Denim: Britpop's less successful fabric

First as Felt, then as Denim, Birmingham's Lawrence had hype, talent and was tipped for stardom. Here's how it all went wrong

The point at which Britpop became a movement rather than just a notion could be in April 1993, when Select magazine put Suede's Brett Anderson, superimposed over a union flag, on its cover. "Yanks go home!" it declared, hymning a new wave of British groups: Suede, the Auteurs, Pulp, Saint Etienne, and another group whose fame turned out to be illusory: Denim.

Led by Birmingham singer Lawrence (below) – he declines to use a surname – Denim were a brilliant blend of 70s pastiche, camp humour and knowing style. The Face ran a feature on Denim before they had released anything. Melody Maker held them up as the most exciting thing to happen in rock since punk. Then it all went wrong.

Denim was a reaction to Lawrence's experiences with his previous band, Felt. Felt had missed their chance when, in 1986, A&R men from 11 record companies came to a gig in west London. Unfortunately, Lawrence took LSD for the first time an hour before their set. He went on stage, looked at the sold-out audience, asked "Why are you all staring at me?" and refused to sing a note until everyone left.

But Lawrence always had his eyes on stardom. "After Felt, I moved to New York – I'd been living in Brighton and it was so boring," he says. "But as soon as I got there, Primal Scream were on Top of the Pops and it was all happening in Britain. I started thinking about my childhood in the 70s and how awful the 80s were. Then I went to a pawn shop, bought a guitar, and wrote [the first Denim album] Back in Denim."

Word got out about Denim's unique take on glam rock and 70s culture, as far from the fey dreaminess of Felt as could be. One song filtered images of "lots of little Osmonds everywhere" through Lawrence's memories of the IRA bombings in Birmingham. "I had all these major labels phoning up, but I decided to sign to [dance label] Boy's Own because rock music was finished, and DJs could get our records into the charts. We were proud to be a studio band that never played live."

Back in Denim cost so much to make that Boy's Own went bankrupt. Moving to Echo records for the next, Denim On Ice, Lawrence decided that perhaps he did need to do the odd gig. "But every gig cost us £1,000 because I had to pay everyone, so that didn't work either."

It looked like the big time was finally coming when EMI said they would sign Denim if Lawrence came up with hit material. He duly wrote a brilliant slice of bubblegum pop called Summer Smash. EMI loved it. It was Radio 1's single of the week. "It was all set to come out on a Monday," remembers Lawrence. "Then Princess Di died on the Sunday before. EMI melted all the singles down."

After that Lawrence "went down into a hole", becoming a heroin addict and ending up homeless until getting a council flat in 2008. Now, with a new album by his current band Go-Kart Mozart and a documentary about him in the works, Lawrence's star is in the ascendant once again. And there remains one aspect of his career of which he is particularly proud.

"I used to pay a guy £50 a week to roll joints," he declares. "I thought I was the only person in the history of music to have my own joint-roller. Then I discovered that 10cc had one, too. It was a terrible disappointment."


Will Hodgkinson

The GuardianTramp

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