Can it really be forty years since the juggernaut that was the Naughty Rhythms Tour rolled through your town? It was 15 February 1975 when it hit the Rainbow Theatre in Finsbury Park, N4, a Damascene moment for many who had previously been fascinated with Rick Wakeman’s capes and Keith Emerson’s 20 minute synthesizer solos but from that night on cut their hair, went drainpipe in the trouser department and could tolerate nothing longer than a 3 minute dirty R&B tune.
The reason was an evening of music provided by three bands from London’s thriving Pub Rock scene: Kokomo, the fabulously-named Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers and the tour’s breakout success, Dr Feelgood. Pub Rock was that music played from 1972-76 in ‘Victorian pubs north of Regent’s Park ‘, as someone once said, a very back-to-basics mix of rock, pop, R&B, country and folk. The hair may still have been long but there were no feather boas or lurex strides. The uniform was jeans, checked shirts and thrift shop whistles. The Feelgoods in particular looked “like the villains on The Sweeney” but it was the Naughty Rhythms tour that took them out of London’s pubs and made them stars.
As for the dramatis personae, Kokomo were a 10 piece white soul/funk band, four of whom were singers and the others were very serious musicians indeed. The sax player had been in King Crimson, bass player Alan Spenner had been in Joe Cocker’s band at Woodstock and the rhythm section were in such demand for lucrative session work – £150 a day! – that by the time of the Naughty Rhythms tour, the band had only played outside London five times. Their debut album had been just been released and was hailed by the NME as the best debut by a British band for several years.
Dr Feelgood had formed in Canvey Island – US readers think somewhere slightly nastier than say Perth Amboy NJ – in 1971 but didn’t break through into London till 1973. Musically they were perhaps still a little one-note (but what a note!) but their brand of stripped back R&B more than cut the mustard. They looked like they might be panel beaters by day, mainly because they were. The drummer was an enormous, non-smiling big figure of a bloke, so he called himself..er.. The Big Figure. The singer Lee was a skinny little bloke in a filthy jacket who took his stage name from the fact that he had hair like a Brillo pad but spelled it Brilleaux, to add a frankly needless hint of the exotic. And the guitarist. Well, the guitarist had a pudding basin hair cut and held his Fender Telecaster like it was a machine gun. Which was coincidentally the kind of sound it made. And his name was Wilko Johnson.
Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers were more at the country and R&B end of the movement. After a couple of years scuffling around getting gigs anywhere that would have them – “any sniff of a microphone and we were there”, they collided with one Andrew Jakeman, Jake to those who knew him and later Jake Riviera to all, when he co-founded Stiff Records and gave the world Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe. He had a vision for the Chillis and thought he had found a great way of promoting them to the masses. Their latest album, the splendidly named Bongos Over Balham was dying on its feet. Kokomo and Dr Feelgood both had debut albums out on major record labels, doubtless with big promotional budgets but no idea how to spend them. He thought he might help them do just that, especially when he found out that Kokomo were managed by the same guy who managed Pink Floyd. Pub Rock may have been conceived as the antidote to dreary stadium rock but ironically it was the Floyd’s money that paid for the PA, the bus and a team of roadies.
The ticket price was pegged at 75p to attract lots of casual punters and they took turns to top of the bill, even when the Feelgoods were clearly emerging as the tour’s stars. The tour started with two try out nights in Bristol and Guildford, the latter attended by Paul Weller, Graham Parker and Hugh Cornwell – then it was off round the country, with the Feelgoods causing riotous scenes wherever they went.
It didn’t get everywhere. Those like me who didn’t get to see the tour had to wait till 134 March to see what all the fuss was about, when Dr Feelgood appeared on the Old Grey Whistle Test, one of those TV moments after which life would never quite be the same again. The visual impact has never left me or to be honest my mum, who was watching it with me.
Ironically despite the fact this was all born from pub rock, the tour drove more than a few nails into its coffin. Pub rock had always been an eclectric mix of musics, whereas the Feelgoods were just R&B, and rather dirty R&B at that. Movement pioneers and leaders Brinsley Schwartz split in March as did most other bands, although happily once Punk had burned itself out, they all came back as the New Wave and gave us The Rumour, The Motors, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and of course Ian Dury. Sadly Chilli Willi didn’t survive the Naughty Rhythms tour either. Halfway through it they split up when they saw that their clever mix of musicianship and eclecticism was being swept away by the Feelgoods two chord juggernaut each night. Kokomo limped on for a year or two, then split but happily did reform last year for several shows. The Feelgoods however go on and on with a full gig book for 2015 but alas none of the original members. And Wilko seems indestructible…
Further reading: ‘No Sleep Till Canvey Island’ by Will Birch. Will is an author and journalist and as drummer in the Kursaal Flyers has an interesting perspective on Pub Rock.