Fans of Felt were absolutely stunned in 1988 by Train Above the City, their second album of the year. Its stark cover gave all of the information about the record, and it was impossible not to notice Lawrence‘s name was missing. Even more shocking was the music inside: instrumental jazz that fluctuated between Easy Listening and Muzak. No guitar was to be found; instead, the most dominant feature aside from Martin Duffy‘s keyboard was a very light and rather hyperactive vibraphone. The album offered no clues as what was going on with the band; had Lawrence quit? Had he been fired? It was a mystery that confounded fans, and seemed likely to turn away others. So what happened?
When this writer spoke with Lawrence earlier this year for The Big Takeover, this is what he had to say:
You never heard a Rolling Stones record that was made by Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, both of whom were excellent musicians who could have easily taken the lead and made perfectly fine albums that could’ve been labeled as Rolling Stones albums. You never hear of a band that lets its other members make an album that is released under their own name, do you? We got to thinking one night, what would that be like if someone did that? How would that sound if you had a band had a distinct creative leader that turned over complete creative control to his bandmates? It’s a very compelling question, and when I brought it up to Alan and everyone else we knew, they all loved it.
So Train Above The City actually became a pet project, something different for our next record. I was involved, but completely behind-the-scenes. I gave Martin song titles, and I sat in a few sessions, but for the most part I let them make the record they wanted to make. It would be wrong to say I wasn’t involved with it, because I design the sleeves, gave them the titles, and gave them some production feedback, but I was definitely hands-off in terms of creative control. Plus I don’t have anywhere near the skills on Hammond organ like Martin Duffy.***
It is indeed a different kind of record. Later on in the conversation, Lawrence says he was tired of modern music, and wanted to make a record inspired by the jazz he was listening to at the time. Martin Duffy in control really shines as the bandleader, leading them through songs that range from upbeat and danceable (“Train Above The City,” “Run Chico Run”) to gentle and romantic ballads (“Spectral Morning,” “Book Of Swords”). Aside from side two of the band’s previous album, The Pictorial Jackson Review, nothing in their catalogue could have predicted this album. Thus, Train Above The City is a polarizing album amongst fans; it is often unfairly seen as the runt of the litter, but this writer happens to find a fantastic little experiment.
Duffy’s vision for what his own band would sound like it is indeed rewarding, even if it doesn’t sound like a Felt record at all. If anything, it sounds like a forerunner of the brief early 1990s revival of a style of Easy Listening known as “Space Age Bachelor Pad Music,” or, more succinctly, Lounge Music. Unfortunately and unintentionally, Train Above The City was to be the final album for Creation, but in a way it perfectly bookends their time there; they began their tenure with an instrumental album that showcased then-new member Martin Duffy, so it almost seems fitting that they closed with an instrumental album that shows just how talented their keyboard player was.
(A curious footnote worth mentioning: although Lawrence has made it abundantly clear Felt will never reform, in the late 1990s Duffy and percussionist Gary Ainge joined forces with former guitarist Marco Thomas to form Fly, and their sole LP at times sounds like a distinct follow-up and fleshing out of Train Above The City. It is definitely an album worth seeking out, especially if you love this curious little Felt experiment.)
***Taken from The Big Takeover #83, coming this fall, reprinted courtesy of Jack Rabid. You can order this issue, as well as issue #82, which features part one of my in-depth conversation with Lawrence (covering the Cherry Red era), by visiting their online store.