Stand and watch the towers burning at the break of day
Steadily slowing down, been on my feet since yesterday
Gotta get a move on tryin´ to find a man I know
Money in my pocket, looking for a place to go
(from ‘All Through The City’ – Wilko Johnson – Down By The Jetty )
Earlier in the year I went over to Canvey Island to meet with Chris Fenwick, original Dr. Feelgood manager and holder of most of the bands estate. Sean McLoughlin, with whom I work at Metal, had urged me to come as he knew I was a fan of the band back in the Wilko Johnson era. In fact I was such a big fan when I was at school that I wanted to have my hair cut in the same style as Wilko. This however was not possible owing to my thick and unfloppy mop.
A lot has been written about Dr. Feelgood and Wilko in the last few years, what with Wilko’s illness and Julian Temple’s Oil City Confidential film. A few years ago I interviewed Wilko for a Metal piece and found him to be candid, quixotic and thoughtful. The Feelgood story was beautifully captured by the Julian Temple film and Wilko does stand out as an icon of Englishness.
So, on arrival at the Feelgood lock up on Canvey it was extraordinary to see crates full of ephemera – pictures, posters and oddities. Chris Fenwick then transported us over to the Canvey Club down the road where a glass case proudly presented the original Feelgood amp, Toby jugs and band discs. I realised that Dr. Feelgood is more than just a band in Canvey, it is a part of the social history of the area, reaching out into the Southend and Canvey communites, through the manager and ex-band members. The myth and the estate are not without contention and standing in the dark lock up I had a very direct conversation about how we might curate the show with Chris. In fairness to him he wanted to see the work pulled together and accepted that we would do it our way. A repeat visit with Metal CEO Colette Bailey and we were game on.
The defining Dr. Feelgood image was used on the front cover of the live ‘Stupidity’ album. It pictures Wilko glancing up at Lee Brilleaux, blues harp and microphone welded to his face. Brilleaux fixes his eyes directly out to the audience. This moment (in Southend) captures the electric presence of the band and the pure energy that they radiated.
The exhibition at Chalkwell Hall has been rapidly put together (September 2014). The work arrived a week ago and I spent a day wading through nearly 300 items. Fortunately, we have been able to curate a timeline using old Sounds and NME covers and stories. Combined with band images and promo shots from United Artists, this gives a sense of how Dr. Feelgood climbed from pubs and clubs to an international touring band, culminating with ‘Stupidity’ as a Number 1 UK album and then break up around the period of the ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ release. Johnson left the band in April 1977 and went on to form his own outfit and also worked with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. The band pressed on with new guitarist Gypie Mayo, charted in the UK, but never took off in the US. Looking at the Stupidity image painted in the hallway at Chalkwell by Jack Melville it’s really apparent that the sheer liveness and manic intensity was lost when Wilko and Lee Brilleaux parted company.
Listening back to some of the original songs while we were hanging the show, it is clear that Wilko’s song craft hinges on creating a sense of place and observations of modern life in the Seventies in Canvey. Where else can you stand and watch towers burning at the break of day but Canvey Island? In the UK I can think of Fawley and Humber.
The Feelgood Cafe at Metal, Chalkwell Hall runs from Friday 26 September – Friday 12 December 2014
With thanks to Chris Fenwick.