Wilko Johnson/Roger Daltrey – Going Back Home
I’ll say one thing for this album: it does exactly what it says on the tin. It sounds exactly like you would expect a collaboration between Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey to sound. Even the album title and cover art let us know what we’re getting ourselves in for – that being a trip down memory lane with two veteran musicians.
The cover photos show both men in their younger years, but rather tellingly, the two are never pictured together. Although they are only four years apart in age, they were never truly contemporaries. Daltrey, of course, first made it big in 1965, as the lead singer of The Who – a band then renowned for a punchy sound they called “Maximum R&B”. As the years progressed, like many bands of their era, The Who turned their back on their roots to embrace concept albums and rock operas. So by 1975, the whole music scene was mired in prog and glam, leaving little in the way of straightforward Rhythm ‘n’ Blues. Dr. Feelgood, the band with which Wilko Johnson was guitarist and songwriter, deftly filled this gap in the market. The Feelgoods’ music provided a shot in the arm for the music scene, and were a huge influence on the nascent punk sound.
In the 1970s, any collaboration between Daltrey and Johnson would have been unthinkable, at least by the music literati. The two seemed like polar opposites: one established and bloated, one young and hungry. After the vast changes in the musical scene in recent decades, the differences between the two seem less dramatic. Perhaps the two men shook hands, with one saying: “We’re not so different, you and I.”
The album is mostly made up of songs from the Wilko Johnson songbook, and serves as a bittersweet retrospective of a man who won’t be writing music for much longer. Johnson has terminal cancer and has only a short while to live. Despite his illness, he clearly hasn’t lost any of his musical faculties. His fast and forceful guitar work is as distinctive as ever. It’s a shame that Daltrey’s vocals don’t really do the songs justice, as age seems to have wearied his vocal chords. There’s a “I hope I die before I get old” joke in there somewhere, but in context it wouldn’t be fitting. Another problem is that Daltrey, like many white blues singers, feels the need to imitate the vocal style of black bluesmen. This is always rather inappropriate, even when covering the songs of black artists, but when singing the songs of fellow white guy Wilko, it seems doubly out of place. At least he doesn’t try to imitate the snarling vocals of Lee Brilleaux, of Dr. Feelgood’s original lead singer.
The choice of songs is generally quite strong. The classic “All Through the City” and the underrated “Keep It Out of Sight” are the only two songs taken from the Feelgoods’ debut album Down by the Jetty, which is somewhat surprising, as it’s the band’s finest work. The sole non-Wilko song, Bob Dylan’s mid-sixties single “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” might seem superfluous, but actually features Daltrey’s best vocal performance.
Overall, there’s something actually quite endearing about this album. It’s simply two men with a mutual respect for each other’s work and a love of old-school R&B, doing what they love. This lack of pretension is very refreshing, especially in this day and age. It could easily be dismissed as “Dad Rock”, but it is in fact closer to “Granddad Rock”, which might mean it’s enough of a vintage to be cool. It will bring Wilko Johnson some late in life recognition, and his family a little cash, so it would be wrong to be too critical of it.
If you don’t like what it says on the tin, you don’t have to buy it.