By Jon Clayton
Growing up in Haledon, New Jersey, I was pretty oblivious to the fact that my dad was in a band that The Village Voice had called “The Best in New York” just a few years before I was born. I was too busy with your typical childhood activities: baseball, Atari, finding cocaine in front of my house (real classy place, Haledon was). I just assumed everyone’s dad played in a band. Had I known better, I could have ended up like Ozzy’s kid: hanging out with the Hilton sisters, signing really bad metal bands to my own record label, getting hooked on OxyContin. But enough about me and my regrets. The Feelies had a pretty interesting history, complete with your typical band problems (new members) and your not-so-typical activities (only playing on holidays).
After several lineup and name changes in the late 1970s, the Feelies were born (the two “core” members were Glenn Mercer and my dad, Bill). Of course, at this time the music world was focused on yet another revolution: punk rock. Bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were hot, and even smaller bands and artists like Richard Hell were getting attention. The Feelies drew some inspiration from this scene, but also from older acts (mainly the Stooges and the Velvet Underground) as well as newer artists like Wire, Television, and Jonathan Richman. The Feelies could channel Fun House-era Stooges one minute and then Chairs Missing-era Wire the next. Glenn’s unique vocals, which had the ability to sound both completely hyper and bored out of his mind all at once, added an interesting element and a great contrast to the music. The good reviews quickly spread around New York City, which eventually led to the band signing with Stiff Records. After a few singles and more shows at the usual places (CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City), Crazy Rhythms was released in 1980. Despite the fact that it was an unconventional album in some ways, it probably could have had a chance at some mainstream success. A song like “Moscow Nights” wouldn’t sound out of place on the radio today alongside a Strokes song. Other songs, like “Raised Eyebrows” and a cover of “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (Except For Me and My Monkey)” take on a quirky, almost new-wave Devo sound. Although the album isn’t as fast as say, the Ramones, songs like “Fa Ce La” still get pretty frenzied, especially live. Despite all of this, commercial success wasn’t in the cards for the Feelies. The critics loved the album, but it didn’t sell well for a variety of reasons (my dad indicates that the relationship with Stiff was never that great). The label hated the next batch of songs submitted, some of which would appear on The Good Earth. The band also wasn’t fond of self-promotion, and this was at a time when Sex Pistols-esque stunts were just as important as the music.
At this point in the story, things begin to get a little odd. After the Feelies and Stiff decided to part ways, the future of the band was up in the air. Two members, Anton Fier and Keith Clayton (no relation), quit to find other work. There was a long period of inactivity that lasted nearly four years, from 1981 until 1985. During this time period a few things happened: I was born, the band added two new members, and they signed to Coyote/Twin Tone records. In 1986, The Good Earth was released. Although the songs dated back to the first album, the sounds were drastically different. The band adopted a slower and more acoustic sound, but still stuck with their trademark use of percussion and other odd instruments. “Slow Down” is an early R.E.M.-influenced track that starts slow but builds. They also experimented with other techniques, such as recording animals or people talking in addition to utilizing percussion, although in a different way than they did with Crazy Rhythms. Because the album was a complete change of pace, the sounds heard in a song like “Raised Eyebrows” would have sounded out of place. Although Peter Buck of R.E.M. was around to produce the album, most of that work was done by Glenn and my dad, who were quite picky about what they wanted. They were big fans of Buck’s band though, and toured with them in support of R.E.M.’s incredible Life’s Rich Pageant album. I got to meet the guys in R.E.M., and I recall playing He-Man with them (one of them was a big fan of Moss Man). Around this time period, the band also released the No One Knows EP, containing two of their own songs as well as covers of the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” and Neil Young’s “Sedan Delivery.” Around this time, the band played some great shows. With two albums released, they had a larger repertoire to choose from, and they also were fond of including covers of songs by the Stooges, the Doors, and even the Monkees into their sets.
After a successful tour, the band once again entered the studio to record Only Life. This was slightly delayed by the birth of my brother in 1988, and I believe other band members had children around the same time. The record can be described as a combination of the first two, with faster paced songs like “Deep Fascination” that seem to draw more from Crazy Rhythms songs than later material. The production is notably slicker, and songs like “Higher Ground” seem radio-friendly. A fairly faithful cover of the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” closes the album with a bang. The band was also picked up by A&M on Lou Reed’s tour, which resulted in him calling our house to talk to my dad (who thought it was a prank). The band hit it off with Lou, and would often join him during his set on some of the Velvet Underground classics like “Sweet Jane” and “Run, Run, Run.”
Sensing that the band gained some fans on the Reed tour, A&M gave them a ton of money to record what would be their last album, Time For A Witness. The album contained a notable cover of the Stooges’ “Real Cool Time, ” but the band just didn’t seem to be into it anymore. That’s not to say there weren’t some good songs on the album. “Waiting” is built upon a great riff that sounds like a kinder, gentler Stooges song. “Doin’ It Again” was a single from the album, and the band picked this to play for their appearance on the David Letterman show (a bizarre experience– he passed me in the hall and complimented my Yankees jacket, and also appeared to be ten feet tall). “Invitation” was also remixed and released as a single and enjoyed moderate success on college radio (the band had a faithful following amongst the college crowd). The album was also slightly more “rock” oriented than previous efforts. Looking for a crossover hit, A&M booked larger venues, but the band was really meant to play in smaller clubs. The commercial success never came either, and everyone in the band had families to take care of. Of course, by 1991, the music world was dominated by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the other Seattle bands. It was clear the Feelies wouldn’t fit in with the new crop of louder, heavier bands. After one last show at Maxwell’s (on the 4th of July, I believe) in Hoboken, the band decided to call it a day after about twelve years.
The Feelies seemed to be one of those bands whose influences wouldn’t be heard until years later. With the so-called “new garage” movement, many bands seem to be reclaiming the sound that originated in New York back in the late 1970s. The Strokes seem to be just as fond of the Velvets and Television as the Feelies were, and other bands like Interpol don’t seem too shy about hiding their influences. This has led to an interest in music from that era.
Crazy Rhythms was reissued by A&M in the early 1990s with a good, albeit awkwardly placed, cover of “Paint It Black” tacked on. The Good Earth, however, is long out of print, and Ebay seems to be the only place to find it. The band would like to reissue the first two albums, perhaps with some extras along with them. One of my dad’s favorite songs, “The Obedient Atom, ” has been around for years but was never released, despite showing up in the live set occasionally. The track is a long instrumental and is a Wire-ish gloomy, apocalyptic sounding track complete with droning guitars and eerie bells. There are also the songs the band did for the movie “Something Wild, ” which are mostly covers of old classics (“Fame, ” “I’m A Believer”). The movie was directed by Jonathan Demme, who also included the band in his last movie, “The Truth About Charlie.”
With the recent resurgence in their style of music, the Feelies’ influence can be heard in many places. Looking back on it now, it is pretty amazing that my dad got to hang out with guys like Lou Reed and Michael Stipe. I was too young to really appreciate it then, but now I can only imagine how surreal it must have been to talk on the phone with Lou Reed. So even though I’m not rich and famous like Jack Osbourne, it still feels good to know that the Feelies had an impact on the world of music.