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Dr. Feelgood

Guest Blogger: Peter Aaron, author of If You Like the Ramones… Enjoy Aaron’s post about another band who, like the Ramones, were on the front lines of the punk rock movement. 

In Chapter 3 of If You Like the Ramones there’s a sidebar about pub rock, the street-level, old-school-R&B-based movement that thrived in the sweaty barrooms of early 1970’s England and provided the launch pad for punk’s explosion across the pond. And naturally a sizeable chunk of the entry is devoted to Dr. Feelgood, the Canvey Island-bred quartet whose tough sound informed the music of the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, Gang of Four, Eddie and the Hot Rods, and legions more. While I was working on the book I learned that Dr. Feelgood guitarist and co-founder Wilko Johnson had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. The news hit me hard.

Although I never got to see Dr. Feelgood or Wilko play live—being a twelve-year-old suburban American boy during the Feelgoods’ prime 1975-1976 period, I was blissfully unaware of much that happened beyond the walls of my model kit-building garret—my eventual discovery of their LPs via used-record bins was revelatory. Besides being blown away by the band’s hard energy and overall coolness, Wilko became one of my all-time favorite guitarists. Strike that—I’m inclined to say he is my favorite.

Looking like a simmering, bug-eyed thug behind his trademark Telecaster, that’s exactly how Wilko plays on Dr. Feelgood’s defining early albums—1975’s Down by the Jetty and Malpractice, 1976’s Stupidity, 1977’s Sneakin’ Suspicion—and his similarly fine later solo releases and those with Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Skittering, scraping, and bursting percussively out of the speakers like rabbit punches to the chest, Wilko’s lead-eschewing attack is a method of musicianship you wish more six-stringers would embrace, rather than chasing the soulless noodlings of Joe Satriani and similar masturbators. No wonder the Ramones were tapped to open for Dr. Feelgood’s appearance at New York’s Bottom Line in May 1976. Director Julien Temple’s riveting, award-winning Feelgoods doc Oil City Confidential (2010) is mandatory viewing for all music lovers.

But despite his grim, it’s-just-a-matter-of-time prognosis, Wilko has continued to be a divine inspiration in other, far bigger ways. He’s opted to go out swinging—one might say swinging his axe, in the face of his own mortality. Refusing chemotherapy, after the diagnosis he promptly booked tour dates and has vowed to keep performing as long as he is physically able. And from all reports the shows have been excellent. Something to think about the next morning you’re lingering in bed, dreading that limp to the shower and that mind-numbing commute.

So, as a musician, a music lover, and a human being who strives daily in small ways to better himself, thank you, Wilko Johnson, from the bottom of this battered heart. You and your vibrant art have made the universe a better place. Irreversibly so.

If You Like the Ramones…

With that quick count-off, four hoppin’ cretins from Queens who called themselves the Ramones launched the 1970s musical revolution known as punk rock. And ever since, popular music hasn’t been the same. Perhaps the most imitated band of all time, the Ramones stripped rock ‘n’ roll down to its bare bones and beating heart and handed it back to the people, making it fun again and reminding everyone that, hey, they could do this, too.

But “da brudders” didn’t just influence their key comrades in the original punk explosion. Their raw, tough sound and divine gift of enduring, melodic songcraft has power-drilled its way into musical styles as divergent as college rock, power pop, hardcore punk, thrash metal, grunge, and the avant-garde, and continues to be felt in newer waves of young acts. And what about the music that influenced the Ramones themselves – early rock ‘n’ roll, surf rock, British Invasion sounds, garage rock, girl groups, hard rock, bubblegum, proto-punk, and glam rock? Or the nonmusical stuff that also warped the skulls beneath those trademark bowl haircuts – weird movies, cartoons, trashy TV shows, comic books, and other cultural jetsam? It’s all here, just waiting for you to discover and dig. Hey Ho, Let’s Go!