Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Back in the night with Lee Brilleaux.

In the mid 1970's there were really two kinds of music; superficial 'Pop' and pretentious 'Progressive' rock.

There wasn't a lot going on.

And then in 1975, Dr Feelgood brought out 'Down by the Jetty';
Which was a revolutionary album for a couple of reasons. At a time of hype and excess it was notable for black and white pictures and Mono sound throughout. I remember the first time I heard it - looking at the pictures and realising this was something very different.

Today Lee Brilleaux, the lead singer, would have been 65 years old if he hadn't died back in 1994.

It's hard to believe.

Lee and a couple of friends started their band at the end of the 1960's as something they called a 'Jug Band', playing Blues outside the pubs and clubs of Canvey Island at closing time for loose change.

A few years later they invited the unique Wilko Johnson to join them as guitarist and Dr Feelgood were formed.

Canvey Island is a windswept and isolated village at the end of the Thames Estuary, surrounded by Oil refineries and marshes. Charles Dickens stayed at the local pub, now renamed 'The Lobster Smack', to write 'Great Expectations'. It has a slightly sinister air about it and the isolation probably helped the band to ignore the prevailing styles of music of the time. The area has been nicknamed 'The Thames Delta' by locals.

It wasn't long before the band broke out of Canvey and started to appear on the 'Pub Rock' circuit which had developed to try to bring young people into some large, empty and rather old fashioned pubs around London.

I was lucky enough to see them at The Hammersmith Odeon either in 1975 or 1976. I know it was a fairly important night; one of their first times appearing at such a large venue.

Outside the Odeon is a concrete, elevated road which dominates Hammersmith and the area around it. I pass it every time I go to hospital and it takes me back all those years.

Seeing the band was a shock; harsh, sparse, minimal British 'rhythm and blues', a kind of music that has more or less disappeared in the years that have followed. It mixed the Blues with Rock 'n Roll together with something else.

It was fast and furious, it was electrifying.

That and a lighting system of clean white light and shadows could not have been further away from the coloured lightshows and dry ice fog most bands filled the stage with.

They were amazing.

When we came out of the old cinema, the area underneath the elevated road was filled with groups of youngsters fighting, gangs of people having running fights as far as you could see. I never saw anything like it - the music was so exciting people couldn't contain the thrill of it all.

Lee Brilleaux modelled his style on a sped up version of 'Howling Wolf', while Wilco Johnson's guitar style just could not be categorised. During their version of 'There's a riot in Cell Block Number 9', Wilco used to hold his guitar like a rifle and fire it into the crowd.

None of us had seen anything like it before.

A few years ago, filmmaker Julian Temple made 'Oil City Confidential' a documentary set on Canvey about the band and the island although most of the time is spent with Wilco Johnson.

There's an interview with Lee Brilleaux's now elderly mother where she describes how she and Lee's dad saw the band at The Hammersmith Odeon for the first time and were so excited that they couldn't go to bed at all afterwards.

That was the same time as I was there - I know exactly how they feel.

If I had a problem at the time it was this - the Feelgoods were looking backwards musically and as I walked along underneath the elevated road I knew that while this was just the best thing I had ever seen it wasn't really going anywhere.

The excitement they released didn't have anywhere to go to.

Of course, within a few months Punk arrived and left The Feelgoods far behind it.

There aren't too many live recordings but have a listen to this one;

See what I mean? Lee is playing the slide guitar.

Neil Harris
(a don't stop till you drop production)
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