Under the Cherry Moon (1986)

Seriously, it’s not that bad…

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In 1984, Prince was so hot you could get blisters just from looking at him. After five increasingly spectacular albums, the phenomenon that was Purple Rain shot him into the stratosphere, and I think most of us would agree that it was a thoroughly deserved success. As I’ve already said in my earlier review, Prince delivered a 1-2 shot that was so irresistible he became the biggest star on the planet for a while. The film was – the occasional iffy performance, touch of sexism and cringey line of dialogue excepting – a triumph. It still stands up well today, with the performance material still utterly electrifying. The accompanying album was mind-blowingly great – a non-stop thriller (even more so than Thriller) of a pop juggernaut that, for better or worse, consolidated Prince in popular culture. I say worse in that it was the sort of album that everything Prince did afterwards was going to be judged against.

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I mean, how the hell do you follow it? After all, Prince had not one but two albatrosses to conquer – a blockbusting album and a blockbusting film. On the musical front he remained as preposterously prolific as ever, with parts of Around the World in a Day already finished before Purple Rain had even been released, not to mention the wealth of still-unreleased stuff that lurks in his vault. Of course, the easy thing to do would have been to release another Purple Rain, but Around the World in a Day was a classic example of Prince not looking back, instead taking on a new wealth of influences, delivering something entirely different. Yet despite the low-key promotion (Prince wasn’t even in the video for first single ‘Paisley Park’) and the not so-hot reviews, the album still sold, just not in the same league as its predecessor. Fans wanting more ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘When Doves Cry’ might have been disappointed – the album rarely burned with the same white-hot electricity. It’s far more playful, bittersweet, weird and no, it’s not a blockbuster like Purple Rain, but its rewards are plentiful. It’s big hit – the effervescent ‘Raspberry Beret’ – is difficult to resist, the baroque tale of heartbreak that is ‘Condition of the Heart’ is one of his most beautiful ballads, ‘America’ rocks, ‘Paisley Park’ is pure utopian loveliness, ‘Pop Life’ home to one of the best piano + synth + slap bass hooks EVER and ‘Tamborine’ a delightful throwaway. Okay, ‘The Ladder’ was a bit too obviously ‘Purple Rain’ Part 2 and ‘Temptation’ a bonkers tale of sin, guilt and last-second redemption that won points for sheer bravura, but was still an oddly unsatisfying album closer. Then there was the real life stuff – Prince, already known for his reticence with the press, had now refused to contribute to the Stateside equivalent of Live Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ – ‘We are the World’ – which wound up some of the press and the public a little, not to mention that on the night that the music world’s biggest and brightest were recording said song (and apparently eating caviar/drinking champagne, but let’s not concentrate on that), Prince’s bodyguard got into an violent altercation with a photographer (this and other contemporaneous events would be referenced in later B-side ‘Hello’). All of a sudden, Prince was a selfish jerk, a weirdo, etc. Still, the music. Damn good music. Ah yes, but what about the movies?

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If Prince had quit while he was ahead cinematically and never released anything other than the Purple Rain movie, his celluloid legacy would have remained untarnished. However, everybody wanted more. Now, the obvious thing would have been Purple Rain 2, but Purple Rain was soooo 1984. No, this new film would have to be just as much a step into new territory as his music had been so good at doing. By the time Under the Cherry Moon had come out, even Around the World in a Day was last year’s news. He’d made another album, which would act as the soundtrack to the new movie.

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That album, Parade, is a masterpiece on equal footing with Purple Rain. The Revolution-era of Prince is one of the most giddying, deliriously imaginative and varied capsules of music ever created by anyone, and that’s just the stuff that was officially released. Honestly, dig further, and there are even more unreleased riches to discover. If Around the World in a Day was an album full of gems but not quite a classic overall, Parade hits back with a vengeance, an expertly executed, almost scary-in-its-scope rollercoaster that continues the Prince momentum with flair, funk, ingenuity, beauty, humour and outright razzle-dazzle. The first stretch of music, an uninterrupted medley of breathtaking variety that takes in the carnival psychedelia of ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, the so lean it’s malnourished strut of ‘New Position’ and the humid, Lisa Coleman-sung lust-funk of ‘I Wonder U’, packs more into its five or six minutes length than most albums could hope to accomplish. The dreamy balladry of ‘Under the Cherry Moon’, the jazzy ‘Girls and Boys’, monstrously epic ‘Life Can Be So Nice’, beautiful interlude ‘Venus de Milo’, the monumental, soaring ‘Mountains’, the delightfully cavalier ‘Do U Lie’, the overlooked single ‘Anotherloverholenyohead’ and heartbreaking closer ‘Sometimes it Snow in April’… oh, and ‘Kiss’. You know that one. I mean, the album’s just embarrassingly brilliant. Unfortunately, all of this musical genius was undermined by the accompanying movie, which was regarded as his first out-and-out failure. It probably didn’t help that Prince was listed as director – for critics this insanely multi-talented genius had gone step too far, like what, he can do anything? What was he going to do next, write children’s stories?

It was probably was very eagerly anticipated back then. Nowadays it’s rarely described as anything (if described at all) but a total turkey. Reviews were crap, box office was low and it crawled out of cinemas in quick time. It also won five Raspeberry Awards. Luckily Prince was still hot, and he moved on and we got Sign O the Times and everybody forgot it, if not forgave it.

It’s an odd film. Unlike Purple Rain, which tapped into a cultural buzz and ended up defining it, Under the Cherry Moon has absolutely no likeminded ambitions. It’s Prince doing his thing, his own idiosyncratic thing, I’ll give Prince this – he’d could have done Purple Rain all over again, but Cherry Moon is so different to Purple Rain that it almost feels like an act of perversion. The most obvious thing is that it’s in black and white. I mean, the 1980s – the most day-glo, neon-drenched decade of them all, reduced to monochrome? What was he thinking? Also, even though the personal elements of Purple Rain made for some surprising drama, I’m going to wager that everybody’s favourite bits in that film was the performance stuff. Cherry Moon has almost no footage of Prince actually singing or playing. Only one song – ‘Girls and Boys’ – gets ‘performed’, and even that’s rudely cut-off halfway. The Revolution don’t feature, except for the ‘Mountains’ promo that plays over the end credits. You can either hate this film for its refusal to play by expectations or just enjoy the ride.

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The plot? Well, first of all it seems to be set in an undefined time period that looks like it’s set in the 1920’s, what with its Jazz Age ambience, yet there are references to Sam Cooke and Miles Davis, plus one of the characters starts singing ‘Planet Rock’, so where the hell are we, the eighties? Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a narcissistic gigolo/pianist who loves seducing the money out of the local high society women on the French Riviera. He’s assisted by his fellow conman brother Tricky (Jerome Benton), with whom he has a flirty, homoerotic chemistry. The latest rich girl on the block is Mary (Kristin Scott-Thomas), who’s potentially worth a cool 50 million dollars. So Christopher begins his seduction, but what starts out as mere mercenary greed soon blossoms into….yep, love. The thing is, Mary’s already engaged to someone she doesn’t love, and her criminal father (Steven Berkoff) isn’t going to take too kindly to some flash hustler trying to rip off the family. Yeah, it’s an old, old, old story, but filming it in monochrome actually makes everything here seem agreeably old-fashioned anyway. The director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, was a Scorsese collaborator at this time, so it’s no surprise that this is one very fine looking movie – it was rumoured that Ballhaus had actually co-directed the movie with Prince after original director Mary Lambert was ejected from the scene.

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The plot stuff is pretty loose – there are often scenes of Christopher and Tricky goofing around, trying to charm their way out of paying the rent on their flat, or showing up Mary’s ignorance (the highly amusing ‘Wrecka Stow’ sequence). There’s a gag involving bats which comes out of absolutely nowhere, and yet it’s kinda genius – I love it for its sheer randomness. There’s also a bit where Prince channels Bela Lugosi’s bizarro close-ups – absolutely mad. There are also an awful lot of shots of Prince and Mary kissing, if you like seeing that in close-up. Well, one of the songs on the soundtrack is called ‘Kiss’ – what did you expect? For the most part it’s a breezy, fun ride. There’s little of the darkness and misogyny that lurked underneath Purple Rain, and while Mary is initially treated as a figure of fun, it’s more to do with her class roots than her gender. I think.

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As for Prince himself, it was noted around the time of Purple Rain‘s release that The Kid was a thinly veiled depiction of himself, but here he seems to be trying something else. Maybe there’s a lot of Prince in Christopher; who knows? Like The Kid, he’s hardly a flattering example of humanity, though instead of the former’s ugliness, here it’s more do with gaucheness and arrested development. There’s a rather telling scene later on when Christopher calls Mary late at night – she’s already smitten and is lying in her bed (listening to an instrumental of  ‘I Wonder U’ – if that’s not music to get you in the mood then I don’t know what is) and she asks what’s on Christopher’s mind. He responds with the goofiest delivery of the word ‘sex’ possible, like he’s struggling to keep it together and not blow the charade. You realise that at this stage that Christopher is still a child at heart, despite the reality of these adult complications he’s involved himself in. Sex is definitely a game to this guy – he behaves like an adolescent (even more so than The Kid), a coquettish schemer with a gamut of poses and moves that resembles role play and not actual adult sexuality. He’s a little brat. Tricky is no better – the pair of them deserve each other. Still, they are funny together – it’s nice to see Prince actually play off another actor following the sulky sullenness of his Purple Rain interactions, and his and Benton’s scenes are a pleasure.

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There are hints throughout that all this romantic treachery could end badly, but still, seeing Christopher get gunned down at the film’s climax was a bit of a jolt, like a compilation album with nine party tracks that ends with Joy Division’s ‘Decades’. Okay, maybe not that severe, but still! To be fair, the album does something similar – the momentum of the first eleven songs are so breathlessly exciting that the downer of ‘Sometimes it Snows in April’ comes as a shock. Yet like that song’s title suggests, life can be full of sudden left-turns. Besides, ‘April’ is one of Prince’s most beautiful songs, whereas the ending of Under the Cherry Moon doesn’t quite have the dramatic punch it was probably hoping for. In fact, such is the generic nature of the boy-meets-girl/class divide/vengeful father plot that a lot of the film doesn’t really have much in the way of emotional heft. It’s all been done before, I suppose. The pleasures of this film lie in the little bits, the little idiosyncrasies, and of course, the songs, if you can hear them. Unlike Purple Rain, where all nine songs were heavily integrated into the film’s fabric, almost acting as a commentary on the action. Under the Cherry Moon prefers to showcase Parade‘s songs as background material – sometimes they dominate a scene, like ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’ soundtracking the establishing shots of the Riviera, or ‘Kiss’ and ‘Anotherloverholenyohead’ dominating later scenes, and of course the aforementioned ‘Girls and Boys’, but other times they’re just there to a little extra ambience. A waste of great songs, you may think. You may be right.

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So, is it actually a misunderstood gem? Hmm. Hear me out. I love Prince, particularly 80’s Prince, so I feel that everything he did during this time was touched by some kind of genius. Yes, even this. It has a ebullient, effervescent charm that I find pretty appealing. It has been noted that the more fun the crew had on a film set, the less fun it ends up being for the viewer. This can apply mostly to comedies, where everybody seems to be getting off on their own jokes, more so than the audience. I get the feeling that Prince and his mates were goofing around on the set – Cherry Moon is hardly an outstanding example of watertight narrative or originality, but it gets by on an easy-going vibe. Most of the humour in Purple Rain was of the unintentional kind, like when Prince was going off on one of his tantrums, or the occasional wooden supporting performance. Here, the comedy is most definitely intentional.

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Ultimately, Under the Cherry Moon will remain a curio, but I like it. Yeah, it got slagged, but Prince was moving too fast to seem to care too much. After Cherry Moon, Prince broke up the Revolution, tried to release a triple-album called Crystal Ball which fell through and, combined with other unreleased projects, emerged as Sign ‘O’ the Times, which many regard as Prince’s artistic peak (not me, but it’s still a 5-star experience). This was followed by the acclaimed concert film of the same name, which usually doesn’t get lumped in with Prince’s other three films because, aside from a few dramatic segues between songs, it’s essentially a gig set to celluloid. Then there was the attempt to get back to funk basics with the salacious The Black Album, which was pulled by Prince at the last minute for various reasons the most rumoured being that he took Ecstasy and God told him not to release such unsavoury material. Good move there from the Man Upstairs, because had it been released, The Black Album would have been (in my opinion) Prince’s weakest album of the 80’s. A good album for sure, but not great. The swiftly created Lovesexy was the ‘good’ to The Black Album’s ‘evil’ and was a deliriously funky, often spectacular ride through Prince’s spiritual and physical obsessions. Maybe not quite on the same level as his last few albums, but damn, damn fine nonetheless. Then came Batman, which brought renewed commercial success thanks to the film itself, and did have plenty of engaging songs in it (the sparkling ‘Vicki Waiting’, the fun ‘Partyman’ and especially the gorgeous ‘Scandalous’, for me his best recorded seduction) but the overall quality was a step down from before. A few genuinely mediocre songs (‘The Arms of Orion’, ‘Lemon Crush’) didn’t help.

This takes us to the Graffiti Bridge
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Inferno (1980)

When is a sequel not a sequel? When it’s Inferno.

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If you’ve read my previous piece on Dario Argento’s 1977 occult horror Suspiria, then you’ll know that I rate it as the most perfect horror ever made. Inferno was Argento’s follow up, and I guess you can call it a sequel because it’s set in the same cinematic universe as before. And yet no characters from it (apart from one tiny cameo) make a reappearance, although one of the actresses – Alida Valli –  does re-appear in a different role. The thing is, Suspiria could have remained a closed movie – yes, it featured plenty of allusions to a wider world where the prospect of sequels could happen, but it didn’t leave you wanting more. It was and is an utterly satisfying cinematic experience.

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Inferno takes Suspiria and builds a bigger mythology around it, introducing the concept of the Three Mothers; three witches devoted to evil, suffering, etc, and who each reside in their own house of monstrousness. In retrospect, it becomes clear that Helena Markos, the Black Queen of the Tanzakadamie in Suspiria, was the Mother of Sighs, aka Mater Suspiriorum, the oldest and wisest of the three, who by now has already been dispatched. This leaves the Mother of Tears, who will get her own movie much further down the line in the rubbish film of the same name, and The Mother of Darkness/ Mater Tenebrarum, who is the focus of Inferno, and who resides in New York.

Get it?

Got it?

Good.

Unfortunately, compared to the success of Suspiria – both critically and commercially – Inferno floundered. However, like all of Argento’s films from his classic 1975-1987 period, it has garnered a substantial cult reputation, and there are even some horror critics who rate it a notch above Suspiria. Undoubtedly, it showcases the director at his wildest, throwing all kinds of logic, structure and normality to the wind. It has a truly insane, unpredictable charm that genre fans will get a kick out of, despite, or maybe because of its apparent problems. Of all of Argento’s classic-era films, those all-too familiar accusations of zero plot and incoherence are arguably best levelled towards this one. I never thought Suspiria was incoherent myself, but I must admit that Inferno often resembles a stream-of-consciousness that can be as thrilling as it is infuriating. Unlike its predecessor, which delved deeper and deeper into its catacombs of terror with such delectable and crowd-pleasing precision that it managed to cross over into near-mainstream acceptance, Inferno regularly jolts you out of its occasionally hypnotic pull with a random subplot or a tendency towards silliness. People have berated scenes in Suspiria like the bat sequence (which I love), but that’s nothing compared to the cat-attack in this film. To put it mildly, cats are not the most disciplined of actors, and they’re not going to pounce under anyone’s orders, not even Dario Fuckin’ Argento, so what we get is a set-piece involving felines being somewhat inelegantly thrown into shot onto poor Daria Nicolodi, possibly by the crazy cat lady from Zombie Simpsons, and it’s more amusing than funny.

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Stuff like this added up to an ever-so-slightly disappointing experience for me upon first viewing – Inferno seemed all over the place, too silly. Yet there were many – dozens at least – examples of stunning little moments, bravura set-pieces, insane music and gorgeous visuals that made me realise I should give it more time. No, it didn’t quite satisfy me first time round but that only made me hungry to watch it again, to try and make sense of it all. I wanted to love it more. And indeed, I soon loved it for what it was, not for what it wasn’t. Inferno is illogical if you try and treat it as a regular horror film – unlike Suspiria it is far too choppy and odd to have caught on with the mainstream viewer, but for those who are willing to be taken for an idiosyncratic ride, it delivers many, many twisted pleasures. This is the kind of film cult cinema is made of – it follows its own rules, is totally individual and yet thanks to Suspiria‘s success, has had a delightfully large chunk of money thrown at it. I mean, it looks amazing. Let’s be honest, story and dialogue are not Argento’s strong suits, and the bigger budget he had to work with, the more he was able to go full throttle with his visions and as such compensate for his failings in other areas. Low-budget Argento movies as a result are usually pretty scrappy, cheap affairs – Inferno isn’t one of those movies. In fact, when you see the 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare that some prints of the film begin with, you’re almost fooled into thinking that this might be a mainstream film. Yeah, right. Okay, the film feels more contemporary and tied to the real world than Suspiria, where the shut-in atmosphere was very oppressive, and granted, the film is set in New York, and that might suggest a more Hollywood influence, but it’s a Big Apple viewed through the Italian horror/Argento lens. Central Park has never looked less like Central Park than it does here.

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The plot, on the surface at least, is very simple. Rose Elliott (Irene Miracle – yes, that really is her surname!) has been reading up on The Three Mothers and it turns out that the apartment block she lives in is the dwelling place of the Mother of Darkness. She writes to her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) about the weirdness of her surroundings, but gets murdered before he turns up. Mark takes over detective duties but only finds out what we all knew from the start – this house is FUCKED and the Mother of Darkness is not a very nice person. It all ends with…. an INFERNO.

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In addition, we get side-characters like Sara (Eleonora Giorgi), who unwittingly gets dragged into this whole conspiracy when Mark leaves the letter Rose sent him behind without reading it. She reads it, does a little detective work of her own and gets murdered, along with a sleazy but ultimately good guy (Gabriele Lavia – Carlo from Deep Red!) who ‘has nothing to for the next few hours’ and decides to keep Sara company right up to and including both of their deaths. There’s also Kazanian, the crotchety old antique seller who really, really hates cats and who knows a little about what’s going on, but not enough to help him make it to the end credits. There’s a countess who knows too much – she doesn’t last long. Other residents in the building seem to be in on the Three Mothers game to varying degrees of importance. None of them make it either. I think the only characters who do survive are Mark, but even he seems oblivious as to how he’s managed to do so, and the mysterious Third Mother, who has an unforgettable brief appearance in a lecture theatre, along with her astonishing cat. She will re-emerge decades later in Mother of Tears, albeit played by a different actress. The actress playing her in this film – Ania Pieroni – would star in Argento’s next film Tenebrae, but as payback for her having survived Inferno, her character’s the first one to be murdered.

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The first half or so of Inferno is unrelentingly fantastic. Fuck three-act structure, it’s just non-stop weird momentum all the way. Not quite as unforgettably intense as the opening of Suspiria, admittedly, but a magnificent, immediately hypnotic experience nonetheless. Unlike the sparse, direct information directed to us by the narrator in Suspiria, here we get an onslaught of mythology derived from The Three Mothers, a tome written by an architect named Varelli who built the dwelling places where the eponymous witches settled. It’s best not to try and take it all in – to be fair, the narration is even drowned out at one point by the music score, so it’s pointless trying to keep up. There’s some stuff about hidden keys, one of which is in a cellar, and another, somewhat cryptically, can be found ‘under the soles of your shoes’. Our main character, Rose Elliott is reading The Three Mothers, and appears to be residing in the New York house of the Mother of Darkness, which, unlike the dance academy of Suspiria, is an apartment block. Rose visits Kazanian (Sacha Pitoeff) to try and get a grasp on the weirdness between the pages and her surroundings too (it literally smells funny round these parts). She checks out the cellar (there may be a key down there…) – and, you know, what the hell, she only goes inside, where there’s a leak in the pipes that leads to a shallow-looking puddle that’s not shallow at all – in fact, it’s a hole that leads into a sunken ballroom!

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This is bizarre Argento logic at its best – this is like a dream set to celluloid, and just like a dream, inexplicable behaviour ensues. That’s right, Rose accidentally drops her brooch into the ballroom and decides to swim underwater to retrieve it! What follows is pretty much what you’d expect to happen in a film like this. From there on we’re rolling, and Argento doesn’t let up – the next scene introduces Mark and Sara at music theory class, and Mark seems to be the only one who can see the Mother of Tears staring directly at him, mouthing incomprehensible whispers, and petting her super-fluffy cat. No one else seems to notice, not even when the windows burst open and gales of wind come through. He’s so freaked out by this he doesn’t even read the letter Rose sent him, and just as we were getting used to Rose being out of the narrative, Mark takes a walk too and we’re left with Sara. This kind of perspective jumping might rub some viewers up the wrong way, but for a good chunk of this film, it works. Now, the music in this film has been impressive, yet almost restrained given who the composer is. Until now.

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Yep, fair play to Argento for trying new things – the formidable Goblin were jettisoned here in favour of Keith Emerson of Emerson, Lake and Palmer – his approach is even more prog-influenced than this predecessors. After all, he was one of the major players of the genre at the time, and he doesn’t hold back in his ornate, wildly over-the-top approach. Sometimes chilling, sometimes beautiful, often extravagant, Emerson gives Inferno a feel all of its own. His tendency (as was ELP’s) to update classical pieces to modern-day instrumentation is in full flow here, as evidenced by his (some would say garish) update of Verdi’s Nabucco during Sara’s taxi ride sequence. When I first heard this music, I almost choked – it is so, so, so silly. And yet it’s kinda brilliant! Absolutely, utterly mad. The eagle-eyed will notice that Sara’s cab driver is the same bloke who drove Suzy to the Tanzakademie in Suspiria – a brilliant touch. Who’d have thought a cabbie’s route would encompass continents? More crazy logic ensues as Sara arrives at the library to find The Three Mothers. She asks the librarian where she might find a copy – turns out there’s one right behind her! Now this is the sort of shortcut storytelling that might piss off a fair few viewers. To be honest, I found it quite funny. She attempts to steal the book (very naughty) but winds up getting lost, finding herself in some odd subterranean kitchen. The chef seems quite happy to point her in the right direction, but then he realises she’s got The Three Mothers in her possession, and ends up trying to kill her over it. Sara relinquishes the book, but she’s already doomed. Talk about entrapment. I mean, why make the book loanable if you’re only going to kill anyone who tries to borrow it? Trust me, I work in a library. This stuff is important.

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Sara goes back to her apartment block but doesn’t want to be alone, so sleazy Carlo is more than happy to keep her company. Carlo is a sports journalist and given that he has no artistic bones in his body (he believes only in what he can see….and what he can touch) and doesn’t believe in anything supernatural, he’s just got to die. Saying that, almost everybody dies in this film, regardless of their outlook. Sara tries to steer things towards the highbrow by putting on that same Verdi piece we heard earlier (‘you probably recognise this’, she says – I bet dollars to donuts he bloody well hasn’t), but when she tries to ring Mark to tell him about the letter, the electricity in the room starts to go off and on, making the music stop abruptly before restarting. This is great, this bit – instead of a quiet-quiet-LOUD shock we get a loud-loud-QUIET scare, and it’s very effective. There’s also a bit in this sequence that really stands out – we cut to a pair of gloved hands creating a daisy chain of cut-out figures, proceeding to decapitate them with scissors. It recalls the extreme close-ups of the gloved hand playing with their mementos in Deep Red. Then we cut to a woman being hanged. Who is this woman? It is never explained. It throws you out of the narrative with immediate effect, and it’s quite unnerving. It’s proof of Argento’s willingness to experiment – there is nothing like this moment in Suspiria, nothing that knocks you sideways in this manner. Now some may say this is a good thing or a bad thing – for all of Suspiria‘s otherworldliness, its approach is nevertheless streamlined and consistent, whereas Inferno disrupts its own spell with a new spell, and the effect may intrigue as much as it may annoy.

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Back to the film though, and Carlo tries check the fuse box but Sara next sees him with a knife through his neck – we get some grisly close ups as he slobbers gore over her during his death throes. Sara’s the next to go – ouch. Mark shows up with no idea as to what’s happening, and the telephone line’s glitchy when he tries to call Rose, so he’s still none the wiser. We stay with Rose, who has proved to be too inquisitive for her own good. She ends up dead in a terrifically creepy scene where she hopelessly wanders the building. The lighting in this scene is amazing. Like Suspiria, Inferno has a rich, intense colour scheme – the first great example of this is in the opening scene where the camera moves away from Rose writing her letter to Mark and focuses on an illustration of her apartment block. The music builds up and we cut to the building itself from the outside, the lower section bathed in lovely pink lighting.

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The lighting goes into overdrive for Rose’s final scene, which ends with a horrible shock as a pair of wizened hands seize her head and place it under a broken window, which is used as a guillotine that doesn’t quite get the job done – the first attempt to kill her has the window stopping just before it hits her neck, and the decisive strike doesn’t even give her the easy option of a swift decapitation, with the killer letting the window settle halfway through her throat, her fingers still moving. We never see her get decapitated, if indeed she does, and while the gore hound in me might have wanted more, I’m actually pleased Argento fades out the scene when he does. Decapitations can be unforgettably scary in some horror films (The Omen‘s ‘pane of glass’ scene remains the final word on the matter), but sometimes it looks goofy. In the third A Nightmare on Elm Street film, the character of Taryn (the former junkie turned bad ass dream warrior) was originally meant to have been injected with so much drugs that her head exploded, but the effects never really worked out so they ended the scene early. I’m quite glad about this, because the scene in the final cut is really, genuinely disturbing. In both this and Inferno, both scenes are incomplete enough for us to fill in the blanks with our imaginations, and they’re all the better for it.

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Up until now, Inferno has been relentlessly brilliant, a bit silly, and lots of fun. There’s still an hour to go though, and all of a sudden I’m thinking about David Lynch’s Lost Highway, another film where the first third and a bit is unimaginably brilliant, director on top form, etc. and the rest of it is scattershot and not quite so focused. New characters are introduced – the fey countess (Daria Nicolodi, back in front of the camera after missing out on Suspiria, which she co-wrote) is one of the better ones, yet she’s dispatched post-haste. We see more of Kazanian, and then there’s the building’s concierge (Alida Valli, who thanks to dubbing, sounds very different from Miss Tanner) and the countess’ servant, neither of whom are interesting, except when they get killed, especially the latter – bleurgh!!! Then there’s also a mute old man (Feodor Chaliapin, Jr) and his nurse (Veronica Lazar), who appear to be strictly comic relief….or are they……? Mark wanders in and out of their schemings and shenanigans, is sometimes ejected from the narrative altogether and ultimately solves almost nothing in the process. There’s a telling bit when one character says ‘I suppose you know who I am?’ to Mark and the latter admits he has no idea! The character of Mark has been slated being inactive and clueless, but I think it’s all part of the joke.

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One big problem I have is that the two best characters are killed too soon. Rose and Sara exude curiosity, vulnerability and their deaths are the film’s most effective dramatic moments. However, this is where Argento’s love for narrative mischief works against him, as he kills both of these characters way too early! You know how Argento used to get called the Italian Hitchcock early in his career, but then that cute title got rebutted by critics and even the man himself? Well, it’s not entirely unwarranted. After all, he can’t resist the rug-pull shock of killing off his main character halfway through, although to be fair he seemed to have lost interest in Rose for a brief while a third of the way into the plot anyway. However, while the shock of killing of Marion Crane was a bold move in Psycho, it was compensated by focusing on the fascinating character of Norman Bates. In Inferno all we’re left with are a bunch of randomly assigned nobodies, the most intriguing of which is an old bastard who likes to drown cats.

Ah yes, cats.

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Censorship in the UK has been a history of ups and downs right from when it began, and the 1980’s were one of the most turbulent periods. This was the era of the video nasties, and James Ferman with his edit-happy tendencies. Seriously, I’m surprised he wasn’t nicknamed James Scissorhands. Maybe he was. I should check. Many of Argento’s films suffered from BBFC-enforced snips, and most of them were for the intensity and longevity of his murder scenes. However, there was also the instances of animal cruelty. Now while the BBFC has become far more lenient towards sex and violence in its guidelines, its stance on animal cruelty is still pretty immovable, and I’m fine with that. If you’re killing an animal in the name of entertainment, then fuck you. As I’ve already said in my review of Wake in Fright, I’m a hypocrite because I’m not a vegetarian, but there you go. Argento’s always had a predilection for animal cruelty, but in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage it was all cool because all that stuff about eating cats wasn’t real (it wasn’t even seen on-screen), but by the time we got to Deep Red he was actually sticking pins through lizards and filming dog fights and it all started to get a bit ugly. Luckily, only a fake bat got done over in Suspiria, but with Inferno Argento’s mean streak had returned.

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Please understand that I’m not against simply depicting animal cruelty on screen – hey, if it’s all fake, and no one got hurt, then it’s okay. I suppose. But I don’t think some of this was faked. The bit when Kazanian takes a bag full of cats and drowns them in Central Park isn’t a problem because it’s not real, but the scene just before where actor Sacha Pitoeff grabs a feline and carries it over to the other side of a room is a hell of a lot more problematic. At first it doesn’t seem so bad because holding cats by the scruff of their neck shouldn’t actually hurt them (indeed, that’s how mother cats hold their kittens) but after a while it’s obvious the cat’s clearly in distress (see above), and it’s not like we’re talking about the cat pretending to be in distress. It’s not an actor. Cats can’t act. That poor animal is clearly not having a good time. Bizarrely, the BBFC left this bit in the UK print, whereas the shot of it’s head being knocked on the side of the chair to render it unconscious was removed. I mean, of course if that bit really happened then fucking hell, Argento needs to be cat-scratched more than a few hundred times for that one, but that may be a fake cat we’re looking at. I can’t tell. Still, it looked real enough, so out it went. I don’t know why the blatant animal cruelty of the previous shots were allowed to stay in though. There’s also a later scene with Mark is close to discovering the answer to the mystery when we get a few cutaways to a cat eating a mouse. It’s fucking gross, but, I hear you say – cats eat mice, so what’s the big deal about showing nature at its nastiest? Well, I suppose the issue was that the mouse was deliberately served up as dinner for the sake of art, and cats usually eat mice for the sheer fuck out of it, not for survival reasons, so out it went.

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Elsewhere, there are loose ends, stray plot threads, bizarre cutaways, strange motifs (water = bad omen/just cut yourself on something? Uh-oh/ seen a cat? = you’re fucked) and some of it does kind of make sense the more you watch it, and some of it doesn’t. Maybe it all makes complete sense to Argento or maybe he’s just working on instinct and having fun? People end up getting murdered and I’ll be honest, I’m not even sure who did the dirty deed at any given time- the killer with the freaky hands is never identified, and unlike Suspiria there aren’t any plausible suspects! Later on, it looks as though the concierge and the butler appear to be in on the whole scheme, but the latter is murdered for no real reason – maybe the death of the Countess (for which I think the concierge was responsible) angered Mater Tenebrarum? But why would she be angry? I guess I shouldn’t be thinking too much about this – after all, this is a film where a bloke screams for help whilst being devoured by rats and the nearby hot dog vendor who comes to ‘assist’ hacks the back of his neck! For no reason! I mean, where the fuck did THAT come from? It’s a bit like the dog turning on Daniel in Suspiria, but even more insane. You may be stunned beyond belief or crack up at the sheer madness of it all.

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To be honest, I’d have forgiven the second half its eccentricities more if the ending had made it all worth it, but it is anti-climactic. You know that tagline for Suspiria that went something like ‘the only thing more scary than the last twelve minutes of this film are the first ninety?’ – despite that tagline being utterly inappropriate (it makes it sound like the ending’s a disappointment!), it actually would have been far more appropriate for Inferno. While Mark’s descent into the hidden chapters of the apartment block is pretty fun, and a bit like Being John Malkovich‘s secret floor, overall it’s not just very frightening, no matter how hard poor McCloskey tries to look terrified during the final confrontation, which is a let down to say the least. Whereas Suspiria‘s conclusion was an astonishing culmination of dread and horror, Inferno‘s is rather silly. This isn’t to say it’s bad. It’s just…. okay, let’s take the music: this is where we first hear Emerson’s thunderous ‘Mater Tenebrarum’ piece, which on many levels is absolutely terrific – think a funk version of ‘Ave Satani’ from The Omen. Now that obviously sounds fantastic, doesn’t it? And it is! It’s so, so, so overblown, a great example of Emerson at his maddest. The problem is that it’s just not scary. Maybe being scary wasn’t the point? Maybe I shouldn’t be comparing this film to Suspiria all of the time? I can’t help it, sorry. Well, either on its own terms or any others, the final stretch of Inferno remains enjoyable without really being suspenseful. The first of the two final confrontations is pretty good actually: the mysterious Varelli turns out to be the bloke in the wheelchair that Mark encountered in a lift earlier on, and there’s some good dialogue where he compares the structure of the building to a human body. However, after that we get the limp showdown with Mater Tenebrarum (Varelli’s nurse), which also ties in with another of my issues with Inferno.

The acting.

Or is it the directing, or maybe the dubbing?

Either way, something’s a little off. Okay, Suspiria‘s performances weren’t quite award-worthy, but they were great for what they were. Inferno‘s turns don’t work quite so well. They snap you out of the spell of the film all too often – here are some lines that, taken out of context, won’t mean much, but every time I watch the film they make me laugh:

‘Not really’

‘Tell me who you are!’

‘I’m coming to get you!’

‘They’re eating me alive!”

Mater Tenebrarum’s big speech at the end doesn’t have much punch – some of it is to do with the strange, almost distant delivery, but it’s more to do with how on repeat viewings you can’t ignore what’s about to happen on screen. That’s right, I’m talking about the true face of death, also known as the tall person in the skeleton costume.  It looks a little like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come in the 1970 musical version of A Christmas Carol, the one with Albert Finney. It’s not too bad looking, but it’s just a bit too obviously artificial. In fact, it’s so underwhelming that it negates the rather clever trick shot leading up to it, where we discover that the approaching Mater Tenebrarum is actually a reflection, culminating in her smashing through the glass. In true Mark fashion, he doesn’t even deliver the killer move that ignites the inferno that destroys Mater Tenebrarum. The fire just kinda starts. He makes a run for it through the building that’s falling apart (very reminiscent of Suspiria) and Tenebrarum just stands there and screams with her arms up in the air as she perishes in the fire. Meh. I was bemused, a little amused, but not frightened. Pity. Cue Emerson’s theme. Roll credits.

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To be fair, there’s also some humour in Inferno, and by that I mean intentional. Argento dabbled in humour in his Animal Trilogy – remember that absolutely mad bit where ‘Hallelujah’ comes in out of nowhere on the soundtrack to Four Flies on Grey Velvet? Or the bloke who ate cats in The Bird with the Crystal Plumage? He also once made a comedy of sorts – The Five Days of Milan – and no one apart from anyone writing dissertations on the man has watched it. There was some comedy in Deep Red, most of which was rather cruelly edited out of the international version, but I thought was rather splendid. Then there was that scene involving ‘people whose names start with ‘s’ are the names of snakes!’ bit in Suspiria. Here we get a scene where a seemingly innocuous nurse (she’s actually a MOTHER) confuses musicology with toxicology, possibly in purpose. I mean, it’s not actually funny but you can tell it’s trying to be. Then we get Carlo, the guy who lives in the same block as Sara. The joke about him assuming The Three Mothers are ‘those black singers’ made me laugh enough at the time to have not realised that Sara actually incorrectly refers to them a moment earlier as ‘The Three Sisters’, which does sound more like the name of a girl group I suppose, but would she really have made that error after only almost having died over a copy of the book? Why am I questioning logic in a film like this?

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Inferno is a progression from Suspiria in some respects – there’s more experimentation in technique and narrative, but this ambition can serve to detract from the atmosphere. Whereas the former enshrouds you in its cloak of atmosphere, I spend a lot of Inferno distanced from it, admiring it for its spectacle and neat cutaways and cool tricks. It makes for a consistently dazzling viewing experience, but not one likely to cut into my core being and scare me senseless. Still, it’s not fair for me to berate the film for what it’s not. What it is still a remarkably inventive film, always entertaining, and an essential watch: my advice is to see Inferno on the biggest screen possible – there its flaws will be as close to obliterated as possible.

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PS: It has been brought to my attention that the woman in the lecture theatre with the cat isn’t actually referred to as the Third Mother. This is absolutely true, and to be honest, I didn’t identify her as such when I first watched it, but it seems like everyone agrees that it is her, even if we’re all just guessing!

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!

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!