Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Feelies

Was there ever a time when the Velvet Underground was unappreciated? Of course. Certainly during the period when they actually existed. I'm sure that, outside New York, Los Angeles and Boston, they were booed as much, if not more, than they were applauded. I personally remember having to lock the door of the dj booth in college when I played "Sister Ray," because the program director wanted to come in and turn it off.
But somewhere along the line, the boos turned into cheers, Lou Reed had a hit single, a million bands claimed the Velvets as an influence, a box set came out, and finally, I think, they even made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
If you are pining for a band to love who suffers from the same lack of appreciation as the Velvets suffered for so long, may I suggest the Feelies, a band from the same fertile new wave crescent of Northern New Jersey that produced the Bongoes and the Individuals, but with a much more lasting impact.
There is a reason that I led this piece with the Velvet Underground. The Feelies unabashedly borrowed the rhythm guitar style of the Velvet's "What Goes On," (not they were alone - check out many of Brian Eno's tracks on Another Green World) combined it with great Television double leads and Beatle-esque harmonies (not to mention exquisite tastes in covers ) and created a new pop sound that was loved by the bands who got into clubs for free to hear them but not by the record companies or the masses who were meant to buy the four albums they put in their lifetime.
Part of the problem was that the Feelies never seemed that interested in being a band, much less rock stars. They were like a college student who would finish one year of school and then drop out for two or three or five. They put out their first record Crazy Rhythm, on Stiff Records in 1980, but they had already been together since 1976. (I actually met them in 1977 at Terry Ork's loft, when they played percussion for my band Jack Ruby, when we were auditioning for Ork.)
They then broke up, but got back together to put out The Good Earth (my favorite of their records) in 1986. That is probably the record that should have made them stars. It was accessible and warm and full of hummable melodies and intricate pop arrangements. But it did not make them stars.
It only took two years for the Feelies to put out their next album, Only Life, the album which makes clear their debt to the Velvet Underground by actually covering "What Goes On."
Finally, three years later they put out their last album, Time for a Witness, at which point Bill Million, one of the two writer/singer/guitarists, moved to Florida, neglecting to mention to the rest of the band that he was leaving.
As I said, I knew the Feelies slightly back in the late '70's. They were part of the very vibrant post punk scene that coalesced around Maxwell's in New Jersey. But I wasn't a huge fan of Crazy Rhythms, and I lost track of them after that. (Honestly, I lost track of most music for the next eight or ten years.)
When I finally rediscovered them, it was too late to appreciate them in the flesh. However it's still possible to appreciate them on their records, which sound as fresh today as they did when they were released. Some reviewer called them the first alt/indie band, and if you want to talk about powerful rhythms, strong melodies built into the vocal harmonies and the guitar parts, and obscure, hard-to-decipher lyrics - then I would agree. But what I always come back to is the rhythm. I said earlier that they co-opted the Velvet's rhythm from "What Goes On," but really the Velvets smartly stole that rhythm from Bo Diddley and that rhythm is part of the original dna of rock n roll.
The Feelies - The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness (from Crazy Rhythms)
The Feelies - On the Roof (from The Good Earth)
The Feelies - Higher Ground (from Only Life)
The Feelies - Waiting (from Time for a Witness)
The Velvet Underground - What Goes On (Closet Mix)
The Feelies - What Goes On

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Great Songs and Great Songwriting #2 (Story Songs)

I am not a huge fan of story songs. Actually, let me rephrase that: I've never found the fact that a song is a story song a reason in and of itself to love the song. I know there is a tradition in American folk music that has certainly shown itself in pop ("Honey"), soul ("Papa Was a Rollin' Stone," Slick Rick's "Children's Story") and country (a million examples, everything from "Ode to Billie Joe" to "Goodbye Earl"). And many of those songs are great. But they aren't necessarily my cup of tea. (I am partial to Dennis Linde's "Goodbye Earl.")
But I'm posting the two story songs below not only because they build suspense like good old fashioned short stories, but their twisted endings reflect a cynicism and bitterness on the part of the writers that I find very attractive.
John Hiatt - Tennessee Plates
Robert Earl Keen - The Road Goes On Forever

Friday, September 14, 2007

Rock's Backpages

Rock's Backpages is an English website that republishes English and American music criticism from the rock era, dating back to the mid-60's and continuing into the present. It has managed to collect over 10,000 articles from most of the rock press - everything from the major magazines, like Rolling Stone, Spin, Creem, NME and Melody Maker - to more obscure but equally influential magzines like Zig Zag, Fusion, Trouser Press, New York Rocker (my fave) and No Depression. It features pieces by literally thousands of writers, from early mainstream media rock critics like the NY Times' Mike Jahn, to hall of famers like Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Greg Shaw and Nick Kent, to obscure geniuses like John Mendelssohn, to passers-through like Chrissie Hynde, Kim Fowley and Nick Hornby. It costs a few bucks a year and it's is totally worth it. I've been subscribing for five or six years. Every Monday I get an email with a list of 10-20 new articles they have added to their database. They are extremely well-organized and articles are accessible by artist name, genre, writer or magazine. Please check it out.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Great Songs and Great Songwriting #1

I've always been fascinated by songs, and what makes one song great and another not so hot. There is so much that goes into a great song. Obviously, you have to have both a memorable melody and meaningful lyrics. And the song has to be constructed in such a way as to please and surprise the listener over and over again.
Great songwriting is a craft as well as an art. I love that place where the craft and the art meet.
This is the first in a series of posts in which I hope to explore different facets of songwriting and also post some examples of what I consider great songs. And eventually, come to some conclusions about exactly what elements go into a great song.
The first song I'm posting was written and performed by Michelle Shocked, on her 1992 album, Arkansas Traveller. Ironically, I chose it not because it illustrates any particular premise about songwriting. It's just a song I find myself listening to a lot. And aside from the catchy melody and propulsive pace of the song, the reason I love it as much as I do may have more to do with the fact that it's structurally a travelogue about Los Angeles circa 1988 (a few years before I moved there) and therefore personally interesting.
Michelle Shocked - Come a Long Way