A Letter to Julien Temple
by John Dougan
If this were a text it would read simply: Oil City Confidential WTF?
Seriously, I (and many others) want to know what's going on with the film's conspicuous lack of availability in North America. As devoted Dr. Feelgood fans, we've been waiting, though not always patiently, these past four years and have heard nary a peep from you or from Cadiz Records (who distributes the DVD, but not in a Region 1 format) as to when this great documentary will see the light of day in the U.S..
That's right Julien, I said "great" because I've seen it a number of times, procuring it illegally through various Internet sources, not because I'm a scofflaw or radically opposed to existing copyright statutes (though I have issues with the manner in which copyright law is enforced), but because I love Dr. Feelgood, have been a fan since I bought Malpractice in 1976, and really, really wanted to see this film. It is, hands down, the best in your so-called "70's British Rock" trilogy that began in 2000 with the Sex Pistols' The Filth and the Fury and continued in 2007 with the beautiful, elegiac Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten. Oil City Confidential, which debuted at the London Film Festival on October 20, 2009 as the prequel to The Filth and the Fury is, arguably, the most extravagantly praised of the three – I agree whole-heartedly with comic/TV presenter Phill Jupitus' succinct assessment of the film as "fucking brilliant" – has won an armful of awards yet curiously, inexplicably, can only be seen by ferreting through online video sites of dubious legality. Clearly, this is not what you want? So why not release the film in North America, now?
Is it because Dr. Feelgood never gained any commercial traction here? Granted their U.S. label, Columbia, seemed tone deaf when it came to promoting them. Despite influencing punk, they weren't a punk band per se. They wore suits and ties, had short hair, but as unregenerate rock and rollers who loved R&B, they weren't "pop" enough to be new wave. Not helping matters was the lack of a substantial tour – from 1975-76, they played a total of 5 gigs in the U.S., two as the opening act on an egregiously mismatched triple bill that featured Starcastle and Journey. And, in a pairing made in heaven, Dr. Feelgood played two gigs at New York City's legendary and now defunct Bottom Line (May 10 & 11, 1976) with the Ramones opening (oh, to have been there!). However, those gigs turned out to be their last and they never again set foot in the land that had birthed the music they so wonderfully and enthusiastically emulated.
Proof of their sustained excellence exists on the 2012 box set All Through the City (with Wilko 1974-1977) which anthologizes their most important recordings (Down By the Jetty, Malpractice, Stupidity and Sneakin' Suspicion) with an extra CD of outtakes and live tracks, and a phenomenal DVD of their TV performances, and a live show from Kursaal, Southend on the tour that yielded Stupidity (which went #1 in the UK). It is in the presence of such irrefutable aural and visual evidence that Dr. Feelgood manifestly articulates why they were perfect in both construction and execution. Wilko Johnson's choppy, brittle, full-bodied guitar playing (that would later become the sonic template for the Gang of Four's Andy Gill) was a direct stylistic descendant of the late British axe legend Mick Green from Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. But Wilko's onstage presence – unsmiling, crazed, bug-eyed, constantly moving back and forth – was his own brilliantly intuitive creation, a performance demeanor that would be repeated (at times more menacingly) by a generation of punk rockers. The grainy timbre of lead vocalist Lee Brilleaux (who died in 1994) exactly suited his mien, that of a man who was excellent at his job, yet seemingly motivated to do it by anger and frustration. As for the rhythm section of bassist Sparko (John B. Sparks) and drummer the Big Figure (John Martin), they epitomized "playing in the pocket." Perhaps they weren't the funkiest duo, but they were always locked-in, holding the band together, driving it forward with a minimum of muss and fuss and just a hint of malicious intent.
Sadly, there is a far more compelling reason for the film's immediate release- the recent revelation that Wilko Johnson, the intensely charismatic heart and soul of Oil City Confidential, a man you yourself described as "extraordinary... one of the great English eccentrics" has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. Wilko has made it abundantly clear that he will not seek treatment, has recently completed a farewell tour, and will very likely die by year's end. For fans, like myself, this was intensely distressing news and, it would seem, a perfect opportunity to honor the legacy of Wilko and the rest of the Feelgoods by releasing your superb film for those of us in North America who "got" what Dr. Feelgood was all about.
Perhaps there are a number of compelling reasons of which I am not aware preventing the film's U.S. distribution. If so, fix them (or at the very least inform us as to what they are) and use whatever power you have to get the film released. The method you're currently employing, total silence, is exceedingly frustrating especially in an era of pervasive social media and the near-constant flow of information. Don't let the band's limited U.S. reputation influence your decision. It has been my experience that converting the benighted into raving Dr. Feelgood fans is one of the easiest acts of rock and roll proselytizing. Once a year, when I teach my History of Punk Rock class, there are always students who tell me, "Dr. Feelgood was the most awesome band I heard all year."
So, Julien, again I ask: Oil City Confidential, WTF?
I'm sure you are extremely proud of this work, and you should be. It's a compelling film about a great band emerging from a hardscrabble place like Canvey Island, Essex, (aka Oil City). And while I might quibble with the narrative being entirely Wilko-era centered (they did make some fine records from 1977-1981 with his replacement Gypie Mayo), I understand that after Wilko left in 1977, they lost their focal point, and with it much of the magic that made their run from 1974-1977 so remarkable. The continued unavailability of this film to those of us who reside in Region 1 serves no practical purpose. As unfashionable as this sounds in an age of streaming, on-demand video – not to mention the myriad ways material can be illegally obtained online – if released on DVD, I will gladly, happily buy it and treasure it as I do the music they recorded. I think you'd be surprised at how many Yanks share that sentiment.
I await your response.
Dr. John Dougan
Dept. of Recording Industry
Middle Tennessee State University
P.S. While you're at it Julien, if you know anyone who could get the Cockney Rejects documentary East End Babylon released in the U.S., I'd appreciate that as well.
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