Monday 2 April 2012

Felt: a Photographic History of the Band (First Third Books, 2012)

Let's begin the working week with some meandering musings on music.

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...


  1. Nice to read an article about Felt. I always thought the earlier albums their best. 'Evergreen Dazed' and 'Fortune' from the first album, which sadly I don't own any more, always raise a smile and are, as you mention above, particularly English.

    Good to see a mention of McCarthy as well.

  2. I don't think I ever heard Felt before. But you tweeted about The Primitives a few weeks ago and I remember buying 2 of their CDs around 1990. I thought they were completely forgotten but I heard one of their songs on TV recently (ABC's Private Practice, which is a spinoff of Grey's Anatomy). I like your non-Manchester music posts - the Manchester ones drive me crazy with jealousy. Musically, DC was not as interesting during that time period (though if I had been into Fugazi and Minor Threat I would've heard great stuff-we had a good punk scene back then).

  3. Thanks for the reminder of my youth. Glad someone else remembers the Kitchens of Distinction!

  4. Anonymous: and nice to hear from a fellow McCarthy appreciator. I was at their final gig at LSE, which was, of course, criminally under-attended. Still, great band, and unjustly overlooked these days.

    BG: my former flatmate was a massive Fugazi fan, so I'm fairly familiar with them. The Primitives, as you probably saw in that tweet, apparently reformed at some point – they've been playing live recently. I was never a huge fan of theirs, but I do like some of the earlier songs, Through the Flowers especially. As for Manchester, I promise never to crow again about the fact that I was there from '89 to '92 and went to the Hacienda every week and was at Spike Island and saw the Mondays and the Inspirals and The Charlatans live and even Blur at the Hac once. (Sorry, couldn't resist!)

    Yvonne, I loved Kitchens of Distinction; two of my favourite gigs were their ones at The Venue in New Cross and The Boardwalk in Manchester around the time of Strange Free World. Stephen Kitchens is pretty active on Facebook if you're on there, and readily accepts friends requests.

  5. Have you ever encountered the 'Songs from Under the Floorboards' blog? A bit of McCarthy turns up there now and then, not to mention other fine material.

  6. I'd not come across that one before. Thanks for the tip! Great blog: I've added it to my blog roll.

  7. Tried to leave a comment before but ran into a glitch.

    I have a huge record collection and pride myself on an almost encyclopedic knowledge of bands from that era that produced that style of music, especially English bands, but to my surprise I've never heard of Felt: I will definitely check them out.

    I also caught your Level 42 referance over at VWOP and wanted to mention what a great band they are; as a Bass player (I play a few instruments, but Bass is the one I am most profecient) I am in awe of Mark King, the (ahem) king of the slap and pop technique. One of my favorite bassists but my all-time favorite is Mick Karn.

    Anyway, I hope you include more music-based posts in the future.

  8. A couple of other people have told me they've had problems commenting, Dave. I did remove the captcha step for a bit, but my email inbox started filling up with spam again fairly swiftly, which was too annoying to continue with. So I guess I'll have to resign myself to the odd potential commenter not making it through. Shame.

    The YouTube links I included in this post should give you a good taste of Felt. If you like them, I've plenty of other obscure indie bands I can recommend...

  9. I like Felt, Nick. They have that melancholy sound I like. I don't know if you agree, but some of their stuff reminds me a lot of Lou Reed, especially the way the lead singer sings. What other artists would you recommend?

    I should go on the record saying my favorite artists and bands are Bowie, Eno, Roxy Music (especially early Roxy), David Sylvian, John Cale's early solo stuff, Mick Karn's solo stuff, and lots of other "Art Rock" bands. I love the idea of mixing usually disparate styles of music and creating intresting hybrids.

    Musically, it doesn't get much better for me than Bowie's "Berlin" trilogy (Low, Heroes, Lodger--and you could include Iggy's The Idiot and Lust for Life since Bowie wrote most of those records too).

    Did you ever notice most book collectors are also record collectors/musicians?


  10. Yep, Felt were influenced by The Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, as were a lot of British indie bands of that '80s era: My Bloody Valentine, Jesus & Mary Chain, House of Love, etc. My personal two favourite bands from that period were McCarthy and The Wedding Present, but there were loads of others besides.

    If you like art rock, there are some more recent bands that are worth checking out: Everything Everything and Outfit spring to mind. I've never really got into Bowie, although I do like what I've heard, but my friend Adam is a massive Bowie fan; he has a books blog here:

    Which only goes to provide further evidence for your theory!

  11. Thanks Nick,

    I will be checking out those bands and your friend's blog after I post this. Thanks for the recommendations and allow me to thank Trent for having the exceedingly good taste to choose you as the VWOP's co-blogger--it introduced me to EE. You've opened a gateway to a lot of great stuff I didn't know existed--a very heartfelt thank you and please keep up the great work!


  12. Well thank you, Dave. Very kind of you to say so.

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