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Wilko Johnson Set Out To Make One Final Album, But It Didn't Work Out That Way

Wilko Johnson (left) and Roger Daltrey play a benefit for Pancreatic Cancer UK in London.
David M. Benett
Getty Images
Wilko Johnson (left) and Roger Daltrey play a benefit for Pancreatic Cancer UK in London.

Wilko Johnson is better known in the U.K. than he is here in the States. Over there, the band he formed in 1971, Dr. Feelgood, is a big deal. The band's style is simple and blues-based, yet Johnson insists it's been quite influential.

"I think it's true to say the whole punk generation watched Dr. Feelgood," Johnson says. "We did have that influence."

A few years back, Johnson found himself at a music awards show reminiscing about the good old days with another famous British rocker, Roger Daltrey of The Who.

"So we said, 'Let's make a record,' " Daltrey says. "And we kind of threw it around a bit and talked a lot about doing it and never got around to it."

But things changed when Johnson got a severe and inoperable form of pancreatic cancer. In January 2013, he was given less than a year to live.

"I wasn't freaked out when the guy told me," Johnson says. "I went out the hospital in this beautiful winter's day, the trees against the sky and that and I just felt so elated and just thinking, 'You're alive, you're alive.' "

Johnson opted against chemotherapy, deciding to just let the cancer take its course. Soon after, news of his diagnosis began to spread. When Daltrey heard, he called Johnson immediately.

"You know Wilko," Daltrey says, " 'Let's not worry about what we're going to record, let's just go and record anything!' The most important thing of all if you have a year to live is to have some fun."

At first, Johnson envisioned recording covers of American soul hits from the 1960s.

"But under the circumstance," Johnson says, "when we finally got to record it, I'm thinking, 'Right, well, this is the last thing I'll do. I'll have a bit of a retrospective of my songs.' "

The two recorded Going Back Home in a mere eight days, which Daltrey says is one reason the album is so special: "A lot of today's music is made ponderously where people dissect it and they spend hours overdubbing and all this stuff. We did it very simply and I think that's reflected on this album."

Daltrey thinks the album's title track says it all: The experience captured the spirit of going back to the vitality they had four decades ago.

"There's a 70-year-old singer and a dying guitarist; it's got so much energy, it's ridiculous!" Daltrey says, laughing.

The album did remarkably well in both the U.K. and the U.S. It was voted album of the year by Classic Rock magazine. So the duo decided to take the show on the road, including a performance at London's Royal Albert Hall.

"I've had many experiences of standing onstage in front of audiences and feeling that this could be the last time," Johnson says, laughing. "It's quite a wonderful feeling — actually very, very intense."

But then something odd happened. Johnson didn't die. The doctors were stumped, so they ordered a new round of tests and determined they might just be able to remove his tumor. Last spring, Johnson underwent a major surgery that left him, he says, cancer-free.

"My body is getting better and better," Johnson says, "but my mind is still finding it hard to adjust to the idea that the future is once again an indefinite thing."

Johnson says he hopes that future will include a tour to North America — he hasn't been to the U.S. since the 1970s. Daltrey is also optimistic about what lies ahead.

"He's got a long way to go and he'll be a Type 1 diabetic for the rest of this life," Daltrey says. "But who knows? Maybe there's a Part 2 to this record. I hope that there is."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alex Cohen
Alex Cohen is the reporter for NPR's fastest-growing daily news program, Day to Day where she has covered everything from homicides in New Orleans to the controversies swirling around the frosty dessert known as Pinkberry.