These New Jerseyites are the stuff of legend and cults. Led by guitarists Glenn Mercer and Bill Million (originally featuring future avant-star drummer Andy Fisher, aka Anton Fier), the Feelies dressed like nerdy preppies and paid only passing attention to the conventional demands of rock and roll. Even during the original band’s period of highest visibility, for example, live dates in New York tended to be infrequent and often fell on holidays.
Crazy Rhythms is far more unequivocal than the group’s performances. Mercer and Million draw inspiration from the Byrds, Television and the Velvet Underground, emphasizing the interplay of their electric guitars above all else. The rigid vocals and lyrics take a back seat to the pure textures of the driving rockers and more avant-garde drones. Despite its distinct bloodlessness, Crazy Rhythms exudes a principled charm. A decade later, the album was reissued on CD and cassette, with a newly recorded version of “Paint It, Black” added as an quizzical bonus. The second reissue omits that cover and adds two live in 2009 tracks, two demos done with Carla Bley and the single “Fa cé-La.”
In the years that followed, the Feelies laid low, but never disbanded, recording and performing around the New York/New Jersey area in various guises and permutations: the Trypes, Willies and Yung Wu. The three bands sound different, although they all play some Feelies songs and share a fascination with layered guitars, drones and the music of Brian Eno and the Velvet Underground.
The seven-person Trypes are the quietest, most introspective of the bunch, and The Explorers Hold is a placid, constantly shifting landscape of sounds. The four songs emphasize coloration not beat, yet, for all its subdued calm, there’s an explosive tension bubbling underneath the music. The muted guitars threaten — but never give way to — riotous mayhem. Only on the cover of George Harrison’s “Love You To” do drummer Stan Demeski’s hyperkinetic tom-tom patterns come to the fore, making the Trypes a loud psychedelic folk band. The quieter songs, complete with woodwinds and keyboards, are hauntingly beautiful.
In the mid-’80s, Million and Mercer reactivated the Feelies as a fulltime band with Demeski, bassist Brenda Sauter (also from the Trypes) and percussionist Dave Weckerman. The Feelies finally released their second album, co-produced by Pete Buck, in 1986. The Good Earth approaches folk music with its light, airy feel and acoustic guitars, but intensity and obsession lurk near the intricately woven surfaces; slashing leads occasionally pierce the atmospheric tapestry. Million and Mercer display their taut control even as they’re strumming away madly in rapturous acceleration; the quiet sections are extraordinarily beautiful. When their voices join for spirited harmonies, you know it was worth the wait. The four-song No One Knows is a neat 12-inch sampler joining “The High Road” and “Slipping (Into Something)” from the LP with wonderful covers of the Beatles’ “She Said, She Said” and Neil Young’s “Sedan Delivery.” The 2009 reissue of The Good Earth adds the non-LP tracks from the EP as well as a live recording by the reunited band in 2009.
Dave Weckerman is the enthusiastically informal lead vocalist and songwriter in Yung Wu — an independent band in which Trypes keyboard player John Baumgartner is joined by the Feelies. Shore Leave leans towards acoustic guitars and simplified drumming for a rustic sound that exchanges the Feelies’ neurotic suburban intensity for a countryfied gentleness. Influence-revealing covers of Phil Manzanera/Brian Eno (“Big Day”), the Stones (“Child of the Moon”) and Neil Young (“Powderfinger”) are intriguing but a bit on the plain side.
While preserving the laconic electro-folk drone of The Good Earth on Only Life, an album of amazingly exacting sound and performances, the Feelies join it with riveting songs of breathless electricity. The first side takes things as they come, gently laying out catchy songs like “Too Much,” “Higher Ground” and “The Undertow” to warm the mood with stately-drifting-towards-dull restraint, like an invocation to autumn. But the pace quickens on the second half, as the obsessively brisk “Too Far Gone” and the breakneck “Away” — strong songs given exhilarating performances, and a clear tie to the Feelies’ past — lead up to the album’s closer, a boiling cover of Lou Reed’s “What Goes On” (don’t miss Mercer’s amazing solo) that overtly renews the band’s Velvet Underground links.
Speed the Plough is John Baumgartner’s band; Bill Million co-produced Speed the Plough and guests on one track. Although STP’s hypnotically simple songs strongly resemble the Feelies’ work, the six-person lineup (including one other Trype alumnus) plays them on a variety of instruments, subtly supplementing guitar, bass and drums with keyboards, reeds, woodwinds, horns, accordion and more.
Like an uptight square the morning after a drunken orgy, Time for a Witness finds the Feelies in a new frame of mind, downplaying crystalline precision and emotional intensity for a fleshed-out sonic reinvention that embraces old Bob Dylan songwriting structures and a trancey Haight-Ashbury acid-rock feeling with freewheeling enthusiasm rather than anxious determination. Not to overstate it: casual listeners may not notice any drastic change between the albums, but there’s definitely a newly relaxed sensibility at work here. Rather than tone things down, the Feelies spread them out, and if the album lacks ferocious intensity or wistful beauty, this resonant and brilliant record is their most richly textured and engrossing work yet.
Turning to another media, the high school reunion scenes in Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild show the Feelies (credited as the Willies) performing shards of five songs, including “I’m a Believer,” “Crazy Rhythms” and “Fame,” with tentative Bowiesque lead vocals by Weckerman.
After the Feelies, Stan Demeski joined Luna, Glenn Mercer and Dave Weckerman formed Wake Ooloo and Brenda Sauter formed Wild Carnation.