An Accident of Geography
The Felt Reissue Series Ö pt one
There is a lost transcript of an interview with the great Mark E Smith where he suggests Felt were too subtle for the masses. He then goes on to say one of the Felt features he really liked was the West Midlands thing. Itís something thatís been neglected. You donít think too much about groups coming from the West Midlands. But the region has had its gifted mavericks, from the Prefects and Au Pairs, to Dexys and the Two Tone thing, through to Pram and Broadcast, the best groups around now.

Then thereís Felt. The early splendour of Felt was arguably an accident of geography. The benefit of being distanced from other major city scenes. And if Lawrence had not met Maurice on that bridge over the river at Coleshill who knows how things would have turned out? One day weíll go there and throw a flower in the water.

Cherry Red has just about got to the end of its Felt reissue series. It has been steadily salvaging pairs of Felt recordings, and packaging them in exquisite little card folders designed by long-time fan Paul Kelly. They are adorable artefacts, and the consistency and attention to detail is impressive. I love the photos inside the sleeves, and the series feels special. For the curious and committed, they are worth collecting and cherishing.

For one reason and another, I had not listened to Felt for years, so itís been fun and enlightening catching up and working my way through. And, yes, even taking into account others that made it through the Ď80s (eg The Fall, Sonic Youth, Go-Betweens), Felt seem out on their own still. In other words, these fantastic records have worn well. And some of them are absolute classic masterpieces.

I have tried not to refer back to the original records which are packed away, though a privileged knowledge of the historical context inevitably colours some things still. And I do still think 1982ís Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty is one of the best records ever. Thatís partly because it is still anything but an ordinary LP. Iím sure it looks different than the one I bought with money from my Saturday job behind the chemistís counter, but so what? At least it still sounds like nothing on earth.

I love the toms toms, the on-the-warpath thing going on. I love the way Lawrence intones his strange poetry. I love Mauriceís elegant and eloquent guitar flourishes right up there in the mix, with the treble full on, the way few people dare. What a find he was. This record evokes an era when people like Lawrence wanted above all to get up on stage and stand there playing weird songs like Vic Godardís Subway Sect did. And somehow that was going to make them pop idols.

I think I now love the second Felt LP even more. The delightful Warhol/Chelsea Girls cover is still there, again evoking an age with an enduring Factory fascination, obsessing over that Edie biography and Pop-ism, and back again. I miss that innocent dreaming. I love the second Felt LP because I would always love any set that contains a song as gorgeous and sad as 'The World Is As Soft As Lace' and all that ďif I could I would change the world but ÖĒ insouciance. Any record with that song on it is going to be up there among the best ever isnít it? What a song that is still!

Listening again to Mauriceís guitar virtuosity I can imagine the great dreamer and schemer Lawrence rubbing his hands in glee at having someone like that on board. The teenage Lawrence worshipped at length at the altar of Tom Verlaine and Television, soaking up the incredible beauty of songs like 'The Fire' and 'Days'. But Felt are better than that. And it helps that the relationship between Lawrence and Maurice was as rocky as anything Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor went through, which is exactly what we want from our underground pop heroes.

The third in the Felt reissue series, The Strange Idols Pattern And other Short Stories, really does look different from what I remember. I seem to recall Aztec action paintings, but I like the stark simplicity of the way it looks now. I seem to recall another song called 'Crucifix Heaven', which is missing, and the track listing seems to be different to the one on the sleeve, but again so what? I always used to think this John Leckie-produced set tried too hard to be a real pop record thus losing something uniquely Felt along the way.

And this was the eternal, beautiful contradiction at the heart of Felt. With Lawrence so obsessed with being a pop star with all the glamorous trappings that suggests, he sure went about things in a strange old way. True, he never had fortune or favour on his side, but Felt certainly moved in mysterious ways. Which is absolutely spot on.

To give you an example, I saw Felt in 1983 in London, playing with The Smiths and the Go-Betweens. Quite a show. And Felt as they could be live were at their sullen sulky best, silhouetted on a blacked out stage. They were like strange mystic seers. Absolutely wonderful. Years later I found this was pure chance, and that there was really a problem with the lighting. Thatís Felt.

I do like so many things about this third LP, but I still sense something is all wrong. The drums perhaps? But still 'Crystal Ball' sounds like one of the best pop things ever. Yet Felt were at the end of a phase, and a change was needed.

© 2004 John Carney