Two years ago I spent a memorable evening watching the Wilko Johnson Band do that thing that only they do. Wilko & I were friends from back then, the Dr Feelgood days. Seeing those 4 good guys move from pub gigs to Top of the Pops was a very pleasant experience. I went backstage to see Wilko for the first time in a long time. We were both happy to see each other, hugged, spoke of then & now (while my nephew waited to ask about “Game of Thrones”). Just weeks later Wilko was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He was told he had 9 or 10 months to live…so it goes. He refused chemotherapy & set off on a farewell tour. I was distressed by the news but pleased that there had been one more good memory of him. The appreciation for his music & the support for his bravery was unanimous. His adoption as a National Treasure ? Well, it should not have been a matter of his mortality, Wilko had been one for a long time.
In March 2014 Wilko released an LP with Roger Daltrey off of the ‘Oo, “the last thing I ever did” he thought. A surgeon friend, Charlie Chan, surprised that Wilko was still standing, organised extensive tests & in April he underwent radical surgery. Now Wilko is cancer-free, planning a future that he didn’t think he had & still doing that thing that only he does. “Going Back Home”, 10 of Wilko’s songs & a great cover of Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window”, is an LP that should not have happened but praise Jah that it did. It stands as testament to the indomitability of a fine man and to the good news story of 2014.
“Beauty & Ruin” – Bob Mould. 2014 saw the release of “Workbook 25”, the expanded silver anniversary edition of Bob’s debut solo LP after the break up of Hüsker Dü. I’ve sometimes lost touch with Bob Mould’s music but “Beauty & Ruin”, along with 2012’s “Silver Age”, returns to the power trio, the scything chords that he does better than anyone. This record is like a visit from an old friend. There’s some new news & it’s still told with the passion, the authority which attracted you all those years ago. There is a sense of familiarity but another episode of Bob’s glorious, melodic headlong charge is OK by me. Play Loud !
“The Man Upstairs” – Robyn Hitchcock. Way, way back in 1991 Robyn Hitchcock made the best pop record of the year. “So You Think You’re In Love” was from a shiny LP “Perspex Island”, a bid for mainstream attention lacking some of the randomness & individuality which had attracted a devoted following. Since then Hitchcock has followed his own path, combining a dry wit with melodic psychedelia (If Syd Barrett had joined the Beatles…now there’s a thought). His LPs with the Venus 3 are good things.
This year, in collaboration with veteran producer Joe Boyd, he has made his folk LP, a “Judy Collins record”. Half of the songs are covers, including the Doors, Roxy Music & this effective version of the Psychedelic Furs’ “The Ghost In You”. The LP is an atmospheric piece, his best, I think, since 2006’s “Ole Tarantula”. For decades, my Sunday mornings began with a Nick Drake record, a beautiful suffusion to settle the morning after the night before. Currently “The Man Upstairs” is setting up the day of rest just right.
The 21st of November 1974 was a Thursday. I had been in a hurry since leaving work but the long bus journey between Dudley, where I lived, & Birmingham would not be rushed. I like the early evening darkness of late Autumn, liked being out & about in the twilight zone. The mists & mellow fruitfulness have passed, this fresh chill signals that I have a birthday coming up & then Xmas.The return of the drones to their hives, after doing whatever it takes to put some pollen in their pockets, illuminated by street lights & shop fronts, was still of interest to a young man new to city living. In my home town 6 cars at a traffic light was rush hour congestion (still is), this anonymous urban hustle seemed fresh & exciting.
Still, in that month, in that year, a whole bunch of stuff was exciting. I was on my way to the city centre to meet the woman who had been lucky enough to marry me. Just 19 days earlier we had pledged our troth to each other, even signed something involving sickness & health, love & honour. Well… the optimism, the confidence of the newly married couple. The future’s so bright we gotta wear shades…in Birmingham…in November. Tonight our new friends from Down South were coming to the city & we were going to meet up with them. It was a big month for them too. Their first single had just been released & it sounded like this.
I had met Dr Feelgood, the most exciting rock group in the country, earlier in the year when the band had kindly helped a student hitchhiker who was goin’ back home. We got on well. They were playing a gig at my college & I agreed to help the night along by providing an ounce of hash. The gig never happened. There was a riot at the university when a sit-in was broken up by the police. Over 100 people were arrested, many of them friends. With a pocketful of illegal resin I had made like a shepherd & got the flock out of there. Different times.
We had seen Dr Feelgood on 3 occasions now. Hanging out with the band had become a thing we did. There must be an element of Groundhog Day about touring, fans have good intentions but tend to ask the same questions. I think the guys liked to pick up our conversation where we had left off, liked to chat around something other than where they had played & where they would be playing.My wife & I ? We got to hook up with the, have I mentioned this before ? The most exciting rock group in the country. Oh yes, that was the truth. Something was happening with the boys & it was all good. We were looking forward to seeing the guys but seeing them play would be enough because it was quite something & quite something else.
We arrived early enough to help with the load in to the venue. The crew were glad of the assistance. Hey, look at us ! We’re roadies ! We carried the gear onstage, moved some stuff when we were asked but nah man, I’m not touching anything electrical, I’ll break it. We got to make the rock go that evening…cool. The venue was Bogart’s, hardly “Rick’s Cafe Americain” but even now able to moisten the eye of former members of Midland biker gangs & old dudes with a decal-smothered denim jacket in the wardrobe…that doesn’t fit. As the premier metal club in Britain’s heavy metal city it was here that Judas Priest played it again & again & again Sam.
Bogart’s was smack dab in the middle of Birmingham’s city centre. The club had no car park & the tour bus needed to be put somewhere safe. My wife & I had the local knowledge so we went off with Wilko, the guitarist, to do the necessary. In a narrow back street our coach happened to brush against a car. Now Birmingham is the UK’s Motor City. They make them there & they love their’s more than their children. The driver who was approaching us had vengeance on his mind & violence in his eyes. Wilko jumped out of the coach to meet the guy on the street. We were close behind, we had, I guess, got his back. Wilko Johnson is a considerate, erudite former teacher. Perhaps it was the individual pudding bowl haircut or was the Thames Estuary drawl a surprise? Certainly Wilko’s eyes, tinged by serious LSD investigation, fixed in the 1,000 yard stare so wild & effective on stage, were the clincher. Our man with a scrape who was looking for a scrap pulled up short. He sussed that he could be entering a world of pain here & was out of his depth. Wilko explained that nothing was fucked here, that he would now hand over some money for the man’s trouble & the matter would never be spoken of again. He did not ruffle the guy’s hair but he could have done. We had seen the effect Wilko Johnson could have on the man in the street in the…erm, street. We held each other up so that we didn’t fall over laughing..Brilliant !
This night was the last time we saw our friends play in a small venue.. In February 1975 they starred on “The Naughty Rhythms Tour”, a triple pub-rock treat which played universities & Town Halls. Then the word & the first LP was out on this taut, tight,fresh take on the very same R&B that inspired the first Stones LP. In a jammed little club the music could abracadabra, reach out & grab ya. The interplay between Lee & Wilko stirred, shocked, even scared you. Jenny & I, old Feelgood hands now, could check for the agitation & appreciation which always came. We knew that this shit had caught on,it could only get bigger, that we were lucky to have been in on it so early. However, there was no encore for the band tonight.
Yeah, we were back in the night before we could even say any goodbyes. The band were expected onstage for a couple more tunes but someone else was there asking us all to leave the club in an as orderly way as a Brummie rock crowd could manage. We thought it was a fire at the club but outside the road to the Bus Station was blocked by a cop. Birmingham city centre in the 1970s was a barbarian traffic controller’s dream. Screw the pedestrian, the combustion engine was king…Motor City. We got the fuck out of Dodge, past the library to where the streets got broader & the buses had to pass.
Then it got a little strange. For what seemed like an hour of those longer “bus waiting” minutes there must have been passing traffic, must have been people around. There were certainly no buses. Something had gone off in the centre but, in those days before smart phones & the whole world in your palm, we knew nothing. We were a little selfish. The longer the wait, the later the night, the sooner the morning comes around. Our ride finally did appear & it was late when we got back home. The guy across the landing asked if we had heard about what had happened in Brum, we told him we had just come from there, knew there was disruption but no hows, wheres & what fors.
On Thursday November the 21st 1974 21 people were killed, 182 others injured when bombs were exploded in 2 central Birmingham pubs. The political climate of the times meant that the Irish Republican Army were immediately blamed. Whoever was responsible (it was not the 6 men who received life sentences in 1975) pretty much fucked up the job. The protocol of a 30 minute warning before an explosion was ignored, with only 6 minutes between a telephone call & the first incident a lot more people died. The Tavern In The Town was a pub in a basement with no direct access to the street, they were scraping bits of body off the remaining walls. The anti-Irish sentiment I witnessed at my workplace the next day was not the product of government, media or police propaganda but genuine outrage that innocent people should lose their lives. The I.R.A., whatever their involvement, distanced themselves from this terrible incident.
This happened just 100 yards away from where my new wife & I were enjoying our evening. Blow your ifs, buts & maybes out of your arse but if Bogarts had been chosen then I may not have been writing this. I was not ignorant of the Republican struggle in Ireland. The occupation of a part of the United Kingdom by the British Army on behalf of a obdurate Unionist movement who’s ideas were obsolete was wrong. The determination of successive British governments to refuse to engage those involved in any political dialogue caused entrenchment on all sides & a higher body count. British people in Northern Ireland were forced to live a life which we on the mainland did not understand. A friend told me that when you see an armed soldier throw your mother across a room of her own house then political views become irrelevant. I believe that is true. The fight was with the Army, the government. Just 6 weeks earlier 4 off duty soldiers had been killed in an attack. The Houses of Parliament had been bombed. If the targeting of British civilians was an attempt to extend the war then it was ill-judged. The British public did not spend enough time thinking about “the Troubles”, maybe questioning government policies would help. A bombing campaign on mainland cities which killed anyone unlucky enough to be around was not going to make anyone consider the policies any more seriously or sympathetically.
Wow…loosehandlebars gets serious because these were serious thing & times. You go out for the night in the city & History happens right across the road from you.
Well, I write about my past escapades on this thing because I live a quiet life now. Too quiet sometimes but I’m getting older & that’s my choice. You know that emotional pendulum gets into the high positives it’s gonna swing back a little too far for comfort. I am no manic depressive I just like to keep things steady thank you. I still, though, can recognise a good time when I see it and tonight was always going to be a good one.
https://loosehandlebars.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/you-shouldnt-call-the-doctor-if-you-cant-afford-the-bills/ will get you to how I got to know Dr Feelgood, the band who reminded us that straight ahead R&B was a lot more fun than some space-opera, triple synthesizer, prog nonsense. I saw the Feelgoods maybe 10 times. I loved their music and getting to hang out with them before and after gigs was a blast. My wife & I saw them go from playing small rock clubs to Top of the Pops. It was a fine, fun ride. Julian Temple’s film “Oil City Confidential”, mixing the story of Dr Feelgood with 1950s British crime movies is a fitting tribute to some good people. It tells the story of a generation born after World War 2, who discovered the Blues through the Stones first LP…my generation.
Tonight Wilko Johnson, their fine guitarist, played in my small Northern town. I heard about the gig within hours of it being announced. I contacted my nephew Mike and, good soul that he is, he was already on the case. Tickets had been sorted. Wilko, never a big drinker, was the guy we hung with most post-gig. In recent years there has been a lot of love around for him. Fathers play his music to their children and tell them of concerts they attended as teenagers. The film,an auto-biography and re-masters of their work helped. His appearance in “Game of Thrones” and being a noted astronomer raised his profile too. Dr Feelgood continue to gig with no original members. Wilko is the keeper of the Feelgood Flame because he still plays that sparky, machine-gun Telecaster like only he can.
So, we were front row and centre for the gig tonight. The trio is completed by Norman Watt Roy, a former Blockhead and a virtuoso bass player, and Dylan Howe, son of the Yes guitarist, Steve. The band would be better in a club rather than a theatre but hey, I am looking at 60, my days of dancing like a monkey are so over. A comfortable seat was no hardship believe me. The band were great. All the correct stops were made at the Feelgood stations and they stretched out on some blues and some rock and roll. An encore of “Bye Bye Johnny” was a delight. I was grooving on the noise and the memories. Mike, who loves his Black Keys, so knows that raw and bluesy format, was amazed to be so close to a master bass player and to a unique player who carroms across the stage wielding his guitar like a weapon playing lead and rhythm.
It would be enough to just see Wilko play again. I am no star fucker I just love the music. I could not resist asking the merchandise guy if it would be possible to say hello but it was not gonna break my night out. The swag man took my name. After the gig I almost went straight home, it had been good enough. I nodded at the guy and he told me to wait. He introduced me to Ron, Wilko’s manager, who said he had heard the story (what story ?) and we were taken backstage.
Well, fuck me sideways ! Wilko was as pleased to see me as I was to meet him again. We shared some history. We had been together in Birmingham on the night of a terrible bombing incident when 21 people were killed. The club had been evacuated that night before we could say our goodbyes. His concern had always been touching. There were big hugs, shared memories, laughter and a clumsy catch up of almost 30 years of our lives. Man, I was so glad that Mike was in the room because it was a meeting of two old friends and, you know, sometimes I think he thinks his old uncle’s stories are a little embellished. He was just delighted to meet Wilko and the rest of the band as they passed through. He also, unlike myself, has some 21st century technology.
It’s late now. My ears are still ringing from some good loud music. The World Series is on the radio (for the last night ?), Denver is playing New Orleans in my TV. Mostly I am buzzing from meeting an old friend who has good memories of my company and just happens to be a National bloody Treasure because of the way he has done it right and made some memorable music. I have tried to live my life well but sometimes I think that those treasure chest nuggets are a collection which has been completed. It feels fine to add another one and here’s to some more in the future.
Yeah, I know, I need a haircut and I don’t look too much like Lee Marvin…nobody’s perfect. Peace.
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.