January 1976. Dr Feelgood are tearing up venues across the UK. “Malpractice”, their second album has reached the top twenty.
Eighteen months earlier they were still playing two shows a night because they needed the money. But lead singer Lee Brilleaux can’t do things in half measures. The band might think about preserving their energy during the first show. But Brilleaux said “after five minutes you couldn’t. “F– it, I don’t care if I die in the taxi on my way to the next gig, this is where we are. This one.”
And now, in 1976, with UK chart success behind them, it’s time to conquer America.
They are set to play a showcase in front of CBS executives and salesmen, hopefully so the executives will be blown away and push the band. It’s a big moment. An executive introduces the band to the CBS throng.
Brilleaux notices his microphone needs taping down, and a stage hand runs off to get some tape.
As he does so, the stage hand knocks over Lee’s slide guitar and the neck snaps in two.
Everyone looks aghast.
It takes more than a broken guitar to knock an in-form Lee Brilleaux off his stride however. He nonchalantly takes out the set list, grabs a pencil and starts crossing out songs, adding wryly,
“We’ll knock those ones on the ‘ead, then….”.
Dr Feelgood play, and by all accounts, even without their best tunes, tear the place apart.
This story is just one example of how Lee Brilleaux was one of rock n roll’s most compelling frontmen. Together with Wilko Johnson, Sparko and The Big Figure he spearheaded Dr Feelgood, the proto-punk r’n’b rockers from Canvey Island.
Dr Feelgood were a shock to the system in the seventies.
Brilleaux’s childhood friend Geoff Shaw sets the scene, describing the early seventies like this:
“Even the tough guys in prison were listening to Yes, Gong, Rod Stewart. Dr Feelgood were weird and really shouty. It was hard arse…..this was before punk; everyone else was singing about oak trees and swans”.
Oak trees and swans….
That’s a great quote.
Rarely in the history of rock has there been a double act as good as Wilko and Brilleaux. If you don’t believe me, take a look at this show….
It’s incredible isn’t it? Even forty years on, the performances are just out of this world…
A new book about Brilleaux tells the story of this most charismatic of alpha males. Author Zoë Howe has the right credentials for telling Brilleaux’s tale. In addition to writing acclaimed biographies of Jesus and Mary Chain and The Slits, she previously co-wrote “Looking Back At Me” with Brilleaux’s former Feelgooder Wilko Johnson, a superb quirky insight into Wilko’s history and state of mind.
Julien Temple’s recent documentary “The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson” updated Wilko’s own extraordinary tale of having survived cancer and has just been aired on BBC1 (and is on the iPlayer if you missed it). Temple’s first Feelgood film “Oil City Confidential” told Dr Feelgood’s story, so it therefore seems timely to take a look at Brilleaux’s own story.
Howe’s book is an entertaining read. Where else will you find stories about the time Sparko mistook John Bonham for a hotel porter and asked him to carry his bags? Or how Lee Brilleaux impressed a pre-fame Huey Lewis by joining him on stage and berating his drummer? Or even the time Dr Feelgood toured with Kiss and were told to change for their show – with all their gear – in the public toilets….?
But alongside the anecdotes, Howe also paints a celebratory picture of a man deeply committed to his craft, his music and his family.
This was a man who gave his all not only during the years of success but also in those later years when audiences dwindled. No-one ever came away from a Brilleaux show short-changed. He also had a passion to live life to the full, including sampling the UK’s best bars and restaurants. If you have ever eaten at a Little Chef or motorway service station on a long journey home late at night, you might just identify with how important that could be…
“Lee Brilleaux: Rock ‘n’ Roll Gentleman” is the first book to tell Brilleaux’s whole story, so I got in touch with Zoë Howe just before the release of the book last week to discover how it all came together…
ERTAS: The last time we spoke, you were about to begin the book project about Lee Brilleaux. As of this month the book is out, so how has the last year or so panned out for you?
Zoë Howe: “It’s been a whirlwind of research, interviews and writing feverishly – the whole thing has been a great adventure, and I have loved every moment of working on this book. So many wonderful people came out of the woodwork to speak to me, it’s just been the most fantastic experience.”
You began with a series of sketches and drawings that Lee had made that feature in the book. What other discoveries did you make in the last year?
“Yes, the sketches and scribblings from that era of Lee’s life (the early teenage years) really sparked my imagination – they’re very similar to the sorts of things I used to do at that age – the stories he wrote and the surreal poems, they all really reminded me of the humour of Glen Baxter, John Lennon, Spike Milligan, which I love, so reading more of those stories was wonderful and gave me a deeper understanding of him, in a way, and of the things that set him off on a flight of fancy or a stream of consciousness ramble!”
“One of the things I found while going through all of these fabulous old exercise books (kept and kindly shared with me by Lee’s old schoolfriend and fellow artiste Phil Ashcroft) was a ‘prologue’ Lee had written which was full of musings, many of which were strangely appropriate for the book I’ve put together, I included it at the start of the book. Actually I found this prologue among all of the hundreds of scans from exercise books that I had taken shortly before I handed the book in – I didn’t remember it from the time I was scanning it, but it kind of popped up just after I finished the manuscript, and it was perfect. Lee’s prologue concludes with a line which explains that “this book aims to destroy with obliterating vitality the answer that is a classic of our time, ‘oh, it is always done this way.’” And that’s exactly what this book aims to do! ”
“I like the idea that Lee could somehow provide a prologue to his own book, even if he isn’t physically here any more. The way I have written the book is not only as a biography but as a kind of tongue-in-cheek ‘manual’ for the would-be rock ’n’ roll gentleman (‘Ha! No such fing!’ guffawed a friend of mine recently…) drawing on things Lee liked or used to say or do, bucking the trend and generally going about things in very much his own way. ”
Were there any stories about Lee that didn’t make the book that you wished you could have told…? When we last met you mentioned a time when Brilleaux met some fans before a show…
“Was that the one when he ended up on the bus with a load of Feelgood fans and bought all their bus tickets? Ah, I should have put that in, it’s so lovely. I think you’re just one person trying to juggle all of these thousands of pieces of information and things people are telling you and it’s easy to get overwhelmed, you try to get it right but sometimes things get left out by accident rather than design. But in other cases, I’m a great believer that some things belong in the past, and some things are no one else’s business. ”
“You have to put yourself in the position of the person being written about. I’m not journalistic in that sense, if you know what I mean. I’d rather make something beautiful and celebratory and that can be treasured by the family of the subject than just include anything, the seamier the better. You don’t want to take the teeth out, but he’s a human being, and when you’re writing about a human being, you come to care about them (if you didn’t already), and see them as a friend – so you want to protect them from misunderstanding and undue scandalising. Or I do, anyway! That said, he was a colourful fellow with fire in his belly and that’s part of what makes him compelling. You just have to get the balance right. ”
You describe him – and the book is titled “Lee Brilleaux: Rock n Roll Gentlemen” yet Lee was hardly a gentleman onstage. Why do you think he had these different aspects to his personality.
“He was a kind of Jekyll and Hyde, which is healthy really. There was obviously a real distinction between those two sides of him, he rarely let the lines blur. There are lots of reasons for that – his cultural references points, the films and books and detective stories he loved, but also he was a showman, that’s what he wanted to be, he knew it was theatre and entertainment and he seemed to love going into that space, becoming someone else and taking the audience with him in a kind of thrilling illusion. It was escapism, he knew the value of that and what it could do for people. ”
I thought it was interesting that you mentioned that Lee was committed to playing r&b no matter how successful he was at any given time, inspired by Howlin’ Wolf, who did the same. You also speculate the hectic touring might have damaged Lee’s health?
“Yes, he was utterly consistent which I think is one of the many things that people respect about him. He didn’t care how in fashion Dr Feelgood were, that’s not what they were about. He had an almost manic work ethic, he legendarily was a heavy drinker, of course, all the travelling… everyone knows that that kind of lifestyle must, after a while, take its toll but it’s not up to me to say that’s what caused his illness ultimately. ”
You also speculate what Lee might have been doing now had he not become ill…..
“Certainly many of his friends believe he would have written a book, which doesn’t surprise me. Another suggestion was that he would be a restaurant critic – perfect! – or a late night James Whale-style television presenter. All of the above sounds absolutely feasible! And I doubt he would have stopped singing… ”
“Lee Brilleaux: Rock n Roll Gentleman” by Zoë Howe is out now
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