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Hoboken Hits the Housatonic 

Although strands of it are apparent in that of the many subsequent acts they inspired, the sound of the Feelies remains unmistakable: nervous, twitchy tempos topped with skewed solos and highly contagious pop hooks. The band, which formed at the dawn of punk and plays MassMOCA this month, also stood out early on for its idiosyncratic use of clean, jangling guitars.

“We were trying to forge something different than the regular ‘punk’ sound,” says  Glenn Mercer, who co-founded the group in Haledon, New Jersey, with his fellow singer-guitarist Bill Million in 1976. “We tried to stay from using a lot of [guitar] distortion and barre chords, which was what most other bands on the scene were using.”

The approach, combined with Million’s and Mercer’s considerable songwriting skills, won the Feelies swift acclaim as they made forays into Manhattan for gigs at CBGB and other key venues. After adding second drummer Anton Fier (Lounge Lizards, Golden Palominos), the group cut a 1978 single for the seminal UK label Stiff Records, which two years later released its debut album, Crazy Rhythms. One of the most influential LPs of the last 30 years, the disc was a resounding hit with critics and made a deep impression on followers like R.E.M., Pavement, Sebadoh, and others.

The Feelies are most identified with the tightly knit neighborhood scene centering around Hoboken club Maxwell’s, home at that time to other similarly mid 60s-inspired guitar bands like the Bongos and the Individuals (both of whom have members now residing in our region, coincidentally). “There was a real sense of community,” remembers Mercer. “We were all listening to a lot of ’60s music—the Velvet Underground, the Byrds, the Who—and a lot of ’50s music as well.”

The group split not long after Crazy Rhythms’s release, with Mercer and Million going on to perform in a series of shorter-lived projects. But after a few years the pair reactivated the Feelies as a five-piece with original drummer Dave Weckerman on percussion, bassist Brenda Sauter, and drummer Stanley Demeski to record 1986’s folk-leaning The Good Earth (Coyote Records; produced by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck). The band signed with A&M Records for 1988’s Only Life and 1991’s Time for a Witness, and in the years hence have maintained an on/off existence, with most members playing with other acts (most notably, Demeski with Luna).

Things are decidedly back on for the Feelies these days. In 2008 the group reconvened for two sold-out shows at old haunt Maxwell’s and to open for devotees Sonic Youth, and the following year performed at Carnegie Hall in an R.E.M. tribute concert, at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in Monticello (playing Crazy Rhythms in its entirety), and locally at the Bearsville Theater. The quintet also recorded its first new album in 20 years, the superb, appropriately titled Here Before (Bar/None Records).

“Bill lives in Florida and Brenda’s in Pennsylvania, so we don’t get together that often,” explains Mercer, who, like Weckerman and Demeski still lives in the New Jersey area. “But when we do we make the most of our time. It’s still fun, so why not do it?”

The Feelies will perform at MassMOCA’s Hunter Center in North Adams, Massachusetts, on November 11 at 8pm. Tickets are $22, $26, and $18 for students. (413) 662-2111; www.massmoca.org.
click to enlarge The Feelies sound-check at Maxwell's, Hoboken, New Jersey, mid-1980s.
  • The Feelies sound-check at Maxwell's, Hoboken, New Jersey, mid-1980s.

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