Here Lies Lawrence, The Best Pop Star the World Never Really Knew
The frontman of Felt, Denim, and Go-Kart Mozart has said he's always been obsessed with being famous. Despite making some of indie rock's most influential records, he might never be, but that's ok too.
Lawrence walks into a London coffee shop on a quiet Thursday afternoon ready for an Arctic expedition, his face obscured by a scarf, a hat, a hood, and another scarf. Half Elvis, half harried-aunt-running-errands, the look is befitting of a 56-year-old man who has spent much of his life cultivating an air of rock ’n’ roll mystique. The look, however, belies how Lawrence exactly is feeling this afternoon.
“I’m tired,” he says, by way of apologizing for his lateness. “I’m tired for the first time in my life.”
Clutching a carrier bag full of lord knows what, the cult figure responsible for a handful of the finest records to ever emerge from English soil shuffles out in the cold air for a cup of tea and a cigarette. We’re stood on Whitecross Street, just under the shadow of the Barbican’s looming trio of brutalist towers. As is usual for this time of day, office workers congregate around street food stalls, hunched over heaving falafel flatbread wraps, tottering past William Blake’s grave with chili sauce dripping down their freshly pressed shirts.
“See that bloke there,” Lawrence says, pointing out an elderly man picking at a sandwich from a tupperware container, “there’s usually a swarm of people where he’s stood. Every lunchtime. It took me ages to realize why that was. Turns out it’s a guy selling knock-off fags from Europe. He does them for seven quid a packet. Anyway, shall we go up to my flat?”
You get the sense that Lawrence could tell you a story about everyone on this street, such is his eye for detail. That magpie-like ability to pick and pluck runs through his voluminous back catalogue. An observant, witty lyricist, and any lyricist who can seamlessly juxtapose horrific IRA bombings of British pubs, the Osmonds, crushed velvet flares, and Lee Scratch Perry should always be cherished, this small, slight man with a penchant for glam rock and brilliant jackets has spent much of his life struggling to live up to his own expectations.
He’s fronted three of the UK’s most cherished cult bands (Felt, Denim, and Go-Kart Mozart) written stacks and stacks of brilliant songs, conceptualized and then realized everything he’s ever set out to do. Except one thing. And that one thing means a lot to him. That one thing is to be famous. Like really famous.
Lawrence—like Madonna, he’s mutated into an almost entirely mononymous figure to the point where it is just as difficult to imagine anyone ever calling him “Mr. Hayward” as it is to imagine her answering to “Ms. Ciccone”—hasn’t picked up a guitar inside his own house for a long time. “I refuse to play an instrument in this flat until its ready,” he tells me, as we sit in his living room. He moved in seven years ago.
Which isn’t to say that he’s spent that time sitting around getting through the extensive stacks of first editions and paperbacks that litter his flat, a collection crammed with the kind of esoteric material you’d expect from a songwriter beloved by a certain kind of bookish music fan.
The reason that I’ve been summoned to his house for the afternoon, a task which is virtually a rite of passage for writers who own a Field Mice album, is because he’s on the verge of releasing the fourth Go-Kart Mozart record, the chintzy, synthy Mozart’s Mini-Mart(due February 23 on Cherry Red) .
That, it transpires, is the reason for his tiredness. He’d been at band practice the night before, and had spent the morning trying to sort out a faulty space heater. A friend had recommended an electrical shop in Forest Hill, a semi-suburban enclave a few miles south of Lawrence’s 12th storey apartment. So Lawrence had trekked to Forest Hill and then back to his flat and then to a print studio where he’d been hoping to pick some cardboard up. He had been waiting for four weeks for the cardboard to dry at this point. Detail, as any Go Kart Mozart fan knows, is a Lawrencian hallmark.
Go-Kart Mozart is the third act of a career that begun just outside of Birmingham as punk was in bloom. For nearly 40 years now Lawrence has played the underdog to perfection, honing an air of misunderstood talent, revelling, or at least seeming to revel, in never quite being as big as he believed he should. Here lies Lawrence, his pose seems to say, The great indie enigma, the best pop star this country never knew.
Wednesday January 12, 1977 was the day the transformation began. “I knew I wanted to be involved in music before that,” he explains, as we perch on a grey sofa in his living room. “But I didn't know how I was going to do it. And then I bought the NME.”
Inky fingers—a side-effect of thumbing through Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, the pair of weekly papers that educated a generation—were a small price to pay for eye-opening, mind-altering metamorphosis. “When I finally got into reading the music papers I found a way in,” he explains. “‘Oh, this is what you do!’ You started a band and got reviewed and I saw how it happened. You can be on the cover of the NME after one gig. Sometimes you didn't even have to do a show. You could just be on the NME because you were that good and everybody knew it.”
Feeling distant from former friends, a 16-year-old Lawrence—small, slight, less interested in pints and pubs than his peers—found himself hurtling into the white light of punk. It went beyond the records and the magazines. “There was nothing like it,” he says of the way punk rose through the cracks in the pavement at an alarmingly rapid rate, mutating from a niche concern to a subcultural behemoth in a matter of weeks. “More than anything it was scary. As well as being exciting it was equally as scary. Suddenly there were these demarcations, you couldn't do this, couldn't do that, couldn't go here, couldn't go there, if you dressed a certain way you could get in big trouble,” he says. He threw himself into it.
On the last day of his secondary education, the 3rd of May, ‘77, he abandoned his friends, and trekked alone to the Odeon in Birmingham to see seminal New York punk-adjacents, Television.
“I'd never seen a band like that before,” he says, a smile crawling across his thin, sharp face. “I didn't expect it to be the way it was. I was in shock. They just stood still, didn't talk to the audience, and they were very moody.”
It was settled. Lawrence was going to get out of Water Orton, the village he hated, and away from people who prioritized mopeds over music. He was going to be somebody. So he started work on the project that would, and still does, hang like a shadow over his life’s work; he started Felt.
Over the course of ten albums—technically nine, as Lawrence contributed nothing but song titles to the 1988 LP, Train Above the City—Felt created their own world. It is ornate and rich, a sound to bathe in, imbued with the kind of chilly melancholia that rises from the edges of English towns, the places where the nothing of nothingness takes on cosmic proportions. It is jangle pop as odyssey, an almost heroic feat of faith in the face of commercial ignorance.
The Felt sound, so free from the abrasive edges of the group’s post-punk peers, is one he describes as “a vision of a music I'd not heard before.” And even from the band’s very beginning, he set out making that vision a reality.
It is a vision of Englishness, of dew and dog shit, of Samuel Richardson and Rising Damp. “When we were doing the first album, I wanted to release the best English debut album ever,” he says of 1982’s spindly, embryonic Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty LP. “It'd be too conceited to say ‘I want to make the best album in the world,’” he admits.
From the earliest of early days—the Lawrence-only debut single “Index,” a vocal-free, Velvet Underground-y thrash through a few chords—ambition met meticulous precision. The plan was always to release Felt material throughout the 80s and then stop. By that time, he reasoned, Felt would be so huge that this decision to jump ship, to move on, to leave Felt shimmering in aspic, would provoke outrage and outcry. The outcry wasn’t forthcoming. “I didn't know we wouldn't be famous,” he says with the faintest hint of surprise in his voice.
The best Felt songs, tunes like “Crystal” and “Sunlight Bathed the Golden Glow” and heart-stoppingly broken-down, “The World Is As Soft As Lace,” are truly perfect pop songs. Listening to them now, three decades down the line, it isn’t hard to see why Lawrence felt fame, fortune, and a spot on Top of the Pops beckoned.
The closest they came was the 1985 single “Primitive Painters,” taken from Ignite the Seven Canons, a record which largely saw the group embracing their baroque tendencies. “Primitive Painters”—a churning, six-minute mini-epic featuring Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins—reached the top of the UK independent charts. It was the biggest hit they’d ever have.
It also marked the departure of Maurice Deebank, the group’s guitarist. “We grew up together, but we weren't friends,” Lawrence says of him. “I'd seen what he could do when he came to tune my guitar once. He could do solos. I wanted to be in a band with solos.”
Deebank’s genius is all over those early Felt albums—his spindly, tight, jangles ricochet around songs like “Cathedral”, “I Don’t Know Which Way to Turn”, and “Evergreen Dazed”, part Roger McGuinn, part Tom Verlaine. If in a just world, Lawrence would be bigger than Mick Jagger, Maurice Deebank would be as revered as Jimi Hendrix.
The group carried on without their guitar hero. They had to, Lawrence wasn’t letting the plan fall apart. “It was about being famous for being great songwriters. For being the greatest songwriter of a generation,” he says, a note of defiance creeping into his soft Midlands accent. “It wasn't about competing with the Beatles or the Rolling Stones: you'd have to be stupid to think like that, you're stupid if you think that because you should just try and be the best of your generation, the best of what's going on around you at the time. Be the best of then. Don't think back to the past.”
You cannot outrun the past, however many songs you write, however many hats you wear and photos you pose for. The past is there to haunt you. Luckily it is also there to be remastered, repackaged, and resold.
February 23 also sees UK indie label Cherry Red reissue of the group’s first five albums, spanning what is arguably their best period. “I'd like hip kids to buy it because I think you can wear Felt as a badge of honor,” he replies when prodded about who he envisions schlepping to record shops with their paper round pocket money. “It is a band that's never let anybody down.” Describing them as “the ultimate English cult band,” Lawrence maintains that, “you'll never be ashamed if you say you like Felt. You'll only get respect.”
It feels like this reissuing process is a chance for Lawrence—in person a charmingly odd man, effortlessly polite but slightly agitated, a strange, slightly lonely figure who both relishes his role as the king of his council-flat castle and finds it a drain, which wont come as a surprise to anyone who has seen the touching 2011 documentary Lawrence of Belgravia—to right some wrongs.
“The fourth Felt album [Ignite the Seven Cannons] was produced by Robin Guthrie of the Cocteau Twins,” he says, explaining just one of those wrongs. “And he messed it up big time.”
Banned from the studio—a contract was drawn up that essentially said "I, Robin, will produce the album if Lawrence doesn't come to the mixing,”—Lawrence spent his days in Edinburgh, biding his time. “Consequently he ruined my record. All my best songs, he ruined.”
It is the only moment during my time with Lawrence where any hint of hard feelings edged into view. Even then, there’s a happier outcome than looked previously possible. He’d kept hold of the master tapes for that album’s five vocal tracks, and 30 years later, he’s finally happy with it. “They're amazing,” he says of the reissues. “Absolutely amazing.” Of course they are, because they are Felt in their prime, premiere exponents of a sound that no one has touched before or since, no matter how hard Real Estate may try.
Felt wasn’t the end of Lawrence’s story, however big of a chapter it may be in his biography. True to his word, Lawrence disbanded the group in 1989. Shortly after he found himself living in New York. Homesick, he dreamt up Denim, a proto-Britpop-cum-glam-rock-revialist outfit that signed to acid house DJ Terry Farley’s label, Boy’s Own Recordings. After two albums of 70s-inspired sardonic and brash bubblegum, followed by yet another refusal on the part of the general public to embrace him as a radio and TV-friendly megastar, Denim faded from view.
The group’s mooted third album never arrived, and “Summer Smash,” arguably the most infectious, commercially viable, and grin-inducing single he’s ever written, the song that could have finally made Lawrence a household name, had its intended September 1997 shelved in the wake of Princess Diana’s death in a car crash. Such is Lawrence’s life.
Go-Kart Mozart—founded in 1998 and named after a line in “Blinded By the Light”—saw Lawrence swapping guitars for synths, and the result is a set of albums that have an almost end-of-the-pier-show sensibility about them. These are knowingly naff, archly chintzy ornaments, that might not pertain to the kind of permanence and classicism that the Felt records are both soaked in and radiate, but are still worthy additions to Lawrence’s bulging back catalog. This is Lawrence, the man who spends his days walking round London’s west end peering into shops, not Lawrence the romantic idealist waiting for the world to arrive on his doorstop.
The forthcoming GKM LP, Mozart’s Mini-Mart, is a strange, sentimental record, and one that, and I say this quietly, feels a bit like Lawrence recognizing that his quest for fame, his ache for recognition has become another layer to wrap around himself on cold winter mornings. Albums that sound like this—like a stand up comedian hanging out with Mark E Smith at a disco in deepest south Yorkshire—don’t storm the charts. Groups that sound like this don’t go on stadium tours. The Lawrences of this world don’t do those things.
On an alternate earth in an alternate galaxy, songs like “When You’re Depressed” and “Zelda’s in the Spotlight”—a glorious early-album one-two of punchy synthpop and Bubble Bobble-electronics—top the charts. Teenagers, clad in t-shirts with Lawrence’s face on the front, roam city centres late at night chanting “When you’re depressed /When you’re depressed / You’re depressed!”
Back here in reality, the impulse, to document, to record, to make a life that suits this charming, eccentric, out-of-time figure, is still there. “I've been writing songs without a guitar a lot because I can't stop,” he says, just as the sun begins to descend, pale winter sun ebbing softly into the oncoming and incoming evening. “I'll be having a cigarette on the balcony in the middle of the night and suddenly it'll come. I don't even want it to. I want to stop it! I don't want to walk into the kitchen and get a pad in the middle of the night. But you have to. You don't want to miss it.”
Before I get ready to say my goodbyes, Lawrence asks himself a question. “Will I still be doing this in another 30 years? Definitely. That’s why they call me the Picasso of pop.”
The Miss Havisham of British indie music is still up in his attic. He’s paying attention. He’s making notes. And when he’s ready—the world will be his. Finally.