Sunday, 4 December 2011

Lawrence of Belgravia - A Star Is Born

There's a scene in Paul Kelly's new documentary film, Lawrence of
Belgravia, in which his subject is seen riding the London Underground.
Although the viewer never sees this mysterious character in plain
sight, we're given tantalising glimpses of him in odd-angled profiles,
mirror-shaded and baseball-capped, like some off-the-leash stall-holder
from Camden Market. Or a rock star.

While this is being played out, a Birmingham-accented voice-over
earnestly relates how desperate he is to be famous, and about how, once
he’s living the dream, he'd never use the Underground again, but would
be prefer to be driven around in a limousine.

Visually, the scene is a tease, vaguely reminiscent of some celebrity
game-show in which a panel are asked to identify one of their peers
before they burst through a sliding door to rapturous canned applause.
The voice-over, on the other hand, sounds more like the cravings of
some Big Brother wannabe milking their fifteen minutes of prime- time
for all they're worth.

As it is, both the face and voice belong to Lawrence, a man as singular
as his name, who, for the last thirty years as the driving force behind
Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart, has created some of the greatest pop
music you've never heard.

This weekend's screening of Lawrence of Belgravia as part of Stephen
and Katrina Pastel's Monorail Film Club will feature a Q and A with
Kelly and Lawrence led by Belle and Sebastian singer Stuart Murdoch. As
a long-time fan of Felt, Murdoch was referencing Lawrence's work as far
back as 1996 on I Don't Love Anyone, which appeared on Belle & Sebastian's debut album, Tigermilk. As Murdoch rages politely at the world, he meets a man who tells him that 'the world is as soft as lace', providing Murdoch with salvation and a sunnier disposition on the song's final verse. The World Is As Soft As Lace, of course, was the title of Felt's 1984 single. And the man? Well, only Murdoch knows.

More recently, Lawrence's influence has trickled down even further. If
you listen really closely to Girls Aloud's exquisitely hook-heavy 2005
pop smash, Biology, for instance, the essence of Felt, at least, is there in a
song that actually sounds like the entire history of pop compressed
into three minutes. Just check out the breathy ‘It’s The Way That We
Walk/It’s The Way That We Talk’ refrain, purred in teasing last-gasp
counterpoint to the more stridently insistent chorus by the best
manufactured girl or boy band since The Sex Pistols.

Not that Biology, co-constructed by Xenomania's Brian Higgins, who
co-produced and co-wrote Saint Etienne's Finisterre album, arguably the
starting point for Lawrence of Belgravia, appeared as one of Lawrence's
favourites when he co-anchored a recent edition of Jarvis Cocker's BBC
6Music show, The Sunday Service. But no matter. With an instrumental
tribute by hot American band Girls just released on uber-limited
heart-shaped vinyl and simply called Lawrence, the man christened
Lawrence Hayward might just have found his time, anyway.

“It's amazing,” says Lawrence, who's just arrived back at his
cooker-free, kettle-free, internet-free twelfth-floor flat – “in the
borough of Islington” - with a cup of kiosk-bought tea and a panoramic
view of St Paul’s and the Post Office Tower outside his window. “Even
though I thought people would be naming their bands after me years ago,
after the first record. But I'm a very patient person, and now it's
happened it feels wonderful. I'm not being blasé, because to have
people be inspired by you, just as I was inspired by Lou Reed and Tom
Verlaine, it means a lot, but I expected all this to happen in 1985.”

Lawrence announced Felt to the world in 1979 with Index, a no-fi
minimalist dirge which, despite, and possibly because of its wilful
opacity, was made single of the week in music paper, Sounds. While
then, Index, performed by Lawrence as a one-man band on his own
Shanghai label, sounded startlingly unprecedented, today it’s easy to
file such a precocious and uncompromising debut alongside the early
work of New York No-Wavers Glenn Branca or Rhys Chatham.

By the time debut mini-album, Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty, was
released a year later, Felt had become a proper band that combined
intricate guitar patterns and primal drums with Lawrence's whispered
drawls and ornate, other-worldly poetry. The combined result sounded
like a suburban English Velvet Underground channelling Ennio
Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks and fronted by a man courting
his own mystique long before Morrissey or Madonna reduced their names
to legendary stand-alone status.

While the likes of Lloyd Cole watered down Lawrence’s template for a
healthy chart career, Felt spent the next decade in the shadows, which
not even a spell on Alan McGee's pre Brit-pop Creation Records could
change. With peers such as The Jesus and Mary Chain and Primal Scream
now bona-fide pop stars, and with Bobby Gillespie's troupe of alt.rock
magpies even being joined by Felt keyboardist Martin Duffy, Lawrence
switched tack, forming Denim as a meaty, beaty, big and bouncy
glam-rock bubblegum critique of the new rock orthodoxy.

With two former members of The Glitter Band and a ton of 1970s pop
cultural references from The Osmonds to the IRA’s 1974 Birmingham pub
bombings in tow, Lawrence ploughed a similar lyrical furrow to Jarvis
Cocker and Luke Haines, all inner-city sarcasm and Spangle-flavoured
kisses that pre-dated Jonathan Coe’s similarly-set novel, The Rotter’s
Club, by a decade. Denim played with Pulp and Saint Etienne,
pop-literate fellow travellers in a post-modern parallel universe.

But not everyone got Denim. As the trad- lad-rock of Oasis took indie
and Creation into the triumphalist Blairite mainstream, Denim reached a
dead-end when a scheduled single, the innocuously zippy sounding Summer
Smash, was withdrawn. A piece of package-tour fantasy wish fulfilment
clearly drawn from Wombles composer Mike Batt’s theme to Saturday night
TV variety show Summertime City, Summer Smash could have been the
people’s pop crossover Denim were looking for. The untimely death of
Princess Diana, alas, deemed such a title as bad taste, and that was
that.

Lawrence's follow-up, Go-Kart Mozart, took Denim's novelty rock
aesthetic even further, and, on the band's two albums in 1999 and 2005,
sounded somewhere between the Sex Pistols and Black Lace.

It was around this time that Kelly approached Lawrence, who he'd known
via the 1990s Creation/Heavenly Records scene when he'd played guitar
in a band called East Village. Kelly later played in Saint Etienne's
live band, and made Finisterre, an impressionistic filmic tour through
London to accompany the band's 2002 album of the same name. The film
featured voice-overs by some of the city's residents, including Vashti
Bunyan, Vic Godard and Lawrence.

By the time Kelly started shooting Lawrence of Belgravia eight years
ago, his subject was about to be made homeless. The drug problems that
ensued as Lawrence embarked on recording the third Go-Kart Mozart album
(as with the film, it's just finished) would have made for a pretty
colourful warts n’ all portrait. But that wasn't the film Kelly wanted
to make.

“I wanted to celebrate Lawrence and everything he's about,” he says.
“So I just followed him around while he was trying to make the album,
and sometimes he'd disappear for six months and the whole process would
become quite fractured as he drifted around. At the start of the film
he's quite low, but I wanted the film to be seen through his eyes.

“If you make a film like this, you want to make something real. It's a
document. The life Lawrence leads now, other than making records, it
wouldn't exist. So what the film is doing is saying that this actually
happened. But I didn't want to make a film that looks back. I wanted to
make one that looks forward, because Lawrence only looks backwards so
he can look forward.”

Such life-through-a-lens attention has been something of a life-saver
for Lawrence.

”It actually made my life feel legitimate,” he says. “Sometimes films
about musicians can be really boring. They do gigs, then nothing
happens after that that matters very much. But what this captured was a
big part of my life, and that helped. When you're a kid at school and
you save a goal or something, or you're interviewing yourself in the
bath imagining you're on Top Of The Pops and are really famous, you
think, god, this could be a film, and now, all these childhood dreams
are actually happening.”

Stuart Murdoch first encountered Felt after hitch-hiking to London to
see Creation Records Doing It For The Kids festival in 1988.

“At that time Primal Scream were coming through, and there was this
strange feeling that Felt were a bit of an also-ran,” Murdoch
remembers. “It wasn't until they broke up that I became obsessed by
Felt and became totally immersed in them. I listened to them every day
for a couple of hours. Felt were my solace.

“Lawrence had such an interesting way with words, and the two main
instrumentalists, Maurice Deebank on guitar in the first period, and
Martin Duffy on keyboards in the second, produced such intricate
melodies. Each of these could stand alone, but together they sounded
greater than the sum of their parts. Part of that maybe had something
to do with Lawrence's idiosyncrasies.”

Murdoch met Lawrence when Belle and Sebastian played their first ever
London gig supporting Tindersticks. Murdoch marched over to where
Lawrence was standing in the audience with Jarvis Cocker.

“Jarvis was a big pop star, and I could see his face as I got closer,
panicking slightly, but it was Lawrence I wanted to talk to.”

The pair corresponded for a while, “back when people still wrote
letters,” and Go-Kart Mozart supported Belle and Sebastian.

Murdoch's instinctive bee-line for Lawrence over Cocker tells a story
in itself that perhaps vindicates Lawrence's self-belief, however
bruised it may be. As Paul Kelly observes, “It wasn't as if Felt were a
secret band. In my world they were a huge group. But I suppose when
people like Bobby Gillespie became real pop stars, Lawrence kind of got
left behind.”

Given Creation's decade of high-profile silliness and celebrity during
the Brit-Pop years when Oasis became pop aristocracy, being left behind
may have been something of a blessing. Yet even after his recent
hardships Lawrence retains a determinedly unabashed air of ambition
integrity and optimism.

“If you do a job, you want to do it to the best of your ability,” he
says, “and in the pop world you gauge things by how popular you are.
The whole thing with me was to take the underground overground, and
that's what Creation was all about as well, which was why Felt went
with them. But not everyone's like that. For instance, Felt's first
ever gig was with The Fall, and on the night I went up to Mark E Smith
and asked if there was anyone famous in the audience. He just laughed
at me, because he was never like that.”

But where did the stars in Lawrence's eyes first fall from?

“The first thing I fell in love with was T-Rex, and they were massive.
It's easy to make a record and sell a few thousand copies, but I don't
see the point. You have to aim for the top. I want to be the toppermost
of the poppermost.”

Despite such chirpy, irony-free assertions, it's clear that Lawrence
possesses an obsessively-acquired working knowledge of pop machinery as
well as its accompanying mythology. This can be heard most explicitly
on songs such as Denim's I Hate The Eighties and Go-Kart Mozart's
Listening To Marmalade.

Yet Lawrence has too what Kelly suggests might be “a built-in
self-destructive streak. The thing about Lawrence is, he genuinely
wants to be in the charts, but he doesn't compromise, so while he's his
own worst enemy, it's also something he should be applauded for.”

Even before Summer Smash, two other examples of Lawrence’s accidental
courting of disaster stand out. The first came with the release of
Felt's 1985 Ignite The Seven Cannons album. With producer Robin Guthrie
of the Cocteau Twins fleshing out the Felt sound into something more
epic, the addition of Cocteaus vocalist Liz Fraser on the hauntingly
commercial Primitive Painters single should have seen Felt cross over
into the mainstream. As it was, the band moved to Creation Records and
released Let The Snakes Crinkle Their Heads To Death, a twenty-eight
minute album of short instrumentals.

“When Primitive Painters came out, we were on a label [Cherry Red] that
wouldn't promote it,” defends Lawrence. “We gave them a hit single
which was number one in the indie charts, and which we'd have done
anything to promote, but we were given nothing. We'd have done
everything a pop band could. Before Primitive Painters came out, we
tried to move to [major label ‘indie’ offshoot] Blanco Y Negro, but the
major label didn't want us, so we were stuck in an indie ghetto. Then
Alan McGee did something similar with his Elevation label, which was
set up for Felt, Primal Scream and The Weather Prophets, but the same
guy who signed up Blanco Y Negro was in charge, and he said he didn't
want Felt. I went to New York and watched the whole scene I left behind
explode.”

Denim's 1991 slot on Jools Holland's Later programme should have
similarly had Lawrence ‘tearing up the album charts’ as he would have
it on Go-Kart Mozart’s second album. Given the nature of Holland's
catch-all cultural relativist take on rock's rich tapestry, however,
having a mirror-shaded Lawrence mouthing off in a song called Middle of
the Road about how he hated funk, soul, early Dylan and Aretha Franklin
among others probably wasn't going to do him any favours. Even if the
music did sound like a Stars on 45-style take on The Velvet
Underground's Sister Ray by way of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.

“You finally get the chance to do TV, and you do it so wrong,” Lawrence
mourns today. “We had to audition for all these shows, and we really
wanted to be on The Word, 'cos that was the coolest programme on at the
time, but they didn't want us, and Later did. We had a lot of ideas
that were a protest at that whole idea, and when everyone waves during
the opening credits, we wanted to be miserable, but they wouldn't let
us, so we didn't know what to do.”

Twenty years later, and especially given the context, the deadpan
result remains as subversively out of whack as it did then, and remains
part of Lawrence's conscious attempt to create a back-story beyond the
music. Felt's apparent plan of releasing an album a year for a decade
was announced only after they split up. Rumours of Lawrence's
reclusiveness and obsessive cleanliness to the extent of him not
allowing visitors to use his toilet abound. All this pales, however,
compared to the real life tragedies glimpsed in Lawrence of Belgravia.

“The pop world is one of illusion and artifice,” Lawrence observes,
part pop theoretician, part star-struck circus side-show, part would-be
Svengali. “But it's no good just being Gary Kemp. You've got to say
something interesting as well. That's not to say what's in the film is
fake, because all of it's true, but you have to manage that back-story
as well.”

Given how much his cult status cache looks set to rise on the back of
the film, if he really wants to be famous, couldn't Lawrence follow in
the shoes of peers such as My Bloody Valentine or Primal Scream's
re-enactment of their defining Screamadelica album? If he reformed
Felt, after all, he might be able to afford a cooker, or a kettle at
the very least.

“I really hate it,” Lawrence says of the craze for reformations. “It's
really regressive. I want to look forward, not back. Fans don't know
what they want, but they'll want what I give them. That should work,
but it doesn't, and all these groups reforming, it attracts a negative
kind of attention. Just because the fans want to hear old songs doesn't
mean they're going to buy the new record. But if you're not producing
new stuff, that represents a sickness in the music industry, and that
just shows how I'm not interested in all that. I wouldn't be able to
walk onstage and sing Primitive Painters. I want to sing something new.

“An artist's duty is to keep producing new stuff. A painter doesn't go
back to his first painting and repeats it. It's only the pop world that
regurgitates itself. It's run out of ideas, and didn't have any in the
first place.

“It's like with Lou Reed. When Berlin came out, people hated it, but
now he's taken it round the world. It's taken twenty-five years for
people to understand it. I probably wouldn't like the record he's just
done with Metallica, but I applaud him for doing it. The cover's shit
for a start, but I applaud him for doing it, because he's trying to do
something new.”

Even with Go-Kart Mozart's forthcoming On The Hot Dog Streets album and
the accompanying Mozart Mini-Mart EP at long last due to be released in
early 2012, Lawrence too is conscious that a change might be coming.

“It's been quite hard doing Go-Kart Mozart, because people want Felt,
but if it doesn't take off then I'll put it on ice, and do a new album
of singer/songwriter material. They're beautiful songs, really dark.
There's a book of poems I want to put out as well. I wrote them when I
had to sell my guitar when I was homeless, but I kept on writing. It'll
take about ten years for people to like Go-Kart Mozart. Maybe longer.
It takes a lot longer for people to understand things these days.”

As Murdoch points out, “I think quality will out in the long run. I'm
glad Lawrence hasn't done a Van Gogh, and that he's survived to tell
the tale, and I really hope it cheers him up.”

The Monorail Film Club screens Lawrence of Belgravia at Glasgow Film
Theatre, Sunday December 4th, 6.30pm, followed by a Q and A with
Lawrence and Paul Kelly and hosted by Stuart Murdoch.

A shorter version of this appeared in The Herald, November 28th 2011

ends

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