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.