LAST week we left Dr Feelgood in the early 1970s playing their first gigs together in the area around their native Canvey Island. In those early days there were three Johns in the band – John Wilkinson on guitar, John Sparkes on bass and John Martin on drums – plus singer Lee Collinson. After one particularly sweaty performance, Collinson compared his matted barnet to a Brillo pad and decided he would henceforth be known as Lee Brillo. Then he, in his words, ‘frogged it up a bit’ to Brilleaux. Sparkes became Sparko, the hulking Martin was officially titled The Big Figure and Wilkinson was rechristened Wilko Johnson. At one time Brilleaux suggested the bassist and guitarist’s names be spelt Sparkeaux and Wilkeaux but was outvoted.
Lee’s mum Joan, a legal secretary, in her lunch hour typed out a change-of-name deed for her son. ‘I got it witnessed and he had it stamped the next time he went to London.’ She told author Zoe Howe that this was necessary because Lee had worked as a legal clerk after leaving school. ‘Once you’re articled to a solicitor and come under the Law Society you’re not allowed to have another job,’ she said. Wilko also followed the deed-poll route, glad to be shot of his father’s name. He hates to be referred to as John.
Dr Feelgood built up a reputation for hard-driving sets comprising classic rock ’n’ roll songs – an antidote to the excesses of the progressive music scene. This brought them into contact with German-born Heinz Burt, a former front man with the Joe Meek-produced Tornados. Meek, who was in love with the German-born Burt, called him simply Heinz and persuaded him to bleach his hair. It was with a shotgun left by Heinz at Meek’s flat that the producer killed his landlady then himself.
By 1972 there was a rock ’n’ roll revival and Heinz, then aged 30 and selling advertising space for a Southend newspaper, decided to resume his performing career. He announced he needed a band and a music shop owner in the town recommended the Feelgoods. When they arrived at his house he felt intimidated by these four tough-looking young scruffs and refused to let them in the front door but told them to go round to a summerhouse in the back garden. There, 20 seconds of them playing Great Balls of Fire was enough to land them the job.
Touring with Heinz was great experience for the lads but it was hardly the big time. Sparko told Zoe Howe: ‘We didn’t always have hotels. We’d sleep on people’s floors. One time we camped on Portland Bill. Lee went fishing with Heinz and they came back with these fish and wanted to sell them to a fish and chip shop. They were all on the floor in the van, sliding about, people treading on them.’
On August 5, 1972, Heinz and the Feelgoods appeared before a crowd of 80,000 in the London Rock ‘N’ Roll Show at Wembley Stadium, sharing the bill with Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis and the MC5. Wilko would develop his own skittering stagecraft after being greatly impressed by MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer’s extravagant movements. Heinz suggested the band change their name to the Tornados and join him permanently but they declined.
Until this point Lee and Co had been long-haired but their manager Chris Fenwick, a part-time actor, landed a movie role. Wilko’s brother Malcolm said it involved Chris filming on a Royal Naval vessel. ‘He had to get his hair cut for the part. When the others saw it they all thought it looked great, so all their hair was cut short too.’
The band began a residency at a Southend pub called the Top Alex. Zoe Howe writes: ‘What the Feelgoods were doing was evolving their own unique style and the foundation of that style was the cheap suit. Lee often had the crazed, undone look of a corrupt detective inspector who’d been up all night on a case, grubby shirt pulled open at the neck, tie yanked loose, sweat rapidly wiped from his brow as he snarled, swaggered and pointed an accusatory finger at no one in particular.’ Even more eye-catching than Lee, Wilko launched himself backwards and forwards at incredible speed, head jerking like a demented pigeon and firing out killer chords with a manic stare which he had perfected as a teacher in front of a room of 15-year-olds.
By this time the pub rock scene was booming in London and the Feelgoods became an integral part of it. ‘People started hooking on to them,’ said their then roadie Geoff Shaw. ‘They were always a bit crazy but in London they really cranked it up. Lee would be throwing bottles, lying on the floor. Wilko was like a zomboid on rails. Figure, you never saw his eyes, greased-back hair, he looked like a horrible mafioso. It was killer.’
Despite the band’s popularity with the punters and music press, record companies were reluctant to take a chance on a bunch of short-haired rowdies playing music from the Fifties and Sixties.
However in the spring of 1974 Nick Lowe, then still in the United Artists band Brinsley Schwarz, told the label’s A & R man Andrew Lauder that he should go and see Dr Feelgood because they reminded him of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. Lauder watched the band and fell in love with their direct, no-nonsense approach so unlike the increasingly self-indulgent progressive music scene. ‘The Feelgoods made perfect sense to me,’ he said. ‘It was so totally against what was going on.’
Soon everyone at UA was raving about the Feelgoods and so was the New Musical Express. Writer Nick Kent rejoiced that the ‘spivs’ from Canvey had arrived to shake up the ‘fops’ of prog rock, adding that their singer had ‘all the physical grace of a homicidal plumber’. His colleague Mick Farren described them as ‘hell’s own dance band’. On her son’s apparent rages, Joan Collinson observed: ‘He wasn’t really an angry person. Seemed to go over all right, didn’t it? I really don’t understand any of it.’ Zoe Howe memorably describes Brilleaux’s onstage aura as ‘dodgy car salesman gone berserk’.
Conscious that the group could not get by on cover versions for ever, Wilko started to write his own songs with Lee’s vocals and his own choppy guitar style in mind. Between August and November 1974 they recorded their first album, Down By The Jetty, with producer Vic Maile. He wanted to work in the conventional Seventies way with the four recording their parts separately but Wilko insisted on playing together as a band, with no overdubs, as in his favourite records from the Sixties. The black-and-white cover shows a windblown foursome at 4am after a gig, with Canvey’s Lobster Smack pub in the background, and the island features strongly in songs such as All Through the City with its brilliant percussive guitar intro and lines including ‘towers burning at the break of day’. Other Wilko originals include She Does It Right, (the first song he wrote for the Feelgoods), Roxette and Keep It Out of Sight while there are covers of John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom (here in a live TV version, dig Wilko’s haircut) and Pirates guitarist Mick Green’s Oyeh! The LP was released in mono not as a gimmick but purely ‘because it sounded better’. It still sounds great.
During recording sessions at Rockfield Studio in Monmouth the band, with the exception of the teetotal Wilko, had discovered a pub called the Punch House in Monmouth and became such good customers that the landlord invited them to be his darts team, even though none of them could throw for toffee.
Soon after the album’s release in January 1975 the Feelgoods played the Old Grey Whistle Test and they joined UA’s Naughty Rhythms Tour with Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and Kokomo, stealing every show. Another tour, Speeding Through Europe, saw the band headlining and introduced Lee’s infamous white suit, which was never cleaned and, according to the roadies, stood up on its own in the dressing room. Sadly, conflicts began to arise, particularly between Lee and Wilko. The latter’s distaste for alcohol was an issue and there was a rivalry as to who was the leader of the band. It did not help that Wilko was clearly the fans’ favourite.
After months of frantic gigging, during which a resentful Wilko somehow found time to write some more songs while the rest of the guys boozed it up, it was back into the studio for LP No 2, Malpractice, released in October, 1975. This reached No 17 in the album charts, vastly outselling its predecessor. Again produced by Maile, it includes several Feelgood classics including Going Back Home, (great clip, this) which Wilko co-wrote with his hero Mick Green, and Back in the Night.
There is also a powerful cover of Leiber and Stoller’s Riot in Cell Block No 9. A run of dates to promote Malpractice included a recorded concert at the Kursaal in Southend (great video of the old pier).
By now the band had been signed by the mighty CBS label in the States and crossed the Atlantic for a series of events notable for their lavish hospitality in the drinks department. This deepened the resentment between the thirsty bachelor Brilleaux and Wilko, who was a married father and missing his family back home. ‘Deep animosity was going on,’ Johnson told Zoe Howe. ‘We couldn’t stand each other. I was getting isolated from the whole of the band. I’m up in my room writing songs and they’re down in the bar drinking and talking about . . . well, me, probably.’
When punk arrived, the Feelgoods decided to respond with their own show of energy, a live album with no overdubs. In September 1976 the Kursaal recording plus a show in Sheffield provided the material for Stupidity, which shot to No 1 in the album charts on its first week of release. Its covers include Chuck Berry’s Talking About You, Rufus Thomas’s Walking the Dog, Bo Diddley’s I’m a Man and the title track by Solomon Burke.
In December the band played the Hammersmith Palais, watched for the first time by Lee’s mum and dad, who loved the show. It would be Wilko’s last live performance with the other three. He refused point-blank to return to America and left the band during recording at Rockfield of their fourth album, Sneakin’ Suspicion.
For me, the Feelgoods without Johnson could never be the same. They went on to record many more LPs with changing personnel but I felt the magic was gone. Wilko himself was bitter about the band continuing to use his songs and the Feelgood logo, which he designed.
I lived in Southend from 1987 to 1991, commuting to Fleet Street, and was on the last train from Fenchurch Street one night when I noticed a large man in a flashy red silk waistcoat sitting opposite. It was Lee Brilleaux, returning to the house in Leigh-on-Sea which he bought with Feelgood royalties and named The Proceeds. Regular readers will be aware of my previous world exclusive interviews with Nils Lofgren and Richard Sinclair, extracted from my yet-to-be-published memoir In Depth: Conversations with the Stars. Here’s another.
AA: Nods at Brilleaux.
LB: ‘All right, mate?’ Closes his eyes and falls asleep.
As the train pulled into Chalkwell I was about to give him a nudge but he woke up miraculously just in time and disappeared into the night.
I later learned that he and I both patronised the same Chalkwell butcher, David Harrison, although our paths never crossed again. Harrison is among those interviewed in Julien Temple’s brilliant Feelgoods documentary Oil City Confidential, which also includes footage from a BBC Man Alive edition showing a young, earnest, long-haired Wilko addressing a protest meeting against oil refinery expansion on Canvey.
Even after moving to Kent, we often combined trips to see the Brent geese feeding on the eel grass at Leigh and the avocets of Two Tree Island with a visit to Harrison’s to buy his excellent sausages but regrettably he has now shut up shop.
Lee Brilleaux died in 1994 of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In 2013 Wilko Johnson was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. He elected not to receive chemotherapy and embarked on a ‘farewell’ tour. However his health improved and he was able to launch an acting career as a mute executioner in Game of Thrones after the producers saw him in Oil City Confidential. ‘They said they wanted somebody really sinister who went around looking daggers at people before killing them,’ he said. ‘That made it easy. Looking daggers at people is what I do all the time. It’s like second nature to me.’
PS: Thanks again to Andy Marshall for invaluable research and suggestions.
PPS: After more than 100 consecutive columns I will now be taking a few weeks off.
PPPS: Guess how old Heinz was when he died. Fifty-seven!