Friday, December 31, 2010

Dr. Feelgood - Singles: The U.A. Years +

Singles: The U.A. Years + (1989) ****

Pub rock was a now all but forgotten micromovement in Britain's microbreweries in the doldrums of the mid-'70s when the British economy was hurtling towards an Eastern Bloc standard of living and punk rock had not yet arrived to give youngsters with no future a viable outlet for their alienated frustrations.  The idea was to strip rock'n'roll back to its late '50s greaser basics after suffering the airy-fairy pansiness of hippie groovers and the high-falutin' excesses of prog Wakemans.  The answers mostly resulted in the sort of dully conservative bar band generica that has since given the term pub rock the putdown of disparagement it connotes today, but the Feelgoods were very much an exception.  For starters (and probably enders, too) Wilko Johnson was the most influential punk guitarist of his generation, as important in his way to the sound of punk as Johnny Ramone.  The term spikey was, in little-known etymological trivia, coined to described his wirey, slashing, choppy guitar style.  A teenage Paul Weller was certainly paying attention in Woking, as the first two Jam albums are practically tributes to Canvey Island's finest (well, that and some obscure '60s beat group, of course).  Spin the debuts by the Clash and the Damned, and then spin some early Feelgood sides, and don't tell me that you don't notice a whiff of amyl nitrate.  And later chronologically but not lesser, Andy Gill's corrugated metal shards riffage in Gang of Four is now unthinkable in retrospect without a tip of the hat to old Wilko.

The band's first single was released in 1974, but Johnson left in 1977, leaving the band to plug a major hole not only sonically but songwriting wise, as he'd written all of their originals.  The Feelgoods soldiered on undaunted with a string of first-rate singles for a few more years in the late '70s, until petering out by the mid-'80s (this compilation ends in 1987).  By that time, only lead singer Lee Brilleaux remained, as the band had undergone a number of lineup changes.  It seemed that Brilleaux's working-class ethic had pushed the band on a never-ending tour, and the punishing touring schedule had pushed band member after band member out.  It was as a live act that Dr. Feelgood were primarily celebrated as in their time; their studio records were regarded as somewhat disappointing mementos.  Their biggest chart success and most well-regarded album was, in fact, a 1977 live set, Stupidity, originally hastily released to capitalize on their live success but when the band didn't have any original material to record a studio album at the time.  Their '70s studio albums that I've heard were fairly good but nothing special; this collection should reasonably satisfy most music fans' Dr. Feelgood needs.  Tellingly, Wilko Johnson's first song, "Roxette," was written the night before the band was to play a BBC Radio One session, because he reckoned that it would be a bit crazy to gain exposure on national radio with virtually no original material.  So it's no surprise that well-chosen R&B covers are strewn throughout this singles collection, hearkening back to the tradition of early British rock'n'roll bands like the Stones and Beatles early albums. Johnson quickly adapted, however, his early tunes are more than capable updates of trad-rock verities.  After he jumped ship, the band gratefully accepted  donations from drinking buddies like Nick Lowe, Difford/Tilbrook, Will Birch of the Records, and likesuch in the pub rock extended circles, while penning their own sturdy tunage from time to time.

Band bio out of the way, as a 24-song record this album is mostly terrific - sagging towards the tail end of the band's career, but that's to be expected.  Early riff-fest monsters like "She Does It Right" and "Back in the Night," pulsate with the raw rock'n'roll excitement you'd better expect.  "Going Back Home," was co-written with Johnson's idol and chief influence, Mick Green of '50s U.K. rockers the Pirates of "Shakin' All Over," fame.  Covers of oldies such as "Riot in Cell Block No. 9" and "Trying to Live My Life Without You," sit comfortably next to covers of more recent vintage such as Nick Lowe's neo-classic, "Milk and Alcohol".  And straight down the middle is 1978's "Down at the Doctors," their signature tune and perhaps best chance at a stake in the rock'n'roll annals.  "Everybody needs a shot of R & B, so come on down to my surgery," Brilleaux growls in his trademark gruff Kent cigarette enhanced vox; perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise that he died of cancer in 1994, thus ending the Feelgoods' career (a version of the band still tours, but as an oldies act).  Scholars might describe Wilko's guitar technique as the missing link between Chuck Berry and post-punk, but mostly this is just 24 slabs of greasy, gin-and-cigarette smelly rock'n'roll, sweatily, sincerely, and excitingly played.     

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