In the old days the greatest thing in the world to be was a movie star. Today the greatest thing in the world is to be a pop singer. There will never be a great star unless the greatest thing in the world to be is that kind of star. (Orson Welles, in this 1974 interview.)‘There were a few scenes that were... set up’, said Lawrence at the Q & A afterwards, on being asked why he hadn’t kept wearing the hat he’d chosen in a charity shop to replace his old, permanently affixed baseball cap. He and Paul Kelly, director of both of Sunday’s Monorail Film Club selections, were discussing the ways in which they’d avoided the pitfalls of the talking head documentary, all those old men reminiscing about how wild it used to be. They’d used interviews Lawrence happened to be doing anyway as a kind of substitute, with great lingering shots on the bemused faces of the interviewers. One with a blogger whose site he promised to check out once the interview was up: ‘A few weeks... well, I’ll have a look in general, to see what it’s like. If you write down the address we’ll have someone in the office bring it up.’ And then: ‘You’re a teacher? You don’t get paid for this?’ [Pause for the 21st century to sink in] ‘I knew the internet was shit.’ The idea of a Lawrence office is pretty ridiculous, it’s as though this was the moment he realised that things had opened up since the days of the charts: that anyone can do what they want, and probably someone, but probably not millions, will be interested. It should be the ideal climate for a man who makes novelty rock with provoking lyrics about African wars (‘Drinking Um Bongo’), cheap drugs (‘At the DDU’) and grim cities (‘City Centre’, ‘Building Site’). The fascinating thing is, he can’t see it that way, he still thinks he’s on his way to ’70s style megastardom.
Paul Kelly said he’d thought of doing six films about overlooked bands, but had run out of ideas after two: ‘Debsey [of Dolly Mixture] is my girlfriend, and I know Lawrence well, which made access easy...’ That’s the self-deprecating way of putting it. More realistically, he may well have had enough after the Lawrence film ended up taking eight years to make. There were scenes right up to 2011 in there – Lawrence’s spot on Domino Radio, and the development of the artwork for the forthcoming On the Hot Dog Streets (almost inevitably, ‘I’ve changed it since’). Lawrence said he might like to try acting in a film after this, and Paul said, laughing, ‘I’m not directing it!’ The Dolly Mixture film, Take Three Girls, was presumably a walk in the park in comparison. More conventional in that it did opt for the talking head format, with separate interviews with all three members intercut, it had source material on its side. Little video footage of Felt exists, but Dolly Mixture were on TV (doing ‘Baby, It’s You’), and someone ‘followed them around for two years’ with a 16mm camera, as luck would have it, so you even got to see them busking for their train fare home after a £25 gig fee got reduced to £5 for ‘sound, and lights’, at £10 each. Their story is an incredibly sweet one, of naivety backed up with hard work (200 gigs a year for several years); a hostile music press; a sympathetic Undertones (who took them on tour); a big box of Dolly Mixture sweets which made Debsey ill, because it was all she lived on for a while (not through choice, they had no money); a sympathetic-ish John Peel, an unsympatheic John Waters, meaning that their Peel session went un-repeated; getting fit with a military regime, starting (of course) with the outfits; getting on to Top of the Pops with Captain Sensible, the death knell of any kind of credibility. Oh, and fading out songs by playing progressively more quietly! ‘We hadn’t realised you can do that in the studio’, said Hester. It seemed a strange decision to play out on a song by someone else (this one), but overall, it was a beautiful evocation of the poppiest of all post-punk groups, and towards the end, there was even a hint that Debsey hasn’t given up on songwriting. Yes please to that!
Given the theme of under-recognised bands, it makes sense that money should be a concern in both films. Debsey’s comment that ‘I haven’t earned my living yet – I’d like to try that’, echoed through Lawrence’s experiences. He is surely right to stand firm on the issue of not re-forming Felt, though what this actually means was brought home in a casual, sad scene when he went to an instrument shop to sell an old guitar – it had ‘FELT’ stencilled behind the bridge and under the strings. He was clear, as he tends to be, about what wealth would mean for him, talking with disgust about rich people who use the tube to get around, slumming it for a sense of connection. ‘Fuck that, I don’t want to see anyone, ever’. He is Garbo on the dole, just as unable to grasp his own context as the biggest, most shielded star. Q & A compère Stuart Murdoch asked him about times in his career which had felt good, and he mentioned signing to EMI (actually EMIDISC, Bob Stanley’s imprint), and getting a new flat after being evicted from the old one for running up arrears and – against his own legend – not looking after it properly. This extreme un-idealism made me wonder about, y’know, artistic achievement – wasn’t listening back to ‘Primitive Painters’ a good moment, for example? He talked in the film about creativity, and produced a Scooby Doo script he wrote at the age of eight. But what is it, exactly, that Lawrence wants to express through his creativity? I’m not on board with all his post-Felt output by any means, but I do like Tearing up the Album Charts a whole lot, with its flights of pretty keyboard sounds, its gentle melodies alongside the immaculately weedy pub rock moments. The soft, precious, classic sound of Felt is misleading in a way – it appears to be far more literary than it is. They were always about pop product, more about The Velvet Underground than any of that band’s bookish leanings. And more about Warhol than The Velvet Underground (I had never realised that the cover of Felt’s The Splendour of Fear is stolen from the poster for Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, until I saw Lawrence thumbing through a poster book in this film). Go-Kart Mozart can sound bafflingly ugly, but they are not vulgar, because they are out there on their own, copying no-one, waiting for all seven billion of us to come around to their marred aesthetic.