The series of connections begins with Lawrence of Belgravia, Paul Kelly’s documentary about Lawrence Hayward, the enigmatic and eccentric lead singer of the influential yet under-appreciated 80s UK band Felt. The film premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2011 and has since screened sporadically throughout the UK. Lawrence had featured in one of Kelly’s previous works, Finisterre, a film about contemporary London made in collaboration with the pop group Saint Etienne and co-directed with Kieran Evans. Kelly reportedly shot this new work over six years following Lawrence as he continues to make music with his current band Go-Kart Mozart, yet barely cobbles together a living in an industry to which he has dedicated the past 30+ years of his life.
He’s a bit of an oddball, Lawrence, a much beloved oddball who has sadly never garnered the recognition and recompense he deserves: Felt seemed forever on verge of being as big an indie act as the Smiths but always quite inexplicably fell short; Denim, Lawrence’s band in the 1990s, anticipated the anglophilia of the Britpop era but reached their peak too early with the 1992 release of their debut album, Back in Denim, coming in the inhospitable midst of the grunge era. Go-Kart Mozart, in contrast to the popular potential of both Felt and Denim, seems entirely out of step with the present day and although Lawrence still harbors dreams of pop stardom, it seems unlikely that the corrosive wit and charismatic glamstomp of his current work will find favour with the public or trouble today’s pop charts.
I’d been thinking about Lawrence not simply because I want to see the film – my account of it here is assembled from interviews, festival reports, and reviews – but because I had recently managed to get a hold of a copy of Denim’s debut LP and have been listening obsessively to a song called “The Osmonds”, which trawls through and gathers up a series of 70s pop cultural references, most of them UK-specific, and structures them around a chorus that identifies the omnipresence of the eponymous young American singing sensations as the lamentable yet defining feature of the decade: “And in the 70s/There were Osmonds/There were lots of Osmonds/There were lots of little Osmonds/ Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere.”
There is something terrifying in this, as it casts the Osmonds as triffids and imaginatively links their proliferating fecundity to their toothy Mormonism, yet the song is primarily recuperative. Looking beyond the Osmonds, Lawrence sees the richness of the 70s in all their naffness and inelegance. “Chopper bikes” and “crushed velvet flares” are at once simple catalysts for nostalgic reminiscence, but also now function metonymically, striking parts standing in for the decade as a whole. The song, for all its playfulness and invention, is also deeply melancholic. Lawrence refers to the Birmingham pub bombings of 1974 and points out the sheer psychological impact the event had on him and his contemporaries: “Everyone knew someone who’d died/They’ll never forget it for the rest of their lives.”
This allusion connects the song to The Rotters’ Club, a novel by Jonathan Coe published nine years later in 2001, which similarly returns to the 70s and attempts to reevaluate the decade, not by looking past its naffness but by looking at it, understanding that the truth of the decade resides in those things that we are so quick to laugh at or offhandedly dismiss nowadays, basically as a defense mechanism against treating the decade and its hopes and aspirations seriously. I’m certainly not the first to notice this connection between song and novel. Alexis Petridis, in the Guardian review of the 2006 re-release of Back in Denim, notes that the song is “Moving and evocative…like Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club condensed into eight stunning minutes.” At the time of its release in 1992 it was perhaps too soon for this kind of reassessment of the 70s, only Pulp among their contemporaries were doing a similar kind of thing, but from the vantage point of the present the song is as distinguished by its perspicacity as it is by its prematurity.
Back in Denim also features a companion song to “The Osmonds”: the caustic and comic album closer “I’m Against the Eighties.” The general argument of the song is there in its very title, but the specifics are of interest: Lawrence indicts the decade for “Duran Duran/Fake make-up boys” but also for littering the early 90s with “winkle-picker kids/Mary Chain debris.” He reiterates his attachment to the 70s in all of its excess even as he acknowledges that the decade has passed and the task is to invent the future from the residual remnants of the past. The key qualification he adds is that he intends to forget the 80s, to bypass them entirely with Denim: “I’ve made a new sound/This ain’t going underground/It’s a thunderbolt crash/Concerns the future and the past/But not the ’80s.” This 80s hostility is comic in its intensity yet provocative in its sincerity. For Lawrence, the 80s ended with a whimper, and “I’m Against the Eighties” presents a catalogue of decade’s dead ends, false starts, and errors in judgment.
This ruthless reassessment of the 80s no sooner than the decade had come to a close led to the creation of another song that similarly wondered what could be salvaged from the shipwreck. As Bob Stanley explains in the liner notes to the reissue of Saint Etienne’s 1991 album Foxbase Alpha, “We’d heard Denim’s ‘I’m Against The 80s’ and we weren’t fond of the 80s either.” This led them to write and record “Fake ’88,” which was “originally intended to be the last track on the album, a big climactic ending.” This would have made it the equivalent of “I’m Against the Eighties,” the manifesto that sums up and concludes the work of the album as a whole. But, Stanley notes, the track “didn’t fit the bill” and was sent off, first to one of the Volume magazine collections, then to the 1994 fan club only release I Love to Paint, which, incidentally, and to create an initial short loop of references here, features a cover designed by Jarvis Cocker.
“Fake ’88” begins with a brief sample from the Monkees’ movie Head directed by Bob Rafelson in 1968. This is not surprising, perhaps, given Saint Etienne’s enthusiasm for the 60s pop universe and for the pop surrealism of the Monkees themselves. The song proper is a diptych. The first section is sung by Sarah Cracknell, and consists of a somewhat obscure short lyrical sketch of a tired and anxious man as he is about to embark on a journey. It is downtempo and looks forward to the ennui of “Avenue”, their epic 1993 single that features on its b-side a song, “Paper,” co-written by Maurice Deebank, Lawrence’s former compatriot from Felt.
At the half-way mark, and after the soft harpsichord-like motif and drum build to an absolute crescendo, the song abruptly shifts in tone and voice. This second part is largely spoken by a male voice and begins by situating its action: “Scene from a film, circa 1982/We drove down George Street, en route to Wendy’s/Glen Campbell was on the radio singing about cleaning his gun/and dreaming of Galveston./”What’s this?” she said./”It’s Hall & Oates or nothing for me.” Having reached this impasse, the man asks the woman what the 80s are going to be remembered for and then relates her response:
Waffle cardigans, Wentworth jail,
rah-rah skirts straight out of Hell,
Andrew ??? and BMX bikes,
Chernenko and miners’ strikes,
Nikky Kershaw and Red Ken,
Peter Tatchell and Dirty Den,
Mark King slapped his bass,
and early issues of The Face,
Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Margaret Thatcher,
Toto Coelo, and Spycatcher,
E.T., Arthur, Elmo’s Fire,
not a patch on Billy Liar,
Phil Redmond and Transformers,
Tin-Tin Duffy in leg-warmers,
Stu Damer, evil Tel,
Roger Hebert, what a pal,
Steven Waldorf, Jerry Gross,
Do The Hucklebuck by Coast To Coast,
Steve Blacknell on the telly,
the classic beard of Altobelli,
Leon Klinghofer, Baby Doc,
blonde highlights, flourescent sock,
Steve Lynex and Gordon Smith,
Martin Fry grew a quiff,
Haysi Fantayzee, Videotech,
Shakey drove us crazy, what the heck,
Hazel O’Connor in Breaking Glass,
Gripper Stebson’s in the class.
It is a series of tremendous couplets, but the best of the bunch may be the richly ironic one nestled in the middle that brings together “transformers” and “Tin Tin Duffy in leg warmers.” The voice in the song is of course precisely that of Stephen Tintin Duffy, the reluctant 80s pop star who shot to fame with the irresistably catchy “Kiss Me.” I must confess a total love of this song. It is, to my mind, an absolute pop masterpiece, with the swirling, infatuated, drunken dizziness of the chorus perfectly captured in the hand-painted and hand-scratched (and rather experimental – Len Lye or Norman McLaren for MTV!) rotations of the music video made for its global release in 1995.
The lyrics are silly yet strikingly sad, ripped directly from the Song of Songs but backed by 80s electrosynth that’s simultaneously melancholic and ecstatic: “Kiss me with your mouth/Your love in better than wine/But wine is all I have/Will your love never be mine?” The song, I think, was a particular hit in Canada, which had at the time a voracious appetite for English pop of all sorts. I never owned the 7″ or the album, but saw the video innumerable times on MuchMusic and had taped it from there. This, in itself, is perhaps indicative of the ways in which the circulation and consumption of music changed in the 1980s, but also, and I know this is a historical cliche, explains in part why UK pop performers, with their greater attention to image and style, were ascendent during the early years of music television.
The other thing about Tintin that was a general source of fascination was the fact that he had been a founding member of Duran Duran, leaving the band before Simon Le Bon joined and they became a global pop phenomenon. There seemed to be both a sense of tragedy when this was mentioned on MuchMusic, as if he was an utter fool for abandoning ship in the moments before take-off, and a sense of justice, that a minor hit or two was adequate recompense for his youthful error of judgment. But Duffy was probably never cut out for international superstardom and at the precise moment that this was exactly what the world seemed to have in store for him, he retreated and rethought everything, leaving Tintin behind.
Just as Lawrence dramatically turned his back on the work of Felt when he formed Denim, so too did Stephen Duffy radically shift direction when he formed The Lilac Time with his brother Nick in 1986. On their self-titled debut album from 1987, the synthpop rhythms of “Kiss Me” are replaced with an acoustic Englishness, a sound more olde folk than new wave. I have to confess that my knowledge of The Lilac Time is extremely sketchy. I was aware of them at the time, but they, and their 4 albums released between 1987 and 1991, completely passed me by. Catching up with them now, they seem to have anticipated the return to an experimental English folk tradition that has only fully realized itself in the past few years (I’m talking Ghost Box here, not Mumford and Sons – for more see Rob Young’s Electric Eden), and I’m not surprised that when Saint Etienne decided to record a version of the folk standard “Western Wind” for their 1993 album Tiger Bay, they drafted Stephen Duffy in to sing it. And to make the sequence of Saint Etienne connections complete, I’ll also note that the last of the Lilac Time albums from this first phase, 1991’s Astronauts, recorded and released on Creation Records, contains a song called “Finisterre,” a title SE would resurrect for their 2002 album, its title track, and the companion film.
And just as Lawrence has had a documentary made about him, so too has Stephen Duffy. Directed by Douglas Arrowsmith, Memory and Desire: Thirty Years in the Wilderness with Stephen Duffy and the Lilac Time (2009) has yet to receive the promised DVD release, but screened at a number of film festivals throughout 2009. The clips online are tantalizing and I suspect from its title that the film must trace Duffy’s idiosyncratic career path. Since the first phase of the Lilac Time came to an end in 1991, Duffy has returned to the name on a few different occasions as well as recording as a solo artist. But he’s also had a few surprising collaborations that have brought him back into the mainstream, if in a behind-the-scenes rather than a right-up-front capacity.
Perhaps most bizarrely for Canadians, he has had a long-running collaborative relationship with Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies. This is what most likely led to the concert at the Reverb in Toronto that I missed in April 1998. Details of the show can be found at the comprehensive Duffypedia site. “Kiss Me” closed the show, but the majority of the setlist was drawn from his work with the Lilac Time. More recently, Duffy has also performed and written songs with Robbie Williams. As Alexis Petridis writes, this collaboration with Williams (most notably on 2005’s Intensive Care LP) unexpectedly returned Duffy to the spotlight and even gave him, as a songwriter, the number one single that eluded him during his time as a solo artist or in the Lilac Time.
So even though recent years have brought chart success, there is still something of the lost pop hero to Duffy, whose success behind the scene hasn’t stopped him from continuing to record and perform with the Lilac Time. Bob Stanley’s 1993 assessment, made a point when Duffy had put the Lilac Time on hiatus and had left Creation, still somehow rings true:
Stephen’s the John Charles of modern pop music (obscure football reference). Or possibly the Alex Chilton – we can’t quite decide. You see, like John Charles he’s the most gentlemanlike chap in his field but, like Alex Chilton, he’s doomed to toil away with virtually no recognition before everybody claims him as a major influence in their career.
And this is what binds him to Lawrence: both occupy that space of lost pop hero. They both, at key moments, retreated from the scene, only to reinvent themselves and return to it transformed. And even though Duffy has capitalized on his work in recent years to a far greater degree than Lawrence, both represent something of the oddness of 80s pop, the decade’s ability, in the midst of everything that it is so understandable to be against, to produce people who it is hard, because of their manic pop intelligence, to be for.
While I’ve mapped out a series of connections here that take in Lawrence and Stephen Duffy, there really is a third name that needs to be mentioned, even if I haven’t quite sorted out the tangible link that would bind them all together. Green Gartside, or Scritti Politti, surely must belong to this trinity of 80s returns and reinventions. He perhaps occupies a middle ground between Lawrence and Duffy, not as precarious a figure as the former yet not reaching the chart success of the latter. After several years of silence, Gartside re-emerged in 2006, with a series of concerts and an album that in its combination of folk and electronica is not a million miles away from The Lilac Time’s Astronauts. But Scritti’s mutations, from pop to hip-hop to jazz to folk, demand a post of its own. Until then, “I’m Against the Eighties”: