Monday, May 10, 2010

Essex Dogs

"I was born below sea level. That profoundly affects the consciousness". Wilco Johnson.

Recently I've watched both the Ian Dury biopic Sex and Drugs and Rock'n'Roll and Julien Temple's film Oil City Confidential, about '70's Pub Rock band Dr Feelgood. Neither Feelgood nor Dury's band The Blockheads meant much to me at the time. I was too young for their late '70's heyday for a start. Feelgood were a classic 'older brother band', hairy, sweaty guys whose grinning geezer logo my own elder brother spent his free time drawing on the walls of his bedroom. Ian Dury enjoyed some notoriety in the playground, mainly for the rudeness of his lyrics, but I never cared much for the music.

Both Dury and Dr Feelgood came from Essex though, which gave them a grim credibility for anyone, like me, who's also from that much denigrated county. And they couldn't really have come from anywhere else. Despite its global reach pop music has a specific relationship to it's physical context: heavy metal from the black country, for instance, or dubstep from the bedrooms of south London. There are both obvious and opaque reasons behind these origins, a dense correlation of coincidences that lead to the momentum of a scene.

If Essex ever had a scene it was in the generally uncelebrated Pub Rock movement. Both Ian Dury's Blockheads and Dr Feelgood grew out of Pub Rock. But their differences also reflect the areas they grew up in. Dury was from suburban Essex and his music is full of caustic social observation and character studies. It seems to mimic the chatter and gossip of Hornchurch or Harrow, where he grew up. While Dury revels in the kitchen sink realism of Billericay Dickie ("Had a love affair with Nina, in the back of my Cortina"), Feelgood attempted to reinvent their surroundings. For them the bleak industrial landscape of Canvey Island, with its petro-chemical plants, mudflats and bungalows was analogous to the deep south of America. They re-named it Oil City and placed it in the Thames Delta, a mythological landscape of their own imagination.

"On Canvey Island, 1953. Many lives were lost. With the records of a football team"

Canvey Island, British Sea Power

Canvey Island is a very strange place. It is an artificial island for a start, reclaimed from the North Sea by Dutch engineers in the 17th Century. It lies below sea level and its few shallow hills are artificial too, the result of the Roman salt industry. In 1953 it flooded killing 58 people. This disaster forms the opening of Julien Temple's film. Its star is undoubtedly the bizarre but brilliant guitarist Wilco Johnson. Johnson's name is itself a piece of wish fulfillment, a derivation of the considerably more English sounding John Wilkinson. Today, Johnson is a shaven headed Essex seer with a miniature observatory rigged up on the roof of his house which beams images of the stars onto a television in his living room.

Johnson was always the romantic, slightly otherworldly figure in a band that otherwise looked like a bunch of minor villains from The Sweeney. Their music though was a kind of industrialised blues, transformed by Johnson's propulsive, almost motorik, guitar playing. Rather than the epic rhythms of the autobahn though, this is the sound of souped up Escorts tearing up the A13, or revving their way along Southend's seafront.

If you're looking for a thrill that's new Take in Fords, Dartford Tunnel and the river too Go Motorin' on the A13

Billy Bragg, A13 Trunk Road to the Sea.

The A13 - celebrated by that other Essex Boy Billy Bragg - starts off as Commercial Street in east London, passes through Barking and Dagenham and eventually peters out in the sand banks of Shoeburyness. Along the way it takes in the epic industrial landscape of the Ford Motor Works This is where Ian Dury's Billericay Dickie might have worked and where his beloved Cortina would have been made.

Feelgood were considered Essex geezers through and through. They looked like gangsters after a minor heist gone wrong, with Lee Brilleaux's filthy white suit and Wilco Johnson's machine gun guitar technique. But they were something else too. Johnson's elegant glide/strut across the stage and otherworldly stare made them far more exotic. And the music, both brutishly straightforward and highly tuned, made them as devastatingly effective as a homemade hot rod. No wonder everyone from Clem Burke to Joe Strummer admired them so much.

"I'm going down by the jetty.
Tonight the tide is high.
It's tankers in the channel laying
Flames up in the sky.

The air is full of poison
The sea is slick with grease
Somewhere in this hell on earth
I'll surely get some peace."

Dr Feelgood, Down By The Jetty Blues

Ian Dury suffered from polio, which is a water borne disease. Dury contracted it whilst swimming on a family holiday in Southend. Here the metaphors of dirt and disease behind Dr Feelgood's take on the Essex coast suddenly acquire a hideous literalness. Canvey, like Southend, was once a hugely popular seaside resort. The press shots for Oil City Confidential show the remaining members of the band posed in front of Canvey Island's Labworth Cafe, designed by Ove Arup in the fashionable seaside moderne style of the 1930's.

Seaside moderne was associated with the health giving properties of sea air and salt water, part of the rhetoric of early modernism. Here, though, it's clean white lines and optimistic curves can hardly disguise the polluted and industrialised environment in which it sits. Labworth Cafe is a pertinent object in Canvey's mythology, symbolic of a brief moment of modernity that merely exaggerates its presen isolation from the rest of the world. At one point in Temple's film, Johnson refers to Kent - visible from the shores of Canvey - as a kind of mythical, far-away land of exotic fruits. Essex continually casts itself as a poor cousin, a charmless and unlovely place with Canvey as its most remote outpost.

A shot of Dr Feelgood during their post Wilco Johnson, vaguely New Wave phase shows them scrubbed up and dressed in dandyish blazers in front of the Labworth Cafe. It's an untypical picture, with the two band members at the back looking comically uncomfortable with their new look. It suggests though that exotic flowers sometimes grow from Essex's bleak but occasionally beautiful landscape.


AM said...

funny... end up reading bout dr. feelgood on allmusic after your last post on Ian Dury and all
just heard of Dagenham from Dagenham Dave on Morrissey's Southpaw Grammar
just write to say I'm a big fan of Talking With The Taxman About Poetry of Billy Bragg

Charles Holland said...

Yeah, me too, although it is probably deeply uncool to say so! Levi Stubbs' Tears is probably his finest.....

Anne said...

Great read. I'm still a little bit in awe, being a Dr Feelgood newbie. Oil City Confidential was the first time I'd seen them - you're right they're a big brother's band and I got them mixed up with Dr Hook (terrible faux pas, I know).

But what a mesmerising story. Wilco Johnson is a star! I can't get to Canvey Island fast enough. It does put a damper on Paul Weller's new material though, which is obviously a pale imitation.

Charles Holland said...

yes, doctor hook an altogether different proposition!

there's a good thing about canvey island on the caught by the river blog: