Mar 13

kursaal longhairs and mechanical mice: wilko vs whacko! and other forgotten tales

FT21 comments • 1,826 views

feelgoodlonghair(quick notes on a partial late-night viewing)

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.

feelgood45In 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.


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    (off now to babysit my niece: will tidy up youtube links and probable typos later!)

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    punctum on 17 Mar 2013 #

    Inevitably I am moved to repost what I wrote about DF last year – before the news about Wilko’s illness broke – wherein I argue amongst other things that they paved the way for Sonic Youth and that their geography and art were far more important than Temple lets on.

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    youtubes properly embedded!

    Have you seen this doc punctum? (Not that I have properly, yet…) There’s a song that present-day Wilko plays, with the chorus “Irene, Irene”: he says it was vetoed for the final Feelgood LP (in favour of a Lew Lewis son)g, and his protest precipitated the split. Was this song ever recorded elsewhere? The way he plays it really DOES seem to be pushing towards a different level of abstract and skeletal formalism — or a kind of ghost of it, since he’s really just sketching it. This is I think what I’m getting at — that the demeanour and rhetoric DF had to adopt to punch through to attention actually increasingly made the step through to this next level impossible to make. Maybe it’s also the rhetoric and demeanour that kept them together as a unit — but the way the story was being told, it was more the sense of impasse (and Wilko’s depression), combined with the exhaustion of so much touring cooped up with one another.

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    (apologies, first question there asked before I clicked through! Rewrite as: “punctum, you know that song that present-day Wilko plays…” )

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    punctum on 18 Mar 2013 #

    I watched it in preparation for the TPL piece. It was quite helpful but could, as you say, have done without all the join-the-dots beginner’s Situationist stuff (if only Kenneth Griffith had lived to do the doc but then DF did do an album in ’77 called Be Seeing You with a penny farthing on the cover).

    The “Irene” song is called “Paradise” and turns up on the Sneakin’ Suspicion album but the recorded version is suboptimal and they/he do/did it better onstage.

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    (Typos corrected and tweaks inserted, plus one of MY thoughts semi-completed — for a change — about wives, mums and fans.)

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    Erithian on 18 Mar 2013 #

    It’s still on iPlayer, Sukrat, and I’d be interested to hear your take on the first half-hour or so – social history of the 1953 flood which killed nearly 60 people on Canvey and led to Figure being the first of the Feelgoods to perform on BBC radio (singing “Me And My Teddy Bear”), touching footage of Brilleaux’s childhood and the start of the Feelgood heritage walk.

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    old man sukrat on 18 Mar 2013 #

    I might well rewatch erithian, yes — i wanted get my responses down quickly but this obviously isn’t a fair viewing!

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    Mark M on 18 Mar 2013 #

    I must say I really liked Oil City Confidential – for the reasons (in fairness) that Mark identified: the stuff about the place*, and the interviews. And although it might be that Temple didn’t get the most out of the story, but I’d known nothing about the whole Wilko on the hippie trail aspect, and found that fascinating.
    I only knew the basics about Doctor Feelgood going in, and clearly had much less in play than Mr Sinker, so was perhaps more inclined to go easy on it. On the other hand, I had the correct level of scepticism considering it was directed by Julien Temple (I speak as someone who actually watched his Ken Russellesque fiasco Pandaemonium, as well as his epically tedious Glastonbury film).

    *We went on a day trip to Canvey as a result.

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    swanstep on 19 Mar 2013 #

    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.
    So, Mark, do you in that case suggest that Dr Feelgood newbies, such as myself, should start with the film (if we can)?

    And a question for the hive-mind: what’s the best strictly musical starting point for the Dr.? (Marcello’s review of Stupidity seems to make the case that it was that rarest of things, a #1 album that was a genuine breakthrough for the band as well as for the music scene generally. Start there then?)

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    punctum on 19 Mar 2013 #

    Definitely the place to start, followed by Down By The Jetty and then maybe Ian Dury’s Laughter just to hear how good and radical Wilko could be in different musical surroundings.

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    swanstep on 19 Mar 2013 #

    @11. Cool, thanks.

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    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 19 Mar 2013 #

    Yes, I think it’s probably a pretty good place to start to get a sense of DF’s potential intensity (having still not watched the first third), of glowering Lee Brilleaux stock still more even than Wilko in motion, I think. Of course It gets this effect by means at odds with the band’s stated ethos (IMO) — meaning the editing cut and paste that digital recording and film-making have enabled, and framing most of these clips with high-energy stills-collage — but the gain is likely worth the price, if you’re coming new to them.

    My beef in brief is that JT has gathered a LOT of information into one place (some of it new)*, and then proceeds to jigsaw it all back into the known** tale, when a lot of it seems to me to be opening doors into valuable revisions of this tale. That said, I’m interested in how the great Canvey flood is dealt with.***

    *At a minimum the “being in one place” is new.
    **”Known” is no doubt me being overly “bin there dun that bored now” I suppose, but aaargh bah grrr.
    ***There was an extreme-weather documentary about it — called “The Forgotten Flood”? — a few years back, including several interviews from Canvey, though it hit hard all down the East Coast (and also Holland). When I was a tiny, an elderly Dutch academic visiting my dad kindly brought me a special present, a book all about how the dykes had failed to keep this flood out of the Netherlands, photo after photo of vast flooded tracts of low-lying land, plus an English-Dutch dictionary (unfortunately not English-Dutch). I spent quite a lot of time trying to work out a way to back-translate — the man very earnestly assured me that he’d made certain the dictionary was the correct one to help me learn Dutch — and looking at the pictures, so this little-remembered disaster has long been in my personal mythology. Fair enough I guess if Temple hasn’t entirely fashioned his doc to pander to me on this one…

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    Erithian on 19 Mar 2013 #

    It’s certainly not the forgotten flood for Erithians – by which I mean genuine ones, not adoptive ones like me. Only last month there was a packed-out 60th-anniversary talk by the local history society, at which those who had been involved shared their memories. The Thames burst its banks at Belvedere and the Erith & Belvedere FC ground was flooded up to the crossbars (as seen at http://www.belvedereuk.info/index_files/Page396.htm ) and unusable for weeks. Last year I met a committee member from the time who’d rowed across the pitch to rescue some precious beer barrels from the clubhouse and store them on higher ground in a local boozer. Down our way the flood didn’t cause the loss of life seen in the East Coast (hundreds) and the Netherlands (close on 2,000), but we were part of the new Queen’s morale-boosting tour of flood-hit communities.

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    old man sukrat on 19 Mar 2013 #

    yes, the thesis of the documentary was that the flood hadn’t really entered countrywide folk memory because it occurred shortly the surge in tv ownership in the uk

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    old man sukrat on 19 Mar 2013 #

    shortly before, I mean

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    wichita lineman on 19 Mar 2013 #

    Brian Matthew worked for the English dept of Dutch radio: “We were there during the time of the enormous flood in 1953, large areas in a terrible state, loads of people killed. The American army came in. They gradually rebuilt the dykes, and came the time they were going to fill in the last block, it was quite a historic event. I was covering it so I learned everything I could about how it had been done. Needless to say I was repeating myself, but they put a copy of the recording in their archives.”

    The flood wasn’t unique to Canvey, as others have said. But Canvey was especially badly hit – as was Jaywick in Essex – because most of the houses there were effectively wooden shacks, the legacy of the Plotlands departments. Now, there’s a great subject for a documentary (hands off, Temple!).

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    Further to punctum’s argument, from a different direction

    Just as Quo were our Television, Feelgood were our Neu.

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    JonnyB on 21 Mar 2013 #

    My dad’s factory was on Canvey Island, so I spent a lot of time there in the school holidays, alternating between annoying him and his workmates and roaming around the island, marvelling at the fact that this was the REAL BRITISH SEASIDE. And the doc brought that all back.

    But yes. The Jimmy Edwards clips leapt out immediately and introduced a certain amount of distrust, although I did respect the way there was no cloying resolution of the obvious ‘did they or didn’t they make up before he died’ story arc (which may be common knowledge, but I don’t know).

    Watched it on Sky Plus on Tuesday night; yesterday I got my Telecaster out for the first time in five or so years and scuttled around the bedroom whilst playing bad choppy RnB. Because the footage itself had a huge effect on me. I’m also left with a feeling of resentment; I grew up and used to play around there – had this not been during the period when the band had been airbrushed from pop’s list of Things That Are Cool then I would have drawn so much from them. My fault, for being a shallow teenager anxious about such things, but there you go.

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    xyzzzz__ on 24 Mar 2013 #

    Only saw about 30 mins of this when they first showed it about six months ago – the vocals kinda obscured what good there was in the riffage. More interested to find out about the mum, then forgot about it. Forwards to an interview with Wilko I read about a month ago where the Icelandic Sagas factoid came up.

    Looking at youtube and this seems the perfect vehicle to see what they were like. Doubt the recs would come up to scratch really. Maybe a bootleg would be ok.

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    swanstep on 24 Mar 2013 #

    I really enjoyed Oil City Confidential, but did end up sharing Mark’s misgivings about opportunities missed. The hobbits and music for girls comments desperately needed to be unpacked, and the whole of Glam got kind of shrunk down to Glitter and The Sweet, which *really* made one wonder what Wilko and Brilleaux had to say about Bolan, Slade, Roxy, Bowie. And what of Sabbath and Zeppelin? Was there a metal scene on Canvey at all? If not, why not? And did the discontent of 1973 affect Dr Feelgood at all? We learn that they felt a little blind-sided by Punk, but, really, what did they think of political content in songs? And so on.

    I also agree with Mark that the insistent use of film clips to give pace to things felt manic and unilluminating (Adam Curtis’s documentary series do this too and seem to me to experience a kind of decay because of it: the first eps are always incredibly exciting, whereas by the final ep. I’m always completely over it, and the promised argumentative content has resolved into an unconvincing series of insinuations, associations, and conjectures).

    Lee Brilleaux’s Mum’s accent is magnificent! She’s should be a star.

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