felt retrospective, pt 1 : early singles and 1st EP

I'm finally getting around to a feature I've been wanting to add to Borrowed Tunes since the beginning: retrospectives on artists that don't get a lot of ink these days. We begin with Felt, for no other reason than a friend/loyal reader and I have spent some time talking about them and seeking out some of the more rare recordings lately.

Active from about 1979 to 1989, Birmingham's Felt do get a fair amount of notice in the UK, where they hold minor classic status; in the States they've gone virtually unheard except among Anglophile indie rockers who were paying attention in the mid and late 80s. They're really not the kind of band you're going to discover without someone turning you on to them; you can't follow family trees or rock lineage, and you probably won't discover much in record guides either. Felt largely operated outside of any particular scene; the closest they came to an identifiable affiliation is by virtue of their mid-career signing to Creation Records, the massively influential English indie label (Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Ride, Primal Scream, Oasis, Teenage Fanclub among many others). But by then they had carved out a space all their own.

Less a band than a guy and his collaborators, Felt was the project of Lawrence Hayward, who went on to found the totally different Denim in the 90s, and subsequently Go Kart Mozart (bonus points if you identify the source of that name), who are still releasing records today. We'll cover them all in this retrospective, aiming for an album or two a week until we're done.

The simple name Felt doesn't refer to the fabric; it's actually lifted from a Television lyric - "how we felt" - from "Venus". By explaining the name's origin that way, Hayward is making less of a point about requiring an unusual source for an ordinary word; he's declaring Television to be his primary influence. And their shadow falls long over Felt's sound, especially as it was developing in the early years. The music quickly moved into a kind of cerebral, slightly off-center guitar-driven style that relied less on riffs and more on chord shifts and melodies taken from dimily lit corners of familiar scales. Add to that Hayward's voice, which operated on the Lou Reed side of Tom Verlaine, and you understand what he had in his head when he set out.

But where did it really all begin? I've spent plenty of time trying to appreciate the first single, "Index", which was recorded solo into a cassette recorder, and which was apparently the subject of "lavish critical praise" in 1979, according to the All Music Guide. I do understand that in the late 70s there was a thirst for any kind of music made of artful simplicity, and bonus points were given for a DIY approach. But I simply don't get this one here in 2005. Its value, to me, is more in its clues to the future: Felt would use chord changes that hew to no traditional cadence or standard arrangements (often simply moving up or down a step), and they would also display a penchant for frustratingly useless instrumentals. Otherwise, grab a guitar, learn a bar chord, strum constantly, and move your left hand around. You can do this too.

The next single added a drum machine and vocals to the mix, and here you have proto-Felt for the first time, 2 years later in 1981. Vague, pensive lyrics speaking to an unspecific "you" - these will be hallmarks. This isn't a bad song; it's separated from later, better Felt more by the one-dimensional instrumental treatment than the writing itself. Note the one-step chord changes. A tricky drumbeat shows some inventiveness.

Then, later on in that same year of 1981, a fuller band and a lengthier release marks Felt's first real statement of purpose. Heyward said around that time that he intended only to put out EPs, and the first one, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, showcases a three-piece band (virtuoso 2nd guitar by Maurice Deebank, drummer who only plays jungle toms) playing a set of songs whose self-conscious, arty reach exceeds their ponderous grasp. I've been trying to figure out the production choices and influences here, and I have a couple of hunches beyond the Television sound, which is in full bloom here. We will learn later - through Denim - that Hayward was a fan of glam rock. He could very well have lifted the tom-tom drums from the bongos used by the first incarnation of T. Rex, the fuller-named and more mystical Tyrannosaurus Rex. Every musical kid who grew up during Hayward's time in England loved Marc Bolan.

Given the minimalist, clean guitar style, I also think he was listening to The Durutti Column, whose first album caused something of a splash in the influential Factory Records scene in 1979.

I've included 3 tracks from the EP here (one showing their continuing penchant for instrumentals) plus the necessary reference material.

Next installment we will begin to hear Felt coming into their own over the course of a couple of more substanial releases.