Dr. Feelgood
Lee Brilleaux - News Musical Express (décembre 1989)

Auteur inconnu © N.M.E. (site internet)

Maybe the sky isn’t always grey over Checkpoint Charlie, but it’s hard to picture it any other way. Maybe the soldiers smile sometimes, but they didn’t this time. The chilled wind whistle through no-man’s land, across the wires and the wasteground, around the huts full of stone-faced visa-men, in the spiritless rooms with the endless forms and the one-way doors, and the nervous rifles and the suffocating pall of black grace that hangs over it all every day and every night.

Last of our party through, I’m detained for the grilling that’s reserved, presumably, for Western journalists – finally allowed through but with my tape-recorder confiscated (either to stop any tales out of school, or just because it’s highly back marketable) – even though we were only there for a few little picture; you know, the old cheap-holiday-in-other-people’s-misery routine.

No chance of the Feelgoods defecting, any road. Ever tasted Warsaw Pact pale ale ? And does John B. Sparks look like anyone’s idea of masterspy ? And even if you fave Bolshoi ballerina has just done a bunk, would you accept The Big Figure in exchange?

The other, as I say, went on ahead into the Eastern Sector – or at least as far as the first bar, just down the road apiece, because it was here I caught up with them proposing an eloquent toast to their first communist 'bit of a goddess, as it happens', a waitress by trade, in coffee and Russian cognac. "The Important thing", Lee Brilleaux advised me, "is always to keep one step ahead of your hangover".

Even here in East Berlin, I thought, they’ve constructed a little island which is forever Canvey.

Germany is the last stage of another European tour for Dr Feelgood, by now well familiar with life on the Continental road and slowly reaping the hard-won rewards of trans)national recognition. It’s also by way of a run-in to the next major haul around the halls of Britain, through late November and into December, coinciding with the recent release of 'Let It Roll' – the band’s eighth album and the fourth since all the traumas of Wilko Johnson’s departure and subsequent replacement by a young unknown called Gypie Mayo.

Preaching a brand of fundamentalism rather than revivalism, the group’s impact upon the mid-70s music scene was of a rude poke up an over-corpulent backside, an electric charge of stripped-down R&B energy that was to start something string in rock’s racial memory – and, most will aggress, blasted a little gap through the edifice of complacency, just large enough for all the new wav of young brats to crawl through and set to demolishing entirely.

But a footnote in the history books doesn’t pay the rent, no when you’re still alive and kicking, as the Feelgoods certainly are. The job at hand therefore is convincing the sceptical that this thing lives, that you haven’t heard it all before, even after eight albums and more gigs than Lee Brilleaux’s had hangovers.

Back in the hotel bar that night, while the early hours dawdle towards what the ordinary worlds calls morning, we reflect on a certified triumph of a show at Berlin’s Metropole just before, a minor classic of a gig which made any diagnoses of cynicism look pretty sick themselves. Treat any reports of the Doctor’s demise as highly exaggerated, or any stories of decline as highly improbable.

"The day this job starts getting to be a pain in the arse, that’s the day I’ll pack it in", muses Brilleaux, toying with his glass. "Don’t worry about that. I’m not one of these gezers who’s in it to take the money and piss off. This is my live. And I don’t mind telling you, after making a living from this for seven years, if I can do it for another seven then I’ll be more than happy." He’s in earnest.

As, indeed, are all the Feelgoods in expressing belief in what they’re doing. "Like, the reviews we’ve had", remarked Gypie Mayo on the way to that gig, "some of them criticise us for staying the same and others say we’ve tried to change too much. So what can you do ?"

Sparko views it in a more philosophical light. "Opinions", he decides, "are like arse-holes. Everybody’s got one."

Lee Brilleaux tries to remeber where he parked the Cortina. Sparko (left), Gypie and Figure (right) join the march of socialism. Pic : Chris Horler.

A short walk in East Berlin revealed little of great cheer or encouragement, with or without the miserable icy drizzle. Blackened pre-war buildings, still bullet-scarred, rear up intermittently by blitz-wasted expanses, un-redeveloped even yet. Few cars, a queue outside the one visible shop, a vast Dignity Of Labour mural – peopled with improbably jolly peasants, artisans and banner-waving schoolchildren – a monument to Stalinist ugliness and the corruption of Art… and always, at the sudden, unnatural end of old avenues, the wall.

What the locals made of our four reprobates, posing for jokey photographs in a zone where any indiscretion seems likely to start World War Three, remains uncertain – Gypie in his Gestapo surplus leather coat, with perpendicular hair and permanent early-morning-call expression, the other three like sinister bar-proppers in the sort of pub you walk into by mistake and walk straight back out again.

It was no great wrench to leave the East after an hour or so and drive back through bright, affluent, consumer-congested West Berlin, a tinselly showcase of shop windows and hotels and giant advertisements (as idealised and unreal, perhaps, as their counterpart the wall mural), and to the next campaign stage in the selling of Dr Feelgood.

Which turns out to be an album-signing session inside a small record store hidden away in a modern shopping precinct off the bustling weekday street outside. Despite a display of Toby jugged Feelgoods in the windows promotion for the event has been what’s know in the trade as a complete cock-up, with the result that music-loving young Berliners have stayed away in droves.

Walking into the store, exactly the same image occurs to Gypie and me at the same instant – that of the Clockwork Orange Korova Milkbar. Stark and dark and low-it, its sides are lined with soft, deep sofas, on which sit silent rows and slumped youths, zomboid, headphones on, eerily oblivious to the visitor’s presence. "Let’s all hold hands", says Lee, "and see if we can contact the living."

The store staff look sheepish, the man from the German record company looks embarrassed. One or two kids advance and proffer album sleeves for autographing. The band co-operate with wry good humour.

"Sometimes I think they’re frightened of us', Lee ponders. 'They think we’re like we look onstage. But you can’t be like that 24 hours a day. We’d never try to be like that… I mean, there’s enough fuckin’ aggravation in the world without us adding to it, isn’t there ?"

"People have said, ‘Why don’t you do something about your image ? - become like pop stars or something. But it isn’t us, y’know ? We couldn’t afford the razor blades."

Publicité pour le concert du 19 décembre 1979

I suppose I’ve followed the Feelgoods for donkey’s years now, ever since stumbling across them (in the classic fashion of the day) playing to maybe a dozen punters in a Shepherds Bush pub, right up to the Odeon jobs of today. And it’s been a lot of fun. What happens next ?

Sparko: "We’ve thinking of learning a new chord. That’s our project for next year."
Lee : "
We don’t sit around the table and say, right, the next album is gonna be so-and-so in this direction or that direction, know what I mean ? We do ‘ave an Annual General Meeting to discuss what we’re gonna do business-wise, but when it comes to the musical side it there’s no real sort of discussion, it’s just something that happens naturally."

(Question illisible).

"Not really, ‘cos it’d be a waste of time. I think we realise our strength lies in the fact that we continue to play the same kind of music I think it’d be a bad business mistake, as well as a musical mistake, to try and deliberately steer the group in one direction or another. All of our albums, apart from the very first one that we made back in the days of Wilko, have been made in much the same way - written sort of like in a real hurry, two weeks before. We’re such lazy people that’s the only way we’re gonna get any work done."

Gypie : "Well, not only the fact that we’re lazy - we’re idiots, as well. We’re on the road all the fuckin’ time!"

Lee : "And tryin’ to write songs on the road.. I mean, you get great ideas when you’re on the road, but never the chance to really work them out."

Sparko (darkly) : "You get great ideas, but they’re nothin’ to do with music." (Ribal laughter here.)

Erm, so you’ll stick with the R&B, then ?

Figure : "Oo, I should think so."

Sparko : "Yeah, there’s always a pound note there. Ha ha !"

Gypie : "That’s what we listen to when we’re at home most of the time, along with reggae and a bit of country and western, which I think comes out on the new album. Bit more diverse, isn’t it ?"

Sparko : "What’s diverses’?"

Lee to Gypie : "You’re becoming an ENDANGERED SPECIES in this interview." (Unrestrained laughter.)

(Note : All closely-knit groups especially under the claustrophobic regime of life "on the road", develop a private language. In the present context, "Endangered Species" appears to be one such code-phrase, of immensely humorous import. Its outbreaks hav already been edited from this transcript wherever possible. Its precise meaning need not trouble us here. To continue…)

Why R&B ?

Sparko : "Well, we’ve learnt the chords."

Lee : "No, that’s why the group existed in the first place., ‘cos we decided we wanted to play that kind of music. Speakin’ for myself, that’s the only kind of music that I particularly want to play, or am physically capable of playing. I couldn’t sing anything else, or I’d be up the creek."

All un unison : "UP SCHEITZSTRASSE !"

Gypie (launching interview rescue attempt) : "With me, when I was about thirteen."

Lee : "You started getting these feelings." (More ribald laughter.)

Gypie : "Yeah, these little black things started to appear - and at he same time the Rolling Stones came along, right, and The Pretty Things."

Sparko : "And The Pubes."

Gypie : "And The Pubes, yeah - or The Tubes as they’re now know as - and it sort of overshadowed The Beatles and The Shadows thing which I’d been into before."

Figure : "Overshadowed The Shadows ? Hey, why don’t we writ a song !"

Gypie : "I think that was what inspired me and I think that goes for all of us here, ‘cos I didn’t know those guys then, thank God. It was that and -" (At this point Mr Mayo collapses across the hotel bed.)

"That and Blue Peter", the Figure helps out. "That and Valerie Singleton. It’s simple music and we’re simple musicians. Simple music and simple minds. We just like a row. It’s the only music that I find really exciting when I’m actually playing it. I’ve played other types of music before and I didn’t ejoy playing pop, Y’know, I always wanted to play rock’n’roll - and we’re more of a rock’n’roll band, these days, rather than strict R&B - that’s what I started off playing and I’ve come back to it. It’s what I enjoy most."

Lee : "And also, it’s an Endangered Species, an’ all." (Helpless laughter all round.) "there’s always this thing-where you think, we might end up becoming like a living museum, playing R&B classics. Well I don’t think we’ll fall into that trap because a good 50 per cent of our material is not standards. It’s better that things happen naturally with us. I mean, the only time we ever analyse what we do is when we talk to journalists. We never talk like the amongst ourselves, you know what I mean ? That’s why we’ve got no sort of ready answer for it."

"Improvised under the influence of", says Sparko.

'Blimey, I ask for directions to the Admiral Jellicoe and they give me this production.' Pic : Chris Horler

What was the idea behind releasing "As It Happen", the live album of a few months back ?

Lee : "A lot of people said the reason why we put out 'As It Happens' was that it was our last record with United Artists and we had some live tapes so we just decided to smash ‘em out. Well, we knew all along they was wrong, but we weren’t in a position to say so ‘cos matters were still being negotiated and all this sort of thing. We put it out because wanted a live album, it’s as simple as that. There was no politics behind it."

The Feelgoods have in fact taken up a new contract with UA, of which "Let It Roll" is the first offspring.

Sparko : "Because what’s happens is, the songs that are on studio albums, by the time we’ve played them through on stage we think, "That song needs a kick up the arse to make it work live", and so if you listen to the songs on the live album they’re quite a bit different."

Lee : "They’re sufficiently different to justify putting out two versions. It’s not as if it’s just the same thing rehashed. By the time you’ve been playing it onstage for six months or maybe 18 months, the song’s changed in the way you present it from the way you did it in the studio. The same will probably be true in two years’ time of the material we’re doing now."

Down in the bierkellar ar midnight, a champagne cork explodes to herald The Big Figure’s birthday. "If we’re gonna make prats of ourselves", announces Brilleaux, "we might as well all do it together. ‘Ere, ‘ave another one, mate. Look on it as a bribe." Much given to jocular badinage, this crew.

Still, the fact that the Feelgoods are, as they’d say, fond of a plate ale, doesn’t qualify as the greatest scoop in the history of investigative journalism - and nor is it even the most significant or interesting thing about them.

What impresses is an easy-going professionalism, coupled with a sharp but humane and generous wit, more often than not directed inwards. Simply, I’d number them amongst the pleasantest company I’ve yet encountered in the line of duty, and I could have suffered a good deal more than the two days I had of it.

And beyond that, as the Berlin gig and the "Let It Roll" set have reminded me, the band remains about the best we’ve got still working inside the mainstream of basic rock’n’roll; four solid parts to a dependable and occasionally inspiring whole. It still feels good.

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© Dr Feelgood & Lucie Lebens - Tous droits réservés
In Memory of Lee Brilleaux & Gypie Mayo