Dr. Feelgood
Dr Feelgood - Nervous On The Road (1976)

Rock On The Road © Mick Gold
Merci à Daniel Rapina !

Mick Gold was born in 1947, studied English at Sussex University and film making at the Royal College of Art. He has written about and photographed rock music for most major music publications, including Melody Maker, New Musical Express, Sounds, Creem (USA), The Story of Pop, and has worked on the editorial committee of Let It Rock. Mick Gold is currently making a documentary for the Arts Council about the relationship between architecture and the Industrial Revolution.

Lee Brilleaux of Dr Feelgood : on the road

One reason that this book ranges from street corner musicians to superstars is that there isn’t much middle ground. Rock’n’Roll isn’t a stable career. Everyone involved in the business is constantly aware of the enormous fame and fortune that rewards the few who make it to the top. Therefore it’s harder to be satisfied with a modest level of success - the feeling lingers that such a gamble should pay big dividends. But how does one begin to climb this greasy pole to stardom ? One important strategy is to have an image.

Dr Feelgood are a four-piece band from Canvey Island in the Thames Estuary. Six months ago they signed a recording contract which enabled them to pack in their regular jobs and become professional musicians - earning the princely salary of thirty pounds per week. For all of them it meant a drop in their income, but they’re doing what they always wanted to and, currently, they’re doing it very well. In March I975, they completed their first national tour, tearing audiences apart the length of Britain, never failing to get a big response. Their music is based on the classic, early recordings of Rhythm and Blues - songs like "Route 66" and John Lee Hooker’s "Boom Boom" - it’s tough, energetic, and somewhat primitive. Those same qualities describe Dr Feelgood’s appearance.

No one would call them pretty. Lead singer Lee Brilleaux lurches around in an unseemly manner, sweating heavily inside his hideous, old brown suit, pumping his arm up and down as though anxious to hit something. Lead guitarist Wilko Johnson has the endearing habit of hurtling back and forth across the stage, clanging out a metallic solo, eyes blazing like headlights. On drums, John (The Big Figure) Martin wallops his skins as though he never really liked them. And John (Sparko) Sparks plays bass with a nonchalance which suggests he has better things to do with his time, and he’s doing us all a favour by being there.

Feelgood house, the group's headquarters on Canvey Island : Sparko works on manager Chris Fenwick's car while Wilko admires the view

They have an image. Nothing elaborate which suggests months of discussion and choreography - simply a striking appearance which complements the earthy vitality of their music. And this is one reason why they’ve attracted the attention of the Rock press. Their music harks back to the honest, uncomplicated roots of rock and they are fun to write about. Every journalist who’s seen them has enjoyed thinking up phrases to describe their stage presence. John Collis in Let It Rock described Wilko as a "clockwork dervish", Mike Flood-Page in Sounds called him a "zomboid yo-yo", Mick Farren in the New Musical Express speculated that "they have the kind of look that makes it possible to believe they might easily have come together in jail or in a singularly unpleasant section of the army", while Nick Kent described Wilko as tailor-made "to play the title role in a Borstal production of Hamlet." Strong stuff for a brand new band. Dr Feelgood have been astonished by all the attention that has been devoted to an appearance they claim they had never thought twice about. Lee protests : "I’ve always looked like this… since I was at school. We didn’t set out to look like deranged bank clerks." And Wilko backs him up : "These are the clothes I used to be a teacher in. When I joined the band I just ripped the lining out of the jacket to make it cooler. There’s nuffink deliberate in wearing them."

Lee and Wilko jamming in Feelgood House recording room

Dr Feelgood’s appearance suits their music, and it also suits their background : no one would call Canvey Island pretty. A flat, beautifully desolate blob of land in the Thames, relying for employment on the new industrial estates around Basildon. A wintering ground for Brent Geese and Red-Breasted Mergansers. A conveniently empty spot on the planners’ maps for the unloading of environmentally undesirable installations. London’s third airport was going to land in the area, until lack of finance aborted the project. The first major oil refineries have been completed on the island, and there are more in the pipeline. Wilko participated vigorously in the local anti-refinery demonstrations, and got arrested for his troubles. The band remains cynical about the benefits the refineries will bring. "There’s nuffink in ’em for Canvey", says Lee. "They’re all automated - they’ve got less than two hundred men working there, so there’s no money or employment for Canvey. All we got is the risk of fires and explosions and oil spills."

Dr Feelgood are an authentic Thames Delta rhythm and blues band. They’ve known each other for fifteen years, and have been making music together in different combinations since adolescence. At the age of fifteen, Wilko and his brother joined forces to form a jug band. One night, young Lee Brilleaux saw them in action - performing for appreciative queues of Canvey Islanders who were filing into the local bingo hall. Lee was impressed by this piece of musical initiative and decided to get his own group together; he called on Sparko and Chris Fenwick (who is now Dr Feelgood’s manager) and then felt forced to become the singer, because no one else knew any words. Lee’s favourite music was down home blues, whereas Wilko made classic Rock’n’Roll (Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran) his musical base.

Wilko and Chilli Willi in transit aboard Dr Feelgood's bus

Left to right : a friend, Sparko, Jake (Chilli Willi's manager), another friend, Nick Kent, Chris Fenwick (Dr Feelgood's manager)

Dr Feelgood and Chili Willi breakfast on the MI

Backstage at the Marquee Club : Wilko meets an admirer

These two elements are still the backbone of Dr Feelgood’s sound, but it was a few years before Lee and Wilko joined forces.

After passing his A Levels, Wilko left Canvey Island for the green pastures Newcastle University where he picked up a BA in English Literature. Wilko’ possession of a genuine university degree is rather at odds with the mean and menacing personality he possesses on stage. Wilko resolves this contradiction by snarling the word out of the corner of his mouth - "younivuhhsi’y" - so that it seem to refer to some notorious institution for the care of the criminally insane. After graduating, Wilko wandered off to India to become a hippy and meditate… until ran out of money. He then returned to Canvey Island and became a teacher. His guitar had been gathering dust on top of his wardrobe, unplayed for five years, until Sparko called and invited him to join the band that he and Lee and Chris had been thumping around in.

Next, Chris Fenwick began to show signs of true managerial promise. "He was the one who passed the hat around the pub, and made sure we got fixed up with drinks after wedding receptions." Chris found himself in Holland, where he convinced several Dutch club owners that he knew a famous British group and could arrange a tour of the Netherlands for a very reasonable fee. It was the offer that Holland couldn’t refuse, and Chris demonstrated to Dr Feelgood that he could hustle better than he could play. He became their manager. However, their drummer baulked at the idea of crossing the seas with the group, so he quit and was replaced by The Big Figure (as everyone calls him on account of his breadth) who had been a pro drummer with a whole string of Canvey Island pop bands. He was the final piece in the jigsaw : Dr Feelgood were on the road.

They went down well in Holland, generating authentic Feelgood-mania amongst audiences who welcomed their funky, down-to-earth sound. (I mentioned to the group that John Lennon thought playing to foreign crowds in Hamburg had helped the Beatles to simplify their act and make their music more direct. Wilko considered the idea suspiciously and then muttered, "Honestly, I don’t think it would be possible to simplify our act.") This small taste of success in Holland persuaded Dr Feelgood that they could become professional musicians. On the ferry trip back to England, they agreed they were doing something which might actually work. The group ceased to be a weekend loon and became a serious task.

Dr Feelgood served their apprenticeship as the backing group for Heinz, an authentic survivor from the early sixties beat scene who had had one top ten hit in I963. Heinz had renounced his rock career and was working on the Canvey Island newspaper, selling classified advertisements. However, he would occasionally be overwhelmed by the desire to get back on stage, and he took the embryonic Feelgoods along to support him. It was useful stage practice ; the only disadvantage was that Heinz’s shows attracted a strong teddy-boy contingent and they could mean trouble. This affected Dr Feelgood’s attitude to the material that they wanted to play.

"Teddy boys convinced us we didn’t want nothing to do with classical Rock’n’Roll",Wilko reminisced. "It was so mindless… it was based on a fiction… they wanted to hear a kind of music that never really existed. They thought if you didn’t wear drape suit, it wasn’t classical Rock'n’Roll, but no singers ever dressed like that Chuck Berry never wore a drape suit. I used to love playing the old classics, but after a couple of gigs with teds I didn’t want to know. We shied away from calling our music Rock’n’Roll… we called it rhythm and blues instead."

On stage at the Marquee

"Lee : It is a high but... you're definitely hurting yourself."
At the Marquee : Wilko's last guitar solo

Rhythm and blues had already provided the raw material for one musical revolution in Britain. In the early sixties, teenagers across the country began turning on to the sounds they picked up from American albums, particularly albums on the Chess label. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Little Walter, Sonny Boy Williamson, B.B. King, all the giants of electric blues struck a response from Newcastle (where Eric Burdon and Alan Price were perfecting their Geordie John Lee Hooker sound) to to Dartford in Kent (where Keith Richard met Mick Jagger, clutching a pile of Chess albums, on the station platform) to London - where a growing pool of musicians spawned the Rolling Stones, the Pretty Things, the Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, John Mayall’s Blues breakers, in brief the sixties British Rock boom. Rhythm and Blues used a simple musical vocabulary to deliver a powerful, emotional package : a package which could contain energy, alienation, the itch to travel, or straightforward teenage lust. It was raw, aggressive music, perfect for young musicians seeking an alternative to the watered-down, commercial sounds of the current top twenty. They built up a fanatical audience following through a small network of clubs and pubs. From there they took over the hit parade. From there they took over the world.

They sold the blues back to America garnished with a British accent. And a million American kids could relate more readily to Mick Jagger’s mannerisms, or to Eric Clapton’s virtuosity, than to the originals that Clapton and Jagger were emulating Slim Harpoor Skiplames or a host of black musicians, often ignored and impoverished. The musicians who began the industry started off as rebels, fighting to hammer out their own style of music. Some of them ended up as millionaires ; some of them ended up with the monotonous jobs they had managed to evade for a few years.

Ten years later, Dr Feelgood brought their own brand of basic rhythm and blues back to town. After going down well with local audiences in Canvey and Southend they graduated to gigs around the pub-rock venues of London. Wilko recalled : "We used to sit outside the pub in the van, watching all these people turning up in taxis to see us. We couldn’t believe it." The crowds grew, drawn by two things : the Feelgoods’ music and their act. It’s arguable that there was a streak of nostalgia in the enthusiasm of the older Feelgood fans. They were reminded of the rhythm and blues boom of their youth, an impression heightened by the Feelgoods’ oddly unfashionable appearance : short, shapeless haircuts, thin sixties lapels on their jackets, trousers without a hint of flare. But to younger audiences the music came as a welcome surge of uncomplicated energy, after an era of remorselessly progressive bands. Technically, Dr Feelgood were a big improvement on early sixties blues bands. Wilko adroitly combined lead and rhythm guitar roles, cemented together by a hint of heavy metal blockbusting chords and some powerful blues harp contributions from Lee. And the melodrama of the Feelgoods’ act was something else, best epitomised by their version of "Riot In Cell Block No 9", a three-minute sound movie about a jail riot originally recorded by the Coasters. Dr Feelgood’s seedy appearance, their instinct for amateur theatricals, the primitive power of their music, combined to produce a performance that was a guaranteed show-stopper.

First, Wilko rasps out a basic two-chord riff, guitar propped against his shoulder like a machine-gun covering the audience. The Big Figure is tapping out a ritzy Dragnet theme on the hi-hats. Wilko’s face is frozen in a silent scream - eyes glazed mouth agape, he paces the stage, guitar chords his only protection against the mob. Lee lurches to the microphone and intones the lyrics ; his antics combine memories of Hollywood prison riots (Elvis rocking the jailhouse, James Cagney screaming all the way to the chair) with a take-off of a headmaster attempting to silence a rioting classroom : one can actually see his authority crumble as he threatens the audience with solitary confinement, the chair, the works… It’s an idiotically ham performance. It’s Rock’n’Roll magic. It’s both at once.

Dr Feelgood burn up a ridiculous amount of energy on stage. Sweat pours off Lee in torrents. Wilko runs himself into the ground. How does it feel on stage ? Do they get very high on the energy ? Lee : "It is a high in a way, but not a pleasurable high. You’re definitely hurting yourself. You’re pushing yourself further than you should. On a good night you’re coming off purged of all that anger and frustration. To me, that’s what Rock’n’Roll’s all about - working frustrations out."



"Riot In Cell Block No 9"

Feeling good at the Marquee : Wilko levitates while Lee assaults the drums

But they do put on a very strenuous show - for whose benefit are they acting it out so much : the audience’s or their own ? Wilko : "The whole intention is to create excitement and the first person you want to excite is yourself. By moving in a violent way you can create that excitement, that’s why people like to dance to it. The reason I move the way l move is... an expression of what I’m feelin'. It’s the same reason l play the guitar… the same feelin'. A lot of the time the theatricals are for our benefit. It’s a form of violence… but it’s better than fightin’… ain’t it ?" The pub-rock circuit re-introduced the notion that live music could be fun for performers and audiences alike. Since most of the bands were semi-pro, they didn’t have to make money out of it. The problem was: where to go next ? Before Dr Feelgood reached London, a whole tribe of small bands including Ducks De Luxe Kilburn And The High Roads, Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, and Bees Make Honey had established themselves on the pub-rock circuit and were trying to think of ways of breaking out of it into full-time music making, for more money than a fee that barely covered expenses.

Wilko learnt something about audience attitudes : to believe you were any good, they had to believe you were making big money. "Even in a pub, they thought if you was whizzing around on stage then you must be making it. If you told them you were only clearing two quid each for the evening, they started to think you must be rubbish."

Wilko kept on teaching, Sparko went on laying bricks, Lee remained in his solicitor’s office, unravelling the complexities of Canvey Island’s divorce scene. It was only when they landed a recording contract - three years after the group began one year after they reached the pub circuit - that they finally became professional musicians.

The recording contract posed a basic problem: how to transfer onto vinyl the crude but effective energy of their live show. Dr Feelgood solved the problem in a characteristically straightforward way by recording their album in mono. Since the progressive musical experiments of the mid sixties, the increasing sophistication of stereo sound engineering had come to epitomise the artistic aspirations of rock music. To imagine such classic rock albums as Sgt Pepper, Electric Ladyland, or The Notorious Byrd Brothers in mono, would be equivalent to imagining Van Gogh’s paintings in black and white: artistic sacrilege. By recording their first album. Down By The Jetty, in funky mono, Dr Feelgood created a powerful sound and struck another blow in their struggle to recapture the dynamic, uncomplicated roots of Rock.

And the recording contract was also their passport to performing outside the small club and pub stages their act had evolved upon. Three members of the music industry decided to join together to promote a tour aimed at breaking three acts through to a wider public. United Artists Records fielded Dr Feelgood, Charisma Records backed Chilli Willi And The Red Hot Peppers, and EMKA Production produced Kokomo. These three companies subsidised this throwback to a sixties style touring package, and the three groups took it in turns to top the bill - the playing order changed each night. This democratic showcase for subsidised music was given the coy title of the Naughty Rhythms Tour. All three groups had just recorded their first albums and were facing, in different ways, the problem of moving from a modest level of success to a major impact. Kokomo, a ten-piece band with a complex, urban soul sound, had already achieved a high degree of professionalism. Their career was being managed by Steve O’Rourke, who also happened to manage the Pink Floyd and was therefore in a position to pull a few strings when dealing with record companies and booking agencies. Chilli Willi had also graduated from the London pub/club circuit, but were a few years further down the road than Dr Feelgood and were that much more anxious to establish themselves. Halfway through the tour, Chilli Willi decided that things were not working out and announced that they were splitting up. Their demise was one more reminder of how hard it is to survive in rock without selling yourself via an extravagant image and without a record or management company willing to underwrite the early stages of a career. Rock’n’Roll remains a dangerous game.

Manchester : "Wilko ! Wilko !" said the young man with the red hair

For Dr Feelgood, however, the tour was a success. They went down like a bomb, their act worked better on a bigger stage, and their music gained in self-confidence. In many places their reception was a marked contrast with previous experiences in the same town. The first time that Dr Feelgood played Manchester, they were the support band for Hawkwind and they had coins hurled at them by some angry Mancunian mutants, impatient for their favourite psychedelic band. Dr Feelgood were not looking forward to their return to Manchester Free Trade Hall, but the evening turned into a triumph. The audience was with them from the first number, and when the opening bars of "Riot In Cell Block No 9" crashed through the hall, the audience leapt from their seats and rushed the front of the stage. Dr Feelgood found themselves playing their popular prison riot number with a real mob baying at their feet. "Just like a movie", muttered Lee afterwards, still shaken by the effect they’d created. A young man with red hair was crushing himself against the edge of the stage, howling "Wilko ! Wilko !" in adulation at every guitar solo.

Afterwards, Dr Feelgood collapsed in their dressing room, comatose and caked in sweat. The young man with red hair crashed his way backstage and into the dressing room. He rushed up to Wilko and lowered himself into a kneeling position. "Wilko! Wilko !" he screamed. Wilko opened his eyes, looked down at the kneeling fan, and wearily extended his arm to shake hands. The young man with red hair seized Wilko’s hand and kissed it. Wilko blinked, decided that he wasn’t hallucinating, and persuaded the young man to get up from the floor. They talked for a while.

The young man with red hair was also in a band, but he wasn’t happy with the music they were performing. Their style was based on Bryan Ferry and David Bowie, but the young man really wanted to play tough, basic music, like Dr Feelgood. "But we’re not able to play like you around here…" he explained, "…it’s the audience." "Well, we’ve just done it," replied Wilko. "It seemed to go down all right. You can only do what you want to do. If you believe in something, you’ll do it. We never thought anyone would be interested in us when we began. We only did it ’cos we wanted to." But the young man with red hair seemed to think he needed a permit to perform like Dr Feelgood. "How do you do it ?" he kept asking Wilko.

Lee : "Usually I'm in a coma when I come off stage."

Later, I asked Wilko what he made of the encounter. "There’s thousands of kids like that. Obviously you’ve got no musical ideas when you start to play - you just decide to play because you’ve seen someone on telly who makes you want to be like them. After a while the difference comes along - some keep pluggin’ on from on person’s ideas to another’s and they never come out with their own statement. Other people find things of their own and they follow that. That kid thought David Bowie was just an idol everyone was trying to copy. He can’t see that at one time David Bowie was plugging away, on his own, against other people who were established."

Finally, I asked Lee what he thought he’d be doing in five years’ time. "I dunno", he replied curtly, and then added, "…but there's one thing I’m sure of. In five years’ time I won’t regret ’aving done this."

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31 Décembre 2019
Wilko Johnson
Les concerts à venir...
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31 Décembre 2019
Dr Feelgood
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