Thursday, February 11, 2010

Wilko Johnson and Dr. Feelgood

Wilko gives a guitar lesson, Brian May was on the same show, May stressed the wearing of loose, flowing, garments . Dr. Feelgood at their peak-- 1975. I love the drum solo.
Wilko back in Oil City: Canvey Island, Essex. Wilko today, he looks a bit like Tor Johnson. I noticed the Julien Temple's Dr. Feelgood documentary Oil City Confidential has hit the theaters in the U.K. and parts of Europe, I doubt it will get released here in the U.S., but hopefully it will at eventually turn up on tv, perhaps on Sundance Channel's Doc Mondays which could really use some help, they consistently show the dullest and lamest documentaries ever made.
Chart toppers in the U.K., Dr. Feelgood never developed much of a following here in the states, by the time the word got out about them, guitarist Wilko Johnson had left the band and Johnny Rotten had pronounced all pub rock "rubbish" giving them an air of unfashionablility. The flared pants didn't help.
I used to work for a concert promoter when I was a teen, mostly just watching the door and running errands, and I remember once Dr. Feelgood were booked to open for Kiss at the Miami Jai Lai Fronton, a 4,500 seat hall, it must have been around 1975. Unfortunately, the Feelgoods canceled and I didn't see them until I got to New York City where they played at the Bottom Line once (with the Ramones? Rockpile? I can't remember who the else was on the bill). They were a thousand times better live than on record. I must admit, if I want to hear Riot In Cellblock #9 I'd play the original Robins version, and if I want to hear Brits covering American R&B tunes I tend to go with the Stones/Pretty Things/Yardbirds, but Dr. Feelgood really did add something unique to a set list that 90% of which would have been familiar to any American bar band between the years 1962-70. And much of what the added came from guitarist Wilko Johnson-- his chunky, "it sounds like two guitars" guitar style, his wired, robot walk stage presence, and their best original songs, Wilko was really what made Dr. Feelgood into a truly great band. After leaving Dr. Feelgood in 1977, he was replaced by John "Gypie" Mayo, a good but somewhat colorless player who added little to their sound and had almost no charisma onstage. The chemistry, or perhaps a better term would be alchemy, was gone. That X factor that makes a great rock'n'roll band. The reason why a bunch of crappy musicians can sound great together, or why a bunch of great musicians can sound as dull as dishwater, went out the window when Wilko left the band. Wilko formed a band called the Solid Senders who made a couple of decent records, then joined Ian Dury's band for a bit, the rest of Dr. Feelgood carried on (in fact their 1978 Nick Lowe produced LP Milk and Alcohol wasn pretty good) , the original members dropping out one by one. There's a Dr. Feelgood on the road right now, Lord knows who they are. Frontal lobe Lee Brilleaux (pronounced Brillo) from Durban, South Africa (current home to their biggest fan-- Brendan O'Reilly) died of cancer in 2004. At Clement Moore Park, around the corner from my house, someone has shelled out to name a park bench in his honor. Wilko Johnson never found a group to showcase his talents as good as sympathetic to his strengths as Dr. Feelgood. For a short time he was in a terrible group called Sheena & the Rokkats, but more often then not plays solo with just a rhythm section. In a way he reminds me of Fleetwood Mac's Peter Green in that he let something very special slide through his fingers.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

Played a show with Dr.Feelgood this past summer in a bullfighting ring in Cazorla Spain. Wilko was playing guitar with them and sounded brilliant!

Anonymous said...

I believe Dr. Feelgood played Max's in '76 with the Ramones as openers.

The Hound said...

My brain is so foggy, you sure it was Max's and not the Bottom Line?

amy said...

The documentary has Roberta Bayley talking about the Ramones opening for Dr. Feelgood at the Bottom Line, and what a big deal it was for them.

jneilnyc said...

Love love loved Feelgood when Wilko was in the band. Their hot, edgy, cutting sound had more in common with some postpunk than with most of their contempories in the pub rock scene.

If I wanted to find a guitarist to compare Wilko to, it wouldn't be Dave Edmunds or Martin Belmont (to name 2 of the better known) but rather to Andy Gill of Gang of Four (the same abrasive hyper-trebly rhythm attack) or Bill Carter of Screaming Blue Messiahs (who even had the same I-can't-believe-he's-making-all-that-racket-without-a-pick style):

Andy Gill

Bill Carter

Both of these guys owe an obvious debt to Wilko, even as they lifted his sound out of the pure R&B world.

Joe said...

The Feelgood/Ramones show was most definitely at The Bottom Line, sometime in mid-May '76. I remember it pretty well.

Wornoutmorgan said...

Must put in my two cents. Lee Brilleaux was a great front man in my opinion (sorry, don't know how to shorten that for the modern kids), and no band can suffer from a GOOD front man. I had a beer with with one afternoon in Melbourne, and I lamented that I was doing a show (I was just starting and it was important) on the one night they were playing. He urged me to do my own show. He was also known to say to anyone badmouthing a third party - 'you're telling the wrong man'. So here's to him.

Anonymous said...

There was a bill @ Max's w/Feelgood and the Ramones summer '76. No doubt those groups could have played together more than once!

The Hound said...

"No doubt those groups could have played together more than once!"

I think such is the case, although I also seem to remember dr. feelgood playing with the senders once, I can't remember where, but like I said, my memories of gigs kind of run together.

don waller said...

I saw the original Dr. Feelgood line-up play the Roxy here in L.A. and they were good. (I believe it was the only time that band played here.)

As far as Wilko Johnson's guitar style, it's completely derived from the (recently) late, great Mick Green of (Johnny Kidd &) The Pirates. Wilko's bug-eyed, amped to the gills, herky-jerky stage presence, however, was entirely his own.

jneilnyc said...

There's no denying Mick Green's huge influence, but then he probably influenced most English R&B guitarists in some form or other. When Feelgood was in their prime in the early-to-mid 70s, though, the Pirates were old news -- their reunion and live gigging were still a few years away, so I'm willing to bet that Mick nicked a few licks from Wilko as well as the other way around.

Questions of influence aside, Wilko was much more pure rhythm and chordwork than Mick, who was more likely to toss in traditional R'n'R soloing. Of the 3 songs in the OGWT clip, only one of them has anything approaching a "guitar solo".

Anonymous said...

This is merely for the record. The first Dr Feelgood album without Wilko was "Be Seeing You" produced by Nick Lowe 1977. The next "Private Practice" (1978), was produced by Richard Gottehrer, and featured the song "Milk & Alcohol" written by Nick Lowe and Gypie Mayo. The first track off "Private Practice" is "Down at the Doctors" by Mickey Jupp and contains the best piano break recorded by the Feelgoods of any incarnation: Lee Brilleaux announces "eight bars of piano", and since there is no pianist at hand we only get bass and drums. Brilliant Brilleaux.

Saw Dr F on the "Be Seeing You"-tour in Sweden, and Wilko a couple of years later.

Half the fun with this blog is guessing who will be the next feature. Great work!

/R

wilthomer said...

Cool as hell. I can't say I enjoy the first two Jam Lp's the same after I discovered Dr. Feelgood's "Down By the Jetty" LP years back. Hopefully this flick will make it over here in the States, if not that'll be another Amazon.co.uk purchase when it hits DVD!

Anonymous said...

Oil City Confidential has its broadcast debut on BBC4 this Friday, 23rd May. It's a great documentary profiling Wilko and providing a social history of Canvey Island, but it adds little insight into just why the Feelgoods mattered. For an answer to that you have to see the dvd Going Back Home which can be had for next to nothing on amazon.co.uk. The best footage on Oil City comes from that Southend show, you also get a live cd which includes the Stupidity album along with a host of extras. Watching Going Back Home will make you into a believer . . . Watching Oil City Confidential will make you wish the BBC would give Wilko his own tv show . . .

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