1974 .February. Monday in the a.m. & it’s cold. Back to University after a weekend in Birmingham. It’s the only way to travel – by thumb – and I’m standing at Watford Gap services with no idea when the next lift is coming, where it will take me. A white transit van stops. There are 5 rough looking guys in it. I get into the front with the driver and another guy. A different world now. Get into a vehicle with 5 strangers ? Yeah, maybe I would but I would not think badly of anyone who thought twice and let them go on their way.
They were a band. Been playing in Glasgow and on their way back to Essex. A double good thing. I was into music and Essex was where I was going. This lift would get me through London without pissing about on the outskirts, trying to hitch on suburban roads jammed with traffic. One of the guys, the one with the pudding bowl haircut and the slightly mad eyes, says “Carry yer sounds do yer ?”. I never travelled without a few albums and handed them over, not entirely convinced that I would ever get them back. Just my paranoia. They were good, chatty people. The singer was driving. There was only enough speed for one of them to stay awake for the whole journey. The singer had been the lucky one.
The guy with my “sounds” called them “Hippie shit”. What !! You can slag my mates, slag my football team but leave my taste in music alone. There would have been no Deep Purple or E.L.P triple albums but, yeah, the hippies of the West Coast of the U.S.A. were well represented. He said they were into rhythm and blues. I was a guest in their motor, I left it at that.
So, this was Dr Feelgood. The godfathers of punk. Driving the length of the country for any gig going. Lee Brilleaux, the singer, eyes pinned and on the road was chatting, so was the haircut I now knew as Wilko. It was , in fact, the very week they had first been reviewed in the bible of British music, the NME. Of course I read every issue from cover to cover. The review was accompanied by a picture of Wilko. Now it made more sense. I knew where I was and was pleased that I was here. The band were pleased I had seen the review.
It was election time in the UK. The first of two that year. We left the motorway & it was garden to garden Tory “Vote Heath” placards. A blue rag to us Labour bulls. Where was a megaphone when you needed one ? We rolled down all the windows and gave it loads.
It was a mad old time February 1974. A miners strike, a three day working week, staggered power cuts across the country. The last two measures were supposed to show the country just how hurtful the miners were. Sitting in the pub by candlelight, drinking only bottled beer, was a novel price to pay to get the Tories out. The bourgeoisie of Stanmore, Enfield and Potters Bar (spit) despised the working class just as they do now. The difference then was that they were losing. We were the barbarians. A spontaneous drive-by reminder that the rest of the country didn’t share their politics. We all thought it was hilarious because it was.
“There is one quality which enlivens both the political and cultural denominations of youth protest; which provides its most important innovation; which has the greatest relevance for the future; which is the funniest, freakiest and the most effective. This is the element of play.” Richard Neville wrote that in “Playpower”. True in the early 70s & still true. Of course politics is serious but protest should never be miserable. The point of an alternative society is surely that people will be happier in it. Capitalism/Materialism just fucks up your head. Let’s try something that doesn’t.
Back on the road we talked about music. The guys told me they covered “Route 66”,”I’m A Hog For You, Baby”, good calls both. Songs like these were the base of the music we all loved. The cult of technique over feeling had taken music away from these roots. Wilko told me his favourite guitarists, bluesmen & rockers. These people were interesting. They just didn’t buy the Yes/Mike Oldfield “ rock is the new classical” shit and neither did I.
As we approached the jauntily named “Hangman’s Corner”, the turn-off for Southend, the lads told me they were playing at my university in the near future. I told them I would be there. They said they would be pleased to see me. Even more pleased if I would sort out an ounce of dope to help the night along. Consider it done…makes me Dr Feelgood too. We said our goodbyes. One good lift would get me home. What a fine lift that had been.
As I have noted, the revolution was just around the corner in 1974. Well a Labour government and a decent pay rise for the miners at least. Essex University had a good rep for radicalism since 1968. In the strike of 1972 we had 300 miners staying with us. We spent days on the picket lines fighting the police, evenings in mass meetings planning the next day’s tactics. It was a heady mix of workers and students which felt worthwhile. The sit-in of Spring 1974 was about student fees. Something I was less interested in. By June I was done with the education treadmill and working in a drop forge…fuck em. I did my bit for the sit-in. Over Easter there were less people about and there was a bigger threat of action by the authorities. We slept in the occupied buildings for a week to stop this happening.
On the day of the Feelgood gig I had my ounce of marihoochie in my pocket so decided to keep off the campus until the evening. I missed the invasion of police to break up the occupation. There were 105 arrests that day. Plenty of good mates were locked up and I missed it all. Of course the gig was cancelled. The place was on lockdown for a week. I didn’t get to see the band play, the dope didn’t go to waste though.
Fast forward to the Autumn. Not a long time but time enough for big life changes. I was no longer a student. I was living in Dudley on the edge of Birmingham. Doing good, honest, manual labour alongside good , honest, manual labourers, planning a wedding and playing house with the (very) lucky woman.
The music club in Dudley is/was JB’s. Dr Feelgood were playing there so we had to go. I didn’t really care if they remembered me but wanted to see what these guys were about. In the club three of the band sat by themselves at a table. We went over and I re-introduced myself. They remembered Essex and the cancelled gig and we were invited to join them. I think when you are gigging at different places ,where you know nobody, it’s good to meet someone you have a bit of previous with.
The band, minus Wilko, who liked a quiet time before the set, were really friendly . For an hour we shot the breeze about music, about how I’d smoked the dope I bought for them, about how things were going well for the band. Lee was the talkative one but Figure and Sparko were more awake than they were in the van. Lee, almost apologetically, explained that they changed into stage clothes. This was not usually done unless you were in Roxy Music or the Tubes. We were really looking forward to hearing them but there was no way we were prepared for what we were about to receive.
It was as if the bouncers had got on stage. A bunch of villains from “the Sweeney”. The Big Figure, hair slicked back, an ageing teddy boy behind the kit. Sparko, short and suited carried a Zapata moustache and a big bass guitar. Lee, now in a white sports coat and black trousers, was out front, twitchy and psyched to get started. Then there was Wilko, the jagged haircut , the mad eyes a Telecastor, wearing an Oxfam suit. Oh, did I mention the mad eyes ? The look was so different from the denim and hair we had come to expect. The band felt different before they played a note.
Then… BANG ! I mean BANG ! High octane adrenaline charged R & B. “I Can Tell”, “My Babe”, “Route 66” all short and muscled. A solid backline. Lee channelling Howling Wolf via Canvey Island and 40 Capston Full Strength a day, shadow boxing and attacking his harmonica. Then there was Wilko. We all know his thing now. The chopped rhythm, the mad solos, caromming cross the stage as if on castors, giving it the 1,000 yard stare. The first time you see it it’s weird, wonderful and threatening. The audience were pinned back by the aggression and attack of the music and the band. We bloody loved it. The hour of pleasant conversation we had just shared with three-quarters of the band reassured us that they would not be sorting out anyone who didn’t love it. Maybe the rest of the crowd were not so sure. Jenny, the woman I had fooled into marrying me, looked across at me and gave it a big and silent WOW !
It was relentless. You may anticipate Wilko’s charges but it did not lessen the otherness or the energy. Lee urged him on, the brains of the outfit. Dr. Frankenstein to Wilko’s monster. The hits kept coming “Twenty Yards Behind”, “Goin’ Back Home”. The one-note solo in “I’m A Hog For you Baby” , a delight every time I saw it. Finally the menacing “Riot In Cell Block # 9” such a perfect song for them. They left the stage wringing wet. We were thrilled just because we had spoken to these guys. What it must be like to be in that good a band, one that could just flatten an audience.
After the gig we joined the band in their tour bus. The days of the transit van were over. I met Wilko for the second time & was just a fanboy, a convert. What Jenny was thinking as we sat with the psycho she had only seen on stage I can’t guess. She did not need to worry. We relaxed with a number of Morocco’s finest cigarettes and just chatted away. Of course you want to get gossip about the band but I remember it as an easy rambling conversation with a new friend who just happened to be the best new guitarist around.
We said our goodbyes to the band and promised to meet up the next time they played in the area. We rolled down the hill to our bed-sit arm-in arm with a feeling of “What just happened ?” You know I’m not sure but the night probably held further delights. Hey, if she went straight to sleep it was still a brilliant night.