Zoe Howe: Lee Brilleaux, Rock ‘N’ Roll Gentleman – Book Review
Brilliant new biography of iconic Dr Feelgood frontman
Out: November 19th as paperback and ebook
The influence and legacy of Dr Feelgood have long been assured however, there has undoubtedly been renewed interest in the past couple of years, largely due to the circumstances surrounding Wilko Johnson’s illness. Much focus has been on his signature guitar sound, and rightly so as it is special in many ways. Reading Zoe Howe’s excellent biography of frontman Lee Brilleaux, though, it becomes clear that despite the wishes of both men Dr Feelgood were often seen as containing two huge egos duelling for the crowd’s attention. It seems that neither Lee nor Wilko wanted this and were more than happy to spark off each other to produce live performances that were at the time almost a revelation in their intensity.
Zoe Howe presents a fascinating portrait of Lee Collinson (Lee’s pre-Brilleaux name) a brilliant wit and mimic who never forgot the impact of watching a Howlin’ Wolf performance. This led him to become a Blues obsessive with a knowledge that intimidated Wilko Johnson, despite Lee being the younger man. Lee was also, surprisingly given the majority of the Feelgood’s output, initially dismissive of rock and roll and then felt guilty about getting into it. Collinson had a gift for poetry, cartoons and dropping quotes from TV programmes into conversations with Hawaii Five-O a particular favourite. In fact, main character Steve McGarrett was a big influence on the emerging Brilleaux image; that of style alongside a manic and aggressive stage persona. Maybe the most succinct summary of this contrasting character is provided by Fred, a Feelgood roadie; “Lee was a total gentleman. Two sides of him: onstage, street Herbert; offstage, gentleman scholar.”
The narrative reveals some delicious images of the early Feelgoods performing to growing audiences in London before heading back to Canvey Island to smoke industrial quantities of weed. Despite their popularity with a smitten music press and many besides, the major labels were reluctant to commit to signing them, ostensibly due to a ‘vinyl crisis’ at the time. It took a conversation between Nick Lowe and United Artists’ Andrew Lauder in which Lowe stressed their similarity to Johnny Kidd and the Pirates to get the band signed up.
One of the most telling insights is the subject of the songwriting responsibilities in Dr Feelgood which seem to reveal so much about the respective frontmen. Wilko was prodigious and Lee later revealed that he felt intimidated by Wilko and his university education, an issue which still baffles Wilko to this day. He is convinced that Lee was more than capable of writing but also that Lee harboured issues because Wilko had attended university. “He could have easily gone to university but he didn’t….there were all these hurt and misunderstood feelings. Man, we got each other wrong in so many ways.”
Getting each other wrong is almost certainly one of the main reasons why Wilko and Dr Feelgood parted in 1977. Wilko feels his departure was long planned by the band, Lee’s view was that it was more of Wilko’s own choice and somewhat inevitable. Whatever the truth, what shines through is Lee’s determination that the show must go on. Gypie Mayo (another Brilleaux name) was swiftly recruited and saw the band move to further chart success, their “winning lottery ticket” as Brilleaux described him. Dr Feelgood would continue to work at such a pace that other founder members eventually cried enough but Brilleaux’s appetite for performance remained strong. Indeed, one of the most moving passages describes his determination to perform for the final time despite being terminally ill and his insistence that the final line-up of Feelgood should continue to perform after his death.
Zoe Howe is one of our finest music biographers and this work is further evidence of her subtle talent for bringing the subject to life whilst simultaneously placing them in the wider context of the music scene they inhabited. In the case of Lee Brilleaux, she has undoubtedly done us a great service as this is a book that needed to be written about the iconic frontman of one of the most influential British bands of all time.
Published by Polygon