04 July 2015

The grime of blues, the menace of punk

Tonight I watched for the first time Julien Temple's film Oil City Confidential, a 2009 documentary about the Essex band Dr Feelgood. This was an ideal introduction to the group, about which I knew too little - the only time I had seen them was on a clip from 1975 on the BBC music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test. For time in the mid-seventies Dr Feelgood was the leading live rock band in Britain, achieving a chart-topping live album in 1976, sandwiched between the pop powerhouses of the Stylistics and Abba. 

The band's mix of gritty blues-rock and ominous (some would say menacing) stage presence combined to bring Dr Feelgood into the spotlight and contributed to broad popularity with rock fans across Britain and Europe. Their success was also despite their unfashionable pub-rock roots, and their defiantly unglamorous style and origins (being from down-at-heel Canvey Island in Essex, a bleak seaside oil refinery town). It was only the departure of lead guitarist and main songwriter Wilko Johnson in 1977 that prevented the band from becoming world famous. 

The film is a valuable insight into the personality of the surviving members and a testament to the commanding stage presence of frontman Lee Brilleaux who died of cancer in 1994. It's a pleasure to hear the confident young chancers jokily dismissing the long-haired loon-panted prog rock that was in vogue when they first emerged as 'girls' music', and to soak up the tumbling avalanche of anecdotes from Johnson, who recently won a reprieve from cancer and teamed up with Roger Daltrey for an album (Going Back Home) that was definitely not called Roger Wilko. 

Here's a cracking 1975 TV performance from the Tyne Tees show The Geordie Scene that's a useful sampler of the band's commanding stage performance - featuring all the elements: Lee's swaggering, gravelly delivery and propulsive harmonica breaks, Wilko's machine-gun lead guitar, glowering 40 yard stare and deranged stage wandering, a John Lee Hooker cover to puzzle the 15-year-old girls trying to throw disco moves in brown cardigans, plus John B Sparks and The Big Figure in the back keeping things tight. The only pity is the stage is too small for Wilko's proper perambulations, and the daft wazzock introducing the items.

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