The Feelies, Crazy Rhythms (Stiff/Bar/None) 10
The Feelies, The Good Earth (Coyote/Bar/None) 10-
Like many teenagers in the eighties, I craved a particular kind of music that I had not yet heard. Before I got to college my access to music was limited, but I’d heard the typical high school music of the Smiths, Cure and Violent Femmes, which had significant angst but was sometimes too fluffy. Anger is indeed an energy and punk fueled it. However, not all teenagers are necessarily political enough at that age to be filled with anarchic rage, or had been savagely dumped yet, let alone kissed. There’s other pent up energies, of course. Like nervousness. Fear and frustration that you’ll never “grow into” your awkward body, that you’ll find anyone who wants to touch it, let alone slather their tongue over it. That you won’t become “Somebody.” Frantic friction, fear of embarrassment, tension and release but no satisfaction. Teenagers push their bodies in various ways beyond pain thresholds and exhaustion, yet the relief from the nervous energy is always temporary. Talking Heads occasionally touched on that on their first couple albums, as did XTC. There’s a reason those bands appeared as dorks on their album art. They understood a different kind of tension, that the dominant few didn’t. The Type-A’s seemed to be able to drink and screw and bash heads to oblivion enough that they really didn’t suffer from that type of pent-up nervousness.
The Feelies were just the band to fill that void. Their nerdy portraits in glasses and preppy pastel outfits emblazoned on a sky blue background, they looked like their audience. They were named after the high-tech virtual reality movies (and perhaps porn) that people were addicted to in Aldous Huxley’s paranoid classic, Brave New World. The first song on their 1980 album was called, appropriately, “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness.” The song started with silence, followed by faint percussion. Blocks, toms, and then bass gradually entered the picture, growing increasingly faster. Once the dry, brittle, furiously strummed dual guitars started (three times the speed as a Lou Reed), The Feelies were a rogue train veering off its wheels with no brakes. It sounded exactly how a I felt. Running with nowhere to go, crescendos without climax, wildly repetitive action without end. Their sound distilled a perfect aesthetic sensibility, and sounded like no one else.
There’s certainly influences, the greatest being The Velvet Underground. The band formed in 1976 in Hoboken, New Jersey. Glenn Mercer and Dave Weckerman played in a band since 1973 called The Outkids. Bill Million joined in 1975 and with a couple other members they evolved into The Feelies. As the band moved up from playing at Phase Five in Elmwood Park to Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s they opened for Patti Smith, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and ravenously drank in every performance by Television. When Anton Fier came from Cleveland to contribute drums and percussion, he helped solidify their sound by cutting back on cymbals to give room to the twin guitars, filling out their unique percussive style with tom toms and other percussive instruments like tambourines and maracas. The band did not like to play live often, but when they did, the shows became the stuff of legend. They were also the ultimate cover band with the ability to strip down another artist’s song down to its purest, Feelies-like essence. These included Iggy Pop’s “Funtime,” The Stooges’ “Real Cool Time,” MC5’s “Looking At You,” The Stones’ “Paint It Black,” Love’s “Little Red Book,” Brian Eno’s “Third Uncle” and “King’s Lead Hat,” The Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide” and “She Said She Said,” Neil Young’s “Sedan Delivery,” “Barstool Blues” and “Powderfinger,” Wire’s “Mannequin” and “Outdoor Miner,” The Modern Lovers’ “Roadrunner,” Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot,” Television’s “See No Evil,” and over a dozen Velvets covers.
Like Television, it took The Feelies a few years before they were able to secure a record deal and get into the studio. They stubbornly would not agree to allow any producer to influence their sound. Once signed to England’s Stiff Records, it took them weeks to get the guitar sound they needed, which involved plugging the guitars direct into the recorder without amps. The resulting Crazy Rhythms had a much different sound than their live shows, the intense, angsty songs like “Loveless Love,” “Moscow Nights” and “Raised Eyebrows” augmented by subtle studio experimentation. It was a drop-dead classic, surpassing everything in 1980 save for Talking Heads’ Remain In Light.
Their label wanted them to do a package tour, and the band refused. Stiff asked for a single and The Feelies gave them “The Obedient Atom,” an Eno-esque experiment with studio effects and chanting. The band was dropped, and at the time, there didn’t seem to be a place in the music world for The Feelies. Members dabbled in side projects like The Trypes, The Willies and Yung Wu, and eventually started doing shows on holidays in 1983 as The Feelies. By 1986’s The Good Earth, they were an older, different band, with a couple different members. Peter Buck loosely “produced” the album, and it did seem to have some R.E.M. influence, a band that claimed The Feelies as an initial influence. It had a pastoral, early autumn feel with more jangly, acoustic guitars. The most passionate centerpiece is the almost sexual guitar interplay of “Slipping (Into Something)” which dates back to their days at CBGB’s. While the album was more laid back, it was unfairly underrated and ignored, except for filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who gave them their 15 minutes (or more like 5 minute) of fame in a scene in Something Wild. Demme pitched a movie where a bunch of zombies end up at a Feelies concert, but investors didn’t bite. Soon they were on A&M and actually touring like a normal band. While 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time For A Witness were filled with energetic highlights, they now sounded like mere mortals.
Bands like The Bongos, The Individuals, The Embarrassment, Spiral Jetty, The Dream Syndicate, Yo La Tengo and Luna picked up on elements of The Feelies (Luna even borrowed Feely Stanley Demeski). But with their impeccable pedigree, it’s surprising that with the new generations of indie cognoscenti, there aren’t any bands currently paying homage to The Feelies. Their peers certainly are getting cited as influences plenty. Today’s nervous teenagers have no other choice than to get the original, real deal. All we need is a Rhino or Hip-O Select to reissue Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth with bonus tracks, and a great sounding concert along the lines of Rhino Handmade’s issue of Television’s Live At The Old Waldorf. Pretty please. Teenagers aren’t the only people who need a Feelies injection now and then.
Update: Bar/None Records, who last year reissued Fields/Aquamarine by The Individuals, finally reissued Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth on September 8, 2009. They include a digital download card with previously unreleased bonus tracks. The live tracks were recorded during their 2009 reunion tour. I would have preferred more demos and live tracks recorded during the time of the albums, but they do sound good.
Bonus tracks (Crazy Rhythms):
- Fa Ce-La (single version) – originally released on Rough Trade, 1979
- The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness [Carla Bley demo version]
- Moscow Nights [Carla Bley demo version]
- Crazy Rhythms [live] From the 9:30 Club, Washington D.C., March 14, 2009
- I Wanna Sleep In Your Arms [live] – Modern Lovers cover, from the 9:30 Club, Washington D.C., March 14, 2009
Bonus tracks (The Good Earth):
- She Said, She Said – Beatles cover, from No One Knows EP
- Sedan Delivery – Neil Young cover, from No One Knows EP
- Slipping (Into Something) [live] From the 9:30 Club, Washington D.C., March 14, 2009