What our staff has to say: “The Feelies are awesome, and I love this record in particular. I could listen to their casual, laid-back acoustic guitars strumming away all day. But the excitement definitely comes in their more Velvet Underground-inspired tracks when those acoustic guitars build and build towards a climactic ending. I like putting on this record in the morning on a sunny weekend day when I blissfully have nothing to do and hours ahead of me that are all my own.” – Hannah
Surely, you’ve heard of it: The (Dreaded) Second Album Syndrome. A band creates something magical and unique on its debut disc. Then, a second album is churned out quickly, the band – or the record company – feeling the pressure to capitalize, want to strike again before the public’s interest wanes. And many times, that second album is inferior, the songs sounding like out-takes that didn’t make the cut first time around. For good reason.
This is not what happened to the Feelies, the band co-led by guitarist-singers Glenn Mercer and Bill Million.
The Haledon, NJ-based group started playing together in 1976. There were lineup shifts, but a quartet solidified by the late ‘70s and their first album, “Crazy Rhythms,” came out in 1980 on Stiff. “Crazy Rhythms” was stunning, with its juxtaposition of calm and manic moods, minor and major chords, its weave of twisting, piercing guitar leads and, yes, crazy rhythms. It sounded like a record made by smart, repressed and agitated outsiders: punk rock in its own way, on its own terms. I was a critic for the Boston Globe and it was one of my favorite albums of the year. I highly anticipated their next album. That’s the one you’re now holding, “The Good Earth.” It first came out … six years after “Crazy Rhythms.”
R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck was also looking forward to that second record. He met the Feelies in 1985 at a party, introduced by Steve Fallon, the Feelies manager and co-owner of the Hoboken club Maxwell’s. “I was a huge fan of the first record and saw them live in New York on some holiday,” recalls Buck. “I really loved ‘em, and it seemed at the time like they weren’t doing anything. I just said, ‘I really love your work and if you ever need help in the studio …’” Eventually, they did and Buck co-produced “The Good Earth” with Mercer and Million.
The Feelies of the early-mid ‘80s weren’t paralyzed, inert or lazy. “We weren’t taking time off,” says Mercer. “It was a busy time, all the offshoot bands we had [the Trypes, the Willies, Yung Wu], and Bill and I did the soundtrack to the ‘Smithereens’ movie. And we were wanting to distance ourselves from the machinery of the music industry, to do it on a local level and just not have as high a profile.”
There was trouble with Stiff. The first album, great and groundbreaking as it was, didn’t set any sales records. When the Feelies presented new demos, Million says, “Stiff rejected them. They were more experimental; they didn’t have the typical structure of verse-chorus-verse-break-or-bridge. They were taken aback. They were looking for a single that wasn’t there. It was a singles-versus-album mentality.” Stiff may have been wary of the all-instrumental, near-ambient sound Mercer and Million were creating, a sound they would later turn into music for the Willies. Stiff, says Million, didn’t want Mercer and Million in charge of production. The Feelies parted company with Stiff.
“I started playing with Glenn, Bill, Dave [Weckerman, the percussionist] and Keith [Clayton, the bassist] in July 1981,” says drummer Stanley Demeski. “We got together about three or four times and mostly jammed. Then, I didn’t hear from them for a couple of months. When we did start playing again it was without Keith. That was a lot of jamming too, lots of percussion. We started working on songs like ‘Thundering Herd’ and what was referred to as the ‘Gato Drum Song.’ Some of this was more ambient-type music. This is the line-up that evolved into the Willies … In early 1983, I joined the Trypes. A few months later, Brenda started playing with the Trypes. Eventually, she started playing with the Willies. We played a few shows with this line up. It was probably around late 1982 when I started becoming involved with Yung Wu [the band fronted by Weckerman].” Sauter joined Yung Wu in 1983.
Where were the Feelies? A record company bio for “The Good Earth,” which came out first on Fallon’s Coyote label, says they disbanded in 1981. It’s perhaps now best considered a hiatus. There was no formal breakup. Mercer, who handles the lyrics, and Million had been writing what would become Feelies songs – just at their own pace, with some songs worked out in different band formats.
“The length of time it took [to make the Feelies second album] didn’t seem unusual to me,” says Million. “It was just the natural course. After ‘Crazy Rhythms,’ we certainly didn’t want to remake it. We started working on other things, kept busy with other musicians. We’d never been of that mindset where we’d done our first album, now we have to do our second.”
Mercer: “I don’t remember a period of consciously feeling a demand for more songs. It was a natural progression over a pretty long period of time, a few songs every year.”
With Demeski and Sauter on board, Mercer says they had a “less aggressive” rhythm section, thus giving the band a “more relaxed dynamic.” And as songwriters, he adds, “We were heading in that direction anyway. The two go hand-in-hand.” The re-born Feelies “evolved,” says Mercer out of the Willies. Weckerman, who played in a nascent version of the Feelies, re-joined on percussion, solidifying a five-piece lineup that still exists.
In 1984, the Feelies – who had mostly played cities and nearly always on holiday weekends – went on a cross-country tour. “It had an impact on the band,” says Mercer. “We felt inspired by the emergence of the grassroots movement. We were listening to more rural bands – the Meat Puppets, Love Tractor, R.E.M. – and less city bands.”
The songs that Mercer and Million were writing – the 10 songs that became “The Good Earth,” an album clocking in under 38 minutes – had a more languid, pastoral feeling. Though there was still dissonance and a certain rhythmic frenzy, the overall sound was gentler, less frenetic, more a caress than a jolt.
“We wanted to change the instrumentation somewhat,” adds Million. “Less electric. A good part of our music foundation is root chords, open chords, notes ringing out. We did that on ‘Crazy Rhythms’ with electric guitars, and when ‘The Good Earth’ came around we wanted to get a more acoustic, open feel to it – a reaction to ‘Crazy Rhythms.”
When it was time to record, Buck joined the Feelies at Mix-o-Lydian, a studio in Boonton, NJ. He came up from Athens, Ga., mostly on weekends, early in the spring of 1986. He didn’t model himself on Phil Spector.
“It wasn’t as if I said ‘I’m going to do this for you kids,’” says Buck. “When I work in the studio with another band, generally my feeling is I wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know what they wanted to do. I have no interest in finding a young band with potential and telling them how to do something. That’s just bullshit. I thought ‘These guys made a great record, I’m sure they have another one in ‘em, I’m sure they know what to do.’ It might help to have someone at the board who has ears and can say ‘The bass is out of tune’ or “You lose the energy in the bridge” or whatever. And honestly, being a cheerleader is 90 percent of the job. Saying ‘This is great, you’re going in the right direction, but you’re not quite there.’ They had the songs and the solos worked. It was just a matter of having someone they could look up to and believe that I knew what I was doing. That they could trust me.”
On “The Good Earth,” the Feelies balance tranquility and tension. There’s a country-ish undertone here and there. Mercer’s lead vocals, however, remained relatively muted, certainly not the focal part of the songs. “Being a guitar player,” he says, “I don’t have much of a need to express myself as a singer, I was a reluctant front man to begin with. I felt like I kind of had to. The vocal mix felt right to add to the atmosphere.”
“Slipping (Into Something),” the album’s best known and extraordinarily catchy song, was upbeat on the surface, but listen carefully and you’ll hear the downbeat lyrical drift. Sang Mercer: “Plenty of chances, never know when/Over and over and over again/Needing somebody, needing some help/Slipping into something, and out of something else.” Throughout the album, the moods change course subtly – reflective, wistful, accepting, desultory. Some encouragement, some discouragement, much entanglement. Life as a complex mix of disappointment and joy. Mercer’s not inclined to discuss lyrics, but says, “Sometimes in the face of hardship you find optimism, Maybe that’s in there somewhere.”
When the Feelies hit the studio, it turned out to be pretty smooth sailing. The band was fully prepared, says Buck, with songs written and arranged. There was some discussion about when they’d hit the finish line – not an uncommon situation. Mercer says he thought his “vocal delivery might seem a little too relaxed or laid-back” and wanted to re-do a couple of things. Buck says he told him “’It sounds great, you just worry about it too much. Let’s go with what we got.’ They talked about it a little while and said ‘OK, let’s go with what we got.’”
Mercer concurs: “I think everybody agreed that it fit the mood of the record, so we left it like that.”
So, Mercer and Million are perfectionists. “Yes,” says Buck, “but not in any super-negative way. They’re smart and opinionated and also kind of quiet and taciturn. Sometimes when things weren’t going right you can’t figure it out because they won’t tell you. ‘Why are you unhappy? Is it too fast? Should we change instruments? Do we need a break? Give me a clue as to where we need to be to make this a good experience.’ It worked out fine.
“They knew what they wanted and knew how to get it. The songs, I loved. I thought Glenn’s solos were really well thought out, very Tom Verlaine-esque – single-note solos that I thought were almost a different song they were so great. I remember listening to the tape and the overdubs and thinking, ‘This is a cool record and it doesn’t sound much like the other one.’ I remember at the time some of the reviews said ‘They got Peter Buck in and he made it sound like an R.E.M. record.’ That’s not what was going on. These guys wanted to make a different record and they needed somebody at the board going, ‘Hey, it sounds great.’”
It did and it does – re-mastered by perfectionists, re-released by Bar/None 23 years down the road.