A User's Guide: Felt
Felt are one of the most lovingly remembered of all British indie bands. They had a unique sound, an enigmatic reputation and were unlucky not to achieve the success of Lloyd Cole & the Commotions and the Smiths in the mid '80s. Felt's style was daring for the times: their albums were short, their song-titles exquisite (“Black Ship in the Harbour,” “Dismantled King Is off the Throne”) and the fragile, echoing music — with droll lyrics written by Lawrence, their eccentric leader/conceptualist — was an original twist on literate '80s jangle-pop.
The definitive Felt sound is pretty much all there on Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, a six-track mini-album from 1982. Lawrence's voice, under the influence of his heroes Tom Verlaine and Lou Reed, is a chaste deadpan sob. Providing the melody, and what sumptuous melody at that, is classically-trained guitarist Maurice Deebank whose ringing, resplendent guitar accompaniment is like a constant solo through the music. The atmosphere is slightly moody, slightly psychedelic. It has mystery to spare.
A second mini-album, The Splendour of Fear, repeated the formula, and then Felt hit their creative peak. Between 1984 and 1986 they were quietly fantastic. And though they recorded, invariably, in cheap Midlands studios close to their Birmingham base, the albums The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories, Ignite the Seven Cannons and Forever Breathes the Lonely Word seemed to reverberate from the grand ballrooms of European palaces. The glittering, tapestried music (and concise, pop-conscious songwriting) delighted the indie cognoscenti, while the frankly astonishing “Primitive Painters” (co-starring the Cocteau Twins'Liz Fraser) reached No. 1 on Britain's indie singles chart. It remains a classic, Felt at their most mysterious and impressive.
Maurice Deebank left the band before Forever Breathes…, but rather than replace him they became more keyboard-dominated as his role of embroiderer-in-chief was taken up by gifted teenage organist Martin Duffy. Lawrence, by now desperate for a commercial breakthrough, moved Felt from the Cherry Red label to the more ambitious Creation, but neither label ever promoted Felt satisfactorily. With poor sales and negligible media attention, Lawrence grew disillusioned. The great pity is that he was a fascinating story just waiting for stardom to strike. An ascetic/austere near-recluse, he suffered from numerous phobias (dirt, odour, baldness, vegetables, cheese), and he refused point-blank to reveal his surname (Hayward) after learning that he shared it with one of the Moody Blues.
Felt's later work was fitful and singular, to say the least. As conceptualism took over the pop sensibilities, Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death was a 19-minute collection of inconsequential Muzak-ish instrumentals, while Train Above the City was a jazz-blues project featuring Felt's drummer Gary Ainge on vibes. Poem of the River and The Pictorial Jackson Review were proper "song" albums, however, and their 1989 swansong Me and a Monkey on the Moon, nakedly confessional in approach, is rated by some Felt aficionados to be among their most poignant work. Its fascination with the '70s would be developed by Lawrence's next band, Denim.