Graded on a Curve:
Felt, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty

Apparently Lawrence Hayward’s whole plan was to release ten LPs and ten singles in ten years. Through growth and perseverance he pulled it off in the ‘80s via the band Felt. Their later albums are the ones most talked about these days, but that doesn’t mean the discerning post-punk/indie pop fan should neglect the early stuff. If interested in hearing the whole story, than Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty is the place to start.

Back in the day the proto-punk club was a pretty exclusive joint. A person could count the most important members on the fingers of one hand, even; there was The Stooges and the MC5 from Detroit, The Modern Lovers from Boston, and The New York Dolls and The Velvet Underground from New York.

Of course the list could be expanded a bit, with the digits on the opposing paw including Bowie and T. Rex from England and Rocket from the Tombs and Electric Eels from Cleveland, which leaves one solitary wiggler left to represent the ‘60s garage wave detailed on the original Lenny Kaye compiled Nuggets volume.

But the march of time has uncovered a smattering of once ultra-obscure names and unearthed new discoveries that have expanded the proto-punk sphere quite a bit, with bands like Ontario CA’s Simply Saucer, Detroit’s Death, Minneapolis’ Michael Yonkers, and others deepening the field considerably. Plus, Nuggets bands like The Monks, The Sonics, and ? Mark and the Mysterians, once primarily known for a song or two on comps, have been given a much larger role in the proto-punk universe through reissues and even reunion shows. Throw in an expanded role for Krautrock, UK pub-rock, and glam, and the proto-punk arena could theoretically take up its own section in a well stocked record shack.

This is a swell circumstance, make no bones about it. But this development can’t help but inspire reflection upon those bands initially credited as laying the groundwork for the whole punk explosion. Take for example The Velvet Underground. If asked to reduce proto-punk to a pair of names, I and many others would likely say The Stooges and VU. But while the historical record certainly vindicates Iggy and Co’s work as a direct antecedent of the late-‘70s impulse to return to square one, the role of The Velvets’ oeuvre is considerably more complex.

This isn’t to imply that VU weren’t influential on punk. They were. But unlike The Kinks and even the framework of Chuck Berry, the music of the Velvets’ was far less about the cleansing power of simplicity and much more about an expression of the avant-garde; much of their music featured structural and conceptual complexity and everyone in the band had that thing they call chops.

And with some select covers aside, it was an influence that most punks didn’t really know what to do with at the time. As these kids started getting less angry and more comfortable with their instruments however, VU’s legacy started really shaping up. Not to get all hyphen crazy, but The Velvet Underground are maybe best described at this remove as proto-post-punk.

Those who haven’t heard them might be wondering what all this has to do with Felt. Well for starters, all of the above slowly unraveled in my brain while listening to that band’s 1981 release Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty. Felt began with the DIY ’79 single “Index” b/w “Break It,” recorded completely by vocalist/guitarist Lawrence Hayward. But that ’81 album really kicks off Felt’s story in earnest since it found Lawrence fronting a band that would grow in stature and scope throughout the decade, particularly after they signed to the Creation label.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Listening to Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty again after a long break really drove home not only just how seductive and liberating the sound of the Velvets must have been as the punk rock dust settled and a new decade dawned, but also made clear that Felt, a band that are looked upon by many in retrospect as an inconsistent and often eccentric entity, were actually ahead of the game. Way ahead of it, in fact.

Felt are sorta defined by their status as a cult band, a circumstance that was tied to the enigmatic personality of Hayward, who similar to another prickly pear of the ‘80s UK scene, specifically Steven Patrick Morrissey, employed a shortened moniker, going by simply Lawrence. But the occasional comparisons to The Smiths that Felt inspired were based more on how both bands rejected sex, drugs, and R&R trappings for elements literary, artistic, and introspective.

Lawrence is the focal point of Felt, but the band can also be said to have two distinct periods that relate to other members. The first ties to classically trained guitarist Maurice Deebank, who co-wrote most of the group’s early material. It’s Deebank that figures prominently on The Splendour of Fear and The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories, both from ’84. He left after the recording of 1985’s Ignite the Seven Canons and Set Sail for the Sun, a departure that ends their formative and less commercial first phase.

Enter organist Martin Duffy (who went on to Primal Scream), an addition that coincided with the band’s move from the Cherry Red label to Alan McGhee’s Creation imprint. This transition naturally brought with it an increase in exposure, and Felt proved up to the task, releasing what many consider to be their finest work Forever Breathes the Lonely Word in 1986 along with the very good Mayo Thompson-produced Poem of the River EP in ’87 and the superb The Pictorial Jackson Review in ’88.

But along the way Felt never lost touch with the ability to defy expectations, releasing two instrumental albums that perplexed quite a few onlookers, ‘86’s underrated Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death and ‘89’s Train Above the City, an album in which Lawrence didn’t even play (he did name the tunes, though). And if The Pictorial Jackson Review’s first side is maybe the finest short stretch of Felt songs, its flip was taken up with some moody piano-bar ambiance and lightly jazzy messing-around courtesy of Duffy.

Felt’s later half is surely and probably deservedly their most revered. That doesn’t mean that the early work is for serious fans only, though. Far from it; inspecting those documents can be quite a rewarding experience. And please don’t confuse this with the tendency I like to call “first album syndrome,” where often grumpy observers peshaw an act’s entire body of work save for that debut record (or 45, or homemade cassette), very frequently a document that’s extremely hard to find and by extension to hear. In a nutshell, first album syndrome is a (sometimes subconscious) expression of one-upmanship.

True, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty is an obscurity in Felt’s catalog. But I’m not claiming it as the band’s best release, and if no doubt currently difficult to locate on LP the songs it contains are easily heard digitally. And they should definitely be heard by any fan of post-punk and especially indie pop. For in addition to providing a sharp portrait of Lawrence Hayward’s upstart self, they also serve as a major study in how many musicians were turning away from Iggy and the Ashetons and toward the VU.

Don’t get the idea that Felt were mere copyists. In fact, this EP (or LP, depending on which discography you consult) opens with an instrumental featuring shimmering and strumming guitars so pristinely recorded that it sounds like it should’ve came out seven or eight years later. Additionally, it recalls the firm of Reed Cale Morrison and Tucker hardly at all. Instead “Evergreen Dazed” seems prescient of the assured lushness of such later indie pop acts as Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, and The Clientele. The song would definitely fit right in with those worthies on a well-considered mix-tape.

It might be true that in five minutes the song doesn’t really go anywhere. But it’s not trying to go anywhere. Clearly its intention is to supply a spiffy soundtrack for lazing around on the sofa in the morning (or the afternoon, depending on how you roll) while wearing pajamas and eating a big bowl of Grape Nuts, i.e. music designed for not going anywhere, y’dig?

The next track “Fortune” does carry the VU influence to the table, but does so in a rather sly way. Drummer Gary Ainge seems to be playing with his hands and he doesn’t hit a cymbal throughout the tune (or the whole record, for that matter), which definitely brings a certain Moe to mind. But Lawrence’s vocals seal the deal; he’s halfway between a breathier Reed and a more anemic Tom Verlaine.

And this points to a big difference between Lawrence and Morrissey. If the later possesses a voice well-suited for his role as offbeat pop icon, then the former’s vocal style openly embraces the template of the limited but captivating and erudite singer; along with Reed and Verlaine add Dylan and Cohen to the tradition from which Lawrence stems.

“Birdmen” extends upon “Fortune”’s atmosphere, though it unwinds as a darker six and a half minutes. And side two’s “Cathedral” continues in the same manner (and to good effect), but “I Worship the Sun” ups the tempo significantly and helps to broaden the sonic palate. From there “Templeroy” might initially lead the listener to expect a bookending instrumental, but the song’s second half finds Lawrence asserting himself at the mike and this time there’s some multi-tracking going on. It closes out a record that if not a masterpiece, then vividly depicts a band that would go on to great things.

Finding an inexpensive copy of Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty at this late date won’t be easy. And if on a budget or disinclined to shell out large amounts for OOP vinyl, the music can be heard in other ways. But if you have the cash to burn and can’t get enough of the crossroads where reserved, bookish British lads huff the exhaust fumes from the eternally purring engine of New York’s Ur-art-band, then hunting down a copy of this rec could be a very productive undertaking.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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