Friday, June 9, 2017

Large Numbers: Million: Bill Million

The Feelies: Raised Eyebrows

I suggested this theme (or something like it), thinking that there were large numbers of songs that fit, but strangely the first thing that came to mind when I sat down to write was the name Bill Million, best known as a member of The Feelies (and, it turns out, it isn't even his real name). Coming out of Haledon, New Jersey, The Feelies formed in 1976 around guitarist/songwriters Million and Glenn Mercer, reportedly after Million, tripping on acid, passed Mercer’s house and heard his band playing the Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog.” They soon gained a reputation as a live band. Ultimately, the group also included Keith Clayton on bass and Anton Fier (that guy!) on drums.

The Feelies remarkable first album, Crazy Rhythms, came out in 1980, during my WPRB days, and I remember thinking that it was unlike anything I had ever heard before. If you took the early Talking Heads’ quirkiness and twitchiness, Television’s intertwined guitars with strumming that would be made more famous in a few years by R.E.M. (who were influenced by The Feelies), add a touch of Dick Dale surf guitar, a bit of Phillip Glass/Steve Reich minimalism, some Eno drones, a heaping spoonful of Velvet Underground and back it with what is almost always referred to as “nervous drumming,” you might come close to understanding what they sounded like. And yet, it was something totally original. The Village Voice ranked it as the 17th best album of 1980, just behind X’s Los Angeles and ahead of Bowie’s Scary Monsters, The Rolling Stones’ Emotional Rescue, Joy Division’s Closer, and Argybargy by Squeeze, to name a few. Rolling Stone has ranked it as the 49th best album of the Eighties.

The album is many tracks deep, and we played the crap out of it. That year, the band performed at a party in a campus gym, and while their energy was evident, the bad sound and acoustics made it frustrating, because it was impossible to really appreciate the precision with which they played. Those of us who were familiar with the album enjoyed it, if with some disappointment at the sound, but I suspect that the performance failed to make many converts.

For various reasons, The Feelies splintered after Crazy Rhythms, with members leaving and starting side projects.  They pretty much dropped out of sight until 1986, when Mercer and Million, with bass player Brenda Sauter, percussionist Dave Weckerman (who had returned to the band after leaving before Crazy Rhythms was recorded), and drummer Stanley Demeski released the folkier, less nervous, The Good Earth, produced by Peter Buck of R.E.M. They also appeared in Jonathan Demme’s movie, Something Wild. 1988’s Only Life was The Feelies' major label debut, and it was followed in 1991 by the somewhat harder rocking Time For A Witness. And that was it, it seemed, for The Feelies.

But Million’s Princeton student son had been jamming with Mercer, who lived nearby, and that led to a reunion and a new album in 2011, Here Before, which simply sounds like it hadn’t been a decade since they had been together. Early this year, they released another fine collection, In Between.

Most of the band’s lead vocals are handled by Mercer, but our featured song, “Raised Eyebrows,” from Crazy Rhythms, is essentially an instrumental that features Million injecting the phrase "You get old." It is much better than my description.

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