Extract from No Sleep Till Canvey Island by Will Birch

Written by Will Birch
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Extract from No Sleep Till Canvey Island 1.

On 13 July 1973, around 40 people – mostly Ducks Deluxe fans – were present to witness Dr Feelgood’s Tally Ho debut. This wasn’t the Feelgoods’ first London appearance – in August 1972 they had appeared in a rock ’n ‘roll revival show at Wembley Stadium, as the backing group for ex-Tornado and ‘Just Like Eddie’ star, Heinz. Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry topped the bill.   

Now, playing London for the first time in their own right, they received only a lukewarm response. Their music was, unfortunately, nothing new, closely resembling the sound of the Rolling Stones, circa 1963, complete with songs such as ‘Route 66’ and ‘Bye Bye Johnny’. The group’s appearance, however, was a little more interesting. 

The bass player and the drummer were both stocky chaps and looked as if they might be bricklayers or car mechanics. Indeed, these were their respective trades. The guitarist, who sported shoulder length hair and jerked erratically around the small stage, was a little harder to pin down. Although he didn’t exactly resemble the average secondary school teacher, this was, in fact, his profession. And the singer, a spindly fellow in a denim jacket, was, by day, a solicitor’s clerk. The group also had a 19-year-old manager, who had been a child TV actor, with appearances in Z Cars and Please Sir.     

Promoter Dai Davies watched Dr Feelgood’s performance from the middle of the room and was sufficiently amused to offer them a second booking, this time at The Lord Nelson in Holloway Road. The group’s confidence was now boosted and in the short time between these two London dates, Dr Feelgood carried out some minor surgery. John Wilkinson became ‘Wilko Johnson’ and cut his hair. Johnson remarks, ‘Ever since I was 16, I’d let my hair grow long and then cut it short, so I was cutting my hair every 18 months or so. It was time to cut it anyway, but we were starting to get these feelings about the way we ought to look.’           

Extract from No Sleep Till Canvey Island Lee BrilleauxLee Collinson became ‘Lee Brilleaux’ and John Martin adopted the name ‘The Big Figure’, in keeping with his slightly sinister appearance. By the time of their second or third Lord Nelson date, Dr Feelgood looked like no other rock ’n’ roll group on earth. Within a few years, the Feelgoods’ image would be a major factor in a universal shake-up of the rock ’n’ roll look.          

The essence of the Dr Feelgood look was: shorter-than-average hair; the street clothes of an out-of-work bank clerk and, most importantly, a menacing onstage presence. This was achieved by a disinclination to smile and a refusal to acknowledge what the other members of the group were up to at any given moment. For example, bug-eyed guitarist Wilko Johnson would skitter, mid-solo, from one side of the stage to the other, ‘accidentally’ colliding with singer Lee Brilleaux. None of the group would react to this. It was not a big deal. It was all in a night’s work and, at first, it completely fazed the London audience. But soon, everyone would be waiting for Dr Feelgood’s next display of nonchalance.   
Fenwick’s managerial abilities and the group’s confidence in him were often underestimated by the wheelers and dealers that Dr Feelgood encountered during this period. ‘Chris was incredibly self-confident from a very young age, ’ says Wilko Johnson. ‘He was really good at it and all business decisions were left to him. Usually when a band starts making it, the local manager gets the elbow pretty quickly, but Chris would take on all comers. People were sniffing around but we always closed ranks and kept faith. No outsider could have penetrated it. I think Chris used to tell people he had an exclusive contract, but we never signed anything between each other and we’ve never disputed anything.’    
‘We were consolidated, ’ confirms Fenwick. ‘If any outsider tried to chisel their way in and fuck our game up or tried to take advantage of what they considered was a weakness, they picked the wrong mob. Also, the geography was brilliant. We could drive up to London four times a week and come home and go to bed. We didn’t have to get all messed up with that staying-in-London bit. That wasn’t part of the gag. We were in a very exciting position and we had a very intelligent core on the firm. Wilko and Lee were clever blokes. They could see that it was cooking and it wasn’t going to be a problem.’      

At this point, Dr Feelgood were still operating on a semi-professional basis. Fenwick says, ‘When we first started hacking into London, all of the group had their day jobs. I was still acting, doing Dixon Of Dock Green or a film for a cash and carry firm. But we quickly came to the conclusion that if we were going to embark on long runs and European jaunts, we had to be serious and attack it on a pro basis.’    

 Dixon Of Dock Green 1   

It wasn’t long before the music press caught on to Dr Feelgood. One of the first journalists to latch on was Tony Tyler of the New Musical Express, who reviewed an early show. Wilko Johnson recalls, ‘He burst into the Lord Nelson one evening and told us who he was and that he wanted to write about us. But unfortunately, the NME was not being published at the time due to a printers’ strike. He started telling the other guys, people like Mick Farren and Charles Shaar Murray, who were very positive.’          

In autumn 1973, Dr Feelgood recorded their first Radio One session for the Bob Harris Show. Wilko Johnson had stayed up the previous night, putting the finishing touches to his first original composition for the group, ‘She Does It Right’. This song became the blueprint for the Feelgoods’ style: a minimal guitar riff, super-tight drums and bass and a manic growl from Lee Brilleaux as he related the virtues of the girl in question. The formula was successfully repeated by Johnson with ‘Twenty Yards Behind’ and ‘Roxette’.         

The radio and press buzz on Dr Feelgood brought a number of record companies to Chris Fenwick’s door, but initially he had to cope with the offers of ‘production deals’, whereby independent companies sought to sign acts and then lease the tapes to a major label. ‘We were very wary of production deals, ’ says Fenwick. ‘Bob Harris and Tony Woolcott had a production company and came down to Canvey very early on, offering us this kind of deal and there were a few others, but my situation was very clear – we didn’t want any involvement with third parties. When I saw a contract for a direct signing to a record company, then I would talk.’           

© Will Birch

No Sleep Till Canvey Island is available from www.willbirch.com

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