Most travel reviews are about exotic locations, island paradises and glamorous surroundings. If that’s what you’re hoping for, please leave this review now – because this piece is about a hotel in one the least exotic locations in the UK – Canvey Island.
Last year, I spent a weekend break by the seaside there, with 80 other people, most of whom were aged over 50. It wasn’t meant to be a romantic weekend: in fact, my room mate is another man, who I don’t know very well at all. And we’re on the Essex Riviera, in Canvey Island – not so much a seaside resort as an industrialised mud flat on the Thames Estuary. Graham and I do have a few things in common, however: our wives have refused point-blank to spend the weekend with us, we are long-term fans of the band Dr Feelgood. We have met through a mutual friend. The truth is that for us, the weekend on offer – the chance to meet the band in their home town, to walk in their shadow, to breathe in their history – is about as romantic as it gets.
Dr. Feelgood and Canvey Island. For those who don’t know (shame on you), Dr Feelgood is a four-piece British rhythm and blues band formed almost 40 years ago, in Canvey Island. In the 1970s, they graduated rapidly from Canvey to a number one album and a few hit singles, all on the basis of a no-nonsense back-to-basics live act. Not bad for ‘four men in cheap suits from Essex’.
The band is still touring – albeit with inevitable personnel changes over the years – and they’re still a great live act. It’s what they do. And what I’ve done on and off for the past 35 years is to go to the gigs (well, some of them – they play upwards of 200 a year) and buy the albums (vinyl, cassette, CD and now downloads). Now it’s payback time. We’re going to spend a few days hanging out with the band. They’ll have to buy us drinks, laugh at our jokes, perhaps ask me to jam with them…
The Canvey Island connection is for real. It’s where the original band lived (as do some of the current line-up) and it’s where long-term manager (and fifth Feelgood) Chris Fenwick has been based, right from the start. He co-owns the Oysterfleet Hotel (the location for this weekend) from where he runs the Feelgood empire. Fenwick is responsible for this inaugural ‘Dr Feelgood Weekend’ and our genial host for the duration, a role he performs with class and confidence. The longevity of the band as a self-sufficient working band is clearly no accident: with Fenwick, as with the band, what you see is what you get, and what you get will be 100% as advertised. He’s also likeable and very good company.
Oil City Confidential. Canvey Island is a raw, bleak, untidy place situated below sea level on the Thames estuary. As well as Dr Feelgood, it’s known for the disastrous 1953 floods and the oil industry. All of this comes together in the recently-released film we are shown on Saturday afternoon – Oil City Confidential. Directed by Julian Temple, this skilfully weaves the history of Dr Feelgood with that of Canvey Island, combining documentary footage with excerpts from British black and white gangster films. The point being of course that man and nature are in some way in harmony here.
It’s an inspired film, which captures the excitement of the early Dr Feelgood: raw and basic, with the added bonus of not one but two iconic band members – singer Lee Brilleaux and guitarist Wilco Johnson. Johnson left the band in the late seventies, while Brilleaux died in 1994. As the film makes clear, Brilleaux was a man to be respected in many ways. The footage of his wife and mother is particularly poignant – a quality shared by Fenwick in his speech before the film. ‘I’m proud to have been the manager of Dr Feelgood for 39 years. The best job in the world. Bar none’ was the gist of it.
Welcome to Canvey. We arrived at the Oysterfleet Hotel Friday lunchtime, after an abortive tour of Canvey’s pubs. Both beer and food are off, it seems. To us, anyway. The Admiral Jellicoe – the band's local all those years ago – is particularly unwelcoming. We swerve into the hotel car park at speed (Graham was clearly trained by Bodie and Doyle) and a handbrake turn later, we’re parked sideways in a cloud of dust, exhaust fumes and burning rubber. I sit in stunned silence for a few minutes before staggering from the car, white-faced and twitching.
We arrive intending to pay homage to Lee Brilleaux. The Oysterfleet Hotel is the site of the Dr Feelgood Music Bar, where Lee and the band performed, and there is a blue plaque commemorating him over the hotel entrance. A good start. We exit the car and sniff the Canvey air cautiously.
What happens next sets the tone for the entire weekend. A large white van pulls up at reception. It’s the Feelgood tour bus and the driver is Phil Mitchell, Feelgood’s bass player. He’s happy to chat and have his photograph taken. This sets the tone: this is a no-frills business, run by decent, no-frills people like you and me. In fact, this is much more than a band – it’s a community: one example, former band members and associates meet every year to jam with the current band to raise money for charity at the Lee Brilleaux Memorial Concert. And for a while, it’s a community we’re part of – what other band would organise something like this?
The Oysterfleet proves to be not only the best pub in the area, but an extremely well-run hotel and restaurant as well. It is beyond criticism and one can detect Fenwick’s influence as he patrols receptions, bars and restaurant. After a few pints of Abbott and some food (yes, food is on) in the excellent bar, we go to our (comfortable but rather basic) room to find various items of Feelgood merchandise and a printed itinerary. The goodies include a copy of the excellent book ‘Down by the Jetty – The Dr Feelgood story’, signed by the band and Fenwick.
The weekend starts here. That evening, we join the 80 or so other ‘Feelgood Weekend’ guests (that’s how many the hotel holds) in the bar. They’re a mixed bunch: middle-aged men in sensible pullovers, lurking excitedly in the background; sixty-year old veterans with balding heads and beer guts, wearing ageing Feelgood memorabilia; tattooed bikers in Harley t-shirts, with their wives; Rob, a highly eccentric artist with waxed moustache and flute, who once spent a year naked in LA in the name of conceptual art and is possibly the world’s worst blues pianist; people from Ireland, Scotland, Holland, France and Germany; and the lead singer of the New Zealand band ‘Brilleaux’, who gets to perform on stage with the band (he’s not bad, either). A mixed bunch, but all know what we’ve got in common and that’s more important than any differences we might have. Saga this is not!
More beers follow, then dinner with the band. There’s a seating plan and we’re on Phil’s table. He’s very easy to get on with and as well as talking with us he agrees to drink our wine. A very palatable Malbec at under £12 a bottle seems more than reasonable, so we have four bottles. Phil proves to be much better at pacing himself than we are and fails to drink anything like his share. The food and service are good too – well-cooked food, plenty of it, and friendly local staff. In the upstairs function suite, we drink more beer and watch the band perform a rare ‘acoustic’ set. Afterwards, I talk to Chris Fenwick at the bar, whilst drinking more beer, and offer him the benefit of my extensive experience on the managing and marketing of Dr Feelgood, at some length. He listens without any outward signs of anger or violence, which is very much to his credit. Occasionally he manages to get a few words in and tells us some great stories. By the time we get to bed, the prospect of a serious hangover is beyond doubt.
The morning after. After a top-notch full English – as good as I’ve eaten anywhere – we’re off on Chris’s walking tour of Canvey Island. If the breakfast doesn’t sort out the hangover, the walk will – it must be sub-zero on the sea wall. Chris provides an informative commentary on the history and geography of Feelgood and Canvey, with more general observations on the area. He’s good. We see the place where the classic cover shot for the ‘Down by the Jetty’ album was taken.
We then inspect the Labworth Café, a thirties seafront café designed and built by Ove Arup, who went on to design Sydney Opera House. More importantly, it’s featured in early band publicity shots and the film. Canvey Island is – officially – the UK’s most bio-diverse habitat, with rare flora and fauna. It is also run-down, shabby and – in places – quite scary.
Take the Canvey Club, for example. A small, insanitary wooden hut with a bar, which in any other town would have been condemned many years ago, it has its own place in the early Feelgood story. En route, Fenwick fishes out his mobile: ‘It’s Chris from the Feelgoods here. We’ll be there in five minutes. Pour us thirty pints of lager and we’ll sort the rest out later.’ Only in Canvey (as they say around here). We decide to give the clientele a wide berth – and hope they do the same for us.
That evening, we get the full Feelgood rock set. It’s powerful and relentless, honed to perfection over many gigs. The pint mugs on stage are filled with water – in contrast to the three pints of gin (with tonic top) that folklore tells us Lee Brilleaux would have had lined up in days of yore. But if professional means playing so well, so often, and for so many years, then water it is. The rest of us make up for this by drinking more beer than is sensible.
Come to Canvey Island! A romantic weekend indeed and one that celebrated something uniquely British, both band and place. And if you can’t, at the very least make sure that you see the film (Oil City Confidential). A surprisingly resilient band, in a surprisingly interesting place – and a surprisingly well-managed hotel that delivers everything you could reasonably expect from a three-star hotel. The event will be repeated next year – go if you can. Graham and I are already booked in – but despite all this, our wives still won’t join us.