"Crazy Rhythms is aptly titled," says Bill Million of the Feelies. "There are a lot of weird things going on. We didn't practice much, so we were kind of disjointed when we made the album." Today, Crazy Rhythms is a landmark of jangly, guitar-driven avant-pop, and its shimmering sound can still be heard in bands like R.E.M. But it almost wasn't released at all.
The Feelies formed in 1976 in their small hometown of Haledon, New Jersey, as a lark. Tripping on acid one day, Million passed guitarist Glenn Mercer's garage and was impressed to hear the band playing the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." The like-minded guitarists formed a band that eventually included bassist Keith Clayton and drummer Anton Fier.
"The sound we were after was a reaction against the punk scene," says Mercer. "Being a little older, we felt it had all been done before. We wanted the guitars to be cleaner, and we started experimenting with a lot of percussion."
Afer recording a four-song demo, the Feelies signed with England's Stiff Records, the only label that would let the fledgling band produce itself. They entered New York's cavernous Vanguard studios late in the summer of 1979 only to find that they couldn't get a guitar sound they liked. "It was very old, things were breaking down," says Mercer. "We tried closets, bathrooms, hallways." Finally, engineer Mark Abel suggested bypassing the amp and plugging the guitars directly into the mixer. "It's a basic rule of recording to never, ever record direct," says Mercer. "It's a very dry, clean sound, and most people think it lacks dynamics. But we found it was closer to your ear, more up front."
The music is jittery, thumping and volatile, complementing titles like "The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness" and "Loveless Love." There are long silences, repeated notes, wavering tones, pickups flipped on and off. Any gaps are filled with strange, found percussion instruments, including cans, shoe boxes and coat racks.
Their record label, however, "hated it," according to Mercer. "They brought us into a meeting, put Lene Lovich's latest song on the turntable and said, 'You guys gotta come up with something like this.'" The album received little promotion, Fier was soon wooed away by the Lounge Lizards, and the band broke up for several years. Today, Crazy Rhythms is available only as a German import. "People have talked about remixing and re-releasing it," says Mercer, "but you don't want to mess around with it. It's got a life of its own."