Graham Reid | | 6 min read
It is embarrassing when you have an album in your collection which is a famous cult item by a famous cult band and you famously have never bothered to listen to it. Elsewhere revealed that oversight regarding the album The Splendour of Fear by Felt in a column entitled 10 Odd Unplayed Albums in My Collection.
That this album from '84 by British band Felt had languished unloved and unlistened was shameful and the oversight corrected in that column, and The Splendour of Fear very much loved and listened to subsequently.
It leaps back to attention now with the much rumoured reissue of five albums by Felt – the British band which was the project of Lawrence who was a pop craftsman and in the post-punk era aimed for a gently transgressive musicality in that era populated by fascinating non-musicians taking pop, post-punk, rock and lo-fi aesthetics into interesting corners but also some blind alleys.
Lawrence's vision for Felt was more akin to the likes of Television, Durutti Column and even touches of Lloyd Cole than to the Fall or PiL.
Lawrence Hayward – who only ever went by his first name and more recently appears as Go Kart Mozart – was the sole constant in Felt which only lasted the duration of the Eighties but delivered a whopping 10 albums in that time, the first five of which have now been reissued on vinyl and as a CD box set (with extra tracks and various bibs and bobs like buttons and replicas of gig flyers).
Billed as A Decade in Music (Cherry Red through Southbound in New Zealand), it pulls Felt from the side of the stage to the centre and allows them a consideration, mostly a first consideration because at a guess very few in this country would be familiar with their catalogue. Not even those who actually had an album on their shelves for many years and never got round to playing it!
The band's debut Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty ('82) was bare 30 minutes long but it offered a provocatively narrow range of glistening guitar jangle from classically trained Maurice Deebank and Lawrence on songs which seemed to possess a direction all of their own which went well past pop structures. If there is a reference point it might be Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd in Television, but even that isn't helpful because the New Yorkers spliced their style into songs with verses and choruses which are conspicuously absent on Felt's debut.
What the pieces possess is a kind of folk-rock weightlessness – the bass (played variously by Lawrence, Deebank or Nick Gilbert) often seems barely there, the drumming by Gary Ainge delightfully coming in limited and angular punctuations – and with Lawrence's dispassionate vocals mixed somewhere behind the foreground the whole thing has a mysterious effect.
The opener, the five minute instrumental duet between Deebank and Lawrence on Evergreen Dazed, is almost showy in its twists and turns from Deebank who tosses off ideas then circles back onto them to stretch them in another direction.
It offers a kind of psychedelic folk-rock minimalism and as an opening statement set them up as . . . Hmm, different and interesting. Two words which could be condemnation or complimentary.
The Splendour of Fear ('84) we addressed in that column mentioned above but just to reiterate the key point, it is mostly instrumental (Lawrence sings only on The World is As Soft As Lace and the eight and half-minute The Stagnant Pool).
Again the opener is an instrumental, the two minute Red Indians, and Deebank once more spirals around a melody which sets up the more quiet and restrained The World which follows.
Very much Deebank's statement overall, this marries his pristine, often elevating and unconstrained style with the more downbeat delivery of Lawrence, yet it reaches it apex on that mini-epic Stagnant Pool where Lawrence takes lysergic lead guitar.
A beguiling album which shimmers and beckons you in at every turn. And there are many turns.
A real step up and sideways from that impressive but not yet full-formed band on the debut.
The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories (also in '84) unfortunately offers lesser returns and some attribute that to the tension between the two key players, Deebank very much on-again off-again in his commitment.
That said it starts with the brisk pop jangle of Roman Litter, the closest they had come to a proper pop song; three and half minutes, vocals mixed higher, neat stop/starts, nagging but nice guitar solo, chipping chords . . .
If their previous outings had erred more towards the art-pop end of the spectrum this one had a better handle on the pure possibilities of pop in places, and the sympathetic hands of producer John Leckie (Stone Roses etc).
And that meant that Deebank's classic-referencing material like Semipiternal Darkness – Julian Bream in pastoral mode on electric guitar – and instrumental miniatures like Imprint were now sitting more awkwardly alongside the crafted Spanish House and joyous jangle of Sunlight Bathed in the Golden Glow and the oddball but delightful Dismantled King is Off the Throne which are now propelled by Ainge's more assured, even rockist, drumming.
They were sounding to much like a band of two halves and yet the tension made them who they were.
Ignite the Seven Cannons ('85) saw some major changes, in came 16-year old keyboard player Martin Duffy (later to join Primal Scream) and bassist Marco Thomas . . . and notably producer Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins who also brought in that band's Elizabeth Fraser for a couple of backing vocals.
The changes worked and pop-rock was the winner on the day. By all accounts the original album however suffered from the production but what is here is the remastered and sometimes remixed version which sounds excellent.
Duffy's keyboards add texture and depth behind the guitars and Lawrence's often deadpan vocals, the whole thing is stripped back and the songs tight and often urgent. Very Much Tom Verlaine and the Commotions in places, if you will.
The highpoint is perhaps the desperate and dense Primitive Painters with Fraser duetting with Lawrence and giving them their first and only number one indie-chart single (although Black Ship in the Haharbour actually sounds like a better contender).
The customary mix of gleaming instrumentals alongside the songs works well here because Deebank dials down his classical inclinations in favour of psychedelic pop that sometimes goes eight miles wide and into prog (the renamed Elegance in D).
The final album in this reissue was originally titled Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death (for some odd reason) and was their first for the Creation label (after being on Cherry Red).
Now retitled more manageably as The Seventeen Century it feels slight – it doesn't make the 20 minute mark – and a self-produced collection of dispirit and sometimes dispiriting pieces.
The opening instrumental Song for William S Harvey belongs to Duffy and sounds like a very different Felt (as with the Latin shuffle of Jewel Sky later one aiming towards MOR acceptance or being picked up a TV theme). And what follows is a 90 second ear-piercing sliver of guitar and sonic washes, then there is Felt-pop, vague echoes of their former greatness and . . .
Not much else. Barely 20 minutes, remember.
So here are one of the more unusual and uncompromising British bands in an era when there was an acceptance of those qualities, yet Felt didn't quite break out beyond their cult status.
They never even made it into Simon Reynold's definitive and inclusive post-punk study Rip It Up and Start Again.
But they happened and here's the welcome proof.
If sometimes a band of two halves then A Decade in Music – only the first half of the reissue series – is a collection three-fifths. And unfortunately the final mini-album here seems like an afterthought.
But at their best they could be thrilling, droll and, yes . . . different and interesting.