(2009 Dir: Julien Temple)
Canvey Island is an unwanted growth on the arse of Essex. I used to take m dog there and watch her swim around the shopping trolleys in the sea. It’s barely even an island. A streak of piss separates it from the fatherland an oil refinery illuminates it by night.
Dr Feelgood were a dirty, knee-trembling shag of a band that burst out of Canvey Island in 1971. They made a tight, visceral form of R&B that was out of time. Too early for punk and too late for the blues, everything was built on their live reputation. Guitarist Wilko Johnson rutted about the stage like a neutered chicken; singer Lee Brilleaux was a brilliant, drunken letch in a suit that claimed to be white. They are what you imagined rock’n’roll was supposed to sound like.
Oil City Confidential is a subtle rockumentary by Julien Temple (The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners) which links the rise and fall of Dr Feelgood to the social history of the Thames estuary. The Essex floods of 1953 made evacuees of the band as children. Wilko mythologizes Cannvey as “the Thames delta” and finds a direct connection with the blues heroes of his youth. Indeed, Wilko steals the whole film with his honest, humble storytelling and will have you in stitches. Later on he rips your heart out when he says how much he misses his late wife and that only on stage does he feel any lift. Happily, Wilko is rarely off a stage these days, regularly treading the boards at various Essex and London dives, playing like a teenager, always absurd, never undignified.
Back in the Feelgoods’ all too brief heyday, Wilko’s amphetamine-fulled days would prove incompatible with Brilleaux’s drunken nights. The guitarist would stay alone in hotel rooms struggling to write the third album that would ultimately rend the band asunder. Brilleaux died in 1994. His story is told by his widow and mother (the latter claims even she didn’t bother seeing the band after Wilko left). Brilleaux is endearing and charming in his one videotaped contribution, proving there are no villains in this story, just too many gigs and not enough sleep.
Without Johnson, Brilleaux dragged the band though numerous line- ups and they still exist, Sugababes-like, as a completely different four-headed beast – a franchised echo of British rock’s ashtray-eyed yesteryear. Oil City Confidential wisely sticks to the early days, a story of blood brothers who bonded in the back of dirty tansit vans and throw it away too early. There is real tenderness here, amongst the barstools and beer mats.
These days Wilko Johnson has his own observatory; he loves to watch the night sky, head in the stars, feet in the dirty Thames water.