In November 1986, a writer for NME visited the flat of indie-pop enigma Lawrence. The mononymous musician lived in a quiet suburb outside of Birmingham, England, alone except for a collection of records, a set of first edition Kerouac paperbacks, and enough cleaning products to stock a small hospital ward. “A platoon of Airwick Solids stoically occupy strategic vantage points; the toilet bowl harbors not the usual one, but a breeding pair of those Cartland-pink santisers; a wicker basket provides a mass grave for spent aerosol air fresheners.” Since he rarely left the antiseptic apartment, Lawrence explained that his days were typically spent wasting time with mundane activities, like assiduously washing his floppy brown hair.
By that point, the legend of Lawrence the recluse, Lawrence the perfectionist was as central to the narrative surrounding his band, Felt, as the music itself. But he was long used to being the odd one out. Too bookish and restrained for mainstream pop, too neurotic for punk, and too bright and structured for post-punk, Felt never quite fit in with the world around them, which is one reason they are still so beloved.
Not being trendy was fine because Felt wanted to be timeless. Inspired by New York City romantics like Lou Reed, Tom Verlaine, and Patti Smith, Lawrence wrote vivid songs with verbose, sensual titles like “The World Is as Soft as Lace” and “Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow.” His characters, desperate loners and anxious misanthropes, searched for some semblance of hope in this cruel world. Yet even their sadness could be sublime. “And all my great plans get blurred/By the softest touch, the gentlest word,” he sang once.
Lawrence’s love of beauty was always at odds with his other obsession: success. From their earliest days, Felt was driven by Lawrence’s desire to be somebody. In 1979, Lawrence self-released the first Felt single, a mumbled noise track called “Index” that he recorded on a cheap cassette player in his bedroom. He wanted the song to be a “statement,” he told the Quietus, something that would get him noticed “immediately.” After it was named single of the week in Sounds! magazine, Lawrence decided he needed to look beyond the independent world. “I want to be in the charts,” he realized. “I’ve got to form a band: a proper band, along the lines of Television, with solos everywhere.” He recruited schoolmate Nick Gilbert first, then Maurice Deebank, a classically trained guitarist who once impressed him with a cover of “Mr. Tambourine Man.” According to Deebank, Lawrence himself had basically “no musical skills.” But he had a vision.
Lawrence’s plan was to release exactly 10 albums and exist for exactly 10 years, at which point thousands of hypothetical Felt fans would be devastated by their breakup. He was preoccupied with posterity and figured that Felt would be properly evaluated after their demise. “Sure I want to be legendary,” he once remarked. “Is it wrong to think like that?” On the occasion of their first record, 1982’s Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, Lawrence was determined to release “the best English debut album ever.” Despite the unapologetically lofty goal, Lawrence was grounded by artistic integrity. He wanted to come by fame honestly, to be known as a generation-defining songwriter who challenged his fans like his underground art rock heroes. He named the band after a line from the Television song “Venus” off Marquee Moon; he was moved by the way Verlaine stressed “felt” and how the word itself—the past tense of emotion—conjured images of nostalgia. “Lawrence wanted Felt to be high art and low art at the same time,” Creation Records’ Alan McGee once said. “He wanted Felt to be in the singles charts and screamed at like a boy band.”
Pulling from his rigorous studies of British music magazines, Lawrence closely directed Felt’s presentation, from their haircuts to their photo shoots. His fascination with professionalism carried over to the music itself. He loved the DIY spirit of punk bands but despised music that sounded imperfect. “Being happy with music that sounded like a demo?” he once said. “That was the opposite of what I wanted.” As a result, Felt’s earliest records are pristine and dreamlike, their atmospherics subtle and otherworldly. Carried by the spindly fingerwork of Deebank, Lawrence’s wistful lyrics are exalting.
By the time of the NME profile that made Lawrence look like the indie Howard Hughes, Felt had largely moved away from artsy minimalism and towards pure pop. They were the closest to mainstream success they would ever be. A tour with the Cocteau Twins led to Robin Guthrie producing their fourth record, 1985’s reverb-saturated Ignite the Seven Cannons, which spawned the biggest single of Felt’s career, “Primitive Painters.” With thick jangly melodies and the euphoric backing vocals of Elizabeth Fraser, “Primitive Painters” amplified Lawrence’s private sorrows into broad swashes of bliss. In a perfect world, this would have been the transformative moment where Lawrence’s ultimate vision came into view, when Felt would take their place next to their idols.
Their first release on Creation, 1986’s Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death (aka The Seventeenth Century), withdrew from the blissful opulence of “Primitive Painters.” It was a curious display of Lawrence’s desire to experiment with the melodic limits of pop, composed entirely of minimalist and imaginative instrumental sketches. It was also largely ignored. “We spent all Creation’s money on that record and it was a complete disaster,” Lawrence later said. Perhaps he was unconsciously purging wordless compositions from his system, because Felt’s next record in 1986 was full of fleshed-out compositions with timeless lyrics. It would be the best album of their career.
On Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, Felt sound reborn. It’s the most cohesive presentation of Lawrence’s vision, eight songs that tie together pop perfection and misanthropy to glorious ends. Part of this was technical. “I changed the songwriting style a bit,” Lawrence explained. “I wanted to write more concise songs with normal structures, as opposed to the first two LPs which contain long, semi-instrumental, six-minute pieces.” Another cause of this growth was bureaucratic. After many periodic departures and years of personal and creative conflicts with Lawrence, Deebank had finally quit the band after Ignite the Seven Cannons. His guitar’s presence in Felt was filled by the young keyboardist (and future Primal Scream member) Martin Duffy, who joined in 1985; that’s his soft, boyish face gazing out from the cover, as if affirming his integral role on the record. (That said, Lawrence’s creative influence remains undeniable; these are, as the record’s insert cutely phrases it, “Lawrence’s songs coloured in by the band.”)
The cheery Hammond that kicks off opener “Rain of Crystal Spires” immediately draws a line between old and new Felt. With Duffy’s organ now serving as the lead sound, Felt’s uptempo melodies provide a foil for Lawrence’s brooding anxieties. In their early days, Lawrence was aggrieved by the constant Velvet Underground comparisons Felt received. (“We were much more mature,” he would protest.) Here, they leaned into the cozy influence of the ’60s on the delightful organ bounce of “Grey Streets” and the lush backup harmonies of “September Lady.” A note on the record’s packaging winks at the throwback: “Any similarity to songs already written is purely coincidental.”
With no instrumentals taking up space, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word showcases Lawrence’s best lyricism. He spins tales of weary hearts and wistful longing, of a world that offers little hope, and expresses doubt in religion, celebrity, and faith of all sorts. He imbues these narratives with a familiar intimacy; “I like lost people, because I suppose I’m one,” he once remarked.
From the confines of that sterile apartment, Lawrence imagined worlds for his discontent far more magnificent and vivid than his own. The melancholy of “Rain of Crystal Spires” is illuminated by visions of the legendary Arthurian island of Avalon as “Homer’s Iliad lay burning in the fire.” “Grey Streets” evokes images of “Closing eyelids [that] stutter and tumble and turn away/Makeshift memories they collide for another stay.” Later he envisions hallways choking on smoke, dead, uprooted trees, and “a man who’s got three square eyes and a boy with the snakeskin head.” Lest his listeners hear these poetic references and think of him as a “university type,” Lawrence clarified that he just had the ear of an aesthete. “I swear I’ve never read a poem in my life… It’s difficult to explain, but I just love beautiful things, beautiful words,” he objected. “We all know what classic pop music sounds like but there’s never been any classic pop lyrics—not for me anyway. Sure, I can take all the throwaway stuff but I prefer something more magical.”
By 1986, Lawrence had become a master at subtle shade in his lyrics, slipping in a snub and changing subjects before there’s time to process it, usually with a flair of the mystical. “I’m not your Jesus so will you get off my cross,” he requests during “A Wave Crashed on Rocks.” “You travelled back four centuries in search of a silver sword/Your self-induced hallucinations they just make me bored,” he taunts on “Gather Up Your Wings and Fly.” “Grey Streets” is especially vitriolic, an account of the power dynamic between a fan idealizing an artist. “And you were attracted to me because my face smiled down from a wall and you said I looked kind,” he tells the fan with a sad smirk. He lays into the fan’s coolness, saying, “You’re so semi-precious about life and you won’t let your feelings show.” (The words “semi-precious” are given a particularly spiteful emphasis.) For all the ennui in his voice, Lawrence was never apathetic. The depths of his despair didn’t need to be vulgarly overstated, they could just breathe.
“Grey Streets” gives way to the record’s centerpiece, “All the People I Like Are Those That Are Dead,” the closest thing to a Felt anthem. “Maybe I should entertain/The very fact that I’m insane,” Lawrence begins with characteristic self-deprecation. As guitar melodies twist around Duffy’s organ, Lawrence leans into his despair: “Maybe I should take a gun/And put it to the head of everyone,” he breathily wonders, seeing that as a mercy killing. A little over midway through, the instruments recede and Lawrence murmurs the title serenely to himself in near silence. The five-minute song epitomizes everything revered about Lawrence as a songwriter and Felt as a whole. Even when truly wallowing, denouncing God and all the sorrow he has caused, he never submits to melodrama. He knows he’s not alone in his misery. He just wants to show how much it can hurt when you feel so much.
Forever Breathes the Lonely Word was Felt’s crowning achievement and so naturally it was received rather passively by the UK press. Sure, it was beautiful, they seemed to agree, but it was too insular to place on a pedestal. “Felt haven’t reinvented anything, won’t change anything. Only ninnies would turn Lawrence into anything except an armchair camp hero,” wrote NME’s Mark Sinker. “But,” he conceded, “this is a great record.” The record didn’t chart, and it failed to appear on either NME or Melody Maker’s best of 1986 lists. There could only be one surly dweeb romanticizing violence in 1986, and Morrissey won the popular vote with The Queen Is Dead.
There’s not one specific reason why Felt never found commercial success. “It was too understated to be commercial, too art to go pop, too pop to go art,” Creation’s Alan McGee once said. Melody Maker put it more bluntly in 1986: “Felt make brilliant records that nobody buys.” Maybe it was the lack of support from BBC host and tastemaker John Peel, who was admittedly not a fan and never championed them on his show. Or it was the time that, shortly after the release of Forever Breathes, Lawrence attempted to mellow his nerves with some acid before a concert. Unfortunately, he got so freaked out that he refused to play until the audience—full of A&R scouts—left. And yet, Lawrence completed his 10-year plan and in 1989, after four more Felt records, the project ended. In the early ’90s, he formed Denim, a snarky ’70s revivalist act who met an untimely end when a song called “Summer Smash” was set to debut right after Princess Diana died in a car accident. Effectively abandoned by EMI, Lawrence went on to perform under the na