meIn the late David Cavanagh’s final history of Creation Records, My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize, ’80s indie band Felt is depicted in a constant state of utter chaos. Their massive original albums eventually proved influential – on Belle and Sebastian, The Charlatans and Manic Street Preachers among others – and sparked a rabid cult following, but everything else goes wrong. Band members depart with alarming regularity, career-boosting magazine cover features are pulled at the last minute, and a gig full of major label interested parties turns into comic mayhem after lead singer Lawrence Hayward opts to take LSD before going on stage. But even by Felt standards, 1985 found them in an awkward position: They’d just scored a number one on the indie chart with the Primitive Painters, but guitarist Maurice DeBank—whose classically-inspired graduations defined their sound—was gone for good. For once, Felt’s luck was in. While it was hoped he would place an ad in a record store for new musicians, Hayward had been tipped off about a “genius” keyboard player who had just left school at the age of sixteen. It was Martin Duffy.
It turns out that Hayward’s informant wasn’t exaggerating: Duffy was an abnormally gifted musician. It first appeared on Ignite the Seven Canons, an album on which Deebank also appeared – but after the guitarist’s departure, Felt reshaped their sound largely around Duffy. Playing an instrument dominated 1986’s Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, and suddenly gave off something of the feel of Bob Dylan’s mid-’60s recordings with Al Kooper. They began releasing a series of great instrumentals for piano, featuring Duffy alone: B-side Magellan and Autumn, Sending Lady Load, which dealt with most of one side of The Pictorial Jackson Review of 1988.
His abilities extended far beyond playing rock music, enabling Hayward—whose avowed desire for commercial success did not prevent him from approaching his career in a very unorthodox way—to throw a series of lonely balls to his audience. Their 1986 album Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death was composed of instrumentals that leaned towards easy listening. A decade before the ’90s easy listening revival was greeted with bewilderment, it was nothing compared to the harrowing response delivered by 1988’s Train Above the City, which consisted entirely of Duffy playing vibraphone and piano in a jazz-style cocktail bar. If you listen closely, you can hear the influence of the Modern Jazz Quartet on Duffy’s playing, but no one was listening closely: “Sick, stuffy, useless, wet and boring,” offered one reviewer. Hayward, who did not contribute anything other than his own song titles, has claimed that this is his favorite album, Felt.
Duffy and Felt were on safer ground with 1989’s stellar single Space Blues, which pitted Hayward’s sarcastic Lou Reed-ish voice against Duffy’s funky, innovative electric piano playing, but the band was on the verge of falling apart: Hayward later claimed that it had always been his plan to Felt to release 10 singles and 10 albums in 10 years. Meanwhile, Duffy had already contributed keyboards to the first two commercially unsuccessful albums by Primal Scream, who, like Felt, had moved to Brighton: he became an organ just as his career unexpectedly took off on the back of the Andrew Weatherall remix Loaded. His keyboards are scattered throughout the landmark 1991 album Screamadelica – adding an Italian-inspired bit to his cover of Slip Inside This House for the 13th Floor Elevators; Another track Weatherall remixed, Come Together, boosted it to an upbeat climax; Playing in Southern soul-inspired style on Movin’ on Up.
It was this latter approach that became central to Screamadelica’s insidious follow-up Give Out But Don’t Give Up, a more straightforward rock album than anyone who’d enjoyed its predecessor’s medley might have expected. (The legendary story about Duffy – an eager participant in the band’s famous transgressions – during the recording of Give Out But Don’t Give Up is that he got so drunk in a bar that he didn’t notice another patron had stabbed him in whatever one makes of the album’s homage to the early ’70s From the Stones, you can’t go wrong with Duffy’s contributions: the beautiful organ part he adds to I’m Gonna Cry Myself Blind, the piano work and the rock-interspersed fills.
After that, Primal Scream’s career took a series of turns to the left: from dubbed dark vanishing point to XTRMNTR’s distorted paranoia. As on Felt, the expanded nature of Duffy’s musical abilities was key: he could reprise Fender Rhodes of Felt’s Space Blues on the earlier release Get Duffy (or on 2002’s Space Blues Number 2); He could add John Barry-esque harpsichord to the swirl of XTRMNTR’s influenced free jazz or play the beautiful, transparent organ on the cover of Fleetwood’s Mac & Over that was one of the highlights of 2008’s Beautiful Vulnerable Future. Primal Nobody’s idea of a consistent band, but there was something oddly relatable about Daffy: he seemed to be able to handle any style thrown at him; He always seemed like he knew what he was doing.
The same was true of his activities outside of the band: he was as comfortable playing with roots singer-songwriter Jeb Louie Nichols as he was with the Chemical Brothers. In 2014, he quietly released a solo album, Assorted Promenades, which in places reverts to the piano riffs he recorded with Felt, as in Hymn — and occasionally evokes the jazz of Train Above the City — but slips in others into the realms of minimalism. and abstraction, unlike anything else he has released.
Some of their tracks were so beautifully orchestrated, it sounded as if they were waiting for a movie for the soundtrack, an interesting idea Duffy never pursued: “I don’t think I can handle Hollywood,” he told an interviewer who raised the question. “I’m so shy, I don’t blow my horn.” For all his obvious talent, he seemed content to remain in the background, an eternal and endlessly adaptable side man.
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