Saturday, January 07, 2017

Dr Feelgood Revisited

I now own or have owned the first four Dr Feelgood albums (Down by the Jetty (1975), Malpractice (1975), Stupidity (1976) and Sneakin‘ Suspicion (1977)) on record CD and digital download. The only other acts that come to mind where I’ve done the same is J Geils Band’s Live: Full House and The Dictators’ Go Girl Crazy! I suppose that emphasises how much I love these acts or specifically these records.
The digital versions of the Feelgood’s albums are from the box set All Through The City (2012) that I bought from iTunes in mid-October 2014.

Dr Feelgood was my first contemporary discovery of a rock band, or R & B band to be more precise, that none of my peer group seemed to have heard of and that remained my secret pleasure. The two major albums of my late teens were Malpractice and a live double album called Cream’s Cream Live.  I practically wore out the vinyl of both albums because I played them so much.

As was the case for many people Dr Feelgood was never the same after Wilko Johnson left. The guitar sound was different; the songs were never as good again and somehow Lee Brilleaux’s voice deteriorated from the point where he was still singing although sometimes growling with it to the point he was just barking out lyrics and shouting rather than singing. One after the other the founding members, except for Brilleaux, left the band, and after his death the manager (and fifth Feelgood) Chris Fenwick, kept the band going as a brand, playing the old hits with musicians who might have been in the band while Brilleaux was leading it but had no other connection to the glory days of the mid to late Seventies.

Wilko Johnson maintained his career, playing a mix of new songs, his old Feelgoods’ material and cover versions, and becoming something of a living legend in the process.

The Julien Temple documentary Oil City Confidential tells the story of the band from inception to Wilko’s departure which is interesting enough but obviously only part one of the Feelgoods’ story. There is a coffee table book sized biography that covers the band throughout its history up to the date of publication, glossing over the later years when the band became just a jobbing R & B band on the classic rock circuit, of sorts, retreading the old hits night after night.

In this respect Dr Feelgood became no better than many other similar acts plying their trade up and down the motorways of the UK, still performing in pubs. The brand of Dr Feelgood simply has the good fortune to have a name that enables the management to book the band into better venues and to attract die-hard fans and the curious who know the name and wish to relive the glory of yore.

During 2012 Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with inoperable cancer and was expected not to live very long yet he has survived long enough to record an album with Roger Daltrey, again performing a mix of the old classic Feelgoods’ era songs and new material, and even gigging with Daltrey.

I stopped buying Dr Feelgood albums after the New Wavish R & B of A Case of the Shakes, which is quite a good little record, and lost sight of the band because it no longer merited the media coverage NME for example gave them in the Seventies.  The band recorded and released several live albums and there are a couple of live concerts on YouTube. I watched a bit of one the other day, and a bit of the Wilko Johnson Roger Daltrey gig, and was less than impressed.

I’ve recently watched parts of a couple of different YouTube videos of Dr Feelgood performances over the years. The 1975 show at the Kursaal in South End is available too, but because I own the DVD and have watched it often enough, I concentrated on the unknown material.

The first video set, chronologically, is from a mid-Seventies television show called The Geordie Scene on Tyne Tees Television, broadcast in 1975, and is a truncated version of the Kursaal set. The band is on fire and Wilko and Lee form the perfect pair of front men while Sparko and Big Figure lay down the rhythm. Riveting stuff.

The second video is of a show from 1990 by which time only Lee Brilleaux was left of the original quartet. The gig opens with Larry Wallis’s “The Price is Right,” recorded by the John "Gypie" Mayo incarnation of the band, shortly after Wilko left, in a sexy, slinky, grooving version full of subdued menace. In this live rendition, the band just stomps and Brilleaux shouts. It is a mighty R & B noise without delicacy or finesse and it took close listening before I could even make out what the song was. It was not very entertaining and after listening to a few minutes of the next number I gave up.

In contrast, I watched part of the 2014 show with Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey, where Wilko opens the proceedings with a couple of numbers with his trio.  This performance seems to have been captured by a single static camera, possibly an iPhone, from the audience. Wilko plays in his usual three-piece band format and performs a couple of numbers solo before Daltrey arrives on stage. He seems his usual nervy onstage self, plays his patented riffs and licks and sings in a voice that is still a tad colourless and thin but far better than in his Feelgoods day. However, again, nothing here was interesting or engaging enough to keep me watching for longer than three songs.

In each case one just feels that the act is going through the motions of a professional musician who has played more gigs than some people have had hot meals.  The days of innovation and exciting new material are long behind them and by now they simply purvey the well-loved classics the audience wants to hear, night after night, gig after gig. It is by no means fresh and it doesn’t even sound fresh.

A bit later I came across a third live show recorded in West Berlin (as it then was) in 1980 and broadcast as an instalment in the Western German television series RockPalast that featured the best of US, British and German rock talent over the years. At this 1980 Dr Feelgood are obviously promoting the two most recent albums: the current release A Case of the Shakes and Let It Roll from the previous year.
 This incarnation of Dr Feelgood looks and sounds radically different from the band on the Kursaal show. First off, the sound is incredibly clear and the instruments are almost clinically separated and the band has a post punk sound of trebly, tinny, brittle guitar set against the loping bass and thumping drums, instead of the more monolithic mono roar of the Wilko years. It is disconcerting and the thinness of the sound removes any power from the performance, which just sounds flat. John “Gypie” Mayo, for he is the guitarist, not only does not sound like Wilko Johnson but he also does not move like him and this lack of energy, combined with Lee Brilleaux’s almost wooden stage presence truly reduces Dr Feelgood to coming across as just a hokey pub band on a big stage.  

Brilleaux is just shouting; Mayo throws some rock guitarist shapes and plays his scratchy straightforward rhythm style and economical leads; Sparko anchors everything on bass and Big Figure keeps it simple. It is all very professional and therefore dull. The repertoire is mostly made up of tunes from A Case of the Shakes, some tracks from Let it Roll, a couple of tunes from Private Practice and “Back In The Night” and the encores of “Riot in Cellblock Number 9” and “Roxette” from the Wilko Johnson era.  Lee Brilleaux plays slide guitar on “Riding on the L & N” and “Back In The Night” and this simple addition to the instrumental line-up immediately improves the sound and dynamics of the performance.

When I was a teen I truly and utterly regretted that I would never be able to see Dr Feelgood play live, partly because I discovered them a year or two after they conquered the London pub circuit and partly because there was no way I would get to the UK then and no way they would be touring South Africa. (Dr Feelgood would not even have toured here after 1990 or 1994 because they did not have a fan base here except for me.)  I certainly would never have wanted to see the band in its late period. The Gypie Mayo band was about the last incarnation I had experience of and would have gone to see.  Who wants to go see a bunch of old guys, and by now not even the founder members, going through the motions.

Just as there never was and never will be a reunion of the Beatles after the split there never was and never will be a reunion of the original Dr Feelgood line up. Was it because of the integrity of the various parties who did not care to revisit glory days, was it a case of a divide so deep and vast that it could no longer be crossed or was the money never right?  I would imagine the original four would have cleaned up on the nostalgia circuit, while Lee Brilleaux was still alive, if they could see their way clear to be on the same stage at the same time for a few weeks at a time.

For now, I have All Through The City (1974 – 1977), which gathers together the first four albums plus some extras in one neat, premastered digital package. That opening chord to “I Can Tell,” the first cut on Malpractice, is still thrilling beyond belief. Of course, these tunes are over familiar and the excitement to hear them is not the same as when I was a kid. No matter, there are not many albums in my collection that I can still listen to with unabated pleasure after such a long time in my life.   

I bought Stupidity, the number 1 live album, before I got Down by the Jetty, the debut, and knew the best songs from the debut in their live versions but, truth be told, there was not much difference between the studio performances and the live performances except perhaps for the obvious difference in energy levels. The other odd thing, for me, was the inclusion of so many old-school R & B standards, which truly made the Feelgoods sound like a pub band. The record company or the band probably did not want the live album to be simply a retread of the first two albums I guess, unlike Live Full House, which was also a live set released after two studio albums, but given the strength of Wilko’s songs I cannot see why more of them could not have included and fewer cover versions. I’ve always thought that tacking the live version of “Bonie Maronie” onto the end of Down by the Jetty was a mistake that ended the excellent debut album on a bum note even if it were intended to demonstrate the Feelgoods’ electricity on stage.

I read the NME review of Sneakin’ Suspicion long before I could buy the record in Stellenbosch. Wilko had already left the band by die time the album was released. The reviewer complimented Wilko’s songs, questioned the wisdom of including some of the cover version and expressed bafflement as to why “Lucky Seven” cold have cause the fatal rift when it was not in truth a bad little number and by no means the worst song on the album. Apparently, Wilko could not write fast enough and record company pressure dictated a quick follow-up to Stupidity. In a different time and perhaps in the case of a different kind of music, everyone would have waited a year or two, if that was what it took to get the songs together, before putting out another record, especially as it would be the big studio album following on a chart topper, the album that should have cemented the commercial success. As it was, the record deal probably required an album a year without fail and the record company was not prepared to relax this imperative.

The thing with Sneakin’ Suspicion is that Wilko’s songs, most of which he sings, stand out like sore thumbs amongst the relative mediocrity of the cover versions. Wilko had been trying to meld together his Canvey Island British sensibility to age-old blues tropes to produce a new R & B vernacular and his songs do sound like standards.  Even if the band had to wait a year an album consisting only of Wilko Johnson tunes would have been a stone killer, rather than the somewhat dubious quality of Sneakin Suspicion.

There is a CD of extras in the box set with the usual array of previously unreleased demos, studio outtakes and live recordings that one associates with this kind of package, such as the song “Dr Feelgood,” a demo of “Time and the Devil” with a blues harp part instead of the slide guitar counterpoint of the released version. There are two demo versions of “Everybody’s Carrying a Gun” which saw the official light of day on the Solid Senders (1978) album, Wilko’s first release as solo act after leaving the Feelgood camp. Lee Brilleaux sings both these demos. The first version is shorter and tighter than the second take, which turns into an extended studio jam; neither have the taut, edgy, almost ska, rhythm part of Wilko’s official version.

One wonders why “Everybody’s Carrying A Gun,” could not have been included on Sneakin’ Suspicion in place of one of the covers; its inclusion would have improved the album immeasurably.

There are also two studio versions of “I’m A Hog for You, Baby.,” and tough versions of “Talking About You,” “Route 66” and “Stupidity,” all of them songs I’ve previously known only as live cuts from the Stupidity album. They show that the band pretty much replicated the studio recordings note for note on stage.

The demo or outtake of “Sneakin’ Suspicion” is almost a sketch of the album title track, with a somewhat different slide guitar par too although the rhythm track seems perfectly formed and the mix giving the song a distant feel rather than the in-yer-face insouciance of the official release.  Although the rhythm is meant to be deliberate and relentless, this tune is too skeletal.

“Malamut,” “Coming Home Baby” and “Small Gains Corner” are instrumentals or perhaps backing tracks for lyrics that were never written.  The first comes across as a bit of a patchwork of Wilko riffs; the second has a good, engaging tune; and the third one is almost experimental R & B funk with a strong harp part that sounds like a melodica, for exotic effect.

I do not know whether “Casting My Spell on You” is a Wilko Johnson composition though it has the patterned choppy guitar part and syncopate handclaps over the guitar solo that would also have made it, with a little work, into a fine contribution to Sneakin’ Suspicion.

“My Girl Josephine” sounds like an outtake from the Malpractice sessions and it is a strong performance that would also have merited space on Sneakin’ Suspicion to weed out one of the weaker cuts.

From the Oil City Confidential documentary, I gathered that there had been some heated disagreements between probably Brilleaux and Johnson about what represented “Dr Feelgood music,” with Brilleaux being of the opinion that tunes like “Paradise” and possibly “Everybody’s Carrying a Gun” did not fit in with he perceived to be the kind of thing Dr Feelgood was doing.  On the face of it, if it is true, this was a very shortsighted approach, especially as the over versions on Sneakin’ Suspicion simply emphasized and highlighted the pub rock roots of the band with no sense of progression beyond the low expectations inherent in such a circuit where Wilko Johnson’s tunes and sound gave Dr Feelgood something unique and long lasting. Wilko’s songs, even on Sneakin’ Suspicion, have legs; the cover versions in general do not.

Wilko’s extraordinary, distinctive choppy guitar playing gave the Feelgoods another unique edge over their contemporaries and when John Mayo joined, although he was also an excellent and ambitious guitarist, the band began sounding just like the other similar bands on the circuit. Just for this reason Dr Feelgood became less interesting to me. Brilleaux and Mayo wrote some decent songs between them, although nothing as brilliant as Wilko could do, and they are worthy efforts although Brilleaux’s deteriorating voice started marring the songs. He no longer sang but disclaimed or shouted and the tunes were never as memorable as those by Wilko Johnson.

As I sit writing this, though, I suddenly feel that I should investigate iTunes to find those later Feelgoods albums, Be Seeing You (1977), Private Practice (1978), Let It Roll (1979) and Case of the Shakes (1980) that I once owned and had some fondness for at the time, mostly because it was still Dr Feelgood.

After buying Let It Roll I lost interest. The small irony is that this is the last Feelgoods record I ever bought though it was released after Private Practice and before Case of the Shakes, both of which were triumphs of a sort. The former album has “Milk & Alcohol,” a bit of a hit for the band and probably the commercial highpoint of the post-Wilko period, and the latter was in my view a quite successful attempt at updating the basic formula into a kind of perky skinny tie New Wave R & B, with some terrific songs to boot. Let It Roll sounded like an album by a band who’d run out of steam, had not been able to write decent material and was utterly uninspired and tired in the studio. There is a bit of a parallel with Sneakin’ Suspicion following the successful Stupidity with the difference that the Johnson originals on Sneakin’ Suspicion are excellent songs and that the band originals on Let It Roll are workmanlike at best. 

Be Seeing You was released four months after Sneakin’ Suspicion, to introduce John Mayo and probably to give the band a new repertoire that was not solely based around Wilko Johnson era material. For the first time the other band members contributed songs, albeit only 4 out of the 12 cuts on the album, and the selection of covers ranged a bit wider than just R & B. the opening and closing tracks are Stax soul numbers, producer Nick Lowe and Larry Wallis each contribute a song, and there is a fine version of “The Blues Had A Baby (And They Named It Rock’ n Roll),” very recently recorded by Muddy Waters album. As a continuation of the Feelgood legacy it is a good effort.  Brilleaux sings as well as ever and Mayo’s guitar parts are solid and punchy. He certainly did not sound like Wilko Johnson. I quite liked the record though it did not have the quirky spark that Johnson had contributed. The song selection was good but not exceptional and the original numbers were workmanlike, not as witty as the best Wilko Johnson tunes but also not as bad as I’d feared.  Now Lee Brilleaux was clearly the leader and Mayo, even if he were a technically proficient guitarist, was not the same foil, or co-leader, to Brilleaux that Wilko was.

Private Practice not only referenced the second album Malpractice, but was also the commercial and probably creative highpoint of the post-Wilko band. Where Be Seeing You was recorded very quickly, Private Practice sounds like a proper studio record where the band took time to write their material and to record the music. This time only 4 out of 10 tracks were not written or co-written by a band member and the songwriting a lot stronger. Mayo stamps his presence firmly by playing a lot of guitar overdubs on the various tracks to the extent that an NME reviewer compared the overdubs on “Sugar Shaker” to the thing that Jimi Hendrix had done on “Night Bird Flying.” This was perhaps over gilding the lily but I suppose it is a good illustration of the amount of effort and ambition that went into recording this album. The sound was tougher and denser than on the previous, or next, album and Dr Feelgood came across as a proper rock band. The lyrics were now quite firmly fixed in England and no longer Wilko Johnson’s Thames Delta take on the Mississippi Delta.

Ever since the release of Stupidity I had been buying Dr Feelgood albums as soon as they became available in Stellenbosch and I bought Private Practice with a fair amount of anticipation having already read the NME review some time before. I was relatively disappointed. Mayo’s jerky riffing guitar sound was certainly singular and gave Dr Feelgood a completely different sound to the early years, but it was not a sound I cared for much. Instead of the slinky R & B that the band had been famous for, it now verged on a pedestrian pub rock with higher production values. The epitome of this was “Let’s Have A Party,” a Fifties rock and roll hit of little merit other than as a party anthem that sounded absolutely like pointless filler on this album of otherwise strong songs like “Milk & Alcohol,” “Every Kind of Vice” or “It Wasn’t Me” to name but three.

In June 1979 Dr Feelgood released a second live set called As It Happens (a punny catchphrase), a record that I have never even seen much less heard. I would imagine that it is a rehash of the first two albums with Gypie Mayo plus some new covers and a stopgap between studio albums.   Perhaps not unexpectedly it did not reach number 1 on the record charts or, for that matter, any significant chart position at all.

On Let It Roll the sound was different again, smoother and more like AOR blues.  It has always been my least favourite Dr Feelgood album amongst the collection, perhaps because it was the last one I bought and then long after my musical tastes had shifted somewhat and also because A Case of the Shakes was so much better. I have no idea what the other Feelgoods’ albums sound like but I would imagine that Let It Roll could well have been the template for a band that was resigned to being a name band on a B circuit where you make your money from gigging and no longer from records. Songs are written from necessity and nor from inspiration and the recordings are bashed out as quickly and cheaply as possible. The unique sound of the first four albums was long gone and Brilleaux’s vocal style became somewhat irritating over the long run. Dr Feelgood could be a good evening out in a sweaty pub but you’d not really want to listen to the records much. 

A Case of the Shakes seemed like a transparent move to update the Feelgoods’ sound and image to something approaching the New Wave pop that followed punk. The sleeve design screams of modernism and the songs are as jerky and angular as on Private Practice but lighter and perkier. overall the songs are also very good, even if Brilleaux cannot really sing them well. To my mind this album fits in nicely with any number of pop rock albums of the time and represents a real peak of creativity with an apparent desire to do something different than the mundane sludge of the Let It Roll sessions.

When old time fans and other musicians from the era talk about Dr Feelgood now the conventional wisdom is that the band was totally original and different to anyone else around at the tome and that their blend of raw, simple tough R & B and the short hair and suits inspired the British punk movement. With hindsight, this seems straightforward though at the time it was only the short, sharp song structure that aligned the Feelgoods with the punk movement, and perhaps the fact that the plunk also started out on a pub circuit of sorts.  The slightly sad part, though, is that this reference is always to the Wilko Johnson period and the first four or five years of the band’s career, before they slipped into the somewhat predictable rut of being just a superior R & B band who probably did not excite or innovate much beyond 1977. In this Dr Feelgood had the typical cliché rock career, which is meant to be a young person’s game, where those first 5 years of the career is where you must make your name and where you have your greatest success and influence and from which you can earn a living for the rest of your life because the songs of that breakthrough period are the songs the fans want to hear forever more. This is true of the Rolling Stones, even if in their case one might argue that the first tan years or so of their career are the important ones, and for just about every other rocker on the planet. Many of them have careers spanning four decades by now and you’d be hard pressed to find anything of real values beyond the first decade.

For many Dr Feelgood is synonymous with Wilko Johnson being in the band, and I am one of them even if I did still follow the band for a couple of years after his departure. He is the star of Oil City Confidential and has become a “national treasure” of sorts because he’s survived and is quite a funny, eccentric bloke and, of course, the guy who wrote the iconic Feelgoods’ tunes and who had the distinctive guitar sound that distinguished Dr Feelgood from so many aspirational others in the R & B field, and indeed that separates 1974 – 1977 Dr Feelgood from the subsequent incarnations of the band, regardless of how technically proficient the guitarists were.

Although the contributions from the original 4 Feelgoods obviously were the parts that made the invigorating whole, Dr Feelgood without Lee Brilleaux’s vocal or Wilko Johnson’s guitar ain’t Dr Feelgood. The incarnations after Brilleaux’s death were no better than Dr Feelgood cover bands.

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