Get The Willies
"The Willies would play in the dark, sitting in chairs. We wanted to make this an anti-rock experience." - Glenn Mercer
"It wasn’t rock’n’roll. It was more like art stuff. People in New York liked it. But you probably couldn’t play it in Dover." - Dave Weckerman
The Feelies plot thickens! To the passive observer, the years between Crazy Rhythms (1980) and The Good Earth (1986) might appear to be “lost” years for the band. At least that’s how I thought of them until recently. But the band’s principals, Glenn Mercer and Bill Million, were in fact very active during these years — just not all that much as The Feelies. And very little of the work they were doing ever saw official release. The forthcoming Trypes release on Acute Records will fill in one of the gaps. The other missing piece is the (mostly) instrumental, ambient-leaning project known as The Willies. Heavily influenced by Another Green World-era Eno, The Willies bring the experimental leanings of Crazy Rhythms to their fullest fruition — there’s even a whiff of downtown minimalism a la Steve Reich and Philip Glass here. It’s excellent stuff and essential listening for anyone who loves The Feelies.
First up, we’ve got five demo recordings, some of which turned up on the (unreleased?) Are We In Haledon Yet? compilation. Mysterious sounds, mysterious origins, with lots of Fripp-ian, serpentine e-bowed guitar. One of these tracks — “When Company Comes” — was reworked for The Good Earth, while “The Obedient Atom” is a tune that the Crazy Rhythms-era band played live in its latter days. The other three tracks are hauntingly beautiful fragments of drifting, ambient sound, quite unlike anything The Feelies ever did.
Next! A 1983 show at the Peanut Gallery in Haledon, NJ. This lineup is, I believe, the same lineup that would coalesce as The Feelies a few years later — Million, Mercer, Stanley Demeski (drums), Dave Weckerman (drums/percussion), and Brenda Sauter (bass). But again, though there are similarities, the Willies set played here is very different from what the band was up to in its latter days. An interesting wrinkle is the presence of what seem to be pre-recorded tapes of voices wafting through the air, as though The Willies were soundtracking some imaginary film. Again, a very Eno thing to do. To my ears, another influence might well be some of those brooding, early Velvet Underground bootlegs — things like the legendary "Melody Laughter" recording.
Finally, we’ve got an entirely instrumental show from 1985, with The Willies in a more “party band” mode, playing a set packed with cool covers as well as unique versions of Good Earth tunes. A highlight is the groovy rendition of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From The Sun” that sounds uncannily like something Yo La Tengo would be doing about a decade later. There’s also an extended jam on “Slipping (Into Something)” that features some of Mercer’s wildest guitar playing. This show isn’t quite as fascinating as the other Willies stuff, but it is a hell of a lot of fun.
Don’t know if there are better-sounding, pro studio-recorded documents of The Willies lurking in any of the band members’ basements, but I hope so — there’s clearly enough material here for a great album.
A million-trillion thanks to Janice for digitizing these amazing live tapes. Photo by John Baumgartner. Quotes come from this informative interview.