[3 December 2009]
The Feelies are a band which seem to defy classification even today. Through not being part of any “scene” as such, they followed their own idiosyncratic muses, incorporating influences both typical for alternative bands of their time (Velvet Underground, The Modern Lovers) and atypical (classical minimalism, incorporating found object sounds in their records). Coming out of the suburban village of Haledon, New Jersey in the late 1970s, the band were ensconced with their record collections and jamming with friends in garages, punctuated by occasional trips to the big city to see bands. Without the strictures of a set scene or predefined sound, however, they were able to dip into New York without ever being immersed in it, free to do what they liked, unencumbered by generic expectations or localized trends.
Almost 30 years after their first record (the seminal Crazy Rhythms) was released, the Feelies are, like so many bands of the post-punk era, on the reunion circuit, backed by the reissuing of their first two albums. The crowds they play to are aware of their music through the diversions of the rock canon, through downloading and a general tendency towards retrospection amongst modern music listeners. With the plethora of music easily accessible online, fans are more and more aware of the interrelatedness of music, and the reference points that bands make. If you’re doing it, chances are someone in the past has done it already, whether you know it or not (and the knowingness is quite likely). A current band that makes explicit its debt to its influences from the indie rock canon, Times New Viking, namechecks members of its favorite groups (the Clean, the Fall, Pavement) on its MySpace, as well as referencing Yo La Tengo in a song which sounds very like Yo La Tengo.
That being said, the sound of the Feelies is one which has had some influence, but I can’t think of many bands that really sound like them. They still sound original, and I can’t help but think that the reason for this is a tendency they have for not following the rules of the game.
When I spoke to Glenn Mercer, he was unassuming, downplaying the idiosyncrasies of his band: “we weren’t part of any scene, we were just kids jamming.” They listened to the “usual stuff—Beatles, Velvet Underground”. His favorite VU album was the third, “the most varied”. Mercer came across as contemplative, deliberate, choosing his words carefully. He spoke about how Stiff Records seemed to “set up a record label in order to sell T-shirts”; they did, after all reject the Feelies’ second record. The inspiration for their second LP proper The Good Earth‘s more rootsy, Americana-influenced sound was the band’s tour around the country in 1984; connecting with a sense of their shared cultural past, around the same time that the Replacements were doing likewise. Their appearance in a Jonathan Demme film, as a result of a random meeting with the director, was “surreal”, and, after the band went their separate ways, there was no apparent massive bust-up or tearing at each other’s throats. They just went back to playing music, jamming as they did before, underneath the radar, and when they got back together, it gelled. The live tracks which bolster the reissue underline this: they sound tight, but also hungry, really getting a buzz out of playing.
On an aside, it is ironic that Mercer is a bit skeptical about the value of the proliferation of music on the internet, given that it is no doubt part of the reason behind his band’s latter day popularity and comeback. I mentioned the opening up of connections to other places where one’s music could be received better; he thought that the backing of a label was crucial if a band was to make a go of their career without it being relegated to the level of a hobby. Fair point, but a different generation speaks, I guess – for a lot of people—the benefits of getting stuff out there outweigh the costs.
But back to the reissues: both Crazy Rhythms and The Good Earth sound pristine in their remastered form, and are encouraged to be thought of as artifacts in their own right, the obligatory extra tracks are available to download whilst the L.P track listings are kept in their original form. As to the vocals, I thought it especially odd that the mixes of both placed singing as simply part of the mix, not leaping out. Another move towards not being a “normal” rock band—key to the ethos of the Feelies was trying something different. In this light, it seems apt that they were friendly with No Wave bands from the New York scene at the time like Mars and DNA. Here were groups that were consciously incorporating modern classical elements and an amateur’s interest in non-Western percussive music, enthusiastically ripping it up and (trying to) start again. Yet the charm of the band lies in a slight naiveté of exploration, feeling their way through, maybe (pardon the pun). It doesn’t descend into hardcore tweeness or feyness though—it’s just there, without appearing to want to affect being dorky or nerdy.