By Mike Wade
Four pasty, sun-starved Essex faces peering out of the mid-seventies gloom heralded the arrival of Dr Feelgood and the birth of music from what they liked to call the Essex Delta.
Better known to the rest of us as Canvey Island.
Down By The Jetty was a back-to-basics wake up call to a music business grown fat on the excesses of pomp rock. Unlike the faux egalitarianism of the punk movement that followed, and which they helped inspire, Feelgood were excellent musicians – honed to a cutting edge by constant gigging in nearby Southend (musical home to maestros Mickey Jupp and Gary Brooker) and the low life pubs of east London.
Their devoted adherence to a less-is-more philosophy led to their debut album being recorded overdub-free, live in the studio, by an engineer instead of a producer, effectively in mono. It went down a storm, leading to the release of an equally brilliant, brooding second single – Back In The Night.
As Oil City Confidential, the recent, glorious Julian Temple documentary about the band illustrates, their music was fundamentally an expression of their attitude – and their attitude was fundamentally an expression of the environment in which they had grown up. An odd, wonky place occupied by outsiders and drifters, sneered at even by the working class citizens of the rest of this frayed cuff of Essex coast.
Essex Delta? Oil City? Full of square pegs in worn, round holes? Canvey had to be worth a look.
So one (legally) stolen half day off, me and my cameras set out for this blurry bit of the Thames Estuary, sullenly reclining between Southend and hazy Kent: home to big mud, oil refineries, rusty tankers and tough, rocking, bluesy music.
My aim was to try to tell the story of the place in pictures. With this in mind, along with my normal kit, I took a specially adapted Infra Red Nikon D50. It shoots in a ghostly form of black & white – ideal for conveying other-worldliness. It turned out to be a good call.
Canvey has a sort of seafront, battered and shuttered in the main; yet thanks to the giant sea wall, erected to protect the place from the floods that have regularly decimated it down the years, the sea front has no actual sea view. When you climb up the embankment to reach the sea view, you realise not seeing it may be something of a blessing.
To the east lie the gaunt flaming towers of oil and gas refineries. Straight ahead, a flat plain of camouflage-coloured mud stretches what seems half way to Kent. To the left, giant, shabby cargo ships, bloated with crude oil or fresh Mazda cars, wallow in line, awaiting the appropriate tide.
Everywhere you turn, fat steel pipes rise out of the ground, breaching the sea defences before scurrying back below the mud and out to sea.
Even Canvey’s proud boast to having a Site of Special Scientific Interest turns out to be bizarre, being located not upon some vast plain of beautiful wetland but rather on the abandoned foundations of yet another oil refinery, one never built because planning permission was eventually withheld – perhaps a small gesture of mercy to the island’s embattled inhabitants.
And embattled they are. The pretty coloured legends on the road signs are not there, as they might be in Brighton or Bridlington, to mark out scenic routes for the visitor. They designate the rapid emergency routes off the island locals must take in the event of their imminent immolation.
Away from the front, most of the shops are one-offs, the sort you these days rarely see in any numbers anywhere else. Gardens are blighted by the permafrost that creeps out from the underground LPG storage tanks. The flat, reclaimed lands behind the sea wall are littered with scuzzy residential caravans. Stray attempts have been made to insert small pockets of executive residences but these prove unconvincing – what executive would choose Canvey in the first place?
So back to the front, where there are sticks of rock and shellfish and Kiss Me Quick hats crammed into tiny wooden stalls along the sea wall. A few indolent jet skis loll in the shallows, awaiting the arrival of tattooed owners in dog-eared BMWs. A few tough kids splash in the pools left behind by the outgoing tide, sharing their fun with paddling pensioners, mangy dogs and their excrement, (the dogs’ rather than the pensioners’, one hopes)
It sounds thoroughly ghastly. But in a peculiar way, it’s a little bit brilliant.
It is real and honest and throwback and doing its best.
It is an illiterate child, tongue out, trying hard to read. It is a woman of a certain age doing what she can with what she has left. It is a man sporting a comb over, bravely pretending nobody has noticed.
But it sure ain’t the place I would have wanted to grow up. The sense of failure would be impossible not to ingest. The island would force you to grow a carapace of rebellion, swagger and fuck-you.
It would make you want to make music like Dr Feelgood did: noisy, angry, pumping. Almost industrially mechanical, yet full of feral cunning and intelligent wordplay and spittle.
‘Then they will take notice of me, then they won’t be able to look down on me’, you’d think to yourself. And boy, how right you would turn out to be : Feelgood achieved simultaneous number one albums in UK and USA. They are seen as the fathers of punk. In a form, they still live on, playing today in Mk 4 or 5 form.
Nor were they actually as nasty a piece of work as their on-stage demeanour suggested. I met lead singer Lee Brilleaux once, briefly, not long before his tragically early death from cancer, and found him to be a quiet, generous and amiable fellow. With a quite bit of steel, mind you, courtesy of Canvey.
And while I might pass on the chance to pitch for the Canvey Tourist Board, (just too big a task), I know I will be going back, camera in hand, for many more day trips. Sure it’s full of dogshit, but there’s very little bullshit.