Here we go, the first updated tale, first written 16 years ago. There’s still very little info on these early years. The band would probably rather not have you help me with details. It’s your decision….
Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning Jr. grew up in Pleasanton, CA, about a half hour east of San Francisco. Andy’s father was a jazz musician, which led him to music at a young age and Roger was a piano phenom by his early teens (first concert: Chicago). They grew up like normal kids of the 70’s, loving bad TV, Kiss, Star Wars, and classic rock, but they were also musicheads that liked everything from the Dead Kennedys and trad jazz. They were winning jazz contests at a young age until Andy started writing his own songs. Roger soon followed suit while attending Amador High School, starting as a freshman in 1980.
While Roger went to study jazz at USC and made friends like Jason Falkner, Andy joined Beatnik Beatch (not pronounced like the popular slang term “BYOTCH!”), a Bay Area jazzpop act formerly known as Zula Pool. The band was started by Chris Witt Ketner who played bass, viola and shared lead singing duties with Andy. George Cole played guitar, Andy played drums and did vocals and Se Padilla played keyboards. Like Jellyfish, all four of them lined up at the front of the stage with Andy on standup drums and Ketner usually on stand up bass. Andy got a kick out of me comparing Ketner’s vocals to Men Without Hats, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I recently got my first hilarious listen to his previous new wave act Chrome Dinette. They opened for everyone from Wall of Voodoo to Duran Duran. Stand up, get yer robot dance ready and enjoy.
The band had released the album At The Zula Pool independently in 1986 and was later signed by Atlantic Records. Before they released the record (and were still called Zula Pool), they did a video for the song “Back Where You Belong”. Charlotte describes it as “pretty much the most embarrassing thing that you’ve ever seen. It makes Scandal look like high art.” I’ve seen it. That’s accurate, if not too kind. Before the Atlantic record was released, Roger joined the band and racked up freeway miles driving to gigs while still schooling in LA. Their self-titled major-label debut, released in 1988, was also their last release. It had six of the ten songs from At The Zula Pool, plus four newer ones with Roger on keys.
A video was made for the band’s namesake song “Beatnik Beatch”, which actually aired a couple of times on MTV but, when I first wrote this in 1996, no one in the tape trading world (or even Roger) could find a copy. Of course, now it’s on Youtube. Despite the band winning a 1988 Bay Area Music award for Best New Band (as Jellyfish would do just two years later) and opening up for the Church, Bananarama, Buster Poindexter and other national touring acts, the album didn’t sell well and was a collector’s item until it was re-released in 2007.
I first heard of the band from another Bay Area legend named Andy (Warner, no relation to Sturmer, though we both did karaoke for the first time ever in his hometown of Pleasanton, dueting decently on “Surrender”). He’d seen them a few times and thought I might like them. Luckily, I didn’t take his advice. He actually has the distinction of being the first person to recognize Roger outside of the Bay Area. He was at an Iggy Pop/Jesus & Marychain show in San Diego (Charlotte was attending UCSD) and noticed Roger sitting right in front of him. Not too surprising he’d be there since I’d heard Roger noting his “JAMC hair” from that era and he’d once said they used Bellybutton‘s studio musicians because “Jim Reid, David Gay-han and Marty Gore” weren’t available. He couldn’t believe anyone in San Diego knew who he was. They talked about how Andy had just seen them at Live 105’s first ever free concert, held at Bayfair Mall, the largest crowd that had ever come to see them as headliners.
Roger’s girlfriend reacts:
“Oh my God! I remember when some guy recognized Roger when we were at a Jesus & Mary Chain concert! That was so great. His first star sighting, back when he was in Beatnik Bitch. Wow. That brings back memories. Roger & I used to be obsessed with the JAMC. Well, I should say that I was, & he sort of gave in & got amused as well. We always liked their music, but were just completely entertained at their ridiculousness as well. In fact, here’s some trivia for you that no one knows. Roger’s publishing company’s name (Sunshine Suicide songs) is a nod to the lil’ Reid Bros. that we came up with. Long story.”
Although it was clearly Ketner’s band, my friend Andy remembers Sturmer singing more of the songs live, though it was pretty much even on the album. Andy and Roger began writing songs for their future project as he told BAM in 1990, “We would come back from a [Beatnik Beatch] show and be really down, because we weren’t doing what we wanted to do, and we’d talk about the ideas for Jellyfish.” Their live shows were apparently getting pretty awful because Andy and Roger wanted out (though the rumored reggae cover of “You Shook Me All Night Long” couldn’t have helped). When it was time to record the second album for Atlantic, the boys told Ketner they wanted to do the songs they’d been writing or they’d quit. The band broke up in spring of 1989 and Atlantic decided to listen to demos by both Ketner and the yet unnamed Sturmer/Manning project to see who they’d keep. Guess who won?
It was actually layered demos of Jellyfish’s two mellowest early songs (“The Man I Used To Be” and “Bedspring Kiss”) that won over their Atlantic A&R man. The band’s boxed set claims that all of the demos on the first disc were written as Beatnik Beatch but Jason Falkner plays on a number of them so that’s not exactly right. Most of them were recorded at Andy’s house but others were done at various Bay Area studios, including Dancing Dog in Emeryville, run by Dave Bryson from Counting Crows. When I worked for their management company, he told me that they really liked the original version and couldn’t seem to get it to sound that way when it came time to record it for Bellybutton.
I can’t find anything about any music Chris Ketner has done since Beatnik Beatch. Their original keyboard player, Se Padilla, owned Club 181 in the Bay Area and played keys on a remix of the song “Come To Butthead” for the Beavis & Butthead album. “It ain’t Shakespeare, but, what the hell,” he said in a piece in the San Francisco Chronicle. George Cole, who gave guitar lessons & mentored a young Billy Joe Armstrong & Mike Dirnt, has become a well-known gypsy jazz and swing guitarist. Check out his website GeorgeCole.net. A tongue-in-cheek beatnik poetry comedy act called Beatnik Bitch, fronted by yours truly, emerged from the Bay Area in 1994 for one gig before changing its name to Bean n’ X then disbanding. No big loss.
Once Jellyfish began, they definitely didn’t want to talk about their Beatnik past. When I first met Roger, I still hadn’t found the old record and accidentally asked him about the band Beat Happening. He knew damn well what I was talking about, but claimed ignorance. A radio DJ once asked bassist Tim Smith if he had been in Beatnik Beatch and the rest of Jellyfish all burst into somewhat embarrassed laughter. They even melted candy dishes out of blue vinyl copies of At The Zula Pool and gave them to friends as gifts (Rog had a lampshade version). Strangely, when asked to submit songs for Ringo Starr’s 1992 Time Takes Time album, they re-recorded not one but TWO B.B. songs. Thinking of Ringo’s small vocal range must’ve reminded them of Ketner’s tune “Watching The Rain” but they turned the already decent Sturmer song “Worthless Heart” into a really great little recording that Ringo couldn’t have done on his best day ever.
Turning bullshit into marmalade indeed.
BEATNIK BEATCH: Albums overanalyzed