In comparison to our last stops on the Stour and the Naze, this post is gonna be a bit of a ramble. And maybe a bit niche, too. I’m paying tribute to a personal hero, an Essex legend and maestro guitarist, Wilko Johnson. There’s a bit to say about a trip I took out to Canvey Island in 2016 to soak up the estuarian atmosphere that shaped his band, Dr Feelgood and the high water mark of British R’n’B in the mid 70’s. And there’s a bit to say about his back story to ensure we get the right flavour for the visit. Hope you will bear with me.
|Canvey from Benfleet|
I’ve been a fan of the spiky, high velocity rock n’ roll n’ blues of Dr Feelgood since a mate introduced me to the band when I was revising for ‘O’ levels. Wilko had already left the band by the time I found them. Nevertheless, I’ve seen his raw, spare solo shows as often as possible over the last near-40 years, together with gigs by later incarnations of Dr Feelgood that have taken me around London’s well-trodden, sticky-floored pub rock circuit.
From No 1 albums and heady mid-70’s success, Wilko’s stock had become a die-hard cult following by the early days of the 21st century. Julien Temple’s superb biopic ‘Oil City Confidential’ sparked a decent resurgence in his popular appeal on its release in 2009. And then a very public battle with stomach cancer propelled him, albeit briefly, to the fame that only breakfast telly appearances can bring.
Let’s pick up the tale a couple of years before the cancer news broke, at a point in Wilko’s career that saw the publication of his autobiography ‘Looking Back At Me’. By chance I was in London the same day as the book launch at Rough Trade East. A cancelled evening meeting meant I was free. But that meant killing another four hours in the big city with a steam-driven, iron-clad laptop stowed in my backpack, insulated by a wad of meeting papers thick enough to pass off as post-Brexit export applications. (Not that Brexit was anything more than a twinkle in BoJo’s chumocratic eyes in those days.) Carting that lot around all day wasn’t too appealing.
I rang Nick, he of the Aldburgh golf adventure earlier in these travels. “Do you fancy a swifty, mate? The earlier the better”. He was obliging. I heaved a shovel full of coal into the laptop’s firebox and pretended to work whilst waiting for him. We had plenty to talk about and set the world to rights with high powered discourse:
- the best barbecue marinades we’d ever made;
- how to paint over water stained ceilings; and
- whether Robin Van Persie’s price tag represented value in the upcoming Fantasy Football season.
Rock’n’ Roll. One pint became two and three very quickly. I was only dimly aware of the ticking of the clock. Suddenly it had become 8.15. Best laid plans sabotaged by a bad thirst and the flow of bullshit.
I blinked into the evening mizzle. Was it still worth going to the launch? Wilko would have long finished the book signing and the chat, but there was to be a short live set with his band as well. I reckoned I might just about catch the end of it if I was extremely lucky.
I wasn’t. First the Circle Line let me down. And then I forgot which way to get to Brick Lane from Liverpool Street. Was it right past Dirty Dick’s, or straight on and then right? So by the time I pitched up at the shop, after shuffling through al-fresco diners sampling new bohemian curries, the place was pretty empty. I could see a few people milling about at the back, loitering by ‘RnB’ in the CD racks. And there was a bouncer on the door, barring the way. So. A wasted journey then.
But I thought I’d chance my arm.
“Sorry mate. Closed.” Podgy, gold-ringed fingers held the door open about 18 inches.
“What time did it finish?” I asked. A bit forlornly.
“What did you want?”
“I was hoping to get Wilko to sign a book. I’m a big fan. Seen him since the old days in The Cricketers” I was blabbing.
“Go on then”.
I knew I was slurring a bit, but clearly he could see that I was not some run-of-the-mill punter looking for a bargain CD on my way home. I was a knowledgeable music buff, unfashionably cool and fashionably late. And a bit delusional.
Things turned out well in the end. Wilko was signing off the last few books in a low-key, end of the evening way. I bought my copy and stood in line. And when it was my turn, we had a good old chat about the changing live scene, dead gigs and closed venues. “Yeah, whatever happened to The Cricketers, hargh hargh”, he drawled in Estuarian. Wilko was only marginally less scary up close than in his stage persona. But proper friendly. I noticed how his eyebrows, bushy and malevolent, moved around his brow as if battery powered, unrelated to anything he said that would have demanded such expression. A marvellous thing to behold.
“You are a legend, Sir”, and I signed off with a firm and respectful handshake. I was as pleased as punch. I also managed to catch Norman Watt-Roy, inspirational bassist in the Blockheads as well as in Wilko’s band, for a word and an autograph. Together they presented a formidable aspect. Statler and Waldorf out of the Muppet Show crossed my mind. Craggy features and lived-in faces that betrayed 40 years hard labour on the road. Heroes, the pair of them.
Walking out of the shop, I felt ten feet tall. I’d absolutely loved those genuine little conversations. I was grinning, holding open the flyleaf of my book until Wilko’s scrawl in thick marker pen dried properly. I didn’t want any of “To Dave (The Cricketers!), Wilko, Normal Watt Roy.” to be smudged by morning.
By early 2013 Wilko had announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He had refused debilitating chemotherapy which would have been palliative at best and instead chose to wring the most out of his remaining good health by going back on tour, and recording new material.
This was typical of Wilko’s unique way of dealing with life’s challenges. First the music media and then mainstream news began picking up on the story when he consistently and genuinely used terms like ‘uplifting’, ‘inspiring’, and ‘euphoric’ to describe his predicament.
On a more personal level, my challenge was about getting tickets for his farewell gigs. Respect here to the promoters and management who resisted the temptation to hike up ticket prices, play overly large venues or extend the tour. I sat online for an hour or so after the tickets went on sale and bagged three at £20 each for Koko in Camden.
The touts were milling round the venue like vultures by the time our trio turned up to the adjacent pub. No surprise, given the exposure the short tour had been given. Reports of tickets being sold online for 100% mark ups abounded in the weeks before the gig. Three lads in the boozer next to us had a spare one to sell and went outside to find a real fan who could use it. They succeeded but not before receiving abuse from touts who wanted to resell his ticket for a three-figure sum.
Koko was a magnificent venue then, before fire ravaged it in 2019. A Victorian multi-tiered and domed music hall wrought in gilt and shiny ceramics that was unprepossessing from the outside. The main floor is buried 25 feet underground and on entering the edifice at pavement level, it is quite a surprise to emerge from a little tunnel in to the auditorium at 1st floor balcony level.
Wilko, of course, smashed the joint. He served up a furious, high octane performance that was a celebration of all that is good about real music. His and the band’s usual lofty standards were exceeded. The addition of a top of the range PA courtesy of a better venue, and a packed crowd intent on Wilko feeling their love simply enhanced the quality of the experience. As my mate said, it was an “I was there” night.
Then came the turnaround. Possibly best told via another flick by eccentric filmographer Julien Temple. ‘The ecstacy of Wilko Johnson’ was conceived as an epitaph for Johnson, focusing on what was expected to be the last year of his life. It turned out to be an uplifting story of life-affirmation. Not to mention bullet-dodging.
Sat on the sea wall on Canvey Island, our hero chats frankly about the 3kg tumour he is lugging about in his abdomen. He discusses his life, passions, motivations and reflections over an extended game of chess with the Grim Reaper.
The depiction hinges on the moment when Charlie Chan - photographer, fan and cancer doctor - saw Wilko at a gig looking simply too well and concluded that “This can’t be what they say it is, otherwise he’d be dead.” The second half of the film examines the life-saving operation and the aftermath.
The story is essentially about Wilko’s dignified acceptance of the disease and then unexpected restoration to health. Shining through is his beguiling frankness and copper-bottomed honesty.
“If it’s gonna kill me, I don’t want it to bore me!” he says to the big fella in the hooded cloak, over a chess move. The camera pans round to reveal it is Wilko, in alter-ego form, shrouded in the Grim Reaper’s attire.
Most poignant though, is the moment Wilko picks up his guitar during the recuperation and, stood in the Canvey Island shingle, strums out his first notes in months. Even then the drama is filtered. “God me hands are freezin’” he grins.
I’ve tried and failed to get out to Canvey Island a good few times. Just to pay my respects and visit those landmark sites. There’s an annual Dr Feelgood Weekender which would be such a blast if only it didn’t run slap bang into the Cheltenham Festival.
I was due to go on a site visit to the Essex Riviera as part of my job. I’d been doing a case study of the Canvey Island Parish Council (I get all the best work) and had planned a little trip out there to take in the sights, recreating iconic Feelgood’s album covers: here’s me Down By The Jetty; and me Down At The Doctors; not forgetting me, er, next to the parish council office… It didn’t happen. Bad weather and bad luck.
I had to wait until 2016 before another opportunity presented itself. That nearly didn’t happen either. Finding Fenchurch Street station was almost a project-derailing challenge. The indistinct, ambiguous entrance is obscured by a bridge supporting the platforms and disguised to look like the key cutting booths and shoe repair shops adjacent. Of course, on my return journey I exited through the main concourse with its fine Victorian façade on to pretty Fenchurch Place. Still hidden away and cramped amongst chrome, steel and stone high-rise offices. But prettier, and more obvious, than the back entrance, nonetheless.
The empty mid-morning train rocked through east London and picked up plenty of passengers at Limehouse and West Ham. No surprise. Bit easier to find those stations than Fenchurch Street.
For Canvey Island, you have to get the train to Benfleet. The place doesn’t even have a station to call its own. Indeed, until 1931 there was no bridge over Benfleet Creek to get on to the island. I took the number 27C bus over said bridge. On one side there was nothing but open marshland, save for a few wrecked fishing boats and tugs hauled up on the muddy bank. On the other I could pick out a few low rise housing estates.
Canvey Island is roughly seven miles square and much of it lies below sea level. It is now protected behind miles of sea wall. The upgraded defences were finally completed in 1985 replacing older walls that had been overwhelmed by a series of floods. The worst, known as The Great Flood, surged up the estuary from a bitter North Sea on the night of 31st January 1953. We first encountered this devastating event in our tour around the Lincolnshire coast.
The flood inundated all the low-lying lands in its path. Canvey Island was badly hit. 58 lives were lost, the sea wall was washed away and the island’s population of 13,000 was evacuated. It is an incident Wilko recalls with some horror in his autobiography “The sea wall came down. Disaster. About 50 people were killed that freezing cold night. It’s one of the earliest things I remember. We’d been woken up early in the morning and we were looking out of the back of our bungalow at what was usually fields. Well, I could see waves.”
Little surprise then that the motto on Canvey's Coat of Arms is 'Ex Mare Dei Gratia'. 'From the sea by the Grace of God'.
The road signs hinted at the split personality of modern day Canvey. At a roundabout, one fork pointed to “seafront and esplanade” and the other fork directed to “liquefied gas terminal”.
I took the bus through the old village, on through the sprawling post-war estates built at the east end of the island, and finally onto the furthest reaches of Eastern Esplanade. Despite the population of the island now standing at around the 40,000 mark, this felt like the arse end of nowhere.
“What time’s the last bus back?” I enquired of the driver.
“From here?” He looked at me with narrowed eyes, and then pulled out his timetable. “2.15.”
Hardly a surprise there wasn’t a later service. I’d been the only person on the bus since we turned onto the coast road. I was only asking out of curiosity.
The amble back towards civilization along the seafront was gorgeous. I hardly saw anyone until I nodded a few greetings to other promenaders and dog walkers on my way to the town centre. The giant sea wall on my right had wooden benches affixed to it at regular intervals. Each had a dedication to loved ones etched in to a small brass plaque on the top bar, organized by the Friends of Concord Beach. Every so often the sea wall had an alcove cut into it, housing metal benches offering some protection from the elements. A wise innovation I thought as I pulled my collar up against a determined easterly blowing off the coast.
In tracking down Dr Feelgood landmarks on this exposed isle, I’d absorbed a series of excellent, exhaustively researched posts on the ‘Don’t Start The Revolution Without Me’ blog. Well worth a read. The first site I ticked off was the band mural painted on the sea wall depicting the classic Wilko-Brilleaux-Sparko-Big Figure line up circa 1975. This part of the defences had a series of local landmarks and notable characters cheering up the walk, all maintained by the parish council I was glad to note. That would have been an interesting sideline for my erstwhile case study.
This was opposite the tidal paddling pool on the beach with its long list of dos and don’ts. Although needing a bit of TLC, the pool apparently remains well used in Summer. Canvey is still a holiday destination of choice for many. The post war boom, when the place was marketed furiously to London’s Eastenders is long gone but there were enough caravan parks to easily justify a knot of amusement arcades and the funfair where Furtherwick Road met the Esplanade.
Here also was the undisputed gem of the seafront: The Labworth Café. The Lab. This stretch of the sea wall saw many moody, monochrome Feelgood photo shoots around the time of ‘Down To The Jetty’. I had goosepimples.
The café itself was the backdrop to the ‘Oil City Confidential’ film poster. It has simple, classic art deco lines and was built by Ove Arup in the style of the bridge from RMS Queen Mary. Clearly the architects' high water mark, though some might suggest their next commission, the Sydney Opera House, somehow surpasses this jewel. Misguided.
Admiring the building from the foreshore in the low winter sun, I was put in mind of a whitewashed villa glittering against an azure sky by the Ionian coast. How little stimulus is needed to transport the imagination. I went inside, where there was nothing remotely Greek about the lunch: tuna mayo doorstep and a bucket of chips. There was one other optical illusion left. Sat at one of the tables by the bank of long front windows, the container vessels forging through the inrushing tide out to the North Sea looked ridiculously close on this narrow stretch of estuary. I could read the trade names on the containers. I could see the stub of roll-ups protruding from the mouths of the pilots.
The Lab’s art deco theme continued inside. The waitresses were dressed in period-styled black dresses and white pinnies, and brought me tea in a pot that carried through the theme. Sadly, it was style over substance. Gladys warned me of the burn hazard presented by the sleek but impractical pot with a badly fitting lid, so I took care. And then spilt milk from the equally flawed art deco jug all over my trousers.
The prom was busier down where the main road hit the seafront. Above the cluster of uninspiring amusement arcades there was once a disco called Cloud 9 where Dr Feelgood played their first ever gig. The building bore no indication that it was still functioning either as a club or anything else.
Round the corner I stumbled upon the remnants of the island’s other art deco buildings that used to echo the café: the Monico Hotel and Casino. The casino wing, all sharp glass and white stucco symmetry on old photos, came down sometime in the 1980’s. The hotel wing is now a pub – where the Feelgoods also regularly played. However its smart facade, sweeping corners and sun balconies still gave the corner a touch of class. Certainly when compared to the cheap stuff thrown up on the site of the casino, part of which is now the Spice Lounge curry house. Oh, and a bee on the roundabout.
Over by Thorney Bay an energetic crew of beach litter-pickers were rounding up stray cans, wrappers and coffee cups. They were doing a good job. The foreshore and beach all looked clean and spruce. The whole seafront felt cared for. Further round the inlet, a couple of keen looking beachcombers decked in matching puffa jackets were sporting ear phones and metal detectors. I wondered briefly if they were simply digging up more rubbish for the beach team to deal with in some virtuous environmental volunteering enterprise.
Thorney Bay Caravan Park was literally in the shadow of petrochemical plant. That’s ‘literally’, not in the sense used by teenagers to serve as exaggerated approximation, but in the literal sense of the word ‘literally’. It takes a dedicated holidaymaker to throw open the door of their mobile home to welcome in the sights and sounds of adjacent heat exchangers, filtration towers and flare stacks.
The Lobster Smack Inn further along the coast (another venue for the band) fronted on to the jetty and was the location for their famous debut album cover shot. Nothing much had changed. Not the pub since about 1610 (the oldest on the island), not the shingle and gravel jetty, not the bleak view across to grey-brown Thames water (even on a sunny day).
Then I broke right and sharply left onto Smallgains Avenue in search of the Canvey Club. This ramshackle wooden single story hut was renamed The Alibi Club for a starring role on the ‘Sneakin’ Suspicion’ album cover. In truth, there wasn’t so much to see here. It was indeed just a ramshackle hut. So I headed back via the High Street and passed the Admiral Jellico, a big inter-war corner pub who's bar featured on the cover of the 1977 live platter, ‘Be Seein' You’. I was done.
Getting a bus back to Benfleet was a little more tricky than arriving. The school run had hit and the crowd at the bus stop was four deep. There was some animated discussion about the frequency of buses, which I became involved in whether I liked it or not.
"Where you going pal?"
I chanced a look up and realised the chap in the ripped Regatta kagool was definitely talking to me.
"Does the 22 go to Benfleet BR?"
"Yep, they all do pal. You just missed two."
"Oh, I’ll wait for the 27 then".
"They go the other way round to Benfleet as well. It's an island you know. You just missed a 27 going that way. "
I could afford to be phlegmatic.
"Always the way innit?"
"I'll get a 27 if I have to and walk the rest. I walk every day you know. Mile and a half. Every day."
"Whether you need it a or not eh?"
But he didn't hear me. A brace of low slung 22s (they hunt in pairs) lurched around the corner and he was off to find pole position. The crowd thinned and I was soon on a 27C away through the housing estates ad back over the creek.
A couple of years later, I picked up the Wilko theme again – curiously, on a beautiful, sharp, winter’s day when - I travelled out to Leigh-on-Sea. This was the base of the Feelgoods’ lead singer, Lee Brilleaux. The band played many gigs at an imposing hotel called The Grand on the Broadway. The place has fallen in to disrepair and had been the focus of a stop-start community-funded rescue bids. Ultimately, they failed, but the building will be saved and redeveloped as flats and shops. It was obscured by hoardings and tarpaulins on my visit.
Leigh-on-Sea is really part of Southend these days. But old Leigh down by the estuary and tucked behind the Two Mile Island nature reserve felt a world away from Benfleet, the gateway to Canvey, and indeed from the rest of Southend. That much was obvious as soon as the train cut across Hadleigh Marsh with the ruined drum towers of its imposing castle on the ridge to my left, surveying the creeks which edged up towards the tracks on my right. The mix of historic port buildings, coupled with working boatyards, small scale industry, a fishing fleet and a few smart restaurants and pubs would suggest a likeness with Whitstable on the opposite coast, only on a smaller scale. No harm in that. I was captivated by the place.
The public quay was busy with fishing boats and pleasure craft tying up. Three or four fishmongers’ shacks lining the sea wall were still open as I sauntered by at 3.45 and were doing a decent enough trade.
One or two folks were taking the chill on the chin in the beer garden of The Smack to watch the sun go down. I did the same and then went inside to watch the last of the light leach out of the sky. Even on the busy estuary there seemed to be little pollution and I quietly enjoyed the hardness and sharpness of the cold, clear winter skies. Finding a jukebox with a bit of ‘Milk and Alcohol’ primed for a spin would have been just about perfect right then. No such luck. Instead some Spotify Dr Feelgood playlists powered me home.