Dr. Feelgood
Dr Feelgood (1976)

Propos recueillis par Martijn Stoffer © Muziekkrant Oor

SPARKO DOESN’T know it just yet but for him today is going to be one of those days. Sparko’s day, for the purposes of this account, begins at Southend Airport at around 10.50 AM. It’s last Saturday but one and Sparko, along with the other Feelgoods, is sipping canteen tea by the airport entrance. Also present : Chris 'Whitey' Fenwick, Feelgood manager publicist Richard Ogden, the ubiquitous Jake Riviera, this last-named Stiff records magnate taking a brief busman’s holiday by re-assuming his position as the 'Feels tour manager. Plus a couple of people with funny surnames, courtesy of SOUNDS.

Southend Airport is just about one coat of paint short of shoddy, has one cigarette machine, bookstall, gift-shop, bureau de change. All this in the modest lounge, along with a hundred or so assorted holidaymakers, poised between cheese and tomato sarnies and autumnal budget hops to Jersey and environs.

Nobody pays any attention to the Feelgoods, and why should they ? Wilko Johnson is the nearest thing to a fashion plate, sporting as he does a brand new suit, charcoal pin-stripe and smartly tailored. This, along with the slim 'executive' briefcase, conspire to make him look like a somewhat classy Pru' salesman. The rest of the band are positively casual by comparison – brown leather jacket and jeans for Sparko, zippered black bomber on Lee Brilleaux, armchair chic jacket and slax for drummer Big Figure, cordially addressed as simply 'Figure' hereinafter.

Enter a Pilot. Aforementioned air-person 'pilots' the Feelgood entourage out the lounge, across windy aerodrome in the direction of cabbage crate.

The party are gently directed aboard the rented aircraft, a twin-engined ten-seater which, at around three hundred and sixty smackers return, would make for good economics even for the basic Feelgoods touring party of six. Up.

And away. North-east to Rotterdam and thence by road to Lochem, where the band are booked second on the bill at an open air popfest, a good opportunity to loosen up prior to the imminent British tour.

The first two thirds of the 55-minute flight are uneventful. Light chat for everyone, canned lager for everyone except Wilko, the latter's teetotal appetites being catered for by a carton of orange juice. Someone points out that the door to the cabin is coffin-shaped, something which the SOUNDS reporter, a true aerophobic who`s busily convincing himself that he’s on a tube train, is already too well aware of.

Then, as they used to say at Fighter Command, things start to get choppy. The 'plane embarks on a series of hops, skips and jumps which produce that ‘sinking’ feeling in the stomach so beloved of rollercoaster and hi-speed lift addicts.

Wilko’s new suit is the first victim, one in particular of the aircraft’s unpredictable leaps bringing the law of gravity and Wilko’s orange juice into brief but spectacular contact. Wilko’s astonishment at his dampened lap is quickly replaced by a Harry Corbett mpersonation. "Oh Sooty, you messy little booger" ; he exclaims in mock-Northern desperation. Then he leaps abruptly from his seat to shake his fist at the clouds : "Bloddy turbulence."

The hopping and skipping continues. One or two knuckles whiten. The SOUNDS staffer persists with his tube train delusion, glueing his eyes to a copy of Bam Balam fanzine. Beside him, the lady with the funny surname turns a subtle shade of green. Sparko apologetically transfers his breakfast to a blue paper bag. Minutes later. as the aircraft touches down at Rotterdam airport, the lady with the funny surname will follow Sparko’s example.

Exit the deserted airport and wait in the slow drizzle for the hired cars. Across the red cobbled driveway there’s a vast modern sculpture. It could vaguely be described as a haphazard jumble of oversized black logs, tangled together as if some titanic game of mah jong were about to begin. Lee's description, however, is terser and more to the point. Lee ? "A load of bollocks."

A quick lunch on the airport periphery. Good but pricy, and accompanied by small carafes of wine protected by hard to prise jam jar-type lids.

An hour or so on the road for the two-car convoy. Idle chatter mixed with reasonable radio, Otis Redding and the Small faces jostling for elbow room amongst a slew of sides from birthday boy B Holly. A brief pause at the roadies' hotel for the band to freshen up prior to the gig. Followed by another hour or so of driving before the elusive festival site is located.

Intrepid Southend sky-diving team prepare for daring assault on Holland

IT drizzles still. The dressing rooms are atop a muddy hillock, a hunting lodge-like affair with two bars, beams and an open fire.

Some four thousand somewhat moist Dutch rock’n’roll fans fill the triangular open air theatre. Curved Air, Climax Chicago Blues Band and local outfit Normal have come and gone ; Caravan are currently flexing their vamps, filling in for John Cale who was booked but failed to materialise.

All superfluous personnel are ejected from the dressing room to afford the Feelgoods a modicum of privacy. Outside, a sad-eyed local lady spoonfeeds her nose voraciously.

Presently the sounds of jamming creep under the closed door. A few chopped Wilko intros and a spot of boogie, eventually dissolving into a slow, tuneful and totally atypical weeping blues.

Inside, Wilko’s in his familiar shrunken suit and strangle-collared red and black shirt. As he plays Figure percusses on the bar, utilising beer bottles, anything stationary. Figure has on this double breasted demob suit jacket and his hair, ordinarily loosely side-parted, is slicked straight back. Sparko joins in periodically, attired in familar loose-cut pale blue. Lee sips brandy at the bar, a gaping hole in the left armpit of his semi-luminous grey jacket with faint stripes. He’s already looking suitably mean.

Jake : "Alright chaps - scramble !" But he means it. The band follow him down the hillock and through the tunnel that leads to the stage. He brings them to a halt at the tunnel exit, giving the exiting Caravan only sufficient time to vacate the backstage steps before they move on.

Instant excitement: an aggressive 'Talkin' About You' followed by a churning, harp-fired blues guaranteed to wake up any Rip Van Winkles in the last couple of rows. Finally Lee acknowledges the audience for the first time : Fankyou-goodevenin fankyou (breath) thisone’s-called… 'Into The City'. Wham bam and Wilko solos, treating his audience with the set’s first spray of machine-gun chords. Lee’s beet-red now, impatiently strutting the stage and looking as if anyone who gets in his way better have their teeth insured against total disintegration due to contact with a microphone handled with all the loving savagery of a broken beer bottle in a dance hall brawl.

Figure strains forwards against his kit, giving the Feelgoods’ sound its thick, gravelly bottom. Sparko, as ever, looks deceptively relaxed. Meanwhile his fingers trot out the ridiculously simple bass-line. But hold on - was it ever that ridiculously simple? But no matter for now, as the band follow through with 'Stupidity', cranking into overdrive with a berserker 'I Don't Mind'.

Pause. Wilko has to tune up. Frequenters of rock spectaculars will be familiar with this phenomenon, the way it can completely destroy a carefully constructed mood if it lasts just a minute too long.

No such namby-pamby malarkey from Dr. Feelgood - fifty-five seconds later Wilko’s guitar’s already sabred its way to the bone of 'I Don’t Mind'.

They barnstorm onward - 'Time & The Devil', 'Back In The Night', a superb 'Keep It Out Of Sight', ' I’m A Hog For You'. And then it happens - what was suggested during 'City' becomes manifest half-way through 'Everybody’s Cryin’' Again - Sparko’s right hand suddenly shoots outwards as if he’s just received a particularly nasty electric shock. He plays on though, but at the end of the number, after a hasty conference, Lee has to announce that Sparko’s hurt his arm and they’ll have to end it there.

They quit the stage and almost immediately the crowd begins to chant for more. They’re angry, impatient and frustrated and who can blame them ? Primed for the last forty-five minutes, they need the vocanic climax provided by 'Riot In Cell Block No. 9' or 'Tequila' / 'Boney Moronie'. And they want it. Now.

Instead, a surprise - and not an unpleasant one at that. The band return without Sparko, Wilko playing bass to Lee’s ultra-solid slide as they cook up a mean, mean blues extravaganza on 'Talk To Me Baby.' The brave Sparko returns for the closer, a passionate 'Johnny B. Goode'.

The Dutch kids are still howling for more when, five minutes later, a record from the PA blows them into silence.

Back in the dressing room Sparko reveals all the minute he started playing he developed a cramp; he’d played on, hoping it would pass but instead it just got worse. Towards the end he’d been reduced to barely keeping time on one or two strings, his all-important middle finger being all but paralysed. He’s still astonished. It’s never happened before and as his arm swells up he’s already worrying in case he's not recovered by the following Wednesday’s opening gig of the UK tour.

"I’ll get the elbow", he jokes, tragi-comically. He's.already seen a doctor and to everyone's immense relief he’s been assured that it‘s nothing serious. He concludes that it was probably just the sharp change of temperature between dressing-room and stage.

Considering Sparko’s disability practically from the start of the set, the fact that the Feelgoods managed to produce so much excitement and so much exciting music is little short of awesome. They really are a most professional band indeed.

A BRIEF rest and it’s back to the cars. Wilko’s in a back seat with a local radio person doing a taped lead-in for the new album. He manages something along the lines of "This is our new album. It’s live and it’s called ‘Stupidity’. We hope you like it because we do but if you don’t, well…'' There's a hell of a lot more exhaustion there than enthusiasm, plus not a little tinge of annoyance at being asked to do something so silly.

Night thickens as we drive off. After a while Wilko is relaxed and talkative. About early guitar hero Mick Green and his contemporary respect for Roogalator’s Daniel Adler ; about leaving college determined to be a poet, growing his hair and going to India, and then his couple of terms as a teacher. He recalls trying to be straight up with his kids and still ending up facing the blackboard to mouth a huge, silent "Fuck !" of desperation. "And always there’d be some kid at the front who’d shout 'I saw ya !' and I'd just crack up !''

We talk at length about English poetry, Wilko revealing Will Shakespeare and William Blake as the two writers he admired most. He admits that his relationship with the latter poet assumed obsessive aspects at one time. "In London there's this bust of Blake in the National Gallery and I remember going in there and waiting ‘til there was no-one about and then I'd go up and say 'Alright ?', you know ?" He adds a conspiratorial wink to his address of the head. He’s also completely objective about rock’n’roll, realising that success doesn’t last forever. Maybe, he says, he’ll do some extended prose work one day.

Hotel. Fifteen minutes to freshen up and then meet in the bar.

An irritable little waiter puts up the beers. He keeps his change in a small purse ; a sure sign, someone remarks later, that he’s a pouf and a rip-off artist.

Meanwhile Lee and Figure discuss insects. Figure has this theory that spiders lay their eggs in water pipes and that’s why they always come out of the plughole.

Starring : Dr. Feelgood, Men of Steel with a Mission.
Plus : One or two Other People, one Gammy Arm, a not very large Aeroplane, and thousands of damp Dutch folk !
And Introducing : The umbiquitous Jake Riviera in the role of ‘The Driver'.


'No, this is the way rock’n’roll supposed to look'
Pic. Allan Ballard

"Nah. If that’s true than how come they don’t get washed away when you empty the bath ?"
"They hold on, don’t they ?"
"Moths", says Lee. "That's something I can't stand." Nearby, Richard Ogden agrees.
"Mind you, we know this bloke who eats moths, don’t we Fig' ? Crunches 'em up and all."
Ogden looks positively bilious.
"Yeah, the geezer who’s selling the t-shirts on the English tour. We’ll get him to do it for ya. He's always doing it at parties - you’d give him a couple of bob and he’d chew a moth and swallow it. You must see him do it once."

Ogden is still far from convinced and goes off to bed. It’s almost midnight and he’s flying back at seven.
The rest of us walk to Boddy's, a long rectangular bar which, a couple of years ago, was a Dutch equivalent of the Hope & Anchor featuring the cream of the English pub-rock scene, including present company. Things have obviously taken a downward slide somewhere because tonight a thin, morose audience is entertined by a local outfit called Sunshine something or other who chum out incredibly shiggish Santana imitations and originals with all the effervescent properties of school custard.
Wilko sits alone nursing a tomato juice while the rest of us sip impotent blonde beer sold in large jugs. We spent six months in Boddy’s that night.

At around 2 am someone notices that Chris, Sparko and Jake have scarpered. We decide to call it a night. Lee stays behind to finish off the last of the beer and we follow Wilko and Figure into the night. Figure says he knows the way back to the hotel ; Wilko says he thinks he does but he always gets lost in Amsterdam.

We get lost. Wilko approaches a couple of locals - both female and forty – and they scuttle off in a close approximation of terror. We end up in this Dutch translation of Oxford Circus along with two Germans and an American lady, also lost.

Finally we decide on a route. Wilko has a brainwave. Taxi in other words. Back at the hotel we stop briefly in Wilko's room, night-capping and discussing the water shortage half-heartedly to the accompaniment of non-stop Rolling Stones from Radio Luxembourg.

In response to Figure's admission that he's been extra careful about water recently, to the extent of never over-filling his kettle when he just wants one cup of tea, Wilko dredges up a childhood memory.

When Wilko was a kid he was forever turning taps on. One day his mum told him that if he kept on doing it there’d be no water left at all. "After that", he laughs, "I’d wait until she was out of the room and then I'd turn the top on to see if there was any water left. Then I'd turn it off again right away.

"But then I'd think well, maybe that was the last bit, so I'd turn it on again. And then off again. And I’d do that for ages." The way Wilko tells it its like he spent half his childhood at the sink and the other half thinking about it.

"Well", Figure sighs, "I think I’ll go and waste some water now." And goes off to bath. Great fun at 3.30 am with the Stones on the radio.

BREAKFAST at noon. A meaty one with the steak raw red irrespective of how it’s ordered. Wilko lays in and arrives at the last minute. Turns out Lee arrived in the early hours and practicaly had to fight for his key. Apparently they wanted him to pay the bill. "But I don't wanna pay the bill", said Lee. "I wanna go to bed."

For afters we drive back to Rotterdam. Lee’s upfront with Jake. Wilko’s in the back. Talking Talking about the new tour, for starters.
"Yeah, l suppose it was a bit of a try-out", says Wilko of the previous day’s gig. "I think you should drop that gimmick of Sparko having the cramps though", says Jake.
"Yeah. I suppose it was a bit over the top. Playing to the gallery really. Yeah, I was a bit embarassed - I didn’t realise it was gonna be quite so hammy", he laughs.
But seriously though… "Having this live album out does mean a lot of the material will be drawn from last year because that’s what’s on the album. But we’ll be working one or two completely new things in as well."
Wilko goes on to explain about 'Stupidity', the new LP. "The first side was recorded in Sheffield on the first tour we did on our own; the second side was the last tour, at the end of last year and you can hear quite a change in sound and style.
"Also, we didn’t use any artificial echo or overdub at all so you've got the acoustic effect of the hall as the echo and obviously you've got two different halls and two different sounds. And the group’s sounding different as well."
This was something we’d already talked abut on one of the previous car journeys, Wilko stressing that there'd been no tampering’ at all on the record. Leaving the bum notes in too ?
Lee : "There’s a few good notes too."
Wilko : "Oh yeah, there’s some real Eye-watering one's. But as I said, it’s very live. And if you go and do all those things again you’re falsifying what goes down live. Obviously just with the amount of physical activity we get into you’re prone to I put your fingers in the wrong place sometimes, but that’s part of it."


Sparko demonstrates his former two-handed bass technique

"There’s nothing on there that's awfully out of tune or anything like that ; there's a few bits of duff singing and there's one shocking bum note in one solo - but I’m not telling you where it is",he laughs. "We‘ll make out it’s a jazz chord !"

And in any case. says Wilko, "as the recording was done off the audience mikes so that the audience could be heard in the background, removing a bum note would take a hell of a lot of splicing and so on." And then what you end up with is not a live thing at all - you’re missing the point of it. Which is to catch some kind of atmosphere. And the atmosphere is far more important than the acoustic quality.

''I'm sure this album will get shocking reviews in hi-fi monthlies, because in terms of sound and hi-fidelity and that it’s poor quality. Because there is so much PA on it, so much of what you hear when you’re at a concert."

Not having been able to hear the record so far I decided to toss in the two most common criticisms of live elpees : that they’re done simply to fulfil contractural obligations and/ or to disguise the fact that a band’s running out of original ideas. This second suggestion doesn’t really apply to a group like the Feelgoods anyway, considering how much of their output consists of re-vibed non-originals anyway, but it’s the sort of question that usually produces an interesting answer or two. Such as in this case, for instance.

"Our recording thing is always so haphazard, you know… I don’t think any of us are really 'into' making records anyway. Obviously you like to make a record 'cause it’s what keeps the whole thing going, is records. But being so orientated towards live performance we don't really think in terms of making records. Our recording is very sporadic, what we do isn`t planned around the studio, it’s planned around tours…''

Which is cool with UA. as it happens.

"UA have done alright with us, because our albums are very cheap to do – we don't spend a lot of time mucking around, and when we signed we asked for the smallest advance we could get away with to buy ourselves a PA. We weren’t into getting big advances so we could drive around in limousines and that. And also they didn't need to spend money advertising us because all the journalists was writing about us anyway."

Plus, says Wilko, both the earlier A albums netted silver discs, not only in England but Europe too. "So they've done alright and obviously they're disposed to let us go our own erratic way."

A NEW studio album was started earlier this year but work on its completion was continually interrupted by touring, mainly the three US visits undertaken by the band this year, a total of eleven weeks in all. "And that takes up a lot of time and it’s also very tiring. That’s why we did those few gigs in England when we got back last time. ‘Cause you think, 'Blimey, it’s so long since we played so and so."

"And we don't want people to think that we’ve got our eyes on the big money over there and we don't wanna know about them any more so that’s why we chose provincial towns rather than London to play at. We just wanted to get back to our audience, and it was a great buzz to do it."
"The other thing about a studio album is I’ve got a lot of half-finished songs… find it very hard to write on the road, I’m so depressed all the time usually. I have to be at home and a bit relaxed to write."
And another point, says Wilko, is that even putting out a live album was something of an outlaw action."
''The whole record business… theory if you like… is that it’s too early for us to put a live album out in the States because we’re not well known enough."
"Anyway… we were busting a gut to do this studio album and feeling a bit sick about rushing this stuff that we really wanted to take on the road for a bit first when suddenly we thought Well, hold on a minute. You know, it‘s one of them occasions when you're finding yourself so wrapped up in the business that you're losing track of what you're trying to do. Which is to play, have a good time, and use the music for our own enjoyment really and not be forced to do things."

"So all of a sudden we thought, ' Sod it. All the kids that like our music in England have been asking for a live album for the last year or two. Why should we go against what they want for the sake of people across the Atlantic Ocean when we don't even know if they like us or not yet ?' So we said 'Right !' And we just went up to UA and told them we'd changed our minds and we wanted to put a live album out and we just shizzed in and did it in about a week."

The studio album remains a work in progress. "Only this time, instead of cramming it into two or three weeks in between tours we’re just gonna go in for a couple of days when we’ve got something we want to do and try and be a bit more easy on our nervous systems."

Flipping back to the US tour one discovers that part of the delay in the band’s conquest of America is a direct result of their own refusal to do gigs in the massive stadia that are necessary stepping stones for a speedy ride on the gravy train. "We just stuck to smaller places where we could give them a better impression of what we’re about." The ideal Feelgood venue is "A kind of big dance hall - particularly where people can be on their feet and where there’s no danger of people breaking their backs on seats or of people breaking the backs of the seats."

This adamancy on the part of the band has caused a little hair-tearing on the part of the businessmen in the States, says Wilko, because the result is that the band aren't reaching as many people as quickly as they could. Similarly, the group weren’t over-keen on the whole media schmear that has you getting up at seven for interviews followed by endless drives / flights to radio stations, preferring to work small halls and allow as much natural word of mouth reputation spread as possible, much the same weay as happened in Britain and Europe. This had a salutary effect, too.

"It’s good where each gig you go to is a ew audience and the first half of the set they’re sitting there, gawking and scratching their heads and wondering what’s going on, and gradually winning them ‘round or not winning them ’round. So it was like being back in London at the start - every time you go onto the stage you’ve got something to prove. And obviously you’re gonna go all out to prove it."

"But then coming back to England was good too because you go out and there's all the people that have followed you and know you and you can actually feel it hit you like a kind of friendship. And then you redouble your efforts because you feel so great that those people are still there and they’re still into it and you really wanna give them all you’ve got."

The last full-stop in the conversation arrives in the form of Rotterdam Airport. Aside from a handful of bumps at the start and finish the flight’s as smooth as silk. The only excitement comes in the last few minutes as the Feels’ home base of Canvey Island drifts by on the starboard side. To the portholes, as a man !
"Look Wilko, there’s some bloke climbing out of your back window !"
"There’s Lee's Jag !"
"What's your old lady doing with all those geezers in the back garden ?"
We disembark. The lounge is cluttered with Scouts and Cubs, still excited at having seen a Spitfire in a flying display half an hour before. Sparko’s arm feels a lot better but it’s still sore. Poor arm."

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
Les concerts à venir...
... sur le site officiel


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© Dr Feelgood & Lucie Lebens - Tous droits réservés
In Memory of Lee Brilleaux & Gypie Mayo