None of the orginal line-up remain, so why is the feelgood factor still going strong?
Kevin Morris, drummer with the iconic band, talks about Wilko Johnson, riotous gigs and moving on
Kevin Morris, drummer of influential rhythm ‘n’ blues act Dr Feelgood, is on the whole a pragmatic and reasonable man.
He speaks honestly about everything from “no-nonsense” Canvey Island, the Essex parish where he grew up, to the damaging schism between original singer Lee Brilleaux and guitarist Wilko Johnson which led to the latter’s departure from the group.
He speaks honestly about everything from "no-nonsense" Canvey Island, the Essex parish where he grew up, to the damaging schism between original singer Lee Brilleaux and guitarist Wilko Johnson which led to the latter's departure from the group.The one area of conversation in which he is momentarily hesitant, however, is Dr Feelgood's relevance in the modern age. Morris claims to see a wide mix of age groups at Feelgood gigs, but he concedes his band's standing in the contemporary music scene is a "strange idea, if I stop and think about it".
"What can I say about that ... well, we just go out and give it everything we've got. Nobody holds back in this band, nobody is allowed to coast. That's how Dr Feelgood has always been, regardless of the line-up," he says.
It would be easy to assert that talk of such a blood and thunder approach might be a cover for Dr Feelgood's unusual position today (not a single member of the original band still remains), but in this case Morris is merely stating a truth. Feelgood has been an active group since 1971, and, despite its different incarnations, has always retained a certain ferocious appeal. We'll see that up-close when Feelgood come to the Belfast Empire on September 20. Morris is looking forward to a Guinness at The Crown Bar.
The drummer revels in anecdotes of recent "riotous" gigs with the current line-up (consisting also of singer Robert Kane, bassist Phil Mitchell and guitarist Steve Welwyn) in France and Finland, as well as remembering the "growling, prowling" presence of Brilleaux at Feelgood's earliest shows; a time when Morris was just an admiring onlooker rather than a member.
It was in 1983 that he signed up to the Feelgood cause, upon running into then vocalist Brilleaux in a music store. Between leaving the school he shared with Brilleaux and Mitchell and joining Feelgood, Morris enjoyed stints playing drums on a cruise ship and in a soul band that travelled with the likes of Edwin Starr and Sam and Dave. "Great experiences," he says of that time in his life. "Working with the soul guys was actually helpful for joining Feelgood later, as soul and blues share a lot of the same ground."
Morris had played in an early version of Dr Feelgood, entitled The Wild Bunch, so he knew what he was entering into by rejoining his old comrades in a new musical pursuit. The drummer relates his first gigging experiences in small cinemas and pubs in Canvey Island, an odd and intriguing Essex parish that was documented, with "tongue firmly in his cheek" according to Morris, by film director Julian Temple in the 2010 movie Oil City Confidential. Morris reckons that Canvey Island is like "an overspill to the East End of London", and indeed it's only 40 minutes away from the English capital, but the drummer is fond of his hometown.
"I do like it, I think it's very interesting. I'm very keen on the 'island mentality' idea, the boundaries that come from island living. Canvey's like a village, it's got a real sense of community. That said, its inhabitants don't suffer fools lightly."
This "no-nonsense" mindset of the islanders may have aided Feelgood's initial success. This was a group that had gained many accolades for its directness and aggression, yet had also suffered a major blow when Johnson, a performer unique in his manic onstage movements, left in 1977. Morris says that "there was never any chance of Wilko returning after that. He never forgave the group for carrying on without him".
"I wasn't intimidated by the stage persona of the band because I knew them all, and I knew all that was just an act!" adds the drummer. "It was a bit of fun, almost a cartoonish exaggeration of the real life, straightforward nature of Canvey Island. The band was an antidote to the trends of the time, when everyone was wearing bell-bottoms and kimonos. Lee particularly was a very quiet guy off stage, though."
Dr Feelgood defied the glam elements of 1970s music and fashion in favour of a more raw approach. As Morris asserts, "the group showed that you could get up on stage with just a guitar and drums and make a hell of a noise. People thought: 'If they can do that, so can I.' Other bands weren't showing people that way of thinking at the time."
It was this DIY ideology that, in part, led critics to claim Dr Feelgood was a precursor to the UK punk rock scene of the mid-to-late Seventies. Certainly, Morris prefers the 'punk' tag to the 'pub-rock' label that was slapped on Feelgood. "I don't know about the pub thing," he ponders. "I think it really just came about because the band always played in pubs, rather than as a reflection of the music. That said, we still play in pubs sometimes so maybe it's just ingrained into our DNA!"
There can be no denying that Dr Feelgood lost some of their edge with the departure of Johnson. However, Morris is more concerned about "the real loss, the loss of friendship" that occurred after the split – especially in light of Brilleaux's death in 1993, and Johnson being diagnosed with terminal cancer last year.
"It's a real shame that Wilko and Lee didn't kiss and make up before Lee died, and I know Wilko regrets that," says Morris. "He was at the funeral and he stated at the time that he regretted the fact they'd not gotten over their grievances.
"He's very spiky, is Wilko, and he says some ghastly things in the Press from time to time. Mostly, though, the relationship between him and the band has been very smooth over the last 20 years. I popped round to see him before he went into hospital, and we got on fine. It's all very cordial."
The drummer pauses for a few seconds and then delivers his most impassioned line of our interview.
"None of that old stuff is important, and one of the things that Wilko has repeated consistently is that none of that matters. It's all b******s. I think that's why he feels it's such a shame that he and Lee hadn't reconciled. At one time they were great friends and it's a shame to lose that."
Morris affectionately calls Johnson a "tough old bird, who's put his body through a few things in his time". For all that, Morris still sounds downbeat on the subject of Johnson's pancreatic cancer.
"His growth swelled from the size of an orange and ended up like a football," he sighs. "He's lost his spleen and parts of his bowels, but he's getting the very best care and attention."
The drummer and former guitarist also met this year at the annual Lee Brilleaux memorial concert put on by the current Dr Feelgood members. "It's an event where everyone can put their own agendas aside and just play music," states Morris. "We're discontinuing it from here on in though, because of Wilko's illness and also the death of Gypie Mayo (another ex-Feelgood guitarist) last year. We've lost a couple of people now."
Dr Feelgood, the 43-year-old band, will apparently carry on doing its thing whatever the circumstances.
Despite tragedy and numerous personnel changes, you get the impression the Canvey Island collective won't be stopping any time soon. In fact, by the end of our chat, Morris has grown rather more assertive about his band's modern position.
"We still really enjoy playing, and as long as that continues to be the case we shall keep playing."
Dr Feelgood play at the Belfast Empire on September 20. For details, visit www.thebelfast empire.com