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Oil City Confidential, Dr Feelgood, Wilko Johnson And A Spot Of Word Association
Zoë Howe , February 2nd, 2010 13:10

Zoe Street Howe describes an unexpected conversion and then talks to Wilko Johnson of Dr Feelgood about the Oil City Confidential documentary

Surely the reductive term pub rock must be obliterated once and for all by the arrival of Oil City Confidential – Julien Temple’s stunning new documentary, a gritty paean to the oft-overlooked 1970s R&B proto-punkers Dr Feelgood, their alcohol-steeped motherland, Canvey Island, Essex, and the relationship between the two. When I first went to see this film, I went in unsure of what to expect – the words ‘pub rock’ had previously put me off. I came out quite shaken, definitely stirred and feverishly in love.

This, the third in his ‘punk trilogy’, is easily Temple’s finest hour, rich with frank, insightful contributions from guitarist and songwriter Wilko Johnson, The Big Figure (drums), Sparko (bass) and an archive interview, in the pub, appropriately, with the sadly departed Lee Brilleaux. The bleak mud-flats and pearly skies of ‘Oil City’ (Canvey Island’s Americanised sobriquet) are captured beautifully, and of course, there is plenty of live footage of the Feelgoods in all their visceral, wild-eyed, dirty-suited, smash and grab glory, Brilleaux glaring, growling, pumping his fist and often doing the odd press-up on stage, Wilko hurtling by as if on wheels, eyes bulging, mock-gunning down the audience with his guitar. The pair are complemented, never upstaged (that would be impossible) by John 'Big Figure' Martin, looking like a meaner, madder Jake Blues and John 'Sparko' Sparkes, scooting relentlessly back and forth like a sleazy-looking chess piece in a "bastard suit" (his description).

In true Temple-style, this perfect slab of rock doc gold is cut with black and white movie clips of robberies, car chases and fights, edited with slick, machine gun rapidity. It’s dangerous, it’s stylish, it is Canvey Noir. The film even includes a star turn from Lee Brilleaux’s elderly mother in her chintzy bungalow (“He was a nice boy really,” that sort of thing), a prized glimpse into Wilko’s fascination with astronomy (there is already a Facebook campaign for Johnson to present The Sky At Night) and the amusing discovery that Brilleaux became such a gourmande that he would only play gigs close to Egon Ronay restaurants. Johnson also speaks of his deep respect of the recently deceased Pirates guitarist Mick Green.

Johnson left Dr Feelgood in 1977 after the antipathy between himself, the unstoppable force, and frontman Brilleaux, the immovable object - or vice versa depending on the circumstances - became unbearable, and this is where the film ends, although Dr Feelgood would continue without him. Johnson has had his own blues trio for the past three decades which also includes Blockheads bassist Norman Watt Roy and, since last year, Blockheads drummer Dylan Howe. The trio will play live, accompanied by special guests including Alison Moyet, at Koko in Camden on February 2nd after the launch screening of Oil City Confidential. The gig, already sold-out, will be beamed live into cinemas across the country. It will be, Koko insists, ‘a groundbreaking cinematic event.’

Wilko Johnson, very much the star of Oil City Confidential, has been plunged into press interviews and by the time the Quietus grabs twenty minutes with the perennially black-suited one, he is in sore need of a drink. We bundle into in an Italian café on Great Titchfield Street (after Wilko is stopped in the street by an admiring Mark Lamarr) but despite the café’s enticing window display of full bottles of wine a-plenty, there is apparently no such delight on sale, so coffee it is...

What were your thoughts when you first saw the film?

Wilko Johnson: They’d given me a DVD but I didn’t watch it, so the first time I saw it was in fact at a screening at the South Bank. I was sitting next to my son, and as soon as it got going it was just… it was like the first time I’d seen Dr Feelgood really, up there on the big screen, I was digging him in the ribs, going "Get a load of that!" I know that he was impressed, which is great, afterwards I could tell he was impressed. It’s been very strange doing it, thinking about those times and then seeing it all up there, it evokes the whole time and what happened really well, considering it’s been done by a stranger if you like, but it absolutely… you know, if somebody asked me what went down back then, I’d just say, "Well, watch that!" It’s just like it was.

I think it’s got a quality and although it’s concerning my glorious self I can view it objectively, and all the way through, it’s amusing and the editing is great!

Alison Moyet you’ve chosen to work with for the forthcoming Koko gig, and she’s in the film as well, how did the collaboration come about?

WJ: Alison had been in touch with us some time ago, I think perhaps because she took part in the film it put us in mind. We were talking about maybe writing some material, she was thinking in terms of doing some rhythm and blues stuff, which I think is what she originally was into. She wanted to get down to something like that, so there’d been some contact. Then everything just sort of fell together.

Bob Hoy (manager): We had a crazy meeting with the film people, they were thinking of all the people they could invite as guests, everyone you could think of in the music business was suggested, we thought it sounded a bit crazy having one person wheeled on after the other, then Wilko thought that the only person he really wanted to do it with out of everyone that was suggested was Alison.

WJ: I really liked the idea of playing with her, she’s a great singer. Because the gig is with the film, and the film is about the band and the estuary, she comes from there and she was a Dr Feelgood fan when she was a punk, so it was entirely appropriate. It seemed more natural.

The soundtrack is coming out as well, so anyone who doesn’t already own 'Down By The Jetty' and 'Stupidity', they can get a bit of a taster from that, but you’ve also got your own album (The Best Of Wilko Johnson Volumes I and II) coming out?

WJ: Well, people are perpetually complaining to me that they cannot find records, they see the band play but where do they get records from? So it was an opportunity to put out a kind of compilation of stuff and we used some tracks I possess that have appeared before on obscure albums, but a big part of it was when we re-recorded these songs with Norman and Dylan in a couple of sessions more or less, blammed them out. So if people come and see the band and they want to get a record, now I can say, "What about this record? And you’ll hear something like what you just heard." It was nice to put these songs together. Some of them, I’ve never had versions that were right to me, and now I’ve got them right so that’s nice.

One of the tracks, ‘Paradise’, this song, it’s a Dr Feelgood song and it’s the only one that has a real name in it, which is Irene, the name of my late wife. It was always very popular this song, I always played it live, but when she died I couldn’t play it any more. I always used to dedicate it to her. I don’t speak much on stage but I always used to say, "This one’s for my old lady" and play it. The version that was on the Dr Feelgood album (Sneakin’ Suspicion) I wasn’t really very happy with it. Anyway, I’d stopped playing it and stopped playing it, then a little while ago, I rewrote the final verse to incorporate the fact that she’s dead. Now it makes sense. It’s good to be playing that song again and I’m glad we’ve got this new version. That’s the way I wanted it, so that’s nice.

Right, I don’t know if this is going to work but I’m going to try a word association thing with you, Wilko. Say whatever comes to mind:

Curly lead

WJ: What? Oh! Now… there’s a practical reason for me using these curly leads, they’re off the floor, and when I move about [which, as Feelgood/ Wilko fans will know, is quite a lot], if you’ve got a straight lead, you tread on it and you’re either tripping over it or pulling it out of the guitar. When we started going, they’d just developed these radio things where people didn’t need guitar leads any more, and everyone was saying, "You should get one of them!" But I said, "No, no I like these curly leads, because it looks like I’m on a spring!" Because I paint my guitars red and black I thought I’d have a red one. So practically, I don’t trip over it and it looks like I’m on a spring… [laughs]


WJ: Ah! Well, I’ve been interested in astronomy for many years, I’d never had a telescope, and the house we used to live in had trees all around it and you could hardly see any of the sky. A couple of years ago, I think I’d been in London and I’d seen one of these new telescopes with computers in, and they point themselves wherever you want, and you can get small ones. I thought, "I’ve got to have one", because although I’d often been out and looking at stars, I could name the constellations, but I wanted to see the rings of Saturn, for which you do need a telescope.

I ordered one of these things, and when it arrived, I knew that at that time Saturn was just starting to come back into the sky, so it would be rising just before dawn, and I used to take this telescope into the garden, and I went out at about 4am, and I see this star rising just above the house-tops, and I knew it was Saturn. I thought I’d wait for a week or two until it was high in the sky in the dark.

Then I’m out in the garden one early morning I’m sweeping around looking through it and suddenly ‘whizz!’ across the field of view, perfect! Unmistakable, it was Saturn. That was it then, I just started to get bigger and bigger telescopes. If you see Saturn… you think, "Man, that that thing exists…" it’s hard to believe, it’s so beautiful. If somebody said to you, "Make me a beautiful object from a couple of geometric shapes" who would think a sphere with a ring around it? But… it would make you weep, it’s a marvellous thing.

The massive telescope I’ve got now on my roof, in my dome… it’s great being up in my dome, even if it’s raining you just sit in the dome listening to the rain. That’s my thing now.

I was saying to an old girlfriend of mine, "I was going to retire last year, I’ve been doing this thing my whole bloody life… I’m just going to look through my telescope!" And that’s what I’m going to do.


WJ: As it happens I’m very fond of literature, and particularly Shakespeare, and I am constantly peppering my conversation with quotations. They have to fit that moment. Generally I’m so miserable I end up with… "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow… Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, Til the last syllable of recorded time. And all our yesterdays light fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle, life is but a walking shadow, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." [laughs] It’s from Macbeth.

I’m conscious we’re running out of time so I’ll end on this: Lee Brilleaux

WJ: [Pause] I first met him when I was a teenager. My brother and I had a jug band, skiffle group, call it what you will. We used to busk on the seafront on Canvey Island, when I was about 18. These three boys came up, Lee Brilleaux, Sparko [future Feelgood bass player] and Chris Fenwick [Dr Feelgood manager-to-be]. They were interested in what we were doing so they stood talking to us about this music and stuff. When you’re 18 and you’re talking to a 14-year-old, it’s a big age gap, he was a kid, you know. But after they’d gone away, I remember thinking, "This guy, bloody hell." There was something about him, he was very, very vivid.

They went on to form a jug band of their own and I used to come back from University and see them play, so I knew them from that and then some years later we got the band together. I was back living on Canvey and I bumped into him on the street, at this time he was a solicitor’s clerk or something, and he was coming along in his pin-stripe suit, "Hello, mate" and he’s telling me about this band that had evolved into a rock band, and his guitarist had left… They didn’t have the nerve to ask me and I didn’t have the nerve to ask them!

Then I was talking to someone later on who knew him and I just said, "Even if he can sing only slightly, he’s a star. He’s a star, even as a solicitor’s clerk!" He had something about him, you could tell, he was a very vivid person.