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Interview: Pete Bentham talks about Wilko Johnson

Wilko Johnson, who has sadly died aged 75, influenced countless guitarists not just with his taut, choppy rhythm-is-lead style but also his mesmerising stage presence. Pete Bentham of Liverpool art punks the Dinner Ladies is among those players who have genuflected, Telecaster in hand, at the altar of the former Dr Feelgood maestro. Pete talks Wilko […]

The post Interview: Pete Bentham talks about Wilko Johnson appeared first on Louder Than War.



wilko johnson

Wilko Johnson, who has sadly died aged 75, influenced countless guitarists not just with his taut, choppy rhythm-is-lead style but also his mesmerising stage presence. Pete Bentham of Liverpool art punks the Dinner Ladies is among those players who have genuflected, Telecaster in hand, at the altar of the former Dr Feelgood maestro.

Pete talks Wilko with his friend and fellow Johnson devotee Dave Candler.

DC: It’s a sad time. How did you hear the news that Wilko had died?

PB: That horrible thing where you see a photo or video post about someone you like on social media, and it doesn’t register at first. Then you see another and another and you go “Hang about, what’s happened?” The same thing happened when Pete Shelley died.

DC: The BBC paid tribute the day the news broke by playing the Feelgoods’ lone hit single, Milk and Alcohol, and we’ve agreed that didn’t seem quite appropriate.

PB: Yeah. It’s funny that the later, lesser lineup without Wilko had the big hit. It’s a good single, but for me, like a lot of people, the edge went out of it after Wilko. Gypo Mayo, who replaced him, was probably technically a better guitar player, but Wilko had the danger and originality in his style and his stage presence.

DC: Of course, we have to reflect on the fact that Wilko lived longer than he had expected after his terminal cancer diagnosis in 2013. 

PB: That was miraculous, wasn’t it. And so random that a specialist doctor happened to be a part-time photographer at one of his gigs and suggested he let him have a go at curing him. So it’s a blessing we got another 8 years out of him. Also, in that time he enjoyed a massive renaissance, thanks to the media coverage about his amazing recovery and the brilliant Julian Temple film Oil City Confidential about the Feelgoods.

DC: When did you first hear Wilko?

PB: Like a lot of folk, it was the famous Old Grey Whistle Test appearance in 1975. It was life-changing on so many levels. As a kid, I loved my older brothers’ and sisters’ Sixties records, particularly the early Stones, Kinks and Small Faces, and, as much as I loved the music, I just loved the style and the fashion and how they walked it like they talked it. In the mid-Seventies, I used to watch the Whistle Test and was so disappointed not just by the shite hippy prog music but also how terrible the bands looked: scruffy as fuck with no style or presentation, perhaps with a few exceptions like the Sensational Alex Harvey Band and the New York Dolls.

Then along come the Feelgoods with short hair, sharp suits, and a proper rock n roll attitude. That was the sea change that music needed at that time. Of course, Wilko was mesmerising with his thousand-yard stare, skittering and choppy guitar style. Also, I’ve said this in another interview before: Wilko’s top button on his shirt being fastened was some kind of massive statement. For me, that was the end of hippy and the start of punk. Away with the “let it all hang out” hippy idea and in with the sharp, buttoned-up, going-places, new attitude. Will Sergeant from the Bunnymen recently mentioned that quote in an interview also.

DC: Would punk have happened without Wilko and the Feelgoods?

PB: Something would have definitely happened, as kids everywhere were bored with the indulgent prog bands and stadium rock, but maybe not as good. Dr. Feelgood were just onto that frustration and the need to make rock n roll dirty and exciting again, two years before anyone else. Kids in the UK came to punk from a number of different angles: some from the proto-punk bands like the Stooges, New York Dolls and the MC5, some from the arty end of glam, such as Bowie, Roxy Music and Lou Reed, some from the ‘school disco’ end of glam like T.Rex and Slade, and some from the pub rock scene and the likes of the Feelgoods, Eddie and the Hot Rods and the 101ers. But the Feelgoods also had a massive influence on the New York early punk scene. I remember seeing a comment by the Ramones, where they said they took the idea of having a four-piece with a singer in the middle and a guitarist and bass player moving backwards and forwards on either side, directly from Dr. Feelgood.

DC: Why do you think Wilko was so influential?

PB: Probably because he is really the only rhythm guitar hero. I can only think of Bo Diddley apart from Wilko. It was that percussive thing he had. Before I heard Wilko, I was honestly never interested in the flashy, noodly, Eric Clapton guitar hero thing. I was more impressed with the Pete Townshend power chords thing. So when that shift back to basic rock n roll happened in 75/76, Wilko was the man. I can’t imagine the Johnny Ramone style or Joe Strummer style happening without Wilko.

DC: Who were the key bands he influenced?

PB: Firstly, he probably influenced the other pub rockers, in particular Eddie and the Hot Rods, who were kind of the Feelgoods’ proteges. Then obviously all the main punk players like Strummer and Weller. That staccato style also influenced people who would emerge from the post-punk scene. Andy Gill from the Gang of Four often stated that Wilko was a major influence.

DC: You did, in fact, strike up a friendship with Wilko in the 1990s. Also with his beloved late wife, Irene. What can you tell me about that?

PB: I was working at the Queens Hall venue in Widnes, and we booked him a few times. This would be the late Nineties/early Noughties. But that was a lean period for him career-wise, long after his Feelgoods and Blockheads heyday. He did have legendary Blockheads bass player Norman Watt-Roy with him, as he did until recently, but he was doing small venues by then. I don’t think we ever got more than 150 in for those gigs, and that would have been reflected in the fees we paid him. He didn’t have an agent or anything; his wife, Irene, was booking the shows. She used to ring us up looking for gigs, and I used to chat to her. I remember her saying, “We used to be poor, then we were rich, and now we are poor again”.

DC: For those who don’t know of Wilko or Dr Feelgood, which are the best albums to start with?

PB: There are only four Dr. Feelgood albums featuring Wilko. The three studio albums, Down By The Jetty, Malpractice, and Sneakin’ Suspicion, are good, but in some ways Wilko was really a live musician and not a studio musician. That’s why the third and live album, Stupidity, is the one to get and was their number-one album and crowning glory. He also had his own band after the Feelgoods called Wilko Johnson’s Solid Senders, who made one album which has got some great stuff on it, including the song Paradise, which was the song that caused the big bust-up with Dr. Feelgood during the recording of their third studio album. That actually resulted in him leaving the band. He, of course, played with Ian Dury and the Blockheads after that, but I’d say the Julian Temple documentary Oil City Confidential and its follow-up, The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, will tell you all you need to know about him. One thing’s for sure, nobody will ever play guitar like him again. No matter how hard I try!

wilko johnsonPete Bentham And The Dinner Ladies’ new album, What’s On The Inside Has To Come Out, is available now at 9×9 Records.

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