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Reissue Of The Week

Reissue Of The Week: Felt’s Gold Mine Trash & Bubblegum Perfume
Ben Graham , March 3rd, 2023 08:31

From fiercely puritanical post-punk aesthetes to open-minded artistic explorers: across two career-spanning compilations, Felt present a unique interpretation of a decade they professed to despise, writes Ben Graham

"I'm against the eighties" Lawrence sang in 1992 with his new band Denim, whose reclaimed glam rock seemed like the antithesis of the fragile, introspective miniatures he’d created with his former group Felt throughout the previous decade. But like Denim, Felt were always out of step with their times, chasing a dream of success on their own terms that continually eluded them. Implementing Lawrence’s Warholesque master plan of ten albums and ten singles in ten years, the path of total commitment turned out to be one of constant struggle, poverty and isolation, very different from the pop star fantasies he'd nurtured as a 70s teenager. If anyone had reason to bid good riddance to the years of Thatcher, Duran Duran, “Winklepicker kids and Mary Chain debris”, it was Lawrence.

But of course, the mainstream narrative of a time is never the whole story. For a small but dedicated coterie, Felt embodied an alternative 80s like few other bands could. In refusing to follow the path of least resistance, in creating a new kind of rock music that was anti-macho, dreamlike, and valued art over hedonism, in their mad schemes, singular vision and absolute lack of irony, Felt were the purest realisation of a particular post-punk ideal, even as Lawrence longed for major label stardom and castigated the amateurism of his peers. Gold Mine Trash (originally released in 1987) and Bubblegum Perfume (1990) together present a representative selection of Felt’s work across the course of a decade they both loathed and illuminated. Neither conventional best of’s, nor rarities compilations, nor comprehensive roundups of non-album singles and B-sides, the two albums are an incomplete combination of all three. If they occasionally miss out fan favourites and key songs in order to showcase oblique instrumentals and sketchy acoustic throwaways, then it only serves to give a fuller picture of Felt’s journey, with all the intriguing detours and intuitive non-career moves that entailed.

For the first half of their lifetime, and the first half of the 80s, Felt were signed to Cherry Red, and it’s this period (1981-85) that’s covered on Gold Mine Trash, beginning with their second single, ‘Something Sends Me To Sleep’. Rough and rudimentary, with Lawrence mumbling "I told you so" beneath the stumbling guitars and boxy rhythm section, it’s as though from the very start they can’t be bothered with any of the niceties of presentation, that you need to accommodate yourself to them rather than vice-versa. The next track, and the B-side of their next single, also seems wilfully obscure and obtuse: "We’re not gonna do a thing that they say" Lawrence sings on ‘Trails Of Colour Dissolve’, the allusive, suggestive title saying as much as the song itself. But it's a progression nevertheless, with guitarist Maurice Deebank breaking through the fug with the first of many transcendent, peeling solos he would casually, almost apologetically unleash throughout Felt’s initial phase.

Track three is a major leap forward: an alternative version of early album track ‘Dismantled King Is Off The Throne’ recorded as a demo for Blanco Y Negro, the Warner’s subsidiary label part-founded by Mike Alway, who as an A&R man at Cherry Red had originally signed Felt. Joining Alway at the new label would have brought Lawrence a step closer to his ambitions, but for some reason they were turned down. It can’t have been for the quality of the material, as this demo is arguably the definitive version of a classic song, going heavier on the chorus pedal and exhibiting a gem-like intensity that makes the original sound perky and lightweight by comparison. The same can be said of ‘Sunlight Bathed The Golden Glow’, the second number they re-recorded for Blanco Y Negro. When Lawrence grudgingly sings "I thought your poetry was – uh- uh- sometimes good", the Jarvis Cocker of ten years’ ahead flickers momentarily into being.

Between them is Felt’s fourth single, ‘Penelope Tree’ from 1983, a breakthrough in terms of actually being a well-produced, accessible pop song. Suddenly the band seem like contenders. Lawrence sounds more urgent, you can hear all the words and, with its breathy female backing vocals and chiming, minor key melody, it creates the template that sometime Felt support act The House Of Love would run with a few years later. Felt’s own musical template was Television, and Lawrence’s non-singing vocal style and metaphysical abstract beat poetry, as well as Deebank’s spiralling guitar playing, owe much to Tom Verlaine. But Gold Mine Trash is the sound of a band mastering their influences and gradually transcending them: on ‘The Day The Rain Came Down’, Deebank’s guitar plunges, soars and races like a murmuration of starlings against a misty sunset.

It all culminates in ‘Primitive Painters’, Felt’s most successful single and one of the defining independent records of the era. Produced by Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie and featuring the unmistakable voice of Liz Fraser as an angelic counterpoint to Lawrence’s dour ruminations, the song runs to six minutes where every other track on the album is between 2.30 and 3.40, an epic in a time when indie or post-punk bands didn’t do epic, when the very notion of going over four minutes or reaching for any kind of grandeur was suspect, too prog. ‘Primitive Painters’ blows such inhibition out of the water, but with a modernist elegance that owes nothing to the bloated rock anthems of the dinosaur bands. That it was Felt, who had seemed among the most insular, pinched and precious of all the indie groups, who had achieved this was significant. Clearly, this was a band that was going places.

To be precise, they were going to Creation Records, the label that would embody the changing nature of the indie sector in the second half of the 80s and beyond. If Cherry Red, whose roster included Everything But The Girl, The Monochrome Set and The Passage, represented the somewhat twee, DIY, anti-rock stance of early 80s indie, then Creation took a more open-minded stance, encouraging collaboration among its artists and becoming pivotal in the indie-acid house crossover at the end of the decade. Both labels put out classic sampler albums in the periods that Felt were signed to them: for Cherry Red, it was Pillows & Prayers in 1982, where Felt’s ‘My Face Is On Fire’ was sandwiched between The Marine Girls and Eyeless In Gaza. For Creation, it was 1988’s Doing It For The Kids, where Felt’s ‘Ballad Of The Band’ preceded The House of Love’s ‘Christine’ and cuts by The Weather Prophets, Primal Scream and My Bloody Valentine. In becoming part of the Creation family, Felt also embraced a more collaborative, looser approach that reaped strong creative rewards.

‘Ballad Of The Band’, Felt’s first Creation single and the closing track on Bubblegum Perfume, was an open letter to Maurice Deebank, still a member of Felt when the song was written and rehearsed but gone by the time of its release. A keynote Felt song, ‘Ballad’ showcases the warm, rich Hammond playing of Martin Duffy, the teenage keyboard prodigy who would step up to the role of Lawrence’s new foil and Felt’s second musical genius after Deebank. With Duffy on board, the Mark II Felt entered their Dylan period, capturing that thin, wild mercury sound on a series of tumbling, self-referential songs that invited the listener in rather than keeping them at arm’s length.

None of Felt’s post punk peers would have written a song like ‘Ballad Of The Band’, not only because such blatant self-mythologising was considered crass and rockist, but because the track suggested that the band was the collective entity that made the magic happen, not the lonely, tortured genius who, post-Ian Curtis, was the model for every bedsit poète maudit indie singer. ‘Ballad’ may have been directed at a valuable player who was letting the side down, but it was also about how the whole was more important than any one individual. In the years to come, Felt would become more open to collaboration and to different incarnations of itself: on Train Above The City (1988), Lawrence’s only involvement was coming up with track titles, and the whole album featured just Duffy and drummer Gary Ainge on a series of piano, vibes and percussion instrumentals. It’s represented on Bubblegum Perfume by ‘Book Of Swords’, a huge soul ballad just waiting for Aretha or Teddy Pendergrass to step through the door. It’s as though Lawrence knew he couldn’t do it justice, so left us to imagine the voice that could.

Five of the twenty tracks on Bubblegum Perfume are instrumentals, from Duffy’s stunning classical piano miniatures ‘Autumn’ and ‘Magellan’ to the acoustic guitar and folk-horror synth of ‘Fire Circle’. Songs like ‘I Will Die With My Head In Flames’, ‘Tuesday’s Secret’, and the magnificent ‘Rain Of Crystal Spires’ effortlessly showcase Felt’s hard-won signature style, the jangly guitar, driving rhythm section, rain-kiss patter of organ and Lawrence’s deadpan sneer merging into a confident whole, a kind of turbo-charged Byrds folk-rock. But having found their sound and mastered it, they were free to branch out and experiment more, too.

In 1988, ‘Space Blues’, Felt’s tenth and final single, was poised between the past and future. Harking back to the moody 70s synth pop of a Mickie Most Hot Chocolate production, or David Essex’s ‘Rock On’, it also anticipated the analog squelch of early 90s Pulp. Featuring guest vocalist Rose McDowall, it’s a unique, strangely sinister entry in Felt’s catalogue. Then there’s ‘Be Still’, a cover of an obscure Dennis Wilson Beach Boys song (before everyone and their aunts rediscovered The Beach Boys), remade into a fragile, David Sylvian-like piece of ghostly ambience.

By the end of the 80s, Felt were a different band than they’d started out as but remained incredibly consistent in never deviating from their fundamental vision. These two albums capture that journey, even down to their titles. Gold Mine Trash suggests something drawn up from dark depths, secret treasures unappreciated by the outside world. Bubblegum Perfume evokes something altogether more enticing and inviting; art for everyone, rather than just the initiated. Felt may have aspired to make music that was timeless, but accidentally or not, their music mirrored the changing attitudes and aspirations of the 80s indie scene that Lawrence professed to despise. Sometimes ahead of the game, sometimes (perhaps unconsciously) reflecting a subterranean zeitgeist that’s only apparent in hindsight. On the evidence of these albums, Felt’s 1980s sound like a time still waiting to be heard.