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INTERVIEW - USA 1976
Lee Brilleaux, Wilko Johnson & The Big Figure
Interview by Steven Lorber, Michael Miller and Elaine Tarlton.
First published in TROUSER PRESS No.15 - Aug/Sept. 1976.
'America's only British Rock Magazine'
This interview was made before the live album
'Stupidity' became No.1 of the UK charts!
TP: Can I ask you about your guitar style? It's really unique.
WJ: Well, not quite unique. The guy I got it off is called Mick Green, and he used to play with Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. He wasn't on 'Shakin' All Over'. In fact, everyone's talking about it. Actually, it was before his time. He joined them about '63 or '64. He's a relatively young guy. He was about 17 when he joined them. The first thing I can remember is 'I Can Tell'. He went on to 'I'll Never Get Over You'. He came in at the Liverpool time. I had started to play and I suddenly heard this guitar solo. I thought, 'What's that? This guy is really playing!' It didn't sound like what George Harrison did. It sounded real. I don't know why I'd never never heard any real American R&B. I started checking him out and then I realized that this group didn't have a rhythm guitarist. This guy was doing it all himself. So I got all the singles I could find, sat in the bedroom, learned it all and spent most of my time trying to imitate him. When we started getting our own thing, I carried the ideas I got from him into something slightly different. You know, he's still the man.
TP: What about some of your transitional bands, Figure - Essex Five, Glass Opening, Exploding Monocle...
TF: Hyde Park, you missed one there!
TP: ...Grampus and Finian's Rainbow. Right?
TF: Finian's Rainbow was the most successfull. They cut a record, but nothing successfull.
LB: Figure's the only one of us that's ever been a pro musician before.
WJ: He gave up being a professional and took a job to come to play with us. He did a few gigs with us in Holland because our original drummer didn't want to come with us. So Figure packed his group in, got a job, and started with us.
TP: When the Feelgoods were going through a transitional period you had Heinz as a lead singer.
WJ: He's a great guy, and a classic rock and roll story. He was getting paid 25 pounds a week when he was on the top of the charts, and they were really ripping him off wicked. He eventually slipped out of favour, he just couldn't last. There was too much good stuff going - the Beatles and all that. So he just went back to working and he used to do odd gigs. When we got going, he lived nearby, he asked in the local music shop if there were any rock'n'roll bands, and they put him on to us. We used to go to all these Teddy-boy clubs and do Eddie Cochran numbers. We'd do a set with Lee, then Heinzy would come on and do a 45-minute set just like Eddie. We'd do a lot of his things. Lee and Chris (Fenwick), our manager, would get up on stage and do 'do wop' in the background. Heinz backed bean adverts and things.
LB: We were usually billed as someone else, like Heinz and Rock and Roll Deluxe or some poxy name they thought up on the spur of the moment.
TP: Did you ever play a pub called the Castle? It's all Teddy boys.
WJ: Shit! Oh no, no, not that one. We did a lot of Teddy boy places with Heinz. But you see, the thing with the Teds is, if you aren't dressed in a drape suit and all this they don't believe it's rock and roll. Even if you're playing 'Johnny B. Goode' they're not quite sure, and if you dare to play Huey Smith or anything like that they really don't like it. They'd rather have Cliff Richard. Yeah. They're funny people. Occasionally you meet a Ted who knows it all. He's got a big record collection. Most of them are just doing it for the fashion. It's the clothes.
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TP: What do you think about the rockabilly revival in England with groups like Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers?
WJ: I've never tried to play that kind of music, but I love to listen to it. The rockabilly thing is a great sound. I kind of figure a bit more towards rhythm and blues, but that's all part of it. I'll tell you. I like anything that sounds like real people playing real instruments. Whatever it is, reggae or soul, as long as it sounds real. This is a certain quality that's pretty intangible, really, but obviously things like rockabilly and rock and roll music are going to be more basic. Like Shakin' Stevens and the Sunsets. We did a gig with them back in the Heinz days and they're really a great band. They've been going ages and they're real good. They're looked on with contempt by the critics because they're stuck a bit in the Teddy-boy circuit. They deserve the respect of sticking to what they believe in and they're not going to start doing something else just to try and impress the critics or whatever, and I really respect them for it. They come from Wales - and Wales is a real rock and roll place.
TP: We heard the Teds were going to march on BBC and demand a radio show that catered to real rock and roll music that they like.
WJ: I can hardly see the Teds getting it together. They're all talk when they get full of beer. We haven't really been involved in the Teds scene. To me, they're a little too narrow-minded. I don't believe in being progressive just because people think that's what you've got to be, or changing your music just because you've got to change it, but I think the Teds are too conservative. They just want to hear something being recreated in a certain way. They want rock and roll as something mummified. What they don't realize is that it's great music. That's why we get pissed off at people talking about us and how we're reviving the '60s. We're not reviving anything. It's now. It was great then, and it's great now. This music's always been great, and you can keep making new songs with it and doing new things with it.
LB: People don't talk about an orchestra and say, 'Oh. Are ya still playing that fucking old Beethoven stuff?' Why should they say to us?
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TP: This tour you're currently doing. Is it mostly small places like this?
WJ: This is the second time we´ve been here. We did one tour like this hitting small places and we thought it worked for us in England and Europe. If it doesn't work, we just won't come back here. We'd rather do that than come here supporting someone famous.
TP: What about your first album. Will that come out here?
WJ: I don't know. There's no plans for it but a lot of the stuff we do in our stage set comes off that album. A lot of the things that are favourites in England come off with it and eventually we'll be doing a live album (Note by Gabi: This one should become the charttopping 'Stupidity Live' album). A lot of that material might get released in that form, I think.We've got it all in the can, ready, but I don't think we're going to put a live album out just yet.
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TP: It was mono, too.
The second one is mono as well. It's just got stereo written on the label because we got fed up with people asking us why we did the first one in mono. We didn't want to put mono on the label, that one. I was arguing going, 'No, no, it's against the law.' It doesn't need stereo on it. It's just two bits on it, the same on each side, because I didn't want people reading anything into it. The second album is a bit spread on the drums maybe, but basically it's pretty much coming out of each side. You could turn the balance over and you wouldn't lose a lot. It's just that with a band this small we don't stick many overdubs on the things that we do, because there's only three instruments playing a lot of the time.
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TP: When you got back to England now, what kind of venues do you play?
WJ: We don't do the small clubs anymore. We play the biggest halls in Europe.
TP: We were talking to Patti Smith's band and their aim is to play Madison Square Garden. They said every rock and roll band wants that.
WJ: No. No. You can't. You see, this is the problem that's afflicting us at the minute. To come to America where you don't have these 2,000 seat halls. You've either got small clubs or massive places. Obviously, it's not viable economically to come over and play small clubs. As it happens, one of the reasons we were one of the pub bands that went beyond and got out of it, was that the things we were doing transferred very well on the big stage. In fact, we were often constricted in small venues. If you have a big stage, you can really go. So we can do it in bigger ones. But there comes a point when it gets so big that you're just losing it somewhere. We're not the kind of band that gets a personal rapport with the audience other than telling what we're going to play. On the other hand, we really feed off of them, and if you can feel them doing it, it really gets you going. In some of these big places, even though the kids might be really giving, really with you, you just can't feel it. It's too far away. We're getting to the stage now where we have to decide, do we want to go on when it's a real drag and we're miles away from everyone and surrounded by the National Guard, or do we want to make a bit less money and have some more fun? Which I think is the best solution.
TP: What do you think about the wave of new bands... the Count Bishops, Ducks Deluxe, Hammersmith Gorillas, Sex Pistols. A whole bunch of bands coming up in your tradition playing that real rock'n'roll.
LB: Well, be fair to Ducks Deluxe. They were one of the bands that built up the pubs before we came on the scene. We were going, but we didn't know anything about them, and they didn't know anything about us. We were just a different scene.
WJ: I think there might be a lot of kids interested in rhythm and blues. Suddenly people realized you can still play it. It gave a lot of people the nerve to go and do it. I think we were the straightest rhythm and blues band going in London at the time but there's a lot more now. You can even see second-generation Dr Feelgood now. They're playing our songs and things like that. It's great. It was good at first because when we started we'd go out and play school dances to 16-year-old kids. We'd play at weddings, British Legion clubs, and people would always dig it because they weren't sophisticated musically at all. They didn't have any ideas other than they just wanted to dance to a group. And they'd always like it. But as soon as you get to London you get people who start theorizing and all that going, 'Oh yes. Of course, you're doing this, you're doing that.' We started to feel like we were on a bit of a Crusade or something, in the end, for the things that we thought were right in music. It's quite good now to see all of these bands coming up. It shows that we've proved the point in a way. Now we've got a real big following in England and all across Europe. We've proved that you don't need dry ice and synthesizers to get people to have fun. If a lot more bands started like us and had just three or four people, the road crew, and three amplifiers on stage, it's going to get a whole lot cheaper to go see some rock and roll. I mean, when you've got to pay for six massive truckloads of equipment and 50 butlers to serve champagne, then people are getting ripped off.
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TP: When did you quit playing?
WJ: I went to University and couldn't get a group together there, so I just stopped and forget about it. When I was in the Flowerpots we just couldn't get a gig. We were playing rock and roll and we wouldn't play anything else. The furthest we would go was to put a few Tamla numbers in so we could get some of the dance hall gigs. They started to expect you to be Hendrix, and we just couldn't work. We had one regular gig where five people would turn up, and we were really spat upon. So I thought, 'Sod it, I don't want to play no more.' I just want to go on playing this, and I don't want anyone that's into us to ever feel betrayed. When the time comes, and you get kind of worn out, and you've done it all and you're just being a boring old cunt, then you just stop. You don't try and do something else just to keep it going. Then all that lot say, 'What you gonna do next? Aren't you going to be more progressive? You haven't got any imagination?' It takes far more imagination to do something original with a 12 bar rather than stick a lot of silly minor chords and stupid irrelevant instruments in, and start talking about subjects you've got absolutely no knowledge of. The biggest fucking deadheads of all are the ones that make the most vacuous and pretentious statements about the cosmos.
TP: Death of the Universe.
Yes, I mean rock and roll isn't a very good vehicle for talking about that kind of thing.
TP: It's really an important thing. The thing about rock was that it was starting from the skiffle bands with people playing in their front room with a tea chest bass and all that. It was homemade music.
LB: Certainly. That's the thing. You don't have to be a musician to play rock and roll. You've just got to love it and want to play it.
WJ: We're getting kids coming to see us and they're seeing it totally new. They were being born when the Beatles were doing 'Love Me Do'. They were just popping out at that point, and that's kind of like grandad's music to them. They're seeing this group and not being overwhelmed with technology or special effects where you think, 'Wow, how's that done?' You just see people standing on the stage and twanging on guitars and things, and you can see how it's being done. It's all there in front of you, and I think kids must dig that cause they think, 'Wow, I'll go out and buy a guitar and do that.' And they can.
TP: Can we ask you about the group Flowerpots?
WJ: In fact, there was a group called the Roamers and it was our first little silly school group. It didn't last very long. It's just that particular group is a bit irrelevant... I mean none of us could play. I had a group after the Flowerpots called the Heap that was quite good. Well, they weren't crap actually, but that's when I realized that if you can play too good, all you have to do is jump around a lot and you do it all right. Then I got in the Flowerpots. The top band in the area was the Paramounts, and Mickey Jupp's Orioles were the second band - although I think they were the best - and we were like a poor imitation of the Orioles. In our group, the bass player had a very good soul voice, and we had an excellent piano player who could do everything Jerry Lee Lewis can do. They were really a bit too good for me, and I tagged along for a bit and then packed it in. And that's the last thing I did, really, until this started.
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TP: You were in the Southside Jug Band?
LB: Yeah, Me and Sparko. We saw Wilko and his brother, and I wanted to sing.
WJ: It wasn't a jug band at all. What we were doing was playing on street corners. I used to play the comb and paper, and my brother played guitar. We used to call it a jug band, but we never had a jug. Lee seized on the idea and built a proper jug band. We used to do it now and again for a laugh. It was never very serious.
LB: It actually developed into a rock and roll band. We started getting electric guitars.
TP: I guess it's a matter of what instruments you have at the time.
LB: Yeah. As we got older we had more money so we bought more sophisticated equipment. It was silly. We were calling ourselves a jug band, but it was more like a rock and roll group.
TP: What kind of material was it later?
LB: It was all straight 50's rock and roll classics, Elvis stuff, and Chicago-type blues. We had a piano player with us and it was a heavily piano-based band.
TP: In 1972 a lot was written about the emergence of pub rock, and it seems your band was associated with that particular movement.
WJ: We were. We were playing for like 18 months before in our local town which is outside London. We had never played in London, and we'd gotten what we do more or less together. We were all completely unknown. None of us had ever played in any professional or known bands. I'd never been in the Marquee until we played there, not even in the audience, let alone in a group. Then we heard about this pub thing which had been built up like Brinsley Schwarz and that lot: They'd moved off of it by the time we heard about it, it was old news. In fact, when we got some gigs there, a lot of the good groups that had made it into something had left it and there was a bit of a vacuum. We came along and we were new faces and were very together because we'd been gigging around. So it gave us an advantage, really, because we didn't have to make too many mistakes in front of the London audiences. We'd made them all in front of the village people. I think what we were doing fitted in very well with that kind of music. It was a mistake really. It tended to suggest that it was a type of music, when it is a type of venue really. One of the great things about it was the variation in different bands. They were all doing different things... country rock, soul, reggae, all sorts.
TP: It seems to us that sooner or later, as the Feelgoods, you're going to face trouble with the critics. Having them say you're churning the same stuff album after album.
WJ: It's probably going to come on the next album. The first album in England they stagged off of because Nick Kent got to it first, and he didn't like it because he thought we ought to be like the MC5 and do Wop-bop-a-lu-bop. He didn't want us to do our songs. Because Nick Kent is a bit influential - or he was at that time - the other critics were a bit frightened to be positive. That wounded me very severely, because he mainly criticized my songs. He said the songs were crap. Obviously, no one likes to be criticized. On the other hand, we're getting ready for it. We know it's going to happen. As long as the kids don't start chucking things at us and telling us it's a bore, then it's all right as far as we're concerned. Of course, I'd rather open up the newspaper and read, 'They're great!' instead of, 'What a drag'. We've had a bit of this already, and people have said some pretty nasty things about us. They're so competitive. They don't want to keep churning out the same old praise. They want to be progressive and start calling it rubbish.
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TP: It's pretty mechanical. They do that with everyone that's good. First the build-up, then they start knocking them.
WJ: We know. We've been pretty lucky actually, because we've had most of the three weekly newspapers in England on our side. The NME were the ones that really adopted us. From nothing they stuck their necks out for us, and I know that we're still liked personally by a lot of people. I was around Mick Farren's place only a few nights ago rapping away with him. He's great, and we really dig him for it. The thing was, you've got this thing like the Melody Maker is a rival with the NME, and we became so chummy with the NME that the Melody Maker, for simply ages, pretended we didn't exist. Eventually, we got voted onto their most promising new band crap thing. They couldn't deny we existed anymore, so they started writing about us. They've selected us a couple of times. We've had criticism, which is right, we take note of it. In fact Mick Farren, from the NME, reviewed one of our gigs in the early days. It was a very positive review. One remark that he made was that we built a set really good, but toward the end we started doing 'Johnny B. Goode' and things like that. He said, 'It's terrible. They should have more nerve than to do that', and that it was a crummy way of going about things. We read it and thought, 'That's right.' It is a crummy thing to do. Everyone does it, and it's so easy to get people off doing 'Johnny B. Goode'. It's really better to have faith in your own thing. We took his advice and for the very next gig we stopped doing that. At the end of our last tour, we did a gig at the Hammersmith Odeon, which was like the big prestige gig, and I just fucked up. My mind went BANG. I shouldn't have gone on the stage. I was debating whether to go on or not and I thought, 'Well... we've get 3,000 people out there.' So I went on, and after about four numbers I sort of snapped. I couldn't remember my name, or what I was doing, where I was, or anything. I carried on through the set for awhile, and then I walked off and went up to our manager and he said, 'What's the matter?' And I said, 'My mind's gone. I can't carry on under the strain.' I had a sort of a breakdown. It was a terrible show. I mean, it went down all right. That's the awful thing. I went back on, and we finished the show. It was really like going through the motions, and I felt awful about this. The thing is, the review in the Melody Maker. The reviewer had never seen us before. He'd obviously been told to go and slag one off. And he said, 'I can't see what's so good about them. That bloody Wilko Johnson. He just looked like he was going through the motions, and he's not all that good on guitar.' But the NME guy kinda said, 'Fuck, what's wrong with them? I've seen them do this and they were crap that night and why was it.' And it was exactly right. I read that and because we're their band he didn't start going making excuses, or he didn't pretend it was good when it wasn't. He said the exact truth. It kind of hurt again, a bit, to read it 'cause you see this guy that you respect saying, 'You weren't very good that night boys'. But you think, 'Well, that's right. We weren't', and I can dig that.
TP: It's good to be criticized in the press because if everybody just jumps on the bandwagon and says, 'This is wonderful...'
LB: Then you're not getting anywhere, are you?
TF: We like the audience to come and discover us for themselves.
WJ: When we did the last tour in the States a few months ago, we had a look at it and it fucked me up pretty bad. I was worried we'd have to make another album soon. We got into a deal when we returned. By that time I was a little worried about what we were going to do. I thought, 'Fuck, what's happening to us? They're telling us we've got to make an album now. And we've got to go in and churn it out and that's not right.' You don't just sit down and write a song, not good songs anyway. It started seeming to me like you've got to go through this whole star thing in Los Angeles. I had a look at it and I thought it looked like a lot of crap. It's not much fun - the strain of it. And I thought, 'Well, I don't want to do it.' Nowadays, there's a certain prescribed formula for coming to the U.S.A. You build someone up in Europe, tour 'round, then come here. You're supporting this person and that, and gradually moving up the ladder. The interesting thing about the U.S.A. is that at least half of the music is here. It's the birthplace and everything, which is obviously an attraction. The other thing is that it's about the only big place left where we're unknown. So you naturally want to go on and say, 'Look what we can do!' Laughs.
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TP: Your level of energy is amazing. When I saw you I thought you were going to explode.
WJ: If we've got any pride in one thing, it's that. That we'll go on and give 100 per cent of what we've got any given moment. If you've been on the road for two months and gigging six nights solid, you haven't got that much in you. You don't feel like leaping around. But you go and do it and give as much as you can, because that's what you've been paid to do. It isn't honest to do otherwise. If you do go on and do it, you'll find that in the end you can get the audience going. It'll come back on you and you'll get off. You can always find the energy somewhere. Though I must admit, since we've been moving on to bigger things - this Hammersmith Odeon thing I've been telling you about - that was the result of too long a tour, in too big a place, with too many bloody people saying, 'All the world's looking at ya. Ya gotta be the fucking best.' Not like in the old days when you're thinking, 'Wow, I want to get going. What a drag. I want to get on playing.' With the larger places you think, 'Oh no. Got to go on soon. Oh well, it's only an hour.' And that's all wrong. America, the last time round, shook us all up a bit; and it made us think about it. We've all got back now to the real reasons - our real motives for doing it. We've never yet played an audience that's disliked what we're doing. We did a few gigs at one time supporting Hawkwind. We weren't even billed. We were just the support band, and the kids came to see the psychedelics.
TP: Actually they're the nostalgia band...
LB: One of the groups you'd go to get off on.
WJ: Even those audiences weren't exactly hostile. Obviously, they were waiting for Hawkwind. There was always a definite element that was getting off on it, and the rest of them were kind of interested.
LB: Well, we have had a few coins thrown at us. The odd beer can...
WJ: That one gig. It was in Manchester, and a minority of the audience was shouting, 'Fuck off!' and all that. We just carried on playing. It made me feel pretty good actually. Thinking, 'Well, you don't know, sonny.' We played good. Laughs. The next time we went back there was on tour with Chilli Willi and Kokomo. It was our first tour of our own kind of thing and we got to Manchester and got on stage, and they loved it. It was one of the best gigs that we did. That's one of the fun things of coming to America - seeing it happen all over again. You go to a new town and people go through all these different phases watching you. First you see that 'What?' kind of look, and gradually they understand and get into it. We go on in England now and people know exactly what´s happening, so they're into it before you start.
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TP: Do you ever feel like doing something to startle the audience. An old fifties sappy ballad or...?
WJ: We don't do anything startling now. We stick in this style. We do like to throw in different numbers we haven't done for a long time or what we've never done before, but they're all pretty much in our kind of thing. In the old days, when we were going to pubs, we used to do silly things. One night, we were travelling to the Kensington pub - we had a residence there at the time. That was the top pub on the circuit, and we were really pulling in huge crowds there - hundreds. It's only made to hold about 50 people. In the van on the way there we started thinking about old Heinzy. We're all laughing away and we said, 'Let's play just like Eddie's night (Cochran). We started doing it, playing just like Eddie, and we were doing it as a spoof. The thing is they loved it. People didn't know that we had a connection with Heinz, of course. We sometimes do silly things like that. But now, particularly in Europe, you're going on to give a concert and people are paying quite a bit to get in. You've got to deliver the goods. We can see people laughing all through a set. We don't take offense. Some of these fucking astral intellectuals. If they saw someone laughing at them, they'd be really uptight about it. Even the cosmos is a joke in the end. There's some bands that take the piss out of rock and roll. They think it's a huge joke - ape's music. They'll come on and just make it funny. And that ain't the joke. It's silly, and great, and mean, and that's it. It's not funny, i.e. stupid, it's funny witty. I think a lot of the kids see that. All of these journalists writing about how vicious and menacing we are. Some of the kids freaking out when you're pointing the gun (guitar) at them. But when they come and see you in the dressing room, then they don't expect you to jump up and hit them with a razor or anything. They just realize you're a bloke having a laugh. I think the kids are much more sussed than the journalists. The kids see the joke. A lot of the good journalists can as well. It's just that some of them completely misunderstand, and they criticize us for not being what we don't want to be.
Thanks to STEVE from the USA for sending photocopies of this interview.)
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