Wilko Johnson (Dr. Feelgood) and Dave Tice (Buffalo, Count Bishops) talk to PKM and give us the scoop on the Pub Rock scene. Before punk arrived in London, a revival of basic, uncomplicated rock & roll, infused with R & B, had already been packing the pubs of the UK and Australia, even if it wasn’t burning up the charts. ‘Pub rock’ was simply a convenient label for the rootsy music of Dr. Feelgood, Eddie & the Hot Rods, the Count Bishops in the UK, and Buffalo, Rose Tattoo and AC/DC in Australia, among many others.
By Adam Ganderson
In the old days, when human contact did not involve a major illness risk, people crammed themselves into bars. The 1970s were the best time to do this since it was a chance to hear some rock ‘n’ roll, cheap! Music was transformed in ways that involved journalistic words like punk, metal, new wave and pub rock. Pub rock was a thing that happened in places like England and Australia where bars are called pubs. But, far from closing the book on that definition, people have instead written entire tomes about what pub rock was. One thing’s for sure, it was not defined by any sound. The pub rock “scene” splintered off to all kinds of directions, one of which was the no-bullshit approach to beat heavy 1960s American R&B taken by Dr. Feelgood, Eddie & The Hot Rods and The Count Bishops.
“But they were bands of all kinds: jazz and funk and rock. If you said ‘pub rock’ you’re talking about a kind of venue not a kind of music.” – Wilko Johnson
Wilko Johnson is not only a rock ‘n’ roll survivor, a man who cheated death after recovering from a terminal cancer diagnosis, but he is also really good at guitar. During his time with Dr. Feelgood, and still today, he uses a deceptively simple chopping guitar sound strong enough to penetrate the most waterlogged sponge brains of pub dwellers.
Dave Tice is probably best known for his time as vocalist with groundbreaking Aussie hard rockers Buffalo. But his time in England during the 1970s as singer with The Count Bishops was significant for showing his versatility as vocalist and because the Bishops, along with Eddie & The Hot Rods (among others), represented a version of heavily juiced R&B that was perfected by Dr. Feelgood. It was a sound that had been lost during the psych-progressive waves of the late 1960s and was being rediscovered.
Dave Tice: “Joining The Count Bishops, I found myself in a band which (had) a repertoire based on R&B and blues songs of the mid-‘60s. My first thought was, ‘Maybe I made a mistake here. This seems to be rather retro.’ Of course, the difference in the level of musicianship, the treatment to the songs, and also the momentum of the band was very high. So, after I settled into a couple rehearsals, I started to realize that I was rediscovering a joy in the music that I’d kind of lost toward the final years of Buffalo.”
Lines can be traced between all so-called pub rock bands of the time, but as the decade of the 1970s reached its apex before the inevitable descent on a downhill slope toward the shit-heap of the present, a revival took place. It was picked up from early Motown and Chess recordings made popular by the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who, along with groups like the Birds, the Undertakers, and Johnny Kidd & the Pirates. Then it was forgotten and picked up again by bands who understood simple but effective wavelengths. Some of these bands converged in 1978 for a show in London at The Roundhouse. It was a show that included Wilko Johnson, The Count Bishops, Motörhead, a lot of speed, and the lost letters of a famous Romantic Age poet. More on that in a moment.
The Count Bishops – I Want Candy – TOTP 1978:
I asked Wilko Johnson what he thought of pub rock. “I hate it,” he said. “I use the term contemptuously. It’s a term I never liked, partly ‘cause I don’t drink. Or I didn’t then. People say ‘pub rock’ as if it’s a kind of music. And it’s not. In 1974, or whenever, for a year or so there was a kind of scene where there were several pubs all around London that were attracting audiences because they were putting on good bands. But they were bands of all kinds: jazz and funk and rock. If you said ‘pub rock’ you’re talking about a kind of venue not a kind of music.”
Dave Tice had a similar opinion: “Garage, punk, pub rock, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll, man. Some of it you could almost call country if you stuck a cowboy hat on a bloke’s head.”
There is, in fact, the story that the pub rock scene in England was started by an American, country-influenced band called Eggs Over Easy that, around 1971, became one of the early groups to play a non-jazz repertoire in English pubs. Their shows attracted people like Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, and Frankie Miller, among others, all of whom would soon be known as “pub rock” whether they liked it or not. Bands were not required to have a record deal to perform. Pub owners realized they could cash in without charging a ton of money at the door. All they had to do was sell rivers of booze and it was up to the bands to bring in drinkers. Musicians got exposure and a small amount of dough.
We weren’t making any kind of statement, but also knew that what we were doing was kind of deeply unfashionable. …we were certainly looked on with some scorn by other local bands, who we used to laugh at. They were coming onstage wearing frocks and singing about god knows what.” – Wilko Johnson
Dave Tice was a recent transplant from Sydney, Australia at the time. “The gigs we did would’ve had a door charge,” he said. “One pound fifty or two pounds maybe. Minimal, really. Count Bishops played at The Nashville in West Kensington, which held something like 350 to 400 people, and every time we played there, we packed that place out. And all of them were drinking pints like they were going out of fashion.”
In Australia a similar scene was taking shape, but with sunnier weather and wombats. By the early ‘70s, certain bands had already come up through the ranks to play auditoriums and festivals, bands like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, the Coloured Balls, and Buffalo. Buffalo were known for inventive heavy boogie rock, a more menacing Status Quo, and lead singer Dave Tice at times sounded like John Kay from Steppenwolf, but they were original enough to spawn an entire population of heavy metal imitators. In 1976, Buffalo’s bass player, Pete Wells, switched to slide guitar and left to start one of the ultimate AU pub rock bands, Rose Tattoo. By 1977, Buffalo had become a lumbering tour beast, attracting huge crowds even without much radio airplay. They also had massive overhead touring expenses. Dave Tice was ready for a change.
Buffalo – Live concert footage, Sydney, 1974:
Buffalo’s former drummer, Paul Balbi, had already moved to England several years earlier, and on a Christmas visit back to Sydney in 1977 he gave his pal Dave Tice an offer. A band he had joined in London called the Count Bishops was looking for a singer.
“I’d done what I wanted to do with Buffalo,” recalled Tice. “We got to a stage where we were getting a lot of pressure from our record company to make a hit record.” Buffalo was “not a charting singles band, we were an album band. The mass media in Australia found us not to their taste because we were full-on heavy rock. We were forced into a couple of lineup changes, so when the offer came to join the Count Bishops, I jumped on it. I got off the plane at Heathrow wearing a cotton shirt and a short jacket, after leaving (summer) Sydney and walked into a snowstorm.”
London was the other side of the world, but there were other differences in the pub bands there. On his arrival Tice noticed “a complete difference in attitudes. Australians are really quite blase about their own bands. There’s always been a sort of cultural cringe in the business over here and a lot of the musicians feel that they’re a bit back water or don’t really count on the world stage. If you go to England or Europe, the world is potentially your oyster because they don’t have those sort of inferiority complexes. That was the first thing I noticed.” He also noted that, “Everybody traces the pub rock scene to Dr. Feelgood. There were a lot of bands around sort of like that, they just happened to be the ones who got the first real recognition.”
“Back in the Night” – Dr. Feelgood live, 1979:
Dr. Feelgood’s version of rowdy rhythm & blues rock germinated among the coastal oil refineries of Canvey Island, plants that processed the raw materials of vinyl records. This was a time when glam fashion was in effect and certain prog bands were acting ridiculous. But Dr. Feelgood was not a reaction against these trends. They were simply guys playing music they liked the way they knew how. “The very first rehearsal I said, ‘Look, we gotta be just like Johnny Kidd and the Pirates,’” Wilko Johnson recalled. “We all understood what we were doing. We wanted to be a beat group. All the good old blues repertoire. We just wanted to do that. We weren’t making any kind of statement, but also knew that what we were doing was kind of deeply unfashionable. It didn’t really make much difference on the little local level, but we were certainly looked on with some scorn by other local bands, who we used to laugh at. They were coming onstage wearing frocks and singing about god knows what.”
Several elements set Dr. Feelgood apart from average R&B slag. One was the hard-hitting rhythm section of John “Sparko” Sparks and John “Big Figure” Martin. There was the disheveled frontman persona of Lee Brilleaux, who held harmonica, cigarette, and microphone all at once and never changed out of a dirty white leisure suit.
“Lee Brilleux had this sort of frenzy with him,” said Wilko. “A guy who had a devastating army of sarcasm. He could be very funny.”
Then there was Wilko, a one-man lead and rhythm combo who could make the guitar sound like a rhythmic short-circuiting power drill.
A blistering version of “Roxette” – Dr. Feelgood, 1975:
“There was a whole epoch of fantastic music coming out from America in the 1960s,” said Wilko. “Leiber and Stoller and just fantastic stuff. There wasn’t stuff like that in this country. That kind of music became well known here in the wake of the Rolling Stones and then it passed on again. By the time Dr. Feelgood started getting going, we were playing something that was from ten years before. We were never taken seriously in Southend. It wasn’t until we started to play those London pub gigs that people saw us. My guitar style, just my attempt to copy Mick Green (Johnny Kidd & the Pirates) was important. In a three piece band, it’s not the usual way of playing. We were doing something fundamentally different. We weren’t playing the same song as guys who would get up dressed in double denim and stand with their back to the audience. We might be playing the same song as them, but it wouldn’t sound the same, ha.”
The Pirates “Gibson Martin Fender” 1977:
It is a familiar story. Certain American musicians had set the stage for events that happened in England, but it wasn’t the members of Eggs Over Easy. These musicians showed up in 1972 for the London Rock and Roll Show at Wembley Stadium. They were: Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, and Bo Diddley. Also appearing was the somewhat washed up former Tornados’ member Heinz (whose band at the gig included Wilko) and some hellraiser kids from Detroit called the MC5. Wilko recalled the day: “Chuck Berry was magnificent. The best I’ve ever seen him. He actually signed my guitar. He was in a good mood, which was rare for Chuck, I think. When I went onstage with Heinz, it was dreadful. But I remember standing there with long hair, like ‘Wow this is Wembley Stadium.’ And then the next thing I was backstage and heard this music start. I thought ‘Wow, this sounds a bit better!’ I walked out and, fucking hell, it was the MC5. I’d heard a couple of their records, but now they were doing this thing and Wayne Kramer was gold. He was wearing a black suit, shades, and was golden. Fred Smith was all silver, like the Silver Surfer. It just looked so fucking freaky. I saw Wayne Kramer sing ‘Ramblin Rose’ in that high voice, and he does this thing, he goes off sideways with the guitar and, fucking hell, I’m freakin’. This really kicked. And in the crowd, the Teddy Boys didn’t like it at all. They were getting’ uptight and throwing cans at the band. And I remember at one point Wayne is moving across the stage and this can comes flyin’ up and he kicks it with the toe of his boot and he didn’t break a step. C’mon man! And they just looked so arrogant and great. Man, that had a big effect on me. I even bought a tube of golden grease paint and started painting myself gold, trying to reproduce Wayne Kramer. We were still fairly amateur, but Dr. Feelgood had started to find a style of its own. Just a kind of thing picked up from the MC5. It was psychedelic but it was shit kicking music. That Wembley Stadium gig was significant in a lot of ways. It was a turning point.”
London Rock ‘n’ Roll Show, Wembley Stadium, 1972:
Between 1974 and 1977, Dr. Feelgood exploded in England, regularly packing venues and releasing three studio albums and one live album with the great title of Stupidity, which hit number one in the U.K.
“The London pub scene was fantastic,” said Wilko. “You could play three times a week. There were lots of gigs so you actually make a living. When I say make a living, for a Dr. Feelgood gig we would get 25 pounds. By the time you pay for petrol, that’s less than five pounds each.” The band was on an upward climb until 1977 when, around the time of their third studio release, Wilko was sacked for what must have been one hundred percent totally rational reasons made by very sober individuals. The band went on to chart success but would never be the same.
“The thing about AC/DC is that, in many ways, they’re the ultimate pub rock band. That’s where they come from, and the music they play is so uncomplicated.
Wilko formed a new group, The Solid Senders, moved into a new place, and hung around London with Lemmy Kilmister. They were friends from way back. “I was actually a hippie when I first heard of Lemmy. I’d been in Kathmandu and got back and bumped into a friend of mine and he said, ‘Come round my house, I have this fantastic album called Hawkwind.’ So I went round and listened to that and, I’ll tell you what, I’ve always loved that album.” The friend who he had bumped into was Dave Higgs. Higgs had been in a band with Lee Brilleaux called The Fix and would go on to form Eddie & The Hot Rods, which basically started out as Dr. Feelgood imitators.
Wilko remembered: “Dave Higgs was a contemporary of mine. We knew each other as teenagers. When I got back from India, Higgsy was homeless. We were living in this council house and there was a spare room, and I said to Higgsy ‘I got a room.’ So Higgsy was living with us for quite a while. But before too long he’d got a rock band, a three piece with a singer. The repertoire was all just stuff like Chuck Berry. When Dr. Feelgood started getting big, the whole focus of the music business was turned on by this kind of thing. Eddie & The Hot Rods were up and running, they had found their own thing by then but (at first) were a direct kind of copy of what we were doing. Barrie Masters, the singer, even used to smoke the same brand of cigarettes as Lee, ‘cause Lee used to do this thing, smoking very viciously onstage.”
Eddie & the Hot Rods – Teenage Depression 1977:
Higgs telling Wilko about Hawkwind turned out to be prophetic.
“When Dr. Feelgood were first signed by United Artists, they gave us some gigs supporting Hawkwind,” Wilko recalled. “That was when I met Lemmy.” Lemmy’s belief that “Rock ‘n’ roll is the alternative to art” was a philosophy Wilko agreed with. “Oh yeah, absolutely. The minute you take it out of the gutter you ruin it. To call it high art is the kiss of death. You can only get so arty, but no further. I mean it is great to sit and mull over Bob Dylan’s lyrics at times. But to regard rock ‘n’ roll art, it ruins it.”
Lemmy called The Count Bishops a ”very good” band and, once he formed Motörhead, the two groups developed their own shared history. Both were sharing a bill on what was the first tour for the “classic” Motörhead lineup of “Fast” Eddie Clarke, “Philthy” Phil Taylor, and Lemmy. It was the ill-fated 1977 Beyond The Threshold of Pain tour.
Dave Tice remembered: “It was a doubleheader, Motörhead and Count Bishops together because we both had albums out at the same time on the same label, Chiswick. It was supposed to be 30 odd shows, but it ended up being three. We did the first couple and then got to the third, in Torquay, on the South coast of England. We were getting great crowds up to that point. The Count Bishops did their bit that night and Motörhead did their show. And later on, just as we were getting ready to go to sleep, Motörhead’s roadie came knocking on our door, crying, having a fit, because he’s just had a falling out with Phil (Taylor) which turned into a fisticuffs scuffle. They fell down the stairs and Phil broke his wrist. That brought an end to the tour after three days.”
Lemmy’s belief that “Rock ‘n’ roll is the alternative to art” was a philosophy Wilko agreed with. “Oh yeah, absolutely. The minute you take it out of the gutter you ruin it. To call it high art is the kiss of death.
This would not be the Count Bishops last interaction with Motörhead, due in part to Wilko Johnson’s taste in literature and admiration for William Wordsworth. Wordsworth, an 18th-century poet, might not be a name people associate with rock ‘n’ roll, but in his time he was a writer whose attitude was not that different from those who, in the 1970s, wanted to keep rock ‘n’ roll in the gutter. “During what we call the Romantic Era, Wordsworth and Coleridge, that’s what they wanted to do: to write poetry not using what had been considered poetic diction, to write it in the common language. I’m a great lover of Wordsworth,” said Wilko. “I went to University in Newcastle and studied English Literature. One of the teachers there, Dr. Robert Woof, came to build up this Center at Wordsworth’s cottage. It’s a huge international thing now. He knew I’d gone off into the world of rock ‘n’ roll (and) this situation happened where a whole load of Wordsworth letters, a big stash of them, had suddenly come to light. There was a panic of, ‘Oh fuck, they’re gonna go to America. We’ve got to save them for the British museum.’ The Wordsworth Center was directly involved in trying to buy these letters. Also, at that time, a guy who’d been a friend of mine was working at the Wordsworth Center. He asked, ‘Why don’t we ask Wilko to put on a benefit to raise money to buy these letters?’ So he called and of course I did it. The word got around that there was gonna be this gig. And the venue was gonna be The Roundhouse. They’d been putting on big name poets like Ted Hughes [England’s Poet Laureate from 1984 to 1998]. I’ve still got photos of the poster. There was a big sign outside: Wilko Johnson and below that: Ted Hughes. But at that point, The Roundhouse was a very notable rock ‘n’ roll gig. Sundays at The Roundhouse were fantastic. But they were going to stop all that. In fact, we were the last rock ‘n’ roll show in the old Roundhouse. It’s a very modern venue now. Very posh. Motörhead, at that time, were absolutely broke and they were living in a sort of basement. How Motörhead came to play, well, I was hanging out with Lemmy a lot.”
The bill that night included Wilko’s Solid Senders, Motörhead, The Count Bishops and Blast Furnace & the Heat Waves.
Dave Tice recalled, “Our involvement in the concert was due to our association with Wilko who arranged the whole thing.. We’d done shows with all the other bands on the bill. In fact, our original bass player, Steve Lewins, had joined Wilko’s new line-up just prior to the show. Motörhead were in disguise as ‘Iron Fist and The Hordes From Hell’ due to contractual restraints, which meant they couldn’t perform under their real name that night.”
The show ended up producing two live albums. One for Motörhead, released in 1983 as What’s Words Worth?, and one for The Count Bishops, The Bishops Live! Tice remembered that “During the remix sessions, Johnny, our lead guitar, was unhappy about one of his solos and wanted to replace that section. He found that we’d played the song much faster than normal and he couldn’t keep up with the pace. This was a result of Lemmy who, on entering the dressing room pre-gig, had shared around the white powders he’d brought along.”
“Hands On the Wheel”-The Count Bishops, live:
Wilko also shared Lemmy’s interest in the white powders. “When I got chucked out of Dr. Feelgood, I used to have a flat in West Hampstead. Jean Jacques Burnel from The Stranglers moved in there. I used to get all of these people come and stay there. It was a place people could crash. I’d get up in the morning tripping over Billy Idol. The Damned sitting on the sofa. There’s Dave Vanian all done up. I was kind of bumming around really then, in London, with Lemmy. People were always asking me to go down to The Vortex. But I didn’t want to go down The Vortex. ‘You want to go down The Vortex?’ ‘No, I’ll stay here and snort some more speed.’”
The amphetamine-fueled poetry fundraiser show turned out to be a success for fans of rock ‘n’ roll and of Wordsworth. Wilko had saved the day: “Dr. Woof, the academic in charge of the Wordsworth Center, was such a great guy. Totally into Wordsworth. He was walking around and he saw Motörhead sprawling about and it was like: ‘This is Motörhead. And this is speed.’ It was like he was on Mars. Anyway, the letters were saved and bought for the collection. I actually went to this thing at the British Museum (afterwards) with a woman, a groupie, and there’s all these people in dinner jackets sipping champagne like, ‘Well done, with the letters.’ Ha ha. Apart from private contributions I think our show was one of the biggest amounts that was raised in that campaign.”
A few years later, the Count Bishops split up following the death of guitarist Zen Hierowski in a car crash and drummer Paul Balbi’s visa problems which led to deportation back to Australia. Dave Tice stayed in England until the mid-1980s and played in a band called The Cobras which featured Wilko’s replacement in Dr. Feelgood, Gypie Mayo, who by that time had also left Feelgood.
The London scene dissipated in the ‘80s with many of the bands who packed the pubs in the mid-‘70s going on to international fame or becoming more image than substance. Stiff Records was a sort of bridge from the pub to punk rock eras, putting out stuff by everyone from The Adverts, The Damned and Motörhead to Ian Dury & The Blockheads and Elvis Costello. Joe Strummer is a glaring example of the shift that occurred when punk hit. His early band, The 101ers, played a weird sort of traditional rock ‘n’ roll. They were a cool, almost naive, sort of group that was in opposition to what The Clash would become once they disappeared up their own art. Bands like Dr. Feelgood and Count Bishops did not fit with fashion-obsessed U.K. punk.
“Gloria” – The 101’ers, live in concert:
The Sex Pistols were a great rock ‘n’ roll group, even through the seeming calculation of being designed to fail. The live attitude and aggression of Dr. Feelgood via the MC5 had an enormous effect on them. John Lydon and Steve Jones would show up at their gigs and Wilko said that, “What they got from it was the energy (which) accounts for so much when you’re performing. They could do that. Sid used to enthuse about Dr. Feelgood. He’d say, ‘When they come onstage, where they start from, that’s where most bands end up. We’ve got to do that.’ So that was the thing they really liked. The absolutely berzerk performance style. But they were so young, they’d literally only just bought their first guitar. Obviously, they couldn’t do what we were doing, which had been learned over several years and from listening to good music. Roxy Music was the oldest thing they knew.”
Sid used to enthuse about Dr. Feelgood. He’d say, ‘When they come onstage, where they start from, that’s where most bands end up. We’ve got to do that.’
Motörhead, of course, went on to continued success completely due to Lemmy’s determination, lyrical ability, and very powerful songwriting based in a traditional rock ‘n’ roll framework that often went against whatever trend was occurring in other “loud” genres like metal or punk.
The apex of rock in Australian pubs lasted longer than in England, mostly because good bands were sticking around who didn’t make it big overseas. Bands like Cold Chisel and The Angels thrived in the 1970s. Live pub music did well into the ‘80s and early-‘90s, though the scene has been depleted over the last twenty years with the use of video poker machines, or “pokies,” as money earners for pubs over live music. Rose Tattoo never really broke in America but went on to influence similar American versions of hard living bands, many from the L.A. Sunset Strip scene, most noticeably Guns ‘n’ Roses. As mentioned, Rose Tattoo had roots in Pete Wells time in Buffalo and another early-‘70s band called Buster Brown, which featured vocalist Angry Anderson and drummer Phil Rudd, who went on to join AC/DC. AC/DC, of course, would go on to conquer pubs in Australia and London, breaking Eddie & The Hot Rods attendance record at The Marquee, and then selling roughly a gajillion records worldwide. They did it with the simple formula of using good time rock to make packed sports arenas feel like intimate pubs.
Dave Tice said, “The thing about AC/DC is that, in many ways, they’re the ultimate pub rock band. That’s where they come from, and the music they play is so uncomplicated. It’s basic rock ‘n’ roll. And it started from them doing it in pubs all over Australia.”
Yeah, uncomplicated. Simple. Or maybe what Muddy Waters said about blues can apply to rock ‘n’ roll as well: “It look so simple, so easy to do, but it’s not.”