I was 17-years old and my Christmas list consisted of just a few very important items: Alice in Chains’ Facelift, Super Mario 3, Soundgarden’s Louder Than Live videotape, and Jellyfish’ Bellybutton. There were some socks and a bag of peanut M&Ms, as well as a bottle of Brut 33 in my stocking. Under the tree was an Indiana University sweatshirt, and since my mom’s pretty righteous, all of those important items I mentioned earlier.
It was going to be a grunge-y kind of Christmas.
My grandma Hubner came over like she usually did, but this Christmas she decided to enjoy a beer with my dad. It didn’t go well as she sort of went into what I’d call a “state”. Maybe it was the Budweiser, or the strange choice of tacos for Christmas dinner, but she ended up on the love seat in the living room writhing like a madwoman. Nobody really seemed that worried, we just figured grandma couldn’t handle hops and barley. I nonchalantly popped Louder Than Live into the VCR and proceeded to awkwardly rock out as I watched the artsy live video of my favorite Seattle band chug along to songs like “Hands All Over”, “Full On Kevin’s Mom”, and a great cover of Cheech and Chong’s “Earache My Eye”. Grandma wasn’t too impressed in her “state”, as she looked at the TV and said “Who are these horrible people??” My dad proceeded to snag the remote and shut off my concert experience, mouthing at me “Go!”
I headed to my room and proceeded to eat half a pound of peanut M&Ms and put Facelift in my ears. Once “Real Thing” ended I pulled the cassette out and popped in something completely different, Jellyfish’ debut Bellybutton.
I knew about Jellyfish thanks to 120 Minutes and a showing of their video for “The King Is Half Undressed”. You could say that Jellyfish wasn’t the norm for my listening habits at 17-years old, but I didn’t really have a normal listening pattern. My buddy Jason and I prided ourselves on jumping all over the place when it came to music. Other well-worn cassettes around this time were Sting’s The Soul Cages, Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend, Anthrax’ Persistence of Time, Death Angel’s Act III, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Faith No More’s The Real Thing, and King’s X’ Faith Hope Love to name but a few. I wasn’t just into metal or grunge or alternative. I grew up in a house that gave equal ear time to Led Zeppelin, Three Dog Night, and KC and the Sunshine Band.
Variety is the spice of life, baby.
So while Jellyfish were definitely a different sound, I connected immediately. Their late 60s/early 70s power pop was a reprieve from loud guitars, Rattle and Hum, and Young MC. What I thought was a band pulling heavily from the Beatles(which to some degree they were), were actually more into The Zombies and XTC. Jangly guitars, McCartney-esque bass lines, and wurlitzer organ all swirled together in three and four-part harmonies while these obscure, almost psychedelic lyrics pulled me in. Add the retro video complete with vintage Help! and Monkees weirdness and thrift shop outfits and I was sold.
What I never realized till later on was that Jellyfish wasn’t a “normal” band, per say. Sure, they were an extremely tight band live, with singer Andy Sturmer playing drums standing up and hitting all of his vocal parts perfectly. But this wasn’t just your average group of pals coming up with tunes in the garage of the bass player’s mom and dad’s house. Singer/drummer Sturmer, keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning, and guitarist Jason Falkner were ALL studio-level musicians, singers, and songwriters. They all were multi-instrumentalists with songwriting chops and ideas of what to do and how to proceed as a band. So their debut Bellybutton didn’t have a bad song on it. In fact, it was an album full of power pop gems and future classics.
For an album that I first heard almost 30 years ago, Bellybutton still feels new; like something I just came across for the first time. The album is filled with amazing songs. “That Is Why”, “The King Is Half Undressed”, “She Still Loves Him”, “Now She Knows She’s Wrong”, “Baby’s Coming Back”, and “Calling Sarah” are as good as what inspired them. Touches of Zombies, Skylarking-era XTC, Faces, and yes the Beatles are in these tracks, but Sturmer, Manning, and Falkner were also pulling inspiration from alternative and indie rock of the 80s as well. They were all in their early 20s by the time Bellybutton came out. You can hear bits of Teenage Fanclub and Red Kross in their songs as well. It was this great mixture of old and new coming together. It was not Rattle and Hum or Boyz 2 Men, thank Christ.
There were three of us that obsessed over this album in my friend group. We all loved Bellybutton for different reasons, but could come together in agreement that Jellyfish were unlike anything else we were hearing at the time. We waited patiently for new music, but we wouldn’t get anything until after we’d graduated high school. In 1993 Jellyfish returned with the excellent and ambitious Spilt Milk. Falkner had left the band and was replaced with Jon Brion. Yes, the Jon Brion of the band Grays and producer to many, many incredible albums. Oh, and the prolific film score composer Jon Brion. That Jon Brion. Spilt Milk was Sturmer and Manning’s “Queen” record, complete with stacked overdubs, orchestration, and a sort of arc of storytelling that felt like almost a concept album.
It was a huge record that pretty much went nowhere, like the last one. A band with so much talent and music chops that just couldn’t compete with alternative rock and pop radio. So like all great things, Jellyfish disappeared quietly into the ether.
Now, looking back I don’t thing there was ever a chance that Jellyfish would’ve lasted. From the beginning they were a band filled with musical wizards that each had a very distinct set of skills and had things to say. That kind of supergroup can’t last for long. Andy Sturmer got tired of being a front man and dived into a very successful career as a score composer for Disney Channel cartoons. Roger Joseph Manning formed Imperial Drag in 1995 with Eric Dover(touring guitarist for Jellyfish) and they made one amazing full-length record. After that Manning was a go-to keyboardist for Beck, Jay-Z, Blink 182, and Johnny Cash. He also released several solo albums. Jason Falkner put out several solo LPs, as well as putting out two Bedtime With The Beatles albums, formed Grays with Jon Brion, and worked as a studio musician.
I think in the end it all worked out for the fellas in Jellyfish.
Christmas of 1990 was a great Christmas. Alice In Chains, Super Mario, Soundgarden, and Jellyfish. And my grandma getting blitzed on one Budweiser. Who could ask for anything more?
I know it’s hard for you to see
What lies behind’s a mystery
If words could speak they’d mean even less
When the king is half undressed