Sunday 10 June 2012

DR. FEELGOOD: Stupidity

(#173: 9 October 1976, 1 week)

Track listing: Talking About You/20 Yards Behind/Stupidity/All Through The City/I’m A Man/Walking The Dog/She Does It Right/Going Back Home/I Don’t Mind/Back In The Night/I’m A Hog For You Baby/Checking Up On My Baby/Roxette/Riot In Cell Block No. 9/Johnny B. Goode

(Author’s Note: The last two tracks appeared only as a 7” single packaged with the first 20,000 copies of the original LP release; the 1998 Grand Records CD reissue restores these tracks to the running order, although I have to point out that track seven is not, as the CD listing would have us believe, entitled “She Does I Right”)

“The dismal situation waste and wild,
A dungeon horrible, on all sides round
As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames
No light, but rather darkness visible
Served only to discover sights of woe…”
(John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I, lines 60-64)

“Stand and watch the towers burning at the break of day
Steadily slowing down, been on my feet since yesterday…”
(Dr. Feelgood, “All Through The City”)

If the above juxtaposition sounds fanciful, it’s down to Wilko Johnson; he quoted Milton’s lines in Julien Temple’s documentary Oil City Confidential in an attempt to express the wonder he felt, and still feels, at the sight of the huge Coryton oil refinery on Canvey Island, seen at the break of dawn; huge, impossibly modernist yet strangely reassuring towers seemingly materialising out of the mist every morning, clearly visible in the darkness.

I am not sure whether I should ask you to go and visit Coryton before listening to this record, and if I did you wouldn’t have much time left in which to do it, as the refinery is now due for demolition, its owner, Petroplus, having last week gone into administration. In large part this is due to changing habits. Whereas the purpose of Coryton and its various connected sites such as Stanlow was to turn crude oil into something people might buy, the increasing demand for biofuels and fuel efficiency on the part of drivers has led to a decrease in interest in refined oil, and the refineries most in demand at present are the larger complexes in Asia and the Middle East, whose product has paradoxically led to a surfeit of refined oil.

So Coryton’s days are numbered; there is talk of converting the site into a storage terminal and, that most repugnant of phrases, “logistics park,” neither of which will require as many employees. As Coryton was for almost sixty years the principal source of employment for the people of Canvey Island, this has led to some distress and dissatisfaction. Never mind that when daylight fully breaks, the tomb-like mystery of the refinery is revealed to be a rather shabby and rundown set of buildings which look distinctly less attractive the closer you get to them; it is the end of something – whereas the album under consideration in this entry defiantly marks the beginning of something.

To understand fully why Dr. Feelgood had such an impact in the mid-seventies, far greater than many of their “pub rock” colleagues of the time – even Elvis Costello, Ian Dury and Graham Parker failed, or have so far failed, to score a number one album – is to understand that they literally rose from the middle of nowhere. Canvey Island is some thirty miles away from London, far enough for you to notice the difference in its air; it is visible from the top of Canary Wharf and beyond that view is nothing but the North Sea. In contrast to the California of the Beach Boys, Canvey Island is not the promised west, but as far east as you can go; it is connected to Essex only by an intricate set of creeks. There is the refinery and there is the sea and that is it; plenty of time to think, ponder and act. Southend-on-Sea, twenty-four miles up the Essex coastline, is perhaps less determinedly remote, but can still feel an extremely long way from anywhere else. “A Whiter Shade Of Pale” makes full sense if you interpret it as a signal coming from nowhere, out where there is only sea and a vague notion of the rest of Britain (so clearly it was always going to be a pirate radio hit; the boats weren’t anchored that far away), and Southend’s Procol Harum have maintained that distance ever since; it brings new meaning to songs like “A Salty Dog” and by the autumn of 1975 they had scored a surprise hit single with the Leiber/Stoller-produced “Pandora’s Box,” a song in part dating back to 1967 but, while not even remotely punk rock, did raise an air of unease about what might happen in the near future (“And though I know the lifeguard’s brave/There is no one for him to save”); in its time, only Murray Head’s “Say It Ain’t So, Joe” rivalled it for portent.

But back to Dr. Feelgood. What instantly set them apart from practically all of their peers was the certainty that they were playing and singing about their own lives, their particular Canvey Island world. Johnny Green and Roxette are recognisably Canvey Island characters, all their low-key dramas played out against the unchanging and dominating background of the refinery. David Byrne has remarked how their first album, 1974’s Down By The Jetty, affected him enough to want to turn Talking Heads into a going concern. Who else in British rock was even thinking about jetties back then?

They gained a fairly fearsome live reputation, but the albums didn’t quite match up; some reserve crept in and despite strong songs such as “Keep It Out Of Sight” their studio work was disappointing. 1975’s Malpractice showed no real advance. By the time they were due to record a third album, Johnson, bereft of new songs or ideas for new songs, suggested a live record. Their record company, United Artists, were less than thrilled at this prospect; the late Lee Brilleaux hinted that they would have preferred the group to make a more “commercial” and “accessible” album which would break them in the American market.

But the band prevailed; the first seven tracks on Stupidity were recorded at Sheffield City Hall, and the remainder came from a homecoming gig at the Kursaal Ballroom in Southend. Aided by some skilful marketing, the album made number one in its second week on the chart, precisely at the point where punk was on the verge of breaking big.

While there is nothing particularly punk about Dr. Feelgood’s work, nothing that is apart from the incredible and palpable energy which the band put into every song, some younger readers may be mystified, in which case I can only say that context is not quite everything here, but a fair proportion of it, although Stupidity is in no way a museum piece. Why, they may ask, should a pub rock band doing covers of “I’m A Man,” “Walking The Dog” and “Johnny B. Goode” be considered the beginning of anybody’s time? How come it, and they, were so popular? What, if anything, are we missing?

From the cover down, I don’t think it has yet been properly acknowledged how violently and completely Stupidity went against the grain of things in 1976, let alone number one albums. Chris Horler’s cover shot was clearly a lucky accident but sums the group up perfectly; against perfunctory, low budget lettering – the record still looks like a smuggled artefact from some rebel faction; The Best Of The Stylistics Volume II this is not – there is on the right of the photograph dark, oxblood-coloured space. On the left is Lee Brilleaux, in his loosely-fitting suit, blowing fervently into a harmonica while staring expectantly at the audience. In the middle, and slightly back from and behind Brilleaux, is the extraordinary physiology of Wilko Johnson, his skeletally thin head bulging with veins, his mouth open in a shocked gasp, his frantic and not-quite-with-the-rest-of-us eyes darting towards Brilleaux, as though he had just poked Johnson in the ribs with a dagger cane. The rest of the album’s pictures show the band in action, Johnson leaping across the stage, holding his guitar up to his neck vertically, and other poses – including his pudding bowl haircut – which Paul Weller would take up barely six months later.

Johnson is, I think, the key Feelgood factor. Today, aged sixty-four, he has close-cropped white hair, unruly eyebrows only partially covering deep-set eyes and a don’t-fuck-with-me frown which, if you’re not attentive, sometimes turns into a sheepish grin. It is easy to understand why the makers of the TV series of Game Of Thrones hired him to play an executioner. He does not look anything like the wiry twenty-eight-year-old pictured on Stupidity. And yet he is apt to quote Milton; prior to Feelgood, he spent some time as an English schoolteacher, and I think went some considerable way towards making Feelgood something just short of art rock.

More than anything, however, Johnson is passionate and highly protective of the way of life with which he grew up, and it is this passion, and the supplementary awareness that there is also something else, however hard to define, which made Feelgood at their peak seem untouchable. Even Joe Strummer’s 101’ers never matched Feelgood’s fire. If you doubt that, then listen to the scarily confident way the band sweep into the opening track on Stupidity, a not particularly well-known Chuck Berry number, and instantly grasp it by its collar. “Talking About You” is a song about the urgency of communication, sung by Brilleaux in his gravelly baritone – but Brilleaux is quick to break away from the song’s metric fabric, comes out of bar line restrictions and barks Johnson’s guitar solo into existence. By the third chorus Brilleaux’s gabble is more Gertrude Stein than Chuck: “you you you you you you you YOU!”

Perhaps some of Brilleaux’s compelling magnetism stems from the fact that he was not actually British; born in Durban, South Africa, his family did not move to Canvey Island until he was thirteen. So there remains more than a trace of the outsider about his work, even if, by being on Canvey Island, he couldn’t have been more “outside.” His harmonica on the ska-flavoured original “20 Yards Behind” chatters more than it blows; it leaps up like a sudden gust-blown pile of leaves (“All right, Mr Brilleaux!” exclaims a satisfied Johnson, who takes the lead vocal).

If part of the Feelgoods’ appeal was their unspoken word that anyone could do it, the title track – originally a Solomon Burke tune – quietly proved that not many people could. There is a long, rambling introduction, John Martin (a.k.a. The Big Figure)’s drum dramatics alternating with free-form guitar cadences, before the song properly begins, and even then the band manoeuvre it effortlessly into a tricky ending in a different key. Drums are also key to “All Through The City” – a far more convincing reading here of the nearest thing they had to a theme song, or anthem, than on Jetty - and spirits are palpably high, Brilleaux exhorting Johnson’s guitar with his yells. They seem to be deriving a great deal of joy from playing, and the feeling is contagious. On “Walking The Dog” Brilleaux quickly resorts to barking out the second verse and uttering an exultant scream after the second chorus. Note how John B. Sparks’ bass takes off under Johnson’s solo, like a Harrier jump jet on the runway of an as yet unbuilt London City Airport. On “She Does It Right” there is a logic to the song’s architecture that puts me very much in mind of early Beatles, with very Lennon-esque shouts of excitement from Brilleaux (from another perspective, the song’s mood is in part reminiscent of “Cold Turkey”), a big audience cheer before Johnson’s solo, a sublime moment where the rhythm section cuts out altogether, leaving just Johnson’s curiously No Wave-anticipating guitar abstracts, before everyone re-enters and doubles up on the aggression before song’s end. Never mind Rock ‘N’ Roll; this is the music Lennon should have been making in 1976 – and then comes the inevitable double take; didn’t the Beatles, at some point in the past, once sound and play like this?

The Southend/Kursaal section wastes no time; Martin’s machine gun drums ushering in “Going Back Home”; co-written by Johnson, guitar riff by his hero, Mick Green of the Pirates. Brilleaux is particularly distinguished on harmonica here; he has two solos, both of which demonstrate horn-like phrasing, and locks in beautifully with Johnson’s raging guitar and the rhythm section (even the false ending midway through cannot dispel the excitement). Martin has fun on his tom-toms in “I Don’t Mind,” a Berry-ish rocker (with a “Memphis, Tennessee” flavour); once again, Brilleaux roars Johnson into being, his pick-free playing alternating chords with scythe-like single note runs. “Back In The Night” has a surprisingly glam rock intro which soon clears into a more familiar R&B strut, albeit with some extraordinary guitar commentary from Johnson, who, when not under the spell of Hubert Sumlin, even hints at playing “out” at points in his two solos, the second of which is markedly more fuzzy and dense. By the time we reach the Coasters’ “I’m A Hog For You Baby,” I have to remind myself that I am not listening to Sonic Youth; hear the way in which the band hit and hold on a high-pitched drone and work it into the aerosphere at the song’s crescendo. Meanwhile, Johnson, perhaps helped by Brilleaux’s unruly slide guitar, bounces up and down his scales as though tied to a test-your-strength machine at the fairground. We then hit the Sonny Boy Williamson/Otis Rush perennial “Checking Up On My Baby” where Johnson at several points starts playing the “Shakin’ All Over” riff (his violent jerky stage movements were in part homage to Mick Green). The harmonica/guitar relationship strikes up another thought; didn’t the Yardbirds once play like this? There is some superb voice/guitar call and response work in the final verse, and the requisite big finish. “Roxette,” again clearly very influenced by ska, features an urgent, rasping harmonica solo and a hyped-up double-tempo finale to rising cheers from the crowd.

Before I move on to the final two tracks, I should pause and return to their Sheffield reading of “I’m A Man” which I consider the key performance here. Almost wholly Johnson’s work – he takes lead vocal as well as all the guitar – this is one of the most remarkable rock performances of its time. I am aware that a repeat, onstage visit to the work of the group once known as the New Yardbirds is not far off, and crave your patience in terms of why yet another cover of “I’m A Man” should have mattered in the autumn of 1976, but nonetheless this must be heard.

The drums pound, slowly and patiently, like an amplified heartbeat. After some time has elapsed we are made aware that the audience are clapping along. Johnson sings and strums, Brilleaux blows a blue harmonica counterpart. The audience, sensing that something exceptional is happening, move to whoops and cheers. You know the song; you’ve heard it at least a thousand times from a thousand different people. But not like this. At times I wonder if Johnson, in his singing, is trying to undercut Jagger (before remembering that, yes, once the Stones played like this). Then his guitar cuts loose, ranting and thrashing, before bonding with Brilleaux’s harmonica and then ascending into single note satellites and crashing parachutes of unimaginable chords.

And then I listen more closely to Johnson’s voice, and I think; wait a minute – why does this sound so familiar? I look up old TV footage to remind myself of how Johnson moved on stage – let alone the familiar way he looks on the cover – and it all falls into place. He is not shouting the blues; his voice is sometimes hesitant but usually remarkably intent. It is low set and not pitch perfect but that doesn’t matter; at times, Johnson’s voice wanders into a worried limbo of drone. Ian Curtis? While Joy Division, technically speaking, have not yet even begun life as Warsaw? But it’s there, all right – when Johnson unleashes his second guitar eruption, terrifying noise abruptly receding into silence, we are already next door to “Atrocity Exhibition.” Talk about psychotic reactions.

But there are two more Southend tracks to come, on the bonus 7” single originally and subsequently fully incorporated into the CD edition, and to me they are both symbolic and prophetic. Martin again demonstrates great skill on “Riot,” cymbal kisses giving way to more AK-47 snare rattles and then a furious 6/8 tempo (and the similarity to Alex Harvey’s “Framed” is not missed). This is a long introduction, and Martin’s drumming puts me in premature mind of “A Design For Life.” Sparks’ bass roves, John Cale-like, underneath the choruses. There is a lengthy, rippling drum coda like a disgruntled reader closing a disappointing book. A song by Leiber and Stoller – will the circle ever be unbroken? – and an unmissable message: “There’s a riot going on,” and with these fellows, you believe it.

The record ends as only it could with the fastest “Johnny B. Goode” I can remember, and it is exultant. No need to pinpoint whom the exhortation “Go, Johnny, go!” is aimed at – it is late 1976 – and there’s an expert take-down and repeat build-up wherein Brilleaux does his best to deconstruct the words “bye bye” and turn them into abstract scat poetry; the audience is going mad, and everything rises once more to enable a final flourish.

Riots about to go on, go on Johnny; there is to my mind no question that the sequencing of these tracks is deliberate in terms of what they are predicating. As I said near the beginning of this piece, we have to remember the context and what Stupidity was reacting against; a “pop” chart largely, though not entirely (Can were there, as was James Brown, while Eddie and the Hotrods were on the touchline, blasting out Bob Seger’s fervent “Get Out Of Denver” on the stage of the Marquee), filled with Abigail’s Party-type placebos, a bunkering down, a keeping of calm, a fatal acceptance of things as they were, a concealment. The influence of the Wilko stare and style immediately cascaded down to the Clash, the Jam and even the Boomtown Rats and Madness. And in the States, entirely independent of what else was happening in Britain, Blondie and Richard Hell’s Void-Oids, as well as Talking Heads, were sufficiently affected by the Feelgoods’ work to press on with their own methods of attack and overthrow. If there was no clear parallel in American music at the time, then it’s impossible to think that, say, Cheap Trick could not have heard their work, and addressed their own work accordingly.

It should also be noted in passing, albeit a startled passing, that Wilko Johnson was born in the same year as Robert Plant. Draw your own conclusions from that. But if Dr. Feelgood reminds us of any other specific group, in terms of its energy, intensity, openness and lack of fear or restraint, then it has to be Mötörhead, who were also getting started at the time (an early single appeared on Stiff, a record label initially financed by a £400 loan from…Lee Brilleaux); we will come to their work in due course, but for now it need merely be noted that Lemmy has never considered his group to be doing anything other than forwarding and maintaining the original rock ‘n’ roll tradition. Likewise, Stupidity signals an important change, although it will not become fully evident in the album chart for some while, or perhaps just an important reminder; that in 1962 Hamburg this was how the Beatles sounded, and these were some of the songs they would have played, that in the past this was all that rock ‘n’ roll needed, and that things had since come to such an unpretty pass that it was necessary to wipe the board and go right back to the beginning, back to Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and locate and enhance that original magic once again, in order for there to be any future, for the light to become visible behind or ahead of prematurely gleaming towers. But at the same time, it's important not to lose sight of the idea that much of the Feelgoods' power, not entirely paradoxically, lay in their art. In the spring of 1977 there were arguments over tracks for their next album, Sneakin' Suspicion - an album which sounds exactly like what you would expect a 1977 album entitled Sneakin' Suspicion to sound like - and Wilco left the band, who then became merely proficient and reliable, in a business where these two things are wrongly automatically taken to be advantages. But the art in the midst of nothingness persists; two of the last decade's most important albums, Primary Colours by the Horrors, and Hidden by These New Puritans, arise from that same Southend/Canvey nexus, fully aware that when you surface in the middle of nowhere, quite often you need to shout just to be heard. Inward oracles to all truth requisite for men to know, as Milton once put it.