Dr Feelgood are a hard driving Punk/R&B British Institution! More punk than Punk! It could be argued that they actually invented Punk! What marks them out from other mainstream Punk bands is their superior musicality and deep-rooted love of Rhythm 'n' Blues. They basically took the Blues and sped it up! 2021 marks their fiftieth year of existence, and to celebrate this momentous occasion they have just released a forty one song double CD 'Greatest Hits' collection on Grand Records. The compilation was put together by Kevin Morris, the bands current drummer and mainstay since 1983. The set was re-mastered by Denis Blackham at Skye Mastering, with sleeve notes by Stephen Foster and artwork by Elless.co.uk. Calling the album 'Greatest Hits' is a bit misleading, as most of the songs on this collection were never really hits! In reality this is more a selection of some their best songs from their extensive back catalogue.
Formed in 1971 on the infamous Thames Delta that is Canvey Island in Essex by school friends Lee Collinson (Lee Brilleaux), Chris White (Chris Fenwick) and John Sparkes (Sparko), they initially got together to play Skiffle music for fun, eventually settling on calling themselves The Pigboy Charlie Band. By 1971 John Wilkinson (Wilko Johnson) joined them on guitar and from then on things got serious! With a mutual love of Rhythm 'n' Blues they decided to change their name to 'Dr Feelgood' after a 1962 record by the American Blues pianist and singer Willie Perryman (also known as "Piano Red") called ‘Dr. Feel-Good’. The song was also covered by The Pirates, which featured Wilko's guitar hero and main influence Mick Green. The band were on the lookout for a decent drummer so Wilko introduced the others to his friend John 'Big Figure' Martin. The chemistry was instant and they were off and running! Chris Fenwick decided he would be better suited to managing rather than playing. He continues to manage the band to this day. The original Dr Feelgood line-up was Lee Brilleaux on vocals and harmonica, Wilko Johnson on guitar, 'Sparko' on bass and the 'Big Figure' on drums. They developed their chops and perfected their stage craft by relentlessly playing the local pubs in around Canvey Island before heading west to London to blow unsuspecting people's minds with their hard hitting R&B.
With their impressive performances and growing legions of fans flocking to the pubs of London the band started to get noticed by record companies eager to snap them up. United Artists offered the best deal, the first single 'Roxette', written by Wilko, was released in late 1974 with their debut album 'Down By The Jetty' being released in early 1975. Produced by Vic Maile and recorded in Mono, it captures the band's raw energy perfectly and still sounds vital today. The band were immediately sent out on a hugely successful package tour entitled 'The Naughty Rhythms Tour' with Kokomo and Chilli Willi and The Red Hot Peppers. The second album 'Malpractice' was quickly recorded and released in the same year to monopolise on their widening profile. Another fine album brimming with energy and vitality, it proved to be highly successful, reaching number seventeen in the UK album charts, with the single 'Back in the Night', also written by Wilko, being released to critical acclaim.
Their major breakthrough happened in 1976 when their live album, 'Stupidity', reached number one in the UK Albums Chart. The album captured the Feelgoods at their ultimate best delivering a tsunami of high octane full-tilt in-your-face R&B. The trouble with this quick rise to commercial success was the pressure by the record company for them to come up with new material as good as before. With Wilko being the only songwriter in the band all that pressure landed on him. Conflict inevitably reared its ugly head particularly between Wilko and Lee Brilleaux, and sadly after the 1977 album 'Sneakin' Suspicion', Wilko left the band for good! Despite the crumbling relationships within the band, the album went on to do quite well in the UK album charts reaching number ten, however, the material wasn't as strong as the two previous albums. After leaving Dr Feelgood, Wilko went on to form the Solid Senders who released one album of the same name in 1978. After the quick demise of that project, Wilko went on to forge an enduring solo career with The Wilko Johnson Band that continues to this day. On a short break from his solo work he made a brief sojourn as guitarist for Ian Dury & The Blockheads on their 1980 'Laughter' album. These days Wilko is often cited as a major influence on the emerging Punk movement of the mid-seventies and has been lauded the accolade of being one of Britain’s national treasures by many a journalist.
Wilko leaving Dr Feelgood left a major hole, not only was he the only songwriter in the band but he was a formidable and unique guitar player whose aggressive staccato guitar style was a major part of their sound. Bravely the band decided to soldier on and recruited a relatively unknown guitarist called John 'Gypie' Mayo (John Philip Cawthra). As luck would have it Gypie could hold his own, bringing his unique guitar playing style and song writing ability to the table. The band went on to further success in the late 70’s with the release of a string of quality albums including 'Be Seeing You' (1977), 'Private Practice' (1978) - the single 'Milk & Alcohol' written by Gypie Mayo and Nick Lowe reached the UK top ten giving the band their most successful single - 'As It Happens – Live' (1979), 'Let It Roll' (1979), 'A Case of the Shakes' (1980) and 'On the Job - Live' (1981). By 1981 Gypie Mayo was burnt out from the relentless touring and recording schedule and decided to leave the band for the good of his health. He would later go on to further success as lead guitarist with the reformed Yardbirds, staying with them for eight years from 1996 – 2004. Sadly Gypie died of cancer in 2013.
Undeterred by another guitarist leaving the band, Brilleaux soldiered on and went on the hunt for a replacement. Former Count Bishops axeman, Johnny 'Guitar' Crippen secured the position. He would last two years and features on the 1982 album 'Fast Women, Slow Horses'. By the end of 1982 both Sparko and The Big Figure decided they'd had enough of the relentless touring and retired from the band. Brilleaux was devastated and decided to take some time out himself, but after just three months he decided he wanted Dr Feelgood to continue and so he set about reforming the band with all new members. In came guitarist Gordon Russell, bassist Phil Mitchell and drummer Kevin Morris. The sound of the band evolved through the 80’s, less grit and more polish! Well it was the 80’s! This line up lasted seven years and produced four albums, 'Doctors Orders' (1984), 'Mad Man Blues' (1985), 'Brilleaux' (1986) and 'Classic' (1987). Sadly Gordon Russell left the band in 1988 due to the tragic death of his child.
Saddened by Russell leaving, but determined to forge on, Brilleaux decided that Dr Feelgood needed to get back to the hard edged Blues sound of the early years. Fortunately he found the perfect guitarist to help him achieve this in the form of the great Steve Walwyn (Steve Marriott/Roger Chapman), a formidable guitarist who reignited the fire in Dr Feelgood and is still with them to this day. One of his first gigs with the band was at the sold out Town & Country Club in London’s Kentish Town. The show was being filmed for television, but despite the pressure on the "new boy" the gig was a resounding success and was later released as the album 'Live in London' (1990).
Phil Mitchell stepped down from bass duties around 1991 being replaced by Dave Bronze (Eric Clapton/Procol Harum). This line up lasted a further three years and produced two studio albums 'Primo' (1991) and 'The Feelgood Factor' (1993). Devastatingly Brilleaux was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1993 and sadly passed away in April 1994. Before he died, Brilleaux's last wish was to record one final live album, miraculously he managed to achieve this! The result was 'Down At The Doctors' recorded over two nights (24th & 25th January 1994) at the bands own pub, the Dr Feelgood Music Bar on Canvey Island.
It was Brilleaux's dying wish that the band should continue without him, and so in May 1995 new vocalist Pete Gage was announced as his successor. Phil Mitchell returned on bass after Dave Bronze departed. Gage lasted four years and made one album with the band 'On The Road Again' (1996). Robert Kane (Animals II) replaced Gage in 1999 and remains the band’s vocalist to this day. They released the brilliant 'Chess Masters' in 2000 and the great live album 'Speeding Thru Europe' in 2003. Every year since Brilleaux's death, a special concert known as the Lee Brilleaux Birthday Memorial has been held on Canvey Island, where former and current Feelgoods have celebrated the music of Dr. Feelgood, and raised money for The Fair Havens Hospice in Westcliff-on-Sea. Despite not featuring any original members, Dr Feelgood continue to go from strength to strength, partly boosted by Julien Temple's 2010 critically acclaimed documentary covering the band's explosive impact on the UK music scene, 'Oil City Confidential'.
This double album is a fitting way to herald half a century of one of the truly great British bands, kicking off in style with five Wilko Johnson penned bangers 'She Does it Right', 'I Don’t Mind', 'All Through the City', 'Keep it Out of Sight' and 'Roxette', all from their exceptional 1975 debut album 'Down By The Jetty'. 'Roxette' was the band’s first single released in 1974, but the version on this collection is from their explosive 1976 live album 'Stupidity'. These songs set the benchmark for the Feelgoods sound and are as vibrant and exciting to listen to today, as I am sure they were back in 1975! 'I Can Tell' is a Bo Diddley cover from their second 1975 Vic Maile produced album 'Malpractice', hardened up and given the full on Feelgoods stamp! The only song in this collection to make the cut from the 1977 Bert de Coteaux produced album 'Sneakin' Suspicion' is the title track, one of Wilko's last offerings to the band and definitely the strongest track on the album.
It's back to the 1976 seminal live album 'Stupidity' for the next three tracks, two of which are Wilko Johnson penned classics, 'Back in the Night' and 'Going Back Home', the latter being co-written with Wilko's guitar hero Mick Green from The Pirates. The last track on this set to feature the original line-up is the monumental live version of the 1954 Leiber and Stoller classic 'Riot in Cell Block No 9'. Wilko makes this track his own, with his manic machine gun guitar antics, a highlight of the band’s live set at the time. All three of these tracks also appear on their second studio album 'Malpractice'.
The Gypie Mayo era is well represented over the next nine tracks starting with two superb high energy rockers 'She’s a Wind Up' and 'That’s It, I Quit' from the excellent 1977 album 'Be Seeing You', the former being one of the first songs written by the whole band and the latter being written by Nick Lowe, who also produced the album. The next album, and best from the Gypie Mayo era, 'Private Practice' was their last studio album to chart. The two tracks featured on this set are 'Night Time', which was written and originally recorded by The Strangeloves in 1965, and the single 'Milk & Alcohol' written by Nick Lowe and Gypie Mayo. With its infectious riff, vibrant drumming, snarly vocals and gritty chorus, makes this one of Dr Feelgood’s most prodigious songs.
The Gypie Mayo penned soft rocker 'Put Him Out of Your Mind' is from the 1979 Mike Vernon produced 'Let it Roll' album. More of a melodic Pop tune than a Feelgoods rocker! Unfortunately, the polished, saccharine smooth production takes away the song’s edge. 'Shotgun Blues', is a slow brooding Chicago style Blues, also from the 'Let it Roll' album, however, this beefed up version is from the 1981 live album 'On the Job'. The next three tracks 'No Mo Do Yakamo', 'Jumping From Love to Love' and 'Violent Love' - an acoustic cover of a 1951 Willie Dixon track - are from the final studio album to feature Gypie Mayo and last to appear on the United Artists label, 1980’s 'A Case of the Shakes'. Despite the Nick Lowe production, much of the hard edge grit synonymous with earlier material has been smoothed away here.
Rounding off the first disc are 'Rat Race' and 'Crazy Bout Girls' from the only album to feature Johnny 'Guitar' Crippen, and only album on the Chiswick label, 1982’s 'Fast Women & Slow Horses'. A couple of fine energetic and jaunty tracks that sit quite well with previous efforts, having Vic Maile back on production duties certainly helped balance out the overall sound and provide focus.
The first offering on the second disc is 'Dangerous' from the 1984 Mike Vernon produced album 'Doctors Orders' - a full tilt chugging stomper from Brilleaux's new Dr Feelgood line-up of Gordon Russell, Phil Mitchell and Kevin Morris. 'Mad Man Blues' and 'Dimples' are a couple of 1950’s John Lee Hooker covers from the 1985 album 'Mad Man Blues', worthy authentic interpretations, with the former still featured in the live set to this day. The Gordon Russell/Will Birch penned 'Hunting Shooting Fishing' from the 1987 Pip Williams produced album 'Classic' is a lively up tempo song, however, the syrupy 80’s production dates it somewhat! The Dave Edmunds produced single 'See You Later Alligator', a cover song originally from the 1986 album 'Brilleaux', is overly brass heavy and quite a departure from the typical Dr Feelgood sound. Again, the slick 80’s production value dates this one too!
Proceedings get back on track with the arrival of guitarist Steve Walwyn on the storming live version of 'King for a Day' from the 1990 'Live in London' album, originally featured on the 1980 album 'A Case of the Shakes'. The infectious 'Baby Jane', also from 'Live in London', and originally featured on the 1977 album 'Be Seeing You', lifts the excitement levels up a notch or two with more intoxicating guitar action from Walwyn! The next two excellent tracks 'Sugar Turns to Alcohol' and 'Down by the Jetty Blues' are from the 1991 Will Birch produced album 'Primo'. The latter being a tenacious groove laden 12-bar Blues that illustrates the oil refinery's around Canvey Island and lifts the title from the first Dr Feelgood album. A live version would have been more welcome, as the band take it to another level when performing it live, much more ferocious and menacing, with Walwyn getting to stretch out and show what he can really do on the guitar! A highlight of the set to this day! My only gripe about the 'Primo' album is the dry sterility of the heavily gated reverb sound on the snare drum, reminiscent of typical 80’s production values!
'Wolfman Callin’' is from Lee Brilleaux's last studio album with the band, 'The Feelgood Factor', released in 1993 and just nine months before he sadly died. Written by Dave Bronze and Kevin Morris, this track pays homage to Brilleaux's hero and major influence, the great Howlin' Wolf. He could pull off the Wolf's trademark growl with ease and panache. Brilleaux's final live performances, 'Down at the Doctors', fittingly is testament that The Feelgoods always deliver live, and this album is no exception. The three tracks featured here include the 1959 Bo Diddly classic 'Road Runner', the Mickey Jupp penned title track from the 'Private Practice' album, and the Nick Lowe penned 'Heart of the City' from the 'Primo' album. Indeed, a superb collection of exceptional performances from the great Lee Brilleaux, who would sadly pass away three months after these recordings were made.
The one and only record to feature Brilleaux's successor Pete Gage, 'On the Road Again', was released in 1996, with three tracks featured on this set including Steve Walwyn's finest ever self-penned song, the blistering juggernaut that is 'Instinct to Survive', the Tom Waits cover 'Going Out West' and the 1956 John Brim Blues 'You Got Me'. A strong, vibrant and authentic sounding record, Gage had his own distinctive Blues growl that suited the band well.
The final four songs feature current vocalist Robert Kane, and mainstay since 1999, including the Bo Diddley classic 'Who Do You Love', Sonny Boy Williamson's 'You Gotta Help Me' and the J.B. Lenoir/Alex Atkins penned 'Gimme One More Shot' from the 2000 Dave Bronze produced Chess Records covers album 'Chess Masters'. A dynamically thrilling and spirited record that sits jubilantly in the Dr Feelgood catalogue. The last song on this expansive collection is the recent single, a cover of the Willie Dixon penned 'You Can’t Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover' made famous by Bo Diddley on the Chess label in 1962 - an exhilarating and vehement rendition from one of Britain’s finest hardworking Rhythm and Blues stalwarts.
Steven C. Gilbert