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"Times are hard for dreamers": The Felt reissue series pt two

So when someone gets around to writing the Felt story properly and poetically, there will be a lot in there about labels. Felt were forever having much ado about record companies. Why were they on this one? Could they sign to that one? We’d like to work with them but are we allowed to? They’d like to work with us but haven’t the money just now? In the meantime we are where we are.

Names like Postcard, Rough Trade, Operation Twilight, 4AD, Blanco y Negro, will all be mentioned in passing. But in the days before Creation, Felt were inextricably linked with Cherry Red. And that wasn’t cool. Yet many years on Felt are still linked with Cherry Red, and the label has indulged Lawrence enough to rehabilitate and collate his Felt recordings in a fitting fashion. And that is extremely cool.

In fact in the intervening years Cherry Red has had a reversal in fortunes, and is now established as a home of the occasional awesome salvage operation. It sponsors RPM and Revola, two of our favourites, and has itself brought back to life excellent sets by McCarthy, Wolfhounds, Free Design, Runaways, Nightingales, Marine Girls, Marden Hill, Blue Orchids.

Anyway there were times when Cherry Red drove Lawrence to distraction. For a while for some reason he wanted Felt to be on 4AD, and ended up making a faux 4AD Felt record. I still struggle with this. I won’t allow a 4AD record in this house. Never have. And Felt’s Ignite The Seven Cannons is very near the mark. Mark the murky Robin Guthrie production, and the 4AD in-house 23 Envelope artwork. Bah! It makes me shudder.

Felt’s artwork was usually so great. Lawrence’s own Shanghai Packaging Company was so important, and I loved the attention to detail, and meticulous planning. This was in itself rare in an age where his peers (eg Vic Godard, Postcard comrades like James Kirk, Paul Simpson and the Wild Swans, Pale Fountains, and so on) all had this infuriating laissez-faire attitude, being more in love with ideas than actually seeing anything through. Shanghai, incidentally, evolved from Lawrence’s own record label, where he started off with the glorious racket of Index and then the great lost Versatile Newts single which seems to have been written out of history.

Love it or loathe it, Ignite The Seven Cannons was the start of Felt’s second phase. When groups want to jazz things up, and get a new lease of life, they get in some fresh blood. The Go-Betweens got Amanda Brown in with her violin, Mark E Smith got Brix in to get things going again for The Fall, and eventually Sonic Youth adopted Jim O’Rourke. Felt found Duffy, a teenage keyboard virtuoso. Maurice and his guitar had left the group so many times, and performed the same magic tricks with his guitar, that something new was needed. Hence the dreamy Duffy. It’s just that briefly together they cancelled one another out.

So when Maurice took flight for Spain, and Creation came in to save the day, the future for Felt looked good. Many of the Creative types were big Felt fans, like Primal Scream, the Mary Chain, The Loft, Jasmine Minks, and Biff Bang Pow! And McGee had plotted previously to sign Felt for a label he hoped to set up with the great underground pop writer Dave McCullough, but things didn’t go according to plan.

In one of the great pop strange sidesteps, Felt’s first LP for Creation was a short set of simple instrumentals, which I love madly to this day. It harked back to the inventive MOR pop of the only possible revolution of a few years before, and provided the bridge to what would soon be a renewed interest in exotica and easy listening. It’s a gorgeous record, and Duffy’s Al Kooper keyboards and electric piano pieces juxtaposed with Lawrence’s ringing guitar to provide an atmospheric blueprint of the definitive Felt sound.

As titles go 'Song For William S Harvey' says volumes. An ode to the in-house Elektra designer, so synonymous with those amazing ‘60s jewels like Love, David Ackles, Doors and so on, it reinforces how those records had become touchstones for a new generation and how Harvey’s inventive iconographic artwork was all important to the obsessive and orderly Lawrence.

So Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death led to Forever Breathes The Lonely Word, for many the definitive Felt record. It’s their ultra pop set, full of insanely catchy vignettes, and marvelously mannered in a way only a few people manage. In other words it sounds exactly like Felt, and could be no one else. Like you might listen to any Stereolab record, and it is exactly like Stereolab. Or the same with The Sea and Cake. But any Primal Scream record could be any number of people, sadly. And the same with Pavement.

Forever Breathes has taken on a life of its own. Even Paul Morley mentions it as one of the Top 100 LPs in one of his interminable Words And Music lists, except he gets the title so slightly wrong. And that’s Lawrence’s luck. Now, myself, I think one of the things that makes Forever Breathes live on is the fact that it was produced by John Rivers. Rivers being the man who helped shape the early Felt sound, and who seems to have been so adept at leaving so much space for the songs to, ahem, breathe. Accidentally or on purpose. I never could understand why all the underground groups weren’t beating a path to his door. Goodness knows so many took the wrong path.

And that brings us to the third and my favourite Felt phase.