Music Thursday, April 6th Words by: Mark Bowen

Wilko Johnson: cheating death, recording with Roger Daltrey and starring in Game of Thrones

Music Thursday, April 6th

Wilko Johnson: cheating death, recording with Roger Daltrey and starring in Game of Thrones

The extraordinary story of Wilko Johnson has occupied acres of newsprint and hours of TV coverage.

His personal history is too far-fetched for fiction and too much of a leap of faith for true believers.

In January 2013 the former Dr Feelgood and Blockheads guitarist was told he had 10 months to live after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The end was nigh and the word terminal was used a lot - especially as he declined chemotherapy.

But after seriously-against-the-odds surgery, Johnson survived. This August he will be playing at Lakefest, in the long shadow of Eastnor Castle near Ledbury, and that’s why he’s up for a chat. In a candid convo with Herefordshire Live, he talks about his triumph over cancer, old bands, landing a role in Game of Thrones, working with Roger Daltrey, and why he thinks Apple supremo Steve Jobs could still be alive.


You were diagnosed with terminal cancer but you’re still here. What happened?

"They were talking about chemotherapy, and they said they couldn’t save me. I said: ‘I don’t want any therapy. If I’ve just got a few months left I just want to feel as good as I can’. I was feeling fairly fit even though this lump was growing in my stomach. You could see it, it was this huge thing.

"I just decided to make the best of my remaining time travelling. Then we did the farewell tour. I was still on my feet, and it carried on and on. At the end of the year, when my time was up, the tumour was about the size of a melon. That’s when I did this album with Roger Daltrey, it was a huge surprise success. It was around that moment I encountered some doctors who advised me to go to Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge and see Mr Hugo, the surgeon. He thought he could do it and indeed he did."

Was the initial diagnosis wrong?

"I didn’t look in to it. My way of dealing with it was: 'ok, they've just told me I am going to die. I don’t want to hear any more about it’ so I’m not really clear.

"Apparently the form of pancreatic cancer I had is a slow growing thing and pancreatic cancer is normally deadly, with a survival rate of about 3%.

"This thing was in fact operable. Mr Hugo did it. He took it out of me, along with a lot of my other guts. It was the same kind of cancer that killed Steve Jobs. If he had gone to see Mr Hugo, maybe he would still be with us today."

When you were diagnosed you said you felt more alive than ever -that you looked at the blue sky and realised you were alive.

"It's an incredibly intense feeling when you’ve just been told something like that, that you’re going to die. Walking out into the daylight and seeing everything I just realised what it was to be alive, to be standing here and seeing this; it was vibrant."

"I walked home and when I got home I was feeling even higher. I was thinking maybe this is delayed shock and any moment I am going to collapse in a big heap on the floor, but I didn’t.

"It continued like that. My general feeling, day-to-day, was happier. And I’m generally a miserable person. There were some terrible dark moments at 3 o’clock in the morning, but generally I felt happy. Sometimes ecstatically happy.

What’s your health like now?

"I’m absolutely fit as a fiddle.

"I go for a scan every six months, everything is all clear. I was lying in the hospital bed after the operation with some friends there when the surgeon came in and he had papers with him. He said ‘I’ve got the report from the laboratory’ and I felt this moment of fear.

"He said it had been an absolute success, they had removed all of the cancer, they had taken the whole thing away. What can you say about people like that?"

The 2015 Farewell Tour saw you play four dates across the UK. What reaction did you get?

"It was fantastic. We did the UK one and also we did the huge Fuji Rock Festival in Japan and everybody knew. You would walk on stage and, man, you can’t go wrong. Everybody is with you. It’s quite moving actually. We did some good shows."

But it's not just music - you played Ilyn Payne in 2 seasons of Game of Thrones. How did you get the GoT gig, because you don't have an acting background, right?

"Absolutely not. I received this request to go to an audition in London. They told me it was going to be for an American TV series and I thought it was going to be something like Xena the Warrior Princess. I thought I can do that.

"I was the only person being auditioned. There was a guy with a video camera pointing at me. They said ‘your character is evil’ and they started reading some script to me and I had to react. I was just thinking, looking at him, thinking ‘you bastard, I’m going to have you’ and he said ‘you’ve got the job’.

"When I arrived on the set for filming suddenly it was ‘man, this is huge, it’s not like an American TV series.’ It was such good fun. Dressing up in armour with a sword on your back walking about.

"One thing they don’t teach you in history lessons is that when you’ve got a room full of people and they have all got swords, you are constantly tripping each other up. All you hear is ‘sorry, excuse me’, ‘click, click,click’. 

Any chance we might see Ilyn Payne back on the small screen?  

"I did the first two series and [the character] hadn’t been killed. Then I got cancer and obviously they couldn’t continue to use me anymore. If they do some more, maybe they'll ask me again which I would really love."

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Johnson as Ser Ilyn Payne opposite Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark

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Turning the clock back a bit now. Fair to say Dr Feelgood inspired the punk scene?

"Absolutely. We didn’t know we were doing it at the time but a lot of those people who went on to form bands in 1976 were watching us in 1975.

"Before that rock ‘n’ roll was very elaborate and I didn’t like what it was doing. We came along with something very basic, a drum kit, two guitars and a singer and just put energy into it and that’s what excited people. I think that’s what inspired the punk bands."

With things going so well for Dr Feelgood, why did you leave?

"I didn’t leave - they threw me out. That was in 1977, it’s a long, long time ago.

"There was a lot of strain going on. We were very successful, we had been touring America, we were making our fourth album and suddenly a huge row broke out which was actually between all of them and myself. By the time the morning came I was out of the band."


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Above: The Dr Feelgood line up, and Johnson backing Ian Dury as a member of The Blockheads.

In 1980, you joined The Blockheads. How did that come about?  

"Ian [Dury] asked if I would like to go along and make a single with them backing me. They were just checking me out. Ian asked if I'd like to join the band,  I said ‘absolutely, I would’.

"It was a brilliant rhythm section, some of which still remains with me. They were two or three of the happiest times I’ve had.

"Ian was a brilliant performer. The Blockheads were a six piece and they were all characters. They were all show stealers and yet, when Ian was in the middle of the stage, all eyes were on him. He had a great presence and I think his voice absolutely suited the kind of stuff he was doing. His songs were so brilliant that his expressions have become part of the language, Reasons to be Cheerful and all that, you see that all the time. A fantastic guy.

"After I had been with the Blockheads for a while Ian asked if I wanted to write some songs with him’. I went around to his house - he had two lyrics typed out, because he used to write lyrics without music.

"He put one in front of me and I thought ‘fair enough, bang, I’ve got it, I know what that is’. He showed me another one and I thought ‘I’ve got that’. I knew what it was going to be, straight away, and I thought ‘bang, I’ve got it’. I could hear the thing as quickly as that. One was Mr Peanut, the other one was Superman’s Big Sister.

In 2014 - after your diagnosis - you and Roger Daltrey released the album Going Back Home. Is it true that, at the time, you told him ‘we’d better get a move on’?

A long, long time ago I had a brief encounter with Roger and he suggested doing an album together. Nothing ever came of it. Then when I had cancer Roger came through and said ‘let’s do that album’. 

"The record company found eight days in the studio and this eight days was just at the end of my 10 months, I was already in extra time. But it was great doing an album so quickly, there was no time for messing about, you just had to put it down in one or two takes.

"Roger came in and did these songs, most of them he had never heard before. It all just really worked together. It was great fun doing it and I think it was the second best selling album that year or something [the record reached number three in the UK chart and then went gold shifting more than 100,000 units]. The record company was taken by surprise, they actually ran out of copies. They had to get more done to meet the demand."

And now you're back on your again. Before we let you go, can you tell us more about the set you'll be playing at Lakefest in Herefordshire?

"Don’t expect any surprises. Generally what I play are songs I’ve written over all this time from Dr Feelgood onwards. There will be a thing or two you will recognise. I will be singing. Roger Daltrey told me he thought I had a really great voice. I didn’t know if he was having a little laugh or not, but he said it."

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Lakefest runs at Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury, Herefordshire, between August 10 and August 14.


Photos by Leif Laaksonen

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