I remember my friend Pete, who was the singer/bassist in my first group The Beautiful Losers, buying the first Felt single with its stencilled sleeve and it getting Single Of The Week in Sounds – by Dave McCulloch, maybe? He played me the single in the bedroom of his flat on the modernist Phipps Bridge council estate in Mitcham. It seemed more like an ‘art statement’ to me than anything else, with its badly recorded distorted guitar and mumbled vocals in the distant background. Mumblecore, anyone? I didn’t buy the single. Mistake. A friend of mine would find a copy in the back of the Rough Trade warehouse about 10 years later. Nice. Another friend would be given the mono cassette player the single was recorded on. She went back to New Zealand in the end, Auckland. Wonder if she still has it?
Fast forward a couple of years and my friend Adrian Borland of The Sound, who used to hold court with his other drinking buddies in The Crooked Billet pub up by Wimbledon Common, had just got back from playing the Futurama festival at the New Bingley Hall, Stafford – this would have been some time in 1981 – and, knowing I liked Tyrannosaurus Rex, told me of this strange group he saw that played the same day, called Felt. Well, group would be a stretch of the imagination, as all told they were just a two-piece, a singer/guitarist and bongo player. Yes, you heard me right, a bongo player. Bongo player (and Felt drummer) Gary Ainge would later tell me that guitarist Maurice Deebank wouldn’t get in the van for the show (something to do with gig money – or non-payment of it?) and so singer Lawrence and Gary had to go it alone – especially since there was a good fee for showing up and actually playing. Gary ended up having to make some skins for bongos using the roadie’s best friend, gaffa tape. Needless to say, what Adrian told me left me intrigued.
I used to buy the music press avidly every week – New Musical Express always, Melody Maker occasionally and Sounds rarely by this point. Sounds had been at the forefront of coverage on punk and what would be retrospectively known as post-punk – but by the early ’80s had gone down the grim ‘Oi!’ route. Anyway, in early 1982 Steve Sutherland wrote an article on Felt in Melody Maker. No guitarist Maurice Deebank to be seen in the photos – or interviewed in the article. He had done the disappearing act again it seemed. In the piece, Steve enthused about their debut album, Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty. “Hmm, interesting,” I thought.
Around this time I had a day job working for a magazine called (cough) Poultry World – and its sister publication, World Poultry Industry – doing ad production. All day getting in ads for gizzard harvesters, de-beakers, stunners, neck crackers. If this wasn’t bad enough I also found out that those giblets you get in the bag with the chicken don’t actually belong to that chicken. I needed some down time from this bloodbath of factory farming misery. In the arcade next to our offices in Sutton there was a small record shop, the friendly local kind with the owner who would play you new records if asked. The day I was in he had just had Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty delivered. Ah, interesting. I looked at the cover. “Who is that Steve Strange lookalike on the front of it?” I thought to myself. I didn’t let that put me off though and asked him to put on the first track, ‘Evergreen Dazed’. Originally the song had vocals on it and was called ‘Billy The Kid’, Gary would later tell me. Jeez, as soon as that needle started playing the start of that song, I had the money out my pocket, record in bag and ready for home listening. It was so damn… beautiful! And at last Maurice Deebank had made an appearance – and boy, was it worth the wait. Such spindly, beautifully ornate – and melodic – guitar playing.
There was a craze for cocktails around this time – and I had been bought a cocktail shaker the Christmas before by my girlfriend, so when I got home early that evening, I knocked myself up some potent, but sickly sweet cocktail, lay on my bed and went into some kind of reverie – like I imagine those Romantic poets who got their kicks from laudanum did – and listened to the album.
Crumbling… is a very odd record – because it is not just what is there, but what isn’t. No multi-tracked guitars, percussion, backing vocals. There is so much space to get lost in – and to just let your imagination run wild. On the aforementioned ‘Evergreen Dazed’ it is as if the rhythm section of The Shadows had gone for a tea break – and then when the drums do kick in on ‘Fortune’ they are all toms and the bass is so quiet it is almost subliminal. Same goes for ‘Birdmen’. And then the vocals – buried so deep in the mix you have to strain to hear them, like someone whispering so quietly in your ear. When Maurice’s solo finally comes in on ‘Cathedral’, over the rolling toms and ringing chiming guitar, it is as if you are suddenly lifted up out of your body and are floating in mid-air. Such beautiful cascading guitar lines and intonation rings. ‘I Worship The Sun’ is Lou Reed in a spy movie. A mystery that can never be solved. The guitar just swimming in plate reverb. ‘Templeroy’ finishes the album off at a tidy 30 minutes – and makes you just want to put it on again – and go back to that magical place.
Felt would end up being the gossamer thin musical thread that would keep me sustained until I started to play in groups seriously a few years later – and they were the one guitar group that kept music alive for me during those awfully musically barren years of the early ’80s. I would even daydream about being in them. The Splendour Of Fear, The Strange Idols Pattern And Other Short Stories, Ignite The Seven Cannons And Set Sail For The Sun – all such wonderful records. Then, when Forever Breathes The Lonely Word was about to come out, I went up to town, to the poky Creation offices in Clerkenwell, and picked up a white label copy of the album and was told “learn this” by Lawrence – and, suddenly, my daydream had come true – I had joined Felt.