Jellyfish’s debut album, Bellybutton (one of many suggested band names), was released on August 7, 1990 by Charisma Records to press praise and grumblings about grand theft. To gauge its critical response, you can check out all of the articles that Chris Bray has collected on his website or just read this one sentence: they sound like Queen and the Beatles but they’re not as good as Redd Kross. As far as debut albums go, it’s pretty damn ambitious, though songwriting, not kitchen-sink production is spotlighted more on this album than the second. Clever lyrics, colorful wordplay, not-so-obvious metaphors and brilliant bridges abound. My good friend from high school, Jim Cathcart, taped me a copy of Bellybutton in October or November of 1990 during our sophmore year of college, while he was at UC Santa Barbara and I was at Cal State Northridge. He’d seen the video for “The King Is Half Undressed” on MTV and fell for them immediately. Without artwork, I had no idea what to expect. Wow. I won a CD copy at the employee Christmas party for the folks at the Clairemont Square Wherehouse Records in San Diego a month or two later. I warned everyone that I would destroy them in the trivia/promo grab-bag contest our store manager James organized, but, they didn’t believe me. Five or six free CD’s later they said I wasn’t allowed to play anymore.
As obsessed as I was with the band back then, I rarely listen to it nowadays, probably due to overexposure. It gets a spin for nostalgia’s sake once every year or two when I’m writing about them. At least that way I never tire of it like I did when they were still active and even moreso when I traded bootlegs of the same 20 songs for a few years. After going to the live shows, I’d want to get that same excitement when I came home and put on the album and it was never the same. They got a little closer to capturing the boom of their live sound on the second album, but, the personality, fun and crunchiness of the live shows couldn’t be pressed onto a disc. That said, I love hearing it after some time away. Still timeless.
The album was originally released on CD and cassette in the US. Only promotional vinyl copies were made. It’s been recently re-released on vinyl by Omnivore Recordings but is still out-of-print on cd. The cover shows something resembling a human covered in kids Crest gel toothpaste designs. When you unfold it, it reveals the band members standing on or around what is now obviously a torso, like a Mad magazine back cover in reverse. The Manning brothers are wearing the same outfits they wear in the “King is Half Undressed” video. The band once joked that Steve from Redd Kross was the covermodel, but it was a girl named MeShell, hired by the cover art photographer. Not much is known about her other than the fact that her personal checks had shell designs on them (she wrote a check to Chris at the photo shoot so he could buy her some hippy beads when he went back to Humboldt). The cover of the CD long box is simply a large photo of a bare (presumably female) midriff, which ended up on the front of one of the band’s early t-shirts. I kept the longbox front cover but it’s vanished over the years. I couldn’t find it anywhere online until mega-collector Pablo Melons came to my rescue and made me feel very, VERY sane by comparison.
The album got quite a bit of exposure upon its release and reportedly sold 250,000 copies. MTV played all three of the album’s videos (“King Is Half Undressed”, “That Is Why”, and “Baby’s Coming Back”) in regular Buzz Bin rotation and those songs along with “I Wanna Stay Home” (which Charisma actually released as a single) and “All I Want Is Everything” got some national radio airplay. Still, it remains a cult classic that’s dear to fans and worth overanalyzing song by song, if only because there’s just ten of them. Under forty minutes?! Let’s do it.
THE MAN I USED TO BE
“This song really is the true birth of Jellyfish. This was the moment when we saw the light of our own vision and never looked back. This vocal was my first attempt. At the end of it, I had tears in my eyes. Then I didn’t know why; now I do… A milestone in Jellyfishdom.”
-Andy Sturmer, Fanclub liner notes
“Ever had the feeling that you knew more about a person through their work than through knowing them? Somehow this song spoke more to me about Andy than any other – not so much as a literal image in the story of the song but as an emotional insight to his take on things. Musically, it was the most fun for me as we approached the ever-dangerous ‘Jazz Orbit.’” -Tim Smith, Fanclub liner notes
A heavy emotional opener for such an upbeat record and, appropriately, one of the first Jellyfish songs written. This album was my introduction to the band, so this was the very first song I ever heard by them. The demo done at Andy’s house that appears on the “New Mistake” UK single is very close to the finished song, minus a cheesy-sounding keyboard harmonica solo. Still, the recording is surprisingly complete for a home demo. Guess who’s got two thumbs and just listened to it for the first time on headphones? I need to do this more often. Can’t believe I never noticed the stand up bass, so that’s John Patitucci. The harmonica solo on the album is played by Tommy Morgan, who played on the Rockford Files theme, “Rainy Days & Mondays” by the Carpenters, and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. Andy has said in interviews that they wanted famed harmonica player Toots Thielmans to record some tracks, but, he was unavailable and most of the songs they thought Toots had played on were actually played by Morgan. Toots was brought in for some studio work for Spilt Milk (“Russian Hill”) but, it was scrapped.
On the band’s first headlining tour, the song was usually the first song of their encore. It’s a heavy enough song as it is, but, the first time I saw them was also the first night of the ground war during the Gulf crisis in 1991. One of them said, “This’ll send a scud missle straight to your heart.” “Into battle…” was horribly timely. On the second tour, the last notes of “Ghost At Number One” slowed down and segued right into the opening part of this song. It’s Jason’s favorite song on the album and he liked it so much that he started playing it at his solo acoustic shows. It was one of several Jellyfish songs that he and Roger did when opening for Cheap Trick as a duo in 2010.
THAT IS WHY
Although Charisma didn’t release this commercially as a single, it was probably their biggest radio hit in America. LA’s KROQ played the hell out of it while I was in college. There is a radio promo single that was sent out in a soft clear plastic case filled with clear goo (that eventually dried up) and variously shaped glitter (supposedly they’re all different). I lucked out and found it at Record Trader in Reseda, crammed in the used bins with hundreds of current modern rock rejects. It was the band’s second video, filmed at the same LA studio where Lenny Kravitz filmed “It Ain’t Over Til It’s Over”. THE Dan Buczaczer worked as a PA on the Lenny video and said there was a wall that people who’d filmed there had signed and in the middle was a huge handdrawn Jellyfish logo.
“This is my favorite live track of all – an honest performance, a clean mix. I think we all respect Paul McCartney beyond words. You can hear that in the way we play this song. The transition into ‘That Is Why’ flows smoothly…” -Chris Manning, Fanclub liner notes
On the first tour, the band played a bit of Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” as an intro to the song as part of their encore. That leads to the very cool songwriting credit of “P. McCartney/A. Sturmer/R. Manning” on the UK “Scary Go Round” EP. Jason snuck the riff from Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do?” onto the end at shows but it was chopped off (poorly) from the recording that appears on the ironically titled US promo EP Jellyfish Comes Alive. On the second tour, they finally did the spacy ending from the album. In 2008, Jason joined Roger and his band onstage to play this at Fuji Rock in Japan for the only full-band performance of a Jellyfish song with two actual Fishermen in the last 20 years.
The two also played the song two years later as a duo on the Cheap Trick tour and Roger also played it in an all-star pop band with Mike Viola, Bleu and members of Rooney called MOGUL. Second tour guitarist Eric Dover’s band Sextus recorded it for the 2007 Jellyfish tribute album, Sensory Lullabies.
It should be noted that when my friends and I saw Jellyfish on Halloween in 1993, our group costume was the nerdiest and possibly only Jellyfish themed costume ever. Sam had a large letter Y on his chest so it only worked if we all stood together and could say “…and that is Y.” He was the only one who didn’t get pulled onstage that night, faking anger and ripping up the Y in disgust at night’s end. Way to take one for the team, Sam.
THE KING IS HALF-UNDRESSED
“One of the first ones to include Jason’s great contributions. Hey Rog – great chorus, brother…” -Andy Sturmer, Fanclub liner notes
“‘The King Is Half-Undressed’ is the song that made me want to join Jellyfish…and we pulled off the a cappella breakdown every night perfectly.” -Chris Manning, Fanclub liner notes
“Tomorrow Never Knows” drums and Queen vocals. Let the ripoff accusations begin! The song was not released as a single commercially in America but it was the band’s first video and was in regular rotation on MTV before the album came out. It was released as a single in the UK where it snuck into the top 40 charts. I wish I still had the tape my friend Jim sent me where he was trying to tell me how great they were by singing bits of “King” before I’d ever heard them. It’s another song that Jason and Roger did as a duo opening for Cheap Trick.
When the original lineup did this song acoustically, you could really appreciate their singing and arranging. The middle part was always a cheer-inducing highlight. Their performance of this on 91X in San Diego in 1991 (possibly that lineup’s only acoustic performance) is my favorite Jellyfish recording ever. I had my friend Erin record it while I went down to the studio to say hi and it ended up getting used on the band’s Fanclub boxed set. I finally uploaded the entire interview.
I’m quite partial to this song because, as I’ll ramble on about in fuller detail later, I was once the King is Half Undressed. On Halloween, 1993 I sang this song with them onstage dressed only in a Burger King crown, boxer shorts, a robe and a smile. They gave me a tambourine to shake on the next song (“No Matter What”) but if I had had it for “King”, I would’ve dropped it at the end, like on the album. I was always wanted Roger to do it like a rapper droppin a mic but no such luck.
I WANNA STAY HOME
“An oldie. I remember first playing this for Roger when he’d come home from USC for a visit up north. Jason’s acoustic additions and flourishes really helped this become a song and not just an idea.” -Andy Stumer, Fanclub liner notes
Credited to Andy alone, though the guitar parts are mostly Jason’s doing. An acoustic solo so purdy, it regularly got cheers. Animal House fans: please note that it sounds like Andy sings, “I’m Otis Day,” through most of the song. The song was released as a cassette single in America but they didn’t make a video for it. In the UK, it was released as a 10″ record with a gatefold/pop-up and a 3-D CD single that came with glasses (the only two singles I haven’t given away….yet).
The song was also somewhat featured in the movie Career Opportunities starring Jennifer Connoly’s tanktop and is on the soundtrack too. Plus, songwriter Francis Anthony “Eg” White (who’s written many UK hits including “Chasing Pavements” for Adele) covered the song on his lone solo album, 1996′s “Turn Me On, I’m A Rocket Man”, released on WEA Records in the UK. It was released as a single under the title “Stay Home” but failed to chart. In 2009 White started his own label and named it Spilt Milk Records. I’d heard that Rod Stewart recorded a version, but, it wasn’t released until Rhino Records put out a 2009 four-disc boxed set called The Rod Stewart Sessions 1971-1998 full of rarities. I was surprised it wasn’t anywhere online so I’ve uploaded it here but with its generic 90′s ballad production, it’s no surprise that this is definitely not a fave with Jellyfish fans. Around this time, Rod was rumoured to be doing a whole album of Paul Westerberg songs. Yes, please!
SHE STILL LOVES HIM
“The classic lyrical formula for pop songs – the bridging of domestic violence and The Newlywed Game.” -Andy Strumer, Fanclub liner notes
“Fuck, Jason is one badass guitar player.” -Chris Manning, Fanclub liner notes
Consistently their hardest rockin’ song live. On the first tour, it segued in from “Bye, Bye, Bye” (without the piano intro, which I never heard them play) and was usually an encore on the second tour. The solo was recorded during a heated argument between Andy and Jason. Andy didn’t want Jason to record in the middle of an argument, but Jason insisted, did the solo staring right at Andy, and then slammed his guitar down. That’s the take you hear on the album. He was particularly stoked that two notes matched perfectly with Andy’s drums, which was unplanned. Picture that next time you hear it.
ALL I WANT IS EVERYTHING
“Was it Picasso who said ‘Good artists borrow, great artists steal?’ Whatever the case…we needed more fast numbers, so I grafted an Aztec Camera song to Cheap Trick, and this was he result.” -Andy Strumer, Fanclub liner notes
“Our tribute to Cheap Trick…who later became fans of Jellyfish! This one was fun to bash out live.” -Chris Manning, Fanclub liner notes
Another one that Andy takes sole songwriting credit for. This is the first of three songs that Steve McDonald from Redd Kross plays bass on. It wasn’t released as a single but it was the last song to get regular radio airplay in San Diego when 91X started to play it towards the end of Summer, 1991. The song fittingly played while students arrived for the first day of school on the very first episode of Beverly Hills 90210 and the band performed it on “Late Night with David Letterman” (their only network talk show appearance). Since it was standard practice to have the musical guest play with the house band, many acts could only have one or two key members represent on national television. It was probably one of the only times there was a lead singer playing drums, so Anton Figg played along as Paul Schaffer made pained expressions playing the trumpet lines on a keyboard. Since they used Letterman’s bass player, Andy looked right into the camera and changed a line to dedicate the song to Chris.
The band ended up hanging out with Cheap Trick all night at a 1991 Chicago stop and years later, Jason and Roger opened a series of CT shows on the east coast as a duo and then backed Robin & Crew for their set. Roger continues to do occasional shows with the band, including an episode of Austin City Limits.
NOW SHE KNOWS SHE’S WRONG
“This is probably my favorite Roger bridge. The way it falls apart at the end is pure Manning magic.” -Andy Sturmer, Fanclub liner notes
“This was my favorite bass part to play – a creative masterpiece in my book. Thanks, Steve.” -Chris Manning, Fanclub liner notes
Although it’s titled The Scary Go Round EP, this song was actually their third UK single and there was a live (lipsynced) video edited together for it. Because the keyboard intro sounds like “One” by Three Dog Night, Andy would occasionally tease the crowd by singing a little of it. It’s the second song in a row featuring Steve McDonald from Redd Kross’ bass playing. While I worked at Wherehouse Records in Northridge, we were listening to the album (AGAIN) and I heard someone whistle along with Jason’s little lick after the first verse. I just about broke my neck looking around to see who it was. On the other side of a wall of, I dunno, cassettes(?), I saw the new guy, Raymy Krumrei, a CSUN music major. Of course, we became fast friends, despite his unhealthy Billy Joel fixation and disgustingly superior singing voice.
“The twin of the earlier milestone ‘Man…’ The ‘two’ of our ‘one-two punch.’ The original idea started because a hairdresser friend asked me to write a song about her. She was neither a junkie nor a murderer, but there’s still time… Hang on to your dreams, kids!” -Andy Sturmer, Fanclub liner notes
“…a song about beds, springs and the kisses there-in. It gives the guys a chance to kick back that beat meter and let those cooler tones mop the listeners tired brow.”
-Scary Go Round EP
This was one of the very first songs written for what would become Jellyfish. Again, Andy and Roger did a very complete demo of this groovy song before taking it into the studio. The cheesy sounding flute solo in the demo was replaced in the studio version by a Scooby Doo/theremin/chimes break. Luis Conte and Lenny Castro play percussion on it. Tommy Morgan’s harmonica was so good on “The Man I Used To Be” that they asked if he’d play on one more and what he did on the first take was so great that they used it. It was also used in an episode from the first season of 90210, the perfect soundtrack for a botched perm.
The band never played the song live but I once read a songwriting article in BAM that asked different songwriters to name a favorite cover version of one of their songs. Andy and Roger’s answer was “Bedspring Kiss” by the Black Crowes. When I finally remembered to ask them about it, one of them told me that the Crowes used to play it acoustically before they went onstage during their 1991 tour together.
BABY’S COMING BACK
Written in 10 minutes and 36 seconds. Does it show?” -Andy Sturmer, Fanclub liner notes
As poppy as they come. Another early ”Jellyfish” song, even though Andy takes sole songwriting credit. They recorded an early demo at Dancing Dog Studios, run by Dave Bryson of Counting Crows, whose management I used to work for. Somehow, Jellyfish came up in conversation once and he told me that they recorded several songs there, the only of which he remembered was “Baby’s Coming Back”. Andy later told Dave that the band (with Steve from Redd Kross on bass) was listening to this original version while they were recording Bellybutton and were frustrated that they couldn’t get it to sound the same. Later, Counting Crows would open for Jellyfish in the Bay Area and lead singer Adam Duritz would don the much sought after “Love Jellyfish Style” shirt in the “Mr. Jones” video.
Though the song was the first single released commercially in America (cassette only plus a one-song promo cd for radio), it only reached #62 on the Billboard charts. It was the last of three videos from the album, featuring animation by some Hanna Barbara animators. Outtakes from the blue screen footage have found its way onto Youtube. In the UK, the single came wrapped in a cloth baby’s diaper which was hard to keep from disintegrating. The song was, as far as I know, their only song to have a “remix”. I bought the cassette single expecting it to be different and, to my ears, it wasn’t. Chris told me they’d added some flanging and that was about it.
For a very short time (mostly during Jason’s broken arm absence), they played a bit of Player’s “Baby Come Back” before they played this song. Because there is a long part before the bass kicks in, Chris would sometimes do something goofy during the intro. I can still picture him frisbeeing as many stickers into the crowd as he could in rapid fire fashion before he had to start playing. They didn’t have quite enough arms to do the handclaps, but, later in the first tour, Roger started doing fake ones with a button on his keyboard. In 2007, the British band McFly had a #1 UK hit with a cover of the song.
“I recall being very taken by the Waterboys song ‘A Girl Called Johnny.’ This was my attempt at larceny.” -Andy Sturmer, Fanclub liner notes
“I still love this song today. Another reason I joined the band… Actually, I just saw Sarah the other day, and she is doing fine.” -Chris Manning, Fanclub liner notes
Great two-part bridge and Jason’s best electric solo on the album. Interesting about the Waterboys song, one of my first favorite new wave songs I taped off of the radio. Watching Mike Scott ape fellow Dubliner Bob Geldof in the above video, I’m not sure how I missed that influence. Andy’s longtime girlfriend at the time was named Sarah. Years later, she was given a co-writing credit for their song “Ignorance Is Bliss”. On the first tour, this was the first song they’d play off of the album coming right out of the unreleased gem “Hello”. On the Spilt Milk tour it was usually played as an encore.
The trailing-off ending always felt like another song was coming, so it never seemed like a perfect closer to me. The afforementioned music major Raymy agreed and came up with an alternate song order that he would use whenever he listened to the album or taped it for anyone. I’ve done it a few times and the songs really flow into each other nicely. It’s hard to break the habit of your brain already hearing the next song, but, give this a try:
1. 1. “The Man I Used To Be”
2. 6. “All I Want Is Everything”
3. 7. “Now She Knows She’s Wrong”
(the similar keyboard sound makes a good segue here)
4. 3. “The King Is Half Undressed”
5. 2. “That Is Why”
(the end part fits in well with the haunted house feel of….)
6. 8. “Bedspring Kiss”
7. 9. “Baby’s Coming Back”
8. 10. “Calling Sarah”
(keyboard fades out, piano fades in)
9. 5. “She Still Loves Him”
(these 2 fit together kinda nice too)
10. 4. “I Wanna Stay Home”
(the end riff is a nice way to go out)
Speaking of going out on such a geeky note……THE END
Thanks again to Pablo Melons for laying his collection on his bed, taking pictures and waiting until afterwards to roll around. His band TOXIC MELONS are definitely influenced by the ‘Fish and even features guitaring by Eric Dover on recent recordings. Check ‘em out!