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Stop the Ride
By Jim DeRogatis
If there was ever any doubt that the founding fathers of punk could become clumsy dinosaurs just like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols have done a damn fine job laying it to rest this summer. Nobody calls it quits anymore, not when there’s a nickel to be made in the sheds. But with so many former heroes proving once again that there’s no way to grow old gracefully in rock ‘n’ roll, it’s rewarding to meet the exceptions. I count three of them, all alumni of the class of ’77, and all at the artier end of the punk-rock spectrum.
David Thomas continues to lead Pere Ubu in an iconoclastic quest for pop, carrying the weight of the band’s considerable history while focusing on its future. Five CDs’ worth of “vintage” Ubu (1975-1982) has been collected on the forthcoming Datapanik in the Year Zero box set (Geffen), but for my money, last year’s Ray Gun Suitcase (Tim/Kerr) sounds just as inspired. There’s also the English band Wire, which reunited in 1986 after a six-year split but refused to yield to nostalgia by playing its old material. After disbanding again, the key players are pursuing solo projects in the techno and ambient-house arenas, mostly on their own labels. Finally, we have Wake Ooloo, a different band in name, but for all intents and purposes the current incarnation of New Jersey’s late, lamented Feelies.
The Feelies made their live debut at C.B.G.B. during punk’s first heyday, and in 1980 released a hyperkinetic minimalist masterpiece called Crazy Rhythms on the British independent Stiff Records. The title was appropriate: The group took the primal tom-tom groove of the Velvet Underground (which Moe Tucker had in turn borrowed from Bo Diddley and the African drummer Babatunde Olatunji), sped it up, shifted the emphasis to one and three instead of two and four, and wound up with an irresistible rhythmic undertow. In the face of commercial indifference, the band faltered for a few years, regrouped, and came back strong with three albums between 1986 and 1990. The Good Earth, Only Life, and Time for a Witness had in common guitars that rang in your ears, joyous nods to the Velvets and the Stooges, and, of course, those crazy rhythms.
Broke and disillusioned with their last label, A&M, the Feelies split up in 1991. Guitarist Bill Million dropped out of rock for good, taking a gig as a locksmith at Disney World. Fellow founding Feelies Glenn Mercer and Dave Weckerman took day jobs, too, but they hadn’t lost their desire to make noise, and at night they returned to the garage in Haledon, a blue-collar suburb of Patterson, New Jersey. There they formed a new group less concerned with pristine instrumental sounds and mannered dynamics and more obsessed with turning it up and letting it rip.
More aggressive than 1994’s Hear No Evil but more focused than 1995’s What About It, this year’s Stop the Ride is the best of Wake Ooloo’s three albums, all of which have been released by Chicago’s Pravda Records. In the Feelies, Mercer played sustained melodic leads over Million’s frantic rhythm; in Wake Ooloo, he does an admirable job juggling both roles, letting keyboardist Russell Gambino fill the gaps with trashy Nuggets-style organ. Weckerman is a loose-limbed drummer from the Charlie Watts school–his backbeat packs a mighty wallop–and bassist John Dean provides the requisite rumble. They combine most impressively for a distorted epic jam on “Get Caught Up,” out-Crazy Horsing recent Crazy Horse.
Mercer, the most prolific writer, doesn’t spend a lot of time on his lyrics. The chorus of “In the Way”–“We’re all right / It’s OK / It’s all right / Hey, hey hey”–sounds as if it were lifted right out of the Iggy Stooge songbook (cf “No fun / My babe / Uh, no fun”). Weckerman contributes three tunes, and his are a lot weirder: “Just when everything was going well / I was wondering how the bell ringers will tango in hell,” he whines plaintively on “Final Warning.” But songcraft isn’t the point. This is a rollicking party album based on the assumption that all anyone needs to get off on a Saturday night is a sing-along chorus, an overdriven but tuneful guitar solo, and–you knew it was coming–that highly caffeinated Feelies beat. I’ve been riding this groove with them since the beginning, and damned if it doesn’t work as well for me now as it did the first time I heard it.
Stop the Ride builds to a climax with a closing cover of the Byrds’ “So You Want to Be a Rock ‘n’ Roll Star,” which features Mercer wildly bashing away on the riff and Weckerman thrashing his drums and howling the backing vocals with tuneless glee. You might think it’s a bit creepy for two guys on the far side of 40 to be yearning for the girls to tear them apart, but there’s more than a little irony here: The Feelies were never really stars, but they’ve sure met plenty of agent men who let them down.
We could argue about whether Pere Ubu, Wire, and the Feelies would have sold out over the years if anyone had been interested in buying, or about what it means to “sell out.” But the more important point is that these punk veterans are making music that doesn’t suck, and they haven’t lost the energy or individualism that drove them when they started out. We should be thankful that, unlike so many of their peers, they didn’t die before they got old.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Wake Oloo, by Andrea Bucci.