The new film The Squid and the Whale should be a cause for celebration among fans of ’80s nervous nerd rock: The Feelies are back in the house!
The song “Let’s Go,” from their 1986 disc, The Good Earth, is among the movie’s choice soundtrack cuts (a fine soundtrack, by the way, that ranges from Lou Reed to Luna to Bert Jansch to Loudon Wainwright III. Wainwright’s “Lullaby,” written to make his then-toddler Rufus “shut up” and go to sleep, is worth the coin alone and explains a lot about those dissing, dysfunctional Wainwrights.)
But back to the Feelies. They remain one of the criminally underappreciated bands that rose out of the ’80s post-punk movement, and it’s a shame they never caught on like, say, the Talking Heads. They took the ’60s stripped-down aesthetic of Reed and the Velvet Underground and married it to a giddy guitar energy, making at least one classic album, a couple of other good ones and one notable appearance in a movie before dissolving into memory. But you can still hear their influence today in bands from R.E.M. to Yo La Tengo.
Their debut, 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, a quintessential New Jersey garage rock disc, should be on the shelf of any serious modern rock collector. At the time, the band members were still in or barely out of high school. The sound is raw but luminous, a buzz of jangly guitar rhythms and wild sounds, from wonderful originals such as “The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness” and the hopped-up melody of “Fa Ce-La,” to some of the best covers ever of the Beatles’ “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide (Except for Me and my Monkey)” and the Stones’ “Paint It Black.”
All in all, this is a high water mark of the pocket-protector rock genre, more amazing for it being produced by a bunch of kids.
The Feelies’ rootsier ’86 disc, The Good Earth, is beloved by some fans, but I prefer 1988’s Only Life, which has a muddy low-fi sound, a great Velvets cover (“What Goes On”) and my favorite Feels track — “Too Far Gone,” which is a perfect description of the song’s crescendo of energy. Or maybe it’s just because it was the first Feelies song I ever heard, gifted to me on a mix tape by a woman who would quickly dump me, adding to my string of ’80s heartbreak. Still, she brought me to the Feelies, so I forgive.
In the end, the Feelies never hit it big, and disbanded after 1991’s disappointing “Time for a Witness.” They remain alive on — where else? — the Internet, where the fan page, The Night of the Living Feelies, keeps the crazy rhythms alive with fascinating tidbits — co-founder Bill Million is working as a locksmith at Disney World?
Film director Jonathan Demme was another fan of the Feelies, and he cast them as the band at the high school reunion attended by Jeff Daniels and a psychotic Melanie Griffith in the wonderful, schizo road picture, Something Wild. Now, all these years later, the band is back in Daniels’ newest pic, The Squid and the Whale.
The movie is being buzzed about as a renaissance for Daniels’ career. In a perfect world, it would bring back my beloved Feelies, too.
Read more of Deno Lao’s posts on pop culture at The Deno Diaries: denohere.blogspot.com
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