Felt were one of the bands whose records and approach to pop defined the independent recording sector in the 1980s and, to some degree, aspects of an ‘alternative’ musical sphere. They were beloved of delicate women and effete young men for whom The Smiths, for instance, were just a litle too rough (rather like most Mancunian bands who fancy themselves as ‘arty’). In their ambition and vision, Felt made Morrissey’s pretentions look like those of a shopfitter from Salford.
Felt were fronted by Lawrence Hayward, although his surname was never used or credited (as with one Stephen Patrick Morrissey). This affectation as well as the direction of the band derived in part from inspiration found in the New York art scene and music ‘underground’. Felt were one of those many bands influenced by the Velvet Underground, NY punk and new wave bands such as Television. Lou Reed’s tones and those of Tom Verlaine can be detected in Lawrence’s delivery but like all originals, he makes something that is his own from these tutors (a contemporary of Lawrence’s who don’t quite make in the same way is perhaps Lloyd Cole of the Commotions). In his lyrics too, Lawrence paints portraits of his own experience, his dreams, desires and of Birmingham, that make this just as exotic a site for musical adventure as any imported from the US.
The band were much more than the front man however. Maurice Deebank was the main musical force for this early period in the band’s history. His delicate, intricate chorus-laden guitar patterns make their records such distinctive artefacts. Later, the band would be joined by keyboardist Martin Duffy, now of the egregious novelty band ‘Primal Scream’. Overtly ‘arty’, Felt’s records can appear to be vaguely ‘prog-rockish’ but stop on the right side of portentous and ‘Primitive Painters’ was their first moment of accomplishment and an enduring testimony to their genius.
‘Primitive Painters’ was released on the Cherry Red label in 1985 and featured on the band’s fourth album ‘Ignite the Seven Candles’. It was produced by Robin Guthrie, then of the Cocteau Twins, stars of the 4AD independent. In a period in which the role of the producer as a creative force in pop attracted hyperbolic plaudits (Trevor Horn, Steve Lilywhite et al), he was instrumental in teasing out the greatness in the song and the band’s perfomance. While the basic song structure is of interest, this is one of those instances where the idea of the record as an individual and meaningful artefact, as disinct from the song template, becomes apparent. To understand the magnificence of ‘Primitive Painters’, one has to experience it in all of its sonic glory as a result of its parts which may not, on paper, add up entirely. It has to be felt.
Opening with trilling guitar harmonics at funereal pace, the record veer into different tempos and effect, marshalling an increasing power and intensity from its constituent parts. It turns introspection and self-absorbtion (in Lawrence’s lyric and delivery) into a portentous and magnificent expression that, for many of us who have adored this record, becomes inspiration rather than self-indulgence. Lawrence had a limited range of settings: miserable, sad, fast and slow. Here, his vocals and delivery sound extraordinarily self-pitying, to a degree that they threaten to halt the record. At the same time this becomes uplifting and consoling when couched in the dynamics of the band’s performance and waxing and waning of the power of the music and its deployment. His is a venting of feeling that brings him, and us, out of a shell to a new place and a more positive feeling (even if it is a new appreciation of miserableness if it can result in such an outcome). Lawrence’s limitations as a vocalist become a virtue here: his unmistakeable style (which escapes his influences to become wholly English) is accentuated, exposed and challenged by the implicit goading from and sparring with the backing vocals of Liz Frazer. Unlike her work in the Cocteau Twins, Frazer is anchored to a recognisable lyric, which her soaring voice seeks to escape, serving to build up an exit-velocity in this recording. Its sum, I think, is to encapsulate the tragedy of the band which lay in their ability to escape into moments of brilliance but that ultimately remained ignored by the wider record-buying public.
The record that followed this one, this time on Alan McGee’s Creation label, was ‘Ballad of the Band’. This is itself another contender for the greatest recording from Brum, and a piece much more fleet of foot than this one perhaps but of course head and shoulders above much of the competition at the time.
Felt released 10 albums in 10 years before splitting up. I saw them at their last ever gig at Burberry’s Club on Broad Street. Then they were promoting the most complete and coherent set they ever recorded ‘Me and a Monkey on the Moon’ but had just about given up. Lawrence however, re-emerged with ‘Denim’, and more lately ‘Go-Kart Mozart’ whose effervescent tunes once more encompassed dark memories of Birmingham life.
I’ve read that someone has made a documentary about Lawrence. They should give him the keys to the city! ‘Primitive Painters’ is not just a contender for best record from Brum, but best popular music recording ever .
Felt – Primitive Painters (Cherry Red, August 1985)