How many artists can you think of that made you a promise, and stuck to it?
Lawrence’s aim for Felt was simple: release 10 albums and 10 singles in 10 years, and then leave the stage. To their eternal credit they managed just that, despite more than their fair share of line-up changes, drug problems and bum deals. But the thing they craved the most, pop success, eluded them.
Though they proved capable of topping the indie charts, and though their fanbase was, and still is, fiercely, zealously passionate, Felt never achieved anything even close to the mainstream traction of their similarly literate contemporaries, The Smiths. Lawrence’s steadfast refusal to re-form Felt and profit from indie retromania means that the band are likely to remain what they have always been: a cult concern.
Nonetheless, there’s been a palpable renewal of interest in Felt of late: they’re the subject of a lavish new photo book, and more notably their enigmatic frontman is the star of an acclaimed documentary, Lawrence of Belgravia, which premiered at the 2011 London Film Festival and will be touring selected UK cinemas in May. Their failure to become famous is becoming famous.
If you’re new to Felt’s catalogue, then there are a couple of obvious entry-points: Forever Breathes The Lonely Word (1986), widely regarded as their magnum opus, and the shimmering, Robin Guthrie-produced Ignite The Seven Cannons And Set Sail For The Sun (1985). The compilations Absolute Classic Masterpieces (1992) and Bubblegum Perfume (1990), highlighting the best of their Cherry Red and Creation output respectively, are also excellent. Lawrence sounds a little anonymous on their underappreciated 1982 debut, Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty, his vocals buried deep in the muddy mix; but soon-to-depart guitarist Maurice Deebank is on fire – his baroque phrasing framed by Gary Ainge’s rudimentary, tom-heavy drums to create one of the few truly satisfying hybrids of post-punk sparsity and soft-psych expressionism to exist outside of Hannett-produced Durutti Column.
Though they will be forever associated with indie-rock, and understandably so, Felt were also prone to experimentation. As their names suggests, they were a group with a marked interest in texture. Sometimes this preoccupation was taken to oddball extremes: they celebrated their high-profile signing to Creation with the release of a 19-minute album of vaguely pastoral instrumentals entitled Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death. Less a pisstake and more a gesture of bugger-the-consequences autonomy, Let The Snakes was a showcase for the lively playing of teenage keyboard whizz Martin Duffy, who by this point had become Lawrence’s favoured musical foil. In fact, such was Lawrence’s belief in Duffy – who has since served in the ranks of Primal Scream for 25 years and counting – that Felt’s next all-instrumental album, Trains Above The City, that he tasked him with writing and solo-performing the entirety of Felt’s ninth album, another all-instrumental affair, entitled Trains Above The City.
Felt’s failure to become famous is becoming famous.
Lawrence did however deign to contribute to the Space Blues EP, produced by John Leckie and released the same year as Trains: 1988. This record is Felt at their most textural and textual. For me it’s the zenith of Lawrence’s achievements as both pop songwriter and sonic architect. The title track is one of the few things in Felt’s catalogue that could legitimately be described as “funky” – quite remarkable, given that there are no drums on it. Duffy’s louche Fender Rhodes, organ and synth licks are the driver here, Lawrence adopting a mannered, Lou Reedish half-sneer to deliver one of his direct, faux-hepcat lyrics, quite possibly addressed to himself: “I’m your greatest fan…’cos you don’t give a damn.” The soda-pop psychodrama is frothed up with cooing backing vocals from Strawberry Switchblade’s Rose McDowall and swooping string parts from violinist/violist Francis Sweeney.
‘Be Still’ is a cover of The Beach Boys song, which appeared on 1968’s Friends LP and was written by Dennis Wilson and Steve Kalinich. Lawrence is faithful to the meditative, acid-tired drift of the original, coaxing a mellifluous, droning ambience out of Duffy’s keyboards that’s almost Eno-esque, and delivering a downcast vocal that gladly leaves the limelight to the clock-melting soprano sax reverberations of Richard Thomas (of 4AD jazz-not-jazzers Dif Juz). In terms of sound and mood, ‘Be Still’ has similarities to some of Spacemen 3 or Spiritualized’s more inward-looking numbers, but with a delicacy, a feeling for understatement, that the boys from Rugby have always lacked.
Neil Scott’s slide guitar bathes in a balmy psychedelic light the otherwise more straightforward ‘Female Star’ [not on YouTube, it would seem], a return to the deadpan bedsit realism Lawrence is best known for. “Now I’m broke, and it ain’t no joke,” he sings, addressing the primary concern of independent artists the world over. “I ain’t got no money,” he adds, “and I don’t think that’s funny.” ‘Tuesday’s Secret’ is a sublime study in accelerated Byrdsian jangle wherein Lawrence and Richard Left’s duelling axe-work rivals that of Johnny Marr.
Space Blues was Felt’s tenth single – their last. Naturally it feels like a tantalising glimpse of what the band might have achieved, the new territory they might have made their own, had they saw fit to carry on. But no true fan of Felt laments their demise: Lawrence said from the start that they’d make 10 albums and 10 singles in 10 years; no more, no less. How many other artists can you think of that made you a promise, and stuck to it?