Jellyfish: The Beatles of Power Pop, Pt. 1

I wrote the following article for Youthquake magazine in 2004, but it still retains its sugary-sweet goodness.

 

“I want to see Jellyfish make it because I’m bored with what alternative rock has become – dreary, dull, dim-witted, and way too inbred. Jellyfish flogs a different set of influences, and for that alone it’s refreshing. In an era of pop underachievers, these dandies are ambitious and accomplished. Beyond the fun of hearing my early teen record collection shoved through a Cuisinart, I get off on the urgency of Jellyfish. These iconoclasts sing and play with tuneful desperation, as if they’ll burst into flames if they don’t get that forgotten Move riff just right.”

– Barry Walters, The Village Voice, May 25, 1993

Let’s face it: We yearn for good music.

It’s why the Beatles sold millions of CDs of their No. 1 hits 30 years after they broke up. It’s why aging rockers such as R.E.M., U2 and Bruce Springsteen continue to do well into their 40s and 50s. Nowadays, though, it’s getting harder to find. It seems that TV shows and commercials are better avenues than radio stations for finding the good stuff.

For a moment in the 1990s, before hip-hop, boy bands and Creed clones ruled the airwaves, it seemed as if good old-fashioned pop music was making a comeback, and all was right with the world. Poised on the edge of superstardom was Jellyfish; they had a small hit single, several videos on MTV, and a brash, confident attitude to match their music.

Four years later, they had disbanded, leaving us with only two albums and a jilted feeling.

Jellyfish seemed to come to us straight from the late 1960s and early 1970s, the era of Badfinger, Big Star and Wings. They even dressed the part, looking like Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, with puffy shirts, capes, floppy hats and bellbottoms. “They were a great band – one of the best I’ve ever seen,” said their former manager, Chris Coyle. “They were just ahead of the curve. The whole retro ’70s wear came into fashion a few years later. But that’s what they grew up with, and that’s what they were proud of.”

For Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning, growing up in Pleasanton, Calif., in the 1970s meant countless hours of listening to AM radio. I know – insert disco joke here. Say what you want about ’70s music, but amid the Village People and KC & the Sunshine Band, there was Queen, ELO, 10cc, Supertramp and The Who. Singer/drummer Sturmer and keyboardist Manning devoured this music and went even further, touching genres such as jazz and art rock in search of that special formula that made a song special.

Beatnik Beatch

The two friends kept in touch through the college years and in the late 1980s found themselves in the same band, a group called Beatnik Beatch. The band was going nowhere, so Sturmer and Manning recorded some demos and began shopping them around. And the record companies were astounded – estimates run as high as 11 that wanted to sign the two to a deal. Charisma Records, a subsidiary of Virgin, won the sweepstakes. Now all they needed was a band and a name.

They snagged guitarist Jason Falkner from the band the Three O’ Clock. Falkner had been hinting at pursuing a solo career, but after hearing the demos, he signed on. The search for a bass player proved to be more difficult. They auditioned many for the job but finally settled on Roger’s brother, Chris, to join the band.

The name “Jellyfish” actually came from a rival record producer who had recently been to an aquarium. The group first said no, but, according to Ken Sharp’s “Power Pop: Conversations with the Power Pop Elite,” Sturmer said, “It came closer to contract time and we really needed a name and we thought, you know, that’s the least offensive of all of the names. It’s just generic enough that it could work.”

Sturmer and Manning wanted the band’s first album to reflect their influences from the 1970s, so they chose Albhy Galuten, best known for overseeing the Bee Gees’ work on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, to produce it. The end result was Bellybutton, a psychedelic romp through the late 1960s, from the foppish clothes worn by the band members on the album cover to the sing-along choruses.

Jellyfish’s Bellybutton

Jellyfish - Bellybutton

“I think I’d like to play guitar and be a Beatle, that’d be so swell,” sang Sturmer in the song “All I Want is Everything.” And from the first listen to Jellyfish’s debut album, one could tell that being a Beatle – or at least Beatle-like – was what this group wanted. Bellybutton was a remarkable first album. Confident and disciplined, yet inventive and quirky, it was unlike anything on the radio in 1990. Jellyfish was unrelenting, cramming hooks, melodies and harmonies down the listener’s throat for 40 minutes straight.

And we’re not talking one cute jingle per song. No, there were mini-movements within songs – bridges that took 90-degree turns from the rest of the music. “The King is Half-Undressed” was a melodramatic tune with alternating major and minor chords, heavy on guitars and syncopated drums (a la “Ticket to Ride”), but the bridge stopped on a dime to reveal gorgeous multi-part harmonies – in a different key from the song, mind you – ooh-ing and aah-ing over a harpsichord. And you wondered how they were going to get back to the song, but they somehow modulated to the original key, kicked the guitars and drums back in as if nothing happened, and faded out the chorus.

Other songs seemed to borrow tunes from another era. The bass line from “She Still Loves Him” was straight from the Beatles’ “Free as a Bird” – pure plagiarism, except that the Beatles’ version (which was created from a long-lost John Lennon demo) wasn’t released until 1995, four years after Bellybutton. Spooky, ain’t it? And the bridge to “That is Why,” believe it or not, recalls a portion of disco diva Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You” (perhaps Galuten’s influence?). “Now She Knows She’s Wrong,” complete with harpsichord (again!) and chimes, was a Phil Spector meets the Partridge Family sound – familiar, yet original.

Perhaps the most amazing cut was buried near the end: “Baby’s Coming Back,” a sub-3:00 ditty that, according to Sturmer, took them only 10 minutes to write. Supposedly, Lennon and McCartney wrote “She Loves You” in the back of a van on the way to a concert. Sometimes good songs write themselves, and whether it took 10 minutes or 10 hours, it was pure pop, complete with handclaps and, yes, a harpsichord.

Bellybutton was fresh and new, and critics welcomed it like the Second Coming. “One could sniff and dismiss Jellyfish’s Bellybutton as, ahem, derivative, just another album in the Fab Four-through-Squeeze-through-Crowded House milieu. But it’s not,” wrote Eric Snider of the St. Petersburg Times. “All of those influences and more are plainly evident, but these songs are so melodically delightful, the sweet-and-sour vocal harmonies so tangy, the arrangements so artfully crafted, that Bellybutton adds up to exalted pop, no matter if some of it strikes as a tad familiar.”

Things were looking up. “Baby’s Coming Back” reached only No. 62 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, but their videos were being featured on MTV, and they opened for the Black Crowes on a nationwide tour. They spent an afternoon writing songs with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. And a song they wrote for Ringo Starr appeared on Starr’s critically acclaimed Time Takes Time¬†album, which they helped record. Wow.

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