I’ve wanted to write about Felt for quite some time but could never really find the right way to approach them. Should I start at “Index” and work my way through? Or should I just write about one or two special records of theirs? Then I thought about it and decided I should write about them in chronological order, ie how I approached them at the time. This might take a while… It might also end up as a total disaster. Bear with me…
“Ignite the seven cannons” LP / “The strange idol patterns and other short stories” LP
Of course it all started with “Primitive painters“. I don’t think it was Peel who played it because I was under the impression he was never that fond of the song, so it was more than likely Janice Long’s Evening Session, or Annie Nightingale’s Sunday night show (which was always a great place to hear new and old music) where I heard the song first. It sounded so different to anything else I knew at the time. Slow and stately to begin with, then the drums kicking the song into gear, the organ playing an ascending chord sequence, guitar that alternately chiming or spun around the song. And then there was the singing. Firstly a male voice, deadpan, hovering around the tune, singing strange words that sounded defeated – “I don’t care about this life, they say there’ll be another one…” – but defiant too. Then on the chorus a second voice appears, a female voice, more familiar to me. It is high and unclear and swerves around the other voice well. It is the voice of Elizabeth Fraser who I knew well from the Cocteau Twins. The song kept on building and building until the guitarist reels off a solo unlike anything I knew, starting slow then firing off flurries of notes that rise up. And the drummer matches the guitar, doubling the tempo as the notes soar, then it returns to the ascending organ chords again and the two voices interweave, and it goes on for almost six minutes.
I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t really spot many influences at the time but I could tell there was more than a hint of Bob Dylan in there, from my limited knowledge of my father’s copies of “Blonde on Blonde” and “More Greatest Hits”, which my brother and I always laughed at – the opening line of “Just like Tom Thumb’s blues” had us rolling on the floor – “Juarez”! “Wintertime”! How ridiculous! How wrong were we? Anyway I was intrigued, and when I saw a review of the latest Felt album in my brother’s copy of Sounds I decided I should buy it. It was produced by Robin Guthrie from the Cocteaus, and Liz Fraser sang on two songs. Perfect. And when I saw the advert for it saying the tape had another LP of theirs on it, well that was just a bonus.
I bought the tape on Saturday 5th October amidst a spree of record buying. My diary that week is intriguing. We bought our first microwave oven. I played “Revs” on the BBC Micros in the school computer room and feel really successful for coming 19th in a race (there were 20 competitors). Someone received a letter from D and she still mentioned me. S and I are planning our band Anonymous to cover “Slave to the rhythm”, there’s the first mention of an interest in “Forever Changes”. And on “Bliss” on Friday night I hear “You got the power” by Win for the first time. Then on the Saturday I go to Cardiff, we use an ATM for the first time and my mother’s card gets stuck in the machine. Meanwhile I purchase the Felt tape and the cassingle of “Perfect Way” by Scritti Politti. My diary entry for that day already awards it joint album of the year with “Colourbox”. The following day I buy “Songs from the big chair” and “Meat is murder” from a dodgy market stall (both bootleg tapes, as it turns out). And on the Monday S and I spend our lunchtime walking to Woolworths in Penarth town centre and both purchase “Cupid and Psyche 85” on tape, and we spend the rest of the week doing impersonations of Green to our friends. (Knowing who S is now, this makes me laugh so bloody hard).
So, lots of music to listen to. I started with “Ignite the seven cannons” because that was the side of the tape with “Primitive Painters” on it. And instantly I felt suffocated by the production. The bass is boomy and covered in a chorus effect. The drums are somewhere in the distance. The Hammond organ is a constant bed of midrange sound while the lead guitar is clear and ringing. But everything is drowned in a sea of reverb. It really is an indistinct mess of sound. And the singer – who seemed to only identify himself as Lawrence on the sleeve – was a little wayward in the pitch department. And the words weren’t exactly a bundle of laughs either. For someone who was listening to a lot of Smiths I was used to a depressing world view but there was a vein of fatalism running through the songs I’d not expected. Prophets forecasting doom, people who despise integrity, wanting to end ‘real life’, fighting battles they’ll lose and the rain comes down. And then there’s a pile of instrumentals which are alternately rocking (“Textile ranch”) or multi-part workouts (“Elegance of an only dream”). Could Lawrence not find words for these or had he given up? But oh that production! The good songs – and there are good songs – just get swamped. But I loved it, it sounded like the Cocteau Twins crossed with Dylan. Fair enough. Turns over tape for the other album.
And for a start, what kind of bloody title is “The strange idol patterns and other short stories”? At least the production on these songs is pin sharp and clear, and there’s no Hammond organ getting in the way and Lawrence seems to be more ‘in tune’. “Roman litter” and “Spanish house” could almost be standard indie pop, from my limited knowledge of such things at the time. Guitars jangle, drums and bass in the right place. But there’s odd Spanish guitar workouts called things like “Sempiternal darkness” (SEMPITERNAL? Hey where’s my dictionary?) and “Crucifix heaven” which sounds like spaghetti western music. But when it is songs it’s bloody great. I instantly recognised “Sunlight bathed the golden glow” which I must have heard on the radio the previous year, but the lyrical references were completely over my head. “A season in hell”? This was an education in itself. The last trio of songs – “Dismantled king is off the throne”, “Crystal ball” and “Whirlpool vision of shame” – were completely wonderful. I had no idea what Lawrence was going on about but the songs clicked in my mind. That fatalism was there but the music belied it completely, the lead guitar playing was precise and perfectly suited to the songs, the tempos spritely, the playing sympathetic. “Whirlpool vision of shame” was definitely my favourite on either album, bristling with energy and those lyrics – full of odd references to odd books, was he talking about the Bible or something else? And why had I not heard guitar playing like that before? My closest comparison was Vini Reilly but I only knew one Durutti record at that time, and this guitarist Maurice Deebank seemed to have a different outlook on guitar playing. I probably played “TSIPAOSS” more than “ITSS” but loved them both. Now, what other records had Felt made…?
“Crumbling the antiseptic beauty” LP
The answer to that question had been provided by the purchase of “Pillows and Prayers” in the Spring of ’86, with its full discography of every band on it. It also had a different version of “Whirlpool vision of shame” on it called “My face is on fire”, sounding more primitive and not as good, the distinctive lead guitar was missing. While on holiday in Cornwall in May ’86 I persuaded my brother to buy me the first Felt LP “Crumbling the antiseptic beauty” from ’82 as my birthday present, which was due after the holiday. At least this time it was on vinyl. And what an odd package. A white sleeve with a black and white photograph of half a face, a man looking young, innocent and unsure.
Which is a fair description of the album itself. Whereas the albums I had heard before were at least full sounding, this sounded like a rough demo of that sound. Opener “Evergreen dazed” was simply two guitars, only playing rudimentary chords (that would be Lawrence) and the other soloing madly over it, but cleanly and distinctly (that would be Deebank then). In all fairness to Felt, it looked like they were very precise in crediting who played what on each song. Second song “Fortune” starts like a continuation of the first song, but with added booming bass, Lawrence’s vocals somewhere in the back of the mix and those drums! Now I wasn’t expecting tribal drums, all tom tom rolls, and I wasn’t expecting them to sound like cardboard boxes, and I wasn’t expecting there to be no cymbals at all. Up front and in your face, the drums made a statement. And Lawrence’s words – when I could hear them – sounded as forlorn as before. “If it all gets too much there’s things you can do to end it all now or see it all through”. Ouch. “Birdmen” starts with unison guitar arpeggios before more tribal drums enter, and Lawrence is still brooding in the background. I have no idea what half the lyrics are, even though extracts are printed on the sleeve. And after three minutes Deebank starts soloing, brilliant single note patterns, suddenly dropping in two notes as they pass, then Lawrence sings again, colonels in disguise, and how can you tell if a man has lost his mind? The guitars chime to a crescendo and the drums pound and the song ends. “Cathedral” is next, another majestic circular guitar riff, Lawrence still indecipherable, drums pounding, but this time it’s faster and more melodic, and once Lawrence stops singing, Deebank flies – a guitar solo that starts simple and low then goes upwards and upwards, chiming and glistening before dropping back. “I worship the sun” sounds like a post punk Shadows, there’s definitely hints of “Man of mystery” in Deebank’s lead guitar but the song moves between tempos easily. Finally “Templeroy” confused me, the lack of movement, the way it swung around the rhythm so much, Deebank’s guitar as lovely as ever and then multiple Lawrences sing over each other, totally blurring any semblance of understanding. What the hell?
Really “what the hell?” was my best response to the whole album. What did it mean? Why didn’t it sound normal? What were they trying to prove? And how the hell could Deebank play such wonderful guitar? Even listening to it now the album still holds that mystery, I don’t understand it but I love the atmosphere there.
And where to next?
Well to Creation. Around that time – Spring 86 – Felt issued a new single “Ballad of the band” and an album “Let the snakes crinkle their heads to death”. I heard the single on the radio but didn’t know where to buy it, and the album got totally ripped to shreds in the music papers for being (a) instrumental and (b) only 16 minutes long. Later that year another single – “Rain of crystal spires” – and album – “Forever breathes the lonely word” – were issued and Felt finally got in the music papers – a double centre page interview which emphasised how odd Lawrence was in the infamous “Suicide” issue of the NME. But still I didn’t know much about the band, Lawrence seemed fascinating. Onwards ever onwards….
“Gold mine trash” compilation LP
At the end of September ’87 I moved into Unit 74 in the Polytechnic of Sheffield’s accomodation estate in Norfolk Park. I didn’t take my hifi with me – too precious – but did have a Goodmans radio cassette personal stereo in which the batteries exploded within a month. I didn’t take many tapes with me to start with – a mistake that would soon be rectified – and had to put up with whatever I could find while I explored Sheffield’s record shops. My room-mates musical taste was weird and we would rarely agree on anything. Chris loved Suzanne Vega and Kate Bush and I often swapped tapes with him, Dave loved showing off his CD collection of “Brothers in arms” and “Tango in the night”. (A note from my diary on 15th October ’87 – “I was talking to Dave about music and he said he bought the new Sting LP to cheer himself up, so I decided to do the same – not buy the Sting LP obviously”. Says it all there). Robin tended to only play music when he was trying to seduce a fresher, which was when the Alexander O’Neal would come out. But woe betide him if his real girlfriend found out – it did happen once and there were threats made and smashed bottles and ambulances called and you get the picture. And I kept my headphones on.
The first tapes I bought there were “Strangeways here we come” (issued on my first Monday there, I’m sure that was deliberate timing by Rough Trade – to get all the students buying it) and “Rhythm and noise”, a free tape with Underground magazine with Sonic Youth and Cabaret Voltaire and The Normal on it. Good stuff. The next two tapes I bought were “Pet sounds” and “Reunion wilderness” (by The Railway Children) bought on the morning after the great October storm and the day I travelled back to Penarth on the train listening to both albums, looking out of the carriage’s windows and staring amazed at the felled trees and damaged buildings as I headed south. I’d not put the news on that morning, didn’t know anything about it, hearing “Pet sounds” for the first time ever, associating with almost every song… (Note from diary 18th October “‘Pet Sounds’ f***s me up really badly”).
The next tape I bought was “Gold mine trash” by Felt. It was a compilation covering their music on Cherry Red and it had lots of singles on it I didn’t know, and a bonus side of instrumentals on the tape too. It gave me some more context for their early years. Their debut “Something sends me to sleep” sounded like a demo, “Trails of colour dissolve” was bare and odd, but “Penelope Tree” was a sparkling lush pop gem, full of lyrical guitar and peculiar words plus Lawrence’s best vocal performance and some curious backing vocals. There were lots of songs I knew, but not in these demo or b-side versions. And amongst the songs on the reverse of the tape were two guitar workouts called “A preacher in New England” and “Now summer’s gone and spread its wings” which were quite lovely. Hearing that tape now sends me straight back to those early days in Sheffield, trying to be adult and clever and thinking too much about Penarth and thinking I was settled when I wasn’t at all. One of these songs we’ll come back to soon.
“Poem of the river” LP / “Let the snakes crinkle their heads to death” LP
One of the perks of living in Sheffield was that a number of great Northern cities were only a train ride away. Each Saturday I would take a trip to a different city and explore the record shops. I loved Liverpool but I never really explored it enough to find the record shops – I always kick myself I never found my way to Probe. Manchester was a regular haunt – the two HMVs there, Virgin as well, Piccadilly Records when it was still by the bus station and Eastern Bloc down by Afflecks Palace. I picked up loads of Durutti Column rarities in Manchester, those big red boxed cassettes, rare singles, “A Factory Quartet”… Leeds was only a short hop away too and had a great HMV and a fantastic second hand shop called Amazing Records which had a basement filled with great punk and post-punk records. Of course Leeds was my original home town so there were some places in the city centre which reminded me of old times – the Safeways supermarket by the Berni Inn (Safeways! Berni Inn! So redolent of the seventies), and the Beatties model shop which was around the corner from the optician who insisted I try a disastrous experiment with contact lenses when I was six. And there was a fabulous chip shop on the main street where I would always get a burger and a bag of chips for about two quid. You can’t beat chips in Yorkshire.
And there was Hull. My brother was studying at Hull University and I visited him a few times in our respective first years – he would visit me in Sheffield too, sleeping in our living room after going to see the Kinks in Manchester. On the 23rd January I trudged through the snow to Sheffield train station, caught the train to Hull and trudged through more snow to go to a record fair with Andy, then looking around Hull’s record shops. At the record fair I picked up a fair haul of discs including the “Let the snakes crinkle their heads to death” LP from ’86 for three quid. After all, it was less than twenty minutes long – I wasn’t going to pay a fortune for it. A week later I took a trip to Leeds and in Amazing Records picked up Felt’s ’87 LP “Poem of the river”. This was an American pressing on Relativity Records and a ‘cutout’ too, the corner was cut off. I poured over both LPs’ sleeves and inserts and labels. I didn’t have a record player so had to wait a few weeks before popping back to Penarth to tape them, so I didn’t hear these LPs until February. By now I’d read a bit more on Felt, learnt about Lawrence’s quirks, how Deebank was a classical guitarist who would regularly fall out with Lawrence, how keyboard player Martin Duffy was now the musical foil where Deebank had been, the pieces of the jigsaw called Felt were starting to slot together.
“Let the snakes…” didn’t make much of an impression at the time. I liked it, but it breezed past quickly and didn’t linger long in the mind. It was ten instrumentals, some fast, some slow, mostly groovy in a very 60s way. “Song for William S Harvey” was an immediate hit, as was closer “Sapphire Mansions”. It’s the kind of record you either love or hate. I could understand why people expecting another “Primitive Painters” were disappointed. But I liked it and grew to love it, and the short tracks were perfect for filling gaps at the end of mix tapes.
“Poem of the river” on the other hand was six songs over twenty six minutes, the songs ranging in length from two minutes to nine minutes. And everything about the album is perfect. From the album cover – a blurred live shot of the band, no words on the front – to the insert – silver ink on black paper – explaining who played what on each song, even down to which players solo’d first and the wonderful line “Songs written by Lawrence and coloured in by the band”. Such attention to detail in the packaging is rare, and all adds to the experience of the album.
“Declaration” starts quietly, Lawrence strumming muted chords and whispering that well known opening line “I will be the first person in history to die of boredom”, then a bass is added as Lawrence makes a reference to another of his songs, then an organ is added and as the whole band ramp up the volume Lawrence is declaring he’ll kill anyone who’ll stand in his way. And you think “Really?”. But the whole band are rocking now, and it’s all over in less than two minutes. “Silver plane” is a perfect three minute pop song, burbling organ and percolating electric piano over choppy guitars, simple bass and brushed drums and Lawrence is at his most tuneful. “She lives by the castle” is the first long song, starting quietly – acoustic guitar over bass, and Lawrence trying to work out someone – “How could you be so cold with me when I have been so warm with you?” – while the band simmer in the background, electric guitars sparkling like sunlight on water, before coming to the boil a few times, “And she’s noble as a queen, that’s for sure”. Then the whole band just fly – first a guitar solo then an organ workout. A stunner. Side two opens with “Stained glass windows in the sky” and it’s like “Wizard of Oz” changing into colour. It’s only at this point the listener realises all of side one was in mono, now side two is stereo. “Stained glass windows” is another perfect two minute pop song and Lawrence even sounds happy – “I’m on rooftops, I’m watching raindrops…”. “Riding on the equator” is the longest song here and is superb, the interaction between the musicians, the ebb and flow of the music – so simple yet sustaining interest throughout the song’s length. Lawrence’s storytelling lyrics are wonderful , the alternating guitar solos, even down to the little noise after “You’ve got something special that’s a secret” (is it an organ overheating?). I could listen to this song on its own for hours, and I know I have done. And if a Fender Jazzmaster sounds like these guitar solos then I want one. (I am now playing air guitar to the first guitar solo and grinning like a loon). Even Lawrence gets a good guitar solo! The way it all goes quieter and slower at the end and falls apart in little guitar figures. Man I love this song. And just when you think the album can’t get better it closes with “Dark red birds”. My diary at the time calls this song ‘majestic’. I can’t do better than that, it just IS. All the elements are perfect, Lawrence whispering, the acoustic guitar sounding like a dobro, the organ bed, the generally drum-less-ness of it all, Lawrence’s “ba ba ba”s. Sod it, this song gets to me and I don’t know how or why. A perfect ending to a perfect album.
(Of course there are stories here if I lose the chronology of this piece for a paragraph. The LP was produced by Mayo Thompson and Lawrence hated the production, wanted to throw the master tapes in a river, and ended up replacing two songs with the newly recorded “Declaration” and “Silver plane” without Thompson. And then there’s the story that “She lives by the castle” is about Sarah Cracknell, who at the time was hanging out with Felt years before she became lead singe with St Etienne. And the castle is Elephant and Castle in London. ‘Cos “She lives by the elephant” doesn’t sound so good. And if I really lose the chronology, is Sarah Cracknell the Sarah listed amongst the backing singers on “Forever breathes the lonely word”? I wonder…)
“Forever breathes the lonely word” LP / “The Pictorial Jackson Review” LP
My first year in Sheffield was by and large a success, I passed all my exams and everything seemed to be ok. I had even sorted out another place in Norfolk Park for my second year. I returned to Penarth for the summer hoping to sign on the dole as students were allowed to at the time. It was going to be a long hot summer. Instead it was a dreadful time. My brother and I both filled in the applications identically for whatever we were entitled to and waited for the money to trickle in. A few weeks later we got our letters – he was getting the full amount backdated which was about £150, while I got virtually nothing, about £6. And that was backdated too. So I started to dip into my second year’s fund of money to keep going through the summer. Then in August it started to rain. It felt like it rained for weeks and weeks. I stayed in, stayed away from the Railway and worked on an album of songs which would become “The Kindest Lie”. I’d bought a Casio SK1 and used it all over the tape. There was a song called “For Anne” which was about my feelings for my old school – a metaphor of a relationship with a person as a relationship with the school itself – and it was a total ripoff stylistically of “Ballad of the band”.
The reason for this was “Doing it for the kids”. A big promotion by Creation Records – a compilation LP for the price of a single, a big gig in London, a series of cheaply priced singles and all Creation LPs discounted to £3.99. I bought the compilation on CD and loved half of it, “Ballad of the band” was brilliant – a commentary of the band itself, it seemed to be directed at Maurice Deebank who had left the band before its release. Totally self referential, even mentioning their own songs. I needed more Felt, so dashed to Cardiff to buy the LPs on Creation I didn’t own already.
Except I missed one out – I didn’t buy their contemporary LP “Train above the city” for the simple reason that it wasn’t really Felt. It was the keyboard player and the drummer indulging in some instrumental jazz noodling, or so the reviews seemed to say. So I gave it a miss. But I did buy “Forever breathes the lonely word” from ’86 and “The Pictorial Jackson Review”, released earlier in 1988. Both had little black “Doing it for the kids” stickers in the top right hand corner.
“The Pictorial Jackson Review” can be described in one word. Schizophrenic. On one side there’s eight songs, full band performances, ‘recorded quickly to eight track’ according to the sleeve. Side two has two instrumentals, one at over ten minutes long. The ‘song’ side is snappy – only one song goes over three minutes – and quite brilliant. Whereas Lawrence had previously waxed lyrical invoking classic authors or texts, now his words were direct and sharp, and the band played that way too. I’ve never been sure of the circumstances of the album, were the songs recorded as demos then it was decided to issue them? Was this a sign of Lawrence losing interest in Felt? Who knows. Regardless, the new lyrical directness suits the songs – Lawrence channels his inner ’65 Dylan and the band match him, jangling guitars, reeling organ lines, it all sounds so simple and easy. Every songs is a miniature classic, “Bitter end” is spiteful and despairing – “You say you’ll kill someone but the only thing you’ll kill is time” – while “Don’t die on my doorstep” is a hell of a kiss off, Lawrence sings repeated “Don’t cry” not to comfort someone but like an order. Highlights are the sweet “Christopher St” (Lawrence still obsessed with New York then) and the slower, moodier “Under a pale light” which moves from quiet to loud so beautifully. So those are the songs on side one. Side two starts with “Sending lady load”, Martin Duffy giving it some jazz piano for eleven minutes. I think I played this once, then didn’t hear it again until Josh Meadows played it on his excellent “It’s a jangle out there” radio show a few weeks ago, and I realised it’s actually quite nice. The other song is “The darkest ending”, all minor chord electric piano and vibraphone, short and sinister. Very pleasant.
“Forever breathes the lonely word” was special though. Eight songs, all liberally smothered in Martin Duffy’s Hammond organ (it’s his portrait on the cover, you know). I seem to remember when Q reviewed the LP they said it sounded like the first ten seconds of “Like a rolling stone” were smeared across the whole album, and that’s a good description. Every song is a gem, from the spritely opener “Rain of crystal spires” onwards, not a moment is wasted, every organ fill or guitar solo is just right. Lawrence’s vocals are still wayward pitch-wise but who cares – the lyrics are fantastic, full of one liners and pithy comments. Too many good lyrics to mention really. Songs like “Gather up your wings and fly” and “Grey streets” are fantastic performances with lyrics to die for. Slower material like “All the people I like are those that are dead” and “Hours of darkness have changed my mind” show a more melancholy side. And in “September lady” there’s something new – a hint of sex! Lawrence doesn’t get sexy as such, but it’s kind of sensual. All in all, “Forever breathes the lonely word” is a close second behind “Poem of the river” for best Felt album. I played both albums throughout August, hiding from the rain and hiding from my friends. At the end of August “The kindest lie” was complete, bearing the influence of Felt on at least two songs directly. And then I went back to Sheffield…
“The splendour of fear” LP
As I have mentioned before, the second year in Sheffield was a depressing time full of skipped lectures and feeling lost and misunderstood, and consoling myself in alcohol. By January ’89 I had no idea what the hell was going on, and just drank myself into oblivion as frequently as possible.
On one sober day I returned to Leeds to look for records. I found Leeds indoor market which I had not been inside for about twelve years and had a huge rush of memories walking around the shops and stalls. Hiding at the back was a little second hand record shop and I browsed through the stock, finding the Cherry Red tape of Felt’s second album “The splendour of fear” from 1984 with “Crumbling the antiseptic beauty” on the reverse of the tape. It was cheap, I didn’t have that album… I bought it.
By now I’d learnt a little more about Felt. There had been a very informative interview with Lawrence in a December issue of Melody Maker to promote their “Space blues” single. Lawrence explained how he wanted Felt’s albums to abide by his rules. Firstly each album title had to have the word “the” in it. Secondly each album had to have balanced sides, the same number of songs on each side. He bemoaned “Ignite the seven cannons” for having five songs on one side and six on the other. (He didn’t mention the totally unbalanced “Pictorial Jackson Review” though).
“The splendour of fear” though was from the early part of Felt’s career, and is a continuation of the sound on “Crumbling the antiseptic beauty”. Only this time there was more instrumental interplay and less vocals, Lawrence was working towards what he had called “guitar paintings”. The drums are still cymbal-less and tribal, and there’s a lovely unobtrusive reverbed sound throughout the album. “Red indians” and “Mexican bandits” are short guitar workouts, “The optimist and the poet” is a longer guitar piece and the only song to get boring, but that’s because it’s a Lawrence showcase and he didn’t have the skills of Deebank at the time. “The world is as soft as lace” has Lawrence at his most defeated while backing vocals hover in the background. “The stagnant pool” is the album’s centrepiece – Lawrence starts by describing a pool in strange terms then both Deebank and Lawrence fire off guitar solos – Deebank’s is more complex than Lawrence’s. It drifts on for over eight minutes but never gets boring. Finally another version of “A preacher in New England“, Deebank’s showcase, bathed in soft reverb with string synthesisers in the background.
And that was the song that affected me most on the album. I would get drunk and walk around Norfolk Park – a large green park on top of one of Sheffield’s five hills – at night, feeling terrible and wanting to be anywhere but there. And I would sit on the roundabouts in the playground, swing on the swings with my eyes closed, waiting for the giddy feeling, a short burst of happiness. And I would climb to the top of the climbing frame and watch the lights of the city twinkling below me, see the traffic lights change, the motion of cars, the world passing me by. And I would play “A preacher in New England” over and over and sob my heart out. It’s that kind of music.
“Me and a monkey on the moon”
By the end of 1989 I was back in Penarth living with my parents, travelling each day to Treforrest to the Poly of Wales – lots of train journeys – and supposedly trying again at the second year of the course I’d dropped out of at Sheffield in April. Supposedly. I was trying, honestly, but my heart still wasn’t really in it.
On the train one Wednesday I saw an advert for a new Felt album called “Me and a monkey on the moon” issued by el, the subsidiary of Cherry Red records. I thought it was odd that Felt were back there instead of Creation. Then I saw a review of the LP, mentioning Lawremce’s ten year plan – ten singles and ten albums in ten years. And frankly I didn’t believe him then and I don’t believe him now – it’s all too convenient. And how come he never mentioned it before? Still, a new Felt LP was special even if it was going to be their last. As soon as I could find it I bought it.
First thing I noticed on the gentle introduction to “I can’t make love to you anymore” was the pedal steel guitar. Next it was Lawrence’s vocal, then the female backing chorus, and the general cleanliness of the sound. Was this really Felt? It was good though. (And so it should be, the song was one of the two rejected from “Poem of the river”). “Mobile shack” was another shock – not just the parping synthesiser (a pointer towards where Lawrence would go) but the emotional honesty of the lyrics, and the commitment of Lawrence’s vocal. And it rocked along nicely. “Free” was a kind of piano ballad and more admissions from Lawrence, he’s surely singing about seeing Deebank again isn’t he? “Budgie jacket” drags a little, too similar to “Free” at this point and it’s admission of abuse is another shock. Thankfully “Cartoon sky” is more uptempo and sounds halfway to Denim. “New day dawning” is the big statement on the album, Lawrence’s promises for the future over an insistent mean riff – “Walk the path I’ve made into the new decade, follow me into the nineties”. After three and a half minutes of build and release, Gary Ainge gets a drum roll followed by… A coda that is half “Goodbye to love” and half “Hotel California”. And bloody hell it works! Not indie at all, and extending the song to over seven minutes. After that the album drifts a little in mid tempo confessional ballad style, not bad but not brilliant. “She deals in crosses” has tribal drums and feels like Lawrence reverting to the early Felt sound but is singing about his family! For someone so hung up on clouding his lyrics with whirlpool visions and rains of crystal spires these lyrics really are a shock. The closer “Get out of my mirror” is a classic bitch beat song worthy of the Creation LPs and a fine end to the album. It’s probably the most professional sounding Felt album and is so different from the others that it took me a while to get over my indie snobbery and enjoy it. A fine end to their career.
What happened next? Well there was the formation of Denim, the brilliant appropriation of the Glitter Band’s “Hey!” LP sleeve for a t-shirt, three wonderful barbed honest painful strange albums (and yes Denim’s best song “I will cry at Christmas” was an unrecorded Felt song), then “Summer smash” got pulled and “Denim take over” never happened and Go Kart Mozart stuttered into life and still carries on now. Lawrence is still a legend, has his own way in the world and will always be hoping for that one hit single. I learned more about him from reading Will Hodgkinson’s “Song man” than any number of music press interviews, that book is well worth hunting out.
And before you shout “Train above the city” – well it’s exactly as I thought it would be, eight jazzy instrumentals, pleasant enough background but nowhere near “Let the snakes…”. And before you shout “Creation singles! ‘Bubblegum perfume'”… Well we’ll kind of get to a part of that next time.
I’ve been overlong and boring, which was the total antithesis of Felt’s music. Sorry. Long live Lawrence.
Next time – another summer.