A GUEST POSTING by HYBRID SOC PROF
The 80s were wonderful and infuriating. In the US, if you were into small bands on independent labels in the 80s most of your favorite bands had this experience: a singular, independent, regional band would make enough commercial noise – usually spread by word of mouth, local record shops and freeform college radio stations (all dreaming, whether they knew it or not, of being WFMU, out of East Orange, New Jersey) to get a mid-major or major label contract… only to be over-charged for recording, have their sound modified, be poorly promoted, miscategorized, forced to tour in support of the wrong bands and generally wrecked. People disagree with me, but I think this is the story of The Replacements – everything after a few selections from Tim, I have little use for… though maybe the demise was more about Bob Stinson’s tragic battle with alcoholism than working with Sire…
The Feelies never played the game, so they never got crushed. Out of Haledon, New Jersey, and tied closely to “the Hoboken scene” – basically local bands who played in the tiny room behind the bar at Maxwell’s (RIP) – the Bongos, the Raybeats, the dBs, Gut Bank and more – they had the potential to cross over, like REM, before REM. (In fact, the members of REM have long acknowledged their debt to the band’s sound.)
After four years together, the band’s first LP, Crazy Rhythms, was released in 1980. Living 30 miles away, I knew nothing of it. It got rave reviews in the indie press, and a mention in the New York Times, but I wasn’t reading the former and was engaged with the times only for political/current events reporting. When I did find the album, two years later, it was like listening to Devo filtered through Television (who I’d just discovered) awash in Young Marble Giants (who had just played at my small college.) Intensely minimalist, but with layers and layers of rhythmic and jangly guitars which rise and swell within and over half-spoken lyrics by two guys who can’t sing all that well. It was awesome. I spent forever in my dorm room, “studying,” with my headphones on, awash in sound.
That summer, home from school, a friend and I saw them at Maxwell’s… the show, in that tiny venue, was both magnificent and weirdly adult. The band worked their tails off – like the post-punk bands I saw elsewhere – but seemed so normal, talented but just people… I wasn’t put off but, hmmm, no theater just playing. The Kinks weren’t like this, Ian Hunter wasn’t like this, the Boomtown Rats weren’t like this and the Fleshtones weren’t like this… they just played, no banter with the crowd or even, really, talking with each other. Perhaps it was the influence of the drone side of the Velvet Underground, perhaps it was the fact that no one danced because, well, you couldn’t really “dance” to it beyond attempting a halting blend of Grateful Dead floaty-drifty movement with spasmodic low pogo-ing…
And then they more or less broke up. Imagine a spinning lava lamp… where globs of the colored liquid spin, conjoin, separate, release tendrils, combine and divide as you watch. That seemed to be what the members of the band did across the rest of the decade. They must have played five, six, nine, a hundred(?) different permutations and combinations only really coming back together to record 1985’s LP, The Good Earth (produced – of course – by REM’s Peter Buck) and 1988’s, Only Life.
Anton Fier, who’d left after Crazy Rhythms, was already playing with the Lounge Lizards and then played with Pere Ubu and founded The Golden Palominos. The band’s primary songwriters – Bill Million and Glenn Mercer – formed The Trypes and Young Wu as placeholders (though The Trypes release an EP, The Explorer’s Hold in 1984 and Young Wu released a full record, Shore Leave, in 1987) and played gigs in and around NYC… but all this meant was that The Feelies almost never toured. Other members joined and/or formed other combos from Brenda Sauter and Stanley Demeski’s work in the folk-driven band, Speed the Plough. Their last record, before an almost 20 year lay-off, was 1991’s, Time for a Witness.
Soon thereafter, Mercer organized Wake Ooloo – who produced three really good albums, Hear No Evil (1994), What About It (1995), and Stop the Ride (1996) – and Million walked away… got married, moved to Florida, had a kid, developed a career. A visit by Million to Mercer when Million’s son started college at Princeton got the two men playing together and the band returned, with most of the original line-up, at the behest of Sonic Youth – who were seeking an opening band – in 2008, and the music held up. Three years later, in 2011, they produced the long player, Here Before, and, in 2017, In Between.
If you read interviews with Million and Mercer, they come across as fundamentally disinterested in music as a career, especially if it were to become a job. I never know what to do with interviews given their fundamental artificiality but, looking at the band’s trajectory, this feels honest. The two have repeated, over the years, that they come together to record when they can agree on a core sound they intend to explore and that, as they see it, each record is noticeably different from the others. I am not one to question musicians on how they hear their music, but as a fan their core sound is as recognizable as any band I love. I don’t know if it’s fair but the music – however much it’s influenced by the Velvets or The Stooges or Television or art punk and folk-rock (in a Neil Young kind of vein) all at the same time – feels to me “suburban.” It’s intellectual but emotionally engaged, it holds you at a distance while drawing you in, it’s very much of New York without being urban, it’s post-punk-ish but less alienated? I don’t know. I just know I like ‘em a lot.
The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness (from Crazy Rhythms – 1980) is the first cut I ever heard from the band. You will likely be able to hear it in every song that follows. It has every characteristic sound and rhythm. Did I say minimalist with tons of layers?
Higher Ground (from Only Life – 1988) is a little slower, more simple, quite a bit janglier, more conventional – a love song – and gloriously beautiful. The guitar – from 2:55-4:10 – sigh.
Slipping (into Something) (from The Good Earth – 1986) takes almost a minute and a half to build to the lyrics, almost stops at 2:05, moves to a quite twin lead for a but, almost stops again 3:25 before building and expanding and almost falling apart around 5:03, and then finding itself and accelerating to a final fade.
Find a Way (from Time for a Witness – 1991) is somewhat akin to Higher Ground and, lyrically, probably more of a love song but less obviously so. You and your partner might just like lying next to each other, in the very very dark, playing this at 9… swimming, together in it, as it washes over you.
Dancing Barefoot (from Four Free Feelies Songs – 1989) – have you been looking for a great cover song? One related but not quite true to the original? Look no further. That girl (or was it you?) you knew as a teenager with post-punk aspirations? This is her.
So Far (from Here Before – 2011) is the only 21st century cut here. I’m almost surely wrong that it comes from this place but every time I hear it I am reminded of moments a few years ago when our 16yo was 13-going-on-21 but feeling 10 and needing a hug.
Tomorrow, Today (from The Good Earth – 1986) is a march with a guitar effect that recalls trumpets or bugles for the first half that reverts to half bugle half guitar and then blends and fuzzes with the standard electric and…
What She Said (from Time for a Witness – 1991) is a slow rocker, with slide guitar on the side, probably the most conventional tune here… I feel like I’ve been teased after listening to it since it almost capitalizes the r in rock but pulls back from the precipice again and again – I want it to explode and fall but they’re not having it, more power to ‘em.
Having almost built up to rock, Loveless Love (from Crazy Rhythms – 1980) goes there. Starting like its cousin, The Boy with Perpetual Nervousness, this one takes off at 1:50 when the twin leads stop holding back. This is one of the few songs where the voice comes forward as well. I’ve always like it for that.
I’ve ended with The High Road (from The Good Earth – 1986) – the closest thing to a sing along they every recorded. A challenge you not to bob your head and sway… just try not to smile… nah, don’t, just let go and grin.