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In preparation for this article, I spent some time on the phone with Mercer. The man isn't given to extended answers, and our conversation was polite but noncommittal. We discussed very little that a quick Google search wouldn't reveal. The closest I got to exclusive information is when he told me how Lydia Lunch considered the Feelies her "little brothers," which must have seemed a little scary at the time.
However, Mercer did clear up one mystery for me: How come the first two albums are so different? Crazy Rhythms is a ball of nervousness, while The Good Earth is pastoral and relaxed in comparison.
"Well, the first one was inspired by our experiences in New York — playing shows at Max's, staying with our manager, Terry Ork," he suggested. "The second one was more inspired by our friends and playing locally."
It's easy to forget that the Feelies were quite the buzz band around NYC. Between 1977 and 1981, it recorded demos with Carla Bley, had one of the legendary scenester managers in Ork, released records on Stiff and Rough Trade, and were toasted by the Village Voice. The band's drummer was Anton Fier, already a well-known name through his work in the Lounge Lizards. Director Susan Seidelman used their music as the soundtrack to Smithereens. Jonathan Demme not only cast them in Something Wild, but proposed creating a feature film around them — a film that, according to legend, ended up being Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. All this for a band that once said they didn't like playing New York shows because "we get real bad headaches going through the tunnel."
With its nerd-chic cover art, mutant Bo Diddley beat and song titles like "Moscow Nights" and "The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness," Crazy Rhythms definitely fit in with the 1980 idea of "new wave." Where the Feelies differed from its Stiff Records labelmates was in its perfectionist tendencies — apparently the band infuriated producer Mark Abel with its refusal to let him actually produce — and the extended, trancelike moods of the best songs. It's hard to imagine Stiff peers such as Nick Lowe and Wreckless Eric having the patience for, say, "Forces at Work," which gathers its strength like an oncoming thunderstorm for several minutes.
It wasn't surprising that the Feelies left Stiff soon afterward — the label didn't like the band's new direction, and the band was turned off by the label's brash promotion techniques and package tours. Then the rhythm section quit, and the remaining Feelies took their first hiatus. However, Million, Mercer and Weckerman were hardly sitting around at home.
In fact, the band was probably busier between 1982 and 1985 than it ever would be again. The Feelies hooked up with bassist Brenda Sauter and drummer Stan Demeski in a series of small bands. There was Yung Wu, which featured percussionist Dave Weckerman on lead vocals; the Trypes, a septet that released one stunning EP of semi-psychedelic pop; the Willies, mostly a cover band, and (for one show) Dr. Robert, an all-Beatles cover band. At some point the Willies turned back into the Feelies, Buck entered the picture, and The Good Earth came out in 1986.
Where Crazy Rhythms was rubber-band tight, The Good Earth was a direct descendant of the Trypes/Willies era: subtler, more textured and approachable. Which isn't to say the Feelies abandoned its trademark approach — "The Last Roundup" and "Two Rooms" are almost heart-stopping, and "Slipping (Into Something)" begins as a third-album Velvet Underground pastiche and ends in a maelstrom of guitar noise and speedy tempos. But there's also the title track and "Let's Go," which follow a more conventional verse/chorus structure, and the mantralike "When Company Comes" and "Slow Down." The Good Earth could have come out anytime between 1972 and last week, and it would have sounded every bit as current.
This Feelies lineup lasted for two more albums and into the early '90s. Since then, Mercer has never really stopped working — besides his solo projects, he played with Weckerman in Wake Ooloo and with several ex-Trypes in the Sunburst. Currently, the Feelies are once again taking up most of his time; the band's even played new songs in concert. When asked about future plans, however, Mercer remains characteristically vague. "Bill still lives in Florida, and everyone has kids or family commitments," he says. "It's hard to get everyone together at the same time."
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