“This is the announcement we never wanted to make, & we do so with a very heavy heart: Wilko Johnson has died,” Johnson’s Twitter announced Tuesday. “He passed away at home on Monday 21st November. Thank you for respecting the family’s privacy at this very sad time. RIP Wilko Johnson.”
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A cause of death was not provided. A decade ago, Johnson announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer and even released what he believed was his farewell album, 2014’s Going Back Home. However, following surgery that removed a massive tumor from his body, Johnson declared he was cancer-free and remained musically active until his death.
Johnson was a founding member and lead guitarist of Dr. Feelgood, who made their mark performing R&B covers on the British pub scene before releasing their debut album Down By the Jetty in 1975. Over the next two years, Dr. Feelgood would release three more studio albums and their acclaimed 1976 live LP Stupidity before Johnson left the group in 1977 to launch his own Wilko Johnson Band.
Known for his unconventional finger-picking style and his onstage posture and attitude, Johnson served as inspiration for the punk guitarists who soon emerged in the wake of Dr. Feelgood. “Wilko Johnson was a precursor of punk,” Billy Bragg tweeted Wednesday. “His guitar playing was angry and angular, but his presence – twitchy, confrontational, out of control – was something we’d never beheld before in UK pop. Rotten, Strummer and Weller learned a lot from his edgy demeanor. He does it right RIP.”
For Going Back Home, Johnson collaborated with the Who’s Roger Daltrey, with the duo rerecording Dr. Feelgood tracks together. “More than anything Wilko wanted to be a poet,” Daltrey wrote Wednesday on Facebook. “I was lucky to have known him and have him as a friend. His music lives on but there’s no escaping the final curtain this time. So it’s goodnight to Mad Carew, the uncompromising Bard of Canvey.”
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page paid tribute to Johnson Wednesday, “I saw Wilko perform at Koko in Camden in May 2013 and the atmosphere was electric. This show was originally billed as his farewell tour (followed by his album Going Back Home with Roger Daltry) but, thankfully, he continued performing and thrilling crowds until recently. I really admired him and we’ll all miss him.”
Outside of music, Johnson had a small but memorable role on the hit HBO series Game of Thrones, portraying the masked and mute executioner Ser Ilyn Payne during the show’s first two seasons; it is Johnson’s character who infamously beheads Ned Stark in Season 1.
“I frequently remind people how Dr Feelgood was an influence on the early New York and CBGBs music scene,” Blondie’s Chris Stein tweeted Wednesday. “Great guitarist and performer.”
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