Denim - Biography
By Eric Brightwell
In 1988, toward the end of Felt’s amazing but commercially unrewarding ten year run, Lawrence sang in “How Spook Got Her Man” “I was going to be like royalty/I was going to come to the throne/I was going to be a personality/I was going to be so well known/what went wrong I don't know .” Although the real reasons for Lawrence’s lack of superstardom eluded him, he seemed to accept the reality and quietly re-located to New York City follow Felt’s folding. Increasingly homesick and nostalgic in his seclusion, his connection to home was maintained by a former Creation employee, Vicky Spook, who sent him books of corporate logos, children’s records from the 1970s and British candy. Before long, he returned to England and continued to dwell on his childhood whilst simultaneously rethinking his plan to storm the charts. The resulting band, Denim, produced a glam racket that, though occasionally presaged in Felt songs like “Space Blues” and “Mobile Shack,” (the latter warning, “"I'm gonna shoot out of this decade in a spaceship, failing that, an old hippy bus”), for the most part was miles away from the twilit neo-psychedelia textures of Felt.
In May of 1990, Lawrence first began working on Denim’s debut in several studios: Bark, Abbey Road and (most tellingly) RAK, the studio founded by pop-loving producer Mickie Most (the man behind hits by glitter acts like The Arrows, Suzi Quatro, Sweet and Mud in the 1970s). The first recorded fruits of Lawrence’s labors appeared in 1992 on Bob Stanley’s Icerink label. It was an eponymous single credited to Supermarket. Though the liner notes claimed Supermarket were two young boys from Odnese, Denmark and were “completely serious,” it was in fact the work of Lawrence and St. Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell. A strange minimal single with synthesized vocals merely intoning the song’s title over and over, it was nonetheless urgent and strangely compelling. Perhaps based on its sound, Lawrence was signed to Boy’s Own, the dance label then home to One Dove and Underworld.
Recording for Denim would never be less than a struggle and no attempt was made to match Felt’s prodigious output. After Supermarket, Lawrence returned to working on Denim’s debut, in the process driving producer John Leckie to tears. This is a man who worked with Phil Spector, John Lennon and Syd Barrett yet claimed Lawrence was madder than any of them – and it wasn’t meant to be a compliment. Leckie even banned Lawrence from setting foot in Abbey Road. Lawrence in turn threatened to disown the record so production was handed over to Brian O’Shaugghenessy. Lawrence wanted to re-record chorus on title track for release as single but was denied by London, who insisted it be released as is, over two years later, in July.
In November, Back in Denim (1992-Boy’s Own) was released and actually received a degree of hype, in part due to the media perception of it being part of a Glam revival that was seen as ending the faceless rein of rave and symbolized the return of rock stars. But whereas bands like The Auteurs and Suede seemed to draw primary inspiration from the fey, artsy glam of David Bowie, Denim was inspired by what Lawrence referred to as the middle-of-the-road underground. These were the critically-dismissed, unpretentious bands who, despite their once proven commercial appeal, had been consigned to relative obscurity over the ages; bands like Hello, Kenny, Slik, The Rubettes, Showaddywaddy and the like. In other words, Denim was more Alvin Stardust than Ziggy. In fact, joining Lawrence in the band was none other than The Glitter Band’s own guitarist, Gerry Shepherd, and one of their two drummers, Pete Phipps. With its release, the post-C-86 concept of indie seemed to be banished in an explosion of glitter in favor of largely uncelebrated pre-punk era. The album’s release was promoted by a performance on Later … With Jools Holland, where he appeared on a program with Nick Cave & Shane McGowan, En Vogue and John Prine.
The record, an amazing set of immediate classics, somehow managed to not get bogged down with numerous references whose single-minded attention to detail suggest Lawrence may have Asperger syndrome. After opening with the stomping, self-referential “Back in Denim” (later covered by Turbonegro), a filler-less collection of tunes follows. The album’s centerpiece, the epic "The Osmonds," perfectly illustrates Lawrence’s genius ability to mix the heartfelt and ridiculous in a way few others can, singing about the IRA bombing campaign and the sheer number of Osmonds with equal and believable passion and sincerity. For all his purported cynicism, on “I’m Against the Eighties” he suggests over a dinky, bouncy synth that he’s truly hopeful about what’s in store in the ‘90s.
In January of the following year, “Middle of the Road” was released as a single. One of the best tunes off the album, it hilariously and inspirationally outlined Lawrence’s distaste for overly-revered rock cannon (The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and many more) and perfectly summed up Denim’s spirit. It was even promoted with a video. In April, Denim were featured in Select under the heading “Yanks go home!” alongside Suede, The Auteurs, Denim, St. Etienne and Pulp; signaling the start of Cool Britannia and a worthy British reaction to grunge. Nonetheless, Lawrence’s idea that what had been popular in the ‘70s would translate to sales in the ‘90s proved to be a bit of a miscalculation, and Back in Denim sold poorly. After writing the music for Shampoo’s first two (and only non-charting singles) for Icerink ("Blisters & Bruises" was Melody Maker’s Single of the Week), Lawrence returned to the studios in August to work on his next album.
Recording for Denim on Ice (1996-Echo) was completed in December of 1995. After the April release of one of Denim’s best, “It Fell off the Back of a Lorry,” the attendant album arrived and the result was an altogether more disjointed record than its predecessor although it marked an overall shift to synths and away from rock. Originally intended to be a concept album, the songs were loosely divisible into several sorts: silly novelty songs, sad/angry songs about an ex, and songs expressing social concerns. With Lawrence singing with naked openness about sexual disappointments, the recent dissolution of a long relationship and his addiction to hard drugs, many Felt fans, used to the guarded, inscrutable Lawrence of yore, must have thought Denim was an elaborate joke. Like the musical equivalent of Chris Peterson or Alan Partridge, all of the songs paint a picture of a stubborn, emotionally stunted person unwilling or unable to let the past go as seemingly unimportant things get him riled up; slagging Cherry Red (a label he’d left a decade before) and inexplicably popular acts like Oasis in “Wear Your Foghat with Pride.” In The Great Pub Rock Revival he sings, tellingly, “Everybody believes what they read in the NME, everybody 'cept for me.” In the end, it’s a harrowing mix of humorously annoying protest songs that are fairly impossible to get through in one sitting. Whether addressing the difficulties of completing the album or speaking for the listener, in the album’s closer/title track Lawrence sings, "It's been a long slow trawl/Thank god it's over/I nearly went off my rocker once or twice/That’s Denim, Denim on Ice." In pieces, it proved much more endurable and one high-profile fan, fellow bookish outsider in the era of New Laddism, Jarvis Cocker invited Denim to open for Pulp at the peak of their unlikely success. Pulp too peddled a chintzy synth-rock with glam overtones and after fifteen years of obscurity had rocketed to massive fame overnight. But for Denim, as with Felt, success remained elusive, even when given considerable exposure.
Denim’s next release was a promo-only single, “Novelty Rock” b/w “Glitter All over Again – Featuring the Glitter Band.” What followed was a short, unlikely, major label compilation of unreleased songs, B-sides, &c, or in Lawrence’s near Ozarkian Brumspeak, “Mouldy old songs and some new 'uns...,” Novelty Rock (1997-EMI). Despite covering sitcom themes, the French band Space, Peter Skellern and pilfering Chicory Tip’s “Son of My Father” for “We’re on a Chicory Tip,” the synth-dominated performances hang together remarkably well and point in the increasingly alienating direction Lawrence would go after Denim’s dissolution, with many early fans of Denim feeling that, with songs like “We Are the New Potatoes” and “Tampax Advert” that the joke had gone too far whilst others enjoyed the confrontational silliness.
In the summer, another brilliant single was shipped, one that, despite not sacrificing Denim’s strange charm, was so undeniably buoyant and catchy that it seemed to have real commercial promise. But, when Princess Diana died in a car crash in August, EMI thought a song titled “Summer Smash” would be taken the wrong way and it was shelved. The album it was meant to precede, Denim Take Over, was sadly scrapped. The tracks were leaked, however, and several would appear later. Others (“Island in the Sun,” “Denim Take Over,” “West Brom Blues,” “Olly Olly,” “Synth Wizard,” “Robot Voice,” “City of the Dead” and “Men Look at Women”) remain unreleased, which is really too bad. The relaxed “Men Look at Women” is relaxed and quite good, and “Synth Wizard” is amazing disco rock that mixes driving synth, chugging guitar, excellent use of strings with infectious beat. However, there is a feeling of familiarity to the proceedings with “Robot Voice,” despite being one of Denim’s great songs, echoing the disarming sexual crudeness of Denim on Ice’s “Brumburger.” The self-reflexive “Denim Take Over” seems like “Back in Denim’s” inferior sequel. Denim Take Over is Denim’s Bolan’s Zip Gun; lightweight, stripped-down and unlikely to garner new fans, despite the title’s threat.
Although Denim began the decade with a bang, they sadly slowly fizzled. Whilst Lawrence dreamt of being a superstar, he ended his career with his second band much as he had his first, as a cult figure with a devoted following, again including big names and followers. As with Mike Leigh’s best films, Lawrence proved uniquely capable of balancing pathos and humor in a way that his followers (Momus, Luke Haines, Stuart Murdoch) have occasionally approached but less often achieved. Fan and former roommate/Creation head Alan McGee offered Lawrence a contract on the condition that he stop singing about Cilla Black and make his Berlin. When he next emerged as Go Kart Mozart, he may not have produced what McGee intended, but if not Berlin, it was undeniably Lawrence’s Birmingham.