Joining the Fanclub Fold: Writing for the Jellyfish Boxed Set

fanclub-cover-onlyI can’t remember if it was producer Kevin Flaherty or Bruce Brodeen from Not Lame Records, a mail-order power pop store and record label, that first contacted me. Could I give them a call about writing something for the upcoming Jellyfish boxed set?  Apparently Roger and Jason thought I’d be great for the job and the producers agreed. Excuse me?! I didn’t even know there was one in works.  I didn’t even think it was a good idea!

After putting up a website about my fond memories of seeing the band way too often in my college years, I endured three solid years of being inundated with the subject.  It was fun at first with me being new to the internet.  I made some really good friends, saw videos I never thought I’d see and heard a few great live shows but overanalyzing a band that only had two records got old quick, even with records that good.  This coming from a guy who moved to the Bay Area to actually help run their fanclub, only to have them split up immediately upon arrival.  Jinx.

These two guys seemed like nice fellows and I didn’t want to see them go bankrupt putting out a four disc boxed set for a short-lived cult band.  Internet mailing lists were supposed to compile those on burnt discs without the band’s involvement.  No dice. They were all in to spend tens of thousands to print up 7000 copies, thanks to a second mortgage on Bruce’s house.  Eek.  Definitely check out the Billboard article that mentions the costs involved.  It’s unreal.

Still, I was honored to be asked and immediately agreed to help. This was my dream job and I didn’t even have to ask for it!  Thanks to my website and the short-lived mailing list I started, I’d become their most visible fan, so it made sense to have me involved somehow, but, reading how horrible the casual writing I did back then is cringeworthy. If I was going to do this, I wanted to be proud of what I wrote.  They still hadn’t told me exactly what I’d be writing and weren’t exactly forthcoming with details, so I assumed I’d have to come up with a historical essay on the band and be ready to talk about every track, though they hadn’t told me anything about what would be on it. Even as a “reformed” fan, I was dying to know.

Without specific instruction, I started to write a serious Jellyfish chronicle but added the appropriate amount of fun for a band that had such a huge sense of humor.  Immediately, I began worrying about having enough to time to do it right.  I was running a business full-time, putting out a complicated charity record of my own and juggling my own stabs at music.  One thing it didn’t require was research.  With all I knew about the band, I wrote the whole tale off the top of my head. I wrote and read and re-wrote and re-read over and over, until I felt I couldn’t make any more changes.  I sent it off and waited.

They responded after a week or so and the news was both good and bad.  They liked what I’d written but were bringing in a friend of the band to help. Andy Zax had known Roger since college and had recently done an Echo & The Bunnymen boxed set among many other reissue projects. He was one of those types that….actually knew what he was doing. It was decided that Andy would write a factual, first-hand account and history of the band and that I’d write a fun fan perspective.  They’d liked the more personal parts of my story best and wanted me to really focus on that.   I was a little put out, being pretty happy with what I’d come up with but was also relieved. I’d learned to really hate serious, overwritten pop writing usually done about bands like this (you know who you are). It wasn’t really my style and I felt ridiculous doing it. Still do. I embraced my former self, exaggerated my enthusiasm a bit and came up with something geekier that I could live with.

They loved what I came up with. It was definitely an honor being a part of something semi-historical for what was unquestionably my favorite band in my college years.  At their request, I sent them every postcard, scrap and article I’d kept for their research. They were amazed. I was a little embarrassed. They used a picture I’d sent them that my friend Vincent Vigil took of the huge marquee outside of the San Diego Civic Theater when they played with Tears For Fears. An avid photographer, he’s since become known in Beatles circles for his collection of original Fab Four prints and negatives, which can be seen at VPV Photographs.  I’m not sure anything of mine ended up in the bedroom discography/promo fantasy centerfold.  Almost all of that belongs to superfan Vann Frazier, who I randomly met in LA last month when I recognized his name in the program of a charity show.

Bits of my 1991 cassette recording of the band in San Diego radio station 91X’s studios were used in several places, including an unlisted bonus track of them singing “King is Half Undressed” acoustically.  When it was originally broadcast, the big “ahhh” in the middle section had huge glitches and a fan I was trading with fixed it seamlessly.  Whoever you are, contact me.  You deserve a credit…and a Grammy!  Sadly, I never had time to put together a collage of lo-fi interview bits and covers (“Have You Ever Been Mellow”, “A Little Bit Of Love”, “Live & Let Die”, “Fool’s Gold” etc) that weren’t available in good enough quality to be included on the set.  It was going to be another hidden track but….oh well.  If you don’t understand how I couldn’t make time, ask the people I still owe tapes to 15 years later.  If you’re reading this, drop me a note. I promise to send you something worth the wait.

I was definitely stretching the truth when I wrote about how I’d be drooling over the tracks but to see what I’d written laid out in the booklet definitely caused my jaw to drop a bit.   I’m not sure if anything actually dripped out, but, as a package, Fanclub is beautiful.  The project turned out to be a success, selling out almost instantly to recoup their costs.  Sadly, it didn’t do well enough to press more, leaving thousands of people either shelling out $200 on ebay or rolling their eyes at suckers paying $200 on ebay.  I got paid with a few free copies, which was fine with me.  Someday I’ll sell my extra one that’s been collecting dust.  I’d autograph it but I wouldn’t want to bring the value down.

If you want to read what ended up in the liner notes, click here or squint at this…..

feelingweb

I completely forgot about the Redd Kross reference of the title until this second. Click to enlarge.


*The local deejay I alluded to in this was 91X’s Mike Halloran, who gave me shit for not mentioning him by name. I didn’t want to feed his ego but I did give him one of the free copies of Fanclub I got as thanks.

Here’s my original more historical/less fanny perspecitve piece….

FANCLUB by Adam Gimbel 

Who the hell needs a four cd boxed set of rarities by a group that was only really together for four years and put out just two records? Jellyfish fans do.

They were a rock historian’s wet dream (and a music purist’s nightmare). They were a musician’s band that passed even the harshest folded-arm scrutiny. They were an “industry” band loved by every business card carrying music biz weasel on earth. They were adored by children of the Seventies still fun enough to sport candy necklaces and bellbottoms. They were a band that should’ve been huge but had to settle for better than average sales (hundreds of thousands of record sales worldwide is hardly toiling in obscurity), respect, critical acclaim, rubbing elbows with their heroes (Ringo, Brian Wilson AND Shatner?!) and a certifiable “Army” of rabid fans. The way they inspired fandom, it’s even harder to believe that they never got the enormous success they so richly deserved.

I sure bought in. I was introduced to their debut album, Bellybutton, when it was just a few months old, in the fall of 1990, via a cassette without any artwork. I loved the music that was so instantly classic by using heaps of familiar sounds and styles from 60’s and 70’s poprock while still creating something totally their own. The melodies were more precious and harmony-laden than anything that had been on the radio in a LONG time and almost every song had a singalong chorus (and an even catchier bridge in most cases). The music was more than enough to knock me out but when I first saw them play live, I was greeted onstage by Christmas lights, a bubble machine, a Lite Brite, a white picket fence motif and four young guys caught in a mid-Seventies styled thriftstore explosion lined up at the front of the stage with the drummer standing AND singing lead (faint). They opened with Argent’s “Hold Your Head Up”, were funny as hell, rocked HARD, and sang really purdy. THIS was something I could get behind.

The “band” started as the musical partnership of Pleasanton, California teenage friends Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning Jr. While Roger was going to music school at USC, Andy was co-fronting an up-and-coming Bay Area band called Beatnik Beatch. They had put out a debut album on Atlantic Records and even won a Bay Area Music Award for Best New Artist (just as Jellyfish would do a few years later). The two started to send each other tapes of music they wanted to work on together. Many of these early songs, most of which are being heard released on this box for the first time ever, were actually recorded on tapes marked “Beatnik Beatch” and were intended to bring to the band, which Roger had joined upon returning to northern California. When it became obvious that they would have to leave the band and start something on their own to pursue their vision, they were all too eager to do so (a friend of theirs even melted them lampshades made of B.B.’s now VERY collecitble blue vinyl album).

Jason Falkner, an ex-Three O’Clock guitarist and SoCal friend Roger had made while in LA, was recruited by the two to bring his six-string skills into the fold. The three started to record demos that had record companies climbing over each other to sign them, even though they didn’t have a name or a bass player and had never even played a live gig. When you hear the demos of the songs that ended up on Bellybutton (and the extra songs that have only been heard by a handful of people until now), it’s amazing to hear the attention to detail and arrangement before they even went into the studio. Luckily, they were able to get Saturday Night Fever producer Albhy Galuten and veteran engineer Jack Joseph Puig to make their songs even more fully realized. Galuten believed in them so much that he helped with funding to get recording started while record labels wooed the band. They settled eventually with Charisma Records and the resulting album they put out is something so dense, complex and beautiful that it’s almost impossible to imagine that it was made by a brand new band.

As the album neared completion, the band started to think about their live show and the image they wanted to portray when they had to go onstage and try to replicate the songs on the record. To say they wanted something “colorful” would be quite an epic understatement. The album packaging showed the band’s Kroft Superstar, strawberrysummer, fun factor in full effect. They convinced Roger’s brother, Chris, to handle bass duties and, though he didn’t play on the record, is pictured and credited with being the band’s “witch doctor”. With a handful of new guitar-based instant powerpop classics (“Hello”, “Mr. Late”, and “Will You Marry Me?”), a pretty little polka (“Bye Bye Bye”), and a slew of fun covers, the band started to rehearse a set that would prove that a band with a discography of one 10 song album could completely knock you on your ass.

After playing a secret show under the pseudonym Smürf, the band did its first major tour, opening for World Party nationwide. Even at these very first shows, the huge reaction they got was the same as it would be for the next three years. They were simply one of the greatest live rock bands of all-time. The live tracks on this set show you just how incredible their onstage sound was, especially for a four piece band not using any pre-recorded samples (much to the disbelief of the people witnessing it and even moreso for musician snobs who never did). Having soundman Shalom Aberle behind the mixing board helped but so did endless vocal rehearsing, including a thorough practice (sometimes close to an hour) before they’d even go onstage. With all of the great live tracks on this set (some previously available as b-sides, some having been traded for years as bootlegs, some only heard once by those that were there), you can get a glimpse of how amazing they were.

In their whirlwind first two years as a band, they found themselves in situations they never could’ve dreamed possible. They toured the world, including a US tour with the redhot Black Crowes, played huge American festivals with alt-legends and even did a little gig opening for 60,000 INXS fans at London’s Wembley Stadium, where “King Is Half Undressed” had crept into the top 40. Their colorful videos helped make them MTV darlings. The clip for “King” was nominated for an MTV Video Award for Best Art Direction and “Baby’s Coming Back” was animated by actual Hanna Barbara artists. They were asked to record an updated version of the MTV theme song that played hourly, were the house band for a rainy Florida Spring Break show, backed William Shatner in lounge versions of movie soundtrack hits for an MTV Movie Awards show bit and even got to utter the immortal words “Hi, we’re Jellyfish and you’re watching MTV”. They’d collaborated with and written songs for the likes of Brian Wilson, Curt Smith (Tears For Fears), Robin Zander, Danielle Breisbois (of All In The Family fame) and a real life Beatle named Richard. After the Bammie Awards, Jason found himself playing “Freebird” on drums with members of Night Ranger. Strange days indeed.

Yet with all of the unreal scenarios they found themselves in, they all too often saw themselves being judged in the press only by their clothes and not by the critically acclaimed album they’d worked so hard on. The fun they’d had being so unshy had obviously got them a lot of attention and fans they wouldn’t have got had they they been sporting the grungewear of the day but they still wanted it all turned down a few notches. For their second album and tour, they set out to downplay the wacky hats, lolipops and lacy umbrellas and produce something far beyond anything that their contemporaries were doing. Following the departure of Falkner and Chris Manning, Andy and Roger began the long process of demoing the songs that would eventually become their second and final album, Spilt Milk. These demos show fully thought out compositions that took the Jellyfish sound to a completely new level. Even in rough form, the huge vocal stacks and complex arrangements are there, even if the guitar crunch and full-band bombast would be more fully realized in the studio with the same production team as the first album. Along with the songs intended for their new album, the band recorded several new compositions and old Beatnik Beatch songs for other artists, including Ringo Starr, who decided to record their song “I Don’t Believe You” and use Andy and Roger’s vocal talent on half of the songs on his Time After Time album. Kelly Willis and Married…With Children star Katey Segal also brought Andy and Roger in to sing on their records.

The band’s image was a bit toned down, but Spilt Milk‘s artwork pictured them in gold curtained magical studio splendour, complete with swingset. You could literally see how much had gone into the making of the album with a series of photos showing every instrument they’d used. The record was an ambitious piece of work from its Disney styled theme bookends to the clever wordplay covering everything from the profitability of dead rockstars to portraying religion as a Jesus fanclub to a rather obvious one-eyed wink to self-pleasuring. They dressed up the songs in 70’s rawk epics, oompah-pah singalongs, lush choral acapella numbers, and circuslike marches. It took almost a year of everything but the kitchen sink production and extreme attention to detail to get it just right. The band used dozens of session musicians but had found a full-time bassist for the album in Tim Smith, who’d met Shalom Aberle at a party where he lived in Georgia and accused him of using onstage samples. The album hardly fell on deaf ears, garnering even more critical praise than Bellybutton, with some critics putting it on par with the pop masterpieces that they were so obviously influenced by.

Upon release, the promotional people at Charisma once again had a ton of fun (and money) to throw at the band, sending advance tapes of the album out in milk carton shaped containers, plastering the country’s record stores in posters and contrasting the usual colorful materials with white t-shirts that simply said “SHAMELESS JELLYFISH PROMOTIONAL DEVICE” in black lettering. With more hype and expectations than they’d ever known looming over them, the band hit the road and delivered the goods in a big, big way. With southerner Eric Dover brought in on lead guitar for the band’s second tour, they now had four strong singers to make their harmonies better than they’d ever been. Until now, other than a few acoustic numbers, no recordings of this lineup playing live have ever been commercially released. Now you can hear why people that saw them on this tour still rave about how they felt when they opened with “All Is Forgiven” and hit that first harmony.

The band toured throughout 1993 and despite playing to adoring audiences worldwide (including their first visits to Australia and Japan), they got virtually no radio play and MTV wouldn’t touch their videos (even the incredible promo film they produced in Europe for “New Mistake”). They had already agreed to disband by the middle of their final tour, opening for Tears For Fears all over America. An article in the entertainment section of the San Francisco Chronicle made it official, months after they’d stopped playing together. It ended so quietly that most fans didn’t find out they had split up until years later. Luckily, all of the members of the band continued to make music and have given us PLENTY to keep our eyes on.

The first ex-Jelly musical attempt was Jason Falkner’s short-lived group The Grays (surprisingly enough, co-fronted by Spilt Milk session guitarist, Jon Brion), which was followed by two critically acclaimed solo records, high profile sessionwork and touring. Tim recorded two very Jellyfishesque albums with friends from Georgia as Umajets and even brought in Roger, Eric and Shalom to help play and produce before becoming a permanent member of Sheryl Crow’s band. Chris ended up in musical production, helping engineer and produce albums with the likes of Santana and Metallica. Eric fronted the Guns n Roses sideproject Slash’s Snakepit before rejoining Roger in LA to form the fun glamrawk outfit Imperial Drag, who produced one record and scored a minor hit with “Boy Or A Girl?” before disbanding. Roger continues to keep busy with lots of fun side projects (Moog Cookbook, Logan’s Sanctuary) and has become a highly sought after sessionman and soundtrack provider, but has been most visible for the past few years as Beck’s full-time keyboardist. Andy played on the Black Crowes Amorica album shortly after the band broke up, scored a kids movie called “Gregory & Me”, wrote some country tunes and pulled a disappearing act that would make Brian Wilson proud, popping up only occasionally to produce Japan’s Puffy and Sweden’s Merrymakers.

Still, like the Beatles before them, it’s the chemistry of Jellyfish as a band that has kept people talking about them 10 years later, making a boxed set like this necessary. This is a band that made you want to join their Jellyfish Army fanclub (something you hadn’t done in YEARS) and eagerly await stickers, buttons, photos, member bios disguised as Mad Libs, and bits of cleverly written news about what was new with your boys. They made you buy music you already owned because it came with 3-d glasses, a pop-up, a baby’s diaper or a clear, soft gelatin sleeve filled with glitter. They made you want to listen to their music repeatedly, with headphones even. By having such a short lifespan, the band left thousands wanting more music and fun. Well, now they’re gonna get it. For years, fans have been trading tapes on the internet of the few shows that were taped and a handful of demos that had ended up on singles or bootlegs. Now, they’ve got EVERYTHING worth having in one place.

Reading their story is part of the fun but listening is much better, so go press play. You probably already have.

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One thought on “Joining the Fanclub Fold: Writing for the Jellyfish Boxed Set

  1. Pingback: JOINING A FANPAGE: JELLYFISH TALES | "Yer doin' great." (a muzak clickclack)

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