Making a film about Dr Feelgood, it was a bit like Spinal Tap – like they never existed," says Julien Temple. "There was this band that was the biggest in England for 18 months, that no one remembers."
Temple's hit, Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten (2007), confirmed his reputation as Britain's best rock documentarian. But his follow-up, Oil City Confidential, seen exclusively in rough cut by The Independent, uncovers a less familiar, equally fascinating tale. Dr Feelgood are remembered in rock history, if at all, as John the Baptists to punk's messiahs, ruling the short-lived pub-rock scene of the mid-1970s. But rare footage uncovered by Temple shows them to be one of the most exhilarating live bands Britain has ever produced. Their late singer Lee Brilleaux does press-ups mid-song, while guitarist Wilko Johnson stalks the stage, wild-eyed. Oil City Confidential also portrays the lost English world the band came from: fading pastel home-movies of bungalows and Biblical floods in post-war Canvey Island, Essex.
"I'd seen the Feelgoods in pubs, when they were the most exciting thing around," Temple tells me. "But I didn't know how interesting their story was. They all came from Canvey, a unique culture where East End villains buried bodies, then came to live. It's the nearest beach to the East End, and this holiday culture coexists with toxic refineries. The Feelgoods had a fantasy about it being Oil City, Essex's version of the Mississippi Delta. And Wilko is the poet of Canvey."
Johnson is the first thing you see in Oil City Confidential, a spidery, pallid man in black. When I visit him in Canvey, my cabbie confirms the film's view of it as a weird, outlaw place. "If they gave this country an enema, they'd put the tube over Canvey," he decides.
Johnson tells how old memories were uncovered by Temple. "We were filming on the corner over there," Johnson points, "where we used to play when we were lads. And I was standing here with my son. And Irene, his mother, is dead and gone – a lifetime telescoped."
The strangeness of Canvey combined with blues music to spark Brilleaux and Johnson's imaginations. Forming Dr Feelgood with bassist John Sparks (Sparko) and drummer John Martin (the Big Figure), they honed their confrontational R&B attack around early 1970s Essex and Kent. They were a shock to the post-hippie system. "We found aggressive, in-your-face playing worked. You stare at people, realise you're stirring them up, and do it all the more. It was full of violence. At first, people looked puzzled. Then you'd see them start to laugh. What you wanted was people to enjoy it. "
Dr Feelgood arrived in London's pub-rock scene in 1974. A residency at west London's Kensington pub drew fans from navvies to John Mortimer. Recalls Temple: "They looked like gangsters, a firm. Come to London to do a gig, hit-and-run. Wilko's bulging eyes staring from the stage were as extreme as Kabuki."
Live footage shows Johnson looking round at Brilleaux, like a bodyguard ready to take a bullet. Johnson agrees, "I felt like a lot of the power I had was radiating from him. It was the same with him."
Dr Feelgood were instant kings of a scene where future punks were learning their trade. Stupidity (1976), their third album, barged to No 1. But on tour in America in 1977 Dr Feelgood shook apart. A furious showdown led to Johnson leaving. "We blew it all to pieces."
Back home, Johnson formed his own band, and Dr Feelgood had their biggest single hit, "Milk and Alcohol" (1979), without him. By 1982, only Brilleaux was left of the original band. He died in 1994.
"We hardly ever met," says Johnson. "After Lee died, there were entrepreneurs wanting to put me with people, and call it Dr Feelgood. I had no truck with that. I determined to hang on to when it was great. We did change things. But in rock'n'roll, things are only as important as they're perceived to be. And now Dr Feelgood is not perceived to be anything at all. "
Johnson today is the hero of Temple's film. "Filming him," the director recalls, "he acted out every word with fractured physical energy. And, other times, he was like a husk. He's an extraordinary man – one of the great English eccentrics."
The cause of Johnson's erratic moods is clear in the film: the death from cancer of his wife Irene, his sweetheart since they were 16. "I still think about her every minute," he tells me. "The only time I don't feel heart-broken is when I'm playing. When you are in a fantasy. In that world, for a little moment, you can even escape from death."
'Oil City Confidential' is released in May
THE BEST OF DR FEELGOOD
The Feelgoods' debut single sees unrelenting rhythm section – the Big Figure and Sparko – interlock with Wilko Johnson's murderously circling guitar riff, while Lee Brilleaux growls and howls on harmonica.
Going Back Home (1975)
"I've got a brand new motor/ And I'm waiting for a loan/ So I can fill her up ... and go back home." In this standard blues motif, home is now Canvey Island.
Back in the Night (1975)
Wilko's finger-picking, slapping guitar style slashes through another familiar blues story. Kicked out of bed by his girl during the night, he's soon back.
Milk and Alcohol (1979)
Dismissed after Wilko's departure, the Feelgoods' defiant last hurrah was written by Nick Lowe and new guitarist Gypie Mayo. Top 10 as the New Wave hit.