Who are Dr. Feelgood?
Dr. Feelgood are a band formed in 1971 originating from Canvey; headlining the pub rock genre which was a revival of blues and rock and roll music popular in the 1950s and 60s from band such as the Rolling Stones. The scene’s back to basics attitude and intense energy; displayed by Dr. Feelgood, eventually spawned punk rock by influencing bands such as the Jam. Hailing from the island they are best known for early singles like “Back in the Night” and “Roxette”. Although their most commercially productive years were the early to mid 1970s. They continue to tour and record to this day with them coming to the Oysterfleet this weekend! The group’s original distinctively British R&B sound was centred on Wilko Johnson’s choppy guitar style, and they led a mid 1970s blues revival with other local bands such as Eddie and the Hot Rods. Like many pub rock acts, Dr. Feelgood were known primarily for their high energy live performances, although studio albums like Down by the Jetty (1974) and Malpractice (1975) were also popular. Their breakthrough 1976 album, Stupidity, reached number one in the UK Albums Chart which was their only chart topper. But after the follow-up Sneakin’ Suspicion, Johnson left the group. He was replaced by John ‘Gypie’ Mayo. With Mayo, the band was never as popular as with Johnson. All Through the City (Down by the Jetty) is a very iconic song by the group and a very interesting one for us for its referenced to the industrial landscape of Canvey island! The album cover can be seen below with a Canvey jetty in the background.
The band suffered an almost career-finishing blow, when Brilleaux died of cancer on 7 April 1994 however their energy lived on. Every year since Brilleaux’s death in a special concert, known as the Lee Brilleaux Birthday Memorial, is held on Canvey Island, where ex and current Feelgoods celebrate the music of Dr. Feelgood, and raise money for The Fair Havens Hospice in Westcliff-on-Sea. Fans attend from all over the globe, and the 17th event was held on 7 May 2010. Although still based in the UK, Dr. Feelgood continue to play across the world, with concerts in 2010 including, Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Finland, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Switzerland
A film by Julien Temple about the very early days of the band, Oil City Confidential, premiered at the London Film Festival on 22 October 2009, and received a standing ovation. Guest of honour was Lee Brilleaux’s mother Joan Collinson, along with his widow Shirley and children Kelly and Nick. All the surviving members of the original band were present along with manager Chris Fenwick. Reviewing the film for The Independent, Nick Hasted concluded: “Feelgood are remembered in rock history, if at all, as John the Baptists to punk’s messiahs”. On general release from 1 February 2010, the film has been critically well received, with Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian describing it as “ ..a vivid study of period, music and place”. The film was broadcast on BBC Four in April 2010, September 2010 and on 15 March 2013.
The Dr. Feelgood Exhibition
We were fortunate enough to be invited by Chris Fenwick, band manager, to the V.I.P. opening of the Dr. Feelgood Exhibition at the Canvey Club. We attended in some contemporary rock n’ roll clothes and had a great night, learning a lot more about the Band. We attended with our guest for the evening, Alan Taylor, a massive fan! It featured a plethora of Feelgood merchandise, memorabilia and cuttings, and was excellent for giving us the Feelgood factor of what the band were really all about. We spoke to people who had travellled from Scotland, Finland, and even Holland to visit Canvey Island, to them trademarked with the stamp of Dr. Feelgood. It just showed how popular the band was during the mid seventies, and the image they put out of Canvey.
Born John Wilkinson, he changed his name to distinguish himself from the two other Johns in Dr. Feelgood. Recently, Joe and I were privileged enough to be able to speak to Wilko Johnson; legendary guitarist and song-write. Starting of playing for Dr. Feelgood in its early, and most successful, days, he left in 1978 and soon joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads. In time, he also set up his own band, ‘The Wilko Johnson Band’. To this day, he performs with Norman Watt-Roy and Dylan Howe from the Blockheads. He has certainly made up a huge part of Canvey Island and South-East Essex’s history and culture. Sadly, at the turn of 2013, Wilko was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Despite having roughly until August or September until he feels any ill effects, Wilko has shown complete well-being and uncompromising energy, even at present. He recently played at the Village Green festival in Southend as a surprise appearance.
Thanks to Chris Fenwick and Robert Hoy, we were able to meet Wilko and discuss several aspects of his life which had not previously been enlightened during by his recent publicity. We asked him about his upbringing on Canvey Island, and he told us how the remains of the wartime gun battery at Thorney Bay Holiday Camp served as a child’s playground. He recalled one occasion in which he and some friends made a pipe bomb and set it in an old observation tower. He remembers scrambling down its rickety steps as the explosion went off, which was incredibly loud. When an approaching pair of adults arrived at the scene, he told them ‘What explosion?’ with the scene of a smoking, smoldering, tower clearly visible behind him.
Wilko attended Westcliff High School for Boys in 1958, and despite describing his time at school as ‘drab’ and becoming a void in his memory, he does remember seeing an electric guitar there for the first time in the flesh. He told us of how its intricacy was enough to inspire him to take an interest in getting one for himself. He also greatly enjoyed art during the Sixth Form, which inspired him to take up painting as a hobby through his life. One of the many things he did was designing the iconic Dr. Feelgood logo, depicting a dodgy doctor with an eagerness to over-prescribe drugs.
We were also fortunate to receive an insight into the more advanced aspects of his guitar playing. The essence of his technique comes from Mick Green of Johnny Kidd & the Pirates. Whilst chopping up and down repetitively, with his right hand, he is able to mute the strings by gently touching them. He then inserts quick ‘stabs’ to a rhythm by quickly squeezing the guitar with a grip-like hold. This forms the rhythm guitar section of his songs. He then plays the lead guitar section at the same time by playing rapid riffs with his individual fingers, between the stabs, still chopping up and down with his right hand. This gives him his signature choppy sound, as if playing two guitar parts at once. He usually demonstrates this to those taking an interest in his guitar style. However, we asked him to show us how then played the more complex parts of songs, displaying some of the other cords he uses, and the riffs for his less-commonly demonstrated songs, such as ‘I Don’t Mind’ and ‘All Through the City’.
Another feature which characterizes his playing style is striking the string with his bare hand rather than a plectrum or ‘pick’. When asked about this, he told us how one his son (who plays for band ‘8 Rounds Rapid’) had played two gigs consecutively, and was terrified by the fact he’d reduced his fingertips to ‘mincemeat’ with the second concert still to be played.
Wilko thankfully allowed us to film the interview and guitar demonstration, which you can watch at the top of this article. Many thanks go to him for giving up his time for us.
In February 2014 Wilko released an album ‘Going Back Home’ with Roger Daltrey from reknown band The Who. It reached number 3 in the charts which was commendable for a rhythm and blues album – a genre strongly outcast by pop music today. In mid 2014 Wilko was brought into Addenbrooke Hospital to recieve treatment for his pancreatic cancer which mysteriously did not kill him, living far beyond what was expected in the initial diagnosis. It was discovered that the tumour was not as dangerous as believed; a very rare condition, and it was successfully removed. Wilko lives on and has made a full recovery, contunuing to tour and enjoy his recent success.