Aside from a smattering of sportsmen and a pioneer of deep sea fishing, Canvey Island is pretty much known for two things; its skyline-consuming petrochemical plants and Wilko Johnson’s band of underground heroes, Dr Feelgood, four unkempt rebels who came out of the ether with an unfashionable melee of old-school Brit R&B, blues and fiery rock’n’roll.
Perhaps hailing from a seven-miles-squared piece of land just off the south coast of Essex has its advantages.
‘It’s an odd place,’ chuckles Johnson. ‘People wouldn’t dare to go over to Canvey Island. They thought it was a swamp with some shacks on it… which is basically what it was, come to think about it! It was like being an outsider – and musically, that’s where we were. We did what we wanted to do, we weren’t thinking in terms of anything else. Coming from Canvey Island made you feel like you had something to prove.’
Wilko Johnson and Dr Feelgood, then, were the living embodiment of the ‘local’ band, literally detached from the mainland. It’s a metaphor that mirrors their position in the musical spectrum of the time. The vision was theirs… but just as important was their uncontainable attitude and onstage swagger.
That was then and this is now, but after five minutes with Wilko you’ll quickly discover that – save for the tousled mane of his heyday – he’s lost nothing of his former self. So when filmmaker Julian Temple (Sex Pistols No. 1, The Great Rock And Roll Swindle) took it upon himself to make a documentary – Oil City Confidential – about the island’s music scene, our ears pricked up. This would be no ordinary film.
‘It was the year before last,’ remembers Wilko. ‘Dr. Feelgood’s manager told me Julian wanted to make a film. My first reaction was surprise… I mean, how are you gonna do it!? He said the first thing he wanted to do was go over to the oil depot on Canvey Island at night and project films of Dr Feelgood onto the side of these big tanks and interview us in front of them. I thought “Fucking hell! This sounds great!” The next night we were down there.’ Despite a lifetime with the omnipresent shadow of the oil works blocking the light from his bedroom window, it was a first for Wilko.
‘It was such an experience,’ Johnson recalls. ‘When you go up on Canvey Island you’re always aware of the oil works, but no one ever goes there. I’d never been there in my life, so going in the night time was weirder still. Standing there with these great big pictures – me and Lee Brilleaux 30 years ago… silent of course. It was so weird, I wanted to stand there all night!’
Ever the humble man, Wilko struggled to watch it on the big screen. ‘I didn’t see the film until they first showed it at the National Film Theatre,’ he goes on. ‘I don’t like looking at films with myself in them. I was sitting next to my son and kind of looking through my fingers. For one thing, it was the first time I’d ever really seen live clips of Dr Feelgood… but then it was like, “Bloody hell, we were pretty good!”’
The ‘greatest local band in the world’ didn’t take long to hit the national stage. ‘We just wanted to play that kind of thing ’cos it’s what we liked,’ says Wilko. ‘Then we started playing gigs in London and suddenly everyone was interested. Then we realised we were in contention – we weren’t just a local band anymore. There was a strong feeling about what we were doing. We were going against the way things were. When it started getting really popular it didn’t really surprise me… I thought “People like this music! You can really tap your foot to it.”’
The Feelgoods debut, Down By The Jetty – released in unfashionable mono – kicked things off. The second, Malpractice, took them in to the Top 20 and the third, their live album Stupidity (a warts’n’all recording with Johnson insisting on no overdubs) hit No 1 in the UK.
However, despite writing all the tunes, Johnson’s tenure with the band would prove to be cut short. Sadly for Wilko (and Dr Feelgood) tensions began to simmer with Lee Brilleaux after the release of Sneakin’ Suspicion, the follow up to Stupidity. ‘With the live show there were two frontmen, if you like. People used to wonder if this led to anything going wrong,’ explains Wilko. ‘I think not, ’cos I was always taking my cue from Lee. As far as I was concerned he was like the leader. Anything I would do would be reacting to him – I wasn’t trying to upstage him or anything. I was acting with him.’
So how did it all unravel?
‘Towards the end Lee and I really couldn’t stand each other! I don’t know why – this kind of animosity had grown up. In 1976 we were touring in America quite a bit and all sorts of things started to worry to me ’cos I was the one that wrote the songs. It’s great, writing, but once you’ve done your first album it becomes a bit of a headache and I think that that was maybe something the others didn’t understand. I would try and get them to write stuff, but they didn’t. When things started to get a little strained personally, I’m proud to say that – except for one spectacular exception – we never took it onstage. We weren’t bad-vibing each other on stage. You can start shouting later on. We’d go on there and do the thing.
‘That’s the way things ended up. They ended up badly, but I never wanted that to obscure my feelings about that band. I mean, they chucked me out, let’s get that straight… and it was very hurtful for me. After it happened I thought, I didn’t wanna come away with a load of bitterness. Perhaps it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don’t know. Most of it was just really great, and that’s the way I like to look at it. I cannot even now really explain what the problem was, so I don’t think about it.’
Wilko quickly moved on to other things, amongst them a new band, Solid Senders, as well as a stint as guitarist with the Blockheads, but the documentary refreshed his memory of past glories without bitterness.
‘When we started filming I just started remembering things,’ Johnson reflects. ‘I suppose the best bit was when it all started happening for us – that was a great feeling. Our way was to play music that was very simple and not reliant upon technology – quite different from what was going down in the ’70s.’
Although the band scored their first Top 10 hit, Milk And Alcohol, with new guitarist John ‘Gypie’ Mayo, the original grit was somewhat lost and the punk era ushered in a new wave of bands. But ask any one of those bands and they’ll tell you that Dr. Feelgood were an intrinsic part of the formation of the punk sound.
‘The punk thing all kind of followed after us – I know ’cos I got to know a lot of these people,’ says Wilko. ‘Most if not all of the punk bands had been to see Dr Feelgood the year before punk. When it all started happening we were all in America. I thought that when we started succeeding it was gonna lead to a big rhythm and blues thing just like the Rolling Stones did in the ’60s, but it didn’t. In fact a lot of the punk bands were real beginners, they’d just started learning, so a lot of what we were doing led to that. What they understood was the energy and the commitment of going flat-out – and that’s what they did! I think that’s what we did for the punk thing!”
Although he’d shy away from taking all the glory from his fellow bandmates, it was Wilko that truly embodied that all-important ‘energy’. How did his choppy, adrenaline-fuelled sound come about?
‘Mick Green!’ comes the short answer. ‘I can remember discovering him and being intrigued by the way he played. When the first Rolling Stones album came out two or three of us took the day off school and went and bought their album, and while we were in the record shop I’m flicking through these secondhand singles and I found A Shot Of Rhythm And Blues by Johnny Kidd and the Pirates with this Mick Green fella. We went back to someone’s place and spent the afternoon just playing the Stones album. It was so exciting, but I kept putting on this Johnny Kidd record and I was like, “This Stones record is fantastic, but there’s something about this guitar playing that I really like,” and I dedicated myself to trying to copy him.
‘The thing that hit me was his style. It was so American. It was a rhythm and blues style, and it didn’t sound like what most people were doing over here. One of the many things that intrigued me was when I found out the Pirates didn’t have a rhythm guitarist. It was all one guy, and I thought that was great and I started learning how to do it. That influences the whole way I play, really. I just sat there playing the records over and over trying to work it out.
‘But I worked out a way of doing it which of course was wrong – it’s not the way he did it. So if you like, I’ve ended up with my own style. There are things in what I do… if I look at them I realise that what they are is a misinterpretation, a misunderstanding of something I’ve heard, but in fact what you end up with is something that’s okay and totally your own. Someone does something that gets to you and it’s just so exciting, and you aim for it and land somewhere near it.’
Though his frenetic guitar style was central to the Feelgoods’ success, Wilko’s onstage antics played an equal part. ‘What I did on stage, the source of it all really came from Lee Brilleaux,’ states Johnson. ‘There was just a fantastic energy – a lot of it was kind of coming from tension. Also I try and explain to people… you know when you go down to the disco and some sound comes on and you really dig that sound and maybe there’s a fantastic girl… you go up there and you start dancing, and if you stopped and thought for a moment you’d realise you looked ridiculous, but you don’t care. It’s a little bit like that with what I do. It makes me feel like that – kind of twitchy! You’ve got to point Percy at the people!’
We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
Wilko’s choice of a Tele was again a result of the effect his hero had on him. ‘Mick Green played one, it’s as simple as that!’ laughs Wilko. ‘I’d seen him on the television with a Telecaster and I wanted one – they weren’t actually very fashionable at that time. In the big window of the guitar shop in Southend they had two guitars that they couldn’t sell ’cos they were just too expensive and one was this Telecaster. It was £107. I wished I could get it, but £107!! My Dad used to earn £12 a week as a gas fitter, so it was too much.’
Ever the entrepreneur, Johnson found a way around the issue. ‘I wanted it more and more and they couldn’t sell it. Then they put the price down to £100, or even £90 just to unload it. My mum wouldn’t let me have anything on credit, so I went into the shop and said “Listen, I want this guitar, can I pay for it week by week?” I had this card and I saved up all my dinner money, and every Saturday I’d give them what I had and they’d write it down on this card and then they would bring the guitar out and let me play it for half an hour. Then, of course, it would have to go back.
‘I said to myself, “When summer comes I’m gonna get a job as a bus conductor and I’ll be able to pay it off.” I did get that job, but man, I couldn’t stand it – it was terrible. So I persuaded my girlfriend that it would be a good idea to draw out all the money from her post office savings account and pay the last £60 for the Tele. I said, “Don’t tell your mum and dad!” That’s how I bought it. I never did pay her back, but I did marry her!’
Soon the guitar was to take on the famous red and black finish. ‘I used to wear this red and black shirt,’ Wilko recalls. ‘The Tele was sunburst when I got it, so I said to the roadie, “Get a red scratchplate made for it and paint it black.” That’s the guitar I used all the time. Just after that Teles started to become rather fashionable – I think Jeff Beck and people were using them – and the shop asked if they could have it back!’
Wilko’s old Tele features on pretty much everything he’s ever recorded, but eventually he put it out to pasture. ‘It started getting a bit sentimental, so I had someone go out and get me a pre-CBS Telecaster.’
After a few reissues, Wilko moved on to a custom guitar. ‘I started using the Japanese ones I’d seen in Tokyo,’ he continues. ‘Now I’ve just got this one that Joseph Kay made. It’s brilliant… I’ve been using it for two or three weeks. He said he could make me one based on the old one, exactly the same. He started going on about kinds of wood and I was like “I dunno, man, just make the thing!” I think it’s probably the best guitar I’ve ever played. Every note is true. You won’t find no buzzes or rattles on it. I think I’ve had about six guitars in my whole life and I’ve still got five of them, so I don’t know much about new guitars. I think it’s just very well made.’
Although for many years Wilko used a Fender Twin, and before that an HH combo customised with PA speakers, he recently started using a boutique amp made by Dennis Cornell. ‘He lives around the corner, actually,’ Wilko explains. ‘He’s got a kind of cottage industry making amps. A couple of years ago someone in the support band came up to me and said “What do you think of this amp?” I thought it was very good so I went round the corner and got one. It’s just got one speaker, but it’s very powerful.’
When it comes to Wilko’s inimitable style, simplicity really is the key. ‘I always like to use bog-standard equipment,’ he states. ‘If I have a Telecaster I like it to be a straight Telecaster. I don’t like to change the pickups or have anything extra on it, and with amplifiers I never use pedals or anything like that, I just plug straight in. I like an amplifier where you can just set the knobs up to halfway and it’ll sound right. I’m very happy with that amplifier, and it’s always been the Telecaster for me, so if I’ve got a good pre-CBS style Telecaster that’s not falling to bits, then I’m a happy man!’
Now Wilko is touring with his three-piece band and has just finished playing some dates with the Stranglers. ‘If you really wanna come into your own then it’s got to be a three-piece,’ smiles Wilko. ‘Just like the whole thing with Feelgood – it was basic. A three-piece is as far as you can go, really. One of the great things about good music is that there’s got to be gaps in it, and you can orchestrate them in a three-piece quite easily.’
In between touring and frequent trips to Japan, Wilko likes nothing more than heading up to his rooftop to stare at the stars. He even has a home-built mini-observatory to track the planets electronically. ‘The first time I saw Saturn through a telescope it totally blew me away!’ he smiles, before going on to enthuse at length about his obvious love of astrology and the bigger questions in life.
We’d rather have Wilko explaining the cosmos to us than one half of D:REAM… but all things considered, we’re more than happy he’s chosen guitars over telescopes.