by Lee McFadden
In 1979, the 16-year-old
Lawrence (no surname, just Lawrence) audaciously launched the project he would
christen "Felt" - the moniker referring to the raw emotion that Tom
Verlaine displayed in the lyric "How We Felt" from Television's "Venus."
Felt's first single, "Index," was completely a solo venture, right
down to the label and sleeve design. The record featured 4 minutes of solo guitar
and some barely audible mumbling, and earned a surprise "Single of The
Week" in the now defunct Sounds! magazine. Spurred on by this, Lawrence
formed Felt as a band. Over the next ten years they released some of the most
beautiful, expressive and essential records of their time, but were never granted
the recognition that their songs merited.
Now, to hopefully redress that balance, Felt are currently the focus of a massive reissue package by Cherry Red, that encompasses a new singles compilation CD Stains On A Decade, a live DVD A Declaration and all ten (!) previously released albums. The collection is being released between June and December.
Stains On A Decade is the first Felt compilation to combine their Cherry Red and Creation releases, and the title emphasises Felt's paradox of being the quintessential eighties band in terms of existence (1980 - 1989) but musically never approaching the cursed "eighties band" cliché. As Lawrence dryly explains; "If you do something against the grain, it becomes a stain, something that shouldn't be there. As we existed for a decade..." The compilation offers a small glimpse of the Felt world - mesmeric, accessible, idiosyncratic, dogmatic, contradictory, unforgettable. Ranging from the classic pop of "Penelope Tree" and "Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow," the uplifting "Primitive Painters" featuring one of Elizabeth Fraser's (Cocteau Twins) most exhilarating vocals, through to Dylanesque whinges about fellow band members in "Ballad of the Band" (more of which later) and the unlikely choice of their only recorded cover version, "Be Still", an obscure Beach Boys album track. "Dennis' voice had that cracked doomed quality about it, and I recognized something of me in it. Beach Boys fans didn't like the album it came from at all (Friends) and it was a bit controversial to do it".The album concludes with the incredible "Space Blues" - a fan letter set to squelchy synth and viola. Over the course of "Stains..." fifteen tracks it is hard to pin down Felt's raison d'etre. Applying the task to ten albums becomes monumental.
Despite the weak, trebly mix that adorns each of the six tracks on Felt's debut Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty (1982), the unique character of the band - Maurice Deebank's evocative guitar, Lawrence's succinct yet oddly melodic vocal and Gary Ainge's (then) cymbal-less drums is already in evidence. The magnitude of "Birdmen" still captivates over twenty years on - it is hard to believe the song is older now than the performers were at the time of recording it. The final track "Templeroy" culminates in three overlapping poems - an ambitious, yet worthy style homage to Patti Smith's "Horses." This track proved to be the gauntlet that Felt would lay down for their future career - to be unafraid to explore a myriad of ideas.
The intervening two years saw the first of Maurice Deebank's periodic absences from the group. The "Penelope Tree" single was recorded whilst he took time out to complete his solo album, Inner Thought Zone. "The titles and the sleeves were awful! Hideous!" remembers Lawrence. "I said to Gary Ainge, 'Should we help him?' 'He wants to do something without you - it's obvious.' 'Let's just let him spoil everything.' And he did!"
1984's The Splendour of Fear is another six track Felt offering - four of which were instrumentals. The hypnotic cut, "Mexican Bandits" credited to Lawrence and Deebank, only became a dual credit as a gift from Lawrence to thank Deebank for returning to the fold - a pledge that was later exercised again on Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow. The band had found their feet with the production of this album - the word 'sublime' was practically invented for it. If anyone needs an hour to chill out, listen to The Splendour of Fear twice over.
A few months separated Splendour and The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories. The album isn't quite as immediate as was originally intended, but remains an essential listen, especially "Roman Litter" and "Dismantled King Is Off The Throne" - both carrying on the tradition of "Penelope Tree"'s upbeat melody and introspective lyrics. The album concludes with a remake of Felt's second single, "My Face Is On Fire", now retitled "Whirlpool Vision of Shame" and featuring Deebank solos - having been absent (again) during the original single.
1985 saw the final Cherry Red release and the beginning of a major shift in Felt's musical direction. Ignite The Seven Cannons featured the arrival of bassist Marco Thomas and the schoolboy keyboardist Martin Duffy (now with Primal Scream) - both to remain with the band until its cessation. Martin was enrolled after an uncharacteristically corny ad from Lawrence; "I put up notices in Virgin (Records) in Birmingham advertising for a guitarist saying 'Do You Want To Be A Rock 'N' Roll Star?' I'd put two up when this guy came up to me and said, 'I know this keyboard player. He's 16. He's just left school. He's a genius.'"
As the new perpetrator of Felt's musical focal point was taking his bow, the current one - Maurice Deebank - was leaving again, but this time forever. "We played a gig in Barcelona. A girl he met there turned up on his doorstep. She stayed with him for a while, and later he took me to a café and showed me his wedding ring. We were recording Ignite... - he was missing his wife as they had only got married the week before. As soon as he got out the van after the last session, he said 'I want to be with my wife now.' That's the last we saw of him."
The only album to feature the twin virtuosos of Deebank & Duffy is truly stunning. Robin Guthrie gives their sound an otherworldly production, especially on the epic "Primitive Painters," the track that became an Independent Chart Number One and is still an astounding classic. From the dreamlike "The Day The Rain Came Down" to the caustic "Caspian See," this album brought Felt a whole new legion of fans, and is considered by many to be their favourite Felt album. "I Don't Know Which Way To Turn," however, includes a verse with chronicles Lawrence's frustration with their live performances at the time; "We practised and got the shows as good as we could, but we didn't have our own soundman. We had this unique sound with shrill guitar and my vocal was so quiet, soundmen didn't know what to do. There was constant feedback."
The contract with Cherry Red served, Felt decamped to Creation in 1986, opening their account with the 12" EP "Ballad of The Band" (featured on Stains...). The song is a melancholic swipe at the now departed Deebank, but Lawrence now confirms that the song was written and rehearsed whilst Maurice was still in the group! "Maurice didn't know until a couple of years after the record came out - a neighbour had to point out to him that he was the subject of the song! He used to play it in rehearsals and he never used to listen to the lyrics! The story goes - when he moved out of his parents' house he moved into a bedsit in Edgbaston, and he got friendly with the downstairs neighbours who were born again Christian types. Everything in that song is true about him and our relationship with each other at that point."
The first Creation album was ready for release, and Felt fans expecting another Ignite... were in for a shock. Lasting barely sixteen minutes, featuring no vocals, with a title that a UK Sunday tabloid had listed a couple of years ago as one of the worst of all time; Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death. "I'd written a lot of instrumentals after Ignite... and I thought these could stand up as album tracks, and this was the first time I'd played every single guitar on an album. The title came from a letter I wrote to a Felt fan, and I ended completely unconsciously with 'Lawrence - Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death.' I don't know where it came from! I took the artwork to Creation and I was saying, 'This Is Great!' Bobby Gillespie (Primal Scream head honcho) said, 'That's the worst title ever! You're making a mistake!' I should have listened to Bobby Gillespie - I hate the title. Everyone makes a mistake and that was my big one!" The album has its moments, but barely stands up as a work in itself - it is better listened to as a companion to the truly phenomenal album that was to follow soon after.
Forever Breathes The Lonely Word was eight tracks running at a shade over half an hour. Contrasting the lack of vocals on Let The Snakes..., Forever... was Felt's first completely conventional song album. Concentrating more on the Hammond organ of Martin Duffy and the disparate range of Lawrence's lyrics, spanning black humour ("All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead"), advice to young naïve music hopefuls ("Down But Not Yet Out") and soul-bearing honesty ("Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind"). Overlaid with an immaculate John Rivers production and the intricate guitar picking of Tony Willé, this album deserves the rare accolade of "Perfect." Even withstanding the omission of the classic tracks, "I Will Die With My Head In Flames" and "Sandman's On The Rise Again," both amazingly relegated to B-Side status, the album confirms the validity of the accolade yelled over-enthusiastically at the introduction at 1987's Glastonbury; "The greatest fucking band in the world."
To promote the album, Felt embarked on a series of dates around the UK and Europe, one of which, at London's ULU in February 1987 (the first Felt gig I personally attended) appears in a new DVD A Declaration. Lawrence's abhorrence of tapes of Felt gigs was well known, so the existence of this film was surprising, to say the least. "Phil King (later in Lush) was playing with us at the time, and he shared a house in Hammersmith with Danny Weinstein, who offered to film our gig purely to show us what we looked like on stage. I used to know The Pale Fountains - they had a really up to date camera and filmed every gig they did, and go back to the hotel room and look at it to see how they could improve their presentation. This was the one gig that we ever filmed. It's not very good quality, it's not very well filmed, but like the Joy Division video Here Are The Young Men (filmed on Super 8) this will be the only chance a lot of people will ever get to see us live, as I'll never reform Felt whatever happens - never!" The DVD features two unreleased songs - "When The Dawn Starts Creeping In" (intended for the next album) and an instrumental version of Michel Polmareff's "Soul Coaxing." "When Saint Etienne and Pulp used to talk about him in the '90's we had already covered him. This proves that Felt were ahead of their time. Polmareff is better than Gainsbourg."
Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell was the subject of "She Lives By The Castle," one of the six tracks on the next album Poem of The River. "We went out for about 8 months - I wrote that after we finished." A song that is frighteningly honest, with all the yearning, tributaries and, contradictorily, downright spite that a break-up can provide. The track is the undisputed highlight of an album where the songs were decent enough, but poor production and wayward engineering thwarts its potential. The very title came about from Lawrence's disillusion with the project. "We wanted to carry on with John Rivers, as Forever... was a great production. Alan McGee said 'Every new Creation album has to be produced by Mayo Thompson from the Red Crayola', who didn't understand us at all! The first tracks were originally "When The Dawn..." and "I Can't Make Love To You Anymore" (the latter later re-recorded for Felt's final album). I was going to chuck these tapes into the Thames and tell McGee there's no album. He said, 'I've put my last six grand into this album. I've sold it to all these European companies! If you don't deliver the tapes, I'm finished and Creation's finished!' I had to give it to him! The only way I could save it was to drop the first two - they were so bad - and replace them with "Declaration" and "Silver Plane.""
The opening lines of "Declaration" are the epitome of dark humour; "I will be the first person in history to die of boredom - and I will have as my epitaph the second line of "Black Ship In The Harbour."" Not for the first time was Lawrence unashamedly quoting his own songs. (NB - The "epitaph" reads, "I was a moment that quickly passed." All would be nihilists enroll here). Great lines like these were severely hampered by engineering that made the recording sound as if the microphone was being smothered by a pillow. "The beginning of 'Declaration' is ridiculous! The regular engineer had been working on bands during the week. It was the middle of the night and he was tired, so he set his 16 year old son loose on it. Afterwards, we took the track to Robin Guthrie's new studio. He said, 'I knew you were in a fix, so I saved these as best I could, but if you credit me for this, I'll kill you!'"
1988 saw Lawrence steal a Jack Kerouac title for the next album, The Pictorial Jackson Review. The original LP release had classic pop songs and Dylanesque deliveries on one side, and two evocative Martin Duffy instrumentals on the other - one, "Sending Lady Load", clocking in at twelve minutes. "The album was meant to be totally pop and to be produced by John Rivers (again). Joe Foster kept knocking on my door - I let him produce the demos. That is what the album is - the bloody demos that Joe Foster produced! He'd sent them down to Creation and we got swept away with their enthusiasm saying that was how we should sound. I wasn't happy and took two tracks off the album and replaced them with the Duffy instrumentals. I heard these two tracks recently, and they didn't sound too bad - the release will now be the original ten track total pop album." Martin Duffy's tracks may feature on a box set as part of a disc featuring other tracks unavailable on CD. The new version of the album hasn't been mastered at the time of going to press, but the original endures a marginally better fate than Poem Of The River - both albums hampered by shoddy mixing.
The same year, Felt's most radical album was released. Their second instrumental album, Train Above The City - eight tracks of jazz piano, vibes and drums. Lawrence's only involvement was to pick the titles! "If you know us as people, you'd know that we like folk, rock, jazz, punk, anything. Gary had been playing for months in a jazz style, Martin knew it anyway from being some kind of child prodigy. I exempted myself because I thought I'd ruin it. I'd played six of the songs in practice, but I wasn't good enough for the recording sessions. I didn't want people to see Felt as 'my band' - it was a total group". The album met with scratched heads in some quarters, derision in others. In retrospect, "Book of Swords" and "Seahorses on Broadway" are tranquil and melodic, but overall it still exists as an uncomfortable bedfellow with the rest of the Felt back catalogue.
1989's Me And A Monkey On The Moon saw Felt reunited with their old Cherry Red boss Mike Alway, now head of El Records. The lyric from "New Day Dawning" ("Follow Me Into the 90's") had helped to cause a problem. Creation could not release the album until 1990, when Lawrence felt it would be too late. A plan had been formulated in 1980 with original members Nick Gilbert, Gary Ainge and Maurice Deebank, that ten albums in ten years would be released. "We never talked about the idea from '83 onwards - it just became, 'Can we do it.' We all had this original promise not to tell until the end". Manifesto complete, Me And A Monkey On The Moon became the final Felt album, and kept up Lawrence's secret constant (!). "Every album has the word 'the' in it! No one's ever spotted that!"
For that, Me And A Monkey On The Moon is probably Felt's most accessible album. It could have been a great platform for a new series of fans in the same way that Ignite... was, with scintillating tracks like "Get Out Of My Mirror," "Cartoon Sky" and the breathtaking "New Day Dawning," which somehow marries the musical styles of Booker T's "Time Is Tight" and the closing passages of The Carpenters' "Goodbye To Love." But the band knew that their time was drawing to a close. "One of the last gigs we did was in Paris. The La's opened, we were in the middle, The Stone Roses headlined. Gary and I agreed that stopping now was the luckiest break we'd ever had - these new groups were so good. In retrospect, Primal Scream and James reinvented themselves, so if we did we could have been respected as the instigators of a new sound." The final gig took place at Birmingham's Burberries in December 1989, a flawless show concluding with "Ballad of The Band," played before an audience that included its subject, Maurice Deebank.
Post Felt, Lawrence's "Novelty Protest" group Denim are "On ice - we'll come back when the time is right." He is recording a new Go-Kart Mozart album ("The first B-Side band!"), compiling a book of Felt, and preparing for low key live dates in the autumn. "I wrote an album intended for Poptones release - very dark and introspective. I've formed a band with Steve New of the Rich Kids - we're rehearsing the album as a live proposition. I'll also play Felt songs. I'm not denying them, they're great songs and I can't deny the past. The band name is open to discussion - it'll have my name in it, but it won't be just Lawrence. I can tell Felt fans that I'll never reform Felt, but I can now say that I can review my back catalogue live. The audience will shout for old songs anyway - they've paid their money and they want a good night. But band reformations like Television and the Velvets were just money making ventures."
Seeing as Television gave the group its name, coupled with Lawrence's open admission that Lou Reed is his greatest vocal influence, Lawrence values the untarnished purity of Felt to such a degree that he is not afraid to criticise his peers when he feels they have let the side down. I saw Felt a dozen times in their last three years and feel incredibly fortunate to have witnessed a band whose work is now being revered and acclaimed by bands such as Saint Etienne, Death In Vegas, Belle & Sebastian and many others. A band that took risks, a frontman who was unparalled in his precision with the band's presentation and legacy, but above all, a band with a back catalogue that should be heard by all discerning music lovers.
'I painted such
a picture that golden fires burned in your head'
"The Final Resting Of The Ark"
A RATED DISCOGRAPHY
Stains on A Decade (Singles Compilation) - 8.5
Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty - 8
The Splendour Of Fear - 9
The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Short Stories - 8.5
Ignite the Seven Cannons - 9
Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death - 6.5
Forever Breathes the Lonely Word - 10
Poem Of The River - 7
The Pictorial Jackson Review - 8
Train Above The City - 6
Me and A Monkey On The Moon - 8
A Declaration (DVD) - 7.5
From PERFECT SOUND FOREVER