|It's almost impossible
to fully describe the impact that Lee Brilleaux, the original singer and
bandleader of the beat group Dr. Feelgood, has had in my life. Get this
- I cut off my adolescent freak flag, started to play the blues harp and
discovered the blues all because of Brilleaux. That's a university baby.
However this is not going to be a tale of a blinded fan worship in the
manner of some washed up trip to Graceland Elvis clone. This is much more
real than that.
Brilleaux and Dr. Feelgood are rightly regarded as being the "godfathers of Punk". A cheesy tabloid soundbite maybe - but one that is probably true. For before the glorious punk campaigns of '76 and '77, when all the rock icons of the seventies would be dismantled overnight, stood "the Feelgoods" in all their stripped-down tattered glory. A memorable quote from some equally unmemorable American hack at the time summed up the Feelgood sound - "...they sound like a sparse backing band for a lead singer who never appears". This cheap Jibe may suggest the actual sound of the group but at the same time manages to completely fail to account for the pulsating fist punching menace that was Lee Brilleaux in full flight. Brilleaux of course WAS the Feelgoods in the same way that Keith Moon WAS the Who. He was the bank clerk from the bank that likes to say "...are you looking at me pal?".
The Feelgoods came along at a time when rock was at its most pompous. Former humble little RnBers like Rod Stewart, Clapton, Zeppelin et al had slowly mutated throughout the late sixties to emerge as the opulent preening superstar peacocks of seventies rock. Essentially, in the language of Alfie, rock had become "blown up and poncified". Remember the early seventies? Everyone on this side of the fence was happily chugging away in a standard uniform of Levis, Levis and Levis, topped off with a lank centre-parted mop, a cheese cloth grandad shirt and stinky desert boots. Jesus H. Christ, the Feelgoods played in front of people like this. Like me, in fact. But they were the antithesis of the zeitgeist. For their chosen venue was not the superdrome, but the boozer. Their chosen uniform was not the denim, but shapeless Burton suits and, get this, TIES. They didn't care about any other shit. And they didn't care who knew it.
Once the punk rock mushroom cloud started to spread, the Feelgoods were easily accomodated into the fold. After all, it was Lee Brilleaux who helped the legendary Stiff Records off the ground. It was the Feelgoods whose debut LP "Down By The Jetty" had been recorded in Mono, forcrisakes, replete with a great sixties' styled B&W cover which featured a picture of the band looking ... well ... pissed off. This was the punk attitude made flesh when the boys in the Sex Pistols were still picking their feet in poukipsie.
Around this time one night after my mate and I had attended a great seat thrashing concert by United Artists stablemates The Stranglers at Canterbury Odeon, my mate was arrested outside the venue for having in his possession a souvenir piece of cinema seating. At the police station later that night a copper took the following statement - Q: "Who do you follow?" A: I follow the Feelgoods", my mate retorted defiantly. Yes ... following the Feelgoods is what we did. In the same way someone else followed Leeds or Arsenal. We followed the Feelgoods as in adhered to. Following the band involved a lot more than a physical arrival at a place of gig. It was more like a state of mind. The focus of this was of course Lee Brilleaux or rather his perceived persona, which became a kind of barometer against which everything else in the world could be measured. For example, if we were watching something or listening to something or being offered to evaluate something new which we didn't much like because maybe it was too ostentateous or perhaps flamboyant, our immediate retort would be the rethorical question/answer, "...yes, but would Lee Brilleaux like it?". For example. Would Lee Brilleaux like gatefold-sleeved double albums? Would Lee Brilleaux like the colour pink? Would lee Brilleaux eat a croissant with a small pat of butter? Would Lee Brilleaux ever watch BBC2? Or the South Bank Show? The answer to these and a hundred other imponerable lifestyle problems seemed to be definitive and life affirming. NO HE FUCKIN WOULDN'T. The nearest thing to this of course is any kind of religious fundamentalism where all your decisions are pre-ordained for you in some kind of religious text. Some call it the Bible, others the Koran. In our case we had all the albums, a clutch of great singles and some exceptional Zig Zag magazine reports detailing the Feelgoods first ever US tour.
At the heart of this quasi religious approach was the idea of Pilgrimage. An opportunity to involve oneself in the full heft of Feelgood life. This naturally involved visiting Canvey Island. My mate Tony C and I would regularly head out of London on the ultra depressing A13, genuinely a highway to nowhere. We were intent on placing ourselves into one or other of the Feelgood LP sleeves which were all mostly shot in and around Canvey Island. This was a place which, with its depressing oil terminals and surrounding perma-frosted land peppered with cheap-looking prefab houses, seemed to have been especially designed by God to act as a breeding ground for the Feelgood attitude of life, which was essentially three-buttoned, non-tipped, high tar - monaural.
Humphrey Bogart once played a character who said "the cheaper the crook the gaudier the patter". This was Canvey Island. It was also the persona assumed by Lee Brilleaux. For as we turned up at various gigs and places like the Feelgood watering hole The Admiral Jellicoe (featured on the LP sleeve "Be Seeing You") we would occasionally meet the legend in his natural habitat. By this time we had ourselves a small fanzine up and running and had arranged a couple of interviews with Lee. On these occasions he was always accomodating and polite. Often staying up in Lonon to meet us when the rest of the entourage had headed back into Essex. He was alwas pragmatic and decisive. He would cut through the hyperbole and give a straight answer to a fuzzy question. Like Coke, he was the real thing. What you saw on stage was really a larger than life extension of the real thing. Lee's act had been heavily influenced by having once seen Howlin' Wolf on stage. Lee had quickly decided that this larger than life bear of a man was the role model for him. He knew the need to be always bigger on stage than off. To play a character if you like. Hence the tatty white suit, the mock coital thrustings of the bass drum and of course fist punching delivery. Some play the king, some play the fool. Brilleaux chose the demented car salesman from hell who wasn't as much selling his wares as rather ramming them down your throat.
In later years the Feelgoods assumed a less important role in my life. Pub rock became a historical footnote. Punk had turned into something called New Romanticism. The Feelgoods settled into a routine somewhere out there ticking over knocking out a couple of hundred gigs a year. Making a living. Brilleaux was soon the original member of the definite group that had taken their live set to the top of the LP charts in 1975 with the stunning record of their bone crunching live act "Stupidity". The last time I met Lee was about five/six years ago. I was in a regular watering hole in Soho and spotted him standing uncomfortably along amongst the Soho rabble. I went over and introduced myself. Of course he didn't remember me or anything like that, but sensing a chance to get out of the unfamiliar pub, he stood outside on a summer's day and finished his pint with me. He was en route, so it turned out, to Germany for another 30-date tour. As ever he was approachable, avuncular. Just the same as he had been when I first met him more than 10 years before.
When Lee died, the obituaries especially in the quality press summed his career up with dignity. He was dubbed a "singer and a bandleader". Enough respect. For me Lee Brilleaux was and remains the ultimate role model. He was quite simply the business. The dog's bollocks. The Guv'nor. Whatever he had in the magic department, he kept it out of sight. Quite simply nobody comes close. I'll see you in the morning, Lee, down by the Jetty.
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