Rock legend Wilko Johnson comes to Cheltenham – the town ‘that saved his life’

One of the greatest guitarists and figures in British rock and roll, Wilko Johnson, comes to Cheltenham. And it’s a place that can be said to have helped keep it alive.

If not for the intervention of Cheltenham cancer specialist Charlie Chan, Wilko likely wouldn’t be alive today to play Town Hall later this month.

Wilko, who rose to fame as Dr. Feelgood’s incredibly kinetic (and slightly maniacal) guitarist in the 1970s, had been diagnosed with incurable pancreatic cancer in late 2012. He continued to work but expected to have about 10 to 12 months to live. .

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But Mr. Chan, a cancer surgeon and huge music fan, realized that Wilko had another form of cancer – a neuroendocrine tumor in the pancreas – which was treatable, and went to visit the musician at Southend to tell him.

Wilko said: “I had met Charlie at a festival this summer, and we talked about cancer and that was it. Then later that year he knocked on my door in Southend and advised me to go talk to the people at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where they found they could cure him. So Charlie saved my life a lot.

Mr. Chan realized that if Wilko had really had the cancer he was diagnosed with, he could not have continued to work as he did, so read it, examine it and persuade him to see another specialist.



How the Gloucestershire Echo reported Charlie Chan ‘rescued’ Wilko Johnson

Wilko said he had kept in touch with Mr Chan: “He came to see me not too long ago, and maybe I could meet him when I come to Cheltenham. It’s a big association with the town for me, Charlie being a Cheltonian – there are others, I played gigs there and was at the literature festival so I’m glad to be back.

Famous for his choppy, driving guitar style, Wilko is releasing a new album Blow Your Mind, his first new recorded material in years. He said: “The show will be a mix of new songs and old favourites. There are songs that people expect to hear when they come to see you. And I’ll play the same three chords that I’ve always played.



Wilko Johnson's new album cover
Wilko Johnson’s new album, Blow Your Mind

“There’s a snippet from the new album, Marijuana, which I wrote when I was expecting to die. I was sitting at home, the day was coming to an end and it was about trying to ease a troubled mind. I wasn’t writing it to record or perform, I just wrote it.

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“When we were in the studio, I just started playing, and the producer was like, ‘What is this?’ With the band playing on it, it sounded really good, not miserable at all, really upbeat.

Wilko Johnson and his band, backed by one of music’s great eccentrics John Otway, are in Cheltenham Town on Thursday 24th February. Book tickets for £34 on the Town Hall website.

One last thing

Just a note for music nerds. When this reporter told the story of Mr. Chan “curing” Wilko Johnson’s cancer in late 2013, I described Dr. Feelgood as a “new wave” band.

Many people have contacted us to say that this is not correct and that Dr Feelgood were really a ‘pub rock’ band, a British musical movement that predated the ‘new wave’ by about five years.

Here is Wilko Johnson’s final decision on the matter: “The term ‘pub rock’ describes a place, not really a type of music. We started playing pubs in 1973 and 74 and had a huge impact, especially on young men, who were forming bands themselves; including the Sex Pistols and the Clash. So we were sort of the originators of punk, but not really anything ‘new’. It’s just three chords, you can call it what you want.”

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Corina C. Butler