As Cherry Red records reissue Felt’s first five albums, Nick Triani recalls following the band who lived exclusively in the margins.
It’s so strange after all these years to see people write about Felt. As their first five albums get the reissue treatment, the world has finally woken up to the wonders of the band. Nearly 40 years later. There have been moments when it seemed Felt were ripe for rediscovery and that they would indeed be found and loved by a new generation. It’s worth mentioning they weren’t really loved by any generation at the time when between 1979 –1989 the band released 10 albums and 10 singles. Felt were always on the outside of outside. But for me, they were (and remain) the only band that really mattered.
Felt were always on the outside of outside. But for me, they were (and remain) the only band that really mattered.
I was 16 when I entered Debenhams on Staines high-street and visited the record department that used to be on the ground floor. I remember buying the first Specials album for £2.99 from there and would later get my own introduction to Nick Drake by picking up the wonderful compilation Heaven in a Wild Flower from the same department store. But that day in 1982 there was a very interesting album cover. A face in close up, staring straight at me, a fringe partially covering one eye – an expanse of blurred grayness on one side of the face. The words
CRUMBLING THE ANTISEPTIC BEAUTY
discreetly rested on the top left hand corner of the image – a letter box of white encasing the photograph. The back cover had the six song titles and lyrics with the musician credits and the old, very 1970s Cherry Red logo in the bottom corner. It was mysterious, so I bought it.
Me and my friend Jim were already lost in Postcard and Factory records. We were getting stoned at a young age to the Velvet Underground too. John Peel, Sounds, NME were all important in the early 1980s and our slightly older friends were all playing in bands and full of music recommendations and inspirations. But Felt was something we both grasped as our own thing. Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty still remains one of the greatest album titles ever. I didn’t quite know why the album was called this or understand the title too deeply, but it chimed with where I was (or at least I thought it did).
Both me and Jim would obsess about the chord progression on first track ‘Evergreen Dazed’. A dizzy, spectacular instrumental featuring Felt’s de facto leader Lawrence’s ever changing rhythm guitar and Maurice Deebank’s virtuoso, twangy lead. We would spend an age trying to work out a chord pattern that never seemed to repeat itself.
‘Fortune’, ‘Templeroy’, ‘Birdman’ and ‘Cathedral’ were all otherworldly and distant. Someone once described Felt as sounding like the Velvet Underground playing their guitars with feathers instead of plectrums. Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty certainly had some of that feeling. Television too could be heard in Lawrence’s voice and the guitar aesthetics. But no hi-hat or cymbals featured on the album and the lyrics heald a kind of narrative dreaminess that only seemed to enhance the originality. And despite the subtle influences, this was still colder and more abstract and mysterious than anything I’d heard before.
Jim and I went to see Felt for the first time at Kingston Polytechnic in 1983. Ben Watt and the Marine Girls were on the same bill. In the flesh, Felt just managed to increase the sense of mystery. No words were exchanged with the audience – the only contact was Lawrence’s intense eyes meeting mine during one song. They were wearing clothes that you could only describe as 1950s thrift – wool trousers with turn-ups, vintage check shirts, cardigans and Robot shoes. They looked so different, echoing the teen look around the birth of rock’n’roll more closely than any post-punk angularity. They sounded fragile, which in itself was perfect.
By this time Jim and I had formed a band and we were mining the Felt sound. Our late friend Smit, who was always ahead of the game in musical matters and what books to read, joined as our drummer. Smit actually had the first Felt single ‘Index’ and the follow up ‘Something Sends Me To Sleep’. Smit sold me those rare artefacts as he saw my obsesion take hold – a true friend. ‘Index’ especially was already hard to find back in the early 1980s. You could call ‘Index’ the first genuine lo-fi record – a splurge of distortion with some indiscriminate sound occasionally interrupting the sole guitar – in your face. It remains an art statement. So Lawrence.
Our band was called The Jazz Band and when Smit left me and Jim recorded three songs. ‘Perpetual Emotion’, ‘Light Fades’ and ‘Goddess’ – Felt’s influence more than apparent. The demo was sent out and we nabbed ourselves a record deal. Jim left the band around that time and that sound went with him. So did the band name.
The Cherry Red 99 pence compilation Pillows & Prayers had a post Crumbling single, the almost Tyrannosaurus Rex feeling ‘My Face Is On Fire’ (featuring the ‘whirlpool vision of shame’ lyric). The sound was somehow richer (though the cymbals were still missing and toms were still leading the beat). ‘My Face Is on Fire’ featured a great lead acoustic line and was again different to anything out there. But the following year’s ‘Penelope Tree’ brought us the first indication that Felt could deliver their own version of pop music. ‘Penelope Tree’ remains one of the great singles of the 1980’s, an alternative #1 for an alternative universe that we’ll never live in. ‘I didn’t want the world to know, That sunlight bathed the golden glow’ intones Lawrence in a voice at its most expressive. The B-side just made the whole adventure more interesting. Maurice Deebank had left the band but then returned, and although he doesn’t feature on ‘Penelope Tree’, he’s given the b-side for a guitar only piece of neo-classical music called ‘A Preacher In New England’. It’s beautiful.
Black Replaces White
White borders had dominated – all things were usually symmetrical in the Felt world. But second album The Splendour of Fear now replaced the white framing of what came before with a thick black frame encasing. The main image is by Alan Aldridge and was used back in the mid-60s to promote the Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey movie Chelsea Girls. It’s a striking picture – very seedy with tits and pricks to the fore, yet this never feels tacky or cheap. The Splendour Of Fear retains a modicum of mystery and unusual style. With the lyrics and album credits all appearing on the vinyl’s label, the cover only utilizes the central image on the front and tracklisting on the back.
Around this time at a Felt show in London, I met Maurice Deebank and we exchanged addresses and started a short correspondence – pen pals with a member of Felt if you like. I was still an impressionable 18-year-old, so getting letters from my own personal guitar god was pretty fucking mind blowing. Disappointingly, I couldn’t tell you what the letters said (probably talking guitar tunings and such). How surreal now that I think about it.
The Splendour of Fear is probably my favourite Felt album. It does change of course, but this album certainly seems to be the epoch of the early years – still no cymbals, but a strong Enio Morricone meets post/rock before post/rock existed feel pervades the mostly instrumental music. ‘Stagnant Pool’ could also be the track that epitomizes Felt most in this early period, and certainly has my favourite lyric from Lawrence;
“The stagnant pool
Like a drowned coffin
Still as a deceased heart
Haunting the ghost of the noble crusader
Who recalls pellucid ice clutching the aching twigs
Never a drop to disturb stagnation
Oh they say I’ll never win
You’ll always get beat
And like a drop of blood from the Devil’s tap
I’m dragging the crusader behind
Slips purposely down the black hole back to hell
Steps purposely down the black hole back to hell”
Nobody at this time gave a shit about Felt. It’s one of the most heartbreaking stories, not only because the band were so unnervingly brilliant (that too), but because as the years have moved on Felt’s music still seems vital, different and emotional and Lawrence such an original that there seems to have been a massive dysfunction as to why the band never ‘made it’. Maybe they were just too ‘art’, though Felt’s music is on the whole totally approachable. I don’t think there’s ever been a case of a band reflecting the inner workings of the head of a musician as Lawrence and Felt. Every note, song title, lyric and cover art is a precise composite of Lawrence’s mind. I always start to consider this when listening to ‘The Stagnant Pool’.
…as the years have moved on Felt’s music still seems vital, different and emotional and Lawrence such an original that there seems to have been a massive dysfunction as to why the band never ‘made it’.
‘The Stagnant Pool’ is a massively sad piece of music. It also features the word pellucid. Wow. After the lyric, Lawrence takes the guitar lead and repetition holds me. A final, ridiculously fluent burst from Deebank and it’s hard to hold back the tears. It’s not muso, I have to make this distinction when discussing these white men playing their guitars. ‘The Stagnant Pool’ is just one of my favourite pieces of music and there is very little in the white music cannon that sounds like it.
And then something happened
After The Splendor Of Fear, a normalcy descended on Felt. Cymbals and hi-hats started to feature on the records. A consistent Felt sound started to develop, one the band would intermittently revisit in some form over their next eight albums. They also had a huge indie hit. I stayed obsessively close to the idea of the band. If a record couldn’t be found in Staines on the day of release, then a trip up to London would be in order to get the latest Felt fix. The Shanghai Packaging sleeves had a certain smell. Thick cardboard from France.
My friend Bob started to frequent Felt shows with me, whenever the band would make the way down from Birmingham to London. The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories was the second new Felt album released in 1984. It was a boon time for us Felt fans. Not only were the regulatory six tracks expanded to the more conventional 10, but John A Rivers, the producer so entwined with all the band’s music up to this point, jettisoned and John Leckie took over the studio. Leckie would gain producer hotness later on with The Stone Roses debut album and Radiohead’s The Bends. But Leckie had real experience, Tape opping for The Beatles, Syd Barrett and Kevin Ayers. Importantly he’d worked with Be Bop Deluxe and T.Rex, which must have thrilled Lawrence.
Another great album title, another intricate and maze-like album sleeve, The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories initially felt thin and conventional despite the name. The style of song (bar the couple of Deebank instrumentals) relate as much to ‘Penelope Tree’ as ever before, mostly brusque, verse/chorus constructs. Still, if you dig deeper, you’ll find one of the most under-appreciated Felt albums. It’s rather wonderful once you get over Leckie’s often dry soundscape and overbearing drums mix. ‘Crystal Ball’, ‘Spanish House’, ‘Vasco De Gama’ and the brilliantly named ‘Dismantled King Is off the Throne’ are instant Felt classics (and a Spanish 14th century vibe pervades the whole affair). Deebank is at his most fluid with Lawrence at his most accessible and direct. The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories is airy and the point where Lawrence lets the light into Felt.
Bring back the weird
It was a strange marriage between Lawrence and Deebank, the latter would be in and out of the band. Lawrence meanwhile would be generous and afford Deebank his own space on albums and singles. Deebank’s often solo/instrumental contributions to Felt albums bringing so much to the table as regards mood and a frame outside of Lawrence’s songs that was original.
My interest in the band waned. I still bought every single and album and 12inch like it was gold dust, but I wasn’t listening so intently and my own music was occupying me much more. Yet, something strange was about to happen: Felt were about to have a #1 (on the indie charts) and surely Lawrence would have his deserved moment. ‘Primitive Painters’ is the Felt song most people know. With a heavy, indie-royalty by way of the Cocteau Twins connection, this surely would have been enough to boost Felt’s profile? ‘Primitive Painters’ is as epic as Felt ever got, a sprawling 5 plus minutes of rhythm and chorused guitars, topped off by Lawrence’s laconic drawl and Elizabeth Fraser’s pleading and emotional backing. In commercial terms it never got this good again for the band.
In perhaps typical fashion (and timing), the following, fourth Felt album Ignite The Seven Cannons was the first real misstep for the band. Despite ‘Primitive Painters’, the wonderful ‘Elegance in D’ (the most euphoric Deebank led instrumental track) and a bonafide pop moment with ‘The Day The Rain Came Down’, Ignite The Seven Cannons was a bloated sounding wash of effects, Robin Guthrie’s production and mix offering a wooly experience overall. Even the album cover, usually so distinctive this time looked more like a Cocteau Twins sleeve.
The 2018 reissue of Ignite The Seven Cannons restores some of Lawrence’s original intent and sheds some of the albums dence reverb on a number of tracks. On initial listen it is better and a reinvestigation and engagement on my part are needed.
Whilst Ignite The Seven Cannons didn’t push Felt into the limelight like ‘Primitive Painters’ momentarily had, an important new development had been ushered in by the arrival of the album. The very young Martin Duffy had joined the band on keyboards for Ignite… while the album would be Deebank’s last involvement for a long time. Duffy was as fluid and virtuoso a keyboardist as Deebank was a guitarist and would bring his own stamp of beautiful instrumental melancholy to the band which would perhaps help define the second half of Felt as much as Lawrence.
Another departure: Felt left Cherry Red and joined Creation Records, a label already established as a boutique label of 1960s crushes (amongst other things). Felt were an upgrade for the label, despite The Pastels, The Loft etc. May 1986 saw the release of their debut Creation EP and single ‘Ballad of The Band’.
“Where you been? Ain’t seen you for weeks You been hanging out with all those jesus freaks Oh yeah and I feel like giving in And where were you, when I wanted to work? You were still In bedYou’re a total jerk
There’s a place for abstract and there’s a place forNoise and there’s a place for every kind of sound so come”
‘Ballad of the Band’ was Lawrence talking to Deebank about their inter-band relationship breakdown. It’s one of the great Felt singles, as Lawrence shows Deebank I don’t need you and I can do it even better without you. It also reignited my passion for the band. ‘Ballad Of the Band’ brings color to Felt, the front cover has a gorgeous close up of Lawrence: serious with intent. The EP not only features the glorious comeback of ‘Ballad of the Band’ but adds the light country strum of ‘I Didn’t Mean To Hurt You’ with a wonderful rhodes solo from Duffy. Was this Lawrence’s flipside address to Deebank? The other side literally of the discussions aired on ‘Ballad of The Band’?
Final resting of the arc
At the midway point of Felt, arrives one of the weirdest albums they released: Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death (as Felt album titles go, this one is exceptional). Felt’s Creation Records debut album is a weird 19 minutes of loungy instrumental music. Ten tracks that just come and go. If I met this album with an incredulous what-the-fuck-is-this type of response back in the day, over the years the record has just added to Felt’s peculiar history, a rich weave in the fabric of their odd journey. The cover is almost a homage to a 1960s ideal of obscure band album art: a Felt band shot – partially shown, an out of focus head in the foreground – all in rich color, whilst on the back side we get the full image, Felt looking forlorn and moody.
In 2018 Lawrence has renamed Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death. The album is now known as The Seventeenth Century. This is typical Lawrence. Refining the plan even now. Back in 1986, I was again relishing Felt like never before. Going to their shows increasingly became events for me and many of my friends. The band would even play Windsor Arts centre (a local live haunt). I would continue to smell the sleeves and buy the records on the day of release. Felt were for so long a band I could namecheck and recommend to people. The band have been genuinely good for me all these years. Key moments of my life seem to have chimed with being a fan of Felt.
Felt were for so long a band I could namecheck and recommend to people. The band have been genuinely good for me all these years
On moving to Helsinki in 1998, merely two days in a new city, I met Janne, mainman in the band Mummypowder. Janne came to visit me while I was still unpacking my luggage from England and discussions were under way that I would produce the debut Mummypowder album. I had sold most of my vinyl collection to partly fund the move to Helsinki (a big mistake as it turns out). But I kept my Felt records. Janne saw the Felt albums on my shelf. ‘Oh, you have some Felt records, I love Felt’ Janne stated matter of factly. Not only did it feel like a clincher, but from then on a meaningful friendship and a musical journey blossomed with Janne.
Of course, Felt had much more time left to run after Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death. Five more albums of intrigue and unpredictability were still ahead – always enhancing the magic and mystery. But that is for another time.
One of the great stories to emerge from the recent Felt interest was the story of when Lawrence first met the ever present Felt drummer Gary Ainge. Not only did he have the idea for ten albums and ten singles, but he also presented Ainge with drum styles for 10 albums worked out too. That’s serious attention to detail from Lawrence, the man who had a plan he didn’t tell anyone about. Yet, a remarkable plan he quietly delivered.
#A big thanks to Richard Anderson and Cherry Red for getting me the photos and music for the article.