With the country heading into lockdown and an absence of live music to enjoy, sadly, us music photographers suddenly find we’ve got excess time on our hands. For this music photographer, a cough that doesn’t want to quit means I’ve really got excess time on my hands. I’ve stared at the walls. I’ve contemplated re-watching Breaking Bad for the fifth time. In the end, I’ve staved off stir-craziness with MS Word and a couple of RockShot articles: I’ve decided to detail the how and the why I started shooting live music. The how will follow in part two, but for now; here’s the why.
I’ve always liked to go and see a band. Night at the pub? Cinema and a meal? No thanks, I’ll take the gig. I may have been attending gigs since I was first able to express a preference, but the documenting of them waited until I was well into my forties; a mid-life crisis of epic proportions. A specific event triggered it, but the seeds were sewn when I was in my teens and it all revolved around one man: Dr Feelgood guitarist, Wilko Johnson.
I was three years old in 1971, when Dr Feelgood first brought their dirty RnB out of the ‘Thames Delta’ of Canvey Island and into the mainstream. I was nine when Wilko Johnson left the band. As a result, I was not cognisant of him at the height of his fame. The first time I ever saw him perform was a few years later on a BBC programme aimed at impressionable teenage wannabe musicians (a.k.a me). The show was called Rock School and on it, Johnson showed off his remarkable technique for apparently playing both lead and rhythm guitar at the same time. It blew me away and fostered a love affair with the man that has endured to this day.
As soon as I was old enough to attend live music on my own, Wilko and his band were a primary target. He had a residency at The Cricketers in Kennington, nestling behind the gasometers and The Oval cricket ground, and we were always in attendance. Don’t look for The Cricketers now incidentally; sadly, like so many others, it’s a casualty of the decline of grass roots music venues.
The performances back then were amazing, but there was no escaping that Johnson was only playing to a comparatively small number of enthusiasts in the pub; it was a far cry from his heady days in Dr Feelgood.
Then, three things happened that helped to pluck Wilko from his relative obscurity. Firstly, film director Julien Temple, who documented the rise and fall of The Sex Pistols in The Great Rock And Roll Swindle and The Filth And the Fury made it a triumvirate of rock docs when he chronicled the career of Dr Feelgood in his 2009 film Oil City Confidential. By then, Feelgood front man Lee Brilleaux had died of cancer and of the three remaining original members, one stood out as being curiously charismatic. That man was Wilko Johnson.
Secondly, Johnson’s eccentric performance in Oil City Confidential brought him to the attention of the producers of HBO’s Game Of Thrones, who cast Wilko in the first two series as mute executioner Ilyn Payne.
Thirdly, in late 2012, Johnson was diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer and given ten months to live. His well-documented reaction to this news – that he felt ‘elated’ on leaving the diagnosis meeting must seem curious, unless you know the psyche of the man. A man who had sadly dealt with anxiety and depression most of his adult life no longer had a long-term future to worry about; he only had to live in the present and this made everything around him suddenly feel viscerally alive.
Wilko’s first action was to visit Japan, a country with arguably his most ardent fan base and a country he loves. His second was to arrange a farewell tour. By this stage, his cancer and perhaps more specifically his reaction to the diagnosis had become national news and accordingly (somewhat ironically) he now found himself playing far bigger venues. No more Kennington Cricketers in front of small crowds – the London dates were at Camden’s KOKO, where the capacity is over fourteen hundred.
Every show was a sell-out and disgustingly, tickets were being exchanged at wildly inflated prices on reselling sites. I went. In the encore, Wilko played Chuck Berry’s Bye Bye Johnny (Johnson was born John Wilkinson – he recomposed his name because he preferred a surname people could chant) and he waved goodbye to the crowd. I cried like a baby.
Later in the year, Johnson teamed up with Roger Daltrey to record the album Going Back Home – an album that for Wilko was expected to be released posthumously.
2013 rolled on. Summer turned into Autumn. Wilko Johnson continued to play, albeit with a tumour inside his belly approaching the size of a watermelon. Quietly, people like me were wondering how he was still alive. He was supposed to be dead by now after all. One person more qualified than most to be asking that question was a cancer specialist and music photographer called Charlie Chan.
Chan met Wilko at a gig and explained to him that by all conventional wisdom he should no longer be around. There had to be a question mark about the nature of his cancer and his original diagnosis. Chan put Johnson in touch with Dr Emmanuel Huguet, a specialist in pancreatic cancer at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge. Dr Huguet concluded that Wilko’s cancer was operable, albeit with a 95% chance that the operation would end his life. In the knowledge that eventually, without the operation there was a 100% chance the tumour would end his life, Wilko chose the op. The operation took place mid-2014. Wilko survived. By late 2014, he was declared cancer free and Wilko Johnson remains so to this day.
If you’ve got this far, you might rightly be wondering what this story and my enduring affection for Wilko has got to do with music photography. When I was watching his ‘farewell’ show at KOKO in 2013 I could see all the photographers in the photo pit and was suddenly struck that having followed Wilko’s career for around thirty years and having seen him perform at countless gigs, I had no permanent record of any of it. I’m not one for watching live music through the back of a mobile phone, so if I’m at a gig, I’m at a gig and the phone stays in the pocket. However, it did dawn on me that if this could happen to Wilko, it could happen to any one of my other musical heroes. Out of nowhere, I was hit with an overwhelming desire to document live music.
Exactly how I went about doing that can be found in part two of the tale but as of March 2013, you’ll appreciate the one person I felt guaranteed not to be able to photograph was Wilko Johnson. Of course, in March 2013, nobody had any idea how Wilko’s story was going to unfold.
In the end, I’m very pleased to say I got to photograph him quite a lot. This image was taken at the famous 100 Club in London’s Oxford Street.
It was shot at a gig Wilko played following the premiere for another Julien Temple film – a follow up to Oil City Confidential titled The Ecstasy Of Wilko Johnson. It’s a brilliant, life affirming chronicle of Wilko’s attitude to his imminent death – though of course it has an unexpectedly happy ending. The picture was picked up by The Observer in print and The Guardian online – the first time any photograph of mine had received a national audience.
A few hours earlier at the premiere, I shot this one of Wilko and the other two members of his excellent live band – bass player Norman Watt Roy and drummer Dylan Howe.
It ended up in Wilko’s autobiography.
I shot this one at O2 Forum, Kentish Town early in 2016.
His management saw it and liked it and this resulted in it being licenced on Wilko’s tour tee shirts. To have one of my photographs on my hero’s tour shirts was obviously very exciting as without Wilko, I would never have been doing the photography in the first place. Having an image licensed also means a revenue return, and that is a very rare thing in music photography as you’ll find out in part two. In a way then, it was a bit of a shame that having one of my pictures on Wilko’s tee shirts actually resulted in my making a loss. That’s the sort of thing which happens when your excitement levels result in buying most of the inventory yourself.
So that’s the why. Part two will follow with the how. Feature on Just Why Did I Become A Music Photographer by Simon Reed, March 2020.