In a parallel universe they became as big as The Smiths off the back of ten albums that spanned a decade
Water Orton is a strange place to start a story about pop music. If it wasn’t for the railway station slap bang in the middle of it, then you’d struggle to imagine much happening there at all. As a kid, I’d often pass through it on Saturday jaunts from Nuneaton to Birmingham, and the impression I had was that the industrial revolution that swept through the rest of the midlands gave up when it met the sleepy red brick houses and swaying oak trees. I had no idea that one of Britain’s most enigmatic and beloved underground bands started out from a small village in North Warwickshire.
“Maurice Deebank also lived in Water Orton and that’s probably one of the luckiest breaks I’ve ever had,” smiles Felt’s frontman Lawrence as he thoughtfully sips tea from a paper cup in his East London flat. “Maurice was in the year below me at junior school and he had classical lessons. I’d see him go in and think, ‘ah, that kid plays the guitar.’ One day I got him around to tune my guitar because at that point I couldn’t tune up. He tuned it in a few seconds and started playing ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. Immediately I said: ‘what’s that? – it’s amazing?’. It was just three chords, but it totally blew me away.”
Felt are one of the great mysteries of the 1980s. Informed by a love of Tom Verlaine, Television and Lou Reed, they spent the entire decade creating sweet, minimalist pop that mixed well-spoken lyricism with gorgeous, radio-friendly melodies. At their head, lead-singer Lawrence combined shy, bookish good looks with fierce intellectual intensity; his self-proclaimed ‘new puritan’ philosophy eschewing alcohol, tobacco and drugs in a peculiarly English take on straight edge. By rights, they should have been as big as The Smiths, but somehow it never really happened for them.
Despite the weight of history and unfulfilled ambition, Felt made a difference nevertheless. “I think we were forerunners, and when you’re a forerunner then it’s your job to pave the way for the people who come later,” Lawrence tells me magnanimously. “I think if we’d started in 1990 rather than 1980 then we would have been on the TV and in the charts. I’m convinced that ‘Primitive Painters’ would have been a top 10 single and we would have been a big band, but you know, timing is everything. Looking back now, I can say I’m happy with the position that Felt got to, but at the time it was frustrating.”
Felt was always a band that was going to break the rules. Spending time with Lawrence you find that behind the warm smiles and self-deprecating sense of humour burns fierce ambition and a determination to do things his own way. Take ‘Index’, Felt’s first single, for example. It was bedroom pop before bedroom pop was even a thing. Self-produced by Lawrence and recorded on a portable cassette player, its stripped-back, deeply impressionistic style set it apart from the big, brash sounds of punk, ska and heavy metal that filled the local pubs and clubs.
“Punk was an interesting time for me,” Lawrence explains when I ask him about his experiences in Birmingham’s anarchic punk scene. “On one hand, it drew a line in the sand and said, ‘now everyone could join in,’ but on the other, it led to a near disaster. Too many people joined in. You had people who perhaps shouldn’t have been there who had made that leap, and it felt a bit too crowded by the time I got there.”
The subject of punk in Birmingham clearly throws up mixed feelings for Lawrence. Even though he was inspired by the energy and DIY attitude of the city’s punk scene, he’s also equally keen not to be defined by it. “Birmingham was very traditional,” he tells me, recalling his time watching bands like Misspent Youth and Swell Maps. “Heavy metal was invented there and almost everywhere you went all that the pubs would play was heavy rock and RnB. There was nothing that fed into books, arts and films, which is what I wanted to do. The closest was probably The Prefects. They had really great lyrics when you could make them out, and you knew that Robert Lloyd was a really great writer.
“By the time I started making music, I’d already told myself that I wasn’t going to be part of any local scene. We didn’t want to be in some incestuous local scene where we’d have to be friends with all the other musicians. I didn’t know anybody and I didn’t want to know anybody. No one even knew we were from Birmingham when we first played there; people used to think Felt was from London.”