Lawrence of Belgravia: Britain's great lost pop star
It's easy to view the new film Lawrence of Belgravia as a depressing film about
a delusional musician - but better to think of it as an excuse to celebrate Lawrence
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 20 October 2011
In 1986, Lawrence, the mononamed frontman of Felt, recruited a new bass player.
Phil King (later of Lush) was chosen not merely for his musicianship or his ability
to fit in with the enigmatic indie band, but for his hair, seemingly always a
deciding factor when Lawrence hired or fired musicians: an early drummer had been
booted out because his was too curly, a previous bassist had got the gig because
his was "lovely and thick". There was excitement around Felt at the
time. Everyone seemed to think their forthcoming album, Forever Breathes the Lonely
Word, was magnificent. There was talk of an NME cover. The West Midlands meeting
between King and Lawrence, however, somehow didn't suggest a gleaming future.
Assailants unknown threw a pork pie at them from the top of nearby multi-storey
car park. Lawrence tutted and rolled his eyes. "That," he sighed dolefully,
"just about sums up Birmingham for me."
There, you could argue, is Lawrence's career in a nutshell. Expectations inflated
by some of the most magical music of the last 30 years: not just Felt's early
exquisite combination of classical guitar filigree and mysterious, literate words,
or their latterday reinterpretation of Bob Dylan's wild mercury sound, but his
next band Denim's incredible 1990 album, Back in Denim, an iconoclastic retelling
of a 70s childhood, a musical equivalent of Jonathan Coe's The Rotter's Club.
Expectations suddenly deflated in a tragicomic flash. The consequences are detailed
in a new film, Lawrence
of Belgravia, showing at the London Film Festival tomorrow. Here is a life
of penury, with Lawrence pursuing his wilfully abstruse "novelty rock"
project Go Kart Mozart - it's perhaps instructive to compare the lyrics of Felt's
The Stagnant Pool ("pellucid ice clutching the aching twigs, never melting,
never a drop to disturb stagnation") with Go Kart Mozart's Transgressions
("we're spraying cans of Lynx in our open mouths, we're screwing lots of
girls") - his dreams of stardom still, amazingly, intact, despite three decades
of commercial failure. At one point in the film, he says he wouldn't mind becoming
the first pensioner pop star.
It's all in keeping with his tendency to self-mythologise, both in interviews
- which have often detailed his many eccentricities, chief among them an obsession
with cleanliness and an apparent phobia of cheese - and in song. Felt were big
on songs about Felt's lack of commercial success - Ballad of the Band was a list
of Lawrence's complaints about departed guitarist Maurice Deebank. "Where
were you when I wanted to work?" he sang. "You were still in bed - you're
a total jerk/ Oh yeah, and I feel like giving in." Sadly, the public proved
resistant to buying records by a band they'd never heard of complaining that no
one had ever heard of them.
It could all have been so different. Perhaps if Lawrence hadn't taken LSD before
a Felt gig packed with major label talent scouts, then made the venue turn all
the lights off and tried to stop the guitarist from playing mid-song. Perhaps
if the NME had put them on the cover instead of opting for a feature on the suicide
rate among teenagers. Perhaps if Denim's 1997 single Summer Smash hadn't been
pulled from sale for fear its title would offend listeners in the wake of Princess
Diana's death. Perhaps if the producers of Saturday morning pop show CD:UK had
gone for Lawrence's admittedly literal idea to promote Go Kart Mozart by appearing
on the show dressed as the late composer, singing while driving a golf kart. Perhaps
It's easy to view Lawrence of Belgravia as a depressing film about a delusional
man: however much you believe in his utterly singular vision, life doesn't look
much fun out there on the margins. Better to think of it as an excuse to celebrate
Lawrence, who never ate vegetables or allowed visitors to use his toilet, but
always carried a mirror to check he was looking good - arguably the greatest pop
star Britain never had.
- Lawrence of Belgravia is showing at BFI Southbank tomorrow, on Sunday and on
Tuesday, as part of the London film festival.