Lee Brilleaux was the charismatic singer of Dr Feelgood. An Alpha Male and hard drinking front man, backed by a tight band, including the bug-eyed mop-topped Wilko Johnson. Wilko Johnson and Lee Brilleaux parted company at the height of their success, having blazed a trail for punk. It was over forty years ago since they released their debut album, and today is the twentieth anniversary of Lee Brilleaux’s death, from cancer. Yet over the last five years Wilko Johnson has become something of a national treasure, after a scene stealing performance in Julien Temple’s documentary “Oil City Confidential”. It has taken many years for the world to wake up to the importance of Dr Feelgood, but whilst Wilko has a top 3 album having teamed up with Roger Daltrey, it is almost as if Lee Brilleaux’s contribution to the Feelgoods is in danger of being overshadowed.
Thankfully there’s little danger of that, as a new book is planned to tell Lee’s story, and it is being written by the author Zoe Howe who did such a fantastic job of Wilko Johnson’s book “Looking Back At Me” (see my Top 50 Music biographies post here).
I met Zoe Howe last week to talk about Lee, and about the unusual way the book is being funded. Zoe has announced that she is to write the biography of Lee Brilleaux through a crowd-funding scheme called Unbound. I asked Zoe what prompted her to want to write about Lee.
Zoe: “The starting point was seeing Julien Temple’s film Oil Street Confidential. I already knew Wilko – I was close friends with The Blockheads because my husband Dylan is his drummer. I’ve always been really into punk music, my first book was about The Slits, and I used to have a punk / reggae radio show but I hadn’t really appreciated how influential the Feelgoods were on the punk movement – that punk attitude just lit me up – and I was quite ashamed of myself for having not appreciated them. You can really see the thread clearly…”
ERTAS: It wasn’t really until that film that a lot of people realised….
Zoe: “Yes – in recent years there have been a lot of people becoming fans of Wilko and I know a few of the old guard are a little bit resentful of that. You know, “We’ve been supporting him when he was playing in pubs”, and I can see that – but if someone has genuinely woken up to someone’s music under these somewhat awful circumstances (Note: Wilko has been diagnosed with terminal cancer) if they genuinely love it and they are not just jumping on the bandwagon then that’s great – it doesn’t matter.”
“I came to them late – five years ago I suppose, when the film came out. I was really fascinated by Lee and he’s not here anymore, but wow – there’s a lot to him. Because you’ve got the whole rock n roll persona and this kind of Wolf-man, quite intimidating stage persona and you also got these little glimpses thanks to the way Julien Temple did the film, of his creativity or his slightly absurd sense of humour or his knack for clever rhymes – although he never got into songwriting- he left all that to Wilko. So I was intrigued by that and I thought “that’s quite curious – what’s that about?”
“I’d worked with Wilko on his book, but I thought it would be really nice to do a book about Lee. Obviously if will be totally different because he’s not here and we wouldn’t be able to do it in the same way. But I still feel there’s a place for this really unusual book because Lee was very unusual as well. I said to Shirley, his widow, “what do you think? I’d quite like to do this”. It’s such a sensitive thing. But she said “great idea”. So for the past couple of years I have had this idea knocking around in my head. And I did suggest it to a couple of people, one of which told me in no uncertain terms “don’t waste your time – this has already been done in Oil City” and I was thinking “No it hasn’t, that’s rubbish. We got glimpses, just the beginnings of stories, surely…that’s just not true”. Then I had the opportunity to submit a proposal to Unbound. Unbound are a crowd funding model, but you do have to put a pitch to them.”
ERTAS: They produce the book?
Zoe: “Yeah it’s like a book deal in reverse. People are buying the book in advance and they get to see immediately whether people are interested or not, and it has just taken off. It also shows the people who turned it down they missed a trick here – we were a quarter funded within 48 hours which is almost unheard of. Amazing.”
ERTAS: I’m not surprised though…
Zoe: “No I’m not. What you have with Lee is this incredible character – he may not be (well known) like Michael Jackson or someone like that but he’s someone that a lot of people do have a lot of enduring affection for in a really hardcore way, the Feelgood fans and the Blockheads fans have a loyalty – there are 45,000 fans on Facebook for Dr Feelgood and if a fifth of those people buy a book then you’re doing alright you know? So it’s something that I want to read and that’s normally the starting point for the books that I write – that someone hasn’t done it and I want that book – that person should have a book!”
ERTAS: You seem to be the right person to do it…
Zoe: “It’s lovely to hear you say that. It means a huge amount to me to hear that because when I first started working on the Wilko book I was thinking “What are people going to think? Who’s this young bird who’s steaming in?!” I was very conscious of the Feelgood thing – for a lot of people it’s quite a blokey thing – if you go to a Wilko gig it’s mostly guys in the audience – and I was conscious of that.”
ERTAS: Well, anyone who has read the Wilko book will know that a Lee Brilleaux book will be in pretty safe hands, I guess.
Zoe: “Now that people know me in that context then I feel more comfortable as well – and nobody ever gave me any reason to feel that way, it was just my own paranoia!
“(The crowd funding model) proves to Unbound and everybody that people want it to happen and that it is deserved. I always did think that, so it’s nice to know we can all make this happen together. People who pledge get a special edition, and you get other bits and pieces along with it. It’s an experiment, but I didn’t know it was going to be quite as amazing, really. “
ERTAS: So what would sum up what you have heard about Lee Brilleaux?
Zoe: “There’s all these stories about him following a quite strict moral code – in his family life – that’s what I’m told and he was just really lovely, looking after people. The other thing I want to get across is that he and his old school friend Phil Ashcroft who was in the first jug band with him on Canvey used to write these amazing poems. Lee used to do these amazing drawings – Heath Robinson style absurdist drawings. Just seeing those made me think he’s got this surreal humour and this artistic side that people just don’t hear about, so I want to show people this.”
ERTAS: Have you been able to track down any of these drawings?
Zoe: “Yes I am very lucky with a guy who has kept all these amazing school books and exercise books with all these crazy drawings. They showed one in the film – it had a map of the world and Canvey was in the middle – just this really odd crazy little map. Those will hopefully, all being well, be included. I like the odd sides of people. I think most creative people have these odd sides that come together to make this special person – you can’t quite put your finger on what that charisma is – you’ve got lots of things going into it.”
ERTAS: So do you want people to contact you about Lee Brilleaux if they have a story to tell?
Zoe: “Yeah absolutely. If they’ve got stories or pictures that we’re okay to use or anything they want to share – because the way I’ve got it in my mind is to make it a kind of celebratory compendium where you’ve got lots and lots of different bits – I think that really worked with Wilko…”
ERTAS: Yes – it worked well and it was a book you could dip into as well.
Zoe: “I wanted it to be like you were sitting with him for an evening – and conversations aren’t chronological are they? Especially with Wilko – you go off on tangents and go with the flow – that’s very Wilko. I chose to do the Wilko one entirely in his words because he’s got such a distinct voice and I don’t want to get in the way of that. But whereas with Lee there’s going to be more collating of other people’s memories and me drawing it together with a narrative thread.”
ERTAS: I guess you don’t know at this stage how that thread is going to pan out….
Zoe: “No – I think that a lot of people would like to see it being similar to the Wilko book in its dippiness and all those kind of images. You just get one chance to do these things. Unbound isn’t a conventional publisher. They seem pretty open so we can go totally unconventional. You get one chance to do these things don’t you?”
Zoë has just launched a funding campaign on Unbound for the book about Lee Brilleaux. Click here to see how you can help make this special project a reality.
If you have a story about Lee Brilleaux to share you can contact Zoe Howe via her website
Categories: Rock Music