Jellyfish: The Beatles of Power Pop
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.
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 and 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.
Crying Over Spilt Milk
Jellyfish had finally arrived. The band was being mentioned in the same sentence as the Beatles, and Sturmer and Manning were being compared to Lennon and McCartney.
And it drove them crazy.
“I hate the word ‘Beatlesque’ with a passion,” Sturmer told Daily Variety. “We get hit with that tag all the time, and I feel that it’s extremely inaccurate.” Nevertheless, the comparisons were inevitable. In a sense, Bellybutton was Jellyfish’s Revolver—an ambitious album that gave hints of greatness and laid the stage for bigger and better things. After a long tour, the group felt that it was time for them to make their Sgt. Pepper.
But before they could start, the band quickly began to disintegrate. The tour had taken its toll; Roger’s brother Chris decided that being a rock star was not for him and left. Jason Falkner became dissatisfied with his lack of input in the songwriting process (George Harrison, anyone?) and quit the group to pursue a solo career. That left Roger Manning and Sturmer, who were left to pick up the pieces. “We were very tired,” Sturmer told Billboard magazine. “By the time we started doing demos for the next record, everybody was totally stressed out.” A band was hastily thrown together to record the album. Bassist Tim Smith eventually became a regular; other musicians such as Eric Dover, Jon Brion and Lyle Workman filled in on the recording sessions and subsequent tour.
Not a good way to start an album. To make matters worse, the record took an agonizing six months to record. Take after retake, tracks overdubbed on top of tracks, the process was glacial. Paul McCartney, the ultimate perfectionist, would have been envious of such obsessive-compulsive recording.
When Spilt Milk was released in February 1993, critics didn’t know what comparison to make anymore. Jellyfish, in a sense, had out-Beatled the Beatles. It was Queen meets ELO meets Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys meets 10cc—all of their icons rolled into one album. But then there was that circus music. And the kids’ songs. And a power ballad, a polka and a lullaby. I give up; who the hell did these guys sound like?
Let’s set aside comparisons for now. Spilt Milk was an ambitious, innovative, almost apocalyptic album that tested the limits of pop music and, well, the human ear. It began with a sweet a cappella lullaby, “Hush,” with such gorgeous harmonies reminiscent of the Beach Bo … oops, never mind.
Then, as soon as you were relaxed and asleep, BAM! A heavy metal guitar riff introduced a … piano? … as Andy Sturmer launched into “Joining a Fan Club,” a bombastic, in-your-face ode to a rock star’s fan club. This song had it all—guitar solos racing pell-mell, feedback, several key changes and what sounded like 20-part harmony. Ear candy. And the wonderful heartaches began.
“Sebrina, Paste and Plato” was a rock operetta that started with a piano reminiscent of a children’s television show. The playful verse was followed by a rousing refrain that sounded like a bar full of drunken sailors, which was answered by a child’s voice saying, “Kool-Aid, sandwiches and chips for all the shoulders!” The drunken sailors replied, “Lunch is on the table, soon dessert is on the floor!”
But then the chorus, the lovely sing-song chorus (“So serene, Sebrina makes me feel so serene …”) found its way into your heart, and it started all over again. By the end of the song, you were dizzy from the short, manic trip, and you didn’t care what the lyrics meant.
A Perfect Side One
The genius of Spilt Milk was in the first six songs—one masterpiece after another. “New Mistake” provided an earful of guitars that sounded so bittersweet, complemented by a 10cc-like chorus (Dang it, did it again). “Glutton of Sympathy” was the classic that never was—a beautiful mid-tempo ballad that was made for radio. It was followed by the ill-fated first single, “The Ghost at Number One”—Queen resurrected.
Sorry, but I can’t help it this time. It was Queen, dammit. All that was needed was Freddie Mercury. Then, taking a page from “The King is Half-Undressed,” we heard a bridge in a different key that turned the song upside down—multi-layered harmonies over a harpsichord. Now the group was doing its best Beach Boys imitation. It was dead-on, really.
The rest of the album continued the voyage through the looking-glass. “Bye Bye Bye” was a polka, complete with accordion and oom-pah-pahs. “All is Forgiven” was a thundering, wonderful, noisy anthem; the operatic, falsetto Queen/ELO harmonies made another appearance. The song ended abruptly into the quiet “Russian Hill,” an homage to Henry Mancini laced with strings and a flute.
How do you end such an album? With a circus tune, of course. “Brighter Day” was a slow, plodding song that sounds like it came straight from a calliope. You could almost hear children laughing and barkers peddling cotton candy. The song ended just as the album began: with a music box and the same note that started “Hush.” You had come full circle, but you felt as if you had been on the merry-go-round for 45 minutes, and it was about to start again.
The album was magnificent. Forty-eight mixed tracks of voices, strings, brass, flutes, banjos, chimes, theremins, harpsichords, accordions, balalaikas and other noise squeezed into 12 songs.
And it tanked on the charts.
Jammed smack in the middle of the grunge era, Spilt Milk presented a problem for Charisma Records, who didn’t know how to market the group. Try pitching an album as varied and intense as Spilt Milk alongside Nirvana and Pearl Jam and see how far it gets you. It got the album as high as No. 164 on the Hot 200 chart. And it was the beginning of the end for Jellyfish.
And In The End…
For fans, the end came suddenly. The San Francisco Chronicle reported in February 1994 that the band was writing songs for its next album. Then, three months later, word came of the band’s demise, citing “creative differences.”
As with any breakup, there are 10 different stories as to what happened; getting a synthesis is difficult, but one could surmise that personality conflicts between Sturmer and Manning arose, and the songwriting process seemed broken. They both went into the studio to record “Think About Your Troubles” for a Harry Nilsson tribute album, and that was it. Apparently, the two former friends haven’t said a word to each other since. The second coming of Lennon and McCartney had, like their mentors, split in a huff.
Jellyfish—where are they now?
The band members moved on to other things:
After leaving Jellyfish, Chris Manning was in a band called Honey, which broke up in 1996. He is now a producer and engineer in San Francisco and has worked with such artists as Santana, Metallica and Third Eye Blind.
Free from being the odd man out, Falkner chose yet another band for his next project. The Grays, a collection of musicians from other bands who didn’t like being in bands, released Ro Sham Bo in 1994. Then they broke up, because they didn’t like being in bands.
Since then, Falkner has released more than half a dozen solo albums, EPs and compilations. He most recently played guitar for Beck and St. Vincent and counts many in the Jellyfish faithful among his fans.
Manning, like Paul McCartney, has kept himself busy after the breakup but has found limited success. He and Eric Dover formed the power pop band Imperial Drag and released one album. Manning was also the creative force behind the Moog Cookbook, which played popular hard rock tunes (“Black Hole Sun,” “Cat Scratch Fever”) on Moog synthesizers.
In 2006, Manning and Falkner joined forces in a new-wave retro group called TV Eyes and released a debut album in Japan. He has released three solo albums and has also been a member of Beck’s backing band.
Smith formed Umajets with former Hollyfaith member Rob Aldridge and released a few albums that sound like lost Jellyfish releases. He is probably best known as Sheryl Crow’s bass guitarist. He teamed with Manning and fellow Jellyfish alum Eric Dover in 2020 to form The Lickerish Quartet. They released the EP Threesome Vol. 1 in May 2020; Threesome Vol. 2 followed in January 2021.
Andy Sturmer has all but disappeared. He got married, wrote some songs and produced a Jelly-like album by Sweden’s the Merrymakers. On the other side of the world, he produced and played on several releases by the Japanese group Puffy AmiYumi. Lately his name has popped up as the composer of the themes to several children’s shows, most notably “My Friends Tigger and Pooh” on the Disney Channel.
Numerous Sturmer demos have surfaced, as have rumors of a solo album. But he has spent his post-Jellyfish years lurking in the shadows. There have never been any rumors of a Jellyfish reunion.
So you would think that yet another band had come and gone, all but forgotten. Wrong. The band had developed a small but fanatic following worldwide. The “Jellyfish Army,” as they called themselves, continue to flourish a decade after the band split in discussion groups and among the group’s side projects. They clamored for more Jellyfish material, and a box set called Fan Club was released in 2002, consisting of demos, live recordings and unreleased songs. (A box set! That’s only reserved for rock legends such as Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin.)
Andy Zax’s liner notes for “Fan Club” include a fitting epitaph:
For now—and let’s face it, forever—we’ve got two albums and this box of demos, one-off covers, forgotten songs and interview bits … And that’ll have to do, really. Listening to the four discs at hand reminds me of a lot of things, but mostly of how hard Jellyfish worked, how they always tried to get the details right, how completely unwilling they were to settle for anything less than the best they knew they were capable of.
Maybe that hard work will not be forgotten. Maybe a future pop group will be asked about their influences, and they will point to Jellyfish, and the group will have their place in music history alongside their idols. Who knows? Maybe we’ll hear “Joining a Fan Club” in a Volkswagen commercial one day.
For more information on Jellyfish, visit Adam Gimbel’s excellent Joining a Fanpage site.