Now the remaining five albums have been reissued, again on gatefold vinyl and as CD boxes, each of which contains a contemporaneous 7” single, a poster, flyers reproduced on satisfyingly heavyweight card and some rather shiny silver badges. Marvellous stuff. But what of the music?
“Ain’t got no money, ain’t got no fame /
And that’s why, I feel like giving in /
And all those songs, like ‘Crystal Ball’, ‘Dismantled King…’ /
You know I love them all /
But oh, I still feel like giving in” – Felt, Ballad Of The Band
“I’d like to do something that makes somebody somewhere care” – Felt, Hours Of Darkness Have Changed My Mind
When we left Felt, it was somewhere around June 1986. They had lost Maurice Deebank, a classically-trained guitarist and founding member, whose brittle and refined arpeggios were part of the blueprint of those first few records, but gained keyboardist Martin Duffy, later of Primal Scream. He’d answered an advert in a record shop promising “Rock ’n’ Roll Star”-dom, which couldn’t have seemed too far off, with their signing in 1986 to Alan McGee’s Creation Records, who’d already released records by luminaries like The Loft, The Pastels and the Scream themselves, along with the violent early stirrings of The Jesus And Mary Chain.
Issuing the excellent, autobiographical Ballad Of The Band 7-inch in May of that year, Felt then made what latterly looks like the typically Lawrence-ian move of making their first album for such a storied imprint a 19-minute instrumental oddity. And calling it Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death, to boot. (“Bobby Gillespie said, ‘That’s the worst title ever! You’re making a mistake!’”.)
Happily, it only took a few months for Felt to make good – and how! – on their early promise. (“It was the first big album, as if everything was building up to that moment”, Lawrence told Record Collector in 1993.) Moist-eyed and serious, with standard issue floppy fringe parted neatly by the edge, Forever Breathes The Lonely Word wears its organist on its sleeve. Although he’d been present on Ignite The Seven Cannons – albeit rather lost in a rather murky original mix – and on the rather slight …Snakes…, it’s here that Martin Duffy’s presence really starts to be [er…] felt.
There’s still guitar jangle, of course, but from the few Hammond notes which open Rain Of Crystal Spires, Duffy’s keyboards are a big part of Felt’s first masterpiece, doing as much of the legwork as Deebank’s needling, intricate guitar had but moving them in a different direction. With original producer John A. Rivers – who’d just been working with polished post-Bauhaus alt-goth-rockers Love And Rockets – back for the first time since The Splendour Of Fear, the Felt of Forever Breathes… are sharper, brighter, retooled and refocused.
Not everything has changed: there’s the brisk running time, or Lawrence’s acute, drolly doleful lyrics (“Don’t make me a martyr for our causes / ‘Cause I don’t believe a word that you said / All the people I like are those that are dead”). But there’s an upbeat mood, even when the lyrics are as desolate as ever (Rain…, the cantering Grey Streets), instrumentals are dispensed with entirely, and there are light, airy backing vocals from a quartet including Sarah Cracknell, who was going out with Lawrence at the time. Easy it may be to refer to it offhandedly as an Urtext of fey, diffident indiepop, but Forever Breathes… was and remains the key work in the Felt catalogue, and arguably the ideal first stop for the kind of curious browser for whom a program like this is ideal.
1987’s Poem Of The River was perhaps bound to pale a little in contrast: at six songs and 25 minutes, it’s short even by Felt’s usual standards of brevity, and although the songs are strong – a few very much so – in its original incarnation the production left more than a little to be desired.
If Forever…’s return to Rivers had resulted in the pairing’s best work yet, Poem… seems to have been hamstrung by using a combination of production by Mayo Thompson – of lo-fi psychedelicists The Red Crayola – and a remixing job handed, of all Felt’s previous collaborators, to Robin Guthrie. As with Ignite…, the results were frail and uneven – at the time, Sounds talked about “songs so meticulous and wispy that you fear they might float off the turntable and disappear out of your window” – with Lawrence’s vocals all-too-often swamped.
However, also like Ignite, the reissue has redressed the balance, restoring and evening out Thompson’s original mixes. While the difference isn’t quite as profound as with Ignite…, it benefits from a clearer, brighter sound. The terse, almost new-wavey Declaration opens, with tense muted guitar and hushed, intentful vocals (“I will be / the first person in history / To die / of boredom”). When Lawrence cites himself “I will have as my epitaph / the second line of ‘Black Ship in the Harbour” – it could almost describe this fleetingly bleak but beautiful record: “I was a moment that quickly passed”.
Silver Plane, the ornate Dark Red Birds and the gently Dylanesque She Lives By The Castle couple tender organ parts to Lawrence’s guitars, while the near nine-minute Riding On The Equator is a rambling centrepiece, with a warm, questing optimism (“You said that the world was something to behold / Not to be bought or to be sold”) .
While the changes made to Poem Of The River aren’t subtle, it’s to be hoped that they’ll be uncontroversial, raising it in stature next to its predecessor. With a title borrowed from Kerouac, The Pictorial Jackson Review, which followed in March 1988 – after the short, haunting The Final Resting Of The Ark EP – was originally quite a different beast to the one it is now, with an entire side excised. “Side one was eight pop songs and side two was the ambient side,” Lawrence explained to Record Collector back in 1993. “Robert Fripp did two albums on one [referring to 1980’s God Save the Queen/Under Heavy Manners]. It was a really good idea.”
Whatever the reasons, there’s evidently been a change of heart, and the two ‘ambient’ tracks — the 12-minute Sending Lady Load, and The Darkest Ending, both essentially solo spots for Martin Duffy — have been replaced by another two of the kind of succint, spry janglepop confections which make up the rest of the album.
As with the dramatic revamping of Ignite… in the previous batch of reissues, it’s likely to ruffle a few feathers – or at least crease a few cardigans – among the faithful; the instrumental tracks may not have been in keeping with the remainder, but that very contrast arguably made the whole the more ineffably Felt.
But for everyone else, the brisk, almost Attractions-esque Jewels Are Set In Crowns and the jazzy Under A Pale Light are welcome additions. Combining Marco Thomas’ chiming guitars, Duffy’s always busy organ, piano and Rhodes – equal parts Booker T and Garth Hudson – and Lawrence on poetic, pithy form, all Positively 4th Street-esque putdowns (“I’m steering clear of you / Even though you’re my only friend /I feel change coming on / And it feels like the bitter end”; “Don’t die on my doorstep / Can’t you crawl to another town”), the 25-minute, 10-song set is a fairly close to perfect joy.
Besides, for fans of instrumentals, and particularly of strange decisions in album sequencing, there’s always Train Above The City (July 1988), a curio even in a catalogue teeming with them. It’d be easy to chuck a term like commercial suicide at an album like this. But in a year where the top three albums came from big-hitters like Michael Jackson, Cliff Richard and Kylie, nothing was likely to make much of a splash. So bravo Lawrence for, as ever, going so far the other way, with an instrumental album he doesn’t even appear on – his contribution reportedly limited to choosing the track titles – featuring only drummer Gary Ainge and Duffy on electric piano, organ and vibes. It’s like nothing else in the Felt catalogue, eschewing fractured, literate jangle-pop for ersatz jazz pootling, and – surely for that very reason – has often been named by Lawrence as his very favourite Felt album.
While the vibe solos on the title track and Run Chico Run certainly show off Duffy’s ‘chops’, those chops are mostly drenched in gloopy, reheated gravy, the latter sounding like Ray Manzarek wrote a demo track for plasticky Casio keyboards, and the whole thing comes off like the hold music for a tacky provincial nitespot, all cocktail umbrellas, sticky floors and off-colour comedy. Teargardens and the quietly lovely melodies of Seahorses On Broadway go a little way towards redeeming the whole, but it’s nevertheless one to avoid.
And so, on to the end of Felt’s decade. “The end of Felt had nothing to do with personalities or musical differences,” Lawrence told Q in 2010; “I’d always intended to do 10 albums in 10 years, and we did.” In fact, it was because of this that Felt’s final album was released not by Creation – who were unable to put it out before 1990 – but by Mike Alway’s él records (a “dreamworld of carousing viscounts and sardonic schoolgirls” – Caroline Sullivan, The Guardian).
Produced by Adrian Borland, formerly of post-punkers The Sound, Me And A Monkey On The Moon is nothing short of a glorious farewell, the band sounding warmer and more assured than ever. This is down not only to Borland’s production – arguably the best the band had since Forever… – but also to a few changes in line-up. Marco Thomas elected not to join the band when they moved to Brighton in 1988, so the bass parts are played by Primal Scream’s Robert Young. Additionally, there’s new guitarist John Mohan, formerly of The Servants (“[he] was the closest I’ve ever heard to Deebank,” said Lawrence “and he looked similar as well – a tall, thin, reserved kind of person”) and guests Pete Astor (The Loft, The Weather Prophets) and Rose McDowall (Strawberry Switchblade, Current 93) on backing vocals, along with the near-legendary session player B.J. Cole on pedal steel.
From the opening I Can’t Make Love To You Anymore, at once sweet and sad, melancholic but buoyant, with hints of Sweetheart Of The Rodeo, through Mobile Shack’s almost funky analogue synth bass, with its playful lyrical nod to Television – whose Venus inspired Felt’s name – Me And A Monkey… has some of the most straightforward and apparently honest songs in the Felt catalogue.
There’s darkness – glimpsed in the queasily uptempo Budgie Jacket – “When I was / A little boy / An old man / he touched me” – and the poignant Down An August Path and Never Let You Go – but also an air of reconciliation – “Maybe I’ll go see / an old friend,” Lawrence sings in Free, seemingly referring to Deebank, “We used to write songs /Had our own band / He didn’t like it much / So he left” – and even of future plans in the soulful New Day Dawning (which ends with a fairly incongruous indie guitar wig-out): “Follow me / Into the nineties … Don’t want to be seen / Just want to be heard / I’ve figured out a way to exist / With the past”. It’s a future which, for Felt anyway, was never meant to come about.
Whatever came next, whatever Felt had achieved, or not, in their own lifetime – “It was too understated to be commercial, too art to go pop, too pop to go art … I never understood [Forever Breathes…’s] relative commercial failure…” – Alan McGee – Lawrence’s ten-year plan was complete, and A Decade In Music should hopefully see Felt reap some long-overdue rewards.
The final five albums in A Decade In Music are out now through Cherry Red. You can find more information here.