Aided at the outset by a second guitarist, a rhythm section and little more, Birmingham singer/songwriter Lawrence Hayward fashioned a career in homage to Tom Verlaine without once attempting to play his music. On Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, Felt patterns itself after Television’s guitar interplay, with occasional understated vocals that cross Verlaine and Lou Reed. The instrumental passages are the true high points here, as the guitarists are both melodic and sympathetic to each other. Odd, derivative but exciting and evidently ambitious.
Felt settled down and in on the better-produced Splendour of Fear (like the debut, a six-song 12-inch), unwinding the guitars into a gentle mantra-like caress with no sharp corners. Sparingly matched with quiet vocals, the hypnotic melodic drone can sound almost new agey, but the quartet’s music is intended to engage, not to lull.
With The Strange Idols Pattern (produced by John Leckie), Lawrence and his trio refined Felt into a strikingly attractive sound: clear guitar notes sparkle from every direction in a jewel-like blend that recalls Television without quite imitating it. A nylon-string flamenco piece (“Crucifix Heaven”) demonstrates diverse stylistic faculties; the virtuosity of lead guitarist Maurice Deebank — listen to his solo on “Whirlpool Vision of Shame” — is also quite impressive.
Gold Mine Trash is a fascinating developmental chronicle of Felt’s Cherry Red years: singles, album tracks and a fine pair of 1984 demos. The LP ends on a pivotal note: “Primitive Painters,” an obsessive 1985 British indie-chart hit (with guest vocals by Cocteau Twin Liz Fraser) which incorporates swirling organ for an entirely new effect.
Moving to the Creation label, Felt — by this time a stable quartet including keyboardist Martin Duffy and stalwart drummer Gary Ainge — was enormously productive in 1986, beginning with Ballad of the Band. The nearly unlabeled 12-inch — two light-sounding Dylanish songs and two piano pieces — was produced by another Cocteau Twin, Robin Guthrie, and contains the instrumental “Ferdinand Magellan,” Lawrence’s second tribute to great explorers. (“Vasco de Gama” was on Strange Idols Pattern.) The next release, Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death, is a brief instrumental album that notably lacks a second guitarist. The pleasant but trivial collection consists of ten perky cuts (“Lawrence’s songs coloured in by Martin”) that rush by in less than nineteen minutes. Although one or two of the simple pieces hold to the group’s prior sound, most don’t; organ takes a prominent role and there’s little of the familiar instrumental blend.
Vocals and another guitarist make a welcome return on Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, a finely wrought album with Dylanesque characteristics on which Lawrence sings exactly like Verlaine, adding a nifty Lou Reed imitation on “September Lady” and “Grey Streets.” Lyrically, he’s in top form, expressing religious doubt in “All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead” and questioning a lover’s fidelity in “Gather Up Your Wings and Fly.” Duffy’s percolating Hammond organ (no clichéd sounds of the ’60s) adds a wonderful component to these songs, especially “Down but Not Yet Out,” giving them all new-found energy and texture. Easily Felt’s best record to that point, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word is unlike anything else in the group’s catalogue. The worthy Rain of Crystal Spires 12-inch matches a pair of LP tracks with two quick B-sides.
After that, Felt produced a couple of radically different EPs. The six-song Poem of the River, produced in the main by Mayo Thompson, makes good use of both organ and piano, turning down the shimmering guitars for a rich instrumental blend that suggests both the Smiths and Aztec Camera. The Final Resting of the Ark, produced by Guthrie, is spare and largely acoustic, a forgettably minor outing that has two simple songs with vocals, an unaccompanied Duffy piano piece and two other instrumentals.
With Thomas moving over to lead guitar and a new bassist in the fold, Felt recorded the schizophrenic Pictorial Jackson Review “quickly on eight-track.” Two of Duffy’s jazzy instrumental contemplations (introduced on the preceding EP) fill one side, leaving eight concise Lawrence songs to huddle together on the reverse. Resembling a stripped-down version of Forever Breathes, those numbers make Lawrence’s Lou Reed fixation abundantly evident: most (not counting the precisely Dylanesque “How Spook Got Her Man” and “Don’t Die on My Doorstep,” which splices Bob and Lou together) suggest the early Velvet Underground’s lighter, melodic side.
Gary Ainge (vibes, drums) and Martin Duffy (piano) are the only Feltists credited on Train Above the City, although Lawrence accepts responsibility for titling seven of their eight jazz instrumentals that comprise the record. Sort of a follow-up to Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death, this is a perfectly fine cocktail-hour detour but, given Lawrence’s non-participation, hardly an essential purchase.
Beautifully produced by Adrian Borland, Me and a Monkey on the Moon is a full-fledged album of sprightly, unstylized pop songs handsomely performed by Duffy (mostly playing electronic keyboards), Ainge, a bassist and two new guitarists (one of whom adds a neat country steel accent to several cuts). Lawrence’s songs are exceptional, revealing autobiographical notes and sensitive contemplations of personal issues. Beyond the album’s tender love songs, “Down an August Path” considers mortality and faith; “Budgie Jacket” recalls an episode of child molestation (“He thought that I was a little girl/Because I looked so pretty”), while “Mobile Shack” acknowledges the inspirational power of Television. As it proved to be the band’s swansong, Me and a Monkey on the Moon ends Felt on a superb high note.
Format complications: a 1988 Creation CD unites Poem of the River and Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, a 1986 UK Cherry Red CD and cassette joins Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty and The Splendour of Fear, the Strange Idols Pattern cassette and CD also include Ignite the Seven Cannons, The Pictoral Jackson Review is likewise joined with Train Above the City. The 20-track Bubblegum Perfume is a posthumous compilation.
Lawrence’s next band was the wittily retro-minded Denim.