Sunday 5 February 2012

30 years on: Felt's Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty

 On New Year's Eve 1989, I was in a pub in Manchester, talking pop with a bunch of friends. We reflected on two English singers who had illuminated the previous decade with great originality but no commercial success. Obvious star quality and wild eccentricity, it seemed, were no match for fickle fate. Fame would elude them. One was Pulp's Jarvis Cocker, the other was Lawrence from Felt.

In a decade of fey make-up boys and the gated snare, Felt's approach to record making had seemed positively antique - sumptuous, sculptured guitar melodies housed in sleeves that owed more to Barnett Newman than Gary Numan. Their first album was called Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty, a statement of intent in itself.

Felt had a rare air of mystery. Gigs were infrequent, some were in virtual darkness. As the decade wore on, odd stories about Lawrence snuck out. Apparently he was obsessively clean. A friend once stayed in his Birmingham apartment and woke up at 3am to hear scratching noises under the bed. Expecting to see a mouse he was shocked to see Lawrence with a dustpan and brush. Pete Becker of fellow West Midlanders Eyeless In Gaza claimed that, when Lawrence took him to gigs, he always drove in second gear. He was deadpan, dead pale, and once claimed he would become the first person in the world to die of boredom. All my girlfriends were in love with him.

Lawrence spent his teens in the Birmingham overspill of Water Orton. In 1980 he made a cacophonic DIY single as Felt called Index, a solo performance of clanging chords that sounded like it was recorded on a cassette at home - "after that I decided to form the greatest band in England." In spite of his ambitions, he couldn't tune or re-string his guitar. "I used to wait until I met someone who could do it for me. Sometimes it took ages." He'd often seen Maurice Deebank walk through Water Orton with a classical guitar on his way to have lessons, "so one day I got him round and he tuned my guitar in three seconds. I was in shock. Then he played a song, it was Mr Tambourine Man. I said 'I don't believe it, you're a genius'. We were only 16 or 17 and at that time I'd never seen anyone play that fast. It still went clunky when I went from one chord to another."

Deebank became a part of Felt. "I thought, God, I could really go somewhere with this kid. Ride on his back to the top, that's how I saw it." Initially, there were constant arguments. "They were always about clothes and drinking. I told him he would have to change his entire wardrobe. Sometimes he'd get drunk and go off down motorways, disappear for two days. Or he'd go round this big mental hospital with this other kid, after they'd been in the pub. One of those dark Victorian things. When you were a kid you lived in fear that someone would escape and break into your bedroom. Deebank used to go there and walk around the wards at night for a dare. He'd come back from those trips and every time I'd say 'we're finished, you're not serious about this.'"

What Lawrence wanted to create was something brand new - Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty (released in January 1982) was both beautiful and very odd, with Lawrence's near-asthmatic, heavily reverbed voice and Deebank's crystal clear guitar lines underpinned by what sound like red Indian tribal drums. Lyrics were largely indecipherable. The songs - just the six - all clocked in around the five minute mark. "The music had to be something I'd never heard before. A new kind of music. Long guitar solos, like something that Hank Marvin would do but extended." The result was closer to Tyrannosaurus Rex playing Marquee Moon in a barn. Truly, it sounded - and still sounds - uniquely atmospheric. "I wanted the first album to be the best English album ever released, in the history of music. We wanted the kind of impact The Stone Roses had later - the way they were a group, the way they cared about what they wore."

A critical hit - Sounds' 5 star review was enough to get me to buy it without hearing a note - Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty instead created a small but dedicated core of Felt fans which would grow incrementally over the decade. In 1987, Lawrence found his image in a Smash Hits sticker collection.  Suicidally, he chose to capitalise on this good fortune with an album of instrumentals called Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death. "I remember taking the album artwork to Creation, really confidently, and Bobby Gillespie (of Primal Scream) was there. He said 'You're not really going to call it that are you?' I said yeah, it's a great title. He said 'Crinkle? What the hell's crinkle?' I realised I'd made the worst mistake. It was the worst title in the world."

Now, as then, Lawrence is childlike in his enthusiasm, and meticulous in his planning, even if genuine stardom seems as far away as it did in 1982. "I thought we could invent a new form of music. I really believed we could. Now I know it's practically impossible, but that was the kind of ambition we had."

45 comments:

  1. Saw Lawrence at Rough Trade East on Friday night, promoting the fantastic new Felt photo book. He said, "Novelty Rock is coming to a close, and there's going to be a new sound on the horizon."

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  2. I might be the only person who's sad about that.

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  3. Great Post - but I loved the title Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death. And in a way they did create a new kind of music.

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  4. We saw Felt's final three performances - two in London and the last one in Burberries Birmingham, 1989. They were all within a few days of each other as I recall - I found the ticket for Burberries in the loft last year doing my annual nose up there. Pleased that Felt are being re-appraised, you can hear their influence on a fair few acts at the moment.

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  5. Wait..you have a music blog? This should be good.

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  6. Lawrence = Genius. saw Felt 6 or 7 times in late 80s and they were never anything short of brilliant

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  7. Bobby Gillespie can shut the hell up. "Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death" is almost on a par with "Big Toe In The Middle"

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  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  9. I think Lawrence was rite when he said once
    that Felt's music was for the 21st Century.
    They will be the Van Gogh's who outlive all
    the supernovas. Obscurity the essence of
    wondrous perfection.

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