To suggest that all of Dr. Feelgood’s records sound alike would be less than generous; there are, however, groups that have explored varying modes of musical expression with greater diligence. The band has been utterly true to its original aims; few contemporary groups can challenge this veteran outfit when it comes to playing basic, energetic R&B. Over the course of fifteen years, through numerous studio LPs, live sets and compilations, the Feelgoods’ — or, more precisely, singer/harmonicat Lee Brilleaux, for it is he who kept the group going through various lineups — dedication to preserving the gritty spirit of groups like the early Rolling Stones has scarcely wavered. (Brilleaux died of cancer in April 1994.)
Regardless of inventiveness (or lack thereof), Dr. Feelgood deserves a place of respect in modern music annals by being the commercially successful leader of English pub-rock at its zenith, drawing huge crowds into small clubs all over Europe in the mid-’70s. By playing grassroots music that pleased not only critics but fans in large numbers, the Canvey Island quartet helped set the stage for the transitional — younger, more rock-oriented — Eddie and the Hot Rods, as well as the more radical punk outburst that followed them. Without Dr. Feelgood, there would have been fewer venues for these populist groups to play, less likelihood of a successful indie label scene (Stiff’s founding was financed, in part, by Brilleaux) and a much smaller audience receptive to groups without dry ice and laser beams.
The original Dr. Feelgood lineup — Brilleaux, singer and shock-guitarist extraordinaire Wilko Johnson (John Wilkinson), drummer “The Big Figure” and bassman John Sparks — made four albums together. Johnson left the band in 1977; Sparks and the Figure in 1982. Mixing Johnson’s original tunes with a hefty selection of classics from the catalogues of Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Rufus Thomas, Leiber/Stoller, Sonny Boy Williamson and Muddy Waters, the first three studio records had the same R&B/primal rock/blues character as the original Stones. (The band’s fanatic devotion to the past led them to mix the first album in mono!) While Down by the Jetty has a certain amateurish charm, Malpractice has a stronger, more confident sound, and includes better material, like “Back in the Night,” “Riot in Cell Block #9” and “You Shouldn’t Call the Doctor (If You Can’t Pay the Bills).” Johnson’s playing — a frantic, choppy, rhythm/lead style adapted from Mick Green and John Lee Hooker, mixed with a riveting spasmodic stage presence — and Brilleaux’s hoarse singing may sound a bit out-of-date, but there’s no mistaking the energy and honesty they brought to their work.
The live Stupidity, although an effective representation, suffers from its similarity to their studio efforts and lack of the exciting visual factor that made their early gigs so great.
Sneakin’ Suspicion is the last LP to feature Johnson; although he appears on the whole thing, a disagreement over musical purity led to a split during the recording. (He formed the Solid Senders and then continued on as a solo artist.) In fact, it’s equally good as Malpractice, with strong originals (“Walking on the Edge,” in particular) and nifty covers (“Nothin’ Shakin’ (But the Leaves on the Trees),” “Lights Out”).
After leaving Dr. Feelgood, Johnson formed a likeminded quartet which lasted only long enough to record one album. Based in R&B but with other evident influences (reggae, blues, pop), Solid Senders — a studio disc plus a bonus live six-song 12-inch — downplays Johnson’s frenetic guitar brilliance in favor of a group approach, which leaves sonic room for John Potter’s keyboards to share the spotlight. Old-fashioned, but extremely lively. (The CD reissue thoughtfully contains the bonus live tracks.)
The Feelgoods replaced Johnson with John Mayo — a strong player with his own sound, but far from an even swap — and unveiled him on Be Seeing You (title and graphics borrowed from The Prisoner TV series), produced by Nick Lowe. The change in guitarists is obvious; the band’s overall style, however, survives nearly intact, and some of the tracks are good enough to carry the day.
Private Practice, a studio LP produced by Richard Gottehrer, has nothing on the ball, and is played too slow to avoid tedium. As It Happens, another live outing, is a real stiff, drawing its material almost totally from Private Practice and Be Seeing You. Completing this naff trilogy is Let It Roll, an inconsistent (not worthless) collection produced by blues veteran Mike Vernon.
Proving that they could still cut it, Dr. F. reunited with Lowe for A Case of the Shakes, a revitalized treat that brings the group up-to-date (relatively speaking) and in line with the likes of Rockpile, giving their traditionalist approach a more modern setting. Mayo’s playing is great and the songs are surprisingly impressive and enjoyable.
On the Job is a needless concert rehash with all but one number drawn from the two preceding albums. Casebook is a compilation containing enough of the Feelgoods’ best to make it worthwhile. Fast Women and Slow Horses, produced by Vic Maile, is the last LP to feature the original Figure/Sparks rhythm section. The follow-up, Doctors Orders, puts the Feelgoods — Brilleaux, guitarist Gordon Russell, bassist Phil Mitchell and drummer Kevin Morris — back in league with producer Mike Vernon for a program that includes Eddie Cochran’s “My Way” and Muddy Waters’ “I Can’t Be Satisfied.”
Sticking it out for another release, that lineup tears through six blues covers on the down-and-dirty Mad Man Blues. Brilleaux and the others sound just great, and the readings of Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” and John Lee Hooker’s title growl are unfussy and packed with power. Not since the glory days of Canned Heat and Paul Butterfield has white blues sounded this wonderful and unselfconscious. The Canadian reissue, with entirely different artwork, adds four previously non-LP tracks — including a new original, “I’ve Got News for You” — produced by Mike Vernon, probably at the ’84 sessions for Doctors Orders.
Case History and Singles (The UA Years+) are, respectively, single and double-album career compilations with a lot of overlap. The latter (which deducts a pair of tracks, including a 1989 remake of “Milk and Alcohol,” from the CD version) has liner notes by Will Birch and is highly recommended as a concise summary of the band’s best work.