Reviews and Commentaries for the Music of Jellyfish
I spent quite a few hours tuning up the stereo with side two of the album, specifically the song Now She Knows She’s Wrong, with its glockenspiel, loudly clanging tubular bells and yelling chorus at the end.
It’s exceedingly hard to get everything right at the same time: the energy, the deepest bass, the extension at the very top of the top end, the greatest transparency, just to mention a few of the main ones. There are always trade-offs, and being able to balance the trade-offs against the gains in these areas and others is a real test of your critical listening skills.
It’s not a perfect recording, and those are usually the ones that can teach you the most about your system’s strengths and weaknesses.
The problem with the typical copy of this record is gritty, grainy, grungy sound — not the kind that’s on the master tape, the kind that’s added during the mastering and pressing of the record. When that crap goes away, as it so clearly does on side one of the copy we played recently, it lets you see just how good sounding this record can be. And that means REALLY good sounding.
While during the shootout I had completely forgotten that all the domestic pressings of Bellybutton are direct metal mastered. (The import pressings are clearly made from copy tapes and are to be avoided.) It was only afterwards, when looking for stamper variations, that I noticed the DMM in the dead wax .
On most copies the CD-like opacity and grunge would naturally be attributed to the Direct Metal Mastering process; that’s the conventional wisdom, so those with a small data sample (in most cases the size of that data sample will be no more than one) could be forgiven for reaching such a conclusion. Based on our findings, it turns out to be completely erroneous.
The bad pressings do indeed sound more like CDs. The better pressings do not. All are DMM, so the conventional wisdom, a term of disparagement here at Better Records to start with, again shows how little probative value it actually brings to the discussion.
We would love to hear a version of the album that was not Direct Metal Mastered, just for comparisons sake. That unfortunately is an experiment that cannot be run. What we can do is play the CDs — I have several, the earliest ones being the best — and note that they are clearly grungier and grittier sounding than the better LP pressings. Some of that sound is on the Master Tape, how much we will probably never know.
Check out the story below to learn more about the band. Spilt Milk, their second album, is one of my top two or three personal favorites of all time, right up there with Ambrosia’s first and The White Album.
God’s Gift To Oxygen: A Brief History Of Jellyfish
Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning grew up in Pleasanton, a Bay Area-adjacent suburb distinguished chiefly by the presence of a federal country-club prison in its environs. They were high school friends united by jazz snobbery, before becoming entranced by the earthier pleasures of punk rock. After graduation, Roger headed down to Los Angeles to study music at USC, while Andy drifted in and out of bands in San Francisco, eventually teaming with an older musician named Chris Ketner in a mainstream pop-rock band (albeit with a few jazzy flourishes and some hints of New Wave-y energy) called Beatnik Beatch. In addition to his coursework down south, Roger, too, was dabbling in a series of groups (the first was a bunch of nameless Smiths geeks who went nowhere; the second was a Replacements-esque punk band called The Space Between; the third was a too-late-for-the-Paisley-Underground band called the Corsairs).
Andy and Roger remained in close contact during this period, and Roger was eventually drafted into Beatnik Beatch as keyboardist -still at USC, he endured an endless series of drives back and forth from L.A. to San Francisco -just in time for the band to get signed to Atlantic Records. Their sole major-label release was a tarted-up reissue of an earlier indie disc with Roger’s keyboards grafted onto four songs. As a live act, Beatnik Beatch had some flair -Andy at the front of the stage drumming on a stand-up kit while co-lead-vocalizing was a distinctive sight, to say the least -but Chris Ketner’s musical vision was an unconvincing hodgepodge of INXS and the Police that clearly wasn’t going to make them superstars. Roger had tried and failed to write for Beatnik Beatch, but his influence began to make itself felt as he and Andy began to concentrate on penning new songs together. The group imploded, leaving Andy and Roger in charge of their musical destiny and determined to do something more artistically satisfying.
They were still signed to Atlantic, who remained at least notionally interested in hearing anything they might come up with, although the label’s working hypothesis was that Chris Ketner was the major talent in the band. With nothing to lose, Andy and Roger began writing and demoing furiously. Carter, Atlantic’s mono-monickered A&R Svengali, heard a few songs and was intrigued enough to want to hear more. Roger and Andy prepared a 4-song tape and took it to L.A. to play it for him. Carter quickly rejected “Deliver” (he hated waltzes) and “Foxhunt” (an overly-calculated stab at commercial pop; its conspicuous absence from this boxed set should tell you something) but he was blown away by “The Man I Used To Be” and “Bedspring Kiss,” even going so far as to pay them the A&R man’s supreme compliment of actually listening to them all the way through.
With Carter’s encouragement – but not yet his financial backing – Roger and Andy went back to work feeling as if they were on the verge of major success. They were also feeling like they needed a guitarist. Fortunately, they were about to acquire one. Roger had met Jason Falkner several years earlier, during his Space Between days, while engaged in one of his frequent bouts of combing the musician’s classified section of L.A.’s Recycler looking for kindred spirits. He vowed not to call anyone unless they listed XTC as an influence. Jason’s ad did. Roger drove out to Jason’s home in Agoura to meet him and found an 18-year-old guitarist with, as he would later describe him, “talent oozing from every pore.” But Roger couldn’t quite relate to Jason’s songs, which were influenced as much by the angular post-punk of Wire and the Swell Maps as by Andy Partridge and Colin Moulding, and nothing came of their meeting. Jason spent the next few years playing in a succession of L.A. bands including industrial gloomsters Kommunity F.K. and Paisley popsters the Three O’ Clock before Roger got in touch with him again just as Jason’s tenure in the latter group was ending. Roger coaxed him up to San Francisco, where Jason crashed on his sister’s couch and joined the ongoing Sturmer/Manning demo derby.
By the time a dozen songs had been fully demoed, Carter had become convinced of the nascent group’s worth and was ready to let them make an album. He introduced them to Albhy Galuten, a seasoned producer best known for overseeing the Bee Gees’ recordings during their Saturday Night Fever period. Albhy loved the demos, and immediately understood what Andy and Roger were trying to achieve; his know-how and affinity for their music played a vital role in shaping the two albums that followed. Albhy, in turn, was responsible for enlisting the services of engineer Jack Joseph Puig, who’s since gone on to become one of the most successful producers in the music business.
Recording began in earnest in September of 1989. Half a dozen songs were in various stages of completion when the group received the disturbing news that Carter, their patron at Atlantic, had just lost his job. No one else at the label seemed to have the faintest interest or understanding of what they were up to. “We were dying to get off of Atlantic at that point,” Andy recalls. “They didn’t get what we were about and as Bellybutton began to take shape, we were confident we’d find a better home. I remember our manager deliberately sending the label mixes that were six generations down. The tapes they heard were mostly hiss! [It was done] with the intent of making them think that this project was totally unprofessional and completely unlistenable.” With their relationship with Atlantic reaching comical levels of disinterest – atone point, Andy & Roger were summoned to Los Angeles for a meeting which was cancelled because it was Debbie Gibson’s birthday; the exec they were supposed to meet with had been placed in charge of fetching her a cake. They soon found themselves dropped, much to their delight.
Carter, Albhy and attorney Allan Mintz began shopping tapes of the work-in-progress to various parties. In short order, a full-scale bidding war erupted as a slew of record companies and music publishers frantically attempted to sign what had suddenly begun to seem like the Next Big Thing. After several months of being wined and dined by every A&R person with an expense account, the group found a home at Charisma, a new Virgin subsidiary label helmed by industry vet Phil Quartararo, who became one of the band’s biggest fans.
The Bellybutton album was finished in March of 1990, but its completion brought with it a new set of problems. With promotional duties looming, Jellyfish were going to have to transform themselves from what had previously been a studio-only project into a functional live band. To do that, they urgently needed to find a bass player (Jason and Redd Kross’s Steve McDonald had played all the parts on the album). After a fruitless search, Roger suggested his younger brother Chris — who was just about to graduate from college — for the job. Although Chris’s musical credentials were decidedly shaky compared to Andy, Roger and Jason, an audition session was quickly arranged. The venue: an unused janitorial closet. It was the first time the group had played any of the songs together in one room all at once; hearing their music live in 3-D, even in very rough form, left them giddy with excitement. It was decided that, with some coaching, Chris would be able to handle the bass duties and he was officially inducted into the band. Jason quickly set about teaching him the bass parts, while carpooling to the rehearsal studio each morning enabled Roger and Jason to instruct Chris in the art of three-part harmony by singing endless choruses of Kansas’s “Carry On, Wayward Son.”
The group also needed a name. After considering – and rejecting – scores of possible choices, and with the album completed, they needed to come up with something quickly. A junior A&R associate of Carter’s, who was in the habit of dropping by the studio and playing ping-pong while recording was going on, had taken to bombarding Roger and Andy with awful prospective band names like “Major Nelson.” One of his suggestions had been the somewhat more palatable “Jellyfish.” Out of time and desperate, Andy and Roger decided that: a) neither of them actively despised the name and b) they could live with it. Of such decisions is musical history made.
Chris had joined the band just in time for the Bellybutton cover shoot, a Sid & Marty Krofft-ian fantasia involving strawberry goop, a nude woman covered in swirly patterns of Aim toothpaste and the group members decked out in a dazzling array of psychedelic thrift-store finery. The visual flamboyance was no afterthought; Andy and Roger were insistent upon presenting the band in the most colorful terms possible. (It was on this level that Chris’s recruitment made the most sense; a fearless extrovert, Chris was guaranteed to lend visual dynamics to a still-fledgling live band whose two principals were always going to be trapped behind a drum kit and a bank of keyboards.)
Bellybutton was released in late summer of ‘90 and quickly won a following among influential music biz hipsters. Especially vital was the fanatical support of MTV programming executive Rick Krim, who loved the band and managed to get three of their videos into the channel’s high-exposure BuzzBin rotation over the next several months. Shortly after the album hit stores, Jellyfish made their unofficial live debut – under the assumed name “Smürf” (with two umlauts over the “u”) – at a sports bar in Santa Rosa, CA; their official unveiling was at San Francisco’s DNA Lounge the following night. With leadoff single “The King Is Half-Undressed” on the radio and on the tube, the group set out on a long run of touring, first as an opening act for World Party, then on their own. The shows mixed Bellybutton material with newly-penned rockers composed with live performance in mind (“Hello Hello,” “Mr. Late”); cover versions that ranged from the sublime (McCartney, the Archies) to the ridiculous (the McDonald’s “two all beef patties” Big Mac jingle); visual pyrotechnics (Those outfits! That bubble machine!) and precision harmonies. In a very short period of time, Jellyfish established themselves as a top-flight concert attraction. The band even held its own when asked to support the Black Crowes on a major tour in the spring of ’91, winning over the Crowes hard-rocking audiences with surprising ease.
Bellybutton sold steadily, remaining on the Billboard charts for over six months, but the group’s high media profile and tireless work ethic never quite translated into the kind of massive success the band were hoping for. “Baby’s Coming Back” –which came complete with a stunning part-animated video–came closest to breaking Jellyfish to a mass audience, but never rose above 62 on the Hot 100. Still, as Bellybutton activity wound down following a successful series of European dates in the summer of ’91, Jellyfish could look back on a year most bands with a debut album would have happily killed for.
A by-product of the album’s success had been that Jellyfish now found themselves quite hip in music biz circles. Suddenly, Andy and Roger were being fussed over by a succession of Big Names. They wrote songs for Ringo Starr and actually got to record with him. There had a brief, surreal attempt at a songwriting collaboration with one of their biggest heroes, Brian Wilson. They backed up William Shatner as he performed the Best Song nominees on the MTV Movie Awards. Rod Stewart threatened to record “I Wanna Stay Home.” Everyone from Tears For Fears’ Curt Smith to actress Kim Basinger wanted to work with them. It was a heady time, to say the least. Unfortunately, as they began gearing up to record their second album, the band was also in the process of falling apart.
It’s not hard to understand why Jason Falkner must have felt frustrated. Not just a superior musician, he was also a skilled songwriter who wanted to play a greater role in the group’s creative process. Yet over the preceding year it had become increasingly obvious that Jellyfish was never going to be a vehicle for his material; he chose to follow his own muse and leave the band. Chris Manning was a different case entirely. He’d made Herculean efforts to bring his musicianship up to Jellyfish standards and had succeeded admirably. But as Roger and Andy began to complete the demos for what would become Spilt Milk, it became clear that Chris’ musical ideas no longer fit the Jellyfish sound. He retired from the group with full honors, going on to a successful career as a recording engineer and songwriter.
Roger and Andy soldiered on. Despite the losses of Jason and Chris, they were in an enviable position: they had an audience and a record company that was willing to back their vision. Whatever came next had to be bigger, bolder and more fully imagined that what had come before. Re-entering the studio with Albhy Galuten and Jack Puig, they embarked upon what was to become one of the most ambitious recording projects since the heyday of Steely Dan 15 years earlier. They were determined to make their magnum opus, even if it killed them.
The Split Milk sessions dragged on for months, a painstaking and expensive quagmire of intricate arrangements, redone parts and endless mix tweaking that began to take its toll on Andy and Roger’s working relationship. I remember the phone ringing late one night in the summer of ’92. It was Roger, who I hadn’t heard from for months. He needed to get away from the studio for a while; did I want to go grab some food? I met him at Canter’s Delicatessen on Fairfax. He looked like he hadn’t seen a bed, a shower or a washing machine in perhaps a decade. We made small talk and he picked listlessly at a plate of spaghetti. Then he excused himself to go back to the studio because everyone was still there, working. It was 3 A.M.
Somehow, the album got done. A new bassist, Tim Smith, had joined the group in time to contribute to Spilt Milk (although the legendary T-Bone Wolk plays on many of the tracks) and stunt guitarists Lyle Workman and Jon Brion (Brion was, ironically, just about to form the Grays with none other than Jason Falkner) had provided studio support. But the search for a new, permanent axeman was a constant low-level aggravation. A mountain of awful demo tapes submitted by wannabe Jellyfish members provided inadvertent comic relief over the next several months, before deliverance arrived in the form of Eric Dover. (How desperate were they to find a replacement for Jason? At one point, Roger even asked me if I knew how to play guitar.) Jellyfish Mark II prepared to hit the road.
Released in February of 1993, Spilt Milk quickly emerged as that most frustrating of music business phenomena: the uncanny masterpiece that the record company can’t figure out how to promote. Some of this was due to lack of imagination on Charisma’s part, but some of it was also due to the climate in which the album was released. Bellybutton had come out in the pre-Nirvana days when modern rock radio had a much broader range of acceptable sounds. But in the post-Nevermind era, ornate studio masterworks like “The Ghost At No. 1” were clearly going to have a hard time competing against yowling hordes of angry guys with chain wallets trying to sound like Black-Sabbath-meets-the-Pixies. Though the band’s core fans greeted the album with awe and amazement, the general public never really got to hear it.
The band fought on, touring throughout the year with ferocious live performances that concealed the tensions brewing underneath. A final string of dates at year’s end as the opening act for Tears For Fears would prove to be Jellyfish’s last shows. Andy and Roger reconvened at the start of 1994 and attempted to write material for a third album, but their ability to work together had seemingly evaporated and they found themselves pulling in different musical directions. A final studio recording emerged from this period: a stark (only Roger and Andy are playing on it) cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” The irony inherent in the recording is almost unbearable – a song about decomposition and death being performed by a pair of musicians whose relationship was in the throes of doing both. Whether intentional or not, it made for one helluva swansong. Jellyfish officially came to an end on April 4, 1994.