My Top 1000 Songs #256: The Obedient Atom
Does it really make any sense to talk about a song pretty much nobody has ever heard? One that even many die-hard Feelies fans are unlikely to be familiar with?
No! It's dumb! Get back to songs we know and love!
But for those of us truly obsessed with music, not just as listeners but as collectors (hoarders, even), the elusiveness of a song can sometimes be part of its magic. These days, when the internet makes it seem like essentially every note of music ever recorded can be tracked down, it's hard to remember that thrill of the hunt. But back in the days when the only way to find some rarity or lost gem was to spend hours, days, even years haunting used record stores, hoping that this would be the time that coveted slab of vinyl would finally be there in the bins, some songs and albums could take on almost mythical quality, King Arthur's perpetual quest for the holy grail in audio form.
"The Obedient Atom," an early 80s tune by The Feelies (and their on-and-off side project The Willies), was one such holy grail. Indeed, it's never been officially released; even members of the band seem to disagree on whether a studio version was ever recorded (aside from a rough-sounding Willies demo).
I remember when the Feelies' 1986 album The Good Earth came out, some of the particularly obsessive fans at the college station, there in the heart of the band's own New Jersey, muttered their disappointment that "The Obedient Atom" wasn't included. It had been a part of the band's live set during the long drought between their 1980 debut and the follow-up, and the Feelies-adoring DJ crowd spoke of the track with reverence. So there was a touch of FOMO among those of us not privileged enough to have heard it live. Alas, we were left to speculate about this mysterious number, as by then it was no longer showing up at gigs, seemingly lost to history.
Over the years, I'd sometimes dream about finding a long-lost recording of the song in the far corner of some dusty used record store--yes, coming across mysterious vinyl at a record store continues to be a standard motif of my dreams, right up there with oversleeping for the SAT (still!)--and my subconscious would create the song from scratch, always disappearing forever when I woke up.
About 15 years later, when I got into trading live music (originally sending tapes and then CD-Rs through snail mail), I got my hands on a bunch of Feelies bootlegs. And there, finally, was "The Obedient Atom"--sometimes in pretty decent quality, sometimes buried beneath a wall of tape hiss. At long last, the search had ended!
Now, it's far from the band's greatest song. It's mostly instrumental, a slow-building groove that seems borrowed from Brian Eno and perhaps Krautrock acts like Neu!; there's a vaguely metallic droning riff before the slinky lead guitar and tribal rhythms join in, some hushed vocal chants later cropping up before the band cuts loose into a frenetic storm. It's cool and weird, but more vibe than song (dare I say almost sexual in its slow build-up and climactic release); and while I do love it, it doesn't really belong on a Feelies Top 10, much less my all-time Top 1000. But the song's rarity, the long wait before finally, finally getting my hands on a copy after only imagining it for so many years, makes it more than just a song. It's inextricably wound up in the song's promise, the wonder of an almost fictitious piece of music that had belatedly appeared on a few tapes that showed up in my mailbox.
Anyway, here's the band performing it in 1985 (and, as always, many thanks to Janice Demeski for sharing so many goodies on YouTube):The song dropped out of the band's live sets in the mid-80s, and wasn't picked up when they reformed for periodic shows a few years back. But late last year, the Willies reconvened--essentially the Feelies joined by Toni & John Baumgartner of Speed the Plough--and unexpectedly dusted off the track:Same Willies performance, different angle:While there's no studio version in circulation, Glenn Mercer's post-Feelies band Wake Ooloo included a song on their first LP called "Forty Days," which reworks the frenetic back-end of "Obedient Atom" and tacks it onto the coda as a sort of Easter egg (at about 4:15 into the track):