Rhythm Therapy

Wilko Johnson, Nile Rodgers and friends

Wilko Johnson, Nile Rodgers and friends. Photos by Dave Coombs / Jill Furmanovsky

Two of our great guitarists have been making a good go of living with cancer in recent times. Wilko Johnson and Nile Rodgers both started making records in the 1970s, and both would only find their sixtieth birthdays by, to quote a Wilko song title, “Looking Back”.

Wilko was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2013, decided not to have chemotherapy, and spent the year gigging, including summer festivals, and recording. The news on the day I write is that he’s had radical surgery to remove the tumour, and will be out of action for some time. Nile has had treatment for prostate cancer, diagnosed in 2010, though the chemotherapy seems to have had to fit in between his travels and collaborations. We must hope that his “all clear” from last year stays that way.

I first came across Wilko with the Solid Senders, the band he formed after his split with Dr Feelgood. They played many times at Dingwalls at Camden Lock. My best friend, well ahead of me in knowing music and knowing where to go, introduced me to the joys of loud music in small, crowded places. We’d get there early to get near the front, and the journey home was a night-bus ride bookended by two-mile walks, accompanied by ringing in the ears and a buzz in the bloodstream.

It felt unusual in the late 70s, to like Chic if you liked punk, and ‘new wave’. I owe some of that broad-mindedness to Danny Baker, best known now for his radio broadcasting gifts. Back then, he had a dedicated soapbox at the New Musical Express, from which he urged readers to ignore genre, and allow disco (and indeed, prog rock and anything out of fashion) to work its magic. So Nile Rodgers became a 45rpm favourite, preferably with a little space on the floor to develop my gangly, teenage, dance style.

Both are rhythm guitarists who have thrived as the only guitarist in their bands, addressing the need for a beat, dovetailing with the bass and drums whilst embellishing the groove, urging it onwards and upwards. Solo breaks are built on rhythm and chords. Those old records may have been classified in the shops in different racks, but this defiance of the assumed order of lead and rhythm guitars, as well as a shared blues and soul ancestry, is a genuine point of connection.

I think of people who live well with cancer, and sometimes even “beat” it, as the relatively lucky ones on an unlucky spectrum. It’s only natural to praise the attitudes and strengths of those who do well, but can we say that those who come off less well lack those qualities ? My best friend (see above) has suggested that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence should carry out one of its “technology appraisals” on the therapeutic value of the Fender guitars that Wilko and Nile both play. I like the idea of people getting a Strat or Telecaster on prescription…. But mostly, we can be glad that these two movers and shakers are not only surviving a little longer, but have been playing music for all they’re worth, and finding other fine musicians who want to play with them. It seems to be doing them both, as well as the listening and dancing public, the world of good.

Here’s a short, and possibly strange, playlist with a couple of songs from back in the day, and a few from those recent collaborations.

Wilko Johnson’s Solid Senders – Everybody’s Carrying A Gun
One of the highlights from those late 70s Solid Senders shows. The jittery they’re-out-to-get-me lyric is almost as much a trademark of early Wilko as that guitar style. A tip of the hat to John Denton (piano), Stevie Lewins (bass) and the late Alan Platt (drums). Recently re-recorded with Roger Daltrey on their Going Back Home album.

Chic – I Want Your Love (Live at Budokan)
I only know Nile Rodgers from his records, and Chic were irrestible on 45rpm – but there are many who can bear witness that they were brilliant live.

The Urban Voodoo Machine (ft. Wilko Johnson) – Help Me Jesus
A spiritual collaboration from 2013, with a London band I’d not come across before, who sound great.

Jota Quest ft. Nile Rodgers – Mandou Bem
In between all last year’s monster hit record stuff, the master of the good groove worked with this Brazilian band. This song thanks a close friend for “doing good” and showing the value of peace and love for the world.

Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey – Keep On Loving You
Talking of heroes, Wilko saw The Who at Newcastle University in 1969. They happened to meet at an awards ceremony in 2010. This features Wilko’s band of recent years, Norman Watt-Roy (bass, also a Blockhead) and Dylan Howe (drums), with Mick Talbot (piano) and Steve Weston on harmonica. The resulting album is the aforementioned Going Back Home. We have it only because The Who finished a world tour and Wilko was, perhaps unexpectedly, still able to take the opportunity.

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11 thoughts on “Rhythm Therapy

  1. I first saw Wilko in 1974 when he was playing with Dr Feelgood at The Kensington in West London. He was great, amazing, in fact.

    When they came onto the pub scene they were the hottest thing in London. Wherever they played, the place was packed.

    The last time I saw him was at The Fleece in Bristol last year on his probably Farewell tour. He was still amazing.

    And, the Fleece was packed.

  2. Nice post Daddypig. Nile Rodgers is a frequent visitor to Edinburgh and the most affable, good humoured and least conceited man that I have met in the music business. It is nigh on impossible not to meet him, quite happy to chew the fat, sign stuff and have his photo taken. I also love Wilko’s playing but my live experience thus far has been only to see the top of his head as he pogoed in the Half Moon! He was due to play T In The Park which was tempting me to go. His new LP with Rodge is well worth a listen. Hopefully the operation has been a success – both these guys live life to the full which I guess is a lesson to us all!

  3. This beautifully written piece was very confusing to me especially when I read Caroles comment, everytime you said Wilko my mind registered Wilco, a trip to Wiki cleared that up. I’ll be back later for a listen.

  4. I didn’t know about Nile Rogers. They have both responded very positively to their circumstances and I hope they continue to thrive.

  5. Thank you all most kindly. Carole, knowing your love of Prog reminded me of the DJ Mark Radcliffe’s book “Showbusiness”. He used to book bands for his student union, and after months of long-haired people playing lengthly solos, one week Dr Feelgood came to town and he describes his astonishment well. That original line-up were quite something and I’d love to have seen them. I saw his current band two years ago in Leeds, and the year before with Ali, DsD and Gordon at Holmfirth, both great gigs. Well done for getting tickets to last spring’s farewell.

    Llamalpaca, how nice to meet a great musician and find they’re good in person. I wonder what he gets up to in Edinburgh, but who needs an excuse to visit often ? I believe “Going Back Home” might be coming my way for my 4 x 13 birthday.

    GF, credit to you for persevering, I didn’t make it easy reading for anyone lacking 1970s Britain cultural reference points. I did several re-edits to make it coherent, so I’ll take “beautifully written”, thank you.

    As Beth says, best wishes to them both and as the Llama says, they do set a good example…

    • Yeah, prog was running out of steam by around 1974/5. The best years were behind it and it was getting a bit too much. ELP were the worst offenders, Yes and Genesis were coming towards the end of their best periods and Crimson had moved onto new and strange territory.

      I can remember that by 1974, the stuff that we were listening to was much more punchy and song-based. People like Big Star and Montrose, for example, also Kevin Coyne, who was brilliant on stage. I can remember listening to a lot of Can around this time too.

      The Feelgoods were pretty much the best live act around, though.

  6. Great post DP! I don’t remember when I first heard Wilko, but it would have been almost certainly as a young teenager in the back room at my mum’s house on a second-hand copy of Down By The Jetty. Much later at, and post, university in South London, I (and later Littlebrobach, who moved down from the North West for work) would travel across town to the Cricketers pub under the gasholders at The Oval for Wilko’s monthly residency. One of the very few live bands that I have introduced LBB to, rather than vice versa, and the first time I took him, he was astonished that so few punks were in attendance. In fact, many of the new wave bands (Stranglers, Boomtown Rats, Clash, Pistols, Jam etc) cite Wilko as an influence, both musically and stylistically – stagger-steps, wild eyes, black buttoned-up clothes, machine-gun guitar etc.
    On the quiet, Wilko is a guitar player’s guitar player. His style is unique (pace Mick Green) and causes ‘normal’ players to wince in admiration. I have myself seen (at the Cricketers!) Wilko holding his Telecaster in his left hand (only) in an F chord at arm’s length to the side, guitar pointing at the ceiling, and reaching across with his right hand to strum. At one change, he casually threw the neck up, again LH only, and caught it again two frets higher in a G chord, accurately and without buzz, effectively sliding up a tone. It’s the only time I ever saw that done, and the fact that it wasn’t, before or since, part of a stage show, is maybe even more impressive.

    Don’t know anything of Nile Rodgers, sadly, outside of recordings and interviews.

    • It’s good how people comment with all these recollections. He’s quite a showman, and you’re right to point out how good he is on stage.

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