The early 1960s saw the rise of an incredible number of blues-based rock and roll bands in, of all places, the British Isles. The Animals, Led Zeppelin, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones (yes they started off as a blues band, listen to their early albums) were just a few of those whose careers were shaped by the blues. While most of them went on to become part of the music establishment, at the time their music was considered rebellious and dangerous by the establishment. They also entrenched their style of music into British pop culture.
No matter what was being played on the popular music stations or rising high in the charts, the blues seemed to always be hanging around the fringes, ready to raise its head when people wanted to hear something a little more rebellious than what was normally available. So when four guys from Canvey Island (about 30 miles east of London up the Thames River in England) decided to formed Dr. Feelgood, the band who impressed everyone from Johnny Rotten to Richard Hell with their rawness and intensity, they looked to the blues and R&B for their inspiration. The creative force behind Dr. Feelgood for their formative years was guitarist and primary songwriter Wilko Johnson. While Johnson left the band soon after their fourth album, he’s never left the style of music he played with them behind. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, he’s been grabbing at as many opportunities as possible to make and record the music he loves while he can. (His doctors told him he was only going to make it until October 2013, but he’s defied all their predictions and is still performing.)
One of the projects he’s undertaken was teaming up with Who frontman Roger Daltrey to record an album of 10 Johnson-penned, and one cover, R&B/blues/rock and roll songs called Going Back Home. Released on the Chess record label in the UK, the disc is being issued in North America by Universal Music Enterprises. While it might appear the two are a generation apart as Daltrey and The Who were part of the early 1960s British rock scene and Johnson the early ’70s, they both share a love for what they call British R&B.
Lyrically speaking, none of Johnson’s songs are going to change the world or even probably change your life. However, that’s not the point of this music. The songs on this disc are about things we can all relate to, whether we want to admit it or not. While it might be a bit odd to hear these two veterans of the rock wars singing songs about being young and irresponsible, when it comes down to it, isn’t that what rock and roll should be about? A celebration of everything the supposed adult world looks down upon.
The disc’s opening and title track is a perfect example. The music is rollicking, I defy anyone with any soul in their body to resist the urge to dance while listening to it, while the lyrics are a celebration of the ups and downs of a irresponsible life. “I wanna live the way I like/Sleep all the morning, go out and get my fun at night/Things ain’t like that here/Working just to keep my payments clear.” Bemoaning having to actually work to do the things you want to do might not seem overly rebellious to some, but considering the fact Britain is the home of the Protestant Work Ethic, this type of attitude would make Margret Thatcher spin in her grave.
For those of you who are wondering how Daltrey sounds after all these years, as far as I’m concerned his voice sounds better then it ever has. Of course that could be my own personal bias as I’ve never been one for the rock and roll vocal pyrotechnics he used to engage in during his younger years. However, on this recording his voice is a wonderful growl, full of expressive twists and turns which is perfect for the material. Listening to this disc you swear he was born to sing this music as he not only sounds great, he has the right attitude to express the sentiments behind the words. The tough kid from the streets who once sang “I hope I die before I get old” is still alive and well and giving the establishment a two finger salute.
The band accompanying the two front men are the perfect match to the music as well. They are the perfect combination of sounding like they could go off the rails at any moment while at the same time being incredibly tight. It helps that Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums) are Johnson’s regular rhythm section, but Mick Talbot on piano and Hammond organ and Steve Weston on harmonica are equally at ease with the music and the rest of the band. Weston especially is incredible. His harmonica playing is the perfect accompaniment to Daltrey’s voice, providing an amazing counterpoint to his growls without ever overwhelming him.
Of course, Johnson is Johnson. His guitar is the motor driving each and every song. Whether he’s chugging along in the background playing rhythm or delivering short choppy leads, his playing is a lesson in the old adage of less is more. He gets more out of what he does in a few seconds than most rock gods can get out of a 10-minute solo. There’s an intensity to his playing (and his stage presence) that few to this day can match. The 10 original songs he’s penned for this album match his playing style. At first listen they seem to be simplicity in themselves, but you gradually realize there’s a lot more to them they you first thought.
Going Back Home is a wonderful and imaginative collaboration from two men who’ve never lost their love for rock and roll. Even their choice of a cover, Bob Dylan’s “Won’t You Please Crawl Out Your Window”, from his Highway 61 Revisited album, is inspired. They’ve turned it into a wonderful, rollicking R&B song which fits the mood of the track perfectly. In some ways you can almost imagine Dylan recording it this way, as that could easily be Al Kooper on the organ or members of The Band providing the bass, drums, and guitar. However, just because the disc looks to the past occasionally, there’s no way you can call this an exercise in nostalgia. This album is a timely reminder of how the soul of rock and roll is still rebellion.