Tag Archives: Felt

Blessed State

In retrospect, I must admit I hadn’t really enjoyed studying for my A levels. The first year in the lower sixth at Stanwell had been a series of personal and emotional disasters (all pretty much self-inflicted – see previous posts) with poor exam results at the end. The second year in the upper sixth at New College Cardiff had brought a fresh start, new friends, but there were still problems, mainly with maths. A Level maths had blown my mind – all vectors and differentiation and calculus and I really didn’t understand it or see the point to it. It didn’t help that my eyesight was so poor that I couldn’t read the small numbers involved in the equations. I fell out with my lecturer and stupid words were spoken and the headmaster had come down on me like a ton of bricks regarding the honesty and integrity of his school and his staff. Which was funny now considering what he got up to at the time (there were rumours of dodgy doings even then) and what would happen in the future (he sold the college building in the centre of Cardiff for £4m so it would be redeveloped as a hotel – only he didn’t tell anyone until five months later when the college suddenly closed). So I had extra maths lessons from a nice lady called Irene and struggled through the exams and courseworks. Everything else suffered so I could concentrate on my Maths, which was a shame really. Once I’d finished all the exams halfway through June I was at a loose end for the first time in my life.

So what do you do when you know your results won’t come out until the middle of August? Well you could apply for some jobs for a start. A job came up in the Virgin record shop franchise within the Debenhams store in Cardiff and I applied, had an interview, probably came over as an indie snob and didn’t get the job. There was also this odd IBM thing I was interviewed for. I can’t even remember applying for it but I was invited down to one of their headquarters in Southsea near Portsmouth for a day of interviews and assessments. I secretly thought it was hilarious to be interviewed by Big Blue as my first tapes back in ’85 had been on my own label called IBM Tapes, where IBM stood for Industrial Beat Music. Yeah right. Anyway… As it would be a whole day there IBM even put me in a hotel the night before. It was a horrible cheap place whose curtains didn’t close, the bed was too small, and the sound of the amusements down the road filtered through the single glazed windows. The next day I was ferried along to IBM’s offices in a bus alongside fifty or so other candidates. Once there I ate horrible food, had three interviews, an aptitude test and a group exercise where I said virtually nothing. That may have been my undoing. I headed back on the train and read Melody Maker’s 4AD records special to celebrate “Lonely is an eyesore”. I didn’t get the IBM job either.

Meanwhile life continued. We had a few family day trips, sometimes for meals and sometimes just as something to do. One Sunday the whole family – my parents, my brother, my gran and I – took a day trip to Cowbridge, a very posh town in the Vale of Glamorgan about thirty miles from Cardiff. It was a lovely summer’s day and we strolled around the picturesque town browsing in any shops which happened to be open, which wasn’t many. In one shop I happened to see a ‘Nice Price’ cassette of the Byrds’ “Fifth Dimension” LP for about £2.50 so I bought it. I only knew “Eight miles high” from the album but had a vague recollection of Pete Wylie playing “What’s happening!?!?” when he chose some of his favourite songs for Janice Long’s evening session radio show on Radio One. So I gave it a chance. On the car journey back to Cardiff my father said “Oh let’s have a listen to that Byrds tape, Rob” and it was shoved into our Austin Maestro’s tape deck. Everyone seemed to be humming along nicely as the album progressed but I had a growing sense of unease as side one headed to its conclusion. The reason for this? Those bright sparks at CBS had swapped the final songs off each LP side on the tape, so side two finished with the gloomy Hiroshima ghost story “I come and stand at every door”, which meant “The Learjet song” was rapidly approaching. I had no idea what it was going to sound like, but I had a bad feeling about it. Once “What’s happening?!?!” – David Crosby’s beautiful languid ode to being so off your head on chemicals you have no idea what’s going on – had concluded there was a rush of noise like a hoover, some radio chatter and a little riff, some vocals and just more bloody plane noise and chatter. For three whole minutes. When the ‘song’ finished my father took the tape out and passed it back to me, adding “I think that’s one for your walkman, Rob”. The journey home was continued in stunned silence.

It was during the summer of ’87 that I reformed my band Final Ecstasy. We’d played our five songs ad infinitum through the winter and spring of the previous year before a huge argument between bass player Robin and guitarist Dave led to a split that summer. The argument was about whether someone would build a sports stadium at the bottom of Leckwith Road on the outskirts of Cardiff. Robin said it would happen, David said it wouldn’t, and after coming to blows (not me though, I didn’t give a shit) we split up. The irony of course is that it did happen and that is where Cardiff City now play their matches. But a year later such arguments were forgotten. We’d all kept in touch and differences were put aside and we started playing again. David was less interested than the rest of us so only appeared from time to time, adding a layer of power chords and ridiculous widdly widdly soloing over our songs but there were two major differences to the band in ’87. Firstly we had a real singer, a friend of Robin’s called Alan who could really sing so I could stop hollering and concentrate on my keyboards and drum machines. Secondly we now had ten songs not five, so there was a bit more variety. From what I can remember we were actually quite good, and I wish I’d recorded a rehearsal. Alan asked if he could bring his girlfriend along to hear us, but when he told me it was R – who I’d crushed on for two years – I said no. After all, I was still paranoid that her mother was now working in the nearest shop to us in Sully Terrace and clearly knew who I was and seemed to be monitoring the amount of sweets I was buying from there. (R’s mother had inspired one of my best early songs called “Don’t run me down”, about how she always seemed to be driving her green Citreon BX behind me as I cycled home from school. It’s no wonder R didn’t like me…) But Final Ecstasy fell apart towards the end of August, I was fed up with waiting for the other members – they would either be late or not turn up at all – so after a practice where I turned “Follow the leader” into Wire’s “Heartbeat” by playing as softly as possible, the band broke up for the second and last time.

Summer ’87 was an odd time for pop music. The charts were half wonderful and half crap, just for a change. Some big names were starting the campaign for their autumn LP releases so there was Michael Jackson’s “I just can’t stop loving you” glooping away at the upper reaches of the charts, but also the wonderful “What have I done to deserve this?” where the Pet Shop Boys resurrected the career of Dusty Springfield. There were novelties like George Michael hiding under a psuedonym for a Bee Gees cover, Bruce Willis murdering the classics, holiday hits like “Call me” by Spagna and big power ballads like “Alone” by Heart. But there were two songs in the chart which drew all of Final Ecstasy together – “True faith” by New Order and “Animal” by Def Leppard. “True faith” was just a fantastic song and performance, it felt like a vindication for the band when it reached the top 10 – so few of their previous singles were that successful. “Animal” was metal polished to a ridiculously glossy shine. Both songs were impossible to resist. Both songs were also in the top 10 when Robin joined our team (my father, my brother and myself) for a pop quiz… These pop quizzes were every six months or so, organised by people within BT (my father’s employer) in the Oddfellows Club in Newport Road in Cardiff. Our team had won the first quiz in September 86 through me winning a tiebreaker recognising the intro to “No Fun” by the Sex Pistols. We’d come a very close second in the next quiz, losing points where our team’s resident Steely Dan fan didn’t recognise “FM”. So we ditched the Dan fan and replaced him with Robin, who knew his stuff too. The last round was to list the current top 10 singles chart in order – Robin and I piled into that one and got them all right. We won the contest and each took away a ten pounds Woolworths voucher. The next Monday New Order issued their “Substance” compilation, and Woolworths were selling the big boxed cassette version exclusively for a fiver so that’s how I spent my winnings, adding the big hessian covered box alongside the other Factory cassettes I had at the time… “Substance” got a lot of airtime that summer too, I wasn’t fussed on the rerecorded “Confusion” or “Temptation”, but it was great to have all the singles in one place – the full version of “The Perfect Kiss” (why wasn’t that a hit??? Oh, because the single was issued a week after the album “Lowlife” – typical Factory – thanks Marcello for that!), the sound of a new world being created on “Everything’s gone green”… And all those b-sides too, the glacial pain of “In a lonely place”, the urgent rush of “Hurt” and “Murder”, closing with the should-have-been-a-single “1963”. Only a band like New Order would throw away a song like that as a b-side, and only a label like Factory would let them do it.

It was during that long hot summer of ’87 that I bought “154” by Wire. A year earlier I was enraptured by “Chairs missing”, so I was on the lookout for their other LPs. I bought an original copy – with free 7 inch EP – at a record fair in Cardiff for £7 and it became the main soundtrack of the summer. There’s one peculiarity on the original vinyl which I’ve never heard reproduced on the different CDs I’ve had of this LP (and I’ve bought it 3 times on compact disc), and that’s the bursts of white noise at the start of side one which start a second or so before the first song “I should have known better”.

This clearly has nothing to do with the Beatles (or Jim Diamond). Tightly coiled guitars chug out a riff over bass drum and hissing hihats and then Graham Lewis intones a strange tale of a relationship in the throes of disengagement – “I haven’t found a measure yet to calibrate my displeasure”, “Valueing the vengeance that you treasure, I’ve redefined the meaning of vendetta” – and in the background keyboards ramp up the tension and the occasional snare drum hit whips like a slap in the face. The tension never breaks, the situation is never resolved. “Two people in the room” is on the surface a typical punk thrash, guitars are distorted and the rhythm section hurtle along, but it doesn’t sound quite right – the band hang on a discord for half the time before returning to the dumb riff. And Colin Newman is alternately speaking or screaming, words that could be an outsider’s viewpoint on what happening in “I should have known better”. “The 15th” is slyly pretty, all clever phrases and not much more but “The other window” is creepy, a traveller’s tale narrated by Lewis over a barrage of odd noises and a seemingly random drum track. “A single KO” is more dread and menace from Newman, then “A touching display” drags the tension on the album to breaking point. It’s Lewis intoning again about a failing relationship – “how long can we sustain ourselves apart?” – while drums roll and bass rumbles and a barrage of electric violas hovering in the distance. Then around three minutes and thirty seconds the bass gets distorted and leads the song off jumping octaves and taking over, drums tumble and roll then the violas emerge back in, swooping like vultures, rising slowly up in scales, keyboards drone, the whole sound becomes overpowering – all that the words can’t express is said through screaming instruments. And it rises in pressure for minutes and minutes until the violas hang on a dischord, feeding back onto themselves and the song falls apart. (I would play “A touching display” to my brother who was obsessing over “Metal Box” at the time and point out similarities to “Careering”). “On returning” closes the side with Newman back at the helm, a half synthesised riff, a punkish thrash and vignettes of a family on holiday. A skewed pop song.

“A mutual friend” starts side one with more creeping dread and tension, the lyrics hint at family troubles amongst the puns and the song builds naturally to a pastoral middle eight of cor anglais and harmonies – it’s like a gentler version of “A touching display” and all the better for it. It also ends up sounding like Eno at the end, those arch “Oh-oh-oh” backing vocals are so “Taking tiger mountain”. “Blessed state” circles around a simple ascending riff to which guitars are added, very melodic, almost power pop. “Once is enough” sounds like it was recorded in a junkyard (actually the studio was set up with tons of pots and pans for the day’s overdubbing) and is the biggest throwback to their punk days, it all sounds on the edge of falling apart, too compressed, too harsh Lewis and Newman singing together is always a good sound and that middle section where they sing an ascending note together as the noise gets louder – well, I’d say My Bloody Valentine must have been listening. After that “Map Ref” comes as a blessed relief – a genuine pop song, chiming guitars, a real tune, harmonies and Newman’s cry of “Chorus!” always puts a smile on my face. But the words are about maps and travelling and cartography. And the full title is too long to fit on a seven inch single. And – ahem – My Bloody Valentine covered it in ’95 so I was right! In a parallel universe this would have been a hit but EMI had messed up Wire’s chances by trying to hype “Outdoor miner” into the charts the year previously… Shame. “Indirect enquiries” is odd, probably my least favourite song on the album, “40 versions” struck a chord just as much as “Used to” had the previous year. “I never know which version I’m going to be, I seem to have so many choices open to me”. A simple bass pulse, guitars and synths playing around, it’s utterly compelling and slightly scary – the round robin of vocals at the end, the repetitions, the sense of dread, the falling apart…. “154” is all distances and dislocation – the distance between places and people, the dislocation that distance – physical and emotional – may cause, the dread of something ending, the feeling of that unknown loss. It’s no wonder I soaked it up that summer.

In early August ’87 my family went on holiday on what turned out to be our final family holiday, the last time all four of us were together. Two years previously we’d spent a week in a small house on the outskirts of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire and had a lovely time, we’d visited the historic town of Haworth twice that week, mainly for the steam railway there (not of any interest to me) and I loved the town, not least the places to eat. On the cobbled main street downhill there was a fabulous coffee shop called The Copper Kettle which I liked for the quality of the food and the waitresses (oh come on, I was 16!). There was also a fantastic chip shop by the station which did the best meat and potato pies I’d ever had (with chips and gravy of course). It was there I first heard “Yesterday’s men” by Madness, which sticks in my mind. Anyway, in 1987 we went back to Haworth for a week, staying in a house actually on the cobbled main street downhill, just across from the Copper Kettle. Was I happy? Oh yes. All I can remember of that holiday is eating – sweets from the specialist sweet shop at the top of the hill, pie and chips at the place by the station, popping across to the Copper Kettle all the time. And I only bought one record…

We took a day trip to Keighley – mainly for being on the steam railway route – and while there we looked for record shops like we always did. I can’t remember the name of the shop we ended up at but it was small and dark and filled with records – not CDs but records, seven inch and twelve inch in size. We all started looking through the racks to find some rare treasure. That’s not true, my mother didn’t look through the racks, she probably just thought “Oh God, another record shop” as she watched her husband and two sons devour the shop’s stock. While passing through the 12 inch singles stock I found a single by a band I knew and liked but I didn’t recognise the title or sleeve, but I bought it anyway. Of course being on holiday I couldn’t listen to it until we returned to Penarth but I raced upstairs to my bedroom, twelve inch in hand and plonked it straight onto the turntable of my hifi.

The record was “The Final Resting Of The Ark” by Felt, a five song twelve inch EP. In the time between purchase and hearing it – three days approximately – I had soaked up the enigmatic sleeve picture, the lyrics on the reverse and the credits on the label. Produced by Robin Guthrie again? Well that could be good or bad. In this case it was good – Guthrie wanted to test out his new studio September Sound so invited Felt in to record a few songs. The EP starts with the title track – Lawrence on shimmering acoustic guitars and singing typically vague imagistic lyrics, then a soprano sax takes over soloing wildly while the guitars catch fire then ending on an echo. “Autumn” is a short electric piano piece by Martin Duffy, as melancholy as its title suggest – the spaces between the notes as important as the notes themselves, hanging in a reverbed halo. “Fire circles” is a guitar instrumental with added keyboard touches, arpeggios and not much else. “There’s no such thing as victory” is Lawrence whispering truthes over simple guitar and bass – “I don’t know what you see in me” indeed. Finally “Buried wild blind” is just over a minute long but utterly gorgeous, guitar and bass and keyboard finally coalesce in glorious major to minor tonalities and melody. It’s not a long record, but it’s a great one. (And it seems to be the only Felt record without a drummer on it too). Short and sweet.

And then the dread and tension came to a head. My brother and I received our A Level exam results. The previous year my brother had sat three exams and got an E and two U’s (that’s unclassified). This year he got an A and two Cs which was enough for him to get to Hull University which is what he’d wanted all along. I got a C in Computing, a D in Physics and an E in Maths. So by scrapping through maths I let my other exams down. I didn’t have enough to get to my first choice, which was Liverpool University so went through clearing while watching Tony Wilson’s “Which way now?” TV show about the whole post-results process. I was offered a place on a Maths and Computing course at Liverpool Uni, and something else at Keele Uni but for some reason – pigheadedness I expect – I was seriously considering Sheffield Poly, my first choice on my PCAS form (UCCA and PCAS being separate then). After much soul searching – and probably pigheadedness – I settled for Sheffield. How different would life have been if I had chosen the other courses? Who knows.

August dragged into September and my brother and I prepared for the big move north. The last record I would buy before the move would be the one which really captured that time for me, and it was a record linked to a future I could not even conceive at the time.

My diary records that it was my second trip to Newport that year. I think the first trip there was for a job interview at the Alcan aluminium plant in Rogerstone, but all I remember of that day in February was it being very cold, Newport being inhospitable and Boy George’s new LP “Sold” being played in a little record shop I found by the Westgate Hotel. The second trip to Newport in September was just a case of “Let’s go somewhere different, see what’s there”. I found it dirty and dingy, didn’t think much of the shops, couldn’t find anywhere decent to eat except a Wimpy on the main street, but did eventually walk into what passed for a shopping centre, with a maze of cheap market stalls underneath called the In Shops, and above them various clothes shops and chemists and…right at the end… An actual record shop. Roxcene Records. It was dark, had a lot of posters up for hard rock bands with gothic logos, it felt slightly dangerous. I didn’t want to stay there too long so quickly flicked through the racks trying not to look nervous – the customers at the desk talking to the staff looked at me like an interloper into their private party. And I found a record I wanted to buy. Bloody hell, now what was I going to do? I’d have to approach these fearsome creatures with a record – surely one they’d pour scorn on for not being rock enough. I went to the counter, slapped it down, the assistant said “Is that it?” I nodded trying to be cool and nonchalent. “OK then” he said, money was paid, record placed in a bag and I walked out with my knees feeling like jelly. I hated Roxcene Records. On the way back home passing through Cardiff I bought a music book and read the book and listened to the record together that night, the two becoming entwined in my mind from that point onwards. The record was “The city of our lady” EP by Durutti Column – a record I wrote about over at Toppermost and mentioned in “Spent time” – but I always think of that EP as being part of the day, the experience of the record shop, the experience of Newport itself, the book, all together. Listening to the EP now still brings back that oncoming dread of moving on, to Sheffield…

Of course the other big thing happening in September 87 was the Smiths splitting up. I remember reading the initial story in the Melody Maker while in our dentist’s waiting room and not being surprised in the least. I felt like it was inevitable, it couldn’t last. But their current single “Girlfriend in a coma” just seemed more of the same, nothing special. And there were better songs around at the time. I was totally in love with “Pump up the volume”, being a huge Colourbox fan. I had no idea who these other blokes AR Kane were though, and I wish I’d bought the single at the time because for sure “Anitina” – the double a-side – would have absolutely blown my head off in ’87, just as it did when I finally caught up with AR Kane in ’94. That was probably my stupidest mistake of that summer, not buying that single. Of course choosing Sheffield over Liverpool or Keele could be seen as a stupider mistake…

And there were still issues with Sheffield. Having decided I was going, the Poly wrote to say there was limited accomodation and did I have any problems which could put me up the list? Of course I did, I was blind in one eye. So that’s how I ended up in Norfolk Park. Then I found out while drinking at the Railway pub that loads of my ex-school mates were going to Sheffield. Not the Poly, but the Uni. This just made me even more worried and paranoid, especially as one of the two major crushes at the time was heading there with her boyfriend. The week before I was due to go to Sheffield my parents and brother took a holiday to Cornwall leaving me alone in Penarth to pack and prepare. All I did was mope around, get drunk a bit and make an EP of music entitled “Goodbye”. This would be my last official Mangled Tape. Five songs simply recorded saying “I’m nervous, I hate you drunken lechs at the Railway, I’m glad to leave Penarth”. All the usual subjects. Then two friends of mine came over, we got pissed as farts after making the worst spag bol ever (well we didn’t know you had to brown the mince first…) and recorded a jam session of us making stupid noises. Then they interviewed me about how I felt leaving Penarth for Sheffield. I can’t bear to listen to that tape now, I was so full of hope, I was so naïve. On Sunday 26th September my parents drove me to Sheffield to start a new life of being self sufficient and studying, and my summer of easy living and dread and tension was over. I was in further education now, and that was a different kind of tension.

Next time – well next time won’t be for a while as I’ll be having a summer break. See you in September.

There’s no such thing as victory

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…

October 1985

“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…?

May 1986

“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….

October 1987

“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.

February 1988

“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…)

August 1988

“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…

January 1989

“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.

November 1989

“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.