Chess Records/Universal Music Enterprises
11 songs – 35 minutes
Although not a household name in the United States, Wilko Johnson may be as close to a renaissance man as one can find in the modern world. An authority on astronomy, one of five or six people in the UK able to speak Old Icelandic (he learned it at University in order to be able to read the Sagas in the original language), an actor (he played the mute executioner Ilyn Payne, in the first and second series of the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones) and one of the most influential R’n’B and rock guitarists ever produced in the UK. When his former band, Dr Feelgood, first appeared in 1975, their stripped-down, speed-fuelled, high-octane R’n’B was the perfect antidote to the self-absorbed, pretentious and long-winded music being produced by many rock bands at the time. The Feelgoods had short hair, wore ill-fitting suits, produced high-energy live shows with songs rarely lasting over three minutes and exuded an aura of menace. Little surprise then that they exerted a significant influence on the nascent punk movement in the UK – Joe Strummer of The Clash played a Telecaster because Wilko did.
In 2013, Wilko announced that he had terminal pancreatic cancer. Foreswearing treatment, he went back on the road for a final tour and recorded Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey. Featuring re-recordings of ten classic Wilko songs from his Feelgood days and subsequent solo career, together with a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window”, if this is to be his final album, it’s a cracking way to exit.
Johnson has a unique, idiosyncratic guitar style, producing choppy, urgent rhythms with flailing fingers rather than a pick, which help to drive the songs as much as the rhythm section does. He is also a talented songwriter, with a wry line in lyrics. In the title track, a tale of the frustration of everyday urban life, he observes “I got a girl, a man’s best friend, I’d have her now, if she’d just come back again. But she left me in the fog, told me that I treat her like a dog. The last time that I saw her she was burying a bone, I’m tired of whistling for her and I’m going back home.”
The original Dr Feelgood albums were recorded in mono to try to recreate the sound of the band’s own heroes. Going Back Home was produced by Dave Eringa, who has captured a coruscating live vibe whilst still maintaining modern production values. The crack backing band is Wilko’s usual rhythm section of Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums, with Mick Talbot on piano and organ and Steve Weston on harmonica. While the structure of the songs has stayed true to the originals, the addition of Talbot’s organ in particular has given an added depth to their sound. Recorded in just one week, there is an edge and an energy to the album that defies the sad reason for its inception.
After he left Dr Feelgood, Johnson played initially with Ian Dury’s Blockheads and then fronted his own band. He has never achieved A-List status, partly because his singing voice is significantly more limited than his guitar playing. So it was an inspired choice to get Roger Daltrey to contribute his larynx to this album. The Who were one of the very few “dinosaur” rock bands respected by the punk movement, due in large part to Daltrey’s ability to channel a ferocious inner anger that resonated with the dissatisfaction and violence of the punk era.
On Going Back Home, Daltrey perhaps misses some of the sly groove of Lee Brilleaux, the original Feelgood singer, but he brings a masculine authority to the material and a believable vulnerability on “Turned 21” and on “Some Kind Of Hero” when he sings: “I wish I was some kind of hero, I’d shake my head and walk away. I’d have fifty women waiting for me, before the breaking of the day.”
If you haven’t heard Wilko Johnson before, this album is a great place to start. If you’re already a fan, this is an essential purchase.