Lee Brilleaux :
Rock n Roll Gentleman 4 CD box set review & The Feelgoods Heresy
In light of the new 4CD Dr Feelgood collection – with Lee Brilleaux as the thread stringing the various eras and incarnations of the band together, and with the recent publication in paperback of Wilko Johnson’s new autobiography and the relatively recent (and highly recommended) biography of Lee Brilleaux (Lee Brilleaux: Rock n Roll Gentleman) by Zoë Howe (who also wrote the sleeve notes for the excellent booklet that completes the 4 CD set), it seems an appropriate juncture to reassess the relative merits of the pre and post Wilko Feelgoods – looking a little more closely at some commonly accepted ‘truths’. Ever since Julian Temple’s Feelgood’s documentary, Oil City Confidential, wherein Wilko emerged as an unlikely media star with his unique combination of enthusiasm, energy and charisma, he’s become a regular participant in TV ‘talking heads’ music shows and the music monthlies. This surprising level of exposure escalated exponentially after his diagnosis with terminal cancer – with Wilko popping up on The One Show, Breakfast TV and the tabloid press. Based on Wilko’s ubiquity, there has now become an accepted orthodoxy. Put simplistically, it is that the Feelgoods, post his departure, were a poor shadow of their former selves whereas prior to his demise they were the saviours of rock’n’roll. I’ll definitely allow the latter point – clearly the Wilko era Feelgoods were a revelation – certainly the best live band I have ever seen – and one of the various ‘punk kick-starters’ that the music press are so found of eulogising. The crucial point, however, is the blind acceptance of Johnson’s curt dismissal of everything his former bandmates went on to do. Ironically the post Wilko line-up notched up the first top forty hits for the band whereas Wilko never had any chart success under his own steam – his stint with Ian Dury doesn’t count for this discussion!
The enduring public affection for Wilko since his profile-raising slot in the Temple bio-pic and his escape from that terminal cancer diagnosis, coupled with the fact that equally, charismatic singer Lee Brilleaux has been dead since 1994 means, in effect, that Johnson’s had the floor to himself. Strangely, he has never acknowledged a single song, album or even band member after the split as having any merit whatsoever. For Wilko, Dr Feelgood died as a credible artistic force on the day of his departure.
Clearly, there’s something seriously askew about this perspective. What about the hits – She’s A Windup, Milk and Alcohol and Down At The Doctors? Those three songs stand side by side with the best of the Wilko era.
Was Sneaking Suspicion a better album than Be Seeing You or Private Practice? I’d suggest not. The somewhat leaden covers of You’ll Be Mine, Nothing Shaking, Hey Mama Keep Your Big Mouth Shut and Lucky Seven counterbalance the triumphs of Paradise and the actual song Sneaking Suspicion itself.
When the evidence is examined in more detail, it becomes even more persuasive. For all of Wilko’s justly celebrated writing on the classic early Feelgoods albums, he hasn’t been particularly prolific since his departure – indeed one of his later albums was entirely comprised of fairly well-known cover versions, something that, had the Brilleaux era Feelgoods released it, would undoubtedly have drawn long and loud derision from Wilko. It is accurate to state that the Feelgoods Mk 2 were quite a different prospect from the original model – this was essentially due to the change in guitarist and a slight almost sideways shift into R’n’R from R’n’B.
At this point the question of replacement guitarists needs to be addressed. Whilst Wilko was without question a unique stylist and cultural icon, that doesn’t negate the ability of any of his successors to provide an equally valid role in the band. In the first – and longest-serving – replacement, John ‘Gypie’ Mayo, the band had found someone who was not only a superbly fluid guitarist but who also a perfect fit, personality-wise, for the hard drinking ensemble that the Feelgoods had become infamously known as. The disparity between the Feelgoods alcohol-fuelled après gig activities and Wilko’s speed induced solitary nights in tour hotel rooms was apparently one of the major schisms that brought about his departure. Gypie, however, seamlessly slotted into the band both on a musical and a social level.
There was some initial resistance to Gypie from fans. Zoë Howe – who as noted has written an essential biography of Brilleaux and also co-authored Wilko’s first autobiographical work, Looking Back At Me – offered her take on this: ‘the partnership between Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux was so incendiary, it intoxicated many to the extent that they couldn’t deal with the idea of any other guitarist in the Feelgoods, but it would be such a mistake to discount or underestimate the guitarists who came after, particularly Gypie Mayo – a true rock star, a virtuoso and a thrilling stylist in his own right’.
Johnny Guitar – Gypie’s replacement when he decided to leave the band – had an interesting take on the Gypie era. For Johnny, ‘Gypie was one of the best guitarists in his genre that I ever heard, and he was also very versatile, which had quite an effect on the sound of the band. I remember Lee telling me I was a stronger rhythm that Gyp, but that Gyp was the best lead guitarist they had. Lee thought Wilko was great too, just that he was hard to deal with. I think Lee was happiest with the Gypie lineup. Listen to the solo on the single of As Long as the Price is Right – wow!’ Johnny on Wilko: ‘To me, Wilko is first and foremost a stylist, and one of the great ones. He excels at being ‘Wilko’ and making Bo Diddley into Wilko, Mick Green into Wilko etc, and as such is beyond reproach’.
It’s an interesting exercise to compare the albums from each act, side by side, in chronological order of release. The Feelgoods were much more prolific than post break-up Wilko, as they were still on United Artists. They were under a contractual obligation to continue to generate new output, whereas Wilko never released more than one album on any given label. That is the reason why, on the following match-ups, the dates for each act’s releases don’t tally with each other. However, it seems to make more sense to use chronology rather than matching each other’s year to year output. It’s important to state although the Feelgoods were under a contractual obligation to continue to release albums every year, that isn’t to imply that any of the records that they released were merely ‘contract fillers’.
Wilko’s first post break-up album – The Solid Senders – in 1979, was a bit of an anti-climax (even Wilko has confessed his own disappointment with it) – only Walking On The Edge (a Feelgood’s song anyway – and Dr Dupree (a strange almost Egyptian reggae number) survived into his later years’ live gigs. The best thing about the album was the bonus extra 6 track live album (all tracks appear on the CD reissues). Even that extra disc’s highlights were actually the covers of Highway 61 and All Aboard. Compare that to the first outing for the new Feelgoods line-up – Be Seeing You – in 1977, containing the first hit – She’s A Windup – plus the ‘almost’ hit and perennial stage favourite Baby Jane. On top of that the whole album had an immediate, positive feel whereas the Solid Senders album felt weighed down by expectation, obligation and too many passengers in the band. It also served notice of Gypie’s arrival, demonstrating that whilst he may not have possessed Wilko’s unique charisma he certainly had his own thing going on, and that on a musical ability level he was arguably a more versatile guitarist.
The next two albums for comparison are Private Practice (1978) versus Wilko’s Ice On The Motorway (1981). This was much better from Wilko – a tighter more focused band and Wilko’s penultimate studio album of mainly original and previously unreleased songs. Against that we have the strongest of the post Wilko Feelgood’s records – Private Practice – containing the two biggest hit singles, Milk and Alcohol and Down At The Doctor’s. Check out Gypie on the back cover – full rock ‘n roll image in place, reflecting his growing confidence. Now firmly settled in and getting the recognition and acceptance that, perhaps understandably, was always going to be hard to come by in the immediate Wilko fall-out. I would score this match-up as a draw but would argue that the Feelgoods could possibly edge it based on the success of the two hits. It’s hard to imagine that Wilko mustn’t have felt some resentment at this stage as the Feelgoods seemed to be on a constantly rising trajectory with the new addition of actual hit singles to the band CV now.
Round three! Let It Roll (1979) v Wilko’s 1988 release Barbed Wire Blues. This is a close contest. That this is the case gives further lie to the Wilko point of view that all Feelgood product was worthless sans the man himself. Barbed Wire Blues is the last Wilko studio album to be comprised of all original new material – the various releases hereafter being live odds and ends and various compilations. Even the artistic triumph that was Going Back Home with Roger Daltrey was still a kind of greatest hits in essence. I think Wilko shades this one. A number of solo years Wilko classics on here, but Let It Roll certainly doesn’t disgrace itself.
The Feelgoods by now had morphed into a band that perhaps had more ‘swing’ in the rhythm than ‘chop’ as was the case prior to the big bang. One of the differences between the Wilko era and Gypie’s, was that the band seemed to follow Wilko’s lead for their push and pull whereas with Gypie in the line-up, Figure (drums) and Sparko’s (bass) roles became the dominant feature in the bands propulsion – a return to the more traditional role of a rhythm section as the engine room. Zoë Howe again – ‘it was always going to be different, which is as it should be – it would have been embarrassing to expect someone to try to ape Wilko’s style and mannerisms – and the Feelgoods did become a different kind of band after Wilko’s departure. They had to evolve even though an incredibly strong force within the group had now gone’.
A couple of singles, Hong Kong Money and Put Him Out of Your Mind, were released from Let It Roll without success – although Put Him Out of Your
Mind got plenty of airplay and was one of the most commercial tracks that they’d released, it barely crawled into the charts at number 70. Other stand- outs were Drop Everything And Run, Pretty Face, Feels Good and one of the few straight blues the band ever recorded – Shotgun Blues. This became a regular live showcase for Mayo’s blazing blues chops and always elicited a huge roar of approval at the end of his solo.
Feelgoods live albums v Wilko live albums – there are quite a few of these from both acts. None would fairly be described as essential but they are all pretty even in terms of artistic merit etc – call the live albums round a draw! But anyone thinking that Stupidity, the classic Feelgood’s Wilko era number one album can’t be equalled for intensity, should check out the first live recordings from The Paddocks after Gypie joined the band (available on the all encompassing Gypie era box set as part of the bonus material on there). The band are really blazing, intensity turned up to 11, with a point to be proved and mission easily accomplished!
A Case of The Shakes (1980) v ? There isn’t really a commensurate studio album for the ‘battle’ at this point – Wilko’s releases were much thinner on the ground plus he had his tenure with the Blockheads to take him out of the solo market. Wilko did quite a few interesting small scale projects – singles with Lew Lewis, Steve Hooker and members of the Blockheads – that were all essential purchases, but none of the various aggregations made it as far as recording a studio album. A Case of The Shakes, Gypie’s last studio album with the band, was a return to a more basic sound, song and production wise. Again a number of songs survived in the Feelgoods live set list for years – No Mo Do Yakamo – something of the vibe of Back In The Night with Lee singing in an unusually low register, Best In The World and Drives Me Wild were live staples. The wild card entry was the acoustic take on the Otis Rush song Violent Love. A total departure for the band, being their only acoustic recording, this was a swinging jazzy blues. Released as a single it again failed to hit the mark but did receive a lot of airplay.
The albums after Gypie’s departure were, admittedly, a little more hit and miss from the consistent level that they had achieved whilst he was in the band. Gypie sadly died after a long period of suffering with cancer in 2014. Although his passing was acknowledged in the press, I don’t feel that he’s ever fully got the credit that he deserved. Not only did he replace the ’irreplaceable’(if you believed headlines at the time), Wilko, but he then helped push the band into chart hits and a broader musical direction without ever losing the essence of what made the band great – the hard hitting R’n’B that was their calling card.
The only album that the band recorded with their next guitarist – Johnny Guitar from The Count Bishops – Fast Women And Slow Horses (1982), was a largely successful outing. Hard hitting and up beat with strong songs and following another ‘almost’ hit with their first single Waiting For Saturday Night. Johnny (real name Crippen) was a great choice to succeed Gypie. He had a proven track record, having recorded three albums with The Bishops, who were contemporaries of the Feelgoods on the UK R’n’B scene at that time. He had the chops and the experience to comfortably pull off any of the classics from the pre or post split eras. Amongst the stand-out tracks were Trying To Live My Life Without You and an almost psychotically vicious take on Mungo Jerry’s song Baby Jump. It seemed at the time that this was a line-up that had plenty of years in it but sadly this was to be their only release. This was also the last album to feature the legendary Sparko/Figure rhythm section. Johnny offered his top three Feelgoods albums regardless of pre/post Wilko categorisation: ‘I always rated Feelgood albums as No 1 Malpractice, No 2 Be Seeing You and No 3 Private Practice, mostly on consistency of excellence in material and ‘attack’ or ‘soul’ or that indefinable quality that lifts your pulse when playing them’.
For many fans of the band things never felt quite the same once it was down to Lee to carry the line-ups through the various releases. This is no knock against the latter day band members, but the albums did become a little more patchy due mainly to the problem of sourcing strong original material. As Lee himself had admitted over the years, the band were always trying to find quality original songs. Ironically, given as noted above that Wilko’s output wasn’t particularly great, perhaps a reuniting of the band at this point may have galvanised Wilko into producing a few more of the classics he is justly lauded for and could have put the fire under the Feelgoods again.
Unfortunately a reunion was never on the cards so that remains a ‘what if’ concept! Johnny Guitar again: ‘All the records with Fig and Sparko have many transcendent moments. Things were certainly not the same when Fig and Sparky left – I was there for that transition. There was, interestingly enough, a tour with Figure on drums and Pat McMullan on bass that really smoked – that could have been a great line-up’. Check out the clip on Youtube of the Johnny Guitar incarnation playing a three song set including a smoking I’m A Hog For You Baby (Buzz Barwell and Pat McMullan have replaced Figure and Sparko by this time). Of course the current line up of the band still play hundreds of gigs a year all around the world and are doing a great job of maintaining the Feelgoods tradition – regularly releasing albums of both new songs and classic covers. Check out their website for more details on where they are playing and also for a wealth of Feelgoods historical info.
A consequence of the paucity of new material led the Feelgoods to release albums heavily weighted in favour of covers – some more successful than others. See You Later Alligator didn’t really work but Johnny Cash’s Get Rhythm and Nick Lowe’s Heart Of The City were amongst a significant number that did work. Wilko’s covers album – Red Hot Rocking Blues (2003) – was dominated by well known Van Morrison and Bob Dylan songs amongst others. It is perhaps more of a completists release than an essential addition to the Johnson canon, although the choppier takes on the R’n’B songs sit comfortably with what we would normally expect from Wilko.
Something that all Feelgoods and Wilko releases post split do have in common is integrity. Lee and Wilko (and indeed the current incarnation of the band) never come across as going through the motions. Brilleaux’s ferocious delivery is still firmly in place even on the final, and posthumous – as far as Lee was concerned – live release recorded shortly before his death, at a specially organised gig.
As for Wilko, his collaboration with Roger Daltrey, Going Back Home, was arguably the best album he has made since the Feelgoods. A critical, artistic and commercial smash, it seemed that Wilko wouldn’t be around to reap the long term benefits. Amazingly, however, he gave the grim reaper the slip and now lives on ready to extend his recorded career into directions unknown. Daltrey really pulls out some of his strongest vocal performances for many years on this album. You can sense that having listened to the Lee era tracks he was aware of how high the bar had been set – the innate menace, intensity and aggression. He then brought that same ‘Brilleaux factor’ to the songs that had originally been Wilko solo tracks. Johnny Guitar concurs – ‘one reason the Daltrey album is so good is that Roger gives good Lee’. The resultant outcome is a cohesive album where one can’t tell the difference between the Feelgoods and Wilko solo era tracks.
What this new retrospective definitively proves is that Lee Brilleaux was undoubtedly one of the all time great front men and one of the greatest vocalists in the rich history of British R’n’B. It goes without saying that he is sorely missed. There is no comparable Brilleaux plus a legend album like the Wilko/Daltrey tag team for comparison – here we enter the realms of fantasy band line-ups. How about that all star hook –up album? Lee plus Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Jimmie Vaughan or Billy Gibbons. Perhaps also invite the usual suspects whenever a legend brings a few star names in – Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck and to round up how about a certain Mr Johnson!