Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Dr Feelgood Made Me Feel Good


It is difficult to recollect now exactly the impact on my fragile little 16-year old mind when I first heard the manic roar of “I Can Tell”, the opening track of Malpractice, Dr Feelgood’s second album from October 1975. The song came blasting out of the speakers with a chugging percussive guitar riff and a venomous snarl of a voice warning his woman that he can tell she’s messing around with someone else, and that he’s not happy about it. It was perhaps the loudest sounding music I’d ever heard and it did my head in. I was unreservedly smitten. Dr Feelgood sounded good and made me feel good and turned my life around. It was perhaps the first time I was so fanatical about anything in my life, so single minded, so absolutely convinced that I’d experienced some kind of musical satori.

Up to that point I’d been exposed only to South African pop radio and the usual suspects of the mid-Seventies progressive and heavy rock scene such as Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Uriah Heep, Jethro Tull, David Bowie, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Grand Funk and others of that ilk, and of course the inevitable Beatles and Rolling Stones. I knew very little of the music and I was not hip enough, nor did I move with the hip crowd, to know what was thought of as cool and what was not. I owned very few records, mainly a couple of Neil Diamond records from the early Seventies (Gold and Taproot Manuscript), the Beatles’ “Red” 1982-1966 greatest hits collection, the soundtrack to the British rock’n’roll movie That’ll Be The Day, a few MFP cover versions albums and a half share in the Sound of Music soundtrack album that had been a combined birthday present to my sister and me.

I was not hip or cool and had no serious personal relationship with any music that I could call my own and only my own. Some of what I liked I liked mostly because it appeared to me that my peers liked that kind of stuff and that I ought to profess a similar adoration even if I had not actually heard some of the music, or failed to like it all, such as Uriah Heep and Jethro Tull. eephH

Then Dr Feelgood happened to me out of the blue and for the first time I could boast a band I had discovered, a band that I unreservedly liked and a band that made the kind of visceral music that moved my mind and body, much more than the likes of Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple had done to date.

One of the quaint, old-fashioned, light entertainment leftovers from bygone days on the fledgling Radio 5 of 1975 was a “Jukebox Jury” type of programme of Sundays. Five brand new tunes were presented to a panel of pop experts and they decided which tunes sounded like potential hits.

Some time in the latter part of that year a very weird little blues song called “Back In The Night” by a brand new British sensation called Dr Feelgood turned up as one of the five picks on the juke box jury show. At the time the playlist on Radio 45 was chock-a-block of what soon became known as dinosaur rock, and of light pop and incipient disco, which was to become the dominant format on Radio 5 in the near future. “Back In The Night” was a total shock to the system. It sounded like nothing else on that show (don’t even ask me what the other tunes were) and it sounded like nothing else on South African radio, or for that matter like nothing I’d ever heard before.

There was a sparse, insistent, ominous, slow shuffle rhythm, a shrill, razor sharp slide guitar riff and gruff vocals with a quite interesting and even funny lyric about a put upon working guy who likes nothing better than to get back to his baby at the end of his working day. This was almost space alien music to my ears.

Dr Feelgood was not completely unknown to me. Somewhere during the latter part of 1974 I’d started buying the American publication Hit Parader and in the first issue I ever bought there was first of all an article about the then hot New York punk scene that featured The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads and a number of other acts who never made it big. There was also a short one-page piece by the British journalist Charles Shaar Murray (of the New Musical Express and within two years to become one of my personal rock journalist heroes; simply known as CSM), which he used mostly to bitch about Led Zeppelin playing one lousy show at Earls Court in London.

Almost as an afterthought to this moan, Murray added a couple of paragraphs on a band called Dr Feelgood, the latest sensation of the London gig circuit. Though he raved about the band he still moaned about their brand new studio album that did not fully reflect their power as live act.

These few paragraphs had fascinated me at the time but I never thought I’d actually ever hear anything by Dr Feelgood, until I heard “Back In The Night” for the first time. I was prepared to love it simply for being by Dr Feelgood, the band name alone was great enough for me to love the band sight unseen. Yet “Back In The Night” sounded so weird and out of sync with the standard crap on the Radio 5 playlist that I did love it for its own sake too. The panel did not rate it highly and at the time I failed to see how the tune could possibly become a hit in South Africa. “Back In The Night” got a few airplays on Radio 5 – I guess I heard it two or three times – but did not make the charts and was dropped fairly quickly.

The album from which “Back In The Night” came, Malpractice, was released in October 1975. Within a month or two it made its way to Stellenbosch and to the shelves of the Sigma Record Bar where I regularly hung out on Friday afternoons, flipping through the rows of sleeves of LP’s I longed to own but could not afford due to lack of cash.

Hearing “Back In The Night” on the radio was stupendous. Seeing the Malpractice album sleeve was electrifying. I do not recall where the money came from but I bought the record either on the day I came across it at Sigma or maybe the next day. I checked that “Back In The Night” was on it, asked to listen to the tracks and got no further than the opening trio of “I Can Tell”, “Going Back Home” and “Rolling And Tumbling” before paying my money and taking the record home with me.

The whole experience was a shock to the system from “I Can Tell” on to the black and white cover photograph of four menacing blokes in funny thrift store clothes. Two of them glowered at the viewer with sullen menace and truculence, whilst the other two ignored us. On the back cover they were called John B Sparkes, Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson and the Big Figure. Perhaps not their real names.

They could well have met in a penitentiary. They certainly did not look like musicians. On the other hand, they definitely looked like the kind of people who would be the kind of guys who’d be playing the tough R & B rock on the vinyl inside the sleeve.

The music was tough, loud and exciting. I played the album to death and I failed to understand why Charles Shaar Murray had complained about the lack of vigour in the music, not knowing at the time that he had not been writing about Malpractice at all. Murray had been moaning about Down By The Jetty, the debut, but when I bought Malpractice I fondly believed that this was the first Dr Feelgood album. It was only in 1976 or thereabouts that I learnt that I had not bought the debut album but the second release.

I was only 16 when I bought Malpractice and not yet terribly clued up on rock music, particularly the differences between hip and unhip. Just the year before Bachman-Turner Overdrive had been the coolest band to namedrop at my school but when I got the Not Fragile album for Christmas 1974 and started boasting about it to my hip mates when school resumed in January 1975, they sneered at me for latching on to last year’s thing. Now, when I started telling those same hip mates about Dr Feelgood they stared at me as if I were insane and had simply invented a band wholesale.

It quickly dawned on me that they had not yet heard of Dr Feelgood, and that the Feelgoods had not registered on their slightly behind the times hip-0-meter, and that for the first time ever I had the secret knowledge of knowing of a cool, currently happening band that no-one else seemed to have heard of.

My school mates were still locked into the mindsets of the kind of person who liked Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, all of them soon to be the despised dinosaurs displaced by the burgeoning punk rock movement of which Dr Feelgood was regarded as being the godfathers.

With Dr Feelgood I had my “own” band at last, a band I had discovered without the imprimatur of the hip kids at school, a band that they did not even know of, a band whose music I actually really liked to almost excess. I played Malpractice so much (well, I did not have too many records anyway) that the grooves eventually kind of wore out. And never did I discus Dr Feelgood with those hip kids.

Dr Feelgood was my secret love, my secret passion. The music might not have been as sophisticated as that of Pink Floyd, and the musicians might not have been voted best at their particular instruments, but the music was visceral and touched me in my heart and my legs. When I listened to Dr Feelgood, I felt good.

The loud, punchy roar of “I Can Tell“ was so exhilarating that I almost started laughing from sheer nervous excitement each time I heard it and the best part of the whole deal was this: the album remained that exciting all the way through. Each song was as fine as that opening nuclear blast. It was from here on in that I realised that there was little to beat short, sharp adrenaline rushes of rock. Since that time I’ve always advocated the greatness of rough edged, basic rock’n’roll and if it is done right it will move you like nothing else will.

Late in 1976 Radio 5 started playing the live version of “Roxette” off the Stupidity album, a collection of live tracks recorded in Southend and Sheffield during 1975. “Roxette” was also pretty exciting, based around an insistent bass riff and Brilleaux’s dire warnings to his chick that she better not mess around on him in his absence.

“Roxette” came from the Feelgood’s debut Down By The Jetty album though I did not know it at the time. Stupidity was a mixture of tunes from the two previous studio albums plus some cover versions not on either album and was intended to showcase the band as a powerful live attraction. By then a fully confirmed Feelgood junkie, I went out and bought Stupidity, once again from Sigma Records, as soon as it came into the shop.

I loved Stupidity too although not quite as much as Malpractice (one can only fall madly in love once, I guess) and quite a few of the older tracks such as “She Does It Right” and “Twenty Yards Behind” quickly became firm favourites.

From early 1977 onwards and for the next five years I started buying the British rock weekly New Musical Express (as it then still was) on a regular basis. It arrived at the CNA every Wednesday and every Wednesday I was there to buy my copy. Problem was that in those days the British publications were sent by mail boat and the copy of the NME I bought each week was more or less always six weeks behind what was currently happening in Britain. The main event at the time was punk rock. In fact, the first NME I ever bought was the issue in 1976 that came out a day or two after the infamous Sex Pistols-Bill Grundy TV interview. The punks acknowledged, and the NME scribes (as they liked to refer to themselves) confirmed, that Dr Feelgood had been a major influence on the British punk rock scene, not so much for the R & B music they played but for the apparently truculent attitude and short sharp brutal way in which they attacked their songs on stage, in sharp contrast to the lengthy and tedious workouts indulged in by the big dinosaur bands such as Deep Purple or Pink Floyd.

The NME kept mentioning the Feelgoods in passing but there was little of note for a long time, no articles, no reviews, nothing. I had a brainwave and wrote to the editor and asked him whether the NME archives had a clippings service so that they could send me copies of whatever the NME had ever published concerning Dr Feelgood. At the time I had started a rock scrapbook and was cutting and pasting almost the entire contents of each week’s NME and in my youthful, naive enthusiasm I believed that NME would be only too happy to respond favourably to a fan in far-off South Africa. There was no response at all.

The first big Dr Feelgood news I read in the NME was also pretty shattering. It was the announcement that Wilko Johnson, guitarist and songwriter, had left the band as the result of an argument over the inclusion of a particular tune on the new album that would be the first studio recording since Malpractice. Like most people I thought that this ruction would be the end of Dr Feelgood because Wilko’s choppy rhythmic guitar playing and tuneful and wry songs were pretty important ingredients in the stew and had a great deal to do with why I liked the Feelgood’s music.

I was extremely bitter over the fact that as soon as I was now in a position to read all about the exploits of the Feelgoods because of my regular reading of NME, they went and split up and disappeared.

As it happened Dr Feelgood did not split up. Johnson went on to a low-key solo career and the other three regrouped and recruited a new guitarist. In the meantime Sneaking Suspicion. the new studio album, was released in May 1977. I read the NME review long before the album was available in Stellenbosch. CSM wrote the obituary, as it were, for the old Dr Feelgood, asking “Is there a doctor in the house?” Sneaking Suspicion contained some of Wilko’s best songs ever, and also some of the worst choices of cover versions ever with performances to match.

Of course I bought Sneaking Suspicion as soon as I saw it in the shop and took it home and after one listen more or less agreed with Charles Shaar Murray. Wilko’s tunes (and he sang a few of them) were as good as anything he’d written before and far superior to the other songs the band had selected. “Lucky Seven” was the tune that apparenlty led to the break up and I could not understand why since it was not a bad little song and was played with something of the expected Feelgood swagger.

CSM had complained about the Willy Dixon song “Because You’re Mine” but even this song and performance sounded pretty good to me. It was with songs like “Nothing Shaking” or “Mama Tell Your Daughter To Keep Her Big Mouth Shut” that I really felt a disappointment. The band was enervated and dull and Lee Brilleaux was simply shouting. In contrast Wilko’s weaker voice on “Paradise” and “Time And The Devil” sounded interested in the material and convinced of the merit. It was just about only on Wilko Johnson songs like “Sneaking Suspicion” and “Walking On the Edge” that Brilleaux was up to his Malpractice form.

With hindsight it is easy to work out that the problem in the Feelgood camp was that Wilko wrote too slowly for the punishing schedule of album releases the band was tied into, more or less two albums a year. Sneaking Suspicion would have been a much better record if it had come out a year after Stupidity and not merely seven months later.

Unlike the practice of the Eighties and after when record companies worked any release of a major artist to death to milk it as much as possible for all possible revenue, thereby allowing just about every big name a few years between releases, Dr Feelgood was tied into the kind of contract that had been prevalent since the Fifties where the assumption was that any artist of note should keep releasing new material to satisfy public demand and even big acts like the Beatles or Beach Boys were at the early stages of their careers putting out two long playing albums a year.

Such punishing pressure is bearable if a group has more than one songwriter or maybe a plain genius on board, but Dr Feelgood had only Wilko Johnson and apparently songwriting was not exactly the easiest thing in the world for him. The process was slow and painful. Sneaking Suspicion should have been held off until Wilko had ten or so songs to offer. But even if this was not possible, why did the band select the pretty crappy covers they did choose, such as the two worst offenders I mentioned above?

Not only were the cover songs on Sneaking Suspicion pretty gruesome but the band brought nothing exciting to the table at least to improve on weak songs with furious performances. It was as if the band was going through the motions because they knew they were dealing with crap tunes and were too embarrassed to do anything but to bash them out as quickly as possible to get on with the better things in life. It was a sad swansong for Wilko’s presence in the band.

The next bit of Feelgood news I read in the NME was that a new guitarist had been recruited, one John Mayo -- soon known as Gypie – who was a more traditional type of R & B guitarist than Wilko Johnson but who was nevertheless a good man in his own right and just the right guy for Dr Feelgood. Five months after the release of Sneaking Suspicion Dr Feelgood released the follow-up featuring Mayo, the soul tinged Be Seeing You, and it seemed as if a new lease on life had been cemented although the band now sounded very ordinary to me, quite unlike the exciting visceral sound of the earlier group.

This time around the edges had really been smoothed out and the Brilleaux growl had been tamed to a merely slightly raspy soul / R & B voice. The playing and singing were competent and the material was generally good but the big drawback was that the band no longer got me in the guts. I bought the album and liked it because it was Dr Feelgood but it was not as essential on my turntable as Malpractice or even Stupidity had been and the highlights of Sneaking Suspicion still beat Be Seeing You hollow. Dr Feelgood had once been unique and awesome now the band was merely workmanlike and no better and no worse than a dozen other R & B bands in the UK.

By then I’d bought a book called Rock On The Road by one Mick Gold, a series of essays on major bands of the time of publication (1975), such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Crosby Stills Nash & Young, and the Faces. The main reason I’d bought the book, though, was a essay on the then new hot young sensations Dr Feelgood. It was in this story I learnt for the first time that Malpractice had not been the debut album and that it was Down By The Jetty that Charles Shaar Murray had been bitching about in Hot Parader. I wanted that debut album badly, of course, but believed that I would never in my lifetime own it. It was already three years old and had probably never been released in South Africa at all. It felt like some kind of holy grail of rock.

By 1977 Sigma Records had gotten competition in the form of Adrian & Don’s Record Bar at the top of a set of stairs in the Trust Bank Centre and it became one more port of call on my rounds (CNA, Sigma) where I browsed a lot and every now bought something. One fine day I was flipping through a bunch of sleeves and came across Down By The Jetty, as imported by the record store at the then steep price of R8,48 (locally pressed records cost around R6,75 then). I thought I would have a heart attack and I almost thought that I was hallucinating. After hyperventilating a bit I carefully studied the sleeve and confirmed that I was indeed holding that long sought after Dr Feelgood debut album.

I had no money on me and had to rush home fervently praying that no-one else would come in to Adrian & Don’s during my absence and be equally surprised and excited to find this album and buy it before I could return. It was difficult to conceive that there would be any other Feelgood fan in Stellenbosch bug never knew. My heart was pounding and my throat was constricted when I returned but thankfully the album sleeve was still where I’d left it and I immediately took it out, took it to the counter and demanded to buy it.

Many of the songs on Down By The Jetty were familiar from live versions on Stupidity but here they were somehow more exciting precisely because of the somewhat tinny sound of the production. The tunes were great, lots of Wilko Johnson songs, and even Johnson vocals, and sharp playing with plenty of that choppy insistent rhythm playing that made the Dr Feelgood sound unique. I loved the album though, once again, not as much as I had loved Malpractice since by then I had a much larger record collection than at the time I’d bought Malpractice and my great fanatical enthusiasm for the band had waned a bit.

Nonetheless those first four albums with Wilko Johnson on board are absolutely the epitome (well, okay only about half of Sneaking Suspicion counts) of what great, simple, rough, tough R & B should sound like and are still some of my favourite music of all time. If somewhere in the mid-Eighties I’d been put to make a choice of albums for my Desert Island Discs selection, my choice would have been Malpractice, Cream’s Cream Live, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels, Get Happy, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde.

In the Feelgood camp matters were apparently going well after Mayo joined. The band was still a strong live draw and the future looked promising. In early 1878 Dr Feelgood released a more considered album, by now having fully integrated Mayo into the band, as guitarist and songwriter, and in a way the title Private Practice was a knowing sly nod to the glory days of Malpractice. Dr Feelgood even had a US hit single (“Milk and Alcohol”) off the LP. Of course I immediately bought Private Practice when it appeared in the local record shops and I must say that I was bitterly disappointed.

I’d already read a glowing review in NME and it seemed that the band, and Mayo in particular, were moving away from strict R & B to a more middle of the road and ambitious rock sound with plenty of guitar overdubs and the like. There was even a somewhat fanciful comparison with late period Jimi Hendrix. Anyhow, the NME placed its stamp of approval on the new album and declared that Dr Feelgood was now well placed to regain its former popularity.

What I heard was a bunch of pedestrian songs tarted up with glossy production values and the most annoying jerky riff guitar sound I’d ever heard. The persona adopted by Brilleaux was now a sleazy Canvey wide boy, which was amusing at first hearing but soon grew tired and it was only in the cover of a song like “Things Get Better” (I already knew and loved Eddie Floyd’s original version) that I enjoyed the album because Brilleaux actually sang with feeing and Mayo’s patented jerky riffing was absent.

I’d probably listened to Be Seeing You far more than I listened to Private Practice. Though I was happy for the band and did not begrudge them their commercial success, I realised that my love affair with Dr Feelgood had come to an end. Private Practice was the last Feelgoods album I bought new on release. The next (and last) two albums I bought came form bargain bins.

Private Practice was followed by the live album As It Happens (June 1979), and I would probably have bought it if it had been released in South Africa at the time. I read a review of As It Happens in the NME and started looking out for it but never came across it at the time. It was only years later, in the latter part of the Eighties, that I saw As It Happens in a record shop somewhere but it was full price, featured tunes from Be Seeing You and Private Practice that I did not really see the need to own in live versions, and, most importantly, I was no longer much interested in acquiring Dr Feelgood albums and so I passed it by.

The next two Feelgood studio albums were, respectively, Let It Roll (September 1979) and A Case Of The Shakes (September 1980) and in each case I bought them at record sales, at least partly because I never came across them as brand new releases. By 1980 Dr Feelgood, if they were ever regarded as significant in South Africa, were no longer a serious commercial contender in this market and must have been of no more than a rather small minority interest.

Let It Roll was also a great disappointment, the kind of album where I was actually glad I’d not spent a new album’s price on it. The band had gone on to a kind of mainstream bluesrock and once again had the misfortune of assembling a cast of songs that were only half an album’s worth of solid material. Overall the playing was competent yet stolid and at times just about perfunctory enough to make one think that Let It Roll was a contractual obligation album. There were not enough good tunes to make me play the album often enough to allow me the chance to find whatever hidden charms there may have been.

This Dr Feelgood was but a mere pathetic shadow of its Wilko Johnson era incarnation. Dr Feelgood once had a unique sound, mostly thanks to Wilko’s particular style of playing, and by 1979 they sounded just like any of a hundred blues based bands around and not even very interesting or innovative either.

A Case Of The Shakes, from the New Wave sleeve on down, was an attempt to bring Dr Feelgood in line with the current music scene, the skinny-ties-and-suits image that served as the New Wave blueprint for any number of American bands with pretensions at modernity, and Dr Feelgood made a valiant attempt to modernise the sound of their R & B as well and to write poppy songs that were still squarely based on their roots. The band was tight again, the tunes were mostly very good – whether from the band or from the songwriters roped in to flesh out the repertoire – and my overall impression was that though this was not the Dr Feelgood I loved, it was still a decent enough album to have around.

The pity of it, and the terrible irony, was that I had bought a local vinyl pressing and in those days it was trite that local pressings of LP’s were uniformly bad and that the vinyl quickly developed surface snaps, crackles and pops that made the listening experience unpleasant. This was the case with A Case Of The Shakes.

Much as I liked the tunes, the LP surface deteriorated so quickly that it deterred me from listening to the album all that often. The surface was so bad that I did not even get a chance to tape the album, as was my custom with every album I bought, to listen to only on tape and I filed the vinyl away and basically wrote off Dr Feelgood.

At the end of 1981 I stopped buying the NME on a regular basis and thereafter had no more news of the band, though I should point out that by that time the Feelgoods were no longer considered to be too newsworthy anyway.

About the only snippet I did glean during the Eighties was that Gypie Mayo had left the band around 1981 or 1982 and had been replaced by a gent calling himself Johnny Guitar. Somehow this was a very sad reflection on the state of affairs in the Feelgood camp.

The next, though very sad, news came in 1994 when various rock magazines reported the death by cancer of Lee Brilleaux on 7 April, just three days after Kurt Cobain killed himself (and just two days after my own birthday). The obituaries praised Brilleaux for being a gentleman and a dogged purveyor of the music he loved and for being a bit of a pioneer in the late Seventies of what became the punk rock scene.

What surprised me most was that Dr Feelgood had still been in existence as a going concern during all those years since I’d bought A Case Of The Shakes.

In the early years of the twenty first century I bought a book on the career of the band up to about 1997, and learnt for the first time that The Big Figure and John B Sparkes had left the band not long after Mayo, that Lee Brilleaux had soldiered on with a number of different line-ups, touring and releasing records, and that even after Brilleaux’s death the manager Chris Fenwick had carried on with the band which now contained none of the original founding members. This might have made excellent commercial sense for Fenwick who no doubt realised the strength and commercial viability of the brand, but to me it was almost sacrilege.

In essence the “real” Dr Feelgood was the band that had recorded the quartet of albums from Down By The Jetty to Sneaking Suspicion. Dr Feelgood without Wilko Johnson was a pale imitation, but Dr Feelgood without Lee Brilleaux was a travesty.

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