‘I could still be a pop star,’ says Lawrence, sitting on a footstool in his council flat, high up in a tower block above London EC1. ‘I know I’m not going to be a person who has a million hits on the internet. Do they call them hits? Views, or streams, whatever they are. I’m not going to be that person, but I still think I could have a hit record. For me a song like “Relative Poverty” is a song for this generation, and I don’t know why it shouldn’t be an anthem for today.’
Lawrence is now 57, and he has been trying (and failing) to become a pop star since 1979. First there was a decade with Felt, the gorgeous wordy group — as if Bob Dylan and the Velvet Underground had spent their time in provincial libraries — who made ten albums and ten singles in ten years and then split, and whose newly reissued back catalogue is the reason for our conversation. Then there were Denim, the arch 1990s glam- rock revivalists who both foreshadowed and despised Britpop, and who sang of a 1970s of ‘lots of little Osmonds everywhere’ and pub bombings and Hughie Green and the Black Panther rapist. For the past 20 years, there has been Go-Kart Mozart, described by Lawrence as ‘the world’s first B-side band’, whose music is, approximately, what you would get if ice-cream van themes offered social commentary.
Lawrence is beloved of a certain generation of music fans, especially music writers — those who were in their mid-teens in the 1980s when Felt were at their very best. The editor of Q magazine adores him, and the chief pop writers of the Guardian and the Times do, too. There has been a film about him, Lawrence of Belgravia. His profile is out of all proportion to the number of records he has sold. He is perhaps a genius, perhaps a savant. It’s harder to pin down who he is because he seems less like a real person than someone who decided to create a persona — the pop star — only to find the persona had superseded reality.
The legend of Lawrence is beset with catastrophic failure (‘I’m unusually disaster-prone, absolutely’). There was the Felt show in London in 1987, to which all the major labels came, wondering if they should sign him. Lawrence had taken acid beforehand, and was stricken with terror on taking to the stage. He demanded the lights be turned off, ordered people not to look at him and fled (‘In my naivety, I thought it would give me a little lift. I didn’t think it would be a grand mal experience’). Then there was the moment when he finally achieved his dream, and Denim were signed by EMI. Their single ‘Summer Smash’ was the Radio 1 breakfast show’s single of the week, but EMI kept postponing its release. Then Princess Diana was killed in a car crash and a song called ‘Summer Smash’ became unreleasable (‘That affected me big time. I fell into a downwards spiral’). The downward spiral included mental illness and heroin addiction though he doesn’t want to talk about either — with his fallen-in cheeks and missing and discoloured teeth, he has not lost the look of the serious addict.
The real tragedy, though, is that Felt were never hailed as one of the greatest English groups of the 1980s. The simple reason for that is that John Peel never played them, and his patronage meant life or death to independent bands. Beyond that, when Felt were featured in the music press, it tended to be in terms of Lawrence’s eccentricities: not letting visitors use his toilet, or having a blow-up sex doll for a girlfriend, or picking band members for the quality of their haircuts (‘Those things were true, but it was very annoying to be reduced to a caricature’). Neverthless, Felt were brilliant — Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, reissued this month, is an almost flawless record. ‘I had an inkling it wasn’t going to happen in our decade, it was gonna be much later on,’ Lawrence says. ‘I did think a lot about that. It’s all about being a forerunner. Forerunners are fêted after the event. I was disheartened to find there was nobody like us, because if you can form a movement you get everybody’s attention immediately. To be a forerunner, and out on your own, like the Velvet Underground were in the 1960s, is a long, lonely journey.’
I suggest that it must have been awfully disheartening for Lawrence to have spent every moment since he first saw Marc Bolan on TV wanting to be a pop star, without ever becoming one. ‘It is,’ he says. ‘It’s very dispiriting. It’s completely overwhelming sometimes. I comfort myself thinking about painters who never made it, but made incredible paintings and they were dead before they got famous. I comfort myself with those kind of things: it’s not just me. Film directors who have an oeuvre of amazing films but no one’s ever heard of them. I’m in that world.’
But why does he so badly want to be a pop star? ‘I think the reason I like it so much, the idea of it, is because you remove yourself from reality, and that’s what I want to do. That’s the way I want to live. I don’t want to go on a bus. I don’t want to go on a Tube. I want to go on private jets. We’re going to Germany on Friday, and I’m already thinking about that horrible queue where you have to take your shoes and your belt off. And on the Tube everyone’s staring at you, and if you’re a pop star you’re removed from that reality. I genuinely believe I could be that kind of pop star and still have my feet on the ground. It wouldn’t go to my head.’
It’s time for him to show me down in the lift. We reach the bottom and exit to the street. ‘Oh, just one thing,’ he says. ‘Please don’t use my surname.’ Is the eternal absence of a surname part of the art project that is his life? ‘That’s right. I had thought about changing my name. But then I thought I’d just drop the surname.’ He waves goodbye, puts on his sunglasses, pulls down the brim of his trucker’s cap, and strides off to continue trying to become a pop star.
Five Felt albums, including Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, are re-released on 14 September on Cherry Red.