Dr. Feelgood
Lee Brilleaux & Wilko Johnson - Just a bunch of skifflers (juin 1976)

Propos recueillis par Alan Curtis et David Forgacs © Street Life

Where do Dr. Feelgood go from here ? The cutting edge of English R&B. Featuring the return of humour, the pressures of success, the problems of development. Starring Wilko Johnson as W.H. Auden… by Alan Curtis and David Forgacs

When we started playing in England it wasn’t reckoned to be commercial ; people were saying all sorts of things about it. But the kind of audiences we get now are kids who are just reacting to it as music. They haven't got any theories about it, we haven’t got any theories about it; there’s nothing behind it more than just the music. They’re reacting to that, which is what we wanted."

To some eyes Dr Feelgood are a disfigurement, chopped chords intruding into the steady 24 track hiss of serious and relaxed enjoyment. To others they are a welcome sign of the life underneath the senescence of Seventies rock. Enough has been written about their roots - their progress from Canvey Island and the pub circuit to sell-out tours and the precipice of making it big in the States. Navigating the ins and outs of Southend rock tells you nothing about the group’s present importance in British rock music.

At the moment Dr Feelgood seem to have reached a plateau: just back from a successful visit to the States and starting to feel the pressures of the business. The obvious question is what do they do next.

In a period like today of increasing chauvinism, an interesting exercise might be to pick out the themes of the last ten years which display, to paraphrase Pevsner, the Englishness of English rock music. To link for instance Pete Brown and Bryan Ferry as songwriters or Wilko Johnson and Mick Green as musicians.

Wilko himself points out the paradox of this facet of the English lineage : "We’re definitely a very English band. Johnny Kidd and the Pirates were the model for our music initially. After that it took its own course. That’s not to say that we’re into Sixties British rock. But because of Mick Green the Pirates were the only band that made an American sound, but one that you could tell immediately was English. I mean Mick Green was the guy that really invented rhythm and lead together."

The traditional view of the Englishness of Dr Feelgood is of a flotilla of raucously phrased R&B chords slicing their way through the internationally swollen wash of technorock, coming, as they only could, out of the "really interesting awfulness" (Wilko) of Canvey Island.

Yet talking to Wilko Johnson, Lee Brilleaux and the Figure (the band, less bassist John B. Sparks) you find that they see themselves as English in a completely different and perhaps more important way. For the group, historically, it was the Naughty Rhythms tour which brought it all together.

"Yes, we are a community", says Wilko, "Chilli Willi, the Kursaal Flyers, Kokomo and us. It was one of the good things about that scene - there wasn't any jealousy really. In the real body of those bands everyone was friends and still are. That's why Stoney (Martin Stone, late of Chilli Willi) is working downstairs in our studio at the moment - because we’re mates. And when Ace came out with that sudden success nobody was jealous. Everyone was really glad that one of us had done it."

"It’s an important collection of groups because it was and is just people all playing music, and there are no superstars. And the wide variety of music being made : I mean, the first time I saw the Willies, I'd never listened to that country style of music before, but we played second to them that night and I listened to them for the first time. It just knocked me out - I could see they really meant it. It got me just the same way as listening to R&B."

However, in Feelgood’s case, the unassuming everybody is just trying to get some music down is slightly at variance with the threateningly theatrical image they present on stage. One feels at first sight that there is an intimate choreography, a style expressly designed to get the music over. But words like "style" and "pose" are anathema to them.

Wilko explains : "We started doing it originally not for the audience, because when we first started playing we were doing places where the audience didn’t take a lot of notice, and we started doing all the things like that for our own benefit, to make us feel more excited. And it is still the same in a way : you do it to excite yourself as much as the audience. Like I’ve been reading letters in the papers saying 'I think they just put it on every night'. Of course you bloody put it on every night."

"We don’t walk down the street like that all day long you know", adds Lee.

"Nobody can walk on stage night after night after being really shagged out from travelling and that and immediately feel like rock and roll. You have to move yourself into it. All these things come from someone who, if he isn’t you, is very much a part of you."

"So it wasn‘t a pose initially", Lee says. "I don’t like the word 'pose' now, I’ve got reservations about using it. It’s not a pose - rather you adopt a stance."

On stage, Lee Brilleaux starts out on full revs and winds into the red danger band about halfway through a gig. In the guitar breaks Wilko spins out into the centre, a motorised toy worked by means of coils of flex. Sparko struts back and forward, the Figure’s sticks thresh around behind. This is not rapport but a visual cohesion between characters acting out strongly individualised parts. Lee frigging the mike in his centre-stage patch suddenly gets obscured by Wilko zipping across with his guitar, so one character will temporarily suppress the other.

But there’s no question of the two vying with each other for the most stage presence. Lee is direct with an audience, swinging his fist about or shaking his head over the harp, showing emotion like a bluesman. Wilko is more alienated ; the black clothes don’t show up the sweat, the movements are more rigid and more intermittent.

"The sweat has always gone right through my shirt, through my jacket and through to the other side of my leather guitar strap. That’s how much we sweat. You’re just literally soaking : you can wring your shirt out. Lee gets cramp and has to take salt tablets afterwards ; I just get catatonic."

Lee’s stage persona is one that he assumed "sort of naively originally, like we all did, obviously live come to do it with a bit more self-realisation because I’ve read about myself. When I first used to do it - like all of us - I used to go on stage and those were the things we would start doing spontaneously ; for better or for worse those are the ones that we do."

Is Wilko being himself on stage to the same degree as Lee ?

"Not so much, because I tend to be very moody and just go round scowling a lot of the time. I don’t whizz round much. But I suppose there’s a part of me that wants to."

They do 'Riot in Cell Block No. 9' as more of a set piece where Wilko and Sparko are jailers, Lee the prisoner. Wilko says that all the numbers they do are either from their own experience or are something they know about, and this one is in everybody’s experience "because nobody’s been in a riot in a jail but everyone's been to see James Cagney doing it, and that’s what the song is all about. It’s about a film, it’s not about a riot."

"What happened with a song like that is that there are certain fairly obvious things you can do while you’re playing it, and they gradually fitted together. It’s a bit of a party piece with us now, and you find that there’s more or less two or three points in that song when we know what the others are going to be doing and we all act together. The rest of it is looseness, like everything else we do."

But 'Riot' does represent the humour and theatrical play of their whole act. Their violence is humorous rather than sinister.

Lee says it’s wholesome. Wilko explains that "the stage act just came because we were playing the music, and when you do 'Riot ; you feel very violent and vicious but at the same time you realise you’re like kids doing it playing at being a hard nut. It’s a great feeling because you really believe it, even though you know it‘s silly and if you did it in the street everyone would be laughing at you."

Feelgood seem to be a group with a balanced attitude to the pressure any band on the way up begins to meet. They emphasise how they are in it for the fun of playing music, but they have picked their path very carefully, and with both they refuse to compromise.

Wilko says : "I don’t know that there’s any musicians on the whole scene who would compromise what they’re doing in order to succeed. And everybody’s still at it, sticking to their guns. Groups like the Willies may have broken up : a couple of them are in the States, Paul’s in Roogalator, Martin Stone’s in our studio at the moment. They all stick to things they believe in."

"I mean, I’m very flattered to be in NME’s top ten guitarists, but I know ten guitarists who are better than me. We went over to Amsterdam just before Christmas - Nick Lowe, Martin Stone and us lot. We called ourselves Spick Ace and the Bluesharks, and we went and played some little clubs. A holiday really, having some fun playing without the pressures. Some of the stuff Stoney was coming out with was great - it was a real drag when I started soloing."

If Feelgood sound like the Stones of l964 it is not because those are their roots but because, as Wilko points out, both were influenced at different times by the same Fifties R&B. They object to being thought of as a revival band for this historical reason. Also, the message of revivals is entirely different from what they are putting over.

With the question of what to do next, however, historical comparison is pertinent. As they are the first to admit, they confine themselves tightly within the R&B format. This limits them both musically and lyrically to exploring only certain themes and styles and as yet, with two albums under the belt, they have given little indication of how they could develop without merely repeating the same formula.

The insoluble problem is that the music played on stage is so limited in its format that it is impossible to develop without changing completely, which then makes it difficult to pack that original punch on stage. The easy solution to this in the Sixties was psychedelia, but it sounded the death knell for live R&B. It is a problem Feelgood are very conscious of.

Wilko comments : "Look at the rubbish that came out when that started up. There were a few people like the Beatles and the Stones and Dylan who changed because they were that kind of people. But then everyone else, all the R&B bands - suddenly started turning up covered in flowers and wanting to hear about Buddha. To me that was a betrayal."

"That’s why there was so much bad music coming up then: because there were people writing about the kinds of issues, for instance, which were raised by taking LSD, and that often led to a lot of people who didn’t know much about anything suddenly being confronted with manifestations of genius. And then trying to put that down - well, rock and roll just missed by a mile where the business was concerned."

So how does Wilko feel the band’s music can develop within its own limits ?

"I want, and I think we all do now, to develop in some way, and this is what we’re waiting for at the moment. That’s the reason we’ve got the studio going. But we’ve been working very hard on the road and we haven’t had a lot of time to think. Initially we planned to come back from the States and immediately make the album, but if we made an album to order now we’d probably be regurgitating a lot of what is gone down. Not that we don’t plan to make an album soon."

"We want to stick with R&B - that's the music we like - but there’s lots of different types. There’s loads of aspects of things that, for instance, Bo Diddley has done that we haven't touched yet. To take a band like the Roogalator. They to me, whatever people say about them, are plainly just a good R&B band. But they are in a completely different area of R&B from where we are."'

"R&B’s just vast", Lee says, "there’s no formula."

"It just shows the kind of variety you can run to and still remain true to what you started doing. We are aiming at the moment to find something else in that kind of area. That’s what we’re doing in the studio at the moment. It’s not going to be radically different because we are limited technically. We ain’t that fucking good, we're only a bunch of skifflers. I mean, talking about the Roogalator, I couldn’t do what Danny Adler s doing, he’s so much better than me. So obviously there are areas of music that are open to him that we can’t even touch, just technically."

Writing the words to R&B songs also subjects you to a set of limitations. Wilko used to write poetry in his student days but gave it up because his technique wasn’t equal to the things that he really wanted to write about. But handling words intelligently naturally rubs off on his songwriting.

"Songwriting is a very different thing from poetry. It always annoys me when you hear people going on about so-and-so singer being a poet. That’s not to denigrate rock music. I think people say that because they’re a little ashamed of rock music and they think they’ve got to elevate it. In order to explain why it moves them so much they’ve got to give it the name of some art or other. It’s not. It's just rock and roll."

"It does move you that much, it’s nothing to be ashamed of whatsoever. But on the other hand, if you‘re in the position where you have found yourself accidentally writing songs, you’re going to approach it a lot in the same way as poetry. Writing songs in many ways is a better medium - although it’s more difficult for me: it doesn’t come easy to me by a long way."

Wilko is very conscious that when writing and performing R&B one is confined to certain typical themes and images, but he is concerned to use these to write about the subjects that interest him personally.

For example, the half-mythical, half-documentary song 'Down By The Jetty' : "It is about Canvey Island - it’s just like an observation of the life going on. Some of it is a bit of a dream interpretation of the place. I mean, it’s not a city, there isn’t that kind of urban thing you get in the song."

So "I’ve been walking all through the city" is a reference to classic R&B settings ? "Yes, but it’s very much a part of my experience. I’ve spent a lot of time living in cities and (I don‘t want to sound too shitty) living on the street, you know live seen that going on, the buzz of it. I just tried to say that; it’s nice to say things like that. But whenever you’re writing a cliche song about how much you like a girl, a song that is a bit wider than that, I pay just as much attention to the lyrics of both because I do like them to be intelligent."

Wilko is nearer to the Auden and Spender of the Thirties than to the suburban beat poet - concerned to write intelligently about urban themes but in a form that is immediately comprehensible to an audience.

"When you listen to a rock song you’re not in a reflective mood, you’re in a very physical, energetic state. Often in writing you get a theme going and the velocity of the music suggests what the song is about and you just try and lit a thing round that. And, using slogans, it’s a very natural process to use cliches so that people more or less know the lines - they’ve heard them before in different ways which is a thing you almost never do when you’re writing poetry."

When Wilko started writing these kinds of songs, was there a conscious attempt to write something that would sound like an old R&B number, with phrases that sounded authentic for that kind of music ?

"Oh yeah ; I still do. I get phrases that would sound right, as well coming out of our mouths."

"In keeping rather than authentic", says Lee.

Dr Feelgood are definitely not street punks. The quintessential street punk would seem to be a figure who just reflects concisely the life around him - he’s stupid, he doesn’t interpret. A new sort of ethnic appeal. Dr Feelgood on the contrary are intelligent, they are very conscious of all their limits and of how the growing pressures of their success may tend to ossify the music within safe walls.

The appendages of success are beginning to emerge: kids turning up to gigs dressed like them, CBS waiting to give them the big push in the States, new mohair suits at the start of a tour. But will success transport them into the cosy excesses of the recording studio, thereby banishing their exciting edge ? Wilko says not.

"Recording to us is often just a series of arguments about 'you can’t do this', and you say 'why ?' and they say it’s not done like that. We say, 'well, this is the way we’re going to do it.' We started mixing Down By The Jetty into stereo and some of it, because we hadn’t done overdubs to any great degree - more or less none - with such a small band you’re dividing everything up until you’ve got nothing, and a few of the tracks, it was just obvious they ought to be in mono. So we did them in mono, which meant it ended up in half mono, half stereo, which was silly, so we did it in mono."

"We’re gradually simplifying the whole recording stunt down. We got into this last thing where we didn’t like Dolbys. The engineers were saying to us 'What’s wrong with Dolbys ?' and Lee turned round and said 'Would you trust anyone with a name like Dolby ?'"

"They said 'you can’t do it, because when you mix down from 16 tracks without Dolby you get too much hiss. So we said ‘Right, what about mixing straight down onto two tracks as you’re playing ? And they said 'you can’t do that' and we said 'why' ? And they said 'well, you’ve got this 16 track machine'. So we started doing it straight down onto two tracks, so you’re making the master as you’re playing, and we really like that."

"In future we’ll mix straight down onto a Revox. You’re very on edge then because you know if you fuck it somehow you can’t go back and mend it. You’ve either got to play good or it aunt going to be good. It gives you a bit of the excitement of playing in front of people. Even if you don’t intend to go back and do a solo, the fact that you can tends to y take away some of the edge."

"With a band like us I think the most important thing we aim at is feeling. B.B. King has got so much soul with so much technique it really becomes superhuman. But technique is nothing without feeling. You get John Lee Hooker who can only play three chords, but the way he plays them is great, it just gets the emotion. John McLaughlin’s nothing, it don’t do nothing to me."

The Figure mentions a new style of drumming in the last ten years : "It’s a matter of hitting everything you can as many times as you can in a minute. Not very interesting. Like, Billy Cobham is technically so good it loses any meaning." And Wilko : "The way we play, we do it real good, but it’s confined within pretty close limits and we don’t ever try and stray beyond them. And that’s our polish."

Wilko Johnson travaille sur un nouvel album
11 Mai 2017

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27 Novembre 2016

Docteur Wilko Johnson
20 Novembre 2016

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