Wilko Johnson gig and Oil City Confidential premiere at Koko’s, Camden: review

Last night’s premiere of Julien Temple’s Dr Feelgood documentary, Oil City Confidential, was stunning, a combination of movie screening and Wilko Johnson gig simultaneously beamed from a packed Koko’s in Camden to 40 plus venues across the UK.

Singer/guitarist Wilko Johnson’s charismatic amphetamine-charged performance reminded me why I used to go to gigs. Tall, lean and lanky, he struts the stage like a cross between Nureyev and Max Wall. Possessing one of the most beautiful male faces ever, the Nureyev factor may have morphed into the late Ken Campbell now he’s 62, but, as with Campbell, time hasn’t withered his beauty, only seasoned it. There are few seats at Koko’s, my back was killing me, but I’d have stood for another four hours to see that gig again.

The sense of occasion was kicked off with an introduction by Keith Allen and a few words from director Julien Temple. Then the screening of Oil City Confidential, set mostly in the Feelgoods’ home town of Canvey Island on the Thames estuary. Solidly working class, this Essex locale was double-blighted by the devastating flood of 1953 which killed 58 people, and the construction of the huge oil refinery. A TV clip shows a young John Wilkinson articulately arguing the case for the local residents and against the might of the oil companies: a wilful Wilko as ever.

I hadn’t realised Wilko had been an English teacher before turning his childhood passion into a successful career. I envy his students. I bet he was wonderful, just the type of inspirational class-warrior we’d have loved at my East End school with his long hair and determination to keep the human spirit alive. When the head-teacher gave him a dressing-down for dressing down, he resigned, telling the old fogey that he’d travelled further in his mind and geographical locations than some of the dead-heads in the staff-room and that he’d be back in a pink Cadillac. Dunno if he ever drove that pink Caddy through the streets of Canvey but he had the last laugh.

Not that the band was always a bundle of giggles. The three Johns and Lee Brilleaux who formed the rhythm and blues band, Dr Feelgood, in 1971 embraced gangster miserabilism and won fans across the world with their high energy and angry music while prog-rock hippies were Mooging themselves into cosmic oblivion. The freshly shorn Wilko and frontman Brilleaux held audiences mesmerised and won over the New Musical Express even before they’d been signed. Not one but two massively talented divas in the band meant the social divide between sensitive moody Wilko (who’d charge up on speed and spend tour evenings in his room writing the album) versus the pisshead contingent (everyone else) turned into a chasm and an eventual split.

The film splices current interviews with documentary footage and witty movie clips telling the story of the Feelgoods and their huge influence on popular music, defining British pub rock and affecting fledgling American punk.

The gig never lagged. For the 50- and 60-year-olds pogoing in the mosh pit this was one area where they could still keep it up all night. Bassist Norman Watt-Roy (Blockheads) was fantastic and energetic, a right little showoff. Dylan Howe (son of Steve) delivered crisp, snappy drumming. A freshly slimmed Alison Moyet guested, wowing us with her lovely blues-tone voice, and had some of us women wondering what her fitness regime was. Man-mountain zydeco accordionist Slim (The Urban Voodoo Machine) played great despite having to battle heroically against deafening low-frequency feedback.

And Charles Shaar Murray — NME veteran journo, author, harpist and guitarist/singer — shared the stage with Wilko for the first time in almost thirty years to play Brilleauesque harmonica on four numbers: Dimples, Boom Boom, Going Back Home and Route 66. He threw shapes and blew that thang like it was the ’70s all over again. From our perch at the side, Charles’s Crosstown Lightin’ compadre, harmonica player Buffalo Bill Smith, gave him a ten, and his bassist Marc Jefferies yelled, “Charles is the coolest dude I know”. (CSM says Marc needs to broaden his circle of acquaintances. But I say, STFU, CSM. Whadda you know?)

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5 thoughts on “Wilko Johnson gig and Oil City Confidential premiere at Koko’s, Camden: review”

  1. Sounded brilliant, once in a lifetime event! And great review MM.

    Gosh…. Julien Temple… last film I saw he directed was Absolute Beginners… now that takes me back…..

  2. I was there and still can't sleep because seeing uber hero Wilko, fucking brilliant hero Norman Watt Roy, Alison Moyet (who set the hairs on my neck on end) It was amazing – the energy was fantastic. Julien was so right – Wilko is a national treasure. A severly under-rated genius. xx

  3. Thanks, Harpy. Wish you were there.

    Gwei Mui, are you a fan, then? Although aware of the Feelgoods, I got into them pretty late. But male friends knew and loved them and would speak wistfully of those early days down the Hope & Anchor.

    Rockmother, you are totally right about Wilko being an underrated genius. That was the first time I'd seen him live and realised how good he is. Still, better very, very, very late than never. Hope to see more gigs.

  4. I'm jealous, but hoping against hope that Temple entered the film in the SXSW Film Fest, which I'll be attending next month. Of course, there won't be a Wilko/CSM moment to go along with it, which is a bit of a drag…

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