Dr Feelgood revisited with Julien Temple
British director Julien Temple has established a reputation as his country’s best rock film-maker. His 2009 documentary Oil City Confidential takes a look at a quartet who ruled the UK pub-rock scene in the 1970s. Oil City premiered in Paris in May. World Tracks was there to meet Temple and Dr Feelgood guitarist Wilko Johnson. An RFI exclusive.
Oil City reflects a lost English world the band came from: Canvey Island in the Thames, with its oil terminals, working-class bungalows, East End humour... and heavy drinking.
“Dr. Feelgood were making huge statements out of very simple guitar chords and words.” Julien Temple reclined and took another sip of his French table wine. The wind whistled around his greying head, an unpleasant mix of Parisian pollution and sewage.
Only hours away from an evening show he was to front, the director of Oil City Confidential was in a thoughtful mood. “The band was an inspiration to young punks who wanted to overthrow the hippie excess, smell of death and petunia oil… things like that.”
There seem few better-placed filmmakers than Temple to bring out of obscurity a band that in the Seventies crossed British pop music like an explosive meteor. Dr. Feelgood were born in 1971 on the Thames estuary island of Canvey. They were called the Pigboy Charlie Band at the time.
The group was all about confrontational R&B, in-your-face lyrics and stripped-down post-hippie sounds that stormed to number one in the mid-Seventies. Driven by lead singer Lee Brilleaux and guitarist Wilko Johnson, the quartet were one of the most riveting live bands Britain has produced.
“We were born below sea level,” explains Wilko Johnson, nowadays a bald-headed 63-year-old still wielding his guitar like a teenager. “That affects your consciousness profoundly, it becomes a submarine consciousness. I can now say we were naïve but at the time there was something very noble about it,” he says.
“Unfortunately,” he pursues with his trademark poker-face, “we got dropped out of history and overshadowed by the whole punk thing. A lot of punk was related to Dr. Feelgood…so maybe we’ll get a little recognition now.”
Oil City Confidential uncovers some remarkable footage of the unchartered rise of the
Quiz of the week
Which punk-rock artists attended Dr. Feelgood concerts in the early 70s? The answer is in the programme. You are invited to listen to it and send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org
band in the context of a forgotten English world, replete with self-deprecating humour, violence and working-class grit. Temple unearths gems from archives and black-and-white TV series to give the documentary and blinding pace.
“Canvey Island was opposite the biggest oil terminal in the UK,” explains Temple. "The Thames delta was (Dr. Feelgood’s) version of the Mississippi delta. There was something beautiful and energetic about living there. And Wilko was the poet of the English blasted oil refinery world (sic.)”
Dr. Feelgood hit London’s pub-rock scene in 1974. They fizzled out in 1977 after a serious fallout between Brilleaux and Johnson during a US tour.
“Regrets? Naturally,” says the guitarist with emotion. “I thought I would never be doing anything else. There was something special about what we did. Lee Brilleaux was an extraordinary person. The world was ours; I can never have that experience again.”
Sadly, death has come to haunt the last few decades of Johnson’s life. His wife Irene was taken by cancer in 2004, while Brilleaux died in 1994 leaving moot any talk of a Dr. Feelgood reunion. Johnson continues to perform throughout Europe and Japan. He says it is only on stage that he can forget his wife.
Since Oil City Confidential, Temple has since released “Requiem for Detroit,” a hymn to Motor City in the US.