Friday, August 30, 2013

Dr. Feelgood "Stupidity" (4.5*)

They mightn’t have sold albums by the truckload, but by the time Dr Feelgood’s third album appeared on the record racks they had a large enough following that was sufficiently fanatical to shoot the album straight to the #1 spot in the UK charts. It only stayed there for a week, and after nine it had disappeared, but Stupidity was the first live album to go to the top spot in the UK chart in its first week of release, and, like the far more commercial Rock Follies in 1976, hit #1 without coming in on the tail of a hit single.

Rock Follies, of course, managed that achievement on the back of a successful TV series, where the Feelgoods’ success was entirely based on their reputation as a live act. From the opening blast of Chuck Berry's Talking About You to the take on Roxette that closed proceedings (there was a bonus Riot in Cell Block No. 9 / Johnny B. Goode single parcelled up with the first 20,000 copies and those two tracks are tacked on the end here),

Chuck Berry penned Talking About You, though you might not spot that at first (it doesn’t have that distinctive Chuck Berry riff) gets things off to a lively start before Wilko Johnson steps up to deliver 20 Yards Behind while Brilleaux’s harp wails away in the background. Solomon Burke’s Stupidity keeps the groove going with its Cousin Brother of Ooh Poo Pah Doo riff, as does Wilko’s All Through The City. Familiar Feelgood meat and potatoes, good solid R&B that delivers a punch but doesn’t hit any great heights.

That begins to change on, of all things, Bo Diddley’s I'm a Man. There are more obvious suspects if you’re looking to kick things into overdrive, and remarkably it’s a Wilko Johnson showcase as he takes lead vocal over Brilleaux’s harp and a thudding rhythm section. The guitar solo, when it comes, is a masterpiece of thudding blues-drenched minimalism. Still not hitting the heights, but definitely on the ascent. The trend continues on a spirited growling prowl through Rufus Thomas’ Walking The Dog and Wilko’s She Does It Right, all sharp, angular guitar hook and razor sharp rhythm section. Two to crank and let rip.

As is the slashing Mick Green riff that kicks Going Back Home towards overdrive, a touch of horn in the outstanding Brilleaux harp solos (both of ‘em) which mightn’t quite match the J. Geils Band’s Magic Dick, but ain’t far off.

Up to this point we’re looking at a recording from a show in Sheffield as Side 1 of the vinyl, and as leads off the second mind we’re back on the band’s home turf in Southend. That might account for the rise in ambient crowd noise as I Don't Mind ends and that distinctive riff leads off into Back in the Night‘s strutting, slashing R&B strut as Johnson cuts loose with stinging Hubert Sumlin licks.

Then it’s Leiber & Stoller’s I'm a Hog for You Baby, delivered with leering intent by Brilleaux as the band heads for the stratosphere. Hughesy’ll always have a soft spot for their take on the Sonny Boy Williamson/Otis Rush perennial Checking Up on My Baby where the harmonica/guitar call and response has me hearkening back to the Yardbirds, though Keith Relf would never have matched the Brilleaux growl.

There’s a strident Roxette, all thumping bass line and rasping harmonica solo, and that’s where the original vinyl stopped. A free single came with the initial pressings of the album, and ended up tacked on to the end of the CD version, coupling a Riot in Cell Block No. 9 that takes absolutely no prisoners with a suitably frenetic and absolutely exultant Johnny B. Goode that provide an absolutely appropriate final flourish.

There’s also an extended CD version of the album was released in 1991 as Stupidity +, subtitled Dr. Feelgood - Live - 1976-1990 with a slew of post-Wilko live tracks (Take a Tip, Every Kind of Vice, She's A Wind Up, No Mo Do Yakamo, Love Hound, Shotgun Blues, King For A Day, Milk and Alcohol, Down At The Doctors) but I’m inclined to take my dose of Feelgood in the original mixture, thank you very much.

When you look at it what’s on offer here doesn’t differ greatly from the original studio versions, which were cut live in the studio but the audience factor adds a frisson of friction between Johnson and Brilleaux that’s reflected in the sound. You know something’s happening, you mightn’t be able to see what it is but it’s definitely there.

This one’s indispensable if hard edged revivalist R&B ids your bag. The big question then becomes how much more of it you need.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Dr. Feelgood "Sneakin' Suspicion" (4*)

You could see the warning lights all the way along. There was, right from the beginning of the Dr Feelgood story, a serious question about the role of original material in a decidedly traditionalist outfit, and while Down By the Jetty had been heavily (two-thirds) weighted towards Wilko Johnson originals, Malpractice was closer to fifty-fifty and there are suggestions out there that the decision to record and release the live Stupidity was at least partly prompted by Johnson’s inability to come up with enough new material for a studio album. It might have been close to the classic Feelgoods album, and is definitely the one to have if you’re only having one in your collection, but Stupidity had definite hints of the old stopgap measure.

Consider the chronology.

Down By the Jetty, recorded between June and November ’74, released January 1975. Malpractice released nine months later in October ’75. Stupidity, recorded on two nights in May and November 1975 released nearly twelve months after Malpractice in September ’76 and then Sneakin' Suspicion in May 1977.

From the undoubted 20/20 vision that comes with hindsight it looks awfully like a record company that was out to maximise the output (four albums in less than two and a half years) which is a reasonably big ask for an outfit that’s working from a basic palette with a single member contributing the all-important original material.

By all accounts there’s more to the story than the old weight of the songwriting resting on one man’s shoulders behind the potentially fatal blow (Wikipedia) that came with the departure of guitarist and co-focal point, Wilko Johnson. Along with Lee Brilleaux’s manic persona, Wilco’s stone-faced psychopath was a major part of the band’s visual impact, but away from the stage the two of them were, by all accounts, chalk and cheese, and differences over matters like alcohol (Wilko didn’t imbibe, the other three did) and the expectation that he’d continue to come up with new material seem to have eventually taken their toll.

No surprises there.

And there aren’t many surprises when it comes to an increasing reliance on reworking covers into a format that has rather definite stylistic boundaries. Take new material, slot it within those boundaries and while the audience might be able to compare it to what you’d done before they’re not able to make external comparisons.

On my first run through an album I hadn’t heard a lot of (the Wilko departure factor being part of it, but, more importantly, the late seventies were well and truly into what I’ve termed The Wilderness Years as far as listening and discussing music was concerned) I was actually quite looking forward to the band’s take on Nothin' Shakin' (But the Leaves on the Trees). Wikipedia will tell you it was originally released by Eddie Fontaine in 1958 and had covered by, among others, The Beatles, Crash Craddock, Billy Fury and Linda Gail Lewis, but Hughesy’s personal favourite comes from The Sports, one on a compilation called Debutantes and the other on the fabulous and scandalously out of print Missin' Your Kissin' Live + Studio Rarities.

That’s the problem with covers. Someone else has done them already and there’s no guarantee that your version will work better than theirs. The same thing applies to the cover of Mac Rebennack’s Lights Out, which works well enough in the Feelgood setting but I definitely prefer the fifties New Orleans vibe on the Jerry Byrne original, and the same is true of the version of Lew Lewis’ Lucky Seven. The other covers, Willie Dixon’s You'll Be Mine and Bo Diddley’s Hey Mama, Keep Your Big Mouth Shut, work better, largely due to the less familiar side of things.

As far as the Wilko Johnson numbers are concerned, Sneakin' Suspicion gets things off to a lively start, Paradise reworks a John Lee Hooker riff into the Feelgood formula with a Wilko vocal that revisits All Through the City as it starts off looking at the electric wonderland of the Canvey Island oil refinery them moves into roaming rock star self justification. It’s the song that allegedly brought on the bitter Lee Brilleaux/Wilko Johnson split.

Time and the Devil is another Wilko vocal delivered over a springy guitar riff, with a solo that floats over the play-out, and All My Love has Brilleaux in the vocal booth for something that’s getting close to Feelgood by numbers and probably underlines the relatively limited stylistic palette the band allowed themselves. There’s a familiar jagged riff running through Walking on the Edge too, the sort of thing that militates against the sort of sensibility you might suspect from the title, though there’s a definite Indian influence running through Wilko’s guitar solo.

Still, when you look at it objectively, four albums in a bit over two years is stretching things a bit when you’re working from a limited palette, and it probably comes as no surprise to find the whole enterprise running out of team as far as original material is concerned.

Had they shot to prominence a bit later, with the work rate that became accepted as par for the course through the eighties that mightn’t have presented quite the same problem, but once the Feelgoods had laid the groundwork for the punks and new wavers who succeeded them someone mining this particular stylistic vein was probably going to have a degree of difficulty when it came to hitting the heights.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Dr. Feelgood "Down by the Jetty" (4*, 4.5 if you’re not lining up for "Stupidity")

The early seventies, as the wave of innovatory experimentation that had been in evidence through 1966 and ’67 and into 1968 ran out of puff and transformed, gradually, into grandiosity and bombast (think Emerson Lake & Palmer, Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway by Genesis) had their share of returns to the roots of rock’n’roll and R&B but it’s hard to think of too many more retrospectively raw expressions of the music’s roots than this debut, released in January 1975.

At a time where the mainstream audience was heading off towards glam and artifice the media images of this outfit from Canvey Island, Essex, were a refreshing touch of normality, with singer Lee Brilleaux having an eye for a well-cut suit and while guitarist Wilko Johnson might have come across as a stone faced psychopathic automaton, he was a soberly dressed one, eschewing the glittery gloss that seemed de rigeur on the sociopathic end of the rock and pop spectrum.

Better still, as far as the retro bit is concerned Wilko had persuaded audio engineer turned producer Vic Maile to record the band live in the studio, avoid the use of overdubs and whack all the music and vocals in the centre, delivering a sound that was as close as dammit to Mono, with practically nothing in the way of stereo separation.

The result was a collection of eight Wilko Johnson originals along with John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom, Essex compatriot Mickey Jupp’s Cheque Book, a Mick Green (Johnny Kidd and The Pirates) instrumental called Oyeh! and a medley of Bonie Moronie> Tequila with The Rumour’s Bob Andrews and Brinsley Schwarz on saxophones.

The covers gave a fair indication of where the Feelgoods were coming from, and the original material, with Johnson taking the vocals on tracks where Brilleaux was blowing harp throughout, sounds as if not much had changed since the early days of the Rolling Stones.

She Does It Right leers, Boom Boom has a Wilko vocal while Brilleaux wails on the harp,  The More I Give enumerates the protagonist’s grounds for dissatisfaction with his current domestic arrangement,  Lee Brilleaux's vocals take on a tinge of Howlin' Wolf rasp on the relentless Roxette and delivers a manic harp solo to go with it, and One Weekend demonstrates that, while everything’s done competently they can’t all be gems.

Wilko’s in the vocal spotlight for That Ain't No Way To Behave, which underlines the same point but does, I think, deliver a little mid-tempo light and shade among the more manic moments. I Don't Mind has the Doctor delivering the mixture as before, jagged riffs, blasts of harp and growling Brilleaux vocals. Twenty Yards Behind is a Wilko exercise in  the aesthetics of the wiggle when she walks, Keep It Out Of Sight delivers a slice of sage advice and All Through The City provides the album’s title in Wilko’s portrait of life in the lee of the brightly lit Canvey Island refinery.

A quite magnificent debut, clean, sharp and crunchy, pointing a line straight back to the early Rolling Stones, as stripped down slice of roots rock that’s roughly equal parts of Jimmy Reed, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley blended with a healthy draught of Johnny Kidd & The Pirates. Call it a political statement if you like, but Down by the Jetty’s laid down the no-nonsense back to the basics wide boy ground rules that was, largely, the template the Punk rockers used to storm the citadel a couple of years down the track.