Extract from Chapter 8 of Lee Brilleaux: Rock ’n’ Roll Gentleman – The Adventures Of Dr Feelgood’s Iconic Frontman (Polygon, 2015)
While Wilko insists they ‘never took [the tension] onstage with them’, it was that very tension, whether staged or real or somewhere in between, that was proving ever more intoxicating as far as the audience was concerned. As the mercury rose during the summer of 1975, the Feelgoods only became more sultry and magnetic as they paraded from show to show, systematically grabbing rock’n’roll with both hands, cracking its neck and resetting it like some insane chiropractor night after night.
On 16 August, the band flew to Avignon, France, for the Orange Festival in a privately chartered Handley Page monoplane (during this flight, Wilko Johnson insisted on ‘having a go’ at being the pilot while the rest of the party prayed to gods previously ignored). NME editor Tony Tyler was present to document the experience. His piece would be titled ‘Oil City Meets The Riviera – And Wins’. The fact that no one had said it was a war in the first place was neither here nor there.
The festival was set in a Roman amphitheatre, heaving with in excess of 12,000 fans by the time they arrived (it seated 9,000). There was something gladiatorial about the whole affair, and the general atmosphere in turn was not a little combative. They landed into chaos – ‘the usual panic over hire cars,’ said Lee – although the band didn’t care: their ferocious tour manager Jake Riviera was a dab hand at speaking French, not to mention settling issues in whatever manner he felt would be the most effective. Lee Brilleaux viewed the maelstrom with detached froideur. ‘Silly buggers, frogs,’ he was heard to sigh as everyone around him flapped. (This may or may not have been the same occasion on which Lee suggested that France would be better off being turned into a giant golf course, with the French serving as caddies. It was, as we have previously established, the 1970s.)
The festival bill also featured Procol Harum, Tangerine Dream and John Martyn among others, but, as the ever adoring NME surmised, the ‘best local group in the world’ was about to sweep in.
Anticipation for the Feelgoods was building and, shortly before Lee, clad in trademark sullied white, prepared to walk up to the stage, a fracas broke out. The Hell’s Angels had come down to the festival in force, having ‘taken the festival over as “security”,’ remembers Geoff. ‘Very scary. They had bats and stuff, as if it was going to be some kind of war. We were a bit worried, it felt like there could be violence.’
The horrific scenes at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival in 1969 were still fresh in people’s minds, and at one point, it was not out of the question that something disastrous might occur at Orange. Twenty drunken, overheated Angels suddenly crashed the backstage area armed with cudgels. ‘Brilleaux and Fenwick watch from their caravan door with narrowed eyes, Oil City natural reactions hovering on the brink. No need. The clowns are ejected. On goes the Doctor. The Doctor crunches the crowd,’ writes Tyler.
Their natural cool was underlined by the fact that they apparently refused to come back for an encore after a set that had everyone on their feet, dancing. They’d had their wicked way with the crowd like a gang of rapacious highwaymen, torn and thrust their way through the Wilko compositions du jour and covers such as ‘Riot’, ‘Route 66’ and an obscene ‘I’m A Hog For You Baby’, with its brazenly long two-note, back-and-forth guitar solo (a kind of musical metaphor for the Feelgoods’ staying power in the sack), Brilleaux molesting the drums, the floor, the mic, his beer and any other inanimate object that happened to be in his sightline. And then they disappeared into the fading light – and no amount of begging would bring them back. In actual fact, the Feelgoods were more than happy to perform an encore but, as Lee remembered, ‘the organisers prevented us. They claimed there were sound problems. I think they were afraid of what we could do.’