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DR FEELGOOD
ARTICLES & REPORTS
TROUSER PRESS No.15, Aug/Sept. 1976
"America's only British Rock Magazine"
 

 

Canvey Island is not a terribly exotic locality by any stretch of the imagination. Isolated from the mainland Britain, its sole lifeline connection is one lonely bridge. Canvey is situated at the mouth of the Thames where the water is a slimy, filthy black and the air dark, dingy and incredibly pungent - all due to the island's overwhelming landmark: the oil refineries.

It´s not a large body of land, mind you, just seven miles long and five miles wide with a few thousand, mostly working class, inhabitants. Besides the oil refineries, Canvey's other claim to fame has been its holiday camps... "a daytripper's place, where they come down for a day, sort of a cheap working class holiday for the afternoon."

Notoriety comes again to Canvey Island in the personages of Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson, Sparko and The Figure, an imposing collection of rockers who make up Dr. Feelgood. Local boys making good, they've already conquered Britain (on their recent Naughty Rhythms Tour) and have just finished their first tour of America, where they gave the Yanks a hefty dose of their own patented rock and roll medicine.

Dr. Feelgood's speciality? A form of primitive, vigorously earthy R&B influenced rock that hits at gut level. Fresh and vital, Dr. Feelgood brings back the joy and raw energy that was so prevalent in early rock and was eventually lost to a great extent when technology, gimmicks, pyrotechnics, and the eggheads crept in.

Their relatively "normal" appearance is deceiving. No glitter or outrageous costumes for these boys. Dr. Feelgood appear onstage with short hair (they work up such a sweat that longer hair would be impractical, they say) and ill-fitting suit jackets.

There's lead guitarist Wilko Johnson. A demon axeman if every there was one, Wilko's demeanor is always ruffled and frighteningly intense (though also comical). Wild-eyed, obsessed, he moves back and forth onstage in jerky motions as if he's on a leash and can only move so far before someone yanks on the chain to bring him back. His guitar style is unique... a clipped, metallic, crisp sound produced by constant slashing movements.

One visual enticement would normally be more than enough for any band, but Dr. Feelgood features two memorable attractions. The other is lead singer, part-time harmonica player and slide guitarist, Lee Brilleaux. If Wilko is intense and possessed, Brilleaux is controlled madness and pent-up frustration. Almost spastically rigid as he sings, Brilleaux twitches, thumps the microphone and smashes his fist into his leg. Tension is built rather than released.

The seemingly more sane and settled half of Dr. Feelgood is John B. "Sparko" Sparks, bass guitar, and a friendly hulk on drums named The Figure, in reality John Martin. They're stalwarts, the anchor that prevents the nervous energy of the other two from shooting the band out into the stratosphere.

TOTP (Top Of The Pops) talked to Lee Brilleaux, Sparko and The Figure recently, one afternoon after their first Cleveland concert.

Dr. Feelgood, a name that comes from an Aretha Franklin song, was born in 1971, became popular on the pub circuits in London and soon moved up to the small halls and college venues around Britain.

Perhaps due to the intensity of their performances. Dr. Feelgood is fighting a reputation for over-heated concerts, with audiences prone to violence.

"It´s not that we're provoking violence," Lee Brilleaux was quick to explain, "it's only energy. The kids at our concerts just scream and shout and jump about. We don't have any real trouble."

"Violence is a natural part of life; everyone has got aggression in them. We say, 'lets turn it into a bit of fun.' It doesn't have to come out in a bad way. Look, there's more violence in a football match than there is at one of our concerts."

On record, Dr. Feelgood has released two albums in Britain, Down By The Jetty and Malpractice, the latter serving as their debut LP in America. The predominant characteristic of Feelgood on vinyl is their simple, uncluttered sound. No overdubs and complicated production techniques add artificial padding to a track.

The Feelgoods' albums try to capture the energy, spontaneity and first-take freshness of a live performance. It was for this reason that the band recorded Down By The Jetty in mono, a four-letter wordthat turned many record buyers off and led to unfortunately smaller sales than this fine record deserved. By the time Malpractice was cut, Feelgood had discovered a few new techniques to achieve their desired effect and still produce in stereo.

Sparko discussed the reasons behind Dr. Feelgood's recording philosophies and practices."We think that if you produce a record with a lot of overdubs and things, it takes the realness out of the music. It becomes very manufactured. It's the right sound for some music, but it doesn't fit ours. We tend to record all at once in a studio instead of building up track by track, so you get a more together feel on record."

Malpractice and its predecessor, Down By The Jetty, featured about a 50-50 split, combining original tunes (penned by guitarist Wilko Johnson) with R&B favourites of the band. Unlike many groups, Dr. Feelgood does not insist on 100 percent originality of material.

"There are other influences as well. Wilko, our guitarist, is influenced by an English rock guitarist called Mick Green, who used to play with Johnny Kidd and The Pirates. Wilko's kind of clipped guitar style would never have been heard in a black blues band. It's something quite different. It's a mixture. Each of us has got his own little characteristic in playing this music, so it comes out different."

It's not an easy life for any band touring America for the first time with no reputation and only a newly-released debut album as a selling point. Feelgood seems unconcerned with the lack of hoopla surrounding their initial visit to America. They're confident and maintain a very common sense attitude as to their expectations.

Lee Brilleaux explained, "In some ways, America is a relief. There's a lot of pressure off you. It got to the point in Britain where every gig we played was a big event. At least we can come over here and be more laid back and philosophical about it. If we don't go down so well one gig, we can make up for it at another."

"You see, we want to earn a bit of respect over here by working at the lower levels. A bit of genuine real respect, rather than getting a hype job done on us and having to live up to incredible amounts of publicity."

Remarkable! A down-to-earth attitude in this hyped-up world of rock and roll. Refreshing, as is Dr. Feelgood's music. Nothing flashy, it is music for the common man, born of the working class environment that spawned Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson, Sparko and The Figure.

If you look past the stench and smoke of Canvey's oil refineries, you can see a little glimmer of hope.
Their name is Dr. Feelgood.

(Many Thanks to STEVE in the USA for sending photocopies of the article.)

Correction:
It was not the Aretha Franklin song "Dr Feelgood" the inspiration for the name of the band, but it was suggested by Sparko to take their name of The Pirates song "Dr Feelgood" which originally was a chartbreaker for William "Piano Red" Perryman.

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