The trials of Lawrence’s pop mission seep out from between the cracks of his shambling, bizarre and often very funny day-to-day life
The subject of this film is one of the more inexplicable, idiosyncratic, and perhaps influential voices of English pop of the past thirty odd years. He sings, plays the guitar, pens all of his own lyrics, and his first group, Felt, are periodically touted as The Ultimate Cult Indie Band. His name is Lawrence, and you have more than likely not heard of him until now. If not, here is a little background detail on this most unsung of singers:
Lawrence, who like Morrissey, chooses to live life with one name only, also, like Morrissey, has a reputation within the music industry for being something of an eccentric. But whereas Moz’s sexless iconoclasm perversely left him an iconic object of near-sexual adulation, Lawrence’s stylistic singularity and behavioural quirks have made him both a figure of ridicule and, sometimes, reverence within the indie fraternity.
Felt were a momentous pop band. Scraped together from across Birmingham’s provincial fringes, the group released ten albums and ten singles in ten years. A calculated feat, this says much of Lawrence’s ambition and, in its decimal wholeness, something less tangible about his conception of Felt as a perfect pop creation. The band played their intricate, esoteric, and often highly spirited music beneath the gaudy, greedy clamour of ’80s Britain, and put out records with such effortlessly self-important titles as Crumbling the Antiseptic Beauty or Forever Breathes the Lonely Word.
Since its conclusion, Felt’s back catalogue has been the subject of several reappraisals and reissues; chiefly thanks to fan-boy endorsements from Belle and Sebastian top dog, Stuart Murdoch. Nevertheless, the obscure splendour of the group, its songs and its mythology, have been somewhat clouded behind the wackier flourishes of its frontman’s curious persona.
After disbanding the group, Lawrence soon resurfaced as the aviator-shaded captain of early ’90s post-glam outfit, Denim. This new band was oceans apart from anything he had dabbled in over the course of Felt’s ten LP tenure, and it was all the better for it. Denim’s handclapping, platform-stomping debut, Back in Denim, sets the singer’s conflicting love and horror for his ’70s boyhood against a Glitter Band beat, with effects which are, by turns, bitingly funny, earnestly silly, and often disarmingly moving.
A serviceable follow-up, Denim on Ice, came after, along with a bumper collection of B-sides and bin ends, self-effacingly entitled Novelty Rock. However, neither of these releases, as arch and absurd as they are, could recapture the deft interplays of the band’s first disc. The original record casts historical ephemera, sad reminiscence, and kitschy nostalgia within a brash, unloved genre and, in doing so, somehow manages to celebrate the decade of the three-day week, whilst vividly conjuring up its naff posturing and political instabilities. It is a small masterpiece.
Denim died a death just when Lawrence looked as though he might break through into the public consciousness. The band’s third album proper, Denim Take Over, had been picked up by major label giants EMI, and its lead single, a made-to-order mega hit no less, was lined up to be BBC Radio One’s single of the week upon its release in September of 1997. Unfortunately for the fame-hungry Lawrence, the record was gracelessly pulled in the wake of Princess Diana’s sudden passing. So petrified were the EMI execs of the song’s incendiary content reaching the woebegone people of Britain, they had every last vinyl pressing of the record melted down and hastily disposed of. The title of the single was Summer Smash.
This seems an apt point at which to return to the matter of Paul Kelly’s new documentary, Lawrence of Belgravia. The tragic-comic fate of Summer Smash neatly articulates the inescapably poor timing which has blighted Lawrence’s career, and acts an allegorical projection of his tumultuous love affair with the world of tabloids, celebrity, and the class of the super-rich. Kelly deems to focus his filmmaker’s lens on this impossible quest for fame, rather than the music which sound-tracked it. The 90-minute or so piece follows Lawrence from band rehearsals in his council house bedroom, via the farthest fringes of ’80s indie stardom, and into destitution and piteous delusion in a lonely London tower block.
However, this story is not served up to the audience in discreet narrative portions, nor is it related to us in anecdotal form by a gallery of talking heads. Rather, the director opts to let the trials of Lawrence’s pop mission eek out from between the cracks of his shambling, bizarre, and often very funny day-to-day life as he works toward the release of an upcoming album by his current band Go Kart Mozart (which bears the hideously anti-commercial moniker, On the Hot Dog Streets).
This narrative method, though admirably unconventional, has dubious merits when portraying such an exotically pathetic and easily patronised character. The camera hovers around Lawrence’s baseball capped head as he is unceremoniously evicted from his flat, while another scene sees him pawning his cherished first guitar, and a further, truly abominable moment finds a journalist smugly ribbing the balding singer as he is goaded into shopping for new, trendier headgear. The overall effect of this passive mode is that the viewer’s attentions are drawn not to the vital creative powers that spring from Lawrence’s bemusing existence, but rather his ennui, insecurities, and impoverished foibles; all of which we are invited to chuckle over from within our safe, art-house cinema seats.
Because of this, the enigmatic mastermind of Felt and Denim emerges from Paul Kelly’s film as a sort of indie-pop Mr Bean: a socially ill-equipped clown who, though good-natured, is ultimately left helpless and alone. The director seems to suggest that this state of existential collapse is OK as long as it is entertaining, occasionally funny, and, most importantly, not happening to us.
My reaction to this unwanted insight was to go home, listen to Felt LPs, and remember the Lawrence I know from the beautiful sleeves of extraordinary records. After all, pop music was never meant to be about reality.
Image from: http://www.brooklynvegan.com/img/music2/lawrence.jpg
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