Tag Archives: cult band

Pop songs about pop songs: Joining a Fan Club – Jellyfish (repost)

Hi all. Sorry for doing the repost thing, but it’s been a very busy week and I’m not feeling all that well. I’m having trouble shaking a cold I’ve had for a week now. In fact, just when I thought I was OK, it came back stronger than before. Hopefully be back with something new on Sunday.

Jellyfish seemed poised for big things in the summer of 1990, until a darker, more aggressive noise from up the Pacific Coast elbowed them aside. Their meta-pop – pop songs written about pop songs, with a pervasive sense of irony and a sense that they weren’t taking any of this too seriously – just didn’t catch on. And their Cat in the Hat threads and polka dots looked a little silly on MTV next to Nirvana and AiC. They looked like Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament, only even more ridiculous, if you can imagine such a thing. They became instead a cult band, loved by a devoted few.

The band’s main men – drummer/lead singer Andy Sturmer and keyboard player Roger Manning Jr – were never ones to disguise their influences: they liked the Beach Boys, Queen, Paul McCartney, Harry Nilsson and Badfinger, and didn’t care who knew it, producing blatant homages to their heroes and performing their songs in concert. While their debut album Bellybutton combines all of these influences into something somewhat unique, their 1993 follow-up, Spilt Milk, is more of a straight love letter to Queen and the Beach Boys.

Jason Falkner (a cult hero himself) and his temporary replacement Eric Dover (later of Slash’s Snakepit, of all things) were gone by now, so the guitars – beefed up since Bellybutton, which led some to conclude they were chasing the grunge trend, a ridiculous conclusion – were played by Lyle Workman (Sting, Todd Rundgren, Beck, Frank Black) and producer Jon Brion (Aimee Mann, Fiona Apple, Beck, Elliott Smith). There was a lot of production and arranging talent on board, but a lot of strong opinions also, which can lead to creative paralysis and a complete lack of momentum. Leaving aside the band members and hired players, any one of whom could have been the lead producer on the project, also on the team were Jack Joseph Puig and Albhy Galuten, who had succeeded Arif Marden as the Bee Gees’ producer during their disco-era records and had serious hit-making pedigree.

No wonder it took them a couple of years to put it all together, by which time they were even more out of step with mainstream rock music than they’d been in 1990. The album received rave reviews, was praised to the skies by fellow musicians who shared their outlook, but went nowhere commercially and ended up in the bargain bins after a few months. Such an expensive flop did not sit well with the record company and Jellyfish were effectively done. Sturmer and Manning went into production – what else? – as did Jon Brion.

Joining a Fan Club sounds bigger and grander, brasher and glammier, than anything on Bellybutton, and the song’s knotty structure and somewhat inelegant left turns work surprising well; the band play through it all with aplomb and they work up the biggest head of steam they ever managed in the studio. Unfortunately, though, Spilt Milk sounds suffocating – the low end is flabby and overdone, and towards the album’s end, you find yourself wishing for something breezier and lighter on its feet, in the manner of Bellybutton. Maybe this contributed to its commercial failure, but I suspect it had more to do with its sheer unfashionability. A few years later it might have found a receptive audience among the people who bought albums by Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple (whether Jon Brion developed his production/arrangement style before or after he worked with Jellyfish is a fascinating question, given the overt similarities between them), but at the time a wide audience didn’t exist for a pop record this knowing and meta, where every song seems to exist inside a series of quotation marks.

Andy Sturmer did have the gratification of having Joining a Fan Club reach a new audience when it was recorded in 2004 by Japanese pop duo Puffy Ami Yumi, whom he’s produced since the mid-nineties.

But I’ll take the original please.

Jellyfish

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Tigermilk – Belle and Sebastian, Part 1

This is Stowe School.

stowe house

Stowe is a private school in Buckinghamshire in England, opened in 1923. It’s based in Stowe House, which was built by Sir Richard Temple in the late 1700s. The Temples were an enterprising bunch. As each son married shrewdly (that is, married an heiress), they became first the Grenville-Temples, then the Nugent-Temple-Grenvilles, and by the late 1800s the Plantagenet Campbell Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandos-Grenvilles. Really. The really smart members of the aristocracy have always known there is more to be gained from making a good marriage than raising an army.

When I was about 16 and my friend told me that about a band called Belle and Sebastian, he told me that they formed at a school called ‘Stowe’. I didn’t know what Stowe looked like or where it was, but I knew there was a fancy public school called Stowe. I heard Stuart Murdoch’s wispy, somewhat feminine voice, clocked the band’s name (Belle and Sebastian was known to my generation as a rather lame anime that had been shown on Children’s BBC and was based on some French children’s novel that no one I knew had ever read), and figured I had the measure of them as upper-class, foppish and effete.

I’ve harked on before for the benefit of our younger readers how different the world was when you couldn’t necessarily find out anything you wanted to know after 60 seconds of Google searching. What I didn’t know (as if there was only one thing! I didn’t know) was that Stowe School was not the same as Stow College.

This is Stow College (now Glasgow Kelvin College):

stow college

From listening to the band properly I soon grasped that their actual milieu was Glasgow, and possibly the seedier end of it. They had made their first recordings at Stow for the students on the college’s Beatbox course. The school’s record label, Electric Honey, was run by Ken McCluskey from the Bluebells, Douglas McIntyre from Creeping Bent and Alan Rankine from the Associates. Several of the founding band members (Stuart Murdoch, Stuart David and Stevie Jackson) were already in their mid-twenties. Stuart David was only on the Beatbox course on pain of losing unemployment benefit.

Electric Honey usually released a single at the end of the academic year, but Belle and Sebastian had enough for an album. So out came Tigermilk in 1995, selling out its 1000-copy run by word of mouth and bringing them to the attention of fledgling London-based indie Jeepster, who picked them up as their first signing, and released the group’s second record, If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996), which seems to have become the consensus ‘best’ B&S album.

It’s not, I think. I like Tigermilk and The Boy With the Arab Strap (1998) far more.

In part 2, we’ll get into why Tigermilk is the the Belle and Sebastian album you should hear if you’re not familiar with the band.