Over the last couple of months I've been on the trail of Dr Feelgood, hunting down these local landmarks that plot the history of the band. How many would I find still in tact all these years on? This project turned into something of a beast along the way, as the remit got wider and wider the more I delved, so I've had to split it into three parts....
So, to celebrate next weeks much anticipated DVD release of the fabulous Dr Feelgood movie 'Oil City Confidential', I'll be sharing my findings over the next week or so.... Here's part one. (with thanks to Chris Fenwick and Ann Adley from Feelgood HQ who helped me out when I got a bit stuck, much appreciated!)
As a child, I lived in Benfleet, Essex. The same train station at which you alight for Canvey Island. So growing up in 70's Benfleet, the name Dr Feelgood was always legendary. But to me, as a 9/10 year old, 'the name' was really all I knew. The first time that I actually heard them was in early 1979, when their single 'Milk and Alcohol' entered the charts (at the age of 12, I was now heavily into 'chart' music). I loved it, and as soon as my pocket money was in, it was off to Kelly's Radios in Hadleigh to buy it... in fab brown coloured vinyl too! I adored the picture cover, with it's beer bottle design, and I carried it in to school for days afterwards! (why did we do that? Please tell me you used to take records into school too?!) A couple of months later and I spotted the follow up single - As Long As The Price Is Right - in Golden Disc, Southend. The cover design of a close up of a woman in a bra made it THE most outrageous single I ever did buy!
But I still really knew nothing about these beer swillin', bra lovin' Canvey-ites... It seems odd now that people could be so ignorant about bands, but this was all pre-internet, and it was pretty hard to find out much about anyone back then. So whilst us kids waited for Wikipedia to be invented, we did the next best thing, which was make stuff up! My mates and I were now convinced that Dr Feelgood were an outrageous punk band from Canvey, who had been involved in a number of fights with the likes of the Clash, Sex Pistols and Stranglers - they'd won them all too! Whenever a smashed up phone box or bus shelter was spotted, it was always assumed that the Feelgoods had done it on a wild night out!
In the early 80's I had a number of friends who were a few years older than me (all met via the CB Radio!), and I was introduced to a number of 'new' bands by them. They pretty much all loved the Feelgoods, and bombarded me with tapes of their songs... These same mates took me to see Dr Feelgood live (around 1982/3), and it was just about my first ever 'proper' gig.... turned out they weren't punks at all! Of course the line-up had changed a bit by then, but I was oblivious to that at the time, and all these years on, I still have very vivid memories of frontman Lee Brilleaux's incredible performance.
But even after seeing them, it still took a number of years for me to really appreciate just how big a band they were, how influential they had been, and just how loyal they were to their Canvey roots. I wanted to retrace the local steps of Dr Feelgood and try to document the importance of the local area on the band and vica versa. But in order to do that, let's go back a bit....
Lee Collinson was born in 1952, and in the mid-60's his family moved to Canvey Island, where his grandfather already lived. He was soon making new pals on the island, and in particular Chris White, who quickly became his best friend. Lee and Chris were almost inseparable and would spend all their free time playing together. Chris soon introduced Lee to another local lad, John Sparkes (born 1953).
Lee, Chris and John went along to a carnival talent competition, and were impressed by a local band called The North Avenue Jug Band, featuring a guitarist by the name of John Wilkinson (born 1947). John had originally been in a band called The Roamers, with his school mate John Martin (born 1946). But when John Martin left to join The Essex Five, The Roamers had mutated into the Jug Band. John Wilkinson was obsessed with the beat bands of the 60's, and in particular Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. He loved the style of guitarist Mick Green, who had a unique talent of being able to play both lead and rhythm guitar at the same time - a trick John would soon adopt. John had saved up, bought himself a Fender Telecaster, taught himself to play and was now determined to follow in his hero's footsteps.
Inspired by seeing The North Avenue Jug Band, Lee, Chris and John formed the first of what was to become a number of childhood jug bands - 'The Southside Jug Band'. Over the years they would become 'The Razzmatazz Washboard Band', 'The Frisco Bay Jug Band' and even 'Chris White and his Mad Mates'! They would busk all round Canvey - Youth Clubs, The Corner Club, The Canvey Club, The Monico, The Admiral Jellicoe and The Oyster Fleet (more about some of these venues in the next installments!) - and parts of Kent too.
In the meantime, John Wilkinson (now going by the rearranged nickname of Wilko Johnson) had tried out another couple of bands (The Flowerpots and The Fix), before turning his back on music and heading off to Newcastle University. After Uni he went for an extended sabbatical in India, only returning to England when diagnosed with hepatitis. Back in Canvey, he started work as a supply teacher in the local schools.... his guitar laying unplayed for over 4 years.
During this time, Lee and John Sparkes had become members of Wilko's old band - The Fix, along with Lew Lewis and Dave Higgs (who would both go on to be members of Eddie and the Hot Rods), eventually leaving to form The Pigboy Charlie Band. The line up of the band seemed forever in a state of flux, but guess who Lee bumped into in Canvey just after the departure of the lead guitarist?? The wanderer returned, Wilko Johnson! The new look Pigboy Charlie Band soon decide on a new name for the new decade, taken from a Johnny Kidd and the Pirates song.... DR FEELGOOD.
Dr Feelgood played their first ever gig at Cloud 9 disco, Canvey seafront.
(Club Astairs - Circa 2000)
Cloud 9 Disco. By the mid 70's it had been renamed Bardot's and by late 90's/early 2000's it was called 'Astairs'... Today? Well, there's not even a name over the club anymore, and no clear indication that it's even still open. Perhaps the best it can hope for these days is to become an extension of 'Fraggles Rock Bar and Function Room' at some point?!
(Cloud 9\Bardot's\Club Astairs - June 2010)
The band soon picked up a number of local gigs, including residencies at The Railway pub in Pitsea and the Top Alex pub in Southend. There are also regular bookings at The Esplanade and The Palace in Southend.
(The Railway Pub - 1960's)
The Railway is (about to be 'was') a HUGE building.... 11,000 square foot of pub (really!). Built sometime in the 1920's, it sits at the top of Pitsea market, and has been a very prominent landmark of the town ever since. Like so many classic 'old boozers' it's fallen on hard times, and finally closed in 2006. Up until recently it had been humiliated even further by being turned into a car wash:
(The Railway Pub, Pitsea - June 2010)
Now the car wash has gone too, and The Railway awaits the bull-dozers, ready for yet more flats...
(The Railway Pub, Pitsea - July 2010)
(The 'Top Alex' - June 2010)
The Top Alex. Oddly, there used to be another 'Alex' pub in the same street, so as this one was at the 'top' of the road, it was renamed to avoid confusion. It was a legendary biker pub in the 1970's, and was always quite a scary looking place when I was a kid! It's had a number of name changes over the years (most recently it was the 'Fish and Firkin'), but I'm pleased to say it once again carries the name 'The Alex'. The other Alex has long since gone (now a building society), so I guess the 'Top' bit was a bit redundant this time round!
(The Esplanade - July 2010)
The Esplanade was a lovely sweaty, dark and dank live venue, situated right along Southend seafront. That is, up until about eight or ten years or so, when it became a much needed family 'fun' pub (yes, there was irony in that sentence), which it still is today. I saw lots of bands here in the 80's and 90's, most memorably when they somehow got Primal Scream at the height of their power as a Glasto (or possibly Reading) warm up. Pearl Jam played their first ever UK show here too (in Feb 1992).
(The Palace Hotel - June 2010)
The Palace opened in 1904, and was originally called the Metropole Hotel. I've already covered the history of the Palace fairly comprehensively in a previous post here if you fancy a looky-see!
By this point, Lee's best friend Chris White had gone into acting, and due to there already being a 'Chris White' on Equity's books, he was now using his mothers maiden name - Fenwick. Whilst at a wedding in Holland, Fenwick managed to blag a few Dutch gigs for the Feelgoods. Up until this point, the role of drummer had been a rather flexible affair, but in order to honour the Dutch shows, the band decided they now needed a permanent fixture on the kit. Wilko suggested his old mate from The Roamers, John Martin... thus the line-up was complete:
Lee 'brillo' Collinson (soon to be known as Lee Brilleaux) - Lead Vocals
John Wilkinson (Wilko Johnson) - Lead Guitar
John B Sparkes (Sparko) - Bass
John Martin (The Big Figure) - Drums
A Lee and three Johns... no wonder they were keen on nicknames!
In the early 70's, there was a familiar face living in the local area and working at the Basildon office of the local newspaper The Evening Echo.... 60's popster Heinz Burt (yes he of The Tornadoes and 'Just Like Eddie' fame). Heinz was now a sales rep, and a pretty good one too (after four years he was promoted to advertising manager at the Evening Echo’s sister paper, the Thurrock Gazette). Despite his new role with the Echo, he still performed the odd show here and there when asked. Heinz became aware of the Feelgoods, and asked them if they would like to be his 'backing band' for a series of upcoming gigs. The boys agreed, and a (by all accounts) mediocre tour took place. The Feelgoods would perform on their own for the first 45 minutes or so, and then Heinz would join them for the 'main event'. However, their short association with Heinz did provide them with one defining moment. In 1972 Heinz was asked to appear on the bill of the 'London Rock and Roll show' at Wembley Stadium. The unknown (outside of Canvey!) Feelgoods suddenly found themselves sharing a bill with names such as Bo Diddley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Bill Haley. There were a few other unknowns on the bill though, including a little outfit called the MC5! The Feelgoods were blown away with their performance (particularly Wilko), and it all went into the pot to shape and mold how the band were progressing.
1973, and there's a big scene taking off in London, pubs are starting to put on gigs in backrooms, upstairs etc etc. Unsurprisingly the scene is labelled 'pub rock' . It wasn't long before Dr Feelgood got the call to join in, and they played their first gig at the Tally Ho in Kentish Town (this pub finally closed in 2006, to make way for a development of flats which now go by the name of 'The Tally Ho Apartments'). Very soon afterwards they became 'the' band on this circuit. DJ Bob Harris caught one of their blistering live shows, and immediately asked them to appear on his radio show. Up until that point, the Dr Feelgood set-list had consisted entirely of cover versions. However, the night before appearing on the Bob Harris show, Wilko decided they should have some of their own material, and starts to write 'She Does It Right'... incredibly, they perform it as part of their set on the radio the very next day!
All the ingredients were complete... Lee with his love of American R&B, Wilko with his love of beat and rock, the tightest rhythm section around in Sparko and The Big Figure, and now writing their own material too. This fused the band into something genuinely different for that time, and people were taking notice. The phrase 'godfather(s) of punk' is an over used one. Musically it was certainly on the right track, but in attitude they were 24 carat proto punks...Wilko with his odd jerky actions, manic stare and snarling guitar solos, Brilleaux with his genuinely menacing and intimidating stage presence and '60-a-day' gravel voice. It wasn't long before the Feelgoods became 'the' live band on the circuit, and they were soon knocking out an incredible 250+ gigs a year (a figure they would continue to achieve every year for decades). It's no surprise that the lads were soon signed up to a record label, United Artists.
By this time, Chris Fenwick was officially the bands manager (he still is to this day). To celebrate his 18th birthday, Chris had been given a plot of land in Canvey by his father who was a builder. A house (with a rehearsal room attached) was soon built on the plot, and christened Feelgood House. Chris and Lee quickly moved in, and the house became the Feelgood operations room for the next few years.
(Feelgood House #1 - July 2010)
As a live act the band were untouchable, but the next task was to try and capture that sound for an album... In August 1974 the band went into the studio to record their debut album. Recording went well, but once at the mixing stage, concerns were aired. The band didn't like the 'stereo' sound of Wilko coming out of one speaker, and Sparko coming out of the other. To everyones amazement (particularly the record labels!) the band insisted on the album being mixed in mono.
Dr Feelgoods 1st Album: Down By The Jetty is released in January 1975. The cover photo is taken, erm... down by the jetty!
(Down By The Jetty - 1975)
(Piley Down By The Jetty - June 2010)
Canvey Island sits below sea level in the Thames estuary, and is protected by a 15 mile concrete sea wall. It's unsurprising then, that the sea and the sea wall featured so heavily in many classic Feelgood publicity shots. The Down By The Jetty photo shoot was done in the early hours of the morning, just as the day was dawning. The lads had only just arrived home from a gig and had not yet slept, hence the rather haggard looks! Here's another couple of shots from that early morning shoot:
(STILL Down By The Jetty! - 1975)
(Down By The Jetty - July 2010)
(Down By The Jetty - June 2010)
The Jetty is right alongside the Lobster Smack pub, which was one of the bands favourite local hostelries.
The Lobster Smack is without doubt the oldest public house on Canvey Island, and is thought to have been constructed as early as 1600 (there are tiles on the roof which have been dated as far back as 1510). Charles Dickens was aware of this place, and sent Magwitch and Pip there to hide out whilst they waited for the Continental steamer in Great Expectations (the capture of Magwitch, the fight in the boat and the arrival of the Hamburg steamer all took place just around the corner from here at Deadman's Point). It was a well known pub to be frequented by smugglers and pirates. There was a time when only Dutch was spoken in this pub, as it was almost exclusivly frequented by sailers from Dutch fishing ships. In the late 1700's, The Lobster Smack was famous for bare-knuckle fighting! There is one memorable bout that lasted 62 rounds, it was only called to a halt because it got dark, and was declared a draw! Ouch!
A couple more photos from the 'Down By The Jetty' shoot:
(Down By The Sea - June 2010)
If this post has got you all buzzed up for another slice of Feelgood, be sure to pick up Oil City Confidential when it's released on Monday (26th July). You can order it here on Amazon, or buy it via the bands official outlet Cadiz here who have a couple of great packs going on (DVD and T-Shirt, DVD and poster). It'll also be available in all good music shops (an no doubt some rubbish ones as well!).
I can also highly recommend the excellent biography 'Down By The Jetty' by Tony Moon, which has been invaluable in helping me research this project. It's just been updated this year, and is also available on Amazon here
Visit the official Dr Feelgood website here
Finally, here's a few clips to compliment the Feelgood era covered in part one...
Here's Heinz (with a young Dr Feelgood in tow) at the London Rock and Roll Show, performing a truly awful version of C'mon Everybody! 1972
Dr Feelgood perform Keep It Out Of Sight, Roxette and She Does It Right on OGWT 1975
She Does It Right (live on The Geordie Scene) 1975