Friday, July 08, 2011

Oil City Confidential

I do not know whether I can ever fully describe the visceral impact the first hearing of the sparse, relentless shuffle and slightly off-kilter slide guitar riff of "Back In The Night" made on me when it was played for the very first time on South African radio in 1975 as a featured tune in a "juke box jury" type of program on Radio 5, which was then in the grip of a stifling disco format. This was otherworldly music; music from a distant universe where things look like similar products we have on Earth but are consummately strange and weird and unfathomable.


I knew nothing about Dr Feelgood but I immediately knew that I loved their music. Malpractice was amongst the first 10 LPs I ever owned and, along with Cream's Cream Live, one of the most played.


In late 1977 I wrote what, in hindsight, was perhaps a naively optimistic letter to the editor of the NME to request copies of all their clippings on Dr Feelgood. Wilko Johnson has just recently left the band. The review of Sneakin' Suspicion and the news item about the break up were the first and almost only rock press items I had been able to read about the band. Before that, there had been a mention in a Charles Shaar Murray piece in Hit Parader and a chapter in Mick Gold's book Rock on the Road, both of which covered the band up to the release of Down by the Jetty in 1974.


Dr Feelgood was my top favourite contemporary group at the time, one of my first independent discoveries of music I liked, and no else I knew had ever heard of, but I knew very little about them, apart from the basic history from supporting Heinz to spearheading the pub rock movement to being a bit of an influence on the punk bands that became prominent after 1976. I was desperate for information and I really wanted to be able to read the story as it unfolded, hence the request to the NME, which I was then buying every week. The NME kept me up to date on the London punk scene but I wanted to know stuff about Dr Feelgood.


NME never replied to my letter. At the time my first guess was simply that the editor or his minions were for political reasons not prepared to reply from an obvious Afrikaner from the pariah apartheid state of South Africa but by and by I also believed that the NME just could not be bothered. Or perhaps that they did not have a clipping service. Anyhow, it took about 25 years before I laid my hands on a proper biography of the band, albeit a very basic telling of the tale from the Wilko Johnson days toe the late Nineties when the band was still going, run by Chris Fenwick, without any of the four original band members in it.

Then circa 2006 or 2007 I came across a DVD and CD double pack of a Feelgoods show in South End. For the first time ever I could see the band in full-on, raging Canvey Island R & B mode at the height of tis first flush of success.

Now I could see the menacing posture of Lee Brilleaux in his white suit, stalking the front of the stage and barking out the lyrics to songs I already knew well but could now experience visually and Wilko Johnson patrolling the side of the stage with his chopping left hand, psychotic stare and darting runs all over the front of the stage. It was a riveting spectacle and I was sorely disappointed that I never had the opportunity to see De Feelgood in their heyday and would never have the opportunity to experience them now, even if the three surviving members of the original line up ever get back together, which appears to be unlikely.

I was very delighted to read about Julien Temple's documentary about Dr Feelgood in the shape of Oil City Confidential and I immediately contacted my brother in law in the UK to see if he could order it for me but it took about a year before I finally laid my sweaty paws on it during a UK visit in April 2011 when he gave it to me as my birthday present.

It seems to me that Julien Temple likes making movies about music. There was The Great Rock 'n Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols, and Absolute Beginners, based on a Colin MacInnes book about beatnik London, and the documentary about Glastonbury, which I also own, and a number of others. His style is deadpan. He films what he considers to be interesting and let the subjects speak, without intruding much into the scene. It is almost a simple technique of pointing and shooting, with, I guess, the hard work left the people who do the editing and make a movie out of the raw footage.

Oil City Confidential mixes newsreel footage, contemporary footage and still photographs of Dr Feelgood performing live and interview footage with the band members and various hangers on. Most of the interviewees, particularly the band members, must be north of 60 by now and their interviews were obviously shot especially for this documentary. Lee Brilleaux, on the other hand is seen in two different interviews, one fairly early in the Feelgoods' career and the other one some years later, though we are not told when. Brilleaux's views are presented almost as contemporary as that of Wilko, Sparko or Big Figure but where he still looks young (yet strangely like a middle aged raconteur) the other three look like a bunch of retired lorry drivers. Not much rock 'n roll image there, but then, that was probably the anti-image that Dr Feelgood always had.

The guys share some anecdotes, some stories, about themselves and about each other. There is a slightly sad walking tour of Canvey Island, hosted Chris Fenwick, the "Fifth Feelgood" and long-time manager, who managed to hang on to the Dr Feelgood brand long after the four original members had left or, in Brilleaux's case, died and to a degree flogging a bit of a dead horse. When I read about the "new" Dr Feelgood still playing gigs, it sounded like a case of Dr Feelgood being a tribute band to itself. For my money Dr Feelgood means the original four, and perhaps John Mayo as well, but nothing beyond. At the very least Dr Feelgood meant Lee Brilleaux's voice. How could Fenwick have dared to keep the band going after Lee's death, if it were not simply for the sake of making money without proper regard for the meaning and legacy of the band? This is what I feel about him guiding an odd assortment of gawkers around Canvey. It is a pretty sad tour, pathetic really, and if Fenwick charges a fee for this empty exercise in nostalgia, he probably really needs the money.

Although Wilko, Sparko and Big Figure do meet up in a pub for a brief scene or two we never see them with Fenwick. The absence of a reunion with their manager, who was a Canvey mate from way back, could possibly be ascribed to their distaste for his commercial exploitation of their band name long after the sell by date. And perhaps also because, as has been the case with rock managers ever since the dawn of time, Fenwick has screwed them out of money. Wilko Johnson certainly makes some allusions to the usual record company double dealings that leave an apparently successful group penniless once all the accounting has been done.

The Feelgood story is more or less the typical rags to riches rock 'n roll story of a bunch of mates who make music together, first on a local level, then go to the big smoke, get lucky by tapping in on a new mode of presenting rock in pubs and then gaining a mass audience through live performances and then even having a number one album in the charts. Unfortunately the master plan went slightly askew after that. The songwriter and co-frontman leaves, the band soldiers on to early, second act success but then slowly and surely slipping down the ladder, always managing to draw appreciative audiences but having only moderate record sales and then one by one the founding members leave until only the singer is left en by and by he dies, though the manager keeps the band intact and functioning with none of the founding members.

My interest in the Feelgoods ended in the early Eighties, not long after Private Practice. It is unfortunate though that Julien Temple's interest in the band also ceases after Wilko Johnson's departure. Given that the band had a far longer history post Wilko than with him, it is disappointing that Temple does not cover the entire career if at least only to the degree of giving an abbreviated account of the next 20 years. There is mention of John "Gypie" Mayo replacing Wilko Johnson and the brief flare of second act success with the Private Practice album and "Milk & Alcohol" single, and a quick narration of Lee Brilleaux's last days and last gig. He died in 1994. We also learn that Wilko has had a quite successful solo career outside the band but that is about it. There is no indication of whether Sparko and Figure are still at all involved in music.

Dr Feelgood was never the biggest rock and roll band in the world and I would imagine only a select few in South Africa ever heard of them or bought their records. I have never come across another Feelgoods fan. The band was not even the biggest band in the UK although their influence stretched beyond pub rock and sweaty R & B. the best description would probably be that Dr Feelgood was a jobbing band, with a genius guitarist en songwriter and a mesmerising singer, who worked hard to earn a living and managed to build a fan base and who got lucky enough to have chart albums and singles during the early phase of a long career, that were strong enough to sustain that career well beyond the normal life expectancy of the average R & B band.

To me, however, Dr Feelgood represents something materially significant. Dr Feelgood was the first contemporary band I discovered on my own, with no peer pressure to influence me, and embraced passionately and wholeheartedly. The first 3 albums, Malpractice in particular, were a major part of the soundtrack of my late teenage life. I played Malpractice until the grooves wore out, so to speak. To this day the opening notes of opening track "I Can Tell" are still intensely exciting.

I was not exactly fanatical about Dr Feelgood. My room was not full of Feelgood memorabilia and I did not dedicate scrapbooks to them. Not that there was much about Dr Feelgood to be found in Stellenbosch, hence my letter to the NME. I did play the records a lot and did study the album sleeves and did ponder Wilko Johnson's lyrics. In fact, when I thought of being a songwriter, I wanted to be a modern R & B songwriter in the vein of Johnson who took blues themes and adapted them to his background and environment to make them relevant to a different time and place. In Wilko's worldview the concept of the Canvey delta was not that far removed from the Mississippi delta and was every bit as real. I would also have liked to play guitar like Wilko but that somehow never happened.

The major spin off from my interest in Dr Feelgood, as was the case with my interest in Cream, was that I started buying albums by the genuine article, the old school blues guys emulated by the Canvey boys. I was fond of Dr Feelgood's version of John Lee Hooker's "Boom, Boom" but Hooker's version was just bad and dangerous.

I am glad I own Oil City Confidential. The story of Dr Feelgood was no longer an unknown tale by the time I saw the documentary but there are some new spins and it is good to have more information on their formative days and to see the band in full cry in its heyday and to hear them talk. Wilko looks like a nut job and except for the difference in hairstyles, from pudding bowl cut to crazy baldhead, he looks and acts as weird the images from the late Seventies suggest he used to be. Wilko still plays killer guitar.

Where Lee Brilleaux represented the distinctive vocal sound of Dr Feelgood, Wilko Johnson's choppy guitar style gave the band its unique sound. The thing is that the absence of either would have reduced the band to something like the pedestrian collection of R & B journeymen it eventually became. Having said, I feel, if Brilleaux had left before Wilko, that another vocalist may have been able to do the same amount of justice to the Feelgood songbook, although probably not with the same presence as Lee Brilleaux, but no guitarist could remotely replace Wilko Johnson. John Mayo did not even try and I would imagine that none of his successors (on albums I have never heard) would have dared either, or be capable of imitating the signature Feelgood guitar sound.

This sounds as if I do not rate Sparko and Figure's contributions very highly but my point is merely that, even taking into account their individual skills and Sparko's apparently own unique style of bass playing, it was the frontline that distinguished Dr Feelgood from the competition.

This is why the idea of Chris Fenwick continuing to operate a Dr Feelgood band that does not sound like Dr Feelgood is such a travesty.

I have heard that nowadays Southend is the Essex answer to Las Vegas or Times Square and not worth visiting unless you like crowds of low rent party animals, Essex boys and girls, Eastenders, and the like, and miles of garish neon. Canvey Island does not look any more promising. It may once have been something of a favourite beach destination for the East End, but in Oil City Confidential it looks less like the Mississippi delta than ever before and more like the kind of place where unemployed and unemployable dregs of society have washed up and have stuck because there is no lower step on the food chain, with the giant oil tanks looming over everything. It is a masterstroke of the documentary that Temple is able to project moving images on these tanks to serve as background for some night time interviews. Anyhow, although I would like to visit Canvey someday, I am not sure that it would make any sense anymore. At best I would be able to boast I had been there. It would be like visiting Hertford simply because Deep Purple kind of originated there. I definitely would not do the Fenwick guided walking tour.

So: although I doubt that I will ever have the pleasure of attending a Wilko Johnson gig or the dubious honour of visiting Canvey, these are at least possibilities. I will never attend a Dr Feelgood gig and will have to be satisfied with the archive material in the 2 DVDs I own and my collection of CDS of the first 4 albums. For the sake of it I may still yet buy Be Seeing You, Private Practice or A Case of the Shakes, mostly because I used to own the LPs, but the "classic" quartet would be all I really need and if push comes to shove I would be satisfied with only Down by the Jetty and Malpractice. These two records represent the core of the Dr Feelgood I got to know and came to love.





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