Give pub rock another chance: Fans were quick to turn their back on Dr Feelgood et al once punk hit, but they weren’t so different really.
In the autumn of 1976, a poll was published in our school’s self-styled “underground” magazine, in which more than 300 of us had voted for our favourite bands of the day. Although dominated by the usual slew of superstar proggers, the act in second place – just behind Santana – stood in incongruous contrast to their contemporaries. Riding high with their live album Stupidity, which had topped the charts for a week in October, Canvey Island’s Dr Feelgood were, albeit briefly, the biggest band in the UK.
Although they were routinely lauded in the weekly music press, the standard critical line on the Feelgoods was that they were an astonishing live band who could never quite recapture their essence in the studio. Still, there was a lot of goodwill towards then, and a faith that the band would one day make good on their promise.
For those of us who were impatient for British punk rock to make the leap from enticing music-press buzz to tangible vinyl product, Dr Feelgood and their compatriots at the rowdier end of the pub rock scene – Eddie and the Hot Rods, Count Bishops, Tyla Gang – were as close an approximation as we could find to the music we had read about, but could only piece together in our imaginations. Ahead of the punk eruption, these John the Baptist figures were leading the charge, showing that rock music could be reinvigorated by a high-energy, no-nonsense, back to basics approach.
As for that troublesome “pub rock” tag, it’s worth remembering that in those pre-punk times, the label carried no shame. It was a handy code for a smaller scale, more egalitarian performance ethic, which stood in opposition to the florid, remote, stadium-scaled pomp of the bigtime prog elite. Meanwhile, the network of London venues that evolved around it, or whose lifespans were sustained by it – the Hope and Anchor, the Nashville, Dingwalls – provided a ready-made launch pad for the punk scene.
Before the barriers came up, the boundaries between punk and pub were blurred. The Sex Pistols supported the Hot Rods at the Marquee, and scene stalwarts The 101ers at the Nashville. The Feelgoods and the Ramones shared a bill in New York. The word “punk” debuted on Top of the Pops on a T-shirt worn by a Hot Rod. Punk bible Sniffin’ Glue even ran a rave review of Stupidity, claiming that “this is the way rock should be”.
“Our energy was our legacy to the punks,” argued Dr Feelgood’s guitarist Wilko Johnson, quoted in Will Birch’s history of pub rock, No Sleep Till Canvey Island. “It was the violence of our act and the mean look which got to them. They didn’t have the knowledge or the technique, but they had the attitude.”
Naturally, there was no place for gratitude from the UK punks, given their scorched-earth approach. As the new bands landed record deals, “pub rock” changed from a term of modest, affectionate pride into a scornful signifier of plodding, jam-band conservatism. For those of us who jumped ship during 1977, Dr Feelgood’s brand of supercharged rhythm and blues fell into almost immediate redundancy. It was as if we had been living in an Eastern bloc state, longing to wear Levi’s but making do with frumpy denim slacks. If this was a generationally necessary distancing, it was also – with the wisdom of hindsight – a harsh, juvenile snap judgment.
But if you’re still inclined to dismiss the Feelgoods as a Canvey Quo with one too many Chuck Berry covers in their repertoire, take a fresh listen to Wilko Johnson’s lean, taut slashes of guitar on She Does It Right, the first track on their 1975 debut Down By the Jetty. Then search YouTube for Going Back Home, as performed at the Southend Kursaal in the same year. Observe singer Lee Brilleaux, menacing the crowd and wiping his nose on the sleeve of his filthy white suit, and ask yourself whether Rotten was taking notes (Weller and Strummer certainly were). Finally, go to see Julien Temple’s forthcoming documentary Oil City Confidential, and marvel at the legacy of this malevolently raw, dirty and groundbreaking band.
Oil City Confidential is released on 5 February. Mike Atkinson’s Spotify pub rock playlist: tinyurl.com/pubrock