Back in the early 90s I had a keen interest in following the football code of rugby league (an interest that’s long since dissipated). The pinnacle of the game here in Australia was, and still is I guess, the annual State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland. Like millions of others, I’d be tuned to the live television coverage, usually on a Wednesday night (from my cobwebbed memory), but I’d rarely listen to the television commentary, preferring instead to tune my radio to the JJJ network for a simulcast commentary by the legendary ‘Rampaging’ Roy Slaven and H.G. ‘Immortal’ Nelson (AKA John Doyle and Greig Pickhaver). It was all I could do not to pass out from laughing too hard during their game calls. During their live calls for the 1991 series, Roy and H.G. would cut to the half time break by playing a song called ‘The King Is Half Undressed’, their comedic tip of the hat to Queensland’s very own ‘King’, Wally Lewis. The first time I heard ‘The King Is Half Undressed’, I was immediately smitten with its Beatle-esque charms, but there was no indication as to who the artist was. No such thing as the internet to enable an immediate googling in search of the answer, but fortunately I happened to be watching an episode of the Nine Network’s short lived late night MTV experiment shortly after. They played the promotional video for ‘The King Is Half Undressed’, and the mystery had been solved. Jellyfish were the band behind the song - next step was to hunt down either the single or album to obtain a copy of this dose of nouveau-psychedelic rock. I came up empty at the beach, but struck pay dirt soon after at my local record bar. On first listen of the source album ‘Bellybutton’, I was firmly committed to pursue all things Jellyfish, or at least become a devotee of their music.
The origins for the San Francisco based Jellyfish lay along two separate strands, which would eventually intertwine to lead to the band’s formation. At the core of Jellyfish were old high school buddies and ex-Beatnik Beatch members Andy Sturmer (vocals/drums) and Roger Manning (keyboards), both of whom wrote the bulk of the group’s material. The pair had grown dissatisfied with their role in Beatnik Beatch, where bassist/vocalist Chris Kettner tended to rule the roost. Sturmer and Manning were keen to see more of their songs make it to record, and to do so within an environment under their creative control, and so after two low key albums, they departed from Beatnik Beatch prior to the end of ‘89 to start their own band. Guitarist/vocalist Jason Falkner (ex-the Three O’Clock) had been known to Roger Manning through a meeting from a few years previous - Falkner had caught Manning’s attention in the muso classifieds, by citing XTC as an influence. When Sturmer and Manning were in the market for a guitarist to finish production on their debut album, Falkner was brought into the Jellyfish fold.
After a false start with their old Beatnik Beatch label, Atlantic Records, the trio finally completed work on their ‘Bellybutton’ album during the first half of 1990, with producers Albhy Galuten (who had worked with the Bee Gees) and Jack Joseph Puig at the helm. Sturmer, Manning and Falkner handled all the vocals and instruments (including handclaps), with Redd Kross bassist Steven Shane McDonald helping out on a few tracks. Until that point Jellyfish (which actually hadn’t yet been chosen as their name), had essentially been a studio project, but now consideration had to be given to forming a working unit for promotional and touring purposes - which would later include support slots for World Party and the Black Crowes. Roger Manning’s younger brother Chris was invited to join the group for touring bass duties, and though his involvement in the recording of ‘Bellybutton’ had been minimal (he is credited in the liner notes as being band witchdoctor and mime - and possible hand clapper), Chris Manning was included in the photo shoot material for the cover art, and appeared in subsequent promotional videos. That meant he had to take a trip to the local op-shop to pick out an eclectic combination of garments in line with the general Jellyfish policy on attire. Their music wouldn’t be the only thing to draw strong comparisons to 60s/70s psychedelic rock, with the band’s wild and wonderful wardrobe resembling something between ‘Summer of Love’ vintage Haight-Ashbury garb, and Dr. Suess’ ‘Cat in the Hat’.
The ‘Bellybutton’ album was released on the Chrysalis label (a subsidiary of Virgin) in August 1990, and received positive reviews from the get go. It featured some strong influences stylistically from late period Beatles, Beach Boys (in the harmonising particularly), and XTC’s pop sensibilities. There was also a bit of Wings’ influence, which shone through on the album’s opening track ‘The Man I Used To Be’, melodically very reminiscent of Wings’ ‘Let Me Roll It’ - not saying they ripped off the track, but you can certainly hear the influence. Lyrically the song was a bit of a downer, dealing with faded domestic bliss, but Jellyfish had a strong knack for making even melancholic lyrical fare much more palatable, with serenely beautiful musical coating. No stronger evidence of that than in the power pop fuelled, slice of psychedelic rock ‘The King Is Half Undressed’. It’s theme of emotional alienation hidden was neatly in an intricate web of breezy power pop, and harmonies that could have comfortably set up residence on Abbey Road. ‘The King Is Half Undressed’ was lifted as the first single and charted well in the U.K. (#39). It’s accompanying promo video garnered a lot of airplay (I want one of those magic hats), including the U.S., where it was nominated for Best Art Direction at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, but in a modern pop music travesty, the song missed making the charts Stateside and here in Australia. The up tempo, folk-rock inflected ‘Baby’s Coming Back’, backed by an eye-catching video, became Jellyfish’s only foray into U.S. singles chart waters (US#62/UK#51). Sales for the ‘Bellybutton’ album were slow but steady in the U.S. (#124), but surprisingly the album missed the U.K. charts. It yielded two more hits on the British singles charts, firstly via the EP ‘The Scary-Go-Round’ (UK#49), which featured the lead track ‘Now She Knows She’s Wrong’, an up tempo track about misplaced love, and the gentle and reflective ballad ‘I Wanna Stay Home’ (UK#59). The U.K. CD release (which is the one I got my hands on) featured five ‘bonus’ tracks, all live, including a cover of Badfinger’s ‘No Matter What’ (recorded at The Roxy in L.A.), Wings’ ‘Let Em In’ (recorded at Bogart’s in L.A.), and a rousing rendition of Wings’ ‘Jet’ (recorded at San Francisco’s Hard Rock Café).
At the conclusion of the ‘Bellybutton’ tour, guitarist Jason Falkner left in part due to a level at frustration from being pigeonholed as the band’s guitarist, and being somewhat in the shadow of Sturmer and Manning’s significant creative auras. Bassist Chris Manning also left, due in part to increasingly divergent musical tastes, and a dislike for the demands of touring. Manning went on to a successful career as a producer/engineer (including Metallica and Io). Falkner went on to form a band called The Grays, and after working with Eric Matthews on his 1996 album ‘It’s Heavy In Here’, Falkner then scored a solo record deal through Elektra Records. He has released a number of critically well received albums to date, from 1996’s ‘Presents Author Unknown’, through to 2008’s ‘Bedtime With The Beatles, Pt. 2’, the second album that featured inventive reworkings of Beatles’ classics.
Sturmer and Manning undertook work for Jellyfish’s sophomore album, and recruited Tim Smith to handle bass duties. After a marathon recording process, by 1993 ‘Spilt Milk’ was unveiled and proved anything but something to cry over. With almost two years in the studio, it was evident that Sturmer and Manning had crossed every ‘t’ and dotted every ‘i’ in crafting an album bursting at the seams with intricate instrumental arrangements, and meticulously layered vocal harmonies. It wasn’t overproduced, just thoroughly produced, very thoroughly, by the same production team that helmed ‘Bellybutton’, in addition to Sturmer and Manning. The lead out single ‘The Ghost At Number One’ is just one of a number of tracks that, thematically at least, gave the impression of ‘Spilt Milk’ being a bit of concept album, or rock opera even, following the fall from grace of a rock star. The ornately crafted ‘The Ghost At Number One’ (UK#43) packed a powerful pop-rock punch from the get go, and a set of stinging lyrics to follow (I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t a bit of a biting comment on Christianity hidden in there). ‘Spilt Milk’ notched up some impressive sales in Britain (#21), but sadly remained a largely undiscovered gem Stateside (#164). Jon Brion (who soon joined Falkner in the Grays) and Lyle Workman contributed guitar on several tracks (Eric Dover was added for touring duties), and T-Bone Wolk stepped in to provide a bass track or two. The only other single to chart from ‘Spilt Milk’ arrived in the form of ‘New Mistake’ (UK#55), which featured a very George Harrison like guitar solo. ‘Spilt Milk’ was to Jellyfish what ‘Sgt. Peppers’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ were to the Beatles and Beach Boys respectively, in the sense that it represented the apex of studio brilliance for the band. Other gems from the album included the raucous ‘Joining A Fan Club’ (tell me if you can’t hear a template for Ben Folds Five in that track), with echoes of Queen running through its luscious vocal harmonies, and the gentle minor key laced folk ballad ‘Russian Hill’.
If you had just discovered Jellyfish and fallen in love with the albums ‘Bellybutton’ and ‘Spilt Milk’, you no doubt would have hoped to experience more of their pop-rock magic. But soon after you would have been disappointed to learn that that was pretty much all she wrote for the band. As with many fruitful creative partnerships, the frictions eventually took a toll, and by April 1994 Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning had called an end to Jellyfish. Andy Sturmer kept a low profile through most of the 90s, but has emerged on occasion over the last decade, penning songs for Japanese band Puffy Amiyumi, and working in a writing/production capacity with the likes of the Black Crowes and The Merrymakers. Roger Manning continued working with Jellyfish touring guitarist Eric Dover in a new band called Imperial Drag. In 2005 he released his first solo album ‘Solid State Warrior’, later released in the U.S. as ‘The Land Of Pure Imagination’. In many respects that particular title could be applied to describe just what Jellyfish offered via both of their exceptional, nay flawless, albums.
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