“…for me, the best album is The Splendour Of Fear. It’s like a complete atmosphere, a complete mood….”- Lawrence, Felt
Adorned, as it is, by a subversion of Alan Aldridge’s remarkable design for Andy Warhol’s ‘Chelsea Girls’ film poster, the uninitiated might be suckered into thinking that Felt – like a whole gamut of British indie groups in the mid-80’s – might be paying their dues to ’60’s New York underground with ‘The Splendour Of Fear.’ But sonically, it appears to reach much, much further back.
Recorded at John Rivers’ functional Leamington Spa studio, ‘TSOF’ may well embody the traditional bass/guitar/drums rock band line-up but its pitch is ostensibly neoclassical. In part, this could be attributed to Maurice Deebank’s ornate, near baroque guitar playing, which was virtually maverick amongst Felt’s peers (even Johnny Marr was said to be a fan). His meandering, explorative solos were rich and grandiose, a counterpoint to the more simplistic, though no less effective ones of frontman, Lawrence. Indeed, it’s the near indefinable point at which their two chiming Telecasters cross (undoubtedly inspired by Television) which characterises the early Felt dynamic – the rhythm section, for this album, merely sturdy, penny plain. Though a year and an album later, the band sound brighter, less dour and god forbid, poppier, ‘TSOF’ is stately, restrained, deadpan.
On the surface, ‘Splendour’ is a testament to the genius of Lawrence, the visionary, the individualist, shackled to the indie scene merely by circumstance, though actually a poet of Blakean proportions. Some of the titles here evoke a sort of Boy’s Own view of the world, of adventures in distant lands, (‘Red Indians,’ ‘Mexican Bandits’), others (‘The World Is As Soft As Lace,’ The Optimist And The Poet’) suggest an etherealism shared perhaps only with the 4AD Records groups like Cocteau Twins (with whom Felt would later collaborate) and Dead Can Dance (with whom they’d share a producer, Rivers).
And then there are those lyrics. ‘The Stagnant Pool,’ romantic, despairing, belonging to a century bygone :
“The stagnant pool,
Like a drowned coffin
Still as a deceased heart,
Haunting the ghost of the noble crusader
Who recalls pellucid ice clutching the aching twigs?
Never a drop to disturb stagnation”
And yet, interviews with Lawrence throughout the decade reveal a somewhat contrary figure. One moment, he talks of making pop records, of becoming rich and famous; the next, of Felt being an “art group,” who’ll defy expectations by changing conversely from record to record (most notable on 1998’s cocktail jazzy ‘Train Above The City’).
So then, no Byronesque dandy at the heart of Felt – merely a creditable eccentric with an obsessive attention to detail, from song titles, to lyrics, to sleeve artwork (designed by Lawrence himself under the umbrella of Shanghai Packaging Company).
In 1984, there was very little equatable to ‘TSOF.’ Lawrence’s aversion to cymbals and snare means Gary Ainge’s drums have a dull, pow wow tone which flattens their dynamic near dead (see Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’). The late Mick Lloyd’s bass guitar, likewise, is merely functional, monotonic, allowing Lawrence and Deebank’s twin Telecasters to take centre stage, dowsed in a crystalline chorus effect. Though the tracks veer between being 1’55” and 8’30” long, after 30 minutes, it’s all over. Neither Felt’s best nor worst record, it’s perhaps best viewed as a statement of artistic intent : we will do whatever we like and you need to catch up with us, not us with you.
Footnote : Lawrence quote taken from Chris Heath’s ‘Lunch Break With Lawrence : An Unpublished Interview’ in ‘Foxtrot Echo Lima Tango – a fanzine about Felt & c. 1980 – 2010’ (Johnston & Vock, 2010)