When The Who’s lead singer Roger Daltrey met former Dr Feelgood and Blockheads guitar hero Wilko Johnson at an awards ceremony in 2010, they hit it off immediately.
The two bonded over a shared love of Johnny Kidd and The Pirates, the early British rock and rollers whose guitarist Mick Green had inspired Johnson to play and whose hit, Shakin’ All Over, The Who famously covered on their Live At Leeds album. That night, Wilko and Daltrey resolved to one day get together and make an old-fashioned British R&B album.
Plans made in such spontaneity, of course, often fail to reach fruition but, thankfully, not this one. In autumn 2013, after completing The Who’s Quadrophenia world tour, Daltrey and Wilko got straight to work – with speed of the essence, as Wilko, diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, wasn’t expected to live past October.
At Daltrey’s instigation, the pair convened at the small Yellowfish studio in Uckfield, East Sussex and bashed out an album of gritty R&B with raw, gutsy passion in just eight days. Expert backing was provided by Johnson’s long-term bandmates Norman Watt-Roy on bass and Dylan Howe on drums (both formerly of Ian Dury’s Blockheads) with Style Council and Dexys keyboardist Mick Talbot and harmonica ace Steve ‘West’ Weston adding further support.
While Daltrey is known primarily as a rock singer, he cut his teeth on rhythm and blues back in The Who’s early days when they were called The High Numbers. Here, his gruff, robust vocals prove an able foil for Johnson’s choppy guitar rhythms. Daltrey said he would sing whatever Johnson wanted him to and Wilko chose 10 of his own bluesy compositions from throughout his career, plus a boisterous cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 single Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?
There is no attempt to innovate on Going Back Home, nor is it filled with ruminations on life and death; instead this album is a celebration of Johnson’s work and opens and closes with new versions of Feelgoods classics. Daltrey growls his way through the opening title track over Wilko’s thrashed-out riff, ably assisted by a mean harmonica solo from Weston, while the concluding All Through The City has some great jagged playing from Wilko.
Two other Feelgoods favourites, Sneakin’ Suspicion and Keep It Out Of Sight, are also tackled, with Wilko at his best, machine-gunning his trusty Telecaster on the former. Ice On The Motorway, the title track from Johnson’s little-known 1981 album, provides another chance for his jerky guitar style to shine, bolstered by stabs of organ from Talbot. Only Turned 21 – a tender ballad poignantly sung by Daltrey – breaks away from tough Canvey Island R&B.
If this hugely enjoyable, old-school R&B album does turn out to be Wilko’s last, then it will stand as a fine testament to his talent.