Dr. Feelgood
Wilko - To Hell And Back Via The M1 Caff (3 juin 1978)

N.M.E. © Charles Shaar Murray

THE MAROUEE’S jammed up jelly tight ; foot on foot, elbow in kidney, spilled drinks and apologies - or not, as the case may be - sweatbox and vapour hot, tenement full, bumper to bumper and side by side.

The support band just pulled an encore out of the crowd like a trainee conjurer pulls a rabbit out of a hat, and now everybody’ waiting on The Solid Senders - that’s the combo that used to be The Wilko Johnson Band - to come on out and do that thing.

Steve Jones and Paul Cook are crushed up against the back wall offering to tell people the real story of The Sex Pistols’ bust-up and asking eagerly "Does’e still give it all the…?" and miming the epileptic-R2D2-with-machine-gun moves that everybody associates with Wilko Johnson.

Wilko Johnson may well have made himself a few enemies in his time - though not nearly so many as he thinks he has in his darker moods - but he also has a whole lot of friends and fans at all levels of the rock and roll tower of Babel, and they’re all hot to see him and his new band get down and do it to it.

Bob Geldof’s around somewhere to see the man whose previous band inspired the formation of The Boomtown Rats; Billy Idol’s propping up the bar : most of The Bishops are hopped up and ready to go ; Lemmy’s backstage priming the vibes for the imminent eruption; and Lord God yes, Wilko and his team are about ready to get out there and give it the… you know.

Wham ! There they are, piling headlong into "Everybody’s Carrying Guns" like they’ve been waiting outside the bar until opening time and someone's just opened the door. Up on the drums there’s Alan Platt : ringletted ginger Ian Hunter hair, hangover eyes, truculent grin, doing the business on jackhammer drums, piling it on 'til you think his drums can’t take no more. Little Stevie Lewins, bobbing abstracted behind his big black Fender bass, so thin he looks like two profiles stuck together, pumping it out good and greasy. Behind the piano is John Potter, paunchy and paunchy and veneered with the faintest hint of rock and roll debauchery over the warp and woof of the double glazing salesman he used to be before Wilko got him back into The Life, playing the purest distillation of everything groovy that you can do with a piano across the rock and roll ! R&B axis, all the legacies of Jerry Lee Lewis and Otis Spann and early Bill Payne.

And scooting across the front - black suit, black shirt, black shoes, black axe, white face - there’s Wilko, eyes blank and blazing, face contorted in a silent scream, Telecaster mowing down the front row. Comeback, my ass ! The way it looks, one would think that Wilko would be in fine shape to echo Sinatra’s classic line after he hauled himself out of the dumper to knock down an Oscar for his role as Maggio in From Here To Eternity : "Whaddya mean comeback ? I ain’t bin anywhere." But of course, he has. From here to eternity, to hell and back.

"WHEN WE started the Feelgoods, it was your classic local group", Wilko’s saying as the sun comes up over Wolverhampton and infiltrates into a hotel room littered with all the usual debris you find when three people have been up all night, "and when you start a local group you don’t have any intentions, do you ? You just want to play. It just so happened that all the people in that group were into that sort of music, so that was what we played."

"So when I found meself thrust out in the cold, I thought it would be pathetic to come back with a sort of Dr Feelgood Chapter Two. Even after we did 'Stupidity' album, what were we gonna do ? So I thought, I’m not gonna stop doing l2-bars because I like all that. But on the other hand, why repeat yourself ? You could stop making records, but I didn’t want to do that, and I didn’t want to cop out and start writing soppy big ballads with lots of chords and that because I still wanted to be in a rhythm and blues group. There’s lots of kids that are really into it, and they’d really dig it if I stuck with it."

"Like Status Quo, y’know, they just stick with their thing and the kids love 'em for it and love 'em for it. Despite all the flak they get for it, they just do their thing and I think that’s good. With Feelgood, the way I wanted to do the 'Sneakin’ Suspicion' album was more ethnic, more raw than it was in order to gain greater freedom that way, like Beefheart: just get totally crazy within this thing that we could do. I was trying to write songs that were still R'n'B, but which said a little bit more than just jump-up-and-screw songs."

"Anyway, it all ended in a hideous disaster which we won’t talk about now, and so I wanted to stay with rhythm and blues, but have room to move within it. With the format we had, Dr Feelgood was limited to my limitations. I mean, I'm not Mick Green…''

Though he can joke about it now, because he’s back and cooking with a hot new band, Wilko’s eviction from the Feelgoods ground him to pieces, put him through the mincer par excellence.

I don’t think anyone who didn’t actually live through it with him can appreciate just how much that particular period - between the end of Feelgoods Mk I and the debut of the Solid Senders - did him in. It’s only through hints dropped by his closest friends that I can even get an impression of what happened, and a couple of unfortunate experiences when he first started trying to put a new group together worsened the situation considerably.

Some of the people involved in those incidents are friends of mine, and while I cannot believe that the acted with as total a lack of integrity as Wilko believes they did, l also cannot believe that they truly appreciate how their actions appeared to Wilko, or how much these actions hurt him. They know who they are, and I hope their consciences are clear.

''… I wasn’t so much looking for a band as I was looking for some people who would take me seriously, y’know ?"
"There wasn’t any particular master plan or anything", interposes Stevie Lewins, raising his head from a complicated arrangement of Rizla papers.
"That was why this band got together; it was just a bunch of people who come together and started playing, not expecting anything of anybody else or any what-else-can-you-show-me."

Neither Stevie nor Alan Platt had ever seen Wilko with the Feelgoods, while at the other extreme, John Potter was an old Canvey mate and musical colleague. When Wilko was, 18, he'd creamed his jeans at the opportunity to play guitar in Potter's rock and roll band.

Once Wilko and Potter had decided to work together, all that was needed was a rhythm section. Various people had auditioned (Glen Matlock amongst them, interestingly enough) but Stevie Lewins - who’d wanted out of "Hie Bishops for some time - and Alan Platt turned out to be the ones. Since Wilko was still with United Artists as part of the Feelgoods’ deal, it was thought that things were ready to roll at long, bloody last.

"I burst proudly in there with me I new band", recounts Wilko with rueful mirth, "and they said, 'We think your future would be better elsewhere.' I just laughed. I mean, so many disasters had happened that year. Martin Davis and Andrew Lauder are sitting there looking very serious, and now the record company’s blown me out. So I just laughed. I thought, I cannot do justice to this situation. I’d blagged all these guys into joining me group - in fact, Andrew Lauder, who’s a scholar and a gent, was doing me a good turn, though he couldn’t tell me at the time…''

It was, in fact, around this time that Lauder and Davis were formulating plans to quit UA to form Radar Record in collusion with Warners, and my diagnosis is that they didn’t want to leave Wilko at UA without being there to look after him themselves.

"I think they’d sussed what was a going down, and were in fact helping me out by leaving me free to get a new deal. They were hinting that there were going to be some changes made and they were suggesting that since I was at a loose end I could slip out. The group were all waiting outside Andrew’s office waiting to hear what had gone down, and so I said that we’d all meet round my house after I the weekend, and then I had this awful drive back to Southend."

"I’d had a lot of disasters that year, and I'd been fucked around a lot by a lot of people. I decided that I really like these people, even though we’d only just met, and we were a group. So I thought 'Fucked if I’m going to let anything stop us… I’ve got a few bob in the bank so everybody's going I to get their wages until I’m broke, and we’ll have a new deal in a couple of weeks'. Six months later…''

In addition to the other Senders, Wilko had brought his team up to strength with the addition of Bobs Maguire, a former Motorhead tour manager who had severed connections with Motorhead under somewhat violent and hysterical circumstances and who took over Wilko’s management, and Glum, a so-called Canvey legend who gained his nickname through being the world’s sanest and most cheerful human being. In fact, Glum is so sane that at least half the people he meets think he’s crazy. Wilko puts it more simply : "That guy just laughs at everything, and I thought I need someone like this. He’s got a sanity that I know I’ll never possess. He sees the joke."

"So there were the six of us, and I thought at last I've got some friends. I suppose I was always trying to buy friends or expecting people to be my t friends because they were so friendly when I was successful."

By the time Wilko finally signed with Virgin, his Feelgoods savings had just about run out. The Senders had made it through by the skin of their collective teeth.

"But the point of all that was that everybody was financially dependent on me, as well as me being the one who’d got the band together, which put me in a kind of difficult position. I was deliberately holding back to allow everybody else to say what they wanted out of this thing, because in the position that I was in I could’ve started just dictating terms and saying how I wanted everything to be and I just didn’t want that. 'There’s six of us altogether and everybody’s giving it - all they’ve got, so it's equal shares and equal say."

"After the first bash we had together I thought I could get up and play with this band anywhere. Everyone knows what they’re doing. Take Alan: he’s the kind of guy who don’t take no shit off of no-one. He’ll tell me to piss off any time that I need it. He’s another really sane guy and he often smooths me out when I get het up about things. I can sit and talk to him and realise that sanity will prevail…''

THE SENDERS music contains a lot of reference points for dyed-in-the-wool Feelgoods’s freaks, but that's simply because Wilko Johnson was 50 per cent of The Feelgood’s image and 70 per cent of their music. In The Solid Senders. Wilko is 90 per cent of the image and maybe 40 per cent of the music. There’s Potter’s exquisite roadhouse piano, Lewins’s agile thoughtful haw and Platt’s bulletproof drumming and… tell you what. Let’s take a closer look at the set.

Part of it is an element of rock and roll that comes straight from Potter. His main man is Jerry Lee Lewis, and it shows whether they’re playing a Killer special like "Down The Line" or "Mean Woman Blues" or Wilko’s rewed-up speciality version of Dylan's ''Highway 61 Revisited." Potter gets plenty of solo space to strut his stuff and he deserves and utilises every single bar of it. His redolent of class and style, and he makes it count whether he’s doing it on Stevie’s old Bishops rocker

"You’re In My Way" (one of the great rock and roll song titles of recent years) or contemporary Wilko classics like "Going Back Home." To think of all this rock and roll bottled up in the double-glazing business for all those years… it verges on the criminal.

In fact, Potter was - very very early on - the fifth member of the Feelgoods. "The thing was", he reminisces in a quiet dressing room moment, "Wilko and Lee and Sparko and Figure had this very tight thing going that l didn’t really fit into. I felt that I wasn’t really contributing to it so much as looking for spaces into which l could fit something, and it ended up as if l was playing over something that was already complete."

In the Senders, Potter has his niche. "The key to it is, actually, that Wilko and l play together well because he plays the guitar as if it was a keyboard."

The circle is completed by the fact that Wilko is a fair-to-middling piano player himself, and Potter plays rudimentary rock and roll and blues drums and guitar. Platt can function up to a point on guitar, bass and piano in addition to his main axe, and while I wouldn’t give much for his chances of finding a whole lot of work as a guitar or piano player their understanding of the possibilities, limitations and dynamics of each other’s instruments contribute a lot to their mutual empathy even if none of them is exactly a Dave Edmunds or Todd Rundgren.

The bases they touch musically include an insanely supercharged Booker T and The MGs, mutated Shee-Kaw-goe blues, Bob Dylan (they do a thoroughly lovely ''Rainy Day Women I2 & 35" at sound checks and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it eventually finch its way into the set proper - it’s make a dynamite encore), and odd incongruous neo-Orientalism from Wilko's guitar (mainly on the as-yet-unrecorded-but-I’m-waiting "Burning Down"), blindingly groovy Jerry Lee-style rock and roll and the thoroughly timeless-but-up-to-date UK R’n’B that was, is and ever shall be Wilko’s principal musical stock in trade.

Comparisons with the Feelgoods are odious - and will remain so until Brilleaux and C o manage to whip out an album better than "Be Seeing You", which even the production expertise of Nick Lowe couldn’t render anything other than depressingly mundane - but it would seem on the basis of the mere 17 times that I’ve seen The Solid Senders that Wilko has achieved his goal of a sound simultaneously rawer and broader than that of the Feelgoods, A who’ve lost their edge without gaining any compensatory depth or breadth.

All that’s required is a little more visual panache from the rest of the group. If only Potter would stand up at his piano or Stevie would do a little duelling with Wilko then it’d be easier for audiences to realise how much of a band the Senders are...

WE THOUGHT let’s just down and get enough songs to last an hour and then go out and play." The sun’s up and we’re starting to think about having some breakfast before going to bed. "When the UA thing happened I broke it to everyone and said, 'Chaps, I’m afraid that we’re not United Artists recording stars' and everybody’s attitude was 'Well, sod it, we’ll have to go on the road, then. Even if it’s all into a Transit and slog up the M1, then that's what it’ll have to be.' Fortunately, I had a few bob so we didn’t have to go through all that shit, because it is shit. It’s a laugh at the time, but it goes on too long."

"I’ve seen the other end of it as well with all the bloody cocaine in Los Angeles, and that’s worse. Doing the clapped-out-Transit-and-greasy-motorway-food bit was a huge laugh. In Feelgoods’ days we’d be freezing inside this Transit just pissing ourselves laughing all the time. Sparks gets so funny, so obscene and you’d be dying of laughter and he’d think of something more obscene and Figure’s got one of these hysterical laughs that gets everybody at it, and that's all we ever used to do… then there's the thing about 'the awful loneliness of the Holiday Inn room and that’s true as well. I felt a lot of that : you play all these gigs to hundreds and thousands of people and then end up in this horrible room, alone, but it’s not important enough to write songs about. I mean, if you write songs they should mean something to the people who’re listening to them. It’s a mode of existence peculiar to the people who make the music, and it’s our bloody problem."

"But then all that kind of thing is related to how much you’re enjoying yourself. If you’re on a bummer - and I was sometimes - it’s suicidally miserable ; real wrist-slashing territory. It’s pathetic because you feel so lonely and shitty."

"Starting out again with The Solid Senders, it’s all a huge laugh because we’re all pretty new to each other. We haven’t heard each other’s anecdotes more than a couple of times; the jokes are still fresh, and I’d forgotten what good fun it was going out and doing gigs again…''

WILKO JOHNSON as of now, is happier and more positive than I’ve ever known him to be before, even in the days when the Feelgoods were hitting heavy. The terrible depressions that make him a danger to anything within shouting or punching range are few and far between and ever more frequent are the moments of extravagant wit and clowning that can reduce an entire dressing room full of people to abject heaps of shuddering, mirth-ridden flesh.

He’s a brilliant mimic ; his specialities being impersonations of Heinz (who the Feelgoods used to back when they were starting out and whose catchphrase - after suggesting that the band change their name to The New Tomados or that Sparko throw him his bass in idnumber - was "I can see yer larfin’ - but fink abaht it") and Dave Higgs of Eddie & The Hot Rods. His impression of as Higgsy is so devastating that there ought to be a law against him doing it in public in case anyone with a weak ticker should hear it and laugh himself into an early grave. He says that he didn’t do this particular speciality too often in the old days because Higgsy’ brother was "the ardest bloke on Canvey".

Perhaps the first thing that you’ll notice when you see The Solid Senders (which should be soonest) is that the speedy, strobe-y, psychotic one-dimensionality of Wilko's Feelgoods persona has not so much softened as broadened. He sings, he talks to the audience, he smiles. The demented robot with the Fender machine-gun has gotten human; that threatening B-movie aura of violence and frustration is sidelit now.

There’s still a miraculously high energy level- no wimp-out, Jack ; believe it - but what it’s about now is going berserk and enjoying yourself. It’s not out of vindictiveness towards his old colleagues that Wilko performs the old song "Doctor Feelgood" with this band ; it’s because making people Feel Good is what The Solid Senders are here to do.

And if you don’t give Wilko, Stevie, Potter and Platt your very best chance to do that thing to you next time they’re down your way, then you deserve to have all your friends come round and give you a hard time about what a great night you missed. I can see yer larfin’ - but tink abaht it.

Wilko Johnson travaille sur un nouvel album
11 Mai 2017

Nouvelle biographie sur Lee Brilleaux
27 Novembre 2016

Docteur Wilko Johnson
20 Novembre 2016

31 Décembre 2017
Wilko Johnson
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© Dr Feelgood & Lucie Lebens - Tous droits réservés
In Memory of Lee Brilleaux & Gypie Mayo