My July 2010 film column for Maximum Rock N Roll. Originally appeared in issue 326.
DOWN BY THE JETTY
At my house we have this Dr. Feelgood live DVD called "Going Back Home" from 1975. If you have never seen or heard Dr. Feelgood before, one minute watching this live show will have you addicted. Dr. Feelgood was one of those bands that seem to have been generally overlooked in the history of rock. Yet their live show was wild and their songs were great. During this particular show guitarist Wilko Johnson dressed in black with a black guitar with red pick guard keeps his body completely still while his feet quickly shuffle it across the stage, playing in his strange choppy style. His eyes are bugging out making him look completely deranged. Singer Lee Brilleaux is dressed in a white suit that has turned gray from many sweat-filled shows spent rolling on the floor. He looks cool and attractive in a slightly repulsive way. Bass player Sparko is dressed in a baby blue suit with wide lapels and high-heels. He paces back and forth on the stage while playing. Collectively they look like nothing I have ever seen before or since. When I heard there was a documentary about the band coming out, I couldn't wait to see it.
The documentary is Oil City Confidential. The film starts where the band does on Canvey Island. Canvey Island is approximately thirty miles east of London. Its history as a vacation spot for East Londoners as well as the flood of 1953 and introduction of the oil refineries all contribute to the formation of the band Dr. Feelgood. Director Julien Temple known for his punk documentaries establishes the band as the precursor to punk. Dr. Feelgood too rebelled against the music industry though in the early '70s. Popular bands were already getting into synthesizers and bloated performances. Dr. Feelgood was still into the blues and R&B that was influential to the English rock bands of the '60s. Wilko Johnson bluntly states in an archival interview, "Rock n roll is not about the Hobbit and things like that". He also dubbed Canvey Island "Oil City" joking that the band lived on the Thames Delta to give the band more of a southern US blues faux authenticity.
The future members of Dr. Feelgood started playing in jug bands while teenagers to entertain tourists outside of the local pubs. Johnson had a band with his brother and future Dr. Feelgood drummer John Martin aka The Big Figure. Brilleaux and Sparko formed their own band while Johnson was off attending college. When he returned he was asked to join the new rock n roll group. The band began playing pubs around England getting their first "break" when the band Ducks Deluxe had to cancel a show. Dr. Feelgood quickly became part of the pub rock scene. Oil City Confidential asserts that Joe Strummer first started playing guitar after seeing Dr. Feelgood. The soon-to-be Princess Diana also went to see the band. Clem Burke of Blondie also remembers seeing Dr. Feelgood while visiting England and bringing back the band's second album Malpractice, introducing it to everyone in the New York rock scene. The Ramones ended up opening for Dr. Feelgood on one their US tours.
Of course, the good times never last. With popularity come ego trips, excessive drinking, drugs and the usual misunderstandings. One newspaper interview with Johnson showed in the Oil City Confidential was titled "For wealth, fame and power I'd eat shit". Brilleaux and Johnson stopped speaking due to different lifestyles. Brilleaux liked to drink; Johnson preferred speed. The final clash inevitably came while in the recording studio.
Director Temple does a good job in building up Dr. Feelgood's importance as well its downfall. One thing that really gets on my nerves in Oil City Confidential is Temple's excessive use of old film clips to emphasize what is being said on screen. A little is tolerable and can be fun. It is a device Temple has been using in his music documentaries back to The Great Rock N Roll Swindle. However his need in Oil City Confidential to visualize each word said by each interviewee with an old film clips goes beyond annoying during this film. It is particularly the case when Wilko is discussing his getting kicked out of (or leaving) the band. The story itself is a compelling one so the extra bits constantly interrupting it are very unnecessary and take away from the impact.
Oil City Confidential basically ends when Johnson leaves Dr. Feelgood. Most people including Brilleaux's mother admit to not seeing the band after that. The band continues in 2010 though without any original members. A few of the later details are filled in like the band having their only top 10 hit "Milk & Alcohol" post-Johnson. Johnson unsuccessfully tries a solo career. Brilleaux gets diagnosed with cancer. I would have liked to know why Wilko didn't participate in the final show Brilleaux planned while he was doing chemotherapy. Although I am sure I can guess at the answer. However, Johnson now plays an annual memorial show with the other original members on Brilleaux's birthday. Oil City Confidential
Every Other Day Is Halloween brings back an interesting and seemingly forgotten period in US television. Before cable and station consolidation there were local channels not affiliated with a network that would produce their own programs. TV watchers had few choices back then so these smaller productions had the chance of being as popular as network ones. One such station was Channel 20 WDCA in Washington, DC. The creative man there was Dick Dyszel who at one point played the station's Bozo the Clown, spaceman Captain 20 and horror host Count Gore De Vol.
Every Other Day Is Halloween tells Dyszel story mostly focusing on his Count character. The Count seemed and continues to be the one character he enjoyed doing. The children's characters of Bozo and Captain 20 were done at the station management's insistence. Count Gore De Vol introduced the DC area to horror movies, influencing future writers and horror hosts. The show enjoyed some years of success notably beating out Saturday Night Live during its first season, though getting crushed during the second. The show was so popular Penthouse magazine would send its touring playmates to appear on the show. Then Station 20 was sold and the new owners had no interest in continuing to produce shows.
While there doesn't seem to be any horror hosts on any of my television stations these days, the tradition along with newer additions to the genre is well represented on the internet where Count Gore De Vol continues to this day. brinkdvd.com
I didn't grow up in San Francisco. I moved here when I was twenty-one after finishing college and failing to get a job in Boston. I didn't know much about how the city looked or behaved in the years prior to my arrival, so I enjoy watching San Francisco in films where you can a slight glimpse of what things looked like. Fortunately there have been a bunch of films set in the city. A couple of my favorites Woman On The Run and Lady From Sanghai both have climaxes set at the Ocean Bach amusement park Playland At The Beach.
Playland At The Beach shut down in 1972 to be replaced recently by condos. That seems to be the destiny for most beach front amusement parks. Remembering Playland At The Beach is a low budget film that collects the memories of people who worked at and visited the park during its heyday as well as its decline. Through these memories with footage and photographs of the park you get a good sense of what it was like. The filmmakers aren't afraid to include the bad along with the good. While most look back fondly, one interviewee seems to recall only the worst of the rides and the atmosphere at the time. I am amused by the negativity. I enjoy the history.
Visitors and residents of San Francisco can still ride on Playland's original carousel, which is operating at Yerba Buena Park, South of Market, SF. www.garfieldlaneproductions.com
I am always looking for films to review. If you made one, send a copy to Carolyn Keddy, PO Box 460402, San Francisco, CA 94146-0402. If your film is playing in the San Francisco Bay Area, let me know at email@example.com. I will go see it.