Reliably, Julian Temple still really annoys me. It was already a third of the way in when I switched his Doctor Feelgood doc (I’d only just got in and hadn’t realised BBC4 were screening it tonight), but I was watching because Bob Stanley had told me he liked it. Bob’s judgments are good, and I was probably grumbling about past Temple action when he stepped in to rep for Oil City Confidential: long ago I wrote this about The Filth and the Fury (the word “dinosaur” subbed in there unwanted unpleasingly, grrr), and this about Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten (JSTOR sub need, I’m afraid, grrr bah). So yes, I’m still really quite grumpy about these, the first especially.
But then I’m way over-invested in how people write and think about the Pistols, and if I’ve warmed to posh dead Joe a little, I still dislike the Clash enough that anything that doesn’t at least somewhat reflect my irritations is going to bug me. Both times there’s seriously the problem of placing yourself retroactively onside with the lads — of treating a long-ago victory as a battle still courageously to be fought and won. But with Feelgood the issue of belatedly declaring yourself a warrior on behalf of the correctly direction of history isn’t actually quite so much of an issue — like many supposed precursors of punk, their vanishment was by and large the price of its triumph — so I was willing to concede (or at least imagine) that Temple might do well by them.
Well, he does and he doesn’t. Canvey Island is unremittingly photogenic then and now, this bleak blasted petro-chemical isle in the Thames Valley Delta (phrase©Wilko J hisself I believe). The interviews JT gets are in themselves fairly terrific. But this is almost totally down to the interviewees. Temple still can’t follow a line of thought, or pick up an unexpected thread: any contradiction or conflict the interviewee has opened up will be left hanging. OK, so perhaps this is me being professionally territorial — I literally can’t bear that such-and-such a surprise claim isn’t being pursued when the opportunity is right there in front of everyone screaming at everyone. CAN’T HE SEE? DIDN’T HE JUST HEAR WHAT WE DID? And yeah — on what? his fifth attempt now (and ok, no, I’ve never seen his UK Subs movie, feat.John Snagge no less)? — he still doesn’t have the antenna to do for the 70s what he has the eye to do for Canvey.
Since Swindle, JT’s primary tool — for narrative, mood, energy and explication — has been collage. So am I agin this? (Collage! It’s punky! It’s situationist! Are you dissing the very radical situationists!!??) I’m not: it absolutely speaks to the cultural timeframe, it’s a smart way to inject the look of non-motion media — gig posters, record release ads, inky spreads from the rock press — for feel and energy, and visual and emotional shorthand. But beyond this I really don’t think JT has ever used it well. Every time we need to dwell on something, he prefers to switch away to some stupid film clip or silly sound effect. And actually while the SFX are always silly, the clips AREN’T always intrinsically stupid — but if there’s a non-stupid argument being waved at us with the near-subliminal link to Brighton Rock or (I think) Odd Man Out, it’s away and past long before we’re allowed to recognise it, let alone absorb or think about it.
“Collage as an energy is drawn on throughout,” I wrote of the Strummer doc: “collage as an argument — as a drama of the various elements brought together — is evident nowhere…” I complained when he scored the fact of Ma Strummer’s Scottish background “via a sound clip of bagpipes playing ‘The Skye Boat Song’–– she was Scottish, but not from Skye. What’s the point the music is making? Bagpipes ‘mean’ Scotland, cartoon-style — is this a naughty punky joke, a cheeky punky laziness, or a tiresome punky ignorance and stupidity?” This is precisely what hasn’t gone away: what I called the “bash-it-down clip flood” crams a LOT in, but we’re swept past it all quite unreflectively.
To wit: the section on Wilko’s brief days as an english teacher, a 60s longhair down with the kids (who was asked to leave after less than a year). This anecdote is frame with cutaways to a clip from the 60s sit-com Whack-O! — in which Jimmy Edwards, an irasicibly blimpish rogue of an Edwardian headmaster in cape and mortar-board given to caning his charges, supplies all counter-dialogue to Wilko’s amused description of his ouster, thereby standing in the actual headmaster (who to be fair may no longer be alive, I suppose — though other teachers surely are). The collage provides a sharp shorthand for a particular kind of collision, of personalities and worlds, of futures and pasts — but it lolls weirdly athwart the actual story, the easy laugh it gets obscuring the bludge. This was no minor private school in the 50s, all ivy and dormie feasts, it was a comp in the early 70s; documentaries are a kind of history, and history is after all the domain of teachers. It kind of matters — so far from the crisis of the moment — to get this collision right. The episode that had led to Wilko’s sacking has more of a Schoolkids Oz feel to it — very much in the news this same year, I was just 11 and I remember reading about it — but this is a version of countercultural radicalism that the imposed narrative can’t support, at least in slapdash shorthand. The kids in Wilko’s class — via his cheerful/rueful retelling, plus surviving stills — were making a film: they wanted him, in a mortarboard, to be filmed caning a pupil, Jill, who’d arrived on-set wearing sexy knickers as per script.
Hence we only get the “scandal!” of this tale, and then the Whack-O! clips fall across it, hijacking it. It’s an amusing hijack, but it muffles a ton of unexplored and fascinating complexities. Wilko says he loved teaching, and that he was delighted to have to stop: more here please! I want to know how these cinematic schoolkids felt about Feelgood a couple of years later (and how his non-fictional fellow teachers saw him at the time — some of them must be available to question).
And as for the slightly queasy inappropriateness of the situation four decades later — though Wilko seems to have behaved entirely honourably — well, what about this now, also? The fast-shifting sexual mores of the early 70s are almost unimaginably distant in many many ways — as we’ve been gloomily discovering recently. R&B’s openly aggressive sexuality was a part of this shift — but it’s all shuffled away in even older clichés.
In another clip — Feelgood being interviewed in 76 or 77 maybe? (Temple often favours jump-cut effect over chronological accuracy) — Wilko protests the derailing of the RnR tradition. The Hobbit, he grins: that’s not rock’n'roll! That’s girls’ stuff! And we cut to Whispering Bob Harris and OGWT: some band of beardies even *I’ve* never heard of as avatar of absurd soporific uselessness, the stifling eternal hegemony of prog… Except I somewhat suspect — the Hobbit! Girls! — that Wilko actually has Marc Bolan more in mind here. A potential rival who really actually DID still channel Chuck Berry, after all…
As many years top-down stiflement as prog ever achieved (two?), this punk-killed-prog-hurrah trope has now lasted DECADES, and more. So that’s a bit tiresome. But what I’m really getting at is the hint here — dabbed at but never followed up — that Wilko, delivering one kind of excitement by compacting his output down into a kind of bug-eyed robot cartoon, to allow Feelgood to happen, to hit hard, actually had to shut a lot of himself down. Yes, it was incredibly exciting, liberating in fact, for on-lookers, but all too quickly corrosive and exhausting for the guitarist. Yes, an astounding foil for Lee Brilleaux’s performance — but now look again at the gradual degradation of their relationship into unworkable enmity; at the drying up Wilko’s song-writing mojo (so fast, and more or less forever?); and above all at the fact that neither Feelgood nor Wilko ever amounted to anything much after the split, except perhaps as an already extinct hindsight tremor…
The collage is always a speedreading past such tangles, the entire story cast as leading inevitably up to punk: as a realisation of what everyone involved could possibly want, with plenty of punk (and new wave and post-punk) spokespeople hymning the Feelgoods in this role — Glen Matlock, Clem Burke, Andy Gill of The Gang of Four — we keep hearing that the group looked like gangsters or psychotics. But wasn’t the trademark jittery shut-in gurning also evidence of encroaching depression, increasingly trapped and bored mannerism, a stuttery shouty evasion that cuts against all the rhetoric of speaking truth, and such.
OK, so here are Hepworth and Ellen dicking about introducing an OGWT clip of DF singing ‘Roxette’. As on the LPs, the burn of the performance is actually a bit low-intensity — an effect of the audience-less TV studio or of youtube, I don’t know — but H&E’s banter is actually what interests me here. Of Wilko: “like a clockwork mouse on rails” — and then quoting (Social Deviant and militant undergounder) Mick Farren in the NME: “They looked as they’d come together in some unsavoury part of the army.”
Now both DH and ME have made a bit of a glib industry of push-back against postpunk and etc, of refashioning 70s and 80s rock as a safer memoried space for £50-man to retro-gambol around in, but even so, aren’t these are also apt descriptions and responses of the Feelgood effect, whether or not you warm to this particular deployment of them (and can ignore the irritating rest of how they locate and catalogue the phenomenon)? Clockwork mouse yes; and yes too to Farren’s observation, a glimpse of class-linked commentary that’s quite squeezed out of punk’s usual tale of itself.
Where’s the Wilko who studied Icelandic sagas at college, the Wilko who drops apposite literary quotes throughout the film, Wilko who hippie-trailed to Goa, the Wilko we see in a news-clip campaigning against further refinery plant on Canvey? Yes, we get glimpses — this is how I know to ask — but there’s actually a whole slice of the radical late 60s and early 70s gone missing from this. These elements are treated as undiluted quirk, zany goon boy Wilko reads books too! Cutting your hair — just as the mocked headmaster wanted — was counter-counter-cultural, right up till it wasn’t. The 60s pop-rock revolution wasn’t just middle-class — far from it — but it was more localised than hindsight allows, as a committed participant like Farren has the perspective to recognise (and Burke and Matlock perhaps don’t), there were a lot of other overlooked voices locked up, shut up you could say, in this music.
Which brings us to the documentary’s final strength. Temple gets some superb material from some of the women in the story — Mrs Brilleaux, Ma Brilleaux and local-girl-made-good Alf Moyet — which is both fresh and off-piste rock-canon-wise. Lee’s old mum is a tiny, chirrupy estuary matriarch — at once totally enthused and totally bemused by her son’s music, not to mention the behaviour of his pals. When Wilko can’t write she’s so frustrated she writes some herself (“I want to hear her songs!” Bob tweeted me). Lee’s American wife especially — with the smidge of the suggestion she comes from the US equivalent of the bar-stripper demi-monde the DF songs describe, before settling down as the stable, long-suffering mother of his family — has tales she doesn’t quite tell of the inner life and hinterland of this singer who never wrote songs, this intense taciturn gentleman off-stage who on-stage played, well, what? So much more to say (he was born in Durban in South Africa, and only arrived in Canvey Island aged 13 — but as I say, I missed the first third, maybe this slightly surprising fact is better plumbed in than most…). Stars are fashioned of the all the fans surging through them – and bands fashion each other this way too. “We were in love with each other,” says Sparko, bassplayer John B. Sparks, of the four of them — and it’s probably something that every young band can say of themselves when they start out, but how many of them do?
On twitter I’d said “much too much unchallenged rock-chat boilerplate, received history and slapdash meaning-by-half-baked-montage” and Bob responded “it isn’t all received wisdom. New to me anyway” — and again, in some ways this is fair enough. As he pointed out, “No one else had filmed the story” — and this is again a fair point. It’s not like the Pistols or the Clash, where the stories have been chewed over many times and most contributors will be repeating their tale for the 100th time. The band are GREAT on-stage — this is not news but it’s great to have it gathered in one place and edited bring it to bear, so that something of their power jumps out at you as it no longer quite can from records. But still you feel like you’re constantly having to wipe unnecessary detritus off the windshield as you drive through the tale, to see forgotten stretches of the landscape you’re actually passing through.