Back in the 1970s, on a Saturday lunchtime my Dad would (and still does) make his weekly pilgrimage to settle himself in front of Grandstand. As the last bars of Swapshop* faded, the promise of an interminable afternoon of sport sent me fleeing from the living room. But first, some neutral territory – a music slot which stopped us both in our tracks, and one band in particular. My Dad would do an impression of the guitarist, a tall, wide eyed, bizarre, flapping rooster. That man was called Wilko Johnson – and his band were the wonderful Dr Feelgood. Like us, they were from Essex.
Wilko had left to form his own band before Feelgood’s big hit, Milk and Alcohol, after falling out with singer Lee Brilleaux, but his violent, choppy, machine gun playing and rock and roll posturing made him a huge influence on the punk generation – though perhaps these days people recognise him more from his appearances on Game of Thrones, in which he plays the Executioner. (Wilko has said that years of giving people dirty looks has been excellent preparation.)
In 2008 when Julien Temple decided to make Oil City Confidential, he found he had given a new platform to one of the UK’s true eccentric geniuses. The star of the film is not just Wilko, the other Feelgoods and their friends and family, but Canvey Island, the oil city of the title, and the 1970s. Temple uses the music as a way of exploring time and place, intercut with film clips and talking heads, to wonderful and anarchic effect, evoking the unique atmosphere of estuarine Essex.
Earlier this year the news emerged from Canvey that Wilko had been diagnosed with cancer of the pancreas, and that it was terminal. Refusing chemotherapy, Wilko was nevertheless in good spirits and declared that he was continuing as normal for as long as he could. “Man, it makes you feel alive to be told that you are going to die,” he said recently. This month, his favourite boozer, the Railway Hotel in Southend, changed their inn sign to feature a portrait of Wilko, and Fender have just released a new signature Telecaster in tribute.
If you have never seen this wonderful film there is chance in catch it on Wednesday 17 July as the next film from the Talkies Community Cinema. Appropriately, its in a boozer, the Fox, and the evening begins with blues from the Blue Hearts Band. Don’t argue, just go. It starts at 7 and tickets are £5 – book here.
A clip from the film to whet your appetite:
*notice to young readers – this bizarre show was what we had before Ebay was invented. Notice to older readers – Yes, I agree, Tiswas was far better.