Thirty years ago, in the early autumn of 1988. the Feelies released their third full-length album, Only Life. Even though its predecessor came only two years earlier, the arrival of Only Life felt momentous for several reason, arguably the least of which was its status as the band’s major label debut. The Feelies debuted with one of those albums that almost immediately earned exalted status, in larger part because the LP in question, 1980’s Crazy Rhythms, fell out of print quickly and was notoriously hard to track down for years and years. (It’s also terrific, but being fair, it was the sparse availability of the album that made it into a cult legend.) It took six years before the follow-up arrived, and it was something of a surprise, since the band were elusive in the interim, only playing occasionally under the name the Feelies. The 1986 album The Good Earth felt oddly spectral, as if its very existence was in doubt. Only Life confirmed the Feelies were a real, ongoing concern, and they were fantastic.
I’ve written about this album before, including humble attempts to convey its special status in my memories of plunging into college radio. Only Life was a charmed artifact in the station’s new music rotation when I signed my FCC operator’s license. It topped the college chart that fall, and “Away,” its lead single, was cemented into the 120 Minutes playlist in the form of a Jonathan Demme-directed video mesmerizing in its lovely simplicity. The album was an exemplar of what my membership in the station provided me, at least in terms of my burgeoning music fandom. Although they had a history, this was a band I hadn’t heard of before I crossed the station’s threshold, and they surely would have remained largely outside of my knowledge base if I didn’t have a place behind the broadcast board. Instead, they were a new favorite, claiming my committed attention. I played every last song off that album multiple times across my on-air shifts, memorizing the pulsing notes and finding deep truths in the plainspoken lyrics, especially the almost-title cut “It’s Only Life.”
Demme didn’t only direct the band’s music video, their first. He was deeply committed to the group, openly pondering the viability of a concert film (just a few years after he’d directed the absolute pinnacle of the form) and casting them as the band playing a high school reunion in his terrific comedy Something Wild. Demme also described the band’s virtues better than anyone. “The Feelies are a group of intense musical scientists,” he told Spin. “At the heart of rock ‘n’ roll is the twin guitar attack. Nobody does it better than they do. Maybe because they’re so studiously uncareerist, there is no better band.”
Thirty years later, that assessment strikes me a still spot-on.
Listen or download —> The Feelies, “It’s Only Life”
(Disclaimer: When I wrote about this album a couple years ago, it appeared to me to be out of print as a physical object, the fate of most of the many college rock offerings of A&M Records in nineteen-eighties and beyond. I’ll admit, I haven’t checked to see if that’s still the case, but I also don’t mean for the sharing of this track to be a replacement for engaging in commerce that compensates the original artist and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently owned record store. Quite the opposite, in fact: Go and buy whatever you can from the Feelies. It’s all worthy of an honored place in a collection, including the two most recent reunion-type efforts. Although I’m sharing this track with the best of intentions and under the legal principle of fair use, I do know the rules. I will gladly and promptly remove the file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)