It's Bardot's, Canvey Island, formerly Cloud Nine, former weekly haunt of Dr. Feelgood. It's Thursday, almost midnight, and Wilko Johnson has well and truly joined the dearly departed. Tonight, the unknown, but thoroughly good, John Mayo will fill his shoes. No mean feat. No more than a hundred local punters will witness this debut. It's a secret gig, a warm-up for an approaching British tour, and, most importantly for Mayo, an audition in front of the home crowd. Dr. Feelgood, you see, are more than just residents of Canvey Island. They are celebrities, the local boys who made good without ever leaving their working-class Essex roots. The Feelgoods, as they say, are world-famous in Canvey.
"I'd say we're a local business that has managed to put itself worldwide" Lee Brilleaux explained. "That's nice, because right back from the early days, we used to say, 'Well, if we can't do it our way, we can't do it at all,' and that motto still applies. If people reject us now, that's the way it goes. You can live on Canvey Island quite happily, away from the madness of the Metropolis", Brilleaux philosophically adds, remarking that it has its own brand of madness, much more fun in his opinion. The band's operation is run from the Feelgood House, the semi-detached home of manager Chris Fenwick. Everything about the band revolves around Canvey, which is why, when the Feelgoods were placed in something of a crisis with Wilko's sudden departure, they retreated to the motherland again, to re-group and re-present. They want to find out what their original supporters think of the new boy.
John Mayo has moved from Harlow to Canvey now, and, in the words of Brilleaux, is applying for citizenship of the dominion. He has been welcomed into the fold with open arms. Nobody expects Mayo to be the new Wilko Johnson, and everybody knows that Wilko's loss is a major one, but after seeing the gig in Bardot's nightclub last week, I'm sure that Mayo's presence on stage will be as invaluable an asset on stage as Johnson's ever was. Honest to God, the energy generated is still as lethal, raw rootsy rock and roll, still played with the naive conviction that has always marked the Feelgoods' concerts.
The evening opened earlier with a reception at Advision Studios to introduce the new band, and to play "Sneakin' Suspicion", the new album that features Wilko all the way through. On one listen, it sounded like the Feelgoods' most solid statement on record, and was particularly marked by Wilko Johnson's astoundingly refreshing guitar performance, which must make Mayo's job all the harder. Not surprisingly, nobody said much about that. The Feelgoods played a 40-minute set. They were, to put it mildly, loosened by the effect of a night's boozing. The sound was lousy. It was very, very informal. And still they managed to project their devastating form. Of course it was strange to see the band minus the maniacal struts of Johnson, but then it was as refreshing to note the enthusiasm with which Mayo, Brilleaux, bassist Sparko and drummer The Figure, tackled their task even in front of a meagre audience and in the confines of a second-class pub.
Brilleaux has taken it upon himself to act as father figure to the band, encouraging and cajoling Mayo to do wild things, and even that added to the performance. He would take the new guitarist by the arm and push him to the front of the stage (usually used as the dance-floor). Mayo always obliged, delivering a couple of burning solos that left many of us nodding that his choice was a good one. Mayo, too, forms a healthy partnership with Brilleaux, one that wasn't evident between singer and guitarist in the old band. The new pairing seem to bounce off each other and while Mayo is out front on his knees playing his heart out, Brilleaux is blatantly getting off on it behind him by doing a variation of push-ups and other physical contortions.
And, of course, the pounding rythm section of Sparko and The Figure is as tight as ever, with even that usually sober duo visibly getting off on the freshness and revitalisation influenced by the change. The set finished with an absolutely crazy version of "Great Balls Of Fire", which really proved to me that the Feelgoods will continue to be a band that commands respect. Yeah, Wilko will be missed. But with this new line-up, the Feelgoods have snatched the opportunity to regain the magical rawness that marked their initial burst a couple of years ago. I'm sticking with them.
Meanwhile, back at the office: this, Lee Brilleaux grandly proclaims, is the beginning of a new era for Dr. Feelgood, before proceeding to nullify the bold effect of his sweeping statement by harshly remarking "F... it. It 'ad to 'appen sooner or later. It could 'ave been a lot nastier, callin' each other c..., but what's the point of that. It's 'appened and f... it, we're gonna do it." The new man, John Mayo, who appears a little overawed by the big business sorroundings of the record company's fortress, grins at his singer's crude, but very assured, outburst. It is, he probably feels, another vote of confidence in his ability to produce the goods and to bridge the void created by Wilko Johnson's untimely departure.
Mayo is not at all like Wilko. The most apparent difference is that the new guitarist looks sane, though I'm sure that one essential quality for any Feelgood member must be that the demonic side comes out on stage ( as it does). Wilko, too, was also an uncomfortable person to be with, always fidgeting and shuffling around. Mayo, on the other hand, immediately relaxes and manages to put those around him at ease. The offer of a gig with Dr. Feelgood came as a shock to Mayo. He had read about Wilko leaving the band, but never even toyed with the idea of applying for the vacancy. At the time, only about three weeks ago, he was dossing around his native Harlow, in Essex, looking for any gig that was going. George Hatcher, whose band supported the Feelgoods on their last British tour, recommended Mayo to the Feelgoods and they immediately set off in search of him, which proved to be something of an adventure as he was homeless at the time and couldn't be contacted. Eventually, they did get in touch with him and arrangements were made to meet in Canvey Island, the home of the Feelgood organisation, for a blow. Mayo was the first guitarist the band auditioned, although it was said at one stage that Mo Whitham from the Mickey Jupp Band had been earmarked to take Wilko's place. Whitham, however, had become involved in his own project and was reluctant to give that up, all of which left the Feelgoods in a bit of panic, with four European gigs staring them, guitarless, in the face.
To tide them over the crisis period, Henry McCullough, currently serving with Roy Harper's Band, Chips, but an old hand at session work, and keyboard player Tim Hinkley, another seasoned sessioneer, were drafted in for gigs in Spain and Germany. There was a vague intention of recruiting the duo on full-time terms. "At that stage, we had our minds made up to carry on and we wanted to get playin' as soon as possible" said Brilleaux. "It was great fun. It showed me and the rest of us what way we had to go and what sort of player we needed. We toyed with the idea of getting them in the band but they are such perfect musicians that they're almost on the point of being regular session men and we weren't lookin' for that. We were lookin' for somebody that was goin' to join us as a part of Dr. Feelgood and somebody as hungry as us. This boy (Mayo) was hungry, right? With Henry, we 'ad an ace guitar player. The guy's brilliant but when we got out ... I mean, it was great but Dr. Feelgood started becomin' laidback. It needs more than a great guitar player and that's what we were a little worried about."
Mayo, aged 23, has a diversity that should stand the Feelgoods in good stead in the future. He's been playing for about 10 years, he says, but his style hasn't been restricted to rock and roll, dabbling occasionally in Irish traditional and jazz rock, which sounds as weird a combination of styles as you're ever likely to get. He explains that he got into the traditional lark when he was given a mandolin. He teamed up with an Uilleann piper, Phil Smith, and acoustic guitarist, John Hannon, in Harlow, got a good set together of what they considered to be original sounds and started playing the Essex folk clubs. That, like most of the projects he became involved in, fizzled out after a while.
Two of the band Mayo played with were 747 and Halycon, the most notable of a string of obscure units. 747 was a resurrection of the band that backed Kevin Ayers for a couple of years and was formed by Mayo along with the keyboard player from the original line-up, Henry Crallan. That seemed like a long-term venture until 747 hit the road and after a lengthy European tour, the rest of the band retired, exhausted by the work. Mayo survived, returned to the abysmal rock territory of Harlow and attempted, unsuccessfully, to get a new scene going with a new three-piece, Alias. Then along came the Feelgoods to jet him from obscurity into instant stardom. It will be, of course, no easy job taking over from Wilko Johnson. Johnson was the personality in the band, writing and producing most of the material, as well as contributing vastly to the unique energy the Feelgoods generate on stage. Confusion surrounded his exit from the band a couple of weeks back. The first news was that Johnson didn't want a track called "Lucky Seven", written by Lew Lewis and the producer of the album, Bert de Coteaux, on "Sneakin' Suspicion", as the next opus from the band is titled. The band said Yes. Wilko insisted No. When no compromise could be reached, he quit.
Though Lee Brilleaux tries to stick to that reason, even he accepts that there was probably more to Wilko's decision to quit than that, although he didn't know the rest. It was more than likely, he added, the straw that broke the camel's back. "We've been together for a long time now, five years we've been playin' together, and it's a wrench to lose the bloke, and I'm sure he thinks it's a wrench to lose us, you know, but it's 'appened, and I thank God that the whole thing 'as 'appened amicably. I don't know wether it was that track or something else. To cut throug all the bulls....., to come right down to the bottom line of it, the truth of the matter is that I think that five years is a long time to be in a band without 'avin' a personnel change. Five years, three albums with the same personnel. The press have been sayin' for quite a while now 'Great, Dr. Feelgood, but what will you do now? You've gone as far as you can go'. If you like, you've asked us what we're gonna do now. This is what we've done." We press on. I wonder why they continue with plans to release their new album, which features Wilko on guitar and, I'm told, a large percentage of material written by him, although he is no longer a member of Dr. Feelgood. "We shouldn't release it?" Brilleaux hesitated "See, one of the things we've gotta make quite clear is that Wilko didn't lave the band because of this album. This is just as much Wilko's album as much as the rest of us. Five or six of his songs are featured on it, so it's very much his album, even though it was produced by this guy Bert from America."
"The point came that we made two studio albums and we had a live album and everyone was saying 'What's Dr. Feelgood gonna do now?' and we did it and that's what this album is all about. If we had our doubts about this album and thought it wasn't what we wanted to do, we wouldn't be puttin' it out. We'd scratch it and make another one. We're really pleased with it. I think it's the best album we've ever made from a creative point of view. Definetly, I mean, compare it with "Stupidity" - that epitomised Dr. Feelgood then live on stage. This album shows that we can be more than that. This album shows that we have many different directions to follow, while still retaining the energy of being a rock and roll band." But it's a different band now, I persist. "Yeah," Brilleaux insisted, "it's a different band now, but because the album was goin' off in different ways anyway, and John is that type of player, he fits in okay." Mayo explained that it is purely a question of him interpreting it in his way, but wasn't there a possibility of the new guitarist lapsing into the old guitarist's style because he would have grown so accustomed to hearing the original versions on record? That happened at first, he agreed. When he arrived at Feelgood House, he was bombarded with tapes of old and new stuff that he would have to learn, and he had Wilko's style in the back of his head, but since they had played a warm-up gig with Lew Lewis in Canvey Island the week before, he had settled down and was introducing his own identity and style into the music.
Having established that Mayo was into various styles of guitar playing, how much would the rest of the band allow that to affect their music? With Wilko, the rules for the band seemed to be quite stringent, raw, high-energy rock and roll with no frills and absolutely no diversion from the straight and narrow. Brilleaux, taking up the mantle as the new band spokesman replied. "Rock and roll incorporates all manner of influences," he pointed out. "There's all sorts - country, blues, jazz, rockabilly. It's a good thing. It's good that he has all those different aspects because, in a way, me and Sparko are very limited, and we do this one thing. The Figure can do the jazz, the Figure can. It's great. The more there is of that coming into one, the better it will be for all of us."
Considering then, that Mayo would introduce all these variations, did Brilleaux maybe feel that it was limiting with Wilko? A leadening question if I ever heard one. "Well ... I don't know about limiting, but, if you like, you could say that we had done everything that we could have done. But Wilko was beginning to write songs that were quite different from his earlier material anyway, so perhaps, we would have changed, but this way, we've been put in a position where we've had to change so, as far as I'm concerned, it's more interestin' musically. It opened up a lotta doors." And put a lot more onus on Brilleaux on stage ... "Yeah, Wilko was always the first one to be out there lookin' for the audience, which was good. It was the killer in 'im. Let's face it, nothin' is ever goin' to be the same as Wilko because Wilko is unique. Maybe we could have gone out and found somebody to take the job and say 'Look, you've gotta wear this black and red suit, right, and you've gotta have your 'air cut this way and you've gotta do this (feigning Wilko's famous strut) across the stage' but that's not what we want. This is definitely the start of a new era. Wilko is a man on his own, with his own ideas about things, and three into one don't always go. The band is a unit again and all the energy is channelled in one direction again. That's a fair way to put it, I think."
This appeared (minus the scans) in Melody Maker May 7, 1977.
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