Felt - Biography
Lawrence Hayward was born on August 12, 1961. He grew up in Water Orton, a suburban town in England’s midlands better known for its proximity to several major roads than its cultural exports. Lawrence is a strange sort, to put it lightly. The label-happy English music press invented the term “new puritan” to describe his not-very-rock abstinence from alcohol, pathological cleanliness and natty dress sense. Indeed, the curious and oft-repeated anecdotes about him did get Lawrence (asking them to not use his surname beginning in 1980) into the pages of the UK’s music papers but Felt never achieved more than cult status during their existence. However, with famous fans like Belle & Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch continuously dropping their name and referencing them in lyrics, their reputation and influence has grown considerably over the last few years, increasing their cultural capital, if not economic.
Felt began in 1979 when Lawrence recorded a raw, punk-influenced instrumental titled “Index” (Shanghai Records) in his bedroom on a portable cassette tape player. He chose the moniker “Felt” after the way Television’s Tom Verlaine emphasized the word during the song “Venus.” He submitted the recording to Postcard, the self-described “Sound of Young Scotland.” They rejected it for sounding “too Loaded,” a description suggesting that its utterer was deaf. Lawrence protested that, at that point, he hadn’t even heard Velvet Underground. Remarkably, influential DJ John Peel discerned an embryonic talent behind the primitive, noisy track. Dave McCulloch named it “single of the week” for Sounds. Felt were then signed by Mike Alway to Cherry Red.
Essentially Felt is Lawrence. Over the band’s ten year existence, he remained the only constant member. The early line-up shuffles revealed the bizarre, vain and autocratic nature of Lawrence. Original drummer Tony Race was fired for having curly hair and Marco Thomas was hired partly for his thick locks. Throughout Felt’s career, bass players seemed to pass through a revolving door. Only drummer Gary Ainge (who was originally forbidden to play snare or cymbals) and classically-trained guitarist Maurice Deebank remained for long —the latter practically defining Felt’s early sound with his virtuosic and crystalline guitar noodling.
Lawrence’s dictatorial ways extended beyond his bandmates’ coifs down to their guitar picks. The press and indie bands were fascinated with this decidedly idiosyncratic character that lived in a Moseley apartment later described by an NME rep as “brutally schematic.” It was famously well-stocked with cleaning supplies, some designated for bathing in. Many other legends surrounded him including that he once drove to a gig in first gear. He was also lachanophobic and only ate meat. Throughout Felt’s career, Lawrence played up his eccentricities hoping to gain fame, once saying, “I thought my lifestyle was a great commercial selling point and I really wanted to exploit it… the perfect package for an angst-ridden generation.” When the members of the Loft stayed with him, he enforced strict time limits for visits to the bathroom. When they awoke, they found Lawrence had vacuumed. His kitchen was stocked with tiny packets of cereal to ensure variety. Soon, other bands on the indie circuit made attempts to play in Birmingham.
The debut release of Felt as a band, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty (1981 Cherry Red), showcased Deebank’s ornate, spiraling guitar, Gary Ainge’s rolling, tribal beats and Lawrence’s soft, almost tuneless vocals. His lyrics, when decipherable indicated an impressionistic, poetic sensibility and bitter wit which were mirrored by the songs’ often comical titles. Over the course of six songs, the band established a miasmic, somber tone which seemed calculatedly reserved and remote. The follow-up, The Splendour of Fear (1984 Cherry Red), was similar in tone with its highlight, “The World is as Soft as Lace,” as delicately beautiful as its title suggests. On the album, Lawrence’s almost sobbing vocals gained a slight degree of clarity, revealing an increasingly over-the-top fatalism.
With the John Leckie-produced Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories(1984 Cherry Red), Felt produced a set of focused, coherent pop songs of unparalleled quality. Alongside this new accessibility, Lawrence’s lyrics begin to emerge further, revealing a willfully obtuseness and dismissive charm. Whilst not radically different from their previous records, Felt now seemed to exist between Postcard’s Scottish neo-pop bands (who’d favored a slightly shambling appropriation of traditional pop sensibilities) and the chart friendly jangle pop that would follow. Indeed, the pairing of Deebank’s virtuosic, jangling guitar and Lawrence’s wry, literate, self-deprecating and comical moroseness was practically mirrored by the much more successful Morrissey/Marr partnership in the Smiths. The band blamed Cherry Red for not doing more to promote Felt and they expressed their desire to leave. After Mike Alway departed and formed Blanco y Negro, Felt hoped to follow him. They recorded a two-song demo but were held to their contract with Cherry Red’s Iain McNay.
Ignite the Seven Cannons (1985 Cherry Red) featured new member —teenage keyboardist Martin Duffy, who would soon emerge as a major creative force within the band following what turned out to be Deebank’s final appearance with the band. The record was produced by the Cocteau Twins’ Robin Guthrie who deluged Felt’s newly-developed, fragile clarity with thick sheets of reverb further muddied by the addition of Duffy’s cathedral tones. The result is easily the least essential album in Felt’s career and the only one, tellingly, with an odd number of songs. The attendant single, “Primitive Painters,” featured the ecstatic, acrobatic background howls from the Guthrie’s Cocteau Twins bandmate/girlfriend Liz Fraser and, no doubt, are largely the reason it became an unlikely hit. The scent of 4AD is undeniable, with even the album cover looking suspiciously 23 Envelope-esque. Unhappy with the result, Deebank departed and was thereafter replaced by a host of guitarists whose involvement rarely lasted more than one or two recordings. Deebank went on to release a solo album, Inner Thought Zone (1984 Cherry Red), collaborate briefly with St. Etienne and ultimately retire to Barcelona. On the positive side, it marked the end of the band’s contentious relationship with Cherry Red.
Felt signed with Alan McGee’s Creation label despite their having no money to offer and following the commercial achievement of “Primitive Painters” expectations were high. When the band their first single for Creation in May, “Ballad of the Band,” it was noteworthy for its spiteful lyrics were obviously directed at their former guitarist. In August the band played a performance at Bay 63 in front of an audience populated by several A&R scouts. The idea was the Felt would amaze the label men and would secure money for McGee’s new label as a result. Lawrence (hoping to shed his aloof, dour image) took acid before the performance and the results were not what he or McGee hoped for. After two songs, Lawrence asked for all lights to be shut off. After anxiety got the better of him, he left the stage, only to reappear and stare at the walls whilst his bandmates gamely attempted to soldier on. Ultimately Lawrence broke his silence to suggest that the audience request a refund before ending the performance. Just as fame looked within Lawrence’s reach, he seemed to shoot himself in the foot which would ultimately become a pattern.
Case in point, on month after the disastrous gig, Felt issued their Creation debut. Instead of building on their commercial and artistic momentum, Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death (1986 Creation) consisted of 18 minutes of short, curious, breezy instrumental fragments. Although Felt was known for their instrumentals, Lawrence’s presence was barely evident beyond the bizarreness of the album and the cover image, a photo of the band focused on Lawrence’s particular manner of folding his belt. It was received with baffled, bewildered silence.
Later in the same year Felt released Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (Creation). Its cover featured Martin Duffy’s face as if to make clear his elevated position within the band’s ranks. Autumnal, folk-tinged tracks like “All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead” and “September Lady,” with the Duffy’s retro-Hammond sound and Lawrence’s warbley vocals, recalled (whether intentionally or not) Blonde on Blonde-era Bob Dylan and Dylan-influenced contemporaries like Lloyd Cole & the Commotions. Unfortunately, despite being an amazing set of songs, Felt’s new direction was distinctly at odds with the music of the time which was dominated by synthesized arena rock and hair metal.
Poem of the River (1987 Creation) was produced by Red Krayola’s Mayo Thompson—himself a quirky music figure whose stature barely rose above near absolute obscurity. Despite their similar situations, the two failed to gel. Lawrence was so unhappy with the production that he considered throwing the studio tapes into a river. It’s hard to see why as the result was another flawless record in the same vein as its predecessor highlighted by the beautiful, careening “Stained Glass Windows in the Sky.”
The Pictorial Jackson Review (1988 Creation) was sunny and even more straightforward. Lawrence’s lyrics are more upfront than ever —his humorous snottiness reaching its apex with the insensitive “Don’t Die on My Doorstep.” Side one’s eight classic songs are the obvious blueprint for The Tyde. Side two, however, takes a strange turn. The first song is a 12 minute piano piece that wouldn’t be out of place accompanying Mr. Rogers on a visit to the Land of Make Believe. The second, on the other hand, would’ve fit seamlessly alongside Angelo Badalamenti’s moody score for Twin Peaks. At this point it seemed Felt were never going to achieve the commercial stardom Lawrence craved and a feeling began to creep in that whatever the band did, the same, small, loyal audience would be the only one’s buying.
The next album, Train above the City (1988 Creation) seemed designed to test their audience and marked another left turn for a band by then known for its unexpected twists. Supposedly recorded primarily to raise enough money to pay for a departing member’s vibraphones, the album consists entirely of cocktail jazz instrumentals dominated by the aforementioned vibes (and piano). Lawrence’s only involvement was coming up with the song titles. Names like, “Press Softly on the Brakes Holly,” “Book of Swords,” and “Run Chico Run” offer glimpses of Lawrence’s peculiar humor, as does his claim that the album which he had next-to-no involvement with is his favorite. As with all Felt releases, it sold about 10,000 copies which apparently raised the necessary 250 pounds Neil Scott asked for.
In October, Lawrence moved to Alan McGee’s house in Brighton. McGee was worried about Lawrence being difficult but it was McGee who proved the more burdensome housemate. Lawrence had by then worked out some of his neuroses whereas McGee was obsessed with showing off his then newfound embrace of house music at all hours. Lawrence, in the meantime, planned on doing a keyboard based album —one side of porno music, the other of horror. After recording one side he abandoned the idea. Joined by Rose McDowall, Frank Sweeney and Duffy he entered the studio where he was produced by a distracted John Leckie (who was preoccupied by his work with a then little known act, the Stone Roses). The resultant single, “Space Blues,” (1988 Creation) presaged Lawrence’s work in his post-Felt outfit, Denim. Its haunting violins combined with deadpan vocals and funky keyboards also sounds eerily prescient of Luke Haines’ Baader Meinhof project of some several years later. The B-side was Felt’s only cover, the Dennis Wilson-composed Beach Boys tune, “Be Still.”
When Me and a Monkey on the Moon (el) came out in 1989, it was Felt’s tenth album in ten years —something Lawrence claimed had been his plan all along (ten albums and ten singles in ten years). It was produced by the Sounds’ Adrian Borland in Eastbourne. Unfortunately, Lawrence’s roommate, Alan McGee, hadn’t paid for the studio time. In order to ensure its release occurred within the ten year window it was released by él Records —a technically defunct label run by Mike Alway, in a sense bringing Felt full circle. The songs are, at the time of writing, the most disarmingly straightforward of Lawrence’s songwriting career, dealing with the death of his mother, being molested as a child and the dissolution of relationships, all sung with Lawrence’s signature mixture of irony, humor and detachment. The music utilizes the widest variety of instrumentation in the band’s career and sees Felt close the book on their career on a very high note.
Felt played their last gig in Birmingham on the 19th of December and Lawrence afterward moved to New York City. After Felt’s break-up, Martin Duffy continued to play keyboards in Primal Scream as well as on the Charlatans’ Tellin’ Stories following the death of their keyboardist in an auto accident. In 2006 filmmaker Paul Kelly was to debut his documentary about Lawrence entitled Lawrence of Belgravia. So far nothing has come of that and Lawrence sporadically records (and even more infrequently) releases his compositions as Denim or Go Kart Mozart.
In the end, Felt never achieved more than a devoted cult following. Whenever they seemed positioned for a commercial breakthrough, Lawrence seemed to perversely and deliberately scupper their own chances. Over the course of the band’s existence, Lawrence slowly emerged from guarded obtuseness into a spotlight that revealed him to be one of pop music’s most brilliant songwriters. When most of Felt’s discography was released on CD in 1992 and 1993, the ever-bitter-and-humorous Lawrence (not a fan of the tiny, digital format) insisted that the albums swap the original’s meticulously chosen covers with varying shades of solid gray with the barcodes and record company’s addresses placed in the center.