Belle & Sebastian might have been evoking the spirit of Felt, but by 1997 Lawrence was already seven years into the legend of his next group, Denim. I admit that after having been a big fan of Felt and of Denim’s brilliant debut protest album ‘Back In Denim’ I had lost touch with what Lawrence had been up to. ‘Denim On Ice’ had left me cold (boom boom) when it came out, though in hindsight that was very much due to it being lost somewhat amongst the mountains of drum’n’bass 12”s I was listening to at the time. A few years later, when Lawrence sent me a vinyl copy, it make significantly more sense to me and if pushed these days I would tell you that when minded to pick out any of his records to play, it is now certainly to ‘Denim On Ice’ that I most often reach.
Much has been written about Lawrence and his groups in recent years and together all those words tell perhaps the strangest story of Pop obsession. It’s told in film too, with Paul Kelly’s bittersweet bio ‘Lawrence of Belgravia’, and I admit that one of my proudest achievements is to have had a story ‘about’ the film published in the small book that accompanied the ‘Nothing’s Too Good For The Common People’ retrospective screening of Kelly’s films in New York.
So Lawrence has never become the bona-fide Pop star that he has always felt destined to be. The Pop world is certainly a poorer place for that. Infamously of course perhaps his best chance for chart success was cruelly dashed by bizarre circumstance in the late summer of 1997. His latest single, the bubblegum, sugar-coated Pop nugget ‘Summer Smash’ was lined up for release, and with Radio 1 playlisting behind it, surely destined for Top of The Pops and chart glory. And then, with the single poised to hit the shops, Princess Diana went and got herself killed in a car crash in Paris. EMI, thinking that a song called ‘Summer Smash’ might be perceived to be in somewhat poor taste, instantly pulled the record from release, supposedly destroying almost all of the stock. In one wicked twist of history, EMI both denied Lawrence his chance at mainstream Pop stardom and created perhaps the most collectable single in his catalogue alongside the debut Felt 7” ‘Index’.
A few copies of ‘Summer Smash’ did get out, however, and copies of the orange vinyl 7” and the CD nestle smugly in my collection. Listened to now, as indeed I do religiously every July and August, ‘Summer Smash’ sounds every bit the quirky, unexpected and celebratory (end of) Summer Hit it ought to have been. Euphoric without being overpowering; self-aware and self-referencing without being arrogant and cold; irresistibly infectious without being annoyingly insistent: ‘Summer Smash’ is meta-UK-bubblegum Novelty Rock, just the kind of Chinn and Chapman, RAK and Bell records influenced kind of sound Lawrence had already immortalised in ‘Middle Of The Road’. It’s a record whose heart is in the past, it’s spirit in the future, whenever one happens to hear it.
Scale is not something one typically thinks of as being crucial to photography. Unlike paintings (where we can often feel dumbstruck when seeing a real canvas that is, at times, immeasurably larger both in physical size and emotional impact than the tiny reproductions we have grown up with in books and postcards) we feel comfortable with photographs being reproduced at a small, handheld size. This is the scale we instinctively feel a photograph ought to be. When we are confronted by photography on a much larger scale therefore we often feel even more taken aback than when we see paintings. Large scale photographs are so much more unexpected.
I felt this way when I first came across Sarah Jones’ photographs of Home Counties teenagers, displayed as they were in 1.5m square prints alongside paintings such as Wallis’ infamous ‘Death of Chatterton’ and Millais’ ‘Ophelia’. It felt like a masterstroke of curation, for their are clearly connections, both visual and thematic between the works. Certainly the theme of adolescent ennui is one thing that binds them, and if Wallis and Millais’ paintings portray that ennui as having reached the point of the ultimate expression of existential angst then there is perhaps also that nagging doubt behind the protagonists of Jones’ images. Perhaps these girls are as starlets of ‘Heathers': the beautiful and the doomed. Perhaps not. Certainly there is a hint of sardonic humour, and I can imagine a slideshow of Jones’ photographs perfectly accompanying songs by The Gothic Archies.
There can be a temptation of course to sneer at these young women from relatively privileged, financially secure upbringings trapped in displays of weary boredom and diffidence. Yet part of the argument for the value of this work is that it moves the meaning away from the context of wealth and privilege whilst simultaneously acknowledging it. These feelings of dislocation, of detachment from the very fabrics of our pasts, say Jones’ photographs, transcend class and position and are universal. Alternatively of course one may also argue that these existential adolescent preoccupations are in fact entirely a product of class and wealth: only those with economic security behind them can literally afford (or alternatively be cursed by) such self-indulgences...
And so this is one of the tensions inherent in Jones’s photographs and it is a tension that lifts them above, or at least apart from, documentary work. In a way similar to Jeff Wall’s work, Jones’ photographs ask us what is real and what is not. They ask us what mysteries and secrets sit untold and unmentionable in the shadows. Chris Townsend, in his essay accompanying the University of Salamanca’s catalogue of Jones’ photographs, makes a telling reference to Robert Wise’s movie ‘The Haunting’, which is similarly gothic and illusory. And of course it is true that Wise’s film is only ever almost as spooky as Shirley Jackson’s brilliantly dark and unsettling novel ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ where all is illusion, suggestion and imagination. Indeed, to draw the line out and around on itself, perhaps we can imagine the two key characters in Jones’ photographs as Merricat and Constance from Jackson’s ‘We Have Always Lived In The Castle’? Preposterous perhaps, but then again we take ownership of the images we see and fill them with our own experiences and reference points, do we not? The secrets hidden in our shadows seduce and continually nag at us, like the delicious pain of a toothache. Much like Sarah Jones’ photographs.