Felt has always been one of the most respected and most enigmatic bands in independent music. Lawrence, (originally Jon Lawrence, but he later dropped the Jon), had a plan to released 10 singles and 10 albums in 10 years, spanning the Eighties. In the early days, Felt released short, pop songs as singles and short LPs with longer, ambient, somewhat weird guitar-driven songs.
First, they signed with Cherry Red and released some very odd, mellow, and beautiful albums. Felt’s lead guitarist, Maurice Deebank, was trained in classical guitar, and this classical feel along with Lawrence’s unique voice gave Felt a truly exceptional sound. (There weren’t any cymbals used in these recordings… Lawrence wouldn’t allow it.) One of their signature songs from this period was Primitive Painters, which had Elizabeth Fraser from the Cocteau Twins on backing vocals. At this time, Martin Duffy (now in Primal Scream) played keyboards and organ, which helped to give Felt their distinctive sound.
Eventually, Maurice Deebank left the group and Felt signed to Creation Records. Phil King (who was also in Lush) joined the band on bass. Some of the LPs and singles released on Creation Records were led by thick organ melodies with the guitar sometimes taking a backseat. Over the years Felt was produced by Mayo Thompson, John A. Rivers, Joe Foster, and even Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins. Eventually, Felt succeeded in their 10 year plan for 10 albums and 10 singles by finally releasing the last album Me & A Monkey On The Moon on El Records. The 80s passed and in the 90s, Lawrence made very silly and completely different music with Go-Kart Mozart and Denim.
All this time, fans cherished the serious, poignant, intelligent and even sometimes bitter music of Felt. After the demise of Creation Records, the classic Felt albums like Poem Of The River, The Pictorial Jackson Review and others fell out of print. Die-hard fans were left bidding for them on Ebay (some CDs sold for $70!). However, Cherry Red and Lawrence are now re-releasing the entire Felt catalogue in their original sleeves, and in addition Cherry Red have released A Declaration, the first and only (known) live Felt concert ever to be filmed. This full-length concert, filmed at ULU in 1987, mostly features tracks from the Creation Records era. Even though there is basically one shot zooming in and out and the sound quality is ranges from poor to decent, the songs come alive.
While Maurice Deebank and Lawrence shared the creativity in the earlier Cherry Red days, it is evident from the DVD that Lawrence became the true leader of the band during the Creation Records era. His removed stage presence would annoy many but Felt fans understand. Some people have said that he is chewing gum throughout the entire concert. He plays guitar in short spurt and sings but Marco Thomas does the majority of the guitar work. In the song I Don’t Know Which Way To Turn (not featured on the DVD), he sang: “…When I am up there on the stage / I just shut my eyes and pray that soon enough the show will end / Why do I go through this hell?…” and that explains Lawrence’s stage presence. Even though his voice is not a true singer’s voice, it does have a unique, stylish and astute-sounding quality. On the unreleased When The Dawn Starts Creeping In, his lyrics are unintelligible but the vocal melody is so strong, together with the band’s performance, that it doesn’t matter. Lawrence is unlike any other lead singer and the Felt fans love him for that.
The concert begins with the short track Declaration. Originally, the song had an extremely quiet beginning, but this live version has a huge burst of feedback that could wake a person out of a coma! Next is one of the best tracks on the DVD, their rendition of Riding On The Equator (from the Poem Of The River LP). As a jam, this is an incredible song. Clocking in around eight minutes long, the guitars of Marco Thomas and Lawrence glide along as Martin Duffy’s organ swirls. Lyrically and performance-wise, Lawrence is on top form.
Since Felt is no more and fans are hungry for anything new or different by them, the previously unreleased When The Dawn Starts Creeping In is an exceedingly interesting addition. The upbeat track with a 60s sound rocks along while Lawrence’s vocal melody and Duffy’s organ make the song come alive. While it is hard to decipher the lyrics, the song (as a whole) is a wonderful addition to the Felt catalogue. Originally, it was supposed to be on the Poem Of The River LP. The studio version of the song should have been released somewhere.
Other impressive songs are All The People I Like Are Those That Are Dead and Hours Of Darkness Changed My Mind. The final song of the concert is Soul Coaxing, an instrumental cover of Michel Polnareff’s Ame Caline. Reminiscent of the instrumentals on Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death LP, the bouncy organ-melody driven track gracefully springs along as slides of 1950s Las Vegas are projected in the background.
Besides the sound problems and the lack of variety in the shots, there are only two disappointing tracks. The studio version of Grey Streets is a classic indie-pop organ-led masterpiece but this live version does not do it justice. Primitive Painters is the only song played from the earlier Cherry Red days. It’s very interesting to hear the song without Maurice Deebank on guitar and Liz Fraizer on backing vocals, and while the band does a decent job, the studio version is better in every way possible.
All through the concert, Roger Cowell’s psychedelic slides are projected over and behind the band as they play. Sometimes, the slides are just patterns while other times, they are intense photographs. As they play live, the band does not dance around. They just stand there and play. No one in the band acts like a fool. Dressed in a white collared prep shirt, Lawrence does not look as miserable as people thought he would. Phil King does walk around the stage a bit as he plays his bass and Gary Ainge is hidden in the back as he wails on the drums.
While many DVDs have bonus or special features, A Declaration has one little promo video for Stained Glass Windows In The Sky. The entire music video is just miscellaneous live footage with the song over it. Felt has always been considered minimalists when it comes to the packaging of their music, and this DVD is no different. In fact, while many re-issues have tons of b-sides, remixes, demos and other bonus songs, the Felt re-issues have nothing extra.
Felt were a band that I would have loved to have seen in concert. And thanks to Lawrence, Alan McGee, and Cherry Red, myself and other fans finally get a glimpse the band playing live. Since the band does not record anymore, there is a finite amount of songs to enjoy and anything new or different from Felt back catalogue is to be embraced and appreciated. Even though the sound quality is poor and there is the single meandering shot that zooms in and out, the strength of the concert is displayed by the band and the power of the songs.
While this reviewer enjoys Go-Kart Mozart and Denim, the beauty of Lawrence’s legacy is in the recordings of Felt. A Declaration is the only document of Felt’s talent and energy as a live band. In the song Declaration, Lawrence sings, “I will be the first person in history to die of boredom.” but fans won’t be dying of boredom: they will be delighted once they get past the sound and film quality.
A Declaration [DVD] (2003)
Record Label: Cherry Red Records