Wilko Johnson has died, aged 75

Wilko Johnson
(Image credit: Will Ireland/Future)

Guitar legend Wilko Johnson has died aged 75, it has been confirmed via the musician's family.

In a post shared on Johnson's social media channels this morning, a statement reads:

"This is the announcement we never wanted to make, and we do so, on behalf of Wilko's family and the band, with a very heavy heart:

"Wilko Johnson has died. He passed away at home on Monday evening, 21st November 2022.

"Thank you for respecting Wilko's family's privacy at this very sad time, and thank you all for having been such a tremendous support throughout Wilko's incredible life.

"RIP Wilko Johnson."

Known for his percussive, 'fingerstyle' approach to guitar-playing, Wilko Johnson was one of rock’s most instantly identifiable guitarists. His choppy, simultaneous rhythm and lead style was inspired by Johnny Kidd & The Pirates guitarist Mick Green. Wilko sharpened Green's template to a razor's edge, and in doing so paved the way for punk and rebuilt the blues for a new generation.

A sharply intelligent and sensitive man, as part of British rockers Dr. Feelgood, Wilko was nevertheless a feral presence onstage. In the mid-70s, as rock music became more indulgent and pretentious, the Feelgoods stripped it right back to the bare essentials: no-nonsense rock'n'roll and cut-throat blues. The music press called it "pub rock", a term that didn't sit well with Wilko.

"I never really liked the term ‘pub rock’ because it was too vague" he told Classic Rock. "It doesn’t describe a type of music, it describes a type of venue. Pubs were where you could get gigs, but there were all sorts of bands on that scene: country, folk, soul, blues, it wasn’t as if we were all reading from the same book. I do think we shook people up a bit, though, because we were a lot more aggressive than the bands they were used to. We gave ’em a fright over their pints!"

Wilko appeared on four of the band's influential albums between 1975-1977, and was their only songwriter. Their live album Stupidity went to no.1 (opens in new tab) in the UK in October 1976. The following year, in April 1977, Wilko left Dr. Feelgood under somewhat acrimonious circumstances. 

"Let me put the record straight," he told Classic Rock. "I didn’t leave, they threw me out after a big ruck, but the music press the following week had all these headlines saying ‘Wilko quits’. The relationship between myself and [vocalist] Lee Brilleaux had got very strained. He was a lovely guy, but there was some heavy tension between us, and a lot of that had to do with writing songs."

But his impact had been felt. A new generation of punk bands had been inspired by the Feelgoods' aggression and fat-free rock'n'roll. “Thousands of people play a Telecaster because of Joe Strummer," he told Guitarist magazine (opens in new tab). "Well, Joe played a Telecaster because of me!” (Wilko, of course, played a Telecaster because of Mick Green.) The punks copied more than just Wilko's choice of guitar.

Johnson would go on to form Solid Senders and The Wilko Johnson Band, before playing with the likes of Ian Dury And The Blockheads, Johnny Thunders and Roger Daltry in a career that spanned six decades.

Wilko Johnson on the cover of Classic Rock magazine, 2013

"Man Of The Year": Wilko Johnson on the cover of Classic Rock magazine, December 2013 (Image credit: Future)

In 2013, Wilko was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He opted to not have treatment. Told that he had less than a year to live, he went on tour. 

At that year's Classic Rock Awards, Jimmy Page presented him with The Innovator award, presented to artists who pushed the envelope and broke new boundaries. 

"I saw Dr Feelgood play live way back in the day," said Page, "and the stage presence, the act, was phenomenal. I love Wilko’s style – I love everything about him! His playing is just amazing. He’s just got the Telecaster and an amp, and the amount of tone he gives out is incredible. Wilko’s got the whole package. And he’s more fun to watch than me."

Still under the impression that he had just months to live, he guested with The Urban Voodoo Machine on their ironic single Help Me Jesus (opens in new tab) and recorded the album Going Back Home with The Who's Roger Daltrey. It went to no.3 in the album charts in April 2014 and won Album Of The Year at the 2014 Classic Rock awards (opens in new tab).

That same year, Wilko discovered that he'd been misdiagnosed. In fact, he had a more treatable form of pancreatic cancer than first feared. Following an 11 hour operation, he revealed himself to be cancer-free in October of that year.

"This tumour weighed 3kg - that's the size of a baby," he told the BBC (opens in new tab). "Anyway, they got it all. They cured me." (Did he consider suing the medic who misdiagnosed him? "No," he told Classic Rock's Dave Ling. "Had he not done so then I wouldn’t have made the album with Roger Daltrey.")

"That whole experience led to one of the greatest years of my life, in many ways," he said later. "Facing death, sitting there at three o’clock in the morning thinking: 'Oh fuck, I’m going to die,' that’s something to experience. But it wasn’t always like that. Most of the time I was in a state of heightened consciousness. When you’re in that position you look around you and think: 'I’m alive and it’s so beautiful.' 

"There were lots of funny kicks during that year, playing gigs – sometimes very big ones, like Fuji Rock festival – where you know that everybody knows you’re going to die. And you can’t go wrong, can you?" he laughed.

Johnson was playing live shows right up until the weeks before his death, having played sets in London, Poole Brighton and Birmingham in recent months. "I’m a miserable so-and-so," he told Classic Rock in 2017. "The only time I’m happy is when I’m playing, so that’s what I’m going to do. For as long as I’m still able to do so, playing music will fill my remaining allotted years."

No cause of death has been confirmed at this time.

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Merlin Alderslade
Executive Editor, Louder

Merlin moved into his role as Executive Editor of Louder in early 2022, following over ten years working at Metal Hammer. While there, he served as Online Editor and Deputy Editor, before being promoted to Editor in 2016. Before joining Metal Hammer, Merlin worked as Associate Editor at Terrorizer Magazine and has previously written for the likes of Classic Rock, Rock Sound, eFestivals and others. Across his career he has interviewed legends including Ozzy Osbourne, Lemmy, Metallica, Iron Maiden (including getting a trip on Ed Force One courtesy of Bruce Dickinson), Guns N' Roses, KISS, Slipknot, System Of A Down and Meat Loaf. He is also probably responsible for 90% of all nu metal-related content making it onto the site. 

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