MAPLEWOOD — When Tom Prendergast came to America from Ireland in 1980 — six years before he would found New Jersey’s indie stalwart Bar/None Records —The Feelies had just released their seminal avant-pop debut “Crazy Rhythms.”
It would be more than 30 years before the Hoboken label and the band, known for their epic gigs at Maxwell’s, would join forces for an official LP release, but Prendergast was immediately enamored by the inventive group’s sound.
“Every home in New Jersey should own a copy (of ‘Crazy Rhythms’)” Prendergast says, bluntly, in a recent interview with NJ Advance Media.
But a Feelies live show, fittingly at Maxwell’s in the early ’80s, would seal his love for the group that, 40 years later, may be the exact hinge that shifted New Jersey’s ears toward alternative pop imagination.
“It was as though I was caught in the middle of a hurricane or tornado,” Prendergast says of the concert. “Guitars cascaded around me from all sides and figures leaped non-stop around the stage — to this day, it’s one of the most mesmerizing performances I’ve seen.”
As the band gears up for two local shows this weekend, at The Woodlands in Maplewood on Friday and Saturday, to celebrate its 40 years, a rewind back to the band’s formation — through a chance encounter in suburban Haledon in 1976 — reminds how fortuitous the group’s experimentation really was.
The Feelies found each other in 1976 — as Bill Million was walking past a garage in Haledon where Glenn Mercer and Dave Weckerman were playing a cover of The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” — just a few months after the Ramones released their wildly influential debut. As the Queens, N.Y. rompers pioneered the punk rock scene, a few miles away in Jersey, Glenn Mercer and Bill Million’s new group was rapping on shoe boxes and clanking coat hangers together, birthing a style they’d stick to, even as the mainstream darted for disco.
“Crazy Rhythms” was released two months after Newark’s Gloria Gaynor took home the only Grammy ever awarded for best disco record — “I Will Survive,” of course.
In the face of arena rock, too, the Feelies stuck to their propulsive, jangle-pop guns forged a style that would inspire Yo La Tengo and R.E.M. — the groups that further inspired virtually every critic-lauded indie group this century.
“If it weren’t for the Feelies, we definitely wouldn’t be here right now,” Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan explained between songs at a Maxwell’s show in 2012, according to the New York Times.
Though in a recent chat, Mercer admits he’s never been crazy about labeling his group.
“I guess you have to call it something,” he says of the term “indie.” “At the time, ‘alternative’ seemed to fit our sound because it was alternative to the mainstream punk scene. But then it became a term that would invoke certain preconceptions, so saying ‘indie’ or ‘alternative’ didn’t seem to have much purpose.
“We have our own sound,” he continues. “Although with our band, we’re always very conscious of being able to operate in a comfortable way. We play when we want to and record what we want to, so in that sense, we are independent.”
Despite the prominence of “Crazy Rhythms,” which Mercer told Rolling Stone was, in fact, a reaction to the burgeoning punk-rock scene, none of the Feelies’ follow-up albums were as successful, and the band would disband after 1991.
Perhaps there’s something to be said of a lyric from ’80’s “Loveless Love,” which notes “You made your offer a little too soon.” The line, backed by a tense and jittery vibe complete with creative percussion and simple two-chord progression, may suggest in hindsight that group was a little too ahead of its time — the first crest before New Wave.
The band didn’t reform until 2008, for a gig opening for Sonic Youth at Battery Park in New York, after years of keeping little touch.
“The impetus for (Million) and I speaking again was a licensing request for a film or a commercial that needed to be addressed, so I called (Million) and we had a really nice talk,” Mercer says. “I found out his son was going to Princeton University at the time, so he was making frequent trips to New Jersey from Florida. I said if he ever had time, we could get together to play again … no pressure, just for fun, and he was receptive of that.”
“We decided if we were going to get back together and put in time for this Sonic Youth show, we wanted to go beyond that and make new music,” Mercer adds.
The following year, “Crazy Rhythms” and “The Good Earth” (1986) were reissued through Bar/None. And this past March, the label reissued the Feelies’ third and fourth albums, “Only Life” (1988) and “Time for a Witness” (1991), for sake of having all music available in one place, Mercer says.
The Feelies’ upcoming work will also be released through Bar/None. Current label owner Glenn Morrow praised the new album, which is currently being mastered, for going even further beyond past efforts.
“They always find ways to bust out of the perimeters of their sound and find new ways to present themselves,” Morrow says. “The Feelies have always gone their own way. It’s almost like they stand outside of time. Fashion and the changing styles brushed by them with little effect on their overall sound. It’s what makes their body of work have such lasting value.”
Mercer estimates the album’s release for fall or early winter, and says the Feelies will be promoting the new record with weekend shows into next year throughout the U.S.
And per their m.o., they have an interesting plan to keep to the band going.
“I told Bill Million the other day they should start bringing the next generation of Feelies on board,” Morrow jokes. “There should always be a Feelies in this world, just like Menudo.”
This story originally appeared on NJ.com.