S CLUB 7, THE PISTOLS AND DR FEELGOOD - JULIEN TEMPLE IS A BROAD DIRECTOR
A short way into my interview with Julien Temple, we notice a middle-aged suit at the table behind us, showily engrossed in a copy of a recent Iggy Pop biography. “It’s the wrong one,” shrugs Julien dismissively. He should know.
As you might expect, the self-appointed guardian of punk history – archived in his music videos and slingshot punk documentaries – carries unpublished biographies of punk heroes inside his head. He can remember the climax of the Iggy video he directed with Pop’s trousers round his ankles. He remembers seeing Iggy backstage after his disastrous crooner re-invention, defiling the assembled Arista records’ WAGs by pissing over their fashionable ankle bracelets.
I have met Julien to discuss his forthcoming Dr Feelgood film, Oil City Confidential. Growing up in the weird biblical wake of the North Sea floods, the band’s killer R&B hooks and mythic vision of Canvey as the oily “Thames Delta” briefly made them heroes, only for the tidal wave of punk to wash them back again into the ignominious Essex swamps.
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Vice: Oil City Confidential is the “prequel” to the Sex Pistols’ corrective The Filth and the Fury and the Future is Unwritten, a portrait of your friend Joe Strummer. Does it set out to reclaim Dr Feelgood as punks?
Julien Temple: I didn’t set out to make a trilogy of films; I just feel that punk goes back thousands of years. What happened in London in ’76 and ‘77 was already brewing in response to the hippy thing, which had actually been as pure as punk in the mid-60s, but had become diseased. Canvey, where the reality was so different from the hippy dream, was the ideal launching pad for ideas about how to blow away the omnipresent smell of Afghan hounds. Dr Feelgood got Johnny Rotten jumping up and down and Joe Strummer buying a Telecaster to form a band.
What about the pub rock tag they have?
I love the fact that pubs were actually anathema to Wilko [Johnson, Dr Feelgood guitarist] because he didn’t even drink. It was just a circuit where you could get a crowd. They were more like Kabuki than bearded country rock guys. They really did feel like they’d come to rob the takings from the back office rather than play the show.
Why did you make the film?
I like the idea of showing a number of them back-to-back eventually. I’m hopefully working with the Kinks next and want to join the dots of this slightly invisible cultural map. There’s nothing more to say about the Beatles and they weren’t that great in the first place!
There’s more of a sense of place than some of your other films. Did you know Canvey before?
I knew it from the Feelgood myth. It’s the nearest beach to the East End and there’s that transplanted villainy. They’d bury the bodies in the mudflats and say, “That’s my fucking plot,” rather than buy their bungalow. The whole place had a lawlessness but also a strange holidaying vibe that is now nestling under the dark shadow of the south’s biggest oil terminal. There’s a weird sense of scale, the bleakness of the marshes and the romance of what childhood would have been like for someone like Lee. It was another time in a place where you could be pirates and vikings and things that you can’t really be anymore.
The band’s image is inseparable from that landscape.
Their creativity was to escape their surroundings by imagining a way out and then making that real, which is a fantastic alchemical trick that I recommend.
Or the effect of the petrochemicals?
Toxic clouds are inspiring, yes.
Did you know that Wilko was so Kurtz-like? He’s a great protagonist.
I knew he was likely to be fucking nuts, but didn’t quite realise the extent of his madness. He’s like Blake, a Cockney visionary. We’ve been through the same things too – music, India, acid. I was into English literature; he’s one of the UK’s six Early Icelandic scholars. There is a campaign for him to be the successor to Patrick Moore on The Sky At Night.
The poetry within him, and within punk’s stridency, is what interests you?
Politics without a gesture to poetry is meaningless. This is political like all my films, but hopefully provocative in a willow-the-wisp way. I like the fact it’s about a band that almost made it but were washed away by the punk avalanche. I had a cartoon in the film where Johnny Rotten vomits across Heathrow Airport and washes everyone away like the parting of the Red Sea. I should have kept it in.
Yeah, you really should have. Was the lack of archive footage of the band inspiring or just difficult? I suppose it didn’t exist because you hadn’t shot it – unlike with the Pistols and the Clash?
I like the chance of something arriving in a brown envelope. If you’ve pulled the only evidence out of a dustbin, the bad quality of the shot becomes very moving. The worst time I ever had was with Glastonbury because I had so much footage. I got into this nightmare chamber of possibilities and lost the plot!
You seem okay now.
I’m having a different problem with the Detroit film I’m doing. To tell the story of the city that pioneered the 20th century – first cars, first mass production, first to fail – you need more than an hour. It’s about how bad cars have been for the human spirit. It’ll be on after Top Gear I hope!
Given your interest in these kinds of things, it’s hard to imagine how you’ve coped with some of the big budget stuff you’ve had to do, like S Club 7 videos.
I’ve done music videos for money, but I did the films because I wanted to. I’m lucky that Absolute Beginners [the big-bucks Patsy Kensit musical that caused a studio to collapse] wasn’t a huge success. I’d be washing out the jacuzzi with Dettol as we speak. I regret the idea that I couldn’t work for a long time because of it though. I was an exile in Reagan’s America.
Is it a thankless task mediating both the desire and fear that musical icons have over the telling of their stories?
It can be a very controlling environment, absolutely, like that film blowing sunshine up Mick Jagger’s arse. That’s what he wanted, which is insane. It makes him look like a complete jip! You can’t be over-awed, that’s the thing. With Dr Feelgood it’s good because you’re almost making Spinal Tap. They didn’t exist for most people. One of my greatest moments of enlightenment was after The Filth and the Fury, when all the young kids came to me and said, “Wow! Who were those actors?” They thought the whole story was a fiction – which was sad, but also fantastic at the same time.
Wilko Johnson and the 100th incarnation of Dr Feelgood are both still on tour. The Leeds International Film Festival will be showing Oil City Confidential on 8 November.
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