Oil City Confidential
First published January 2010
This film does something that is long overdue – it reinstates Dr. Feelgood to their rightful position as pioneers of all that is loud, fast and spiky. So it is good to hear from Glen Matlock, Joe Strummer, Clem Burke, Richard Hell and Andy Gill that far from starting from year zero, punk was inspired hugely by these “four guys who looked like they just done a bank-job”, roaring out of Canvey Island to terrorise London pubs and clubs before disappearing back into the “Thames Delta”.
What Julien Temple achieves here is to give a vivid sense of ‘terroir’ – that is he explains how the weirdly desolate geography and isolation of Canvey Island gave rise to a band who embodied insularity and a sense of being apart in both their music and in their attitude. He is aided by some evocative early footage of the band and fifth member Chris Fenwick at school and in the scouts which shows how the band turned into a tight-knit gang of five, via a couple of jug bands and some busking. Extensive recent interviews with Wilko Johnson, The Big Figure and Sparko are interspersed with older footage of Lee Brilleaux, supplemented by valuable insights from Lee’s widow and mother. Temple incorporates rather too much of his trademark ‘Brit-noir” footage, which if used more sparingly could have had a greater impact.
This is frustrating because the footage of the Feelgoods on stage is without exception stunning and there could have been more of it. Clips of Going Back Home, Back In the Night (Lee on slide), Roxette, I’m A Man and Riot In Cell Block Number Nine hint at their awesome live power. Central to this is the tension between Lee and Wilko – Lee in a very off-white suit, Willko in black. Lee immobile, seemingly oblivious to Wilko’s psychotic skittering. Much of this footage comes from mainland Europe, where by 1975 they were filling stadia. Riot… is a beautifully staged set-piece: spotlights raking the crowd as Wilko machine-guns them with his Tele (yup, just like Wayne Kramer used to). Elsewhere there is hilarious footage of a long-haired Wilko protesting about more oil refineries being built on Canvey, the band backing Heinz at the legendary Wembley Rock’n’Roll Festival in ’72 and the revelation that Lady Di was a frequent Feelgoods gig-goer when they played the Kensington.
The end is brutal. Holed up at Rockfield to record album number 4 tensions grew between chief songwriter and speed-freak Wilko and the rest of the band, by now solid boozers. Wilko introduced a song called Paradise, about his love for both his wife Irene and his mistress Maria. The other four freakedout at such outré behaviour and demanded that the song be replaced by Lew Lewis’ Lucky Seven. Wilko refused to back down and was sacked / leaves. Sadly both sides now regret the schism. Wilko admits candidly “I did have the misery a lot of the time…I was insufferable”. Whilst replacement guitarist Gypie Mayo was waiting in the wings the band never reached such artistic peaks again, although commercially they continued to do well for years. Temple wisely ends the tale here, restoring the Feelgoods to their rightful position as the missing link between the Yardbirds and the Clash, pioneers of manic energy at a time when all else lay fallow.