Time To Listen: Wilko Johnson reveals 5 songs that shaped his life

Including Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones and Van Morrison

Wilko Johnson
Author: Scott ColothanPublished 24th Jan 2020
Last updated 24th Jan 2020

The legendary Wilko Johnson has appeared on Absolute Radio’s series Time To Listen to talk about the five songs that have shaped his life.

With Time To Listen, Absolute Radio hopes to open up the conversation about mental health by inviting some of our best-loved musicians and comedians to talk about the songs that mean the most to them and have soundtracked significant moments in their lives.

Ash’s Tim Wheeler, Miles Kane, U2’s Adam Clayton, Tom Walker, Sam Fender, Snow Patrol’s Gary Lightbody, Skunk Anansie’s Skin, Ultravox’s Midge Ure and comedy icon Jo Brand are among the celebrities who have taken part in the series since it launched last autumn.

In the penultimate episode of the series, inimitable Dr. Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson has spoken candidly about some of his favourite records.

Wilko shot to fame in the early 1970s when Dr. Feelgood emerged from the pub rock scene and scored hits with rhythm and blues tinged tunes like ‘She Does It Right’, ‘Roxette’ and ‘Back in the Night’ .

Cited by Paul Weller as a highly influential guitarist thanks to his distinctive choppy playing style, Wilko has also embarked on an acting career, starring as mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne in Game of Thrones.

Devastatingly, Wilko was diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer in January 2013 and was given just 10 months to live by doctors. However, after a successful operation to remove the tumour, amazingly Wilko revealed to the world he was cancer free at The Q Awards later that year.

On his very special episode of Time To Listen, Wilko opens up about how his collaboration with Roger Daltrey, ‘Going Back Home’, was written when while he was facing imminent death.

Wilko also spoke about the Bob Dylan song that inspired him to play guitar, how Van Morrison’s music helped him pluck up the courage to meet his future wife, and why The Rolling Stones are the ultimate rock stars.

Listen to Wilko Johnson on Time To Listen:

Wilko Johnson’s five Time To Listen song choices are as follows:

Them – ‘Gloria’ (1964)

“I’ll tell you a little story about Van Morrison, right. It was some time in the ‘60s - I think I was 16/17 years old - and I was walking down the street on Canvey Island and I’m going to ask this girl out, right. In order to keep up my courage, I was singing ‘Here Comes The Night’, which is a Van Morrison (song). Anyway, I went along and I asked her out and we were together for 40 years!

“I love Van Morrison. I’m privileged to say I know him, and he’s written so many great and kinda complex songs, the kind of things only he can do. I’ve chosen ‘Gloria’, it’s one of his very earliest things. Go and see Van live and he’ll often close with this song, and you hear the crowd singing that chorus and it’s just really great. The huge chorus ‘GLORIA! GLORIA!’, you hear a crowd singing that, it’s a real buzz.”

The Rolling Stones – ‘Brown Sugar’ (1971)

“Well, The Rolling Stones are rock stars, but they’re THE rock stars, aren’t they?! When Mick Taylor left the band, people were speculating on who was gonna be the guitar player and Dr. Feelgood, we were just starting then – we were playing in the pubs then. And in the NME, they were running a sort of book putting odds on people who was going to get the gig and at one point I was the favourite! I thought if they ask me I will go to the auditions just to say ‘yes, I played with the Rolling Stones’. Actually, they never did ask me in the end!

“I was 16 when The Rolling Stones first burst forth. It was such a great thing, we all started growing our hair long and everything. It was band that you knew your parents hated! The Beatles were all well and good, but your granny liked them… but The Stones, your mum and dad were never going to approve. It was just absolutely great. I saw them at the famous Hyde Park gig (on 5th July 1969) after Brian Jones died. I was sitting there in Hyde Park with my long hair and The Stones came on with this new guitar player (Mick Taylor) and I turned round to Irene (Wilko’s late wife) and went ‘they should have had me!’

“This one is The Rolling Stones and probably their classic song ‘Brown Sugar’.”

Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey – ‘Going Back Home’ (2014)

“I got cancer, when was it? Five years ago was it? I was told I had less than a year to live – 10 months they said. They said that they couldn’t do anything for me. In fact, this was the beginning of one of the greatest years of my life laughs waiting to die from cancer! Many, many strange things happened to me that year. One of them was that Roger Daltrey got in touch. Roger phoned me and said ‘listen we should make an album together’ and I said ‘we better do it quick!’

“So, this song, I was almost due to die and I’m in the studio working with Roger. Every now and then I used to go for a walk outside – it was out in the country this studio – and look at the stars, look at the trees and think ‘come on, is this weird or what?! I’m making an album with Roger Daltrey, I’m gonna die quite soon and it’s all a bit too much to take in!’ I didn’t die, obviously, because I’m sitting here talking now. My life was saved by Addenbrooke’s hospital. In an 11-hour operation, they removed this tumour from my stomach that weighed three kilograms and it was the size of a melon. They saved my life. Thank you once again Addenbrooke’s hospital and everybody there.”

Ian Dury and the Blockheads – ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’ (1978)

“I first encountered Ian Dury when I was in Dr. Feelgood, and he had a band called Kilburn and the High Roads. We used to play the London pub circuit and became good friends with Ian. Dr. Feelgood went on to some considerable success and Ian vanished away and then suddenly re-emerged with his stuff on Stiff Records, particularly with ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’, which was a massive hit. One of the glories of this song is in fact the bassline by Norman Watt-Roy. In fact, this bassline is so famous anywhere you go bass players were talking together saying ‘can you play Rhythm Stick?’ Being able to play the ‘Hit Me with Your Rhythm Stick’ bass is the sign of a competent bass player.

“Time went by and there was a particular occasion when Ian goes ‘how are you going?’ and I go ‘aw, I’m fed up. I want to give up!’ Then the next day Ian came to me and says, ‘The Blockheads are in the studio, why don’t you come along and make a record with us?’ And I went ‘YEAH!’ and I thought that bass player! I’d never met him. And I said ‘Yes, I’d love to do that.’ Anyway, I played with Ian Dury and the Blockheads for a couple of years.”

Bob Dylan – ‘Highway 61 Revisisted’ (1965)

“There was a play on BBC television in the 60s called Madhouse on Castle Street (aired on 13th January 1963). It’s legendary because Bob Dylan actually makes an appearance in it. I was watching that play that night and I just remember, I’m sitting there watching this play and I’d just got my guitar – I couldn’t even play or anything, y’know – and there’s a scene in this play with his cap and this guitar, then someone tells him to sing and he sings this song ‘The Swan on the River’ (real name: ‘Ballad of the Gliding Swan’) and the lyrics are quite nightmarish some of them, stabbing people in the head with a carving knife or something. I don’t know what it was, it had this chorus of “The swan on the river goes gliding by” and I’d never seen anything like this! I’m like ‘What is this?!’ It was so intense. I went rushing off into my room and picked up my guitar!

“I’d like to play ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ just because it’s absolutely typical of him at his… the lyrics, the thing rocks like a pig, the band are absolutely great. He goes way beyond people, I mean the first verse is about Abraham and Isaac, it’s a bible story in the first verse of a song: ‘Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”’. Yeah, I love him still!”

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