Oil City Confidential
directed by Julien Temple
starring Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson, John Martin, John B. Sparks, and Christopher Fenwick
Eyebrows. This guy has EYEBROWS! I’m referring to Wilko Johnson, founder and songwriter of Dr. Feelgood. Along with John Martin, Lee Brilleaux, and John B. Sparks, the band was one of the notorious pub rockers that bridged us from progressive rock to punk. The progs dropped acid and fiddled with analog synthesizers while the punks avoided bathing or tuning up, but the scene in-between lets the tons of built-up talent in the UK get on stage without an agent. Their influences were American blues and early rock; the result echoed the influences that led to the foundations of all things rockin’. These boys came from Canvey Island, a below sea level mudflat that was the resort of choice for East Enders getting away for a dirty weekend at the beach. Giant oil tanks and a steady stream of oil tankers add to the picturesque backdrop and the economy is built on sex and energy. The island had low social expectations and low income, but shared a sense of community that remains to this day.
Musically, Dr. Feelgood is the extension of the early rockabilly sound, which ran in parallel to the punks. Like so many bands that “made it,” these guys grouped up, played gigs, and harvested the requisite combinations of luck and skill needed to put them on the map. Dr. Feelgood has opened for the Ramones and The Clash, but successfully avoided their greater notoriety. Their background is largely defined by the rough and tumble feel of Canvey Island as well as the 1953 flood and the remembrance of WWII fighters trying to knock down V2 rockets over their heads.
This Julien Temple doc is more than just a look at a band’s arc of successes; it’s a nice little travelogue and time capsule. All the band members share reminiscence, and we tour the island. (Lee Brilleaux has died, but still contributes via archival footage.) There’s the expected pride of place. The oil tanks next to the holiday camp are conveniently erased on the post cards and replaced by palm trees. The original bars they played at and houses they grew up in are still standing, and the accent is thick enough that you might want to consider turning on the subtitles, if they include any. Wilko stares straight at the camera — he’s got something to say and you are fascinated to hear him. Flip on the director’s commentary and re-watch — Mr. Temple is nearly as informative as the band members. This is solid rock history filled with great music and even greater stories.