Yes: Relayer (1974)

 One prog-rock album to rule them all…
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When I was growing up, prog-rock was seen as a bit of an embarrassment. You know what I’m talking about, all those mammoth bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Genesis, and so on – a lot of overblown, noodly, high-concept, fanciful nonsense that started off with good intentions but soon got way, way out of hand and there was all those blokes playing organ solos in capes and wasn’t one of them performed on ice and wasn’t it great when punk destroyed it and all that?Prog-rock did commit more than a few sins – it’s not sexy, for one thing. Just you try fucking to ‘Wot Gorilla?’. Impossible. You can’t dance to prog either. It’s rarely intentionally funny. It didn’t inspire many decent fashion movements. True, at its best it took the limits of the rock song to its logical limit, encompassing a huge scale of ambition, imagination and spectacle. Yet at its worst it was a whirlpool of interminable solos, pomposity and embarrassing lack of self-awareness. To give yourself over to prog is risk ridicule.

The thing is, who gives a shit about what other people think of your musical tastes? I first heard Yes in my twenties, when my uncle played me side one of The Yes Album (that was a very smart move on his part, for that LP is about an effective an introduction to the band as possible) and the sheer scale, giddy enthusiasm and restless changing of musical scenery caught my attention immensely. From then on, I explored Yes’ other works, fully aware of their ‘uncool’ status, fully aware that this was music of a certain time, and also fully willing to dive in head first.

Yes, for me, are the all-round best of the prog-rockers. Their sound, like many of the genre, became anathema to many after their early to mid-seventies peak in popularity – a common but amusing rejoinder to any positive talk about Yes is a succinct ‘NO’ –  but they were indeed massive back in the seventies. Their albums sold, and for a long time they were critically beloved too: they even managed to wring out some charting singles out of those monster compositions of theirs. Their most beloved songs are rich, complex (but rarely muso) and epic creations that made other genres seem so hopelessly small and closed-in. Songs like ‘Close to the Edge’, ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ and ‘The Revealing Science of God’ can be awe-inspiringly cinematic, truly enormous, adrenaline-surging and spectacular. In particular, ‘The Gates of Delirium’, which I will be raving on about in this piece, is a song that, unlike some songs that you feel would work perfectly in a film, essentially IS a film in music-form. Adding visuals would be unnecessary. I’m not blind to Yes’ faults – they were often over-the-top, sometimes indulgent and pretentious, but that’s sometimes what happens when you dare to go so close to the edge.

They started off with a couple of impressive, if relatively modest albums that had more than their fair share of spectacular moments, but for many, their imperial phase is usually regarded as when classical guitar virtuoso Steve Howe joined the band for The Yes Album. This is also when they started stretching out their songs to epic length, delivering dazzlingly melodic, rhythmic and yet very accessible rock songs like ‘Yours is No Disgrace’ and ‘Starship Trooper’. Each member of the band was a major talent – alongside Howe’s remarkable dexterity and tuneful ear, we had the chunky, addictive bass of Chris Squire, the kinetic and thrilling drums of Bill Bruford and the panoramic keyboards of Tony Kaye, not to mention the inimitable, ethereal vocals of Jon Anderson…

God, I sound like Homer Simpson rattling off the respective virtues of Grand Funk Railroad.

Seriously though, Yes were a band of superb individual parts that, when put together, created magic. Kaye was out the door by the time of follow-up album Fragile, which heralded the introduction of Rick Wakeman on the keys, whose baroque, classically influenced approach was, for many fans, the final piece of Classic Yes. Fragile took the epic achievements of the previous album and ran with them. Songs like ‘Roundabout’ and ‘Heart of the Sunrise’ were mammoth works, nicely balanced by the neat inclusion of little solo pieces by each member of the band. Don’t worry, the drummer’s contribution only lasted thirty seconds, and yet even that was great! Such little touches were gone however by the time of Close to the Edge, which for many remains THE prog-rock album. For the first time, Yes delivered a side-long opus – the eighteen minute long title track – and they’d achieved the impossible and managed to create even bigger, more sumptuous soundscapes than ever before to get lost in and be blown away by. Other songs like the awesome (and I mean that literally) ‘And You and I’ and the super-charged rock-funk of ‘Siberian Khatru’ tapped in to a world of astonishing musical possibilities. Close to the Edge isn’t my favourite Yes album, but it is the one that sees them teetering on that musical precipice, where the band pushed themselves to the limits of their own exploratory voyage without going overboard. Critics loved it, it sold a load and everything was Good. Okay, the album was apparently a nightmare to make (Bruford would quit, to be replaced by Yes mainstay Alan White), but everything seemed to point to further greatness.

Of course, blow a balloon up too much and it’ll burst, and Tales from Topographic Oceans represent the POP! Only four songs, you might note, but each one took up a whole side of vinyl: add that to Jon Anderson pushing Yes-naysayers’ already shaky tolerance of his lyrical flights of fancy past the point of no return, not to mention that yes, it was too big, too much and too bloody long, and Yes had finally lost their footing. It’s still a bloody spectacular album though: ‘The Revealing Science of God’ is a classic opus that goes for the (big) one and succeeds, and ‘The Remembering’, while clearly guilty of padding, is still lovely and pastoral. Even the third and fourth sides, whilst guilty of losing focus, had loads of wonderful stretches. True, it was overblown, but I’d rather go for an album that aims high and occasionally gets lost along the way than anything more modest and workaday. Saying that, prog-rock isn’t recommended listening any time or all the time – sometimes I want something else, but something else isn’t what we’re talking about.

Relayer, the album that followed Tales, is the apotheosis of progressive rock – it learns from the excesses of its predecessor and yet still manages to take the genre as far as it can, albeit in a different, more focused direction. It’s half as long as Tales yet achieves twice as much. After this, even Yes had nowhere else to go back down to Earth, and only after a three year break too. Prog-rock gets bashed for its pomp, but the best of it represents a truly exploratory, exciting idea of just how vast and spectacular pop/rock music could go. Much of my love for Relayer stems from the extraordinary achievement of its first side. To be honest, anything else that followed a first side that amazing could be dismissed as mere bonus material, so it’s wonderful that the second side is actually a superb thing in itself.  It was the last of Yes’ truly fearless prog-rock albums, the last one where they lived entirely in their own universe, a world where musical possibilities seemed infinite, ambition was colossal and musical chemistry was near-supernatural in its skilfulness and magic. After this, there was the break (solo careers, etc), punk came along and there was more a sense of the band second-guessing themselves, of trying to change with the times.

If you consider Tales the all-encompassing (for better or worse) centre, then Close to the Edge and Relayer are satellites on either side – the former, when Yes were only getting bigger and better and, even five albums into their career, still full of possibilities, promise, beauty, splendour and colour, and the latter, created after the band delivered their first (in the eyes of critics and some fans) their first blunder, an album that ranks as their darkest, greyest (that’s a very apt Roger Dean-designed cover they decided to go with) and most violent.

At first, the album may sounds like too much – unstructured, cluttered, incoherent. Of its three songs, only the closer, the resigned and beautiful ‘To be Over’, sounds anything like a normal song, albeit one that’s nearly ten minutes long. The first song  in particular is so overwhelmingly massive that one listen won’t be enough to take it all in. The second is an immense racket that doesn’t seem to follow any rhyme or reason. Relayer has been often noted as the Yes album with the most obvious influence of jazz or jazz-fusion. I’m not a fan of jazz, and don’t have the patience for it (to the point where I don’t even think there would be something worth hearing after repeated listens – sue me), but I often notice how often I love songs or albums that betray a jazz influence. It’s like these bands are taking this form of musical expression that I don’t have the time for, twisting it to their own means and making it palatable for listeners like me. There are moments on Relayer‘s first two songs that are quite ‘jazzy’, but this isn’t a bad thing for me. In fact, I find something like ‘Sound Chaser’ one of the most exciting things ever recorded by anyone, ever. I didn’t think that at first, mind. Anyway, back to the first song…

‘The Gates of Delirium’ may very well be the most accomplished achievement of Yes’ entire musical legacy. It was the last song of theirs to encompass an entire side of vinyl (although ‘Awaken’ on the next album is still epic at fifteen or so minutes), and unlike some of the band’s mammoth efforts, there are absolutely no spare minutes, nothing that can be taken away from it. Only ‘The Revealing Science of God’ from Tales does as much with so much time. Hey, what about ‘Close to the Edge’, I hear you ask? Well, it is a classic, but I feel it peaks at the ‘I Get Up, I Get Down’ section around two-thirds in and then ebbs away after that. ‘Delirium’ is a full-blown conceptual masterpiece, an attempt to encapsulate Tolstoy’s War and Peace in twenty-two minutes, beginning with preparation, heading into and then immersing itself in battle, followed by victory/defeat and then reflection. Personally, I think it is the high-water mark of progressive rock – a veritable Bayeux Tapestry set to music.

Praising such things as musicianship risks coming off as sounding drearily muso – technique is always something to be admired, but can it be loved? Yes were consummate players – each one a undeniable expert in their field. Steve Howe is an amazing guitarist. Chris Squire is an incredible bassist, and so on. We can all sit back, stroke our chins and pay head-nodding respect to these guys. They know their chops. And yet all of that would be mere academic achievement if it were not the fact that these guys played off each other amazingly well. At their best, the sound of Yes is the sound of absolute musical chemistry at its most astonishing. You can admire this music, but fuck that, you need to FEEL this music.

The opening section is an instrumental notable for the introduction to the group of Swiss keyboard dynamo Patrick Moraz, following the departure of Rick Wakeman. You see, Wakeman had had enough of Yes, was bored of the his bandmates’ indulgences, so much that he was likely to pass the time eating a curry on stage whilst Alan White delivered one of his drum solos. He’s been on record to say that he’s glad that he didn’t like Relayer when it came out, as it was too free-form for his tastes, therefore validating his earlier decision to leave the group. Then again, he did come back for the next record. Yes land is a mixed-up land. Moraz’s playing is less classically inclined than Wakeman, more complementary, though when he does get the chance to take centre stage, the results are pretty spectacular and totally his own. This makes Relayer a sometimes unique entry in the Yes catalogue, though to be honest, this is a band that has thrived on change, especially on the personnel front. Let me put this way – Wakeman is not missed, bless him.

The first eight or so minutes is magnificently exciting and foreboding – you really get the sense of warriors preparing to battle. Scared souls, brave souls, full of bloodthirsty determination and/or terrifying self-belief. It is indeed a war song, but through the lens of Yes it becomes something like a futuristic fantasy that non prog-rock fans might dismiss as Dungeons and Dragons-style make-believe, but if you’re willing to surrender to its cinematic scope, becomes intensely powerful. It all begins with an extended instrumental opening as Moraz sprinkles keyboard dust over Howe’s metallic, bone-scraping guitar – the latter’s playing had rarely been this harsh. There’s no prettiness here. When Anderson arrives a few minutes in, his lyrics turn out to be darker and meaner than they’ve ever been before, or ever would be. Talk of killing, warning that ‘peaceful lives will not deliver freedom’ and the memorable clincher, ‘slay them/burn their children’s laughter/on to Hell’. His voice, hitting a new kind of desperate harshness which is at times hysterical, is a far cry from the angelic tones of yore, though later on we’ll get that good old-fashioned choirboy vocal of his, albeit a far sadder version than what we’ve been used to. Alan White, who had only just joined the band an LP earlier, feels truly integrated into the band. His playing on Relayer is tremendous, full of oomph, variety and power.Squire’s trademark full-fat bass provides a constant ominous hum during this opening act and melodic counterpoint to Howe’s guitar- they’re such a vital, inimitable double-act and an essential element of Yes that one without the other just ain’t Yes. Even when Jon Anderson left the band, 1980’s Drama still felt quintessentially Yes because Howe and Squire were still there delivering the goods. Honestly, Drama is one of the very few albums where a lead singer has temporarily left the band and yet it still feels like a legitimate album, whereas the massive but Howe-less follow-up 90125 (the one with ‘Owner of a Lonely Heart’ on it) felt less like a Yes album even though Jon was back behind the mic!

Back to Howe though, and there’s little of the fleet-of-foot, rural loveliness or even electric heroism that was a key element of his work to date. Taking the spikier sound of his work on Tales‘ ‘The Ancient’ to the next level, Howe is reborn here as a much more intense six-string proposition. Of course, we’re still talking Yes here – this ain’t punk music, but ‘Delirium’ definitely sees him and the rest of the band freak out, thrash out and let loose in a way that’s quite thrilling. You could almost call it careless abandon (especially during the battle section), but I get the sense Yes knew what they were doing from start to finish. This ain’t an aimless jamming session. It might take a while to successfully put all of these pieces together, but once you have, you might question why anyone would call this music ‘incoherent’ or ‘lacking in structure’, as some reviews did at the time and still do now. There are many spectacular hooks, refrains and melodies in this first act of ‘Delirium’, admittedly nothing long enough for Yes to pull off one of their unlikely single edits (more on that sort of thing later) but the progression, escalation and sense of trepidation is hypnotic. Of course, it all leads to….

…the battle sequence, which lasts for around six minutes and will very likely at first sound like an unholy, godawful mess. It sounds utterly mad. When I first heard it, I was like ‘aww shit, and it was all going so well!’ and I was relieved when something approaching a hook re-appeared later on. The thing is, the more you listen to the whole song, the more this bit becomes focused, makes sense and turns out not to be a load of random jamming, crashing and explosions, but something closer to a truly spectacular, thrilling depiction of battle that remains unparalleled in rock music. It’s scary, confusing, strangely exciting and totally immersive. It resembles jazz in that each player gets their own chance to shine – there’s a super clunky-funky bass riff here, a shrill keyboard attack there, a vicious guitar onslaught there, and there’s also loads of sound effects, some of it literally crashing scenery, that just adds to the madness. It builds and builds to a psychotic crescendo, as keyboards and drums reach the peak…. and then…

…the sequence after all this chaos is one of the most breathtaking moments in all of music. I like to call this the victory section, as it does sound like the winning side is riding majestically over the battlefield, the vanquished fleeing in terror. Moraz kicks it off with a triumphant, yet almost foreboding keyboard melody that sounds truly monstrous. It stands tall, surveying the shattered wastelands. You think that might be valediction enough, but then Howe takes over the same melody with his guitar and lets rip with an absolutely enormous solo (air guitar on standby) that threatens to tear the skies in two,and fuck me if it doesn’t sound like the other side has been well and truly BATTERED. War is over. I must add that the rhythm section on this bit is stellar. Squire and White giving it everything. Then the sound dies down, the mist clears and what follows is a deeply eerie, quiet section of proto-ambient that Eno might have been going nuts over if he hadn’t already been praising the birth of ambient with Miles Davis’ ‘He Loved Him Madly’ from the same year. Both examples are ultimately ambient, although Davis went the whole hog and went on for thirty minutes, whereas this bit only lasts sixty or so seconds.

The ‘Soon’ section follows, as mournful, beautiful and elegiac as any piece of music found on an album. Interestingly, it was this section that was selected as a single for the album – indeed, it is the most straightforward part of the song, but blimey, despite its ultimate optimism and hope for a better future, it has to be one of the most mournful singles ever released. If guitars could gently weep, Howe’s playing would cry an ocean. Anderson’s voice has rarely been so lovely. The melody flows and falls, building to an astonishing finale that, while hopeful in terms of lyrics and vocals, musically loses itself in pure, heartbreaking sadness. Howe has never, ever been more powerful. Chord changes stab at the heart and there’s one lurching, staggering shift in key near the end that is almost too much to bear, and it’s here that you know the song’s finally going to end, and it does so with an utterly haunting, spectral and uncertain ebb and flow that sounds like it is literally dying before your very ears. Listen to it in the dark and it gets scary. Twenty-two minutes long, and every time I listen to it, I feel like I’ve just been through the wars. Hey, I love a three minute pop classic as much as anyone, but sometimes I want this. You got to play it loud, mind.

After this remarkable achievement, where the hell do Yes go from here? I mean, we’ve just been put through the wringer, came out the other side emotionally drained, and we could have been given more of the same, which frankly would have been too much. No, they do the only sensible thing and go NUTS. MAD. INSANE. ‘Sound Chaser’ is easily the most experimental, wild and exhilarating thing they’ve ever recorded. It’s absolutely fucking mental. Rick Wakeman didn’t like this album? His loss! This song is bound to make no sense at first. You feel like it would only makes sense to five people, and they’re all in the band Yes. At least ‘Delirium”s mad section was cushioned by relatively accessible material. This is just a ten-minute space trip. And yet like that ‘Delirium’s battle section, the more you listen to ‘Sound Chaser’, the clearer its vision becomes. Hey, I can understand if you don’t want to give it time. If I genuinely didn’t see anything worth investigating in these songs to begin with, I wouldn’t have bothered. But right from the start ‘Sound Chaser’ has lots of moments that make you go, ‘wow!’ – yes, they’re all disparate and all over the place, but it was enough to make me return to it, again and again. And now it makes perfect sense to me, and yet it’s still such an amorphous, seemingly undisciplined thing that I still encounter lots of little surprises me every time I listen to it.

As soon as it starts we’re on edge – nothing stands still for a second. Moraz slinks in, then White charges through, Squire hippity-hops – no guitars yet. Not yet. I don’t know how Yes do it, but they’re even making drum soloing sound great on this track, and if you don’t like that sort of thing, then Howe bursts in on the scene unleashing ridiculously complex (but still thrilling, never forget that) guitar lines and then it all makes way for Anderson barking lyrics like he’s been on the uppers and the non-stop sermons for two days straight, and it’s all got something to do with the ‘LOOK IN YOUR EYES!’ – this bit in particular, and the skyrocketing keyboards straight after, is sheer bliss! There are times during ‘Sound Chaser’ where you almost have to laugh, so addictively mad it is. It slows down here and there, even though no one told Howe about the change in tempo (he’s still on nitrous oxide). Soon even he gets the message and everything crawls to a shimmering oasis of eerie trepidation, only occasionally broken up by White giving it the full sturm-und-drang on his drums. Anderson has calmed down a bit, but deep down we know he’s just getting his breath back so that the band can go happy-go-madly once more. In the only predictable bit of the song, they do. Vapour trails of music stream on, and it’s here I start to think, ‘it’s around now that Jon’s going to do his bonkers ‘CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit. When he does you can either throw your hands up and give up praying for Yes, or you can surrender to the sound and start praying to Yes.

Oh, as for that ”CHA-CHA-CHA, CHA-CHA!’ bit, well I bloody love it. It’s absolutely mad. I’ve heard that some people really hate this bit, but in the context of the song it makes perfect sense. I also love the ‘huhhhmmm!!’ backing grunts during this bit too. Yes were seriously possessed around this time. They were gods. Moraz then has his moment in the sunshine with a hilarious keyboard wig-out, the guitars start to skyrocket and there’s a huge build-up and then it’s all ‘CHA-CHA-CHA!’ again, a quick, final freak-out then it’s all over. This song may leave you breathless. We need to come down.

‘To Be Over’ is the calm after the storm. God knows, we need it. Actually, all that stuff I said earlier about Relayer being the darkest and most violent Yes album of them all is contradicted slightly by the sheer loveliness of this song. It has nothing to do with the themes of ‘Gates’ but flows perfectly from the ground zero of ‘Sound Chaser’. The first few minutes are actually serene. The song even fades up at the start! It’s really very calming indeed. Still, when you think about it, there is after all literally only a single letters difference between ‘Relayer’ and ‘Relaxer’. This is pastoral, very pretty music – sitting by the lake, taking in the early morning mist, such calm, such peace. And hey, there’s a sitar too! Nice to hear from you. Jon’s lyrics only add to the sense of bucolic charm further: ‘We go sailing down the calming stream/Drifting endlessly/By the breeze’ – sorted. However, the song’s not content to drift along calmly down the same river for too long, and it opens up spectacularly, as Howe’s guitar switches from gentle acoustic to chiming, glittering and eventually properly chunky electric, before opening up to take in the widescreen view: in fact this section, almost foreshadows the more lighter-waving end of 80’s stadium rock in its big, anthemic sing-a-long mid-section. Also, this section recalls the finale to Tales‘ most blissful song, ‘The Remembering’. All valediction, extended triumph and swaying happiness. Moraz gets a cute, cuddly and perky solo near the end too. That would be it for him and Yes, sadly. Hey, I’m not going to complain about Rick Wakeman – his contributions to Going for the One are fantastic, but Moraz’s all too short tenure with the band nonetheless feels brutally curt. Oh well, at least the one Yes album he did play on was…you know, the best one they ever did.

Still, that three year gap between the albums…. Relayer feels like the end of an era. Punk came along and changed a lot – right from the opening guitars of the title track, Going for the One feels like a deliberate effort to get scale it back to relative basics (well, as much as is possible for Yes), to modernise their look (as evidenced by replacing Roger Dean with Hipgnosis for the sleeve art), and they even delivered a song that didn’t even need to be edited to make for a successful single (the lovely ‘Wonderous Stories’). The sound on that album was also their sleekest, cleanest and streamlined – the songs themselves were still in thrall to their prog-rock peak, but even ‘Awaken’ sounds far more refined. elegant and comfortable than the infinite possibilities of their earlier epic tracks. It’s a great album, though. After that there was the fun but messy and badly-produced Tormato, the surprisingly thrilling Yes + Buggles = Yeggles supergroup shenanigans of Drama, and after that a second wind of 1980’s MTV-aided superstardom. But Relayer was the last time this band truly achieved astonishing transcendence. Don’t be embarrassed for loving this. Yours is no disgrace.

PS: Come to think of it, what’s a relayer?

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The Real Ghostbusters Episode 38: No One Comes to Lupusville

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VAMPIRES!
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I remember being quite apprehensive about this episode in the build-up to it being screened. You see, I had a fear of vampires when I was little, which is a silly fear as they don’t exist, but I was ten and was still shaken up by The Lost Boys, so anything with fangs sent the shivers down me. At the time, I had recently watched an episode of the wonderful and very self-aware animated spin-off of the film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes called ‘Prinz Spatula – Prince of Dorkness’ in which the town, as if being under regular attack by mutated tomatoes wasn’t enough, now had to contend with a vampire outbreak, which resulted in many of the townsfolk sprouting fangs and flying around trying to kiss the unturned (no biting or blood – this is a children’s show, so said the series’ regular Censor Lady). The episode scared the hell out of me, especially when the adorable Tara became a vampire and joined a load of the recently vamped in trying to raid the local pizzeria, crowding up against the windows whilst the owner stood petrified inside.
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Yes, I was a bit wimpy when it came to even very, very mild on-screen horror like this, and therefore ‘No One Comes to Lupusville’ had me on the edge of my seat from start to finish the first time I saw it. I was dreading a parade of scary vampire faces pressed up against the other side of the TV screen, but as it turned out, the fear-factor was relatively low in this episode, at least compared to other Real Ghostbusters outings that had disturbed me greatly. That doesn’t mean to say the episode’s a flop, far from it – it’s yet another Michael J. Stracsynski gem! Mood and atmosphere is the preferred approach here – the head vampire is more of a devious, charming villain than the personification of nightmare fuel, while the supporting bloodsuckers, whilst agreeably ghoulish looking, don’t cross the line into outright scary. Hell, there isn’t even any sucking of blood in this episode! Come to think of it, there’s no blood full stop! Now you might find that laughable, but to quote Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it izzz no laughing mattaaaggh.
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We start off the episode with the guys asleep at night in the HQ- Peter and Winston don’t need anything so childish as a plush toy or whatnot to help them get to the land of nod, but it turns out that Egon is quite partial to sleeping with his complex scientific notes, calculator and pen (he’d later admit to sleeping with a jar of slime in the second Ghostbusters film) and Ray snuggles up with a Stay-Puft toy, which is a bit weird given their antagonistic relationship in the past. Now I know Stay-Puft, before the events of the first film, was a symbol of wholesomeness and marshmallow-flavoured wonder, but a lot’s happened since then. Hasn’t he tried to destroy the city twice? Weird.
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Janine’s downstairs, tired and playing Ghostbusters-branded cards with Slimer, who’s not above cheating in order to win. Now it’s obvious from this scene that Janine’s work pattern is all over the shop – I mean, she’s the only secretary the guys have, and you’d think the norm would be for her to do a regular nine-to-five shift, given that she does have a life and a home to go to, but it turns out that when the narrative demands it, she’s more or less a stay-in secretary. Her presence this late at night is necessary to greet the utterly, hilariously suspicious Gregor when he arrives in the dead of night to request the Ghostbusters’ service. He’s ridiculously tall, his skin is very pale and he keeps banging on about not being able to be seen in the daytime. All he needs is the standard cape and for him to go ‘BLEAAHH!’ to give the game away completely, but Janine, bless her, is blissfully unaware. I like the down-to-earth moment when she calls out for Gregor’s name so that she has something to write on the invoice – little moments like this are what made the show so cool. There’s also a bit earlier when she complains about her job being pension-free and without a union.
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We then have a rather neat ‘slimy’ edit wipe (see pic) from Janine at HQ to the guy arriving in Lupusville (hint-hint), which is a privately owned town which reminds me of the similarly shut-off community of 1987’s hilariously nutty A Return to Salem’s Lot, which was about a town of vampires that just wanted to be left alone. Ray ‘down-with-the-people’ Stantz insists that town folk are plain folk – all you have to do is show them you’re one of them, but that might prove to be difficult when it’s revealed that some of the town are absolutely huge, making Gregor look like Yoda. Seriously, some of these are officially giants. At the other end of the spectrum, some of the other townsfolk are very small, making Yoda look like the Rancor. Gregor comes out to greet the guys in his jim-jams – he’s a friendly host to say the least. He’s also one hell of a weatherman, predicting the rain seconds before it shows up. Everyone runs inside, but Peter takes the time to observe the outside world and says ‘Gregor’ for no other reason than that it sounds foreboding. He’s right to be wary. Oh, there’s also a little girl named Leda who takes a shine to Egon, even calling him cute. It’s weird, Peter is the meant to be the show’s so-called ladies’ man, but it’s only Egon of the four who everyone else seems to fancy, be it little girls, pervy librarians and of course, Janine. In all cases he doesn’t seem to care about this female attention. At one point, out of nowhere, Leda produces a turnip to Egon, after which an old, old joke is delivered. If you’ve seen Airplane! you know what I’m talking about.
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The subject of vampires is then brought up, with Gregor insisting they have a bloodsucker problem. Interesting that Gregor considers this a problem, given that he is so blatantly a Vlad himself, but the guys are too busy pooh-poohing the idea of facing vampires to deal with the obvious. The thing is, vampires aren’t ghosts, so how do you deal with them? Who cares, when the surprise appearance of an actual treasure chest filled with gold and shiny things is enough to make the previously sensible Winston insist they accept the job. In another example of the show not dumbing down to the audience, the vampires are referred to as ‘revenants’, shoehorning the word into the popular mindset decades before that Leonardo DiCaprio film. Weirdly, these ‘revenants’ only appear after midnight, which sounds cool, but that does mean they’re wasting the hours of darkness available before the witching hour.
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The guys delve into the forest, singing long to themselves blithely (never a good idea), but something’s not right. What’s that noise? Oh, never mind, Winston says, it’s gone now (it isn’t). However, a quick turn-on of the PKE meter reveals that they’re surrounded. Bats show up, and Peter doesn’t put two and two together, the doofus. The bats transmogrify into old-school, Barlow from Salem’s Lot-style vampires (with added red wings that make them resemble Venger from Dungeons and Dragons, although he only had one wing), and they’re fearsomely massive. The problem is is they like to fiddle around with buttons they shouldn’t be touching, and one of them sets off the self-destruct switch on Egon’s proton pack. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but it does disturb me that a nuclear proton pack can be set to self-destruct with just one button. Even the Predator had to faff around with a few combinations before he was able to nuke himself at the end of the first film. Anyway, the pack explodes, knocking everyone out, and Leda, who had followed them to the forest, is shocked to hopes Egon hasn’t just been killed. She shows no concern for anyone else. And that’s our act break.
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….and we’re back. Peter and Ray have woken up but Egon and Winston are gone. One of the vampires, a delightfully urbane but unnamed Kif-from-Futurama-soundalike (that’s our Maurice LaMarche!) has stuck around to greet them, and tells them that there are essentially two warring vampire factions, and that Gregor is the leader of the other side, the bad side. This relatively good vampire basically wants to live in seclusion and not bother the outside world, but Gregor wants to destroy everything and take over everyone, so Kif, despite remaining untrustworthy, and also despite being called a ‘weirdy’, agrees to join forces with Peter and Ray to save the town from itself, lest they suffer the same fate as Lupusville’s original residents (hint-hint), of whom we know little about.
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Meanwhile, back in town Gregor greets Egon and Winston and is insistent that they help him wipe out Kif and his army, and only now does Egon suss out the real deal with Gregor, thanks to the old-fashioned ‘no reflection’ giveaway. As Gregor says, he’s too smart for his own good. Winston agrees – it’s always been the case, and that anytime he’s tried to bring the subject up, it’s been all in vain, ‘like talking to your own armpit’, which incidentally is what George Michael seems to be doing on the front cover of his album Faith, which was released around this time. Worked out alright for George though, with sales of 25 million to date.
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Not that Gregor’s interested in any of what Winston or I have to say. ‘SILENCE!!’ he hilariously demands (no one tells people to shut up in real life like this nearly enough), before threatening him and Egon with destruction if they don’t help him to defeat the other vampires. Gregor’s fed up with keeping quiet about his own existence, and wants to take over the world, just like Stephen Dorff in Blade. He leaves them in their cell, only for Leda to call to them through a window. Egon asks her to get one of their proton packs, and in a nice bit of logical continuity, the pack itself proves exceptionally heavy for her to drag back to the window. This is when we find out that she is Gregor’s servant, so betraying him by revealing where the original Lupusville residents have been imprisoned is an act too terrifying to contemplate…. for about two seconds. There’s one catch – the guys must take them with her when all this over. Egon gives her his word.
Back to the good vampires, and Ray has an idea as to how to save the day. However, you may notice that in his explanation of his great plan, he refers to the vampires as ‘you types’, which is one step away from ‘you people’, which is never a good thing to say when talking to someone of a different race, or in this case, species. I’m surprised he didn’t get a slap down or worse for that slip up. Ray’s plan is some cobblers about getting the proton packs to simulate sunlight, and Kif warns them not to use them on him and his mates. Egon and Winston meanwhile proceed to free the Lupusville folks. Egon warns them to flee to the forest before things get ugly, but their leader insists on staying so that they can take back their town ‘their way’. Oh, and by the way, it wouldn’t happen to be a full moon tonight, would it?
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Yes. Yes it is.
You see, when Gregor imprisoned the townsfolk, he forgot to check one thing…
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…like, were they werewolves or not? To be fair, it’s an easy mistake, so I’m letting Greggsy off the hook for this, but it’s too late, as things get severly doggystyle, Ray remembers what Lupus means in Latin, and before we know it we’ve got the original vampires vs werewolves showdown decades before Twilight. There are some brief but pretty nifty morphing sequences as things take a turn for the lycanthropic, and maybe it’s because the episode’s almost over, but sadly we don’t get to see nearly enough vamp v wolf battles. Peter wouldn’t mind sticking around to see a little more, but he’s outvoted three to one. Yet we do get to see what happens when a werewolf bites a vampire and a vampire bites a werewolf. Oh yes.
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Just to make sure no one leaves town, the guys burst the nearby dam in order to surround the town with running water, which as we all know, is impossible for a vampire to cross over. That didn’t stop the vampires flying over the sea towards the amusement park in the opening titles of The Lost Boys though. By trapping the town with water, this essentially condemns the werevamps to a life of starvation. To be fair, it was never explained how the good vampires had survived all this time whilst simultaneously ‘living in peace’. Maybe, like in the second Salem’s Lot movie, they had bred cows for feeding. Or maybe not. Anyway, as Winston puts it, this new crossbreed is a classic example of ‘democracy in action’, so I suppose everyone’s mates now. Except for those giants and dwarves the guys met when they first showed up. Were they part of Gregor’s vampire crew? It’s not really explained. Finally, Egon didn’t stick to his word when he said he’d take Leda away from all of this. However, it’s revealed she has indeed hitched a ride on the back of Ecto-1, and Egon does seem to be aware of her presence with his cryptic aside to the others as they drive off.
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However, I reckon what really happened is this: Egon simply just forgot about Leda because he’s ultimately selfish, he then saw her in the rear view mirror after she stowed away and a desperate attempt to try and save face, goes on to pretend that he casually knew all along that she was there. Oh Egon, you blagger you.
By the way, what is Leda? Human? Vampire? Oh, never mind. The episode’s over thirty years old, and I’m not going to get any answers now.

Felt: A Decade in Music – Ignite the Seven Cannons (1985, 2018 remix)

The fourth Felt album gets a surprise de-mix – does it work?

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It’s funny, of all the albums in the world to undergo a revisionist remake/remodel, I never thought Felt’s fourth album Ignite the Seven Cannons and Set Sail for the Sun would be one of them. I just didn’t think there was enough of a market for it. I mean, even William Shatner couldn’t get the money to give us an improved version of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, so what chance did Lawrence have? For those who don’t know, Ignite the Seven Cannons (as it became more commonly known down the line) was a radical sonic departure from Felt’s previous albums thanks to the presence of Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie in the producer’s chair, who wreathed the songs in that reverberated Cocteau shroud that we all know and love. Except many Felt fans didn’t love it. Felt were Felt! Not the Fucking Cocteau Felty Twins! The approach was more noticeable on the tracks with vocals than those without, but essentially everything had that Guthrie feel (think Treasure in particular) and for some it was too much. Personally, I thought the album sounded great – cluttered, crazy, overripe, yes, and sometimes a mess, but more often that not, exhilarating. Nevertheless, I was always curious to hear what the songs sounded like before Guthrie got his hands on them.

Well, now we can. All of those Guthrie production tricks are to be removed, thanks to Lawrence and Felt collaborator John A. Rivers.

The new ‘A Decade in Music’ reissue campaign of Felt’s ten albums has been a long time coming, and it wasn’t until recently that it was announced that Ignite would be undergoing a major sonic overhaul. Rewriting Felt’s past is not a new concern of Lawrence. Some of these changes have been relatively minor. The first LP, Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty, had its front cover cropped for later editions. Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death has been re-released with differently cropped versions of the original full band cover photo over the last few decades. Also, this year’s reissue of Snakes has changed that hilariously verbose title to the more palatable The Seventeenth CenturyThe Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories, somewhat inelegantly, had one of its tracks (‘Crucifix Heaven’) omitted from nearly every eventual CD release, while the album’s cover was drastically altered from its mysterious, arcane original to a plain red design on its 2003 release. Thankfully, ‘Crucifix Heaven’ has been re-instated on this year’s reissue, but it’s been heavily edited (grrr). On Ignite the Seven Cannons, the instrumental ‘Elegance of an Only Dream’ had its title changed to ‘Elegance’ back in 2003. On the compilation front, Gold Mine Trash had its glitzy cover changed to something much more minimal later on, while Bubblegum Perfume had a few tracks removed and replaced with rarer non-album songs, which is no bad thing at all, personally speaking. Relatively minor changes admittedly, (‘Crucifix’ and Bubblegum Perfume excepted), but evidence that Lawrence was not averse to toying with his legacy. 

This new version of Ignite however, marks the most drastic change of Felt’s work. The announcement of this remix, or should I say de-mix was met with excitement, but also frustration, as it appeared that this new version was to be the only one to made available, with the 1985 release being consigned to obscurity. This is annoying. I don’t like that the original that we’ve all lived with has been suddenly denied to us. Okay, we can all keep our existing versions, but for new fans to miss out on the original mix is a disservice. Stuff like this rewrites a band’s history and legacy. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but the treatment of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner remains the best example of tampering with an original and yet still respecting its place in history. Blade Runner has been messed around with so many times, and yet every incarnation is still available for us to compare and contrast. Weirdly, Blade Runner is the only example of a cultural artefact that genuinely gets better the more it’s been played around with, but I love that the flawed, compromised theatrical cut is still out there for us to enjoy. Compare that to say, George Lucas, whose treatment of the original Star Wars trilogy showcases little concern for the fans, with the original theatrical versions still yet to be released in anything approaching HD.

Albums get fucked around with a lot too. A new CD reissue is almost always ‘remastered’, and sometimes even ‘remixed’. Whether it’s little tweaks (The Who), removed songs/heavily rearranged tracklistings (Morrissey) or artwork alterations (although it’s funny how films get away with this all the time, as there’s rarely a single established ‘cover’ to a film, with alternative posters for different territories available right from the off). What’s annoying about most of these changes are that they aren’t presented as alternatives – they are usually given to us as the new standard. Oh yeah, that version you’ve always loved? That’s not legitimate anymore. 

What interests me are examples where the changes that are made are in the interest of the band’s ‘original vision’. Killing Joke’s underrated Brighter Than a Thousand Suns was given a last-minute remix before its release back in 1986 and for a long time that was the only version we had. Then the album was re-released in 2007 with the original mixes replacing the released ones, and all of a sudden, the version of the album that fans had lived with all those years was obsolete and unavailable. The same goes for Kiss’ much-mocked 1980 folly Music from ‘The Elder’, which is currently only available in the version that was originally proposed before it was re-jigged for its actual release. Yes, that release was not the one the band wanted, but hey, it’s the one that we the people got, and a lot (well, not a lot – it’s not a favourite with Kiss fans) of people took that version to their hearts. Now you can only get it on an old CD that’s out of print.

Sometimes we must be careful for what we wish for. Last year’s Tony Visconti-helmed/David Bowie-permitted remix of Lodger was highly anticipated by those who considered the 1979 release to have suffered from an overtly muddy mix. I must admit, even as someone who came to adore the album warts and all, that a version that somehow cleaned it up a bit and gave it more punch sounded exciting. However, despite garnering much acclaim, I found the remix often gimmicky and often clumsy. It sounded too much like a modernised version rather than something that could have genuinely come out at the time. It must be noted that this was not a genuine 1979 mix that had been rejected. It was an approximation of what Lodger could have sounded like if it had been ‘mixed properly’. The new mix of Ignite the Seven Cannons appears to be a different story – here we seem to have an album that has been simply stripped back to its original elements, a bit like The Beatles’ Let it Be…Naked from years back, when that album was unshackled from its Phil Spector overdubs. However, Ignite the Seven Cannons…Naked would not have worked as a title, as I believe that igniting anything in the nude is a dangerous, reckless pursuit.  

Oh well, at least the 2017 Lodger did not ultimately replace the original – it’s strictly part of the A New Career in a New Town retrospective box set, and the regular Lodger is still widely available. I think that this new take on Cannons should have complemented the original version, not replaced it. Like it or not, that original version released all those years ago is an essential part of Felt’s story, and the medium is just as important as the message. And now it’s been swept away like it was something embarrassing. What we have in its place is an awkward revisionist replacement that, for all its virtues (and there are many) doesn’t feel right. This should have been a 2017 post-script, not a retrospective shoe-horn into the fabric of 1985. Yet that’s what we’re stuck with. If you want the original Ignite, you’ll have to fork out a fuck-load for the original vinyl, or try and get your mitts on a second-hand CD (and they don’t come cheap either).

Anyway, let’s forget about availability, how do these restored mixes actually sound?

Pretty damn good! The original performances were always great, so if you liked them before, you’ll still like them now. At times it’s amazing to think that they’re literally the same takes, such a difference the Guthrie approach made to them. It’s like being without glasses for years and finally getting a pair, and all is crisp and clear to see. Everything is clean, totally free of reverb or embellishment. You hear little touches that may never have picked up on before. For example, there’s an guitar flourish in the chorus of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’ that I never even noticed in the original, but when I went back to the Guthrie version, it is indeed there among the fog! ‘Scarlet Servants’ seems to have been affected the least – there’s actually not much difference between the two versions, but the other de-mixed tracks are noticeably altered. For anyone who hates overproduction, eighties excess and whatnot, these mixes will be a massive relief. But personally, do I think they’re better than the Guthrie mixes?

For the most part, no. Absolutely not. 

I must repeat that for all their occasional imperfections, the Guthrie elements really made something spectacular out of these songs back in ’85. The inviting warmth of ‘My Darkest Light Will Shine’, the ecstatic downpour of ‘The Day the Rain Came Down’, the nautical rush of ‘Black Ship of the Harbour’ the thrilling buzz of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’…. it was an embarrassment of magnificently overcooked riches. Okay, you couldn’t make out all the details amongst the blur, but that made for an intoxicated, mad pleasure ride nonetheless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that just because the de-mixed replacements have more clarity, doesn’t automatically make them superior. The feel of these songs now approximate closer to demos, albeit very well performed ones. They sound two steps shy of actually sounding finished. To compare, the songs on The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories were free of any overtly gimmicky production touches like those on Ignite and were delivered pretty much straight, but they nevertheless sounded complete, vivid and flawless. These new Ignite mixes sound like dry-runs, rough drafts, in need of that final, definitive touch. I mean, fair play that Rivers hasn’t added anything that wasn’t originally there, but for these to be now considered the definitive versions is preposterous. They sound like Peel Sessions in an alternate universe where John Peel actually liked the band.

What’s weirder is that Rivers has only applied the de-mixing trick to only six of the tracks, which means that half or so of it sounds really pared down and half of it still has the original ‘everything-but-the-kitchen-sink’ approach. Say what you like about the Guthrie-mixed album, but at least it sounded consistent and had a definitive character. Here, the flow becomes messy. Saying that, for most of the first side you don’t notice because all of the first four tracks have been altered, but then along comes ‘Primitive Painters’ in all its Guthrie-enriched glory and it throws you off balance completely. ‘Painters’ is the only track with vocals that hasn’t been messed with – why? Anyone who had issues with the ‘problems’ of the other songs would surely find them here too. Maybe it’s because ‘Painters’ is Felt’s most famous song, the one that came closest to transcending the band’s obscurity, and to mess with it would probably piss off a lot of people. The problem with leaving the song untouched is that it disrupts the atmosphere of the album entirely. It makes the preceding four tracks sound hopelessly small in comparison. 

Well, that’s the first side done with – as for the second side, well it was always a bit of a let down after the perfect run of the first five songs. Of the six tracks, four were instrumentals, and while they were all pleasing and often dazzling, we were hardly talking Bowie’s Low. There were two tracks with vocals – the resplendent ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ came close to matching the first side, while ‘Caspian See’ did not, a slight throwaway on a side of vinyl that really couldn’t afford to have any. While mostly an accomplished run of tracks on its own terms, side 2 desperately needed another ‘Primitive Painters’ to give it some more weight. As for the instrumentals, none of them have been subject to de-mixing, but side 2 of Ignite nevertheless has been drastically altered in regards to structure. 

In an attempt to make the flipside “focused, edited and made symmetrical”, one of the four instrumentals has been removed (the lush, pretty ‘Serpent Shade’) and another (‘Elegance of an Only Dream’, now re-titled for the second time – it’s now ‘Elegance in D’) has been arbitrarily edited down from over five minutes to just under four. This does result in an even number of tracks per side (Lawrence has often made a point of preferring this), but if we’re going to get picky, the second side is now literally shorter than the first, and given that its original content had always felt less substantial than its flip, now it feels even less so. Honestly, the excellence of the first side’s structure is that it started off leading you in with a guiding hand, and then it took you on a journey to an epic crescendo. The second side just felt less well thought out, and honestly, I don’t think this new structural meddling has improved the album at all. It’s weird. If Lawrence and Rivers had really wanted to make the album more symmetrical, maybe they should have gone the whole hog and spread the instrumentals all over the album and put some of the heavyweight songs on the second side. Who knows, maybe it would have been a fucking disaster, but at least it would have had more ambition than this effort.  As for the two de-mixed songs on side 2, ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ brings the album back down to a demo-level small-scale after the untouched ‘Painters’ and ‘Textile Ranch’, and I must say that it’s this track that suffers the most from De-Guthrieisation. The way the original kicked in with that wave of sound was genuinely spine-tingling. Here it has a fraction of the impact. Then again, ‘Caspian See’, the weakest track on the original album has been improved a little. It was a bit of a sloppy song, and this de-mix sounds alright, a bit sharper. It’s still the album’s weak link though. 

So to conclude, this album has not been improved. In trying to rectify perceived errors, the album has cut its nose to spite its face. Yeah, you could say the 1985 album was flawed, but so is this; far more so, I’d say. Less an album than a something resembling a compilation of odds and sods, the new Ignite the Seven Cannons fails to spark. Look, I know it sounds like I’m being overtly harsh, but I can’t deny my disappointment at the handling of the band’s past. Nevertheless, it is so wonderful that their music (well, most of it) is being made available again: I was in Rough Trade East near Brick Lane the other day and the sight of a display stand loaded with nothing else but Felt was an utter joy to witness!

For an in-depth look at Felt’s albums and singles, click here.

PS: I’ve since discovered that the original mix of Ignite is still available as a digital purchase from many of the major outlets, which is great – let’s hope it remains available!

Suspiria (1977)

This piece contains spoilers, although to be fair, I wouldn’t recommend reading anything about Suspiria before watching it for the first time. It’s best just to dive in…

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A Little Prelude…

If you ask a horror fan what their all time favourite example of the genre is, there’s a very, very good chance it’ll be something they first watched in their childhood or adolescence, or at the very least, from a time when the horror film was more than just another genre. When it was something more primal, more instinctual. All of my favourite horrors are the ones I watched when I was sixteen years old or younger. None of them were films that I were legally allowed to watch at the time. I think this is important. I’m talking as someone from the UK, where films are given stricter age classifications than, say in the US, where the R-rating essentially legitimises a child watching something like Saw so long as they have an adult with them. For me, one of the core attractions/repulsions of a horror film is knowing you’re not supposed to watch it. It’s the forbidden fruit.

I had an early period in my life of being absolutely terrified of horror films – the mere thought of watching one was a no-no, and yet curiosity or circumstance sometimes got the better of me. I happened to stumble on to a Channel 4 screening of The Company of Wolves one Thursday night back in 1987 when I was six, and its impact on me was akin to experiencing a living nightmare. I lasted five minutes and ran upstairs. A few years later I, in an attempt to not seem too cowardly, braved a the terrestrial premiere of The Lost Boys with my family, watching as much of it as my nerves could handle before fleeing in terror two-thirds in. After being burned like that, I continued to avoid horror; the best I could muster was little acts of bravery like sneaking a peek at the covers of horror VHS tapes in my local rental shop, before quickly putting them back in their place as they scared me too much. The back covers of the first two Demons films were so scary that the thought of watching the actual films seemed unthinkable. The turning point was when I braved myself to revisit that earlier trauma of The Lost Boys, only to discover that not only did I make it through the whole film without fleeing but a part of me got a kick out of the scares. And that’s when it began.

Suddenly horror had an appeal.

And yes, I was too young to watch these films, but that didn’t really stop me. I suppose it helped if your local video shop is particularly lax on rules regarding age classification. The period of my life from around twelve to sixteen years was probably the purest for me in regards to watching horror films – no preconceptions, no cynicism or weariness towards the genre… just pure visceral cinema. Hellraiser, The Shining, The Omen, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Halloween…good times. However, good times never last, and the older I got, the more aware I became of horror’s history, its acknowledged peaks and depths. I started getting picky, became more demanding. And then I started being able to watch horror films at the cinema because I was the right age, and while some of them were pretty effective, already I was becoming immune to the genre’s impact. It didn’t help that mainstream horror in the late nineties was pretty rubbish, with even the best ones so drenched in irony that it was difficult to truly lose yourself in them.

Looking for the ultimate horror rush is like looking for the lost chord or the lost ark, and even though many a great horror film can turn up and unnerve you, freak you out, make you jump or even linger long in the memory after you’ve left the cinema…. it just isn’t the same. I’m still longing for that special new film that will terrify me the way the horror films used to as a child, but is such a thing possible? I truly envy those who are still terrified of horrors, or those who have watched a million already and can still get a primal kick out of them. I suppose I can still replicate the buzz I got when I was younger today– for example, when watching horrors from the 70s and 80s that I never actually saw in my youth but nevertheless could have. I imagine myself having watched it in some alternate history, and here I just happen to be rewatching it. The similarities and tropes of horror films means that even if you haven’t seen a particular example literally, you kind of already have by the fact that it shares so much of its contemporaries’ DNA. For example, last year I endured all of the ‘classic’ era Friday the 13th films. Some of them were being watched for the first time, ones like Part 2 and The Final Chapter. And yet, even though they were newbies for me, they settled in very comfortably amongst the first film and Part 3 because to be honest, they’re all so bloody similar anyway. And it was a weird feeling, watching Part 2. I was getting nostalgic pleasure of watching something I had never seen before. Yet as much as I try and relive that old feeling, it’s still not the same as that earlier, purer time when I would approach these films with genuine trepidation.

Anyway, I digress…

The Greatest Horror of All Time?

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Luckily, I managed to catch what I regard as the greatest horror of all time just as my ‘pure’ era of horror films was nearing its end, and that film was Suspiria. It was probably the last horror film that I remember being truly enraptured by. After this, the bar had been raised so high that nothing else could match it. Today, Suspiria is getting truly lavished upon – currently there are two different 4K remasterings doing the cinematic rounds, with debates online as to what is the purer distillation of the film. The film has been dissected, analysed, pored over and I’m addicted to all discussion of it. And yet, with each further analysis (and I’m contributing one more to the pile right here), we continue to move further and further away from that first viewing, arguably the most important one of the lot. But who can blame us for wanting to pore over Dario Argento (and co-writer Daria Nicolodi)’s masterpiece and want to try and understand this most beguiling of nightmares?

Suspiria is a remarkable film because even though it wasn’t the first horror film ever made (obviously), it often feels like the purest. I remember watching it for the first time and feeling as though this, at last, was the horror I had been waiting for, the one I had always dreaded and yet wanted. Time Out magazine absolutely nailed its appeal when they said that ‘it seemed like what horror films were like when you were too young to get into them’. Argento gave us the ultimate horror, the final word on the genre, and yet it is also not universally adored. His extreme approach by definition was always going to divide audiences, but then the best horror is in one way or another extreme. Make your horror film too polite, too mainstream, too mannered and you get The Sixth Sense, which I’m sure most people would agree is a fine film, but the fact that everybody seems to like it is a sign that it’s too safe, you know?

The first time I watched Suspiria was when it was re-released on video in the UK in widescreen and in a distinctly below-average transfer in the late nineties. I’m sure existing fans would have been happy enough with the fact that it was in its original ratio and was uncut, but the picture quality was distinctly blurry and unrefined. Yet I didn’t really notice at the time. So legendary in my mind was the reputation of Suspiria that its muddy picture seemed to be the point, as though I had discovered an ancient tome or crackly old 78 from olden times. If the picture had been too perfect I don’t think it would have got to me as much. What I do know for sure is that Suspiria is a classic of sound and vision. There is rarely anything mundane in its approach. Only some of the supporting performances and dialogue approach anything resembling banality. For the most part, it transcends the genre, in fact transcends 99 per cent of cinema, to become something truly spellbinding. It has been charged with accusations of incoherence and plotlessness. In regards to the latter, I honestly think a plot more complex than the one we get on screen would be too distracting. As for incoherence, the only thing I don’t understand about the film is why people would call it incoherent. Yes, there are moments of outright bizarreness (the piano wire room, for instance), but they totally work within the film’s logic. I don’t feel cheated or played about. Accusations of incoherence could arguably be levelled at Suspiria’s follow-up, Inferno, but I’ll delve into that another time. The plot of Suspiria is breathtakingly simple – any loose ends that one might notice aren’t really that important. There is only as much plot here as we need. Enough to fill up the space of a nightmare…

The First 15 Minutes…

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Suzy Bannion (a wide-eyed, innocent but resourceful hero, perfectly portrayed by Jessica Harper) arrives in Freiberg, Germany in the middle of a vicious thunderstorm to stay at the dance academy where she’s due to study, but it turns out that her teachers have wicked, malevolent intentions… that’s all you really need to know really, and a re-telling of the plot’s minutiae here obviously does the film no real favours. This is something you need to experience first hand. You need to dive in, and few horrors do as magnificent a job as getting you right from the very beginning as Suspiria. The first fifteen or so minutes are pretty much legendary in horror circles for representing the essential apex of the genre. The thunderous percussion of Goblin’s music score gives us no quarter, building and building to a deafening peak before crashing into silence and then into the soundtrack’s most famous motif, the gentle but sinister music-box melody that rivals the immortal repetition of John Carpenter’s Halloween theme for sheer iconic creepiness.

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As if not wanting to bother with boring things like plot exposition, a voice-over quickly tells us what we need to know and then we’re into the action – the elements are in full force, the colour-scheme is growing wild, the sense of dread and unease (beautifully evoked in seemingly innocuous things like the gears of an automatic door or a storm drain) and the quick ‘what was that??’ reflection of a deranged looking Argento in the cab’s inside window (see above), something I didn’t even notice during those early, blurry VHS viewings. The music meanwhile is building and building to an unbearable crescendo of madness, with hisses and taunts of ‘WITCH!!!’ from various Goblin members acting as a clear spoiler for those who don’t know what’s to come. In fact, despite far-out, more-or-less fantastical elements being present in earlier Argento films, Suspiria is his first out-and-out supernatural work, and as such there’s a chance that existing fans of his might not have been prepared for the new twist in his style. Indeed, it represents as much a staggering leap in Argento’s style from Deep Red as that had made from his relatively modest ‘Animal Trilogy’. I’d go as far to say that no director has managed to deliver what Argento did with this film.

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Now, even if Suzy had arrived at the ‘Tanzakademie’ and been let inside for a much-need night’s rest with no drama, this still have made for a mightily impressive introduction, but Argento’s not done with us, even if he is temporarily done with Suzy. No, instead we switch to Pat, the doomed student whom we later find out knows far too much about her teachers for her to be able to make it through the night. For many, this is where Suspiria really gets going. She seeks sanctuary in her flat, which is located in a remarkable tenement that boasts a wild glass ceiling, outrageously ornate lifts and utterly bizarre internal geography. It’s like that bit in that Shining documentary where it’s revealed that the manager’s office has a window to the outside world that couldn’t possibly exist, given the layout of the building. Pat and her room mate are then murdered in an astonishingly protracted and brutal act of directorial malevolence that is as horrifying as it is spectacular.

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The build up is unbearable: Goblin’s soundtrack descends on Pat as she fruitlessly tries to peek through her window to see what’s outside with the aid of a lamp, only to be faced with her own reflection, as well as those weird eyes staring back at her… and then… quiet. Oh God, what’s going to happen?

This.

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An arm, which could belong to an ogre, or something Neanderthal, smashes through the window and pushes Pat’s face hard up against the pane in front of her, not stopping until her head smashes through it. The music has come back with a vengeance, the percussion pummelling us into submission. Then we start to lose our sense of perspective as Pat appears to be now in an attic (?) – a jump in location which, yes, you could regard as incoherent, but I love it for its bad-dream logic.

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Then we get a dozen or so stabbings when one or two might have done the trick, including a shot of her punctured heart, which is still beating and still getting stabbed. Then, seemingly for no other reason than for the killer (and Argento) to show off, Pat has a noose tied around her neck, then she’s placed on top of the glass ceiling and she smashes through it, falling until the noose hangs her. We then cut to what is essentially a grand summation of all the chaos that has just transpired – we slowly pan down Pat’s bloodied body, we see that the shattered, fallen ceiling glass has killed her room mate. The music, made up of a creepy, sepulchral synthesiser, surveys the damage, and then we cut to the next morning.

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Wow.

The Rest of the Film

That opening act reaches heights that most horrors in their final act couldn’t hope to rival, and it’s terrifying to realise that the film has only just begun! We return to Suzy and her eventual misadventures at the dance academy, which as we all know (and love), involve maggots, cut throat razors, scary snoring, wild wallpaper, very white teeth, possessed doggies, blue irises, and even (in a nice nod to an earlier Argento film) a crystal plumage, all presented in glorious, vivid colours and backed by the most gloriously wild music. We all have our favourite moments from this film, and I’d like to delve into a few of them. Three in particular, although to be honest, the last example lasts well over ten minutes.

1. “We’ll all sleep together…”

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It’s been revealed that Suspiria was originally meant to feature children in the lead roles, but upon realising this would be a tricky road to carry on down given the story’s vicious content, the ages of the characters were bumped up to what I presume are early twenties, although the film sneakily still manages to exude a childlike feel by doing this like making the doorknobs higher than normal so that the adult actors would have to reach up to use them, by casting Harper with her afore-mentioned innocent visage, by avoiding any sexual overtones, and simply by emphasising the boarding school atmosphere of the academy. This is most evident in a deeply strange sequence where, after the upper floors of the Tanzakademie are revealed to have been infested with maggots, the students are made to sleep together ina  big hall with hastily arranged makeshift beds. I slept in a set-up just like this when I was a boy spending a week away on a trip with my local Cubs group, and it’s a weird atmosphere, like camping but indoors. Thankfully I didn’t have a demonic directress snoring the snores of the damned next to me, but it was still an unusual feeling, everybody together like that, sharing sleeping space with all these other people. Plus there was the size of the hall which, when crammed with all these other children, made for an intimate yet at the same time cavernous setting.

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Watching Suspiria, especially this scene, evokes these feelings of childhood, but an evil, twisted version. The students bicker, tease and pout just like kids, and Harper and Stefania Casini (as Suzy’s new friend Sara) in particular do very well in acting as though they were adolescent best friends, with their hushed whispers as they try not to be overheard, their fear of adults, in particular the ghastly, monstrous one just behind them. Okay, you could quibble at the totally unrealistic red hue the scene has been bathed in, or why the directress is sleeping in such close proximity to the students, but I didn’t care then and I don’t care now. What Suspiria does so well is present its absurdities in such a persuasive manner that I never feel like questioning them.

2. “Suzy, wake up!”

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Another remarkable scene is the stalking and eventual murder of Sara a cruelly drawn out set-piece that you know it going to end particularly horribly. It’s just a matter of how horrible. It’s unusual for a lead character to be so passive, but Suzy does spend a fair amount of the film drugged and/or out of the picture, and it’s when Sara needs her the most, when she realises that the witches are on to her, that Suzy ultimately fails her, drifting off to sleep, blissfully unaware of the killer’s presence when he/she walks past her sleeping in bed. Sara runs off on her own, deeper into the labyrinth of the academy, up to the attic where the maggots were previously taking up residence. There’s a terrific, understated scare when a door behind her opens out of the blue (talking of blue, the lighting in this sequence is beautifully vivid), an the wait for inevitable attack becomes unbearable. There’s even a return of those spooky eyes from the first scene lurking in the background, something I never even noticed in the blurry-VHS days. When the killer does attack (we never see their face, but given we see him with Sara’s lighter later on, it’s most likely the mute, ugly servant Pavlo, a revelation all the more disturbing given the film treated him as a figure of fun earlier), it’s a swift, brutal act that is dragged out even more than Pat’s demise, as Sara actually manages to temporarily evade death, having locked herself in a room. Much is made of the film’s remarkable score, but there’s a moment when it stops and all we hear is the ghastly scraping of the killer’s razor as he attempts to lift up the latch of the door with it, and this is where the adrenaline of the scene, emphasises by the music, is drained away and a very real dread seeps in, a horror of knowing that this character is definitely not going to make it.

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This scene plays out like a very bad dream, with a ridiculously inaccessible, small window the only means of escape. Sara does make it out, but if there ever was a textbook horror film definition of ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’, then this is it. We all know what happens next, and it is a reveal so outrageous that I am genuinely amazed that I didn’t think it utterly preposterous at the time. Instead it was so shocking, and the suspense leading up to it so effective that, frankly, there could have been anything in that room and I would have bought it. 

3. “She must die…”

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The curious, albeit immortal, marketing for Suspiria declared that the only thing more frightening than the last twelve minutes of this film were the first ninety, a memorable tagline for sure, but clearly one that suggested the ending of the film was going to be a let-down! For some, the ending is a bit anticlimactic, but each to their own. For me, the ending is a brilliant culmination of a gradual, increasingly unbearable escalation of terror. Suzy is all alone in the academy, with all the other students and staff having apparently ‘gone to the theatre’, which is the kind of way a bad dream would start – the sense of being left out, the sudden, inexplicable disappearance of friends, being alone in what is essentially a haunted house. Alone in her room, illuminated in the kind of blue darkness that doesn’t exist in real life but looks utterly, spookily beautiful nonetheless, Suzy is attacked by a bat, its incongruous presence actually kind of understandable in a film like this. After that she decides to do a little investigating, cannily working out the secret route to the witches’ lair by correctly recalling the half-heard clue that was said to her by Pat at the start of the film. Suspiria continues Argento’s tradition of a detective struggling with their memory to try and solve the big mystery, although in the case of this film, we actually get as close to a happy ending as is possible in the director’s canon, a rare instance of the mystery being unravelled but the character managing not to be unravelled themselves, though admittedly it’s an ordeal to get to that ending.

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When Suzy turns the ‘secret, blue iris’, a little door opens and one of my favourite moments in any horror film begins. I’m talking about the golden corridor that Suzy walks down – in any other scenario, this would actually be quite a beautiful scene. It looks tranquil, regal and yet… we know where we are. This is the calm before the storm, and I find this corridor utterly creepy as a result. It doesn’t belong here, much like a lot of things in this film. There’s a bit just before the room with the iris when Suzy sneaks past a kitchen where two maids (who are in on the witches’ scheme and are not to be trusted) are laughing happily and going about their business, and it’s such a jolt to see these people who are privy to murder and evil being so jolly. Also, at the very start of the film, as Suzy tries to hail a cab, we see a McDonalds in the background. The thought of people cheerfully enjoying their Big Mac, so near yet so far to this demonic story sends shivers down me. You’d think that the sight of the golden arches would snap you out of Suspiria’s spell, but I think it enhances it. There’s so many classic instances of weird, unusual touches in this film – the bat, the out-of-nowhere lighting, that where-are-we?-attic from the opening murder… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but Suspiria takes dream logic and applies it so seamlessly to the art of film that it’s no wonder that Argento went even further in Inferno, but there I find it too distracting and showy, and I can’t lose myself in it, despite the film’s many, many virtues.

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Suzy then sees the staff, who are definitely not at the theatre (so where are the other students?) and are in fact preparing to cast a spell to bring sickness and death upon Suzy. This marks the first time we have actually seen characters who we have suspected to be evil committing acts of evil. Everything so far has been acted out by anonymous characters whose identity is only possible to gauge in retrospect. Deep down we knew these characters were bad, but here is the proof. Even worse than that is the moment where we see Sara’s corpse, laid out as a grisly tableaux in a room that Suzy backs off into. Her once alive friend, now a grotesque with pins in her eyes and nails in her wrists. This room is the room, the most terrible room in a terrible house, the sleeping quarters of the directress, one Helena Markos, the Black Queen and, as we discover in Inferno, one of the legendary Three Mothers who wish to bring darkness, tears and sorrow upon the world. Suzy accidentally disturbs Markos (there’s a wonderful shot as the ornamental balls Suzy has knocked over head inevitably, unstoppably towards her bed) and the unthinkable happens – she awakens. When I first watched this, the tension was horrible.

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Now it’s true, the long-awaited confrontation between Suzy and Markos is short, but boy, is it deliciously sickly. The voice of Markos in the dubbed version might sound to some as very hammy, but she scared the fuck out of me when I was younger, and her promise to Suzy that she’s ‘going to meet death…the living dead!’ is one of the genre’s most chilling moments, as is the earlier line ‘Hell is behind that door!’ What happens next is a moment scarier than anything in the film’s more celebrated opening 15 minutes, as an undead Sara walks in, brandishing a knife, bleeding from the mouth and laughing maniacally. I’ve written before about the ultimate horror of a kind, good or heroic character turning bad, and the terror of when that person wants to hurt or even kill their former friend, loved one or relative, and while Sara’s return from the dead only lasts a few moments, it’s enough for it to leave a lasting, chilling impact. Yep, in swift time, Suzy dispatches Markos and successfully escapes from the now self-destructing academy, after which the film ends with her relieved, laughing and walking away from the burning building, from which we can hear the screams of the doomed staff. Roll credits.

You have been watching Suspiria…

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And that’s that. Suspiria. Is it the greatest horror film ever, like I boldly claimed earlier? It’s all personal, isn’t it? What I find scary, others won’t. What other people find scary, I won’t. I mean horror, of all things, is so difficult to calmly, analytically rate. What I’m confident of is my opinion that Suspiria, more than any other film, captures the essence of what makes a horror great. So even if it isn’t officially the greatest horror film, it is the film that encapsulates best of all what it is that makes a horror film a horror film. Did that make sense?

Okay, it has dated in some respects. If you were feeling picky, you could point out the obvious use of a model dog’s head when the doomed, blind pianist Daniel’s erstwhile beloved mutt has his snack. Yeah, I guess Sara’s slit neck looks a bit, well… rubbery, I suppose? The clearly exaggerated red of the blood, although obviously an aesthetic choice to match the outrageous splendour of the surroundings, might turn off those who like their grue more realistic. Some of the dubbing is undeniably distracting, most obviously in the case of Pat and her room mate, and bitchy fellow student Olga too. 

Ah yes, the dubbing. Normally, I avoid dubbed versions of films like the plague, but for a long time Suspiria was only ever available here in the UK in its English language incarnation, and with it came the natural awkwardness of not-quite right lip-sync, weird dialogue and not quite natural ambience. Oddly, like many Argento films, some of the actors on set were actually speaking in English, and others in Italian, and then everything was re-dubbed afterwards, so even performers like Harper, Alida Valli and Joan Bennett sound slightly strange. We all had to make do with the English version for a long time, but to be honest, such is the all-encompassing visual and aural assault of the film that I genuinely feel subtitles would be a distraction from all those sights and sounds.

 

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So to conclude, even though Argento would go on to make a very good film later on called Opera, Suspiria is genuinely operatic, a visceral assault of crescendos and high-impact spectacle that can arguably be regarded as the most musical of all horrors. In the same way that the precise impact of a piece of music can be difficult to define, so too is Suspiria’s power tricky to convey. Of course, its technical virtues are easy to applaud, but the other stuff, the stuff that crawls under your skin, gets into your head and invades your dreams… well, that’s magic. That’s Suspiria. 

PS: If you would like to listen to an audio commentary for Suspiria recorded by me and my good friend Mark, then click on the commentaries link to the right of the page and download the free Suspiria track. Enjoy!

Felt

Ahead of the upcoming 2018 reissues of the first five Felt albums, I take a look back at the whole of the band’s remarkable output, including albums, singles and compilations.

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Ten albums. Ten singles. Ten years.

Now that’s a masterplan, and Felt mainman Lawrence, the singer and songwriter who wished his life could be as strange as a conspiracy, pretty much delivered on his promise and defined 1980’s indie with a remarkable run of glorious music that, once discovered, is difficult to resist.

You just gotta find it, that’s all.

I imagine many after-the-fact Felt fans came to them via their sixth album, 1986’s Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, a stellar collection of guitar/organ pop that was jinglier and janglier than a 4-day-weekend Byrds convention. However, if you were to scan your pop lists/Best Albums of the 80s/critic polls and whatnot, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was the only Felt album worth raving about. When you later discover that there was more – a lot more – to love, you may, like me, wonder how you got on without any of it.

The musical sound of Felt can be preciously delicate, thrillingly melodic, spaciously epic, charmingly ramshackle, unpredictably contrary and even frustratingly wayward. As well as Lawrence, there were two major creative forces in the band, both of whom were just as essential to their sound, guitarist Maurice Deebank and organist Martin Duffy. Deebank was part of Felt for the first half of their existence, Duffy the second, with only one album out of the ten featuring both of them together. The Deebank and Duffy eras are both unique – the odds are that you may end up pledging allegiance to one over the other, even if you do kinda love both periods to bits. For me, it’s the Deebank years that I truly, truly adore, but the Duffy era is also so very special, so very wonderful indeed.

As for the vocals, well Lawrence has the kind of delivery that’s sometimes a little Tom Verlaine (the band’s name was inspired by his pronunciation of the word in Television’s killer song ‘Venus’), sometimes a little Bob Dylan, sometimes a little Lou Reed, and yet it’s also own thing entirely, a non-macho, non-histrionic and lovably unconventional voice that’s laconic yet heartfelt, and best of all, given that his is not the most soaring or professional of singers, delightfully easy to sing along with! His lyrics could be gorgeously poetic, opaque, allusive, self-deprecating, self-doubting, wryly funny, sad, beautiful and epic. Not bad, eh?

As for Felt’s rhythm section, firstly there was Gary Ainge on drums – he would be the longest serving member of the band outside of Lawrence – if it was a Felt record and it had a beat, he was playing it. Notably, his drums remained cymbal-less for the first few years. It wasn’t until the third album when the percussion lightened up a bit! The role of the bassist was a lot more fluid, with at least six different players taking up the challenge over Felt’s lifetime. We had Nick Gilbert, Mick Lloyd, Marco Thomas, future Lush member Phil King, Mick Bund and Primal Scream’s Robert Young, all of them essential elements of the band’s sound. Sadly, both Micks and Robert Young are no longer with us.

Regarding the music, what’s strange about Felt is that at times their development appears to advance significantly and then at others retreat to an approach so perversely lo-fi that you’d struggle to fit the LPs and singles in chronological sequence if all you had was the music to go by. A later album like The Pictorial Jackson Review and a single like ‘Ballad of the Band’ sound deliberately rough, ready and almost debut-release quality, whereas LPs like The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories or The Splendour of Fear sound beautifully rich and full of texture. The only thing that makes sense in this band’s chronology is that the very first thing released under the Felt name sounds so primitive that it’s like the cassette demo had already been chewed up and spat out, while the very last thing they released sounds consummately professional. In-between we’re all over the place.

They barely made a dent in the charts. True, their single ‘Primitive Painters’ was a UK Indie Chart #1, but the radio wasn’t listening. Other factors interfered with their potential success, some outside their control (the NME pulling a cover feature at the last minute), some bizarrely at their own hands (deciding to follow their biggest single with a quirky instrumental LP with zero commercial potential), and of course, there were those verbose album titles, but as much as Lawrence did, and still does, desire fame and success, part of Felt’s appeal lies in their obscurity. They are a buried treasure, a lost find, a beloved cult band. Of course, it would have been nice for the band to have actually sold albums so that they could pay the rent with more ease, but it wasn’t to be. What follows is an album-by-album breakdown of their ten year lifetime, as well as the compilations which gathered various singles and B-sides.

Not really the First Single: ‘Index’

 

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This is about as rough and low-budget a single as you’re ever likely to hear. Upon first listen both sides (the B-side is named ‘Break It’) sound like an unholy racket. Upon second listen they still sound like an unholy racket. If you’re willing to give them time, and I can understand why you wouldn’t, then something barely resembling a melody lies underneath these ‘songs’. Hilariously, ‘Index’ was included on the Absolute Classic Masterpieces compilation, though politely it was tucked away at the very end. Sounds magazine gave it the ‘Single of the Week’ award though, in what I imagine must have been act of wilful perversity. By the way, these are solo recordings before the ‘band’ Felt were formed.

The Proper First Single: ‘Something Sends Me to Sleep’

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This is a remarkable step forward – the fuzziness of their debut now has an added beat, a recognisable vocal and a loping, sexy, hypnotic melody that I read somewhere was essentially ‘Index’ but with all the feedback and static removed. You know, as though ‘Index’ was the slab of marble and this is the beautiful sculpture that was always there inside. It’s not quite commercial, but it is totally beguiling. This is also the first time we have Lawrence singing. What he’s singing about is another matter entirely.  Another version can be found on the B-side which features the kind of galloping drums that were a big element of the first two albums. The other flipside is the brief instrumental ‘Red Indians’, which would be re-recorded with slightly better results for the second album. This early take is well worth your time though.

The First Album: Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty

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Felt’s full-length debut is small yet epic, intimate yet sprawling. It sounds like it was made for little money and yet it sounds spectacularly ambitious and wholly successful as an attempt to create something unique, elemental and otherworldly. It is an album that stretches out for miles and yet sometimes feels as though it never leaves the bedroom. Just four people in a room, weaving sounds together, possibilities infinite. It’s one of the most beguiling debuts from any band ever. If they had never done anything else after this, the mystery of this album would have been fascinating. Its place near the beginning of the band’s existence can sometimes serve to underrate it, especially given that the next two albums were even better, but Crumbling… has a special power that’s all its own. It’s difficult to go into detail about what precisely is so appealing about this album. It’s fragile, ebbing and gentle yet strident  – it has a beat and it has bass, yet it always seems like it’s going to disappear between your fingers. It’s definitely the most spectral and mysterious of the ten Felt albums.

The production is very light and delicate, whilst Lawrence’s vocals and lyrics are blended into the musical mix so much that it’s sometimes quite difficult to hear what he’s actually singing. I don’t mind this obscuration at all though. After all, I love the Cocteau Twins (with whom Felt would later share the odd collaboration) and that’s what they were all about too. Upon first listen, it might not make a strong impression; it certainly doesn’t have the immediate punch of their later work, but believe me, it’s a real grower. Besides, this isn’t really the sort of thing that grabs you by the collar and demands attention. It exists very happily in its own universe, waiting for you to come along sometime and visit. Once you’re in, you’ll be glad you gave it the time. Interestingly, Felt’s early manifesto was to deliver stand-alone killer pop singles alongside atmospheric, mainly instrumental albums. They’d soon abandon that process, but for the first few years, it made for a fascinating approach, satisfying both their pop and art impulses.

Occasionally, the album becomes surprisingly urgent, like on the edgy, thrilling “I Worship the Sun”. The drums and bass rumble and close in, Lawrence murmur-sings his lyrics, never trying to steal the sunlight from Deebank’s astonishing flourishes of guitar. It fits in with the rest of the album very nicely, but it also has an unrelenting tension that threatens to shatter the track into pieces. Not for nothing does the song become so tightly coiled that it has no choice but to break the spell halfway through, spreading its wings and slowly ebbing away into a shimmering echo….before building up again towards one sudden finish. Deebank’s guitars here ripple like water – quite like The Edge’s stuff from around this time, but more elemental and less tied to the pop format. Hypnotic, utterly, addictively hypnotic.

‘I Worship the Sun’ excepted, Crumbling… is an airy, brisk and spacious experience. The production is a little thin, but I think that contributes to the crystalline, precious sound. The guitars of Lawrence and Deebank are the star of the show, and they sparkle, glimmer and languidly drift through the likes of “Evergreen Dazed” and “Birdmen” in particular. “Fortune” is really lovely, but it would take a re-recorded version later on to elevate it to the level of true classic. This early version is sparser, less grand, one that might seem a little unfinished compared to the later re-recording, but it works wonderfully in the context of this album. Their next LP would take this sound (especially the frisky, galloping rhythms on the last three tracks) and make it even stronger, but this is nevertheless a special, unique debut….maybe not the most ideal introduction to this most wonderful of bands, but one definitely worth getting if you love their next two albums in particular…

The Second Single: ‘My Face is on Fire’ 

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‘My Face is on Fire’ (great title) introduces Felt’s love of the Spanish guitar to their sound, but Lawrence obviously wasn’t that keen on the song given that it was re-recorded for the third album and when it came to selecting highlights for Absolute Classic Masterpieces, they chose the B-side over this! Speaking of that flipside, ‘Trails of Colour Dissolve’ shares a lot of its big brother’s DNA. They’re both sprightly, claustrophobic and passionate pop gems, edging the band closer to a radio-friendly sound. It wasn’t a hit at all, but the lo-fi approach meant that its obscurity was understandable. The failure of the next single was less justified however…

The Third Single: ‘Penelope Tree’

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Holy shit.

Despite the melodic appeal of ‘Something Sends Me to Sleep’ and ‘My Face is on Fire’, this is the first genuinely legitimate perfect pop song Felt gave us. I can even imagine being played on the radio! It’s about as excellent as your killer three-minute pop charge gets. The sound of Crumbling… is left to… well, crumble, right from the opening guitar siren (as cute and as mischievous as a kitty-cat), which immediately ducks for cover in the shadow of a stunning Lawrence tour de force that doesn’t let up for a second. It was created when Deebank had temporarily left the band, so the composition is all Lawrence, although I cannot ignore the stellar band performance – a brilliant, brilliant rhythm section on this one. The urgency of the acoustic guitar carries us through the verses, but then a magnificently exciting electric flourish in the bridge takes it all into the stratosphere. Hooks, flourishes, heart-stopping moments from start to finish.

The B-sides on the flip are a couple of utterly beautiful instrumentals – further down the line ‘A Preacher in New England’ and ‘Now Summer’s Spread Its Wings Again’ would be melded into one piece and released simply as ‘A Preacher in New England’ for The Splendour of Fear, but here is how it sounded originally. The production is less all-enveloping, somewhere in-between the thinner sound of Crumbling… and the full-fat widescreen of Splendour. Also, the melody on ‘Now Summer’s Spread Its Wings Again’, whilst initially resembling the later version, blossoms into its own uniquely delicate tune for a while before returning to theme more familiar to fans of Splendour. The 12″ of ‘Penelope Tree’ is the way to go, as the 7″ only features ‘A Preacher in New England’ and frankly, that’s not enough.

The Second Album: The Splendour of Fear

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Terrifically dark, atmospheric and lusciously romantic, this is a short LP, just clocking in at over half-an-hour, but damn it if I don’t love it for its brevity. Six tracks, and only two featuring vocals (and even one of them ditches the vocals pretty early on), it is one of the best examples of less being more. It’s a wonderfully exquisite, perfect creation, and it’s all about one mood, and one mood only. What that mood is exactly is quite difficult to pinpoint, but I guess you could call it a kind of moody, cinematic, romantic melancholia? It plays out like the long-lost score to some long-lost Western-noir, its emphasis on instrumentation over lyrics permitting you to let your imagination run riot over the epic vistas hinted at throughout. The front cover directly uses the poster for Andy Warhol’s film Chelsea Girls, but to be honest it’s the cover for The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories which feels like a more appropriate image for this album’s contents. Ancient, elemental, mysterious. Prepare to be seduced.

The opening track, ‘Red Indians’ feels like an overture, as though opening credits could be playing along with it, a scene where horses and their riders are coming into town. You can practically smell the dust from the plains seeping through the speakers. The drums rumble, the bass trembles and the guitar fills the air languidly but at the same time stridently allows the picture to widen and widen until before you is a full plain vista. It’s moody, magnificent and so far away from what you’d expect from that kind of low-budget 80’s indie. The only ‘proper’ song follows, the gorgeous ‘The World is Soft as Lace’, and it’s one of the most delightfully romantic, dreamy songs of the 80’s, embellished by Deebank’s delightful, sensual guitar hook which might be the textbook definition of `sparkling’. Two huge instrumentals dominate proceedings. Lawrence’s “The Optimist and the Poet” stretches out forever, and I wouldn’t want it any other way….this is real widescreen music, panoramic in scope yet not in the slightest bit bloated or extraneous….just close your eyes and fall deep into the visions created here. The same goes for “The Stagnant Pool”, which remains a fan favourite, and it’s easy to see why; it’s like swimming at night, bathed in moonlight.

Mexican Bandits’ kicks off Side 2 in much the same way as ‘Red Indians’ did for Side 1, but it’s longer, more forceful and really quite thrilling. It makes me want to get on a horse and ride into town just like its title characters. Deebank conjures up an insistent jangle-riff that gets under your skin. The final track is one of the most haunting yet eventually glorious pieces of music you may ever hear. As previously mentioned, this was originally split up into two tracks on the B-side of the ‘Penelope Tree’ 12”, and the Fear re-recording brings its beautiful melodies and atmospherics up-to-date. The first half is so utterly, eerily dreamy and intoxicatingly sad that it does more for glamourising melancholia than most bands could ever dream of, and the reason for that is that there’s something mysteriously sensual and intimate about the spell it weaves. Then, suddenly, the sun breaks through the clouds and what’s this? Honestly, what follows is one of the most wonderful stretches of music you’ll ever hear, and Deebank confirms his status as One of the Gods, truly one of the best guitarists ever, with melodies spinning off into thrilling, delicate crescendos and all of a sudden everything so, so utterly, utterly right with the world. Deebank’s obscurity is to me utterly heartbreaking, for the man was a genius, and he should be praised far more than he is.

The Fourth Single: ‘Mexican Bandits’

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No unique tracks to this single, so let’s move on.

The Fifth Single: ‘Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow’

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We get a single-ready take on a dazzling future album track which here has its moments, but is somewhat overcooked. Whereas the later take has a simple, irresistible charm, the single take throws in ripe strings and some badly misjudged female backing vocals that frankly make it all a bit of mess, but not the kind of giddying, often thrilling mess that the overloaded Ignite the Seven Cannons would be. The only appealing difference is the fantastic intro, which starts off with just the bass and then a killer guitar and drum hook. There’s an instrumental version called ‘Sunlight Strings’ on the flip that emphasises the strings and is a lot less cluttered. In fact, it’s quite fantastic, letting the orchestration breathe a lot more, giving it the kind of grandeur the Bunnymen achieved on their tremendous Ocean Rain album from the same year.

However, even better than ‘Sunlight Strings’ is the other B-side, and when I say ‘even better’, I mean ‘so much better than it’s even better than the very best Felt and could be the greatest damn thing they ever gave us’. Yep, that good. I’m talking about the re-recording of ‘Fortune’. Originally a delicate, pretty song on the debut album, now a fully-fleshed, achingly lovely thing of utter, mesmerising beauty, the new ‘Fortune’ boasts one of the most gloriously luscious guitar lines in all of pop. Evocative of sultry summer evenings and dreamy sunsets and exuding a truly sexy, luscious atmosphere, I’d say the song boasts Deebank’s most beautiful guitar playing. It’s definitely home to Lawrence’s most haunting vocal. This song is sensual, sad, seductive, sparkling and so ridiculously sweet that if I was pushed to recommend a single song to turn a complete stranger to Felt on to their music, then I’d go with this one. Yep, even more than ‘Primitive Painters’, more than ‘The World is Soft as Lace’, more than anything from Forever Breathes the Lonely Word. It’s better than almost anything else I’ve ever heard in modern music….it’s a song to fall in love to, and with. 

Back to ‘Sunlight’ though – there’s an alternative take of it out there that keep the cool intro but ditches the strings and backing vocals and ends up a little closer to the album version but is still different enough to make it a true alternate version. In fact, my ideal 12″ would have been to have ‘Fortune’ as the A-side and this sparser take of ‘Sunlight’ and ‘Sunlight Strings’ as the B-sides. But that’s the occasionally frustrating world of Felt for you. Doesn’t always go the way you want.

The Third Album: The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories

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Okay, let me take a deep breath….and here we go.

What an album.

When one discovers the wonders of this LP, it’s like discovering buried treasure….and it’s yours, all yours! The later Forever Breathes the Lonely Word is rightfully applauded as a melodic classic, but this is at the very least its equal. Actually, I think I like it more. Its obscurity in the pop world is maddening. I mean, the likes of ‘Spanish House’, ‘Roman Litter’ and ‘Dismantled King is Off the Throne’ are hidden gems of astounding quality and beauty and the thing is, they could have been hits! They are examples of what I rate as “perfect songs”, in that every single second of each is a total delight; they have killer melodies, great lyrics, and that indescribable magic when a band just play off each other and create a swirling rush of a tune. Of course, the rhythm section is unbeatable, but the real stars are Lawrence and Deebank, who both weave spellbinding textures, sounds and feelings from their chemistry together; Deebank delivers a spectacular array of delectable melodies, while Lawrence’s wonderfully languid vocals and clever, witty lyrics are showcased better than ever before on `Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow’ and `Crystal Ball’. One of the most overlooked albums of all time, The Strange Idols… is a truly, maddeningly delightful experience.

Let’s go back to some of those highlights – ‘Roman Litter’ is a terrific opener. It eases you in the LP, takes you by the hand and skips along with its insistent yet easy-going beat. Oh yes, we have cymbals on a Felt record! As soon as you hear this song, you know you’re in good hands. The warmth of the playing, and John Leckie’s production, is bright, bouncy and evidence of Felt’s new willingness to make their albums as accessible as their singles. ‘Sempiternal Darkness’ is a solo instrumental, and one of Deebank’s most precious, glittering moments. It’s beautiful, so pretty, so out-of-time and sad, so elegant. ‘Spanish House’ effortlessly found its way into my top 5 Felt songs of all time as soon as I heard it. It’s stupendously catchy. It gets everything right. I mean, spectacularly right. One listen and I was absolutely sold. As if I needed further evidence that Felt were genius, then this comes along and just wins me over to such an overwhelming degree that I realise that the public and the radio’s loss was our gain. I envy those who have yet to discover this gem. It makes me smile. I hope it does the same for you. I still can’t quite work out what the song’s actually about though. References to ‘galleon seas’ and televisions and whatnot. ‘Imprint’ is a Lawrence solo piece – very lovely indeed, like the rising sun coming through the windows of your bedroom.

The best version of ‘Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow’ follows – less overdone than the earlier single take, and more in keeping with the sound of the rest of this album. Great lyrics on this one – there’s rarely been a more example of faint praise than ‘I thought your poetry was…. sometimes good’. I’ve mean meaning to read Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell ever since hearing this song, even if I’m afraid I’m not going to know what it’s about. The beautiful ‘Vasco de Gama’ (one of two Felt tracks named after Mexican conquistadors) kicks off the second side – more unfolding melodies that blossom like flowers, really very pretty indeed. Frustratingly, apart from the 1989 release which combined this album with Ignite the Seven Cannons, all CD versions to date omit a Deebank instrumental piece entitled “Crucifix Heaven” which originally followed ‘Vasco de Gama’. It’s a brilliant, Spanish guitar-influenced piece which really does belong back on this album. Why wasn’t it included? Apparently, Lawrence isn’t keen on it; if that’s true, that’s a poor excuse for exclusion! After that we get the incredible ‘Dismantled King is Off the Throne’, which gets 10/10 for that title alone. An absolutely breathless, non-stop rush of melody, this is one song that I really, really, really, really wish had been a hit. To be fair, it wasn’t even released as a single, so I should stop pining, but damn there are few songs as fantastic as this one. It’s remarkably stirring for a song that opens with wondering what’s better: ‘a life of misery or an awful suicide’. ‘Crystal Ball’ mellows things considerably, a glorious thing if ever I heard one. The closing ‘Whirlpool Vision of Shame’ is a re-recording of ‘My Face is on Fire’ and it’s a fine alternative. Neither take is considerably better or worse than the other, though if you can’t get enough of Deebank, then you may find yourself preferring this one.

The Strange Idols.., if it had just been the only album from any given artist, might have been given relatively more attention as a indie masterpiece from a lost artist, but because this is Felt, and whenever Felt is mentioned it’s always ‘Primitive Painters’ and/or Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, it means that this album is getting even less attention than it deserves. I truly think that not only is it Felt’s masterpiece, and not only is one of the best albums of the eighties, it is one of the best albums of all time. Everything clicked on this one, everything seemed bright on this album, everything felt as golden as sunlight’s glow. The band would still remain brilliant, but for me this and ‘Fortune’ are their peaks. If only ‘Fortune’ had been on this album too, then it could have been even better…

PS: The upcoming 2018 CD release will re-instate ‘Crucifix Heaven’, which is great news!

The Sixth Single: ‘Primitive Painters’

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The band’s biggest hit, a UK Independent Chart #1 (didn’t crack the regular charts, sadly) and a bona fide collaboration with two of the Cocteau Twins, this is an epic, six-minute whirlwind of wonder. The producer was Robin Guthrie, whose distinctive approach made the Cocteaus one of the most addictive, multi-coloured, tactile and sensual bands of the Eighties – there are those who balked at what he did with Felt, that he added too many layers and made everything a mess in the process, but I love what he did. If Felt were a more commercial prospect, an album like Ignite the Seven Cannons might have warranted a deluxe edition and the thing could have been given some kind of de-Guthrie-isation that would strip it of all of its excesses and we could have been treated to an alternate version, but I say stick with what we’ve got. Besides, one thing that I think all of us Felt fans are in agreement with is that ‘Primitive Painters’ is a total success. Their most anthemic song, notable for the presence of Elizabeth Fraser, who joins Lawrence on the awesome chorus and pretty much from the half-way point onwards as the song begins its long finale. It’s a beautiful thing, going round and round and working its way to an ecstatic headrush. A six minute swim in luscious waters, `Primitive Painters’ is a euphoric, shimmering and very atmospheric masterpiece of 1980’s indie pop which still sounds magnificent to this day. For the first and last time, Felt sound truly collaborative, stepping outside of their world and into a bigger one, and for a moment it was glorious.

The B-side is a reworking of ‘Cathedral’ from their first album. There’s more oomph this time, notably with the drums. You could argue that it’s a bit pointless, and the fragility of the original has been vanquished, but I like to think that it was a nice in-road to their earlier material for those who had just got into this band. After all, ‘Primitive Painters’ was likely to be a lot of people’s introduction to Felt.

The Fourth Album: Ignite the Seven Cannons

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In theory this should be the greatest Felt album of all.

Okay, bear with me.

Imagine recommending a perfect Felt album, one that perfectly encapsulates all that is great about the band. It isn’t easy, because the later ones feel incomplete without Deebank, just like the earlier ones feel incomplete without Duffy. Yet here we have an album that has both of them on it – the only one of the ten – and yet it’s all too much. Actually, that’s not because of something like Deebank and Duffy fighting for space or whatnot. The reason Ignite feels so cluttered is that the production by Cocteau Twin Robin Guthrie is fucking crazy. Everything merges in classic early Cocteaus-era style and it’s totally overwhelming, overripe and immense. Oddly enough, the album is relatively normal if you listen to it at a reasonably quiet level, but who would want to do that? Anyway, despite all of that, the reason Ignite is not the greatest Felt album is because it’s so structurally unbalanced. The first side is frankly perfect, one of the greatest sides of Felt vinyl you’re likely to hear. The second is just good. Good, but not good enough.

‘My Darkest Light Will Shine’ is another classic Felt scene-setter and almost self-aware-Lawrence is ‘back’, in case you didn’t notice! the production is overdone to the point where it almost becomes woozy listening, but oddly enough that’s part of its appeal. Given that the full title of this LP is Ignite the Seven Cannons and Set Sail for the Sun, there’s an appropriately nautical, oceanic and wavy ambience to the songs. Listen to it at the wrong time and you may feel a little sea sick, but at the right time it’s delightfully dreamy. ‘The Day the Rain Came Down’ begins with such insanely ecstatic ascending guitar that you may very well burst out laughing at the sheer giddy joy of it all. Of course, it’s not just the guitar. The bass and the drums keep it all going, and Duffy’s keyboards are a constant wellspring of warmth. I absolutely adore this song. It’s short, relentless, utterly thrilling and definitely in my top ten Felt songs. ‘Scarlet Servants’ is a nice respite after such high-velocity pop. Deebank and Duffy are beautifully matched. ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’ is brilliantly melodic, especially during the magnificent chorus, where everything just clicks wonderfully. The lyrics are some of the most revealing Lawrence would deliver – a line like ‘when I’m up there on the stage/I just hide my head and hope and pray that soon enough the show will end/why do I go through this hell?’. From someone who seemingly craved stardom, this is a shocking confession. The album’s centrepiece, in fact Felt’s own musical centrepiece, is ‘Primitive Painters’, and I’ve already discussed that, so let’s move on. On to the second side.

The second side used to seriously infuriate me. I used to think that it was such a disappointment. For one thing, there were too many instrumentals. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a instrumental-dominated second side. Low, anyone? But the melodies just weren’t strong enough, and without vocals, they sounded insubstantial. Only two things initially shined for me here – ‘Black Ship in the Harbour’ is a wonderful song. It really sounds like it was recorded at sea, and of course, its second line would provide the inspiration for one of Poem of the River‘s most darkly funny lyrics. ‘Southern State Tapestry’ winds itself up thrillingly before letting loose with a stream of melodic splendour. You can just sense the gears slowly turning and then eventually letting itself rip. A great album closer. Time has led to me appreciate the likes of the slight but entertaining flourishes of ‘Textile Ranch’ and ‘Serpent Shade’, and ‘Elegance of an Only Dream’ has some nice moments. ‘Caspian See’ remains the one duff moment, probably the most inconsequential, throwaway thing the band ever recorded.

However, the first side is just too good – so good it pretty much front-loads the album with classics, and the second side can’t help but feel like a disappointment. Despite ‘Primitive Painters’ modest success, Ignite the Seven Cannons didn’t set the world or anyone’s face on fire, and given that Deebank would leave the band for good, taking his essential, astonishing talent with him as he did so, Felt were now at a crossroads. How to proceed?

PS: In a surprising move, 2018’s long-awaited Felt reissue campaign intends to put right what Lawrence sees went wrong all those years ago by remixing most of the vocal songs on this album (‘Primitive Painters’ excepted) and removing ‘Serpent Shade’ from the second side so that the latter half of the album isn’t so instrumental-heavy. I can’t wait to see how the new mixes sound, but be careful what you wish for. This year’s much-touted remix of David Bowie’s Lodger was another case of ‘correcting’ flaws but in my opinion made the album sound worse!

The Seventh Single: ‘Ballad of the Band’

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This EP marked a distinct change from the Deebank era. The atmospherics have been dialled down (and even though Robin Guthrie is back in the producer’s chair, his approach is much more restrained) and the emphasis is more on a simpler, even rootsier feel, as though Felt were having their very own 1968 and decided it was time to go back to basics. The title track is also far more lyrically blunt and less mysterious than anything we’d heard from Lawrence before, as though the honesty of ‘I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’ had inspired him to carry on down that route. Just one listen to the words and it’s obvious it’s all about the recently departed Deebank. Maybe even the lovely ‘I Didn’t Mean to Hurt You’ is about him too? The flipside features a couple of instrumentals that are also a major departure from Felt’s established M.O. Listen to all that piano! Piano hadn’t played a part in the band’s sound up until now, and ‘Ferdinand Magellan’ and ‘Candles in a Church’ are essentially solo Martin Duffy pieces. They’re absolutely beautiful. They sound utterly timeless – centuries old even. Very romantic, very elegant pieces, very intimate. Close your eyes and you’re there. Somewhere else.

The Fifth Album: Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death

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As soon as this album begins, I laugh; “Song for William S. Harvey” kicks off with a so-silly-it’s-almost-genius bit of Hammond organ and you may be wondering what on earth happened with Felt…after all, they’d released a couple of sterling indie-pop treasures and were almost on their way to becoming quite popular….then this! A short collection of instrumentals, which means NO vocals by Lawrence!

Never mind though, especially since “Song for William S. Harvey” (named after the guy who designed many a classic LP cover for Elektra Records) does turn out to be a rather cracking treat – a little bit goofy, a little bit delightful, and just as melodic as you’d expect from Felt by now. This was one of two instrumental albums in the band’s lifetime – one of them was pretty bad (Train Above the City), but this is a real good one; taken alone, each piece is short, almost slight, reminiscent of Brian Eno’s fade-in/fade-out glimmers of instrumentation on Music for Films, but like that work, if taken as one listen, it turns out to be yet another Felt gem. For one thing, it’s such a small album. So unassuming, so friendly, so cute and delightful. Of course, its very lightness makes it seem far less substantial than most of the other Felt albums, but sometimes you just want an album to cuddle up to and relax with.

“Ancient City Where I Lived” does feature great guitar (by Lawrence) and it’s a mini-beauty, accompanied by the sound of the tide and passing seagulls flying overhead. “The Seventeenth Century” and “The Palace” are very good, evocative mood-pieces, with nice interplay between Lawrence’s guitar and Duffy’s organ. The latter gets a real chance to properly shine with the very sweet, lovely “Indian Scriptures”, the sedate, minimalist respite that is “Voyage to Illumination” and the delightful, cocktail bar-esque shuffle of “Jewel Sky”, which is what the similarly styled but badly executed Train Above the City should have sounded like. “Viking Dress” (the longest track here at 2.50 minutes!) is a classic: ‘Viking Dress’ drifts into earshot like the morning tide, its guitar a buoy lost at sea, but then the mist fades away and the sun comes in with that sparkling Duffy melody and I’m so, so happy to be listening to this pretty wonder. On the other end of the spectrum, the chirpy, cheeky “Sapphire Mansions” is the weakest track, and that’s a shame as it ends a unique, quietly dazzling album on a slightly sour note, but never mind; for the most part, this is another wonderfully offbeat, charming Felt album.

PS: Another 2018 revision from Lawrence for the impending reissue will involve changing this album’s admittedly bonkers title to the less ostentatious The Seventeenth Century

The Sixth Album: Forever Breathes the Lonely Word

 

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This is the one Felt album that we can all agree on. It’s an absolute gem. It’s not the be-all, end-all Felt album though. I mean, it doesn’t have Deebank on it, and Felt without Deebank is incomplete, just as Felt without Duffy is incomplete. Now that would make you think that Ignite the Seven Cannons is a complete Felt record, but it isn’t, as I’ve already mentioned. Forever Breathes is still a fucking magnificent, wonderful thing nonetheless. It was the first Felt album I ever heard, and at first I was shocked at how prevalent the organ was on it. In fact, I wasn’t sure how to respond to it. That organ sounded a little, well chintzy, I suppose? A bit too bargain basement? People would level a smiliar ‘charity shop’ keyboard ambience towards Candida Doyle’s playing on Pulp’s records, but I never had a problem with that. In fact, I loved it. However, Duffy’s insistent organ-playing on this record threatened to irritate me. I got over it.

The album also marked a return to traditional songs after the delightful instrumental interludes of the previous album; Duffy well and truly proves his worth as a fine replacement for Deebank, delivering jaunty, wonderful keyboard lines over Lawrence’s jingliest and jangliest of guitars. Thos guitars are also as warm and welcoming as a beacon’s light, sometimes as crisp as autumn leaves. That voice of his still isn’t technically amazing, but Lawrence has real character and personality to his vocals, and he knows how to use what he has got to wonderful effect; I’ll take that over your textbook `talented’ voices any day of the week. His chemistry with Duffy on this album was never bettered, before or since.

“Rain of Crystal Spires” is a terrific opener; the guitars glisten and sparkle and contribute to one of the brightest melodies the band ever created; of all the songs Felt made in their post-Deebank years, this one’s the absolute best. No wonder it was selected as a single, which was quite a rarity for a band who preferred to keep their albums and singles as separate entities; still, just one listen to this absolute gem of a song and you can see why it was given A-side status. Almost as good is the buoyant “Down But Not Yet Out” which crackles with energy and heavenly music from start to finish; to be honest, there’s an identical, memorable guitar hook that’s used in both of these opening songs, as well as “Grey Streets”, but the effect isn’t repetitive, as the hook in question is so damn good that it’s worth hearing more than once. The warm, woozy “September Lady” boasts some of the sweetest `aaahhh’ backing vocals, glorious guitars, a swirling, romantic feel….this album is addictive stuff, believe me! “Grey Streets” closes off a more or less faultless first side with countless wonderful moments throughout; one of the fastest paced and infectiously exciting Felt songs around, and that’s a fact.

On the second side, “All the People I Like are Those That are Dead” is appropriately ghostly and atmospheric, boasting the immortal opening couplet of ‘Perhaps I should entertain/The very fact that I’m insane’ while “Gather Up Your Wings and Fly” has some euphoric, thrilling hooks and the wonderful “A Wave Crashed on Rocks” is one of the band’s best ballads, truly heart-stopping and breathtakingly elegant. The closing “Hours of Darkness Have Changed My Mind” is probably the least memorable thing here, but it still flows by very pleasantly indeed.

It’s this album that stands as Lawrence’s strongest argument that the band could be just as vital without Deebank. He’s not missed on this album.

The Seventh Single: ‘Rain of Crystal Spires’ 

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As previously mentioned, the album track ‘Rain of Crystal Spires’ was released as a single, backed with fellow Forever Breathes song ‘Gather Up Your Wings and Fly’ and two new B-sides. ‘I Will Die with my Head in Flames’ and ‘The Sandman’s on the Rise Again’  are essential, snappy and brief blasts of rocket-fuelled power pop. Taken together, the two songs barely make it past the three minute mark. They would have been too fast and frenzied to be included on Forever Breathes, although in terms of quality, they are easily the equal of anything on that album. Lawrence’s guitar can barely contain itself on ‘Sandman’, Duffy sounds wired on ‘Flames’. Excellent songs.

The Seventh Album: Poem of the River

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“I will be the first person in history to die of boredom” is a great opening line for an album. “And I will have as my epitaph the second line of `Black Ship in the Harbour'” is a cheeky follow-up. By the way, that `second line`, taken from the band’s Ignite the Seven Cannons album, is “I was a moment that quickly passed”. It’s a striking beginning to the autumnal Poem of the River, which continues to build on the new-found musical partnership between Lawrence and Duffy and, despite being slightly not as good as Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, is another work of wonder to add to a canon work that was, frankly, an embarrassment of riches by this stage.

The mood here is alternately romantic, rough, sweet and laid-back, with two epic songs – “She Lives By the Castle” and “Riding on the Equator” – dominating proceedings in terms of length. The former, rumoured to be about future Saint Etienne singer Sarah Cracknell, is a real beauty; if only it didn’t go on just that little bit too long with its extended organ solo at the end, we’d be talking one of the top ten Felt songs. Still, for the first four minutes, it’s one of the most delicate, sweetest things created by this band, and Lawrence’s vocals and guitars in particular are rather wonderful. “Riding on the Equator” isn’t quite classic Felt, but it slides along prettily and contributes to the album very well. There’s a long guitar solo at the end that might not jump out at you upon first listen, but it’s very sweet indeed! The opening “Declaration”, with its rough, ready and simpler sound, foreshadows the down-to-earth sound of The Pictorial Jackson Review. The lyrics are quite vicious compared to the rest of the album, with its surprising threat of ‘I’ll stab a knife in the face/Of any man who dares to oppose me’ while the stunning, adorable mini-masterpiece that is “Stained-Glass Windows in the Sky” would be just as much of an influence with its short, sharp burst of pop bliss. The latter song in particular encapsulates everything great about the Lawrence/Duffy era of Felt in just over two minutes; it wasn’t a single (although a video was made for it) but it’s peachy, slinky guitar, a beautifully resigned Lawrence vocal and an insistently catchy beat meant it really should have been one. It drifts in and out before you know it, but its fleeting nature is the main reason it works, and I have looped this track over and over many times, I must admit. You’ll feel like taking a ‘jetplane on a highway’ after this one, I hope.

Poem of the River may be the most innocuous, nicest Felt album of them all, barring maybe Let the Snakes… It doesn’t scream for your attention, it just drifts along very nicely in its own slow-burning way. “Silver Plane” is an understated, gentle little ditty that I like more and more every time I hear it, while the closing semi-acoustic “Dark Red Birds” is up there with “A Preacher in New England” as one of the best Felt album closers; haunting, relaxing, poetic and deeply lovely, it just pulls you in and keeps you there. It truly sounds like a cold autumn sunset in November.

A perfect, mellow accompaniment to Forever Breathes the Lonely Word‘s pop-fuelled sparkle, Poem of the River proved that a this stage, Felt could do no wrong.

 

The Eighth Single: ‘The Final Resting of the Ark

 

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Felt were spoiling us with yet another EP of non-album songs after Poem, and Robin Guthrie was back too. The title track remains the sparsest, most haunting lead-track of any of their non-album releases. Guthrie’s approach is even more scaled down than what he gave us on the Ballad of the Band, all hushed, acoustic, whispered ambience. ‘There’s No Such Thing as Victory’ is even sparser: gentle, melancholic and resigned, if it wasn’t for the golden glow of the production, this song would be even sadder than it already was.

‘Buried Wild Blind’ is a minute-long guitar instrumental, and it may as well have been called ‘Golden Sunshine’ for the sheer glistening, honeyed warmth it exudes. Yet to be released on CD, it’s a small and beaming little moment. ‘Fire Circle’ is very slight, just a small piece of guitar, nothing more, nothing less. It’s very nice indeed. This whole EP is very nice, in fact. It’s even more autumnal than Poem, as though that album’s closing ‘Dark Red Birds’ was the launching point for a deeper venture into the mysterious woods that made for Felt’s new-found environment. This would change soon, though…

The Eighth Album: The Pictorial Jackson Review

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This may very well be the most frustrating of all Felt’s albums; we have a very fine first side which sees them going right for the pop jugular, and a second side that takes in ambient jazz with mostly unimpressive results. So let’s concentrate on the first eight tracks. Taking their cue from Poem of the River‘s delightful pop treat “Stained-Glass Windows in the Sky” we have a set of utterly unpretentious, cheery and engaging mini-gems that work very nicely, even if I was initially rather disappointed with this new, relatively simple direction.

The mystique, sweep and drama of Felt’s earlier days had been well and truly swept aside for a sound that was nowhere near as ambitious, though it’s informal, upbeat mood soon won me over. It’s almost like an 80’s equivalent of Bob Dylan retiring to Big Pink and recording The Basement Tapes with The Band. It sounds like a bunch of guys recording good, fun music. It sounds live, and the incarnation of Felt here are delightfully in sync. So yeah, there’s still enough recognisable character here to make this another quintessentially Felt album, but this is nevertheless a wildly different sound to that of “Primitive Painters”, “The World is as Soft as Lace” or “Dismantled King is Off the Throne”; personally, I’ll always prefer the earlier material, but taken on its own terms, this first side works brilliantly. The considerably lo-fi production has meant that this album has its detractors, but if you’re willing to go along for the rough, ready ride, then it proves quite lovable.

The opening “Apple Boutique” has great guitars and sweet organ work, not to mention charming lyrics (plus Lawrence doing his best sedated Lou Reed impersonation) and a simple, summery mood that works a treat. Be prepared to bounce along to this one. Clearly the band thought so too, as this method is repeated over the next seven songs. Luckily, none of it gets stale or repetitive, as the playing is consistently lively and the songs themselves are breezily short, with only one (“Under a Pale Light”) spanning over three minutes. Other highlights are the delightful “Bitter End” (which has a splendid guitar performance), the delicate “Under a Pale Light” and the kooky, funny “Don’t Die on My Doorstep”. Encompassing less than twenty minutes of music, the first eight songs on this album would have worked very well on their own, and could have made for a great EP. In fact, it could have just been released as a proper album. It still would have been longer than Let the Snakes…!

However, things go all pear-shaped on the majority of the second side, when the album mutates into a jazzy ambient work; “Sending Lady Load” starts off reasonably well enough, but then those dreaded xylophone noodlings that would come to dominate the cocktail-bar banality of Train Above the City creep into earshot, and it all becomes wearisome. Also, at over twelve minutes, this piece is far too long. It’s almost enough to entirely sink the album, but the closing track “The Darkest Ending” resolves matters a little; exploring the same direction as “Sending Lady Load” but with much better results, it has an eerie, spooky atmosphere and essentially delivers far more in its three minutes than the preceding track attempted in twelve.

So, despite that unfortunate excursion into near-elevator music on the second side, The Pictorial Jackson Review is well worth getting for the first eight tracks (and, to be fair, the last track too), but be warned…..a pressing error on early copies of the 2003 reissue resulted in everything from “Apple Boutique” to “Don’t Die on My Doorstep” being accidentally replaced with the entirety of Felt’s next album Train Above the City, before returning to the album proper for its last two tracks. Blimey, avoid that version at all costs.

The Ninth Album: Train Above the City

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This is the most controversial Felt album; controversial, obviously for those who have heard of it, and I can’t imagine there are many. This is unlike anything else they’d ever released. All of their other albums have a distinctive sound that makes each its own, but all of them are quintessentially Felt. To be fair, I don’t know many people who have listened to The Pictorial Jackson Review, but if I’m sure if I asked everyone who had which side they’d have preferred to be the springboard for a follow-up album, I get the feeling the majority would plump for the first side. But oh no, it turns out that Side 2 was the germ for what was to follow, and what followed was the most surprising Felt album of them all.

I mean, it doesn’t sound anything like Felt. Now I have no problem with bands moving in directions so far away from their norm that it doesn’t resemble what made people fall for them in the first place, but if the music simply isn’t any good, then we’re talking disaster.

Train Above the City is Felt’s Metal Machine Music, and it’s about half as listenable. The first side is like having the intro music to Frasier on loop for fifteen minutes. We’re talking serious, cocktail jazz muzak here, which might drive you bonkers if you’re not in the right mood. I have no idea what said right mood could be, by the way. Xylophones are everywhere. Lawrence on the other hand is nowhere to be heard (this is a Martin Duffy/Gary Ainge collaboration). All he did was contribute the song titles, which are predictably brilliant. This is not typical Felt (even the album sleeve, a garish yellow, isn’t in keeping with the rest of their artwork), but on the other hand, it’s so bloomin’ contrary and unpredictable that in a sense, it’s perfect Felt. Just don’t ask me to listen to it too often. No one can doubt the musical chops of Duffy and Ainge (and this is the kind of muso album that the word ‘chops’ is sadly suited for), but you have to wonder what they were thinking – were they taking the piss? Sometimes, like on the title track and ‘Press Softly on the Brakes, Holly’, I can’t help but laugh – this stuff is such a perfect approximation of bland jazz noodling. But seriously, the first half of the album is without a doubt the worst stretch of any Felt album, ever.

The slower, more melancholy second half of the album does see an improvement of sorts;`Spectral Morning’ and `Teargardens’ are actually quite nice, and the tender `Book of Swords’ is really, genuinely lovely, by far and away the best thing here. Actually, I’ve been horrible towards this album, so let’s concentrate on this track. Yes, you could say it’s a little soppy and a little drippy, but this lovely piece of music has often caught me off guard and broken my wee lil’ heart. It is almost ridiculously pretty and gives me doubt that this was album was meant to be a parody, which is something I couldn’t help/hope but presume for the most part. The melody is one of Duffy’s saddest. It starts off a bit like Chicago’s much-loved wedding staple ‘Colour My World’ and then goes off on its own. A sparkling xylophone and downbeat piano combine beautifully before we get a brief but gorgeous mid-section where everything blossoms and for once, this Train Above the City album really clicks.

I guess, if you’re in a forgiving mood, you might appreciate what I assume is a joke and admire the album for its sheer wilful perversity, but I’m confident that this is most fans’ least favourite Felt album.

The Tenth Single: ‘Space Blues’

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Ah, now this is more like it! Now, please don’t think I’m one of those reactionaries who only want Felt to stick to what they know, because this EP is still a departure and a step forward, but unlike Train Above the City, it’s a good one. Only the jingle-jangle of ‘Female Star’ is a bit of a throwback, as if the melodies of The Pictorial Jackson Review were shot through with the fuller sound of Forever Breathes the Lonely Word. Elsewhere, we have more evidence of Felt refusing to stand still. The pleasant country swoon of ‘Tuesday’s Secret’ points the way towards the smooth, polished but still idiosyncratic sound of their final album, and the title track’s colourful electronics point even further towards Lawrence’s next project, the glorious Denim. Backing vocals on this song are from Rose McDowall from Strawberry Switchblade, by the way! I’ve saved my favourite song here for last, and that’s the beautiful cover of The Beach Boys’ ‘Be Still’. Originally a gentle, sparse Dennis Wilson ode to serenity from the glorious 1968 album Friends, Felt make it even more quiet and totally their own. It’s the only cover they officially recorded, and is akin to floating down a never-ending river.

The not-really Eleventh Single: ‘Get Out of My Mirror’

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This was a free flexidisc. No B-side. The A-side is taken from….

The Tenth Album: Me and a Monkey on the Moon

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Here we are. The end of the road. The tenth album. It was something of an artistic recovery after the disappointing Train Above the City, and yet this swansong is also quite unusual in that for a Felt album, it sounds….well, normal! The opening song even talks of (not) making love! I though Felt were above all that sex stuff, you know? Produced by Adrian Borland, lead singer of another tremendous, underrated band from the 1980’s (The Sound), Felt had never sounded as polished and mainstream as they do here; the playing is immaculate, refined, and to be honest….lacking in edge. For some, this sleek new direction might prove a turn-off, and yes, there’s none of the strange magic of their earlier, classic records.

Still, it’s a damn good album, with lyrics that talk of escape and decades (and I suppose bands) coming to an end, maybe even some regrets over lost friends, all of it beautifully played and sung throughout; the opening “I Can’t Make Love To You Anymore” is very lovely, a slightly country-tinged ballad with some sweet, tender guitar and a great chorus. “Mobile Shack”, with its kooky keyboard effects here and there, hint towards Denim, but the simple, cheeky music also recalls the first side of The Pictorial Jackson Review, albeit with a smoother production. To be honest, this song isn’t really anything special, it goes by well enough and is essentially a bit of filler before the wonderful “Free” comes along, another tender and delicate ballad that feels good and sounds good too. The lyrically curious “Budgie Jacket” (is it autobiographical?) is intriguing and the sprightly “Cartoon Sky” is fun. These are good songs, you know? Well played, consummately executed… hell, even Lawrence’s vocals sound refined.

The album’s major centrepiece is “New Day Dawning”, which has a great first half; a slightly funky guitar (the verses sound like a brighter version of Poem of the River‘s “Declaration”) a shimmering chorus which indeed sounds the musical equivalent of a sunrise….and then there’s the debatable second half and its extended solo; guitar bliss or six-string cheese? Indeed, it sounds as though Oasis may have been paying attention as it sounds a lot like their “Don’t Look Back in Anger” in places. To be honest, it’s this solo that’s entirely indicative of the downside of the `normal’ Felt sound on this album; it’s admittedly well played, but it could have been played by any other guitarist. It’s totally anonymous, and character and personality, with the distinctive feel and sound of Lawrence, Martin Duffy and Maurice Deebank in particular, was what made Felt such a special band. Oh well, I can’t resist the gorgeous “Down an August Path”; it flutters, it feels good to listen to, it’s the best thing on here, definitely. The rest of the album remains solid, be it on the sweet choruses to “Never Let You Go” and “She Deals in Crosses” or particularly on the catchy closer “Get Out of My Mirror”.

Even with the lovely likes of “I Can’t Make Love to You Anymore” and “Down an August Path”, there’s nothing here that I will truly hold dear to my heart, nothing like “Spanish House”, “Fortune” or “The Day the Rain Came Down”; considering how strong this band was for its first eight and a half albums, Me and a Monkey on the Moon is a very good, but not great farewell to one of the greatest bands ever. It wasn’t the last time we’d hear from Lawrence though….he’d back….back in Denim!

Wait, that’s not all…

Collecting together some of those odds ‘n’ sods…

If it’s compilations you’re after, and they will be essential listening if you want to get those non-album singles and B-sides, then the ultimate introduction is 1992’s Absolute Classic Masterpieces, which covers Felt’s years at Cherry Red Records (excluding their brief return to the label in 1989); covered here is the era encompassing the first four albums and the best of the stray tracks; in other words, the Maurice Deebank years. Starting with with `Primitive Painters’ and working backwards, this is a mostly perfect selection of the best songs from the early years – okay, one might quibble at the absence of `I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn’ (which should definitely have taken the place of the good but not great `Textile Ranch’) and the stunning `Spanish House’, but overall this is too good to bother starting with debates about track selection. Non-album selections here are the immortal B-side version of ‘Fortune’, ‘Trails of Colour Dissolve’ (but not its flipside, the A-side ‘My Face is on Fire!), ‘Something Sends Me to Sleep’, pre-Felt oddity ‘Index’ and most interestingly, `Dance of Deliverance’, which isn’t actually a Felt track as such, being as it’s taken from Deebank’s occasionally magnificent solo album from that time (Inner Thought Zone), which takes the languid guitar mood of `Fortune’ to epic lengths. Look, Felt are one of the greatest bands ever, and this is one of the greatest compilations ever. This period in particular had an irresistible charge, dominated by Deebank and Lawrence’s winning chemistry. This is the best introduction to the band, even though it only tells half the story…

Roll on 1993’s Absolute Classic Masterpieces Vol. 2, which covers Felt’s second half of their ten year run, spent at Creation Record. These are the Martin Duffy years. Unlike Volume 1, this compilation runs in chronological order and separates album tracks and single tracks into separate CDs. Disc one (featuring singles and B-sides) is pretty short at only twenty or so minutes, which is weird considering not every B-side of this era has been included (no ‘Candles in a Church’, ‘Buried Wild Blind’, ‘Fire Circle’, ‘Tuesday’s Secret’, ‘Female Star’ are all M.I.A); nevertheless, each of these ten songs are terrific. Disc 2 covers the following albums – Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, Poem of the River, The Pictorial Jackson Review and Train Above the City. Unfortunately Me and a Monkey on the Moon, isn’t covered as that was recorded on Cherry Red (who the band returned to before disbanding).

To be honest, despite the fact that all the pieces chosen here to represent Let the Snakes… are delightful, they don’t really have the same impact outside of the context of the original album; here they come across as too slight. Forever Breathes is well represented, although the omission of `Rain of Crystal Spires’, `September Lady’ or `Down But Not Yet Out’ does seem crazy. The Pictorial Jackson Review is well represented – we get some of the fun treats from side one, and the single good one from side two. The disastrous Train Above the City could have got away with an undeserved positive representation had tracks from its relatively decent second side had been chosen to appear on this disc, yet this CD doesn’t bother to try and mask what this album is- a bit crap – by choosing three anaemic tunes from its first side, ending this compilation on a down note. Why the lovely `Book of Swords’, wasn’t selected instead is a mystery.

Still, this is a more than worthy companion piece to its predecessor, though it is hard to find these days. If you don’t fancy shelling out for a second-hand copy, fear not; all of the second disc can be found on their respective albums, while most of disc one can now be found on the more recent retrospective Stains on a Decade. However, that album doesn’t appear to have “Magellan” or “Autumn” on it….pity. The best Creation-era compilation is the single-disc Bubblegum Perfume from 1990, which mostly avoids album tracks (but does well in highlighting ‘Book of Swords’ – bravo!) and distills the essence of the Duffy years beautifully. Still no Monkey and Moon-era stuff though. Boo! An even better CD re-release in 2011 dispensed with some of the ultimately pointless album-track selections and replaced them with the hard-to-find ‘Tuesday’s Secret’, ‘Fire Circle’ and ‘Female Star’.

As for the afore-mentioned Stains on a Decade from 2003, it’s a fine compilation, but covering ten years worth on one CD was always going to be a nightmare. Still, but limiting itself to single/EP tracks (‘Dismantled King…’ excepted), it’s about as fairly representative a single CD of the band can be, I suppose. Plus, it features the single version of ‘Sunlight Bathed…’, even if that version isn’t very good.

Finally, there was 1987’s Gold Mine Trash, which was the first Felt compilation, and a seemingly random selection of songs from the Deebank-era. It’s only really worthwhile for the inclusion of demo versions of ‘Sunlight Bathed…’ and ‘Dismantled King…’ which are well worth your time, being notably different in feel to the more familiar takes.

To my knowledge, the only Felt tracks that have never been available on CD are ‘Break It’,the original B-side version of ‘A Preacher in New England’, ‘Now Summer’s Spread Its Wings Again’, ‘Candles in a Church’ and ‘Buried Wild Blind’. There was a bonus disc made available on the Felt Box set released in 1993, which gathered a few odds and sods like the alternate ‘Something Sends Me to Sleep’, the often neglected ‘My Face is on Fire’, the single mix of ‘Sunlight Bathed…’, ‘Sunlight Strings’ and the original B-side version of ‘Red Indians’, but that’s not easy to come by.

So there you go. Now listen to the records please…

PS: As you can see from the comments below, some of my assumptions about the unavailability of certain Felt tracks on CD have turned out to be absolute cobblers! Thank you to those who have commented, it’s wonderful to find out this info from fellow fans!