‘Three alcoholics and a speed freak … what could possibly go wrong!’ Lemmy on Dr Feelgood.
White boy in town
Big black, blue sound
Night club, I paid in
I got a stamp on my skin (Milk and Alcohol)
Dr Feelgood Singles – The UA Years: Fucking hell this album has some of the best music I have ever heard on it and I only like the first half of the album! Welcome to 1972 when the single most radical thing you could do in that musical climate was to bleach away the patchouli, shred the kaftans, lose 9 extraneous band members, excise the self-indulgence, cut the 27 minute song cycles and just strip it on down to the bone, four men in shabby suits playing thuggish wired rhythm and blues like their very lives depended upon it. What more could you possibly ever want?
Formed in 1972, that blessed holy year that saw the introduction into the world of all that is good and righteous, in Canvey Island, Essex, Dr Feelgood kept it real simple and mean. An intense boggle-eyed guitarist with a great distinctively choppy style Wilko Johnson powered the band from the front, Lee Brilleaux on vocals and harmonica was a glowering ball of sullen energy, a genuinely menacing dude and the rhythm section were just perfectly straight, John B Sparks on bass and The Big Figure* – absolutely no frills at all. Great, but this would equal the square root of fuck all if they didn’t have the songs.
Oh they had the songs alright.
Midnight on the river
In the light of the flames
I’m staring at the water
And I’m trying to fit a number to a name (Sneakin’ Suspicion)
Singles – The UA Years does what I like in a compilation and gives us the goods chronologically, so you can trace the arc of development. We kick off with the band’s first effort ‘Roxette’, which gives us that Feelgood sound straight up as they follow the unfaithful Roxette dragging her goodies all over town, it’s a good song but a bit tame compared to what was to come.
Sheer, bloody perfection was exactly came next with ‘She Does It Right’. I genuinely don’t think music gets any better than this, bloody-knuckled R&B**, hotwired, disciplined and stripped of any extraneous fripperies. 3:12 is all it needs to flip my lid. Roxette may have been touting it around town but this baby has eyes only for yours truly. You could power a turbine with the energy here, Wilko simultaneously playing rhythm and lead guitar with only two hands – he does it right.
The other three tracks on side 1 are only marginally less great, ‘Back In The Night’ with Brilleaux’s mating-call growl and blazing guitar lines; ‘Going Back Home’ penned by Johnson and Mick Green of the Pirates*^ is the hardest of hard-edged rhythm and blues (especially live); the live cover of ‘Riot In Cell Block No.9’ from their British #1 live LP is just incendiary and as for ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ … well. ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ was the band’s first single to chart and it has the hardest guitar edge to it, the production on this track is just vast and loud, which suits the down home poetry of it to a tee.
The original band blew up in ’77, partly due to a disastrous tour supporting KISS in the US and Wilko left. It was a case of diminishing returns thereafter, well to a point. The band had their biggest hit with a total classic in the shape of ‘Milk and Alcohol’ in 1978 a brilliant, mean-spirited tale of going to see John Lee Hooker on too many White Russians. For all my Wilko worship, the guitar solo Gypie Mayo plays on this track is possibly my 5th favourite non-Young^ one ever^^ and it pushes ‘She Does It Right’ real close.
I have a soft spot for tracks like ‘Down At The Doctors’, ‘Baby Jane’ and ‘She’s A Wind Up’, they’re all really good, simple, hyper-caffeinated R&B belters and there’s nothing wrong with that. Our local pub band when I was growing up used to play a good cover of ‘Baby Jane’. All well-played, all very effective but missing a bit of that magic missing ingredient. It would be a churl who didn’t love the bit in ‘Down At The Doctors’ where Brilleaux growls:
Come here baby
Ain’t gonna do you no harm
I just want to shoot
Some rock’n’roll in your arm
By about 1981 the band shed even more members and whilst they were still a great night out, it was over for me and the third and fourth sides of Singles – The UA Years provide pretty slim pickings for me.
As well as cutting some great music Dr Feelgood were such an influential crew as well, along with others they fed into the London pub rock scene which shaped British punk with its’ back to basics rigour and speed – Ian Dury & The Blockheads and Joe Strummer were all graduates of the scene. You can’t beat a band who set out to drag everyone backwards into the future.
But this really isn’t music to philosophize about, this is music to sweat, drink and jive to so cue the music and pour me a White Russian because I’ve got a sneakin’ suspicion I’m going back home.
PS: Because I can’t resist it again – you have to love the cranked-up band compared to the 70’s TV audience. How fast is Wilko’s right hand? perfecto.
*one of my favourite ever rock names.
**rhythm and blues, I don’t mean that vile brand of half-assed rap that appropriated the name to sing about phat asses.
*^Wilko’s idol and one of my real favourites too, played like a steam train coming right at you:
^Angus and Neil have their own Top 10.
^^clocking in just after Steve Jones on ‘EMI’ and just before Neil Clark’s great one-note solo on ‘Perfect Skin’ by Lloyd Cole & The Commotions. True story.