Primal Scream and Felt’s Martin Duffy: the gifted sideman who was endlessly adaptable
The exceptionally talented and dependable keyboardist could cope with whatever style was thrown at him – and bands remodelled their sound around him
Martin Duffy: Primal Scream and Felt keyboardist dies in fall at home aged 55
In the late David Cavanagh’s definitive history of Creation Records, My Magpie Eyes Are Hungry for the Prize, the 80s indie band Felt are depicted existing in a continual state of luckless disarray. Their hugely original albums ultimately prove influential – on Belle and Sebastian, the Charlatans and Manic Street Preachers among others – and provoke 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, a gig packed with interested parties from major labels devolves into farcical chaos after lead singer Lawrence Hayward elects to take LSD before going on stage. But even by Felt’s standards, 1985 found them in a tight spot: they had just scored a No 1 single on the indie chart with Primitive Painters, but their guitarist Maurice Deebank – whose classical-inspired filigree defined their sound – had left for good. For once, Felt’s luck was in. While hopefully putting up an advert in a record store for new musicians, Hayward had been informed of a “genius” keyboard player who had just left school aged 16. It was Martin Duffy.
It turned out that Hayward’s informant wasn’t exaggerating: Duffy was a preternaturally gifted musician. He had first appeared on Ignite the Seven Canons, an album on which Deebank also appeared – but after the guitarist’s departure, Felt dramatically remodelled their sound around Duffy. His organ playing dominated 1986’s Forever Breathes the Lonely Word, suddenly lending Felt something of the feel of Bob Dylan’s mid-60s recordings with Al Kooper. They began releasing a succession of gorgeous piano instrumentals, featuring Duffy alone: the B-sides Magellan and Autumn, Sending Lady Load, which took up most of one side of 1988’s The Pictorial Jackson Review.
His abilities extended beyond playing rock music, which enabled Hayward – whose oft-stated desire for commercial success never stopped him approaching their career in a deeply quixotic way – to throw their audience a series of alienating curveballs. The 1986 album Let the Snakes Crinkle Their Heads to Death was comprised of instrumentals that tended towards easy listening. A decade before the 90s easy listening revival, it was greeted with bafflement, but that was nothing compared to the horrified response afforded 1988’s Train Above the City, which consisted entirely of Duffy playing the vibraphone and piano in a cocktail bar jazz style. If you listened closely, you could hear the influence of the Modern Jazz Quartet on Duffy’s playing, but no one was listening closely: “Sickly, suffocating, pointless, wet and boring,” offered one reviewer. Hayward, who had contributed nothing beyond its track titles, claimed it was his favourite Felt album.
Duffy and Felt were on safer ground with the flatly brilliant 1989 single Space Blues, which set Hayward’s sneering Lou Reed-ish vocal against Duffy’s impressively funky and inventive electric piano playing, but the band were on the verge of breaking up: Hayward later claimed it was always his plan for Felt to release 10 singles and 10 albums in 10 years. Duffy, meanwhile, had already contributed keyboards to the first two commercially unsuccessful albums by Primal Scream, who, like Felt, had relocated to Brighton: he became a member just as their career unexpectedly took off on the back of Andrew Weatherall’s remix of Loaded. His keyboards are all over the epochal 1991 album Screamadelica – adding a Italo-house inspired jangle to its cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ Slip Inside This House; bolstering another Weatherall-remixed track, Come Together, as it reached its euphoric climax; playing in a southern soul-inspired style on Movin’ on Up.