The Man Who Was Not With It
The appeal and challenge of learning is to go out and discover that which traditional history has passed over. To investigate and enthuse over that which has been ignored by the many. In musical terms you can take your pick of an era and choose the sounds that sound like delights. If you were to choose the 1980s you could do a lot worse than pass over the frothsome Pop merchants and choose to check Felt.
The first record to bear the name Felt appeared in 1979 on the tiny independent Shanghai label. It was made by a Birmingham based pop obsessive who was calling himself Jon Lawrence, a name which he thought sounded like a pop star's name, although he later dropped the Jon part to become known simply as Lawrence of Felt. The record was just Lawrence, and it was just noise called 'Index'.
Almost everyone who came to Felt late has been confused by 'Index'. It's easy to see why, for the sound of harsh, screaming rhythm guitars creating a mess of white noise is probably about as far from the spacey landscapes that Felt produced in the eighties as is possible to imagine. In the context of its time however, 'Index' made a glorious sort of perverse sense. Drawing on the experimental, avant-garde 'art' side of punk, 'Index', much like the debuts by Cabaret Voltaire, Scars or The Pop Group, and before them Suicide, created its own space, existed on its own terms. Stripped raw and pure, 'Index' said immeasurably more about the essence of Punk than a thousand Sham 69 singles ever could. It was bloody and ravaged, brutal yet strangely ravishing. It was also as subtle and obtuse a 'protest' record as its creator would later claim the 'Back In Denim' LP to be more than thirteen years later. Dave McCulloch certainly thought so, making it single of the week in Sounds, whilst Alan Horne of Postcard paid it possibly the best compliment when he described it as "Classic rubbish." Pure Pop Art.
'Index' was obsessional Pop and McCulloch understood the idea of Pop Obsession, the danger of extremes. He was the man who ended a review of The Subway Sect's 'Stop that Girl' with the words "I think Vic Godard is God.", the man who, more than anyone else aside from Paul Morley at the NME, was a champion for a New Pop in the wake of the punk fall-out. McCulloch and Morley's writings in the late seventies and particularly the very early eighties made a lot of people feel intensely about Pop, which was the whole point of course. They really were a whole new generation's Pop prophets, scheming and dreaming like the best of them. They were sharp and smart, and managed to roll both Hemingway precision and Kerouac spontaneity into one paragraph, which is no mean feat. Their words really were inseparable from the music they wrote about, and to this day there are people who will argue over which is the most perfect Pop artefact; the records of the Subway Sect or the articles that accompanied them.
Like McCulloch, Lawrence was also a Vic Godard obsessive, and so fittingly it was Vic Godard who had a strange hand in the formation of Felt part two. After recording Index by himself for thirty pounds, one night Lawrence was on his way to see Godard play. The friend he was going with stopped off to see a guitarist friend, and Lawrence was introduced to the strange young man who didn't know who Subway Sect or Television were but who could nevertheless play guitar like Tom Verlaine. The guitarist's name was Maurice Deebank, and so began one of the strangest marriages in pop.
Deebank was classically trained and had little interest or knowledge of contemporary rock. Not that this was a major issue with Lawrence, who was intent on creating something modern and non-rock anyway. With Deebank and old school friend Gary Ainge on drums, the new Felt recorded demos and looked for a real record deal. Lawrence may have been all Punk DIY ideals with his 'Index' release, but it's essential to understand that Lawrence's major obsession was always with being rich and famous. He wanted to make Felt records available to the same number of people who would buy Mott The Hoople records, and he wanted to be a star. So 'real' labels were the way to go.
Ironically, Lawrence always went about being rich and famous in the most bizarre ways. So when he was touting for labels he couldn't ignore his arch sensibilities for art and went for the nascent Postcard. Alan Horne should have signed Felt. He gave approving nods in Lawrence's direction, but never released his songs. Horne
reputedly said that Felt were too 'Loaded' for Postcard, and Mark E Smith made the same connection when Felt supported The Fall and had the drummer standing up. Lawrence insisted he'd never heard the Velvets, and when he did hear 'Loaded' said he didn't hear the similarities. Nevertheless, Postcard never released Felt.
The Optimist & The Poet
Felt instead found home with the Cherry Red label and there released a stream of great Pop singles between 1981 and '84. They also released one of the best debut LPs ever.
'Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty' was tinny and intense, brittle and beautiful. The bass was practically non-existent, just like on Buddy Holly records, and the simple drums just underscored the strange vocal delivery. All of which just cast the spotlight on Deebank's guitar work, which was ornate and filled with precision. One of the stand out tracks was the aptly titled 'Cathedral', which was one of their oldest songs and one which was treated poorly later in their career by being re-recorded in muddy style for the flip of 'Primitive Painters'. The closing track on the record was all Lawrence playing with arch poetry and experimental sound, overdubbing his vocal several times so that it comes across muddled and dense. Overall though it was a stark record, both in sound and looks, with a cover that showed Lawrence in black and white, in later versions having the left side of his portrait blanked with a black bar. Best of all, it wasn't even a 'proper' LP, being just a half hour long and with six songs and as such was in the fine tradition of the Morley New Pop Vision of questioning the Value of Entertainment.
The record though, and all of the Felt singles of this time were not successful commercially. This was predictable in so far as Cherry Red never really knew how to promote their acts as Pop Groups, and in that the Morley/McCulloch vision of a New Pop in which the Postcard bands and their ilk such as Magazine or Felt would be the darlings of teenagers had cruelly backfired. By 1982 and 1983 the likes of Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Nik Kershaw and Howard Jones were taking over the charts in place of Orange Juice or Fire Engines as the New Pop Propagandists had hoped, and this did much to polarise factions within the music press. With the new glossy Smash Hits brilliantly championing the unashamed chart Pop, the traditional press were split between sharp art-disco and the ugly image of new gothic rock that was rearing it's dark head. Sounds, minus McCulloch naturally, went with the rock, and eventually dissolved. Melody Maker and NME stayed more Pop and survived.
In this polarised environment, Felt seemed more than ever out on a limb. They seemed totally out of time, existing within their own vacuum. It seemed totally fitting at the time, but for Lawrence, with his dreams of Pop stardom, it must have hurt. To Cherry Red, who had never been able to understand Felt anyway, this was like a blessing in disguise. It saved them from having to figure out some way of marketing them, and in the end they were happy to see them as an isolated and eccentric underground cult.
In different times of course that in itself would probably have made Felt, and Lawrence stars. It was easy to imagine them as part of the Warhol factory scene, and certainly Lawrence was tragically and beautifully strange enough to have stood out amongst a crowd of Edie Sedgewicks, Gerard Malangas or Billy Names. It was also easy to picture him as a character in a Scott Fitzgerald story; he had that certain doomed existential prettiness that the twenties seemed to suggest. Twenties Lost Generation or Seventies Blank Generation. You could take your pick.
In this respect, and others, Felt were like The Go-Betweens. Lawrence and Robert Forster shared an intense beauty that was awkward and sleek all at once. In different times they could both have been movie stars, enigmatic, dark and aloof. They were incredibly alluring, the types of people who inspire devotion and obsession for reasons largely beyond control or reason. If fate had been less fickle, then Lawrence and Forster would have been the peculiar star that Jarvis Cocker turned out to be.
Felt and The Go-Betweens were both great girls groups too. They had an appeal that was very feminine, or at least non-rock, which is akin to saying non-male. They really belonged to an age of androgyny, which was very Mod of course, and which fitted with Lawrence's fastidious nature perfectly. In essence though it was not eighties, where the eighties had grown to be symbolised by garish day-glo, all year suntans and rayban copies. Felt were altogether too artful to be accepted in eighties mass culture and the underground was where they were destined to stay. They continued releasing records, but no-one really took much notice. Much like The Go-Betweens, Felt were considered as worthy and clever, making well crafted records that received critical acclaim, but were largely ignored commercially.
Despite or because of their marginality, 1983 and 1984 in fact saw Felt in a flurry of activity, with two LPs and three brilliant singles. '83s 'Penelope Tree' made for a great record, combining the sixties underground fashion image with a bright clear sound that was fast emerging as the Felt Formula. A lot of people frowned and said this showed that Felt only had one idea, which of course was a nonsense. Formula has always been one of the vital ingredients to Pop success, from the Motown Sound to the SAW Hit Factory of the late eighties. Of course there are always those who don't much care for the formula, and for all the converts there are the cynics, which in Felt's case, through ignorance or otherwise, meant that the formula kept them firmly in their place underground. That said, if you loved Felt, you were laughing.
1984 saw Felt release the strange and beautiful 'The Splendour Of Fear' LP which fittingly had a Warholesque cover. The sound again was slowed down and mesmeric, hitting peaks with songs like 'The Stagnant Pool' and the fantastic 'The World Is As Soft As Lace' and 'The Optimist and The Poet'. These titles gave away Lawrence's obsession with injecting poetry into pop, a fact which enamoured him to Patti Smith. Indeed Lawrence once rated 'Horses' as being alongside 'Marquee Moon' and 'Adventure' as being on the top shelf whilst all his own records were on the second.
The best and strangest moment on the 'Splendour' record though was the single 'Mexican Bandits', which was all Red Indian drumbeats and amplified heartbeats as one writer put it at the time. What was strangest was the similarity it bore to the contemporaneous 'Who'd Have Thought' by Hurrah!, a fact which tied both groups together for many people.
Felt followed the 'Splendour' LP with 'The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories', which was their Spanish South American odyssey. The sleeve was all aztec and mexican hieroglyphs and skeletons, whilst the track titles were things like 'Roman Litter', 'Spanish House', 'Vasco Da Gama' and 'Crucifix Heaven'. Produced by John Leckie, this LP was a sharp contrast to the lush splendour of 'Slendour', being open, clear and full of the great pop hooks that Lawrence could turn out with seemingly such little effort. The single 'Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow' was a prime example, with Lawrence surely one of the few, alongside the Bodines, to make reference to Rimbaud in a pop record.
A Season In Hell
By 1985 Felt seemed at an impasse. Their formula had well and truly settled into a groove from which it rarely strayed, and they seemed frustrated by the confines of their cult tag. McCulloch wanted them for the new Cherry Red off-shoot Blanco-Y-Negro which would benefit from WEA financial clout and distribution, and Felt recorded demos with a lot of hope that finally a break was coming their way. Sadly it was not to be. Despite recording a demo for the label, Mike Alway deemed that Felt were not to be signed, and were left languishing on the indie as label mates Tracey Thorn, Ben Watt and Fantastic Something were snapped up. Lawrence was so peeved he cut up the demo master tape with scissors, although somehow these demo versions of 'Dismantled King' and 'Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow' made it onto the Cherry Red compilation 'Gold Mine Trash'.
By 1985 the Cocteau Twins were all the rage. Peel favourites, they were genuinely strange reclusives from the borders who had made a series of successful records for the terminally hip 4AD label. Feted mainly for singer Elizabeth Fraser's vocal style, really they were little more than Victorian Gothic Whimsy. Felt should have steered well clear, but instead hooked up with Robin Guthrie to record a new LP and single. The resultant LP, 'Ignite the Seven Cannons', with it's blatant 23 Envelope-esque sleeve design, made too many concessions to 4AD style for comfort. Guthrie's production seemed to compress the sound, and made on the whole for a muddy, messy Felt. Most of the songs didn't really help either, and there were fewer memorable moments on this record than on any other Felt LP. 'The Day The Rain Came Down' was a storming Pop song though, and raised spirits sufficiently at the start of side one, whilst 'Serpent Shade' and 'Caspian See' worked well in unison on side two. 'Black Ship In The Harbour' was notable too for it's opening lines of "I was a moment that quickly passed", a line that Lawrence would later refer back to in 1987's 'Declaration'. On the whole though the record was unmemorable, and Lawrence later regretted the fact that it was the only Felt LP not to be symmetrical, with five songs on one side and six on the other. It's ironic then that 'Ignite The Seven Cannons' gave Felt their most remembered moment in the single 'Primitive Painters', although in the climate of the times it was probably remembered for the wrong reason. That reason was, quite simply, Elizabeth Fraser, who appeared as a guest vocalist alongside Lawrence. Some suggested at the time that Fraser pulled Felt from the pits of mediocrity, which couldn't have been further from the truth. Certainly her vocals added something sweet to the record, but only as a counterpoint to Lawrence's own equally characteristic delivery. Imagine 'Primitive Painters' with Fraser as the sole vocalist and you imagine another example of Gothic over-bearance, whereas with Lawrence there was the necessary balance to a SONG that soars effortlessly in it's music, without the need for Frasers' flamboyant ciricules. Witnessed live, Felt proved this to be true.
Regardless of these ins-and-outs though, 'Primitive Painters' was undoubtedly a great record, and would probably have been a genuine chart hit on any major label, which of course must have been a sore point coming so soon after the Blanco-Y-Negro fiasco. Instead it remained a big independent seller, at the top of the indie charts for several weeks, and becoming one of the years' more memorable singles, alongside the Smiths' 'How Soon Is Now' and The Go-Betweens' 'Bachelor Kisses'.
With this minor commercial success, behind them then, the half way point in the decade seemed as good a time as any for Felt to close their first major chapter.
Ballad Of The Band
The relationship between Lawrence and Deebank had always been rocky, and Deebank had left the band several times, only to be persuaded back by Lawrence. By the end of the 'Seven Cannons' sessions though Deebank had left again and Lawrence finally decided that he didn't need him any longer. A major factor in this decision was no doubt Martin Duffy, who had joined to play keyboards on the 'Seven Cannons' sessions, and who was as adept on the keyboards as Deebank was on the guitar. So Lawrence simply traded one musical maestro for another, and the new chapter of Felt began accordingly.
First step for the new Felt was a sideways step from Cherry Red to Creation, and the release of the great 'Let The Snakes Crinkle their Heads to Death' LP, which Lawrence liked to call the first Pop Instrumental LP. Ludicrously short (ten songs, all under three minutes long, more than half under two minutes) it was indeed a great Pop artefact and one which Lawrence himself often said was his favourite of Felt records.
But understandably it still failed to really make Felt's mark as stars. Creation should have done it for Felt, but the truth was that they had been around too long. The Creation that the press were interested in was the Creation of The Jesus & Mary Chain, The Loft and any other new names, regardless of style or worth. Felt had been around for years, everyone knew what they sounded like, and no-one really cared for finding them new audiences. So Felt strangely enough fell into the same pattern that they had been in at Cherry Red, releasing singles and LPs that sold okay as indie, but failed to rise above the underground. They even took swipes at their old career, and Deebank in particular with the great single 'Ballad Of the Band'. In fact they even used to rehearse the song when Deebank was still in the band, which shows how much interest guitarists have in the words. So even though 'Ballad' was a storming pop single, and was followed by similarly great moments like 'Rain Of Crystal Spires' and the 'Forever Breathes the Lonely Word' LP, Felt still remained destined to a life of relative obscurity.
Still, the band were running through a productive period, and another LP was released in 1987, although if Lawrence had his way the tapes would have been thrown into the Thames. 'Poem of The River' was produced by Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson and for several people, including Bob Stanley, it was their favourite Felt record. It started with the reference back to 'Ignite The Seven Cannons' with the lines of 'Declaration': "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'." The record is rich and full sounding, much more lush than the preceding records. It also seems to make grander sweeps, and makes more reference back to the mood of songs like 'The World Is As Soft As Lace'. You either appreciated this or you didn't, and like the Guthrie produced LP I think it was more a step backwards than forwards.
In 1988 Creation released two Felt LPs in the space of a month. They showed several sides to Felt, and they made for perfect summer listening. 'The Pictorial Jackson Review' was a schizophrenic record, providing another showcase on one side for Lawrence's terrific, intuitive grasp of great Pop, and on the other, Martin Duffy's atmospheric and darkly seductive keyboard skills. Lawrence's Pop side had some memorable moments; some of his most unashamedly Pop songs since 'Forever Breathes the Lonely Word' in fact, and songs like 'Apple Boutique', 'How Spook Got Her Man' and the closing, swirling 'Don't Die On My Doorstep' showed great poise and perfect balance. The feel was pure. As the sleeve notes say, it was "recorded quickly to eight track" and made for To The Point Pop, a refreshing blast of fresh air after the claustrophobia of 'Poem Of the River'.
Lawrence's lyrics too had changed. In place of his earlier attempts at arch poetry, there was a kind of brutal realism about songs such as 'Until the Fools Get Wise', 'Bitter End' or 'Spook'. Lines like, "I don't care about time, have no interest in the sublime, Underground will never rise, 'till the fools get wise." , "I see through your disguise, I won't ever compromise, Don't want to hear any more of your lies, Until you fools all get wise.", "mesmerised by thoughts, of a time when you were young. Still holding onto old attitudes, that you knew were wrong." or the apparently autobiographical "I was going to be like royalty, I was going to come to the throne. I was going to be a personality, I was going to be so well known. What went wrong I don't know..." gave insight into the true past, and influences of Lawrence. Here were the most obvious pointers to the importance of the likes of Godard or Suicide to date, and the impression was of an artist struggling to cast off his previous image.
With it's title, the LP also spotlighted another hero of Lawrence. 'The Pictorial Jackson Review' is titled after the Jack Kerouac novel 'Pic', and it is in Kerouac that Lawrence at this time visualised his own ideal death: to jump off the Brooklyn bridge weighted down with his collection of first edition Kerouacs. In fact all of Lawrence's obsessions were crucial to the whole Felt mythology. His fastidiousness, his cleanliness was very non-rock and seemed to define much of the Felt image. Lawrence was really always a modernist at heart, in so much as clothes were vital and that every detail had to be just so: precise, pared down, pure and sharp. He defined everything within his group - no-one was allowed to move in public without Lawrence giving his approval. He even decided what plectrums his guitarists may or may not use.
After 'Pic', Felt followed almost immediately with the wrong footing jazz easy listening LP 'Train Above The City'. This was a great movie soundtrack record, and with it's great Yellow Cab cover it was unashamedly New York biased. 'On Weegee's Sidewalk' and 'Seahorses on Broadway' gave specifics, but other tracks like 'Run Chico Run' and 'Train Above The City' also helped create a cinematic illusion of NYC of the sixties or seventies. It was a classic Felt record in that it was so unexpected, and in that it didn't even have Lawrence performing, aside from choosing the song titles, and it was a success if only because it pissed off the indiepop purists.
Felt's final single was on Creation and it was fittingly their finest and strangest. 'Space Blues' was aptly titled, and made connections with the minimal Suicide sound of the new york new wave so beloved of Lawrence. It was filled with the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sound and had Lawrence in stripped down lyrical style, intoning "I'm your greatest fan cos you don't give a damn." The track also featured Francis Sweeney, ex of June Brides playing violin and viola, and Rose McDowall of Strawberry Switchblade on backing vocals. Lawrence repaid the favour by playing in the Creation 'supergroup' that backed the short-lived Strawberry Switchblade revival.
By a cruel and bizarre twist of fate, Lawrence found himself back with Cherry Red after the Creation period, to release the final Felt record, the appropriately oddly titled 'Me And A Monkey On The Moon'. Ironically this was also the closest Felt ever came to recording a 'proper' or conventional rock record, as if to prove that they could have done it all along but had chosen not to. It's appeal though lay in the fact that although conventional it still played tricks by making reference to absurd country rock, and twisting conventional rock structures with Lawrence's' non-rock autobiographical lyrics. There were odd tales of the new york new wave, budgie jackets and feathercuts, but strangest of all was the story of a pub-rock band in the highlands later covering 'New Day Dawning' in a set of Dire Straits and Eric Clapton songs.
When the record was released, Lawrence called it a day on Felt and immediately began building on the myth of the group by insisting that it had all been a master plan to span ten years and release ten singles and ten albums (Conveniently forgetting about 'Index'). He also developed a new Pop scheme in Denim, from whom early demos promised much, but from whom also the first record came too late to cash in on the early '90s interest and in which again Lawrence short-circuited his own Pop chances by being too clever and witty for his own good. But then that's a whole other story.
Another Hit, Vicar?
After the final demise of Felt, Cherry Red decided to dig up the old recordings and compile a CD 'tribute' called 'Absolute Classic Masterpieces'. Plans were originally grand, with an intention for an accompanying booklet to be penned by Kevin Pearce. But things got diluted, compromised, and eventually only a brief snippet of Kevin's notes were used. Typically they were sharp and informed, a real pocket guide to the essence of Felt at the very least.
Creation followed suit a few years later with their own 'Absolute Classic Masterpieces Vol 2: The Creation Years', a double CD that showcased album and single cuts. Really though this was just another careless cash in, when all Creation really needed to do was ensure that the excellent 'Bubblegum Perfume' LP with it's great Richard Hell-esque cover stayed in print.
Really too, Kevin Pearce should have been the one to write this Felt story. It would have been miles better than my attempt. But by the time anyone cared about that part of the past Kevin like the rest of us was disinterested, moving ahead into techno phunk, hip hop headz music and Jungle's breakbeat heaven.
It's something Lawrence himself would applaud, for as he said with Denim, "I'm for the 90's... we're into Rave Signal 3..." Which today might translate as 'We're into 4-Hero'. Or Omni Trio, Roni Size, Mo Wax, Wall Of Sound, Wu-Tang, Patrick Pulsinger. Whatever. The spirit that has drawn me to discovering the delights of drum'n'bass is the same spirit that drew me to discovering Felt in the '80s. It's the spirit of obsessional pop adventuring. Long may it continue.
© Alistair Fitchett, 1996.