It's probably true to say that the bands who've meant the most to me over the years have been the more obscure ones. Oh there are very well known bands that I've fallen for too: The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Crowded House; a few others. But it's the "lesser" lights that I've loved the most – bands that rarely, if ever, troubled the Top 40; bands whose gigs attracted crowds numbering in the hundreds rather than the thousands; bands who nevertheless commanded devoted followings who would buy every single seven inch and twelve inch and album (this is pre-the download era, you understand, when formats such as "seven inch" and "twelve inch" and even "albums" were still prevalent), without question, seeing merit in even the duffest of tracks and most incidental of B-sides. Bands like McCarthy, Kitchens of Distinction... and Felt.
Felt, if you've never heard of them – and it's a fairly safe bet that you haven't – were an English guitar band active throughout the 1980s. Ostensibly they were what's usually referred to as an "indie" band, but that only goes partway towards describing their music. Sure, most of their records – ten LPs (not counting compilations) and a dozen or so singles – were of a jangly guitar nature, but they also released an album comprised of instrumental tracks in varied styles (Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death, Creation Records, 1986); an album with two extended keyboard instrumentals on the B-side (The Pictorial Jackson Review, Creation, 1988; the A-side consisted of short guitar pop songs recorded on 8-track); and a cocktail jazz album (Train Above the City, Creation, 1988).
So they were an unusually experimental and ambitious (musically, anyway) band – much of that ambition coming from founder, songwriter and lead vocalist Lawrence (Hayward, although his surname is rarely used). But that wasn't why I loved them (well, not entirely): I loved them for their very British take on the pop song; for the way those songs – "Penelope Tree", "Primitive Painters" and their defining (to my mind) moment, "Ballad of the Band" – frequently boasted passages of soaring beauty – delicately picked, dazzlingly lovely melodies and cascading guitar and keyboard lines; for Lawrence's quivering, half-sung, half-spoken vocals and poetic, often brutally honest lyrics; and for their carefully, artfully constructed air of mystique.
All of which is why my curiosity was piqued when I heard about this:
Felt, published by First Third Books in a limited, numbered, A4-size cloth-bound hardback edition of 1,000, all signed by Lawrence.
It's a handsomely produced collection of photographs of the band – some promotional, some personal – presented in roughly chronological order, with commentary by Lawrence. The photos are splendid enough taken on their own, but Lawrence's deadpan captions lend the enterprise a sublime absurdity, as he details his efforts to keep order in the ranks (despairing at the alcohol-fuelled antics of certain band-members; enforcing a "no smiling" policy during photo shoots and ensuring there were no double-chins in pictures by shouting "d-c, d-c!" before the shutter clicked) and retain absolute control over how Felt were perceived (not always successfully, it must be said).
Occasionally these endeavours verge on the hysterical: Lawrence eulogises the band's "neat, groomed, yet still tough" look in one set of fey pictures, and when asked to participate in a book about Creation Records is astounded by the lack of interest by other artists in the "crucial decision" of which photos should appear in the book, leading to, for them, "dire visual representation". But mostly his captions demonstrate an admirable (and largely thankless) commitment to Felt as a concept and an ideal – a commitment which helps to explain why the band were so special, and why they're still held in such high regard by fans of a certain age. Although, as ever with music, it's often simpler to let the songs speak for themselves:
Felt is still available from First Third, priced £39 plus p&p, although if you'd like to get hold of a copy, I'd advise you to get your skates on: my one is number 637, which means there are probably only a couple of hundred left now. Better yet, if you're unfamiliar with Felt and are intrigued by the YouTube clips above, Cherry Red Records have most of their albums available on CD.
Addendum: Felt – which is to say Lawrence – had a knack for coming up with evocative song titles, but it occurs to me that one in particular has come to embody my exploration of twentieth century authors over the past few years...