The Feelies

TrackAlbum
Raised EyebrowsCrazy Rhythms
Crazy RhythmsCrazy Rhythms
Let's GoThe Good Earth
Slipping (Into Something)The Good Earth
Eternal IceShore Leave (by Yung Wu)
AwayOnly Life
Doin' It AgainTime For A Witness
Sooner Or LaterTime For A Witness
Too Many TimesStop The Ride (by Wake Ooloo)
Nobody KnowsHere Before

The Feelies photo 1

The Feelies (l to r): Anton Fier, Bill Million, Glenn Mercer, Keith DeNunzio – photo: Lynne Pickering

 

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Feelies playlist

 

The Feelies at CBGB ’79 on NY cable TV show, Paul Tschinkel’s Inner-Tube

 

Contributor: Marc Fagel

The Feelies, based out of scenic New Jersey, rose from the same early New York punk scene that birthed the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television, and Blondie, frequently playing at clubs like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City throughout the late 70s. While the Feelies never quite attained the same level of name recognition and (sort of) mass adulation as others, they have built a body of work every bit as influential and beloved among fans of groundbreaking indie rock. Between 1980 and 1991, the band released a mere four albums, with some radical style shifts, ranging from frenetic guitar-driven post-punk to pastoral, jangly folk-tinged rock; in 2011, following a twenty year hiatus which saw the band members working on various side projects, they regrouped, picking up pretty much where they left off. And while it’s the first few albums that remain truly essential listening for any fan of indie guitar rock, all of their albums have moments of greatness, as do many related releases in which band members have participated.

 

THE CLASSIC YEARS (1980-1991)

The band’s remarkable 1980 debut, Crazy Rhythms, stands apart from the rest of their oeuvre; the work of a four-piece outfit that produced a single record before the band reconstituted into the more stable configuration that’s worked together ever since. The album is distinguished by the interplay between guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, a twin-guitar attack reminiscent at times of Television, though with a choppy, angular vibe and slow, deliberate build-ups from atmospheric intros into explosive finales. Mercer’s vocals are far from slick, a more spoken-word approach that’s equal parts Lou Reed and Bob Dylan, giving the record a casual feel of the geeky kids next door recording an album in the garage despite the unusually subtle and hypnotic aesthetics of the music. What really sets the debut apart is the almost tribal rhythmic sound generated by then-drummer Anton Fier. This is perhaps best heard in the (mostly) instrumental Raised Eyebrows, a simple three-chord rocker that gives the alternately frenzied and restrained syncopated percussion center stage. More typical is opening track The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness, the gradual build cutting loose into a rousing two chord guitar vamp, while the album-closing title track inverts the pattern by opening and closing with the frenetic attack while tucking the rhythmic jam into the center, in both cases Mercer’s vocals and lyrics personifying the ultimate jittery rock nerd portrayed on the record’s Weezer-presaging cover.

Here’s the recently-reformed band performing both Raised Eyebrows and Crazy Rhythms:

Notoriously non-prolific, the Feelies waited six years before returning as a very different band with a dramatically revised sound. Fier and the original bassist were gone, replaced by drummer Stan Demeski, percussionist Dave Weckerman, and bassist Brenda Sauter, forming the five-piece that endured on and off until the present day. And 1986’s The Good Earth really does sound like the work of a different (but no less superb) band. Produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, the album is folky and jangly, not unlike R.E.M. and other college radio bands of the era, the crystalline production of the semi-acoustic guitars creating the ambience of a band sitting in your living room huddled around the fireplace. Mercer’s vocals are more interwoven with the music, almost pretty at times. There is a pervasive rural road-trip feel to the songs, mostly low-key, simple tunes with a few gentle chords. Opening tracks On The Roof and The High Road call to mind everything from the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty to Uncle Tupelo’s unplugged (and also Buck-produced) March 16-20, 1992, gorgeous and jangly. With Let’s Go, the band even manages a perfect pop song, a simple riff where the chiming guitars and gentle rhythms cast a transportive spell. A few songs recall the harder edge found on parts of Crazy Rhythms, most notably the riveting Slipping (Into Something), which moves from the hushed acoustic ambience of much of the album into a blow-out Velvet Underground-derived jam session.

While the band had minimal recorded output as the Feelies, its members kept busy with other projects throughout this period. The same year as The Good Earth, they also released Shore Leave, but this time as Yung Wu – the same band, only with percussionist Dave Weckerman at the mic. Musically, the songs are comparable to those found on Good Earth, though with some additional keyboards courtesy of John Baumgartner, whose own bands – The Trypes and, later, Speed The Plough – featured various members of the Feelies. Weckerman, alas, is even less the prototypical lead singer than Mercer, his boyish, at times charmingly off-key vocals more in the Neil Young or Jonathan Richman school. He’s an acquired taste, though the strength of the material makes the album a worthwhile side project that slots in well with the Feelies’ discography. Opener Shore Leave could well be a Good Earth outtake but for Weckerman’s vocals, while Eternal Ice brings a darker, more psychedelic bass-driven groove; the album is aided by some well-picked covers from Neil Young, the Stones, and Brian Eno/Phil Manzanera.

During this period, the Feelies almost had a chance to hit the big time. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme was a huge fan, apparently eager to shoot a concert film (ultimately being convinced to instead go with the Talking Heads – and while I’ve always loved seeing the Feelies perform live, they are not necessarily a dynamic stage presence, and it’s tough to deny that Stop Making Sense was the way to go). Still, Demme did end up using the Feelies as the band playing the high school reunion in the terrific Something Wild (performing as The Willies, with Weckerman at the mic).

The “real” Feelies returned in 1988 with the solid Only Life (alas, not streaming), which largely retained the aesthetics of The Good Earth but with a few more upbeat numbers. While lacking the breathtaking production of its predecessor, the songs found the band in a similar space, pastoral and jangly. Album opener It’s Only Life feels like a natural progression from the prior album, though this time around Sauter’s warm, languid basslines seem to get higher billing. The band ratchets up the velocity on rockers like Too Far Gone and a relatively faithful cover of the Velvets’ What Goes On, while album stand-out Away splits the difference, reusing the tension build-up from Slipping (Into Something) with similarly compelling results. Here’s the video – directed by Jonathan Demme:

The final album from the band’s initial run, 1991’s Time For A Witness (also unavailable on Spotify), is more of a mixed bag. The quiet jangle is less prevalent, the songs electric and harder-edged, taking on a more significant Velvet Underground ethos (this time around, it’s a Stooges cover that closes the album, giving some insight into where the band was coming from). But the album offers some terrific songs which seemed ready-made for then-emerging Nirvana-abetted alternative rock radio. Doin’ It Again is buoyant pop, while the frenetic Sooner Or Later is a propulsively catchy rocker. Indeed, the band looked poised to break out of the indie rock ghetto, getting some well-deserved press attention. But the album never really took off, and the band decided to call it a day.

 

 

THE WILDERNESS YEARS

While guitarist Million largely retired, the rest of the Feelies found plenty to do in the years that followed. Mercer and Weckerman formed Wake Ooloo, releasing three albums that largely embraced the more abrasive, Stooges/Velvets sonics found on Witness. While overlooked at the time, and lacking the Feelies’ magic, the albums are not without their moments. Mercer helms a few decent songs on each album which sound like great lost Feelies tracks, most notably From Afar (from 1994’s Hear No Evil), Too Long Gone (from 1995’s What About It), and particularly Too Many Times (from 1996’s Stop The Ride). Weckerman’s contributions are less satisfying, his vocals arguably more challenging without the charm of the Yung Wu album’s breezier tunes. Perhaps the highlight of this run was a buoyant cover of the wonderful surf-rock instrumental Fun To Be Happy (originally by Athens, Georgia jangle-rockers Love Tractor), a mainstay of the Feelies live set which the original band had never recorded in the studio.

Drummer Stan Demeski joined Galaxie 500’s Dean Wareham (and the Chills’ Justin Harwood) to form Luna, playing on the band’s fantastic first three albums.

Meanwhile, bassist Brenda Sauter formed Wild Carnation, releasing a pair of albums with a similar folk-rock feel as mid-80s Feelies, perhaps lacking some of Mercer’s killer hooks but buoyed by Sauter’s sweet, unpretentious vocals.

Both before and after the Feelies’ 1991 split, various members of the band could be heard playing on albums by Speed The Plough, a more folk-oriented outfit which shared roots and musical sensibilities with the Feelies (while also sharing members with Wild Carnation, further complicating the family tree).

Finally, foreshadowing the return of the Feelies, Mercer released the fine (if a bit too understated) solo album Wheels In Motion in 2007, dropping most of Wake Ooloo’s garage rock inclinations and returning to the jangly sound of the Feelies’ mid-80s albums. Songs like Morning Lights sound like Feelies songs in all but name; it’s not surprising, given most of his former bandmates (including members of the original 1980 four-piece) provide backing, and presumably only the absence of the still-retired Million kept Mercer from calling it a Feelies album. (In contrast, his instrumental 2015 release Incidental Hum is much more experimental, mostly ambient and droning, far afield from the Feelies songbook.)

 

THE RETURN OF THE FEELIES

A year after Wheels In Motion, the actual Feelies (in their post-Crazy Rhythms formation, including Million) regrouped for a few live shows, ultimately hitting the studio and emerging with 2011’s aptly-titled Here Before. While not necessarily adding anything truly essential to their legacy, it’s a perfectly charming record, leaving aside the heavier sonics of Witness for a mellow blend of Only Life and Mercer’s Wheels. The sound is warm and inviting (though Mercer’s vocals are a little higher in the mix, for better or worse), revisiting their classic pastoral jangle but with a more contemporary sonic punch. Opener Nobody Knows has the virtue of sounding just like a Feelies song, far livelier than much of Wheels; other stand-outs include the perky Should Be Gone and Again Today.

Having taken a few decades off, the band appeared to be in no rush to return to the studio, but six years later they followed up with In Between, largely a continuation of its predecessor – a minor gem that breaks no new ground but basically gives those of us who have worn out those classic albums a chance to enjoy the familiar Feelies sound wrapped around some less familiar tunes. Turn Back Time could very well be a Good Earth outtake; Gone, Gone, Gone is a fun little rocker, while Pass The Time offers a nice updating to the Velvet Underground’s Some Kinda Love.

The Feelies’ first four albums are the obvious starting point for those new to the band; all have been remastered in recent years.

 

The Feelies photo 3

The Feelies (l to r): Bill Million, Glenn Mercer, Stan Demeski, Brenda Sauter, Dave Weckerman – photo: Guynup/Winter

 

The Feelies play CBGBs early 1979

 

The Night of the Living Feelies website (inc. discography)

The Feelies facebook

Bar None Records: The Feelies

2016 band interview with Nate Rogers of Flood magazine

The Feelies: Crazy Rhythms (1980) at Urban Aspirines

The Feelies biography (AllMusic)

Marc Fagel is a recovering lawyer living outside San Francisco with his wife and his obscenely oversized music collection. He is the author of the recently-published rock lover’s memoir “Jittery White Guy Music”. His daily ruminations on random albums in his collection can be seen on his blog of the same name, or by following him on twitter.

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
Blondie, Brian Eno, Grateful Dead, Ramones, Lou Reed, R.E.M., Jonathan Richman & Modern Lovers, Talking Heads, Television, Uncle Tupelo, Velvet Underground

TopperPost #876

1 Comment

  1. Rick Kronberg
    Jun 15, 2020

    Marc does a great job taking you through one of New Jersey’s greatest bands. I would have more from Time for a Witness, my personal favorite but this is a great introduction. Any list with Raised Eyebrows, Slipping Into Something and especially Sooner or Later is formidable indeed.

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