Having made energetic documentaries about The Sex Pistols (The Filth and The Fury) and Joe Strummer, ex of The Clash and The Mescaleros (Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten) – as well as an enjoyable film about the Glastonbury Festival – Julien Temple turned his attention a few years ago to the brief ‘pub rock’ phenomenon of the mid-1970s and the cult English band Dr Feelgood.
A logical step following his twin examinations of punk rock’s two most notorious and successful UK acts, Oil City Confidential examines Dr Feelgood’s roots in Canvey Island (a small town on the Thames estuary in the south east of England) and their brief but notable success in the charts and as a live attraction. History has been unkind to pub rock, and despite the fact it has the worst genre name in music history, it helped to shape music in Britain and further afield by acting as the catalyst for punk; as a movement it railed against the excesses of the effete glam rock and prog rock styles prevalent at the time and championed a back-to-basics, DIY approach to rock n’ roll. The likes of Ian Dury, Elvis Costello and Strummer spent their formative years in pub rock bands before they achieved later fame.
The band all grew up a short distance from each other in Canvey Island. Singer Lee Brilleaux was born in South Africa but his family moved back to Britain when he was a small child. Sadly Brilleaux died of cancer in 1994, but is represented here through archive interviews. Guitarist and songwriter Wilko Johnson, drummer John Martin (aka ‘The Big Figure’) and bassist John Sparks are all present and correct, however, and illuminate the documentary with their insightful, witty and poignant reminiscences, whether they’re discussing busking by the river as kids or being ferried around New York in limos. Johnson in particular is fantastic to watch, as magnetic a figure in his interviews as he appears in the stage footage from 35 years earlier. He’s a wiry, wired individual whose eyes and head dart around at high speed, at times endearingly daft and playful and at times offering hints that he could actually be well on the way to uncovering the great mysteries of life (but just doesn’t stay still enough to write it all down). University-educated, as well as music his interests lie in astronomy, painting and literature, and Temple affords this great eccentric ample screen time without neglecting the documentary’s other voices. Sadly Johnson has recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and apparently only has nine or ten months to live. He has refused chemotherapy but is about to go out on tour one last time.
The documentary charts the band members’ lives chronologically, first examining their childhood and the group’s beginnings as a local act. Canvey Island was actually the fastest growing seaside resort (or rather riverside resort) in the UK for the first half of the 20th Century, popular with London’s eastenders, but by the mid-1970s its most distinguishing features related to the petrochemical industry (hence the film’s title; the band liked the sound of ‘oil city’ as a name for Canvey Island as it sounded American, and the US was home to the blues and rhythm and blues they revered. They also claimed to be from the ‘Thames Delta’, furthering the link. Anyone familiar with Canvey Island will appreciate the joke). Johnson in particular looked for thrills elsewhere, and travelled across Europe and Asia to India. He returned to the UK and had an unsuccessful spell as a teacher before deciding to throw his chips in with the band. Dr Feelgood’s reputation grew quickly thanks to their furious, dirty, sweaty and intense live performances, and the film charts their rise on the club circuit in the UK (a favourite of the soon-to-be Princess Diana, it turns out) as well as their subsequent chart success. It all went horribly wrong – in time-honoured fashion – when they attempted to crack America, and relationships between band members deteriorated over time before breaking down completely around the time they recorded their fourth album. Their influence on the major players of punk sees many notable UK musicians pay tribute in Oil City Confidential, and their influence on the New York scene led by the likes of Johnny Thunders, Blondie and The Ramones is also discussed by Richard Hell and Blondie’s Clem Burke.
Temple’s visual style means that this isn’t just another by-the-numbers rockumentary. It is edited frenetically, and as well as the usual gig and interview footage it wittily incorporates old stock film and animation as well as clips from old movies and TV shows to highlight what is being said on-screen. Thus, while the band discusses its early forays into London, Temple illustrates the dialogue with black and white footage of robberies and cars careering round the streets of the capital city, suggesting a smash and grab attack on the music industry. A merest mention of the word ‘rollercoaster’ is the cue for Temple to throw in footage of the rollercoaster murder from Brighton Rock. It may sound a little haphazard, but it perfectly mirrors the energy of the band.
Canvey Island, despite being thought of by many in the UK as a blot on the landscape, is shot beautifully, and the camera transforms the faded seaside glamour, chip shops and oil refinery tanks and towers into something quite beautiful, which echoes perfectly the band’s respect and obvious love for their hometown.
Given Brilleaux’s early death and the current medical plight of Johnson, Oil City Confidential makes for sad viewing right now. This band’s story is a fascinating one, and the band’s psychogeographic links to Canvey Island are also thoroughly examined by the filmmaker. Things could have been so very different for Dr Feelgood. Comparisons can easily be drawn with the early career of Johnson’s boyhood heroes, the Rolling Stones, though as we know one band went on to achieve international success and the other has been largely written out of the history books. This documentary addresses that wrongdoing excellently, without ever overplaying Dr Feelgood’s importance. Though Johnson avoided alcohol he had plenty of other vices, and the other three members played out the hard-drinking, hard-living band cliché to the full. They enjoyed a successful career in the UK, and have gone on to influence generations of bands as well as specific performers (John Lydon was certainly paying attention to Johnson’s stage presence and piercing stare). Oil City Confidential is an enjoyable, detail-rich documentary in its own right and perfectly complements Temple’s earlier films about Joe Strummer and The Sex Pistols.
Directed by: Julien Temple
Starring: Wilko Johnson, Lee Brilleaux, John B Sparks, John Martin
Running Time: 106 minutes