gigs, which is what I liked best anyway. I never really thought much about recording any more, just doing the occasional thing.’
Perversely, being diagnosed with cancer, helped nudge him back towards the studio, when The Who’s frontman Roger Daltrey wanted to work with him. The result was the 2014 album Going Back Home, which ended up in the top three of the album charts.
‘There were lots of mad things going on around that time and that [album] of course – it was a huge success. While we were making that record I fully expected it to be the last thing I did – I didn’t even think I would live to see it released. And then the next thing you know I’m receiving gold discs for it while I’m lying on my back in a hospital bed. There’s all these people telling me how well it’s doing and I’m thinking: “Oh god! I kind of missed all the fun!”’
Suddenly there was interest in a new album from Wilko. So he went into Rockfield Studios, in Wales, with the same line-up as for the Daltrey album – his own long-standing band of bassist Norman Watt-Roy and drummer Dylan Howe, plus Mick Talbot on keys and Steve Weston on harmonica.
‘We also used the same producer, Dave Eringa – it was very important to do it all in the same way, which was very quick. We did it in 13 days – we stretched ourselves out! The Roger Daltrey one was only seven or eight days.
‘I’m very pleased with this album. Quite a bit of it was written at the studio. More than anything we’ve ever done, the songs originate in collaboration with Norman and Dylan. It’s real good the band – it really is a band, not like a couple of guys backing me, and I think this record is a real product of that.’
The whole process has also rekindled Wilko's love of songwriting.
‘During that time [without a record label], I would be writing songs, but they would just come occasionally. When you do that thing of putting albums out regularly, you know they're coming up, so you’ve got to get the material together for them.
‘But not having a record deal, or the prospect of recording songs, they would come as they came. I had some songs when we were heading off to Rockfield to make Blow Your Mind. I had some songs that I had written down the line, and,’ he laughs at the memory, ‘Now I’m thinking: “I haven’t got enough songs…” And I didn’t really want to tell anybody, because they’d think: “He’s just spending the record company’s money!”’
‘We got in there and started recording the stuff we had, and by then, more things were just coming up in the studio. It was really enjoyable actually – we were working so hard, but we knew we just had a fortnight booked.
‘When we did the Going Back Home album, it was done so fast, and I thought what I’ve always thought: “Yes, this is the way to do it”, certainly for my kind of thing – don’t dwell on it. If you’re on a feeling, just do it quick.’
Given how eloquently he’s spoken about the effect cancer had on his outlook on life, did that seep into his songwriting as well?
‘There is one song on that album which is specifically about it – Marijuana – which I wrote just after I had been given my diagnosis. It’s about sitting at home, night time’s coming on and you’re waiting for death.
‘I never expected to play this song, or record it, I just did it for my own... y’know,’ he tails off.
‘I felt it was too gloomy, and I hadn’t thought of using that song when we were going to do the album. But then in the studio during a kind of break, I started playing it, and then the all of other guys joined in, and wow! That’s how good it came out. Dave Eringa was going: “What’s that? That’s good, that’s good!” And it wasn’t gloomy at all, it was quite jolly.
‘What price the meaning of lyrics? I do like it because it has got some kind of flavour of those strange days though.’
Does this mean there are more albums to come?
‘I tell you what, I’ve never got a clue. This has really become an absolute frame of mind I’ve found in these last few years – maybe I’ve always had it. With my experience of the last five years, that’s a good way to be – don’t make plans! I would certainly like to have another bash down at Rockfield because it’s such good fun. I’d go back there tomorrow.’
Since the documentary Wilko has also appeared as a mute executioner in several episodes of the hit TV fantasy saga Game Of Thrones, and the venues he’s been playing are the biggest in years. In some circles, he even gets called, whisper it, a national treasure.
Wilko chuckles. ‘Things like that don’t affect me because they just sound silly, it’s daft. I mean, it’s great to get attention – I can’t walk down the street now without people wanting a selfie, or walking down Oxford Street and people want to shake your hand. That’s great, it’s really great, but that’s all by-products of what a peculiar thing it’s been these last few years.
‘I spent all those years, there I was plugging away, playing all round the world, not a treasure of any kind! But then there was Oil City Confidential, then the cancer thing, Game of Thrones, it’s all concentrated itself in these last few years.’
To celebrate his 70th birthday last year, he played a show at the Royal Albert Show. ‘I’ve played there two or three times over the years, but never in my own right. What it means symbolically – wow – from everything in the last few years, you could say it kind of culminated in that.
‘It was a really good show, you can’t help but think, when you’re standing on that stage and it’s full up: “A few years ago I was playing in Dingwalls!”
As to his old band, Dr Feelgood, how does he feel about the band of that name currently doing the rounds without any original members? Wilko is scathing.
‘The band that’s descended down from Dr Feelgood, it’s like this old thing when you’ve got a hammer – you replace the handle, then the head goes, so you replace that. You do that about five times, is it still the same hammer? Well, it is not the same hammer by any reasonable stretch.
‘I think they’re useless, I really do. Mind you, there is a band called The Feelgood Band, they’re not exactly a tribute band, but they do Dr Feelgood and they’re much better, much more like it.
‘Dr Feelgood though, I think they’re wallies.’
The Wilko Johnson Band, supported by Glenn Tilbrook, play The Engine Rooms in Southampton on March 9, doors 6.30pm. Tickets £27.50. Go to eventbrite.com.