I saw you out the other night
I saw somebody hold you tight
Roxette, I wonder who it could be
It was so dark I couldn’t see
But I know it wasn’t me
When I tell you it ain’t right
I know you’ve got to agree…
My love for the band Dr. Feelgood was a done deal once I’d seen them perform that song on a 1975 episode, of the fondly remembered TV show The Old Grey Whistle Test. I was simply captivated. They had a back line of what looked like two bricklayers in 1970s wedding suits, in the shape of ‘The Big Figure’ on drums and John B. Sparks on the bass. Then I saw Wilko. I had never seen anything like Wilko in my life before, up until that point, and to be honest, there hasn’t been many like him since.
He seemed to be leaving and arriving at the same time, all the while laying down a mesmerising guitar riff, that to this day will stop me in my tracks completely if I suddenly hear it. Then, up front, you had Lee Brilleaux. Looking every inch a member of a bank robbing gang, let out on day release in his legendary white jacket. Often whipping out a mouth organ, he snarled, growled and dared you to look him in the eye, as he sang in a voice inspired by him once seeing the legendary Blues man, Howlin’ Wolf, perform live at pub gig in Romford. I kid you not.
Often described as being off the pub rock circuit, looking back, the band were also a pre punk, punk band, in all but name and look. Anyway, whatever personal folder you put them in, on their day they were manic, menacing and often magnificent.
Like all good stories, this one starts in Canvey Island.
Lee Collinson joined forces in 1971, with John Wilkinson, John B. Sparks and John Martin, all emerging from various bands of an R&B persuasion and ‘Finians Rainbow’ in the Figures case.
It quickly became evident that there were too many John’s for any band to cope with, so they quickly became Wilko, Sparko and The Big Figure respectively. Wilko was working as a teacher having been to university, with Lee, soon adopting the surname Brilleaux, inspired by his post gig hair resembling a Brillo Pad, climbing the legal ladder as a solicitor’s clerk. Two bright boys then. Wilko became the lead songwriter and Lee found his niche, whipping up any crowd, by his sheer force of nature, pumping his microphone and fist in equal measure.
Lee’s biographer, the lovely Zoe Howe wrote – ‘It is as if in leaving behind a life of drudgery, he felt beholden to perform for those still stuck in the nine-to-five. He said fans should be respected and be given a good show. There was nothing more important than cheering people up and taking them out of their life and just for a few hours giving them a bit of escapism.’
The bands management was handled by Chris ‘Whitey’ Fenwick, a lifelong pal of Lee’s and their name, which describes a disreputable doctor known for administering ‘happy juice’ for a reasonable fee, came from a tune of the same name by bluesman Willie Perryman, AKA Piano Red, later covered by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates.
The Feelgood’s, hit the road, hard, picking up any pub and club gigs they could in Canvey and Southend and eventually schlepping into London. They became a blistering live band within a year or two and notice began to be taken. Music journalist Charles Shaar Murray memorably described their live performances as ‘Hiroshima in a pint mug.’ Many in their audience went on to form bands themselves, and always mentioned how influential The Feelgoods were to them. Step forward Messrs Weller and Strummer.
The Feelgood’s signed with United Artists, and released ‘Down By The Jetty’ in January 1974, all recorded it is said, in first takes. Stand out tracks include ‘She’s Does it Right’ and ‘All Through the City.’
Whether their recorded sound matched their live work is a point still argued about by some today, but the album proved a popular release.
The next album ‘Malpractice’ did even better, reaching the UK top twenty and picking up a release in the states. Their live album ‘Stupidity’ in 1976 hit the top of the UK album charts, the only time they reached that peak.
Sadly, growing internal conflict between Wilko and Lee split the original line up and they never really spoke again. With Wilko gone, the other three carried on, and got in Gypie Mayo to pick up the guitar duties. In truth, for many Wilko was missed on stage, but in 1979, the new line up picked up a top ten hit with ‘Milk and Alcohol’ that came off the Nick Lowe produced album ‘Be Seeing You.’ Wilko later joined Ian Dury and The Blockheads briefly.
Gypie himself left in 1981, closely followed by The Big Figure and Sparko in 1982. They were struggling to live normal lives with the non stop-touring schedule so loved by Lee. With the other two now gone, he still clung on and simply hit the road with a new line up, the gig circuit coursing through his veins. The band continued to play hundreds of gigs a year.
Zoe Howe again – ‘ It made him happy. But it boils down to having a good time; that’s what he was trying to do for other people. Keep the show on the road and have a good time.’
Lee helped fund Stiff Records in 1976 with a loan of £450 (though some say that cheque was never cashed) so nice then that he released his solo album simply entitled ‘Brillieaux’ on that label, ten years later.
Sadly Lee succumbed to Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1994 aged just 41. He always stressed that the band name carry on and, that it does, still out gigging and performing all over. Good luck to them I guess, but for many others, and me, the originals in this case most certainly, really were the greatest.
A Lee Brilleaux Birthday Memorial gig was held for twenty years on Canvey Island, and that raised money for the Fair Havens hospice in Westcliff, which cared for Lee at the end of his life.
Celebrated film director Julien Temple then captured the band very nicely in his documentary ‘Oil City Confidential’ which premiered in London in October 2009.
Every now and then I’ll find the Feelgood’s live at The Kursal clip on YouTube and just sit back and luxuriate in it.
The Figure powers it all on as Sparko does his own Canvey two step, with Wilko setting fire to the floor with his ‘Ali Shuffle’ footwork. Then there’s Lee, in the white suit he started that tour in and wore every night until it was a terrible state, up front in his element, stoking his hometown crowd into an absolute frenzy.
It is simply magnificent to watch. What a band they were.
The Mumper of SE5
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