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Of the countless New Jersey bands to emerge from the New York City underground during the post-punk era, few if any were as unique and influential as the Feelies; nerdy, nervous, and noisy, even decades later their droning, skittering avant-garde pop remains a key touchstone of the American indie music scene. Named in reference to Aldous Huxley’s paranoid classic Brave New World, the Feelies formed in 1976 in suburban Haledon, NJ, where singers/guitarists Bill Million and Glenn Mercer first met while in high school; bassist John J. and drummer Dave Weckerman rounded out the original lineup, although they were replaced in 1977 by bassist Keith Clayton and drummer Vinny Denunzio. The revamped group soon made its N.Y.C. debut, quickly creating a buzz throughout the city’s new wave circuit — a Village Voice headline even dubbed them “The Best Underground Band in New York.”

Drummer Anton Fier replaced Denunzio in 1978, and a year later the Feelies cut their debut single, “Fa Ce-La,” for the British indie Rough Trade. Their refusal to work with outside producers jeopardized their immediate hopes for a major-label deal, however, and so their brilliant 1980 LP, Crazy Rhythms, instead appeared on another U.K. indie, Stiff; the record’s manic melodies, jittery rhythms, and opaque lyrics made it a huge critical favorite, and although it made little impact outside of underground circles, many latter-day acts — R.E.M. chief among them — cited the album as a major influence. Still, Crazy Rhythms’ commercial failure sat badly with Stiff, which began pressuring the Feelies to produce a hit single; the pressure ultimately forced the group into a kind of suspended animation, with Fier soon exiting to join the Lounge Lizards and later mounting the Golden Palominos.


Deep Fascination

With the Feelies out of action for the better part of the early ’80s, the remaining members turned their focus to a variety of side projects — in 1982, Million and Mercer reunited to compose the score to Susan Seidelman’s film Smithereens, concurrently playing in a series of Jersey-area bands including Weckerman’s new outfit Yung Wu, the Trypes (which issued the 1984 EP The Explorers Hold), and the instrumental Willies. Finally, Million and Mercer reactivated the Feelies banner in 1983, reuniting with Weckerman as well as two of their Willies bandmates, percussionist Stanley Demeski and bassist Brenda Sauter; still, the revitalized group’s performance schedule was sporadic at best, limited primarily to holiday appearances. Finally, they entered the studio with producer Peter Buck of R.E.M., releasing the folky The Good Earth on Coyote in 1986.

That same year, the Feelies appeared in director Jonathan Demme’s film hit Something Wild; combined with critical praise for The Good Earth, the group’s raised media visibility caught the attention of A&M, which released the follow-up, Only Life, in 1988. Time for a Witness followed in 1991, but on July 5 of that year the Feelies played their final show at the Hoboken club Maxwell’s — soon after Million unexpectedly moved to Florida without telling any of his bandmates, not even leaving a forwarding address. In the months to follow Demeski began playing in Luna, Sauter worked with Speed the Plough and Wild Carnation, and Mercer and Weckerman re-teamed in Wake Ooloo; when that band fell apart in 1998 after three LPs for the Pravda label, the duo again joined forces to form another new unit, Sunburst.

Even the cover is a winner, with a washed-out look that screams new wave via horn-rimmed glasses, even more so than contemporaneous pictures of either Elvis Costello or the Embarrassment. But if it was all look and no brain, Crazy Rhythms would long ago have been dismissed as an early-’80s relic. That’s exactly what this album is not, right from the soft, haunting hints of percussion that preface the suddenly energetic jump of the appropriately titled “The Boy With the Perpetual Nervousness.” From there the band delivers seven more originals plus a striking cover of the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide” that rips along even more quickly than the original. The guitar team of Mercer and Million smokes throughout, whether it’s soft, rhythmic chiming with a mysterious, distanced air or blasting, angular solos. But Fier is the band’s secret weapon, able to play straight-up beats but aiming at a rumbling, strange punch that updates Velvet Underground/Krautrock trance into giddier realms. Mercer’s obvious Lou Reed vocal inflections make the VU roots even clearer, but even at this stage of the game there’s something fresh about the work the quartet does, even 20 years on — a good blend of past and present, rave-up and reflection. When the group’s later label, A&M, finally got around to reissuing the album for the first time stateside, a curious bonus was included: a version of the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black,” recorded by the later lineup of the band in 1990. Mercer’s voice is noticeably different from his decade-old self, but it’s an enthusiastic rendition not too far out of place.

by Ned Raggett, Allmusic.com

DOWNLOAD:
The Feelies-Crazy Rhythms
192kbos MP3

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