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ORK Stories: The Feelies

More a Patterson exurb than a New York City suburb, Haledon, New Jersey, had seen the passage of a handful of meaningless garage combos, two of which performed dead-on covers of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” The 1975 fusion of those two acts resulted in The Out Kids, featuring Glenn Mercer on guitar, Bill Millions on bass, Dave Weckerman on drums, and Richard Reilly on vocals. The Out Kids would make Gotham inroads, filling holes at Club 82 and Mothers, the site of a pivotal moment. During a ferocious opening slot for Wayne County & the Backstreet Boys, a bass guitar on loan got nicked up, leading to docked pay and a fistfight that broke out between Reilly and Weckerman. Reilly was out, leaving Mercer to take up vocals. Millions moved to second guitar, while a man recalled only by the name “Jimmy J.” assumed bass duties. As for the new band’s name, Millions looked no further than Aldous Huxley, whose 1932 novel Brave New World had predicted a popular entertainment of the future called “the feelies,” a cinema of sensations in which audiences could taste and smell a fictional experience.

Suburban gigging experience, on the other hand, wouldn’t take the Feelies farther than high school dances and Mr. D’s, the only new wave-tolerant venue in nearby Elmwood Park. “Blondie played there,” Weckerman said. “[It was] the only place west of the Hudson that bands from New York played. It was sort of like new wave then. We used to play with a band called the Commercials,” in which drummer Vinnie and bassist Keith DeNunzio performed as telepathic fraternal rhythm section.

As The Feelies veered toward tighter metering, Weckerman seemed increasingly out of place. “He’s a real good drummer, sort of Mitch Mitchell style,” Millions said. “Lots of our songs feature straight repetition, something he wasn’t really adapted to and are probably very physically demanding but boring to play.” From the Commercials, Mercer and Millions poached the precise DeNunzio brothers, though the Feelies would remain in flux. According to Mercer, they “really didn't have any particular model for the band. It sort of evolved. We only played maybe seven times a year. Every time we played, our thing was to be a little different and alittle more original. Part of that was really playing with Vinnie, two guitars along with the cymbals cancelled each other out....We found it was a big space that needed filling.”

This latest quartet of Feelies began work on material that went on to buttress Crazy Rhythms, their debut 1980 Stiff Records LP. “At that point, anyone who wanted to pursue original music had to go to New York. It wasn't like in the ‘80s where you had Minneapolis and Athens, Georgia and Los Angeles or any of that,” Mercer said. “You had tons of bands going to New York, trying to get a deal. I remember CBGB had a Summer Festival and had 10 or 12 bands playing each night, all original stuff.” They returned to Manhattan in the fall of ’76, turning up at a CBGB audition night and taking the stage at 2:30 AM, hot on the heels of some heavy metal bands and a comedy troupe out of Boston. The Feelies were hastily invited back.

"We knew what sound we wanted, we just didn’t know how to get it yet.”

With Television signed to Elektra as of August 1976, Terry Ork was forced to follow his nose in pursuit of the next Velvet Underground. He tailed CBGB sound man Mark Abel to The Feelies’ initial gig at Hilly Kristal’s dingy club, a Wednesday, November 17 set in support of Quiet Fire. “He didn’t look punk,” Mercer later said of Ork. “He looked more like Jerry Garcia.” After a January 16, 1977, opening slot for Exeter punks The Fans, Terry Ork—now acting as The Feelies manager—suggested they make the 90-mile pilgrimage to Trod Nossel to begin work with Jon Tiven. “It was a real scary place,”Millions said. “We were afraid to go up there. It took up two months to psyche ourselves up.” A week later, the Feelies arrived at the Connecticut studio to discover a strung-out Richard Lloyd hard at work on his contribution to an Ork-envisioned Stones tribute LP. Mercer and company would track their own reading of Jagger and Richards’ “Out Of Time” before rolling tape on original material.

Both “Forces at Work" and “Original Love” were set down during the sessions, but the band, already leery of working with an outside producer, were never pleased with the results. “[Tiven] said, ‘Why don’t you go out to dinner and I’ll do a rough mix,’” Mercer recalled “And when we came back it was so foreign to what we wanted that we agreed that we’d never give up control of our sound to someone else. We knew what sound we wanted, we just didn’t know how to get it yet.”

Inside and out of studio surroundings, The Feelies remained in search of themselves. “You had bands like the Dead Boys. We saw their first show in New York, they had big Seattle hair, like a heavy metal band. Then a week later, they had like a Johnny Rotten haircut. They went punk overnight,” Mercer said. “We had seen the Stooges, the Dolls, the MC5. We saw that and said, why go down that road that’s already been traveled? We were pretty heavily influenced by Eno and Bowie’s ambient stuff. We were a rock band but we wanted to incorporate what we liked about that stuff. A melding of the two lent an experimental edge to it.”

Such experimental edges were being tested on Lower East Side stages throughout the first half of 1977. “Our whole idea is to have this droning guitar thing as the foundation,” Million told the NME. “Sometimes live that drone gets out of control, and the melody lines and the drum lines take a back seat.” They’d open for Alex Chilton at CBGB twice during that span, with Brooke Delarco behind the sound board. She’d also back them on their next two studio excursions.

Delarco had arrived in New York in 1975 by way of a Georgia State arts degree. Following a short stint at the Institute of Audio Research in Union Square, she took a job as an assistant engineer at Vanguard Studio. A session with New Jersey prog-punks TV Toy alongside Television sound man Mark Abel would alter Delarco’s course permanently. “[Abel] took me down to CBs one night to see Television, and I was blown away,” she said. “I thought to myself, ‘Finally, two great guitarists.’” Delarco was introduced to Terry Ork shortly thereafter. “Terry had just stopped managing Television, and was now managing The Feelies. He had this whole vision for what was going on there and he knew how special it was.”

Hoping to capture some of the Feelies’ high-strung onstage energy, Delarco and Abel joined the band at Trod Nossel in February of ’77, where they tracked “Big Plans” and “Fa Cé-La” and took another stab at “Original Love.” A month later, Delarco convinced the group to reconvene, this time in a more casual environment. They rented a few hours at Star Rehearsals, setting up on stage as if for a live performance. On hand that day was a 4-track belonging to Patti Smith Group drummer Jay Dee Daugherty, the same machine that had captured Television's “Little Johnny Jewel” not two years earlier. At Star, “Forces At Work,” “Moscow Nights,” “Clean Girl,” “Loveless Love,” and “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness” were hammered out in short order, and Crazy Rhythms began to take shape.

According to an ad placed in Trouser Press, “Big Plans” b/w “Fa Cé-La” was slotted in as ORK 81980, due for release in May. A lack of financing sidelined the release, and by the time Ork returned to the masters, the Feelies had signed to Stiff. “The main reason we signed with Stiff is that we insisted we shouldn’t have a producer, and they agreed,” Millions said. “I don’t know how bands can allow their music to be mixed by someone else. It’s something we could never do.”

“The Feelies want to sell millions of records,” Terry Ork said later. “Which means that it isn’t fair for us, given our goals, to sign them for three or five year contracts. We’ll push them as far as we can on the label, but I’m not interested in playing Yankee or Shea Stadium. I’m interested in having the music made, and whatever community ultimately seems appropriate for the music, that’s the one it will stand in.”