I went to see Oil City Confidential, Julien Temple’s film about Doctor Feelgood last night. It was a special event where the film was screened at a number of selected cinemas around the country with a live feed to the KoKo Club in London which allowed the Director to introduce the film and then to show a live concert by Wilko Johnson after the film had finished. The film was excellent. Unfortunately the live feed to the Odeon cinema broke down which meant the audience there wasn’t able to watch the concert, which was disappointing. The cinema refunded our entrance fee (in full) and gave us all a complementary ticket for another film of our choosing, which was more than I would have expected of them – so well done. But it was still a disappointment to miss out on what appears to have been an excellent gig (according to comments on Facebook from other venues where it was shown)
The film tells the story of Doctor Feelgood from when the four members of the band were growing up on Canvey Island, finishing with the death from cancer of Lee Brillaux, their charismatic singer in 1994.
The star of the film was, without question, Wilko Johnson, the band’s original guitarist. He’s a real character. I never realised it, but the mop topped, black suited, manic guitarist from the heydey of the Feelgoods actually started out as a long haired hippy activist, who even, in his youth, took a trip overland to India via Iran and Afghanistan (try that today!). A working class grammar school boy, he studied English at University and started work as a teacher, before quiting after a disagreement with his headmaster. Today he’s got a shaven head, but he’s still performing. The film starts on Wilko’s roof, where he has a telescope in his own mini-observatory, and there’s a campaign on Facebook to have him replace Patrick Moore on “the Sky at Night” when he retires!
The film blends interviews with the band, their entourage and other key people (Lee Brillaux’s mum was a real character with a good story and a dry sense of humour), with documentary footage, concert clips, snippets from old British gangster films and specially shot scenes in the style of the latter. According to Julien Temple in his introduction (which we managed to see in Manchester) it was relatively cheap to produce by a team of only five people.
I was lucky enough to see the band play live (at Liverpool Stadium, now long gone) in 1975. It was a real experience. The music was raw and exciting, quite different from the prog rock and glam rock we were used to in the 1970’s, and no other band dressed like them. The group, coming from something of a backwater, were outsiders and their energy of their music and their on stage personas reflected this. They were fronted by two charismatic characters – the singer Lee Brillaux, with a great voice and agressive, cocky attitude, dressed in his soiled white suit, and a maniac of a gutarist dressed in black, with his own unique guitar style, charging around stage in what seemed like a trance.
But the rise and fall of Doctor Feelgood is probably a good illustration of what can happen in bands. Four friends who grew up with a few streets of each other, they started off small and grew rapidly in popularity with a sound that struck the right chord (sic). They made the big time because music fans were ready for something new, and theirs was a brash, raw, exciting sound performed by a group with a great stage presence. But constant touring and the trappings of success took their toll on relationships within the band leading to a split when Wilko, the creative force, left (did he quit or was he pushed?). Although they managed to chart with another single and continued touring, the decline had started. They went through several guitarists over the years, but without Wilko they just weren’t the same.
But perhaps this was inevitable. The band had come to prominence in a whirlwind and I think by the time of the split they had run out of ideas musically. They had reached a dead end. And punk came along with groups who had the same sort of energy and aggression, but who took it to a new extreme. In many ways, the Feelgoods paved the way for punk and were an indication of what was to come and replace them.
For a fan of Doctor Feelgood, the film is essential viewing. It is a comprehensive history of he band done in an entertaining and informative way. With the bonus of clips of the band in their prime. Anyone who likes good, raw rock music, who doesn’t know much about the band, should go and see the film when its on general release – you’ll be in for a treat.