Right There, Right Then: Jesus Jones’ Alternative History of 1991

Twenty years ago, there was no question about who one of the most talked about bands of the time was. It was their second album rather than their first, which had pointed the way towards a breakthrough. But broken through they had, and what had been a fairly obscure “in the know” group among American listeners, getting maybe flecks of attention from alternative stations as such — a group referencing both widely famous artists and near unknown figures equally — suddenly launched into fame and fortune, or so it seemed. Hottest tickets in town, at least in some corners, when they came through, and it was kinda impossible not to at least pay attention, thanks to the number one record and the pretty omnipresent video — it was all over MTV. You couldn’t not at least know a part of that video or a part of the song, and damned if it didn’t seem like there were a lot of people in the crowds at their shows who just seemed to look the part. It wasn’t set in stone or anything, of course, but you got a bit of a sense that things were going to be different, somehow, from this point forward.

So yeah, let’s talk about Jesus Jones, then.

1991, the palindromic year. My good friend MackroMackro once made a great CDR MP3 comp (and good lord, is THAT already a dated prospect too?) focusing on the year, with an appropriately palindromic subtitle: “We Won — Now Ew?” It’s the endlessly beaten about fall-from-grace story in a new context, when everything (if everything meant alternative music as such) supposedly fizzed and fizzled and finally, after a lot of build-up, became the year that Nirvana got huge, and then the business people rushed in and everything was ruined and, man, I’m all cynical now, and I’m going to play with my old Gilligan’s figurines and complain about that stupid Reality Bites movie and whatever. (That is a monumentally stupid movie, though. Don’t question me.)

It’s a lie, of course, but the fact that it’s a lie doesn’t disguise its convenience. Helps to have a myth of some sort, after all, and the nice thing about myths is that they can kick around and inspire some people further down the road. Myths are pretty horrible and useless as well in many other guises, so it’s almost down to how one chooses the myths you do and how they function for you, how they help make sense of history when something seems too big to easily sum up. A lot of myths and mythmaking in general, frankly, suck, but it provides something like a security blanket. Nirvana as culmination, as nirvana indeed, and Nirvana as the breaking of the levee. Except it wasn’t, not entirely.

Here, I confess, I am stuck with the limits of history as it is written now and as it was written at the time. As it’s written now, Jesus Jones are just a footnote — a footnote still going, admittedly — but even if they’re not actually one-hit wonders (“Real Real Real” did get top 10 and all in the U.S.), they might as well be in the larger context of things. Nirvana is not a one-hit wonder by any stretch of the imagination, and anyone looking back will say as much. Those of us who were there, man, might conjure up a few comparative memories, but time, distance, and accreted culture and received history muddle those memories by default.

So I can’t say please trust me on this, but…trust me. Because there was a story I read in the Los Angeles Times in around 1992 or so that was part of their regular music coverage, in this case from a business angle, where a few label or radio station or industry folks gave quotes on the record. It wasn’t a major huge story — it wasn’t meant to be, just more of an observational thing on the state of the current times, and I’m not even sure if this one bit was the exact focus or not. I haven’t been able to find the story so far in desultory online searches – and let that be further proof of the fact that not everything is online despite what is claimed, even in the archives of an organization as big as the L.A. Times. (Though the world’s worst piece of rock criticism is, so enjoy and laugh after you’ve finished this.)

The nub of the story is simple enough, and it goes like this: Jesus Jones, having been signed in America to boutique label SBK as a counterpart to their boutique label Food in the UK (both labels themselves being part of the EMI organization), were seen by its American company as a likely prospect for wider success. SBK, if boutique, was riding high and had the connections and cash to make things work — this March 10, 1991 L.A. Times article, right around the time things were gelling big time for Jesus Jones, sums up their approach simply enough in the headline: “SBK Records takes unknowns and spends big to make them known. (Hey, it worked with Wilson Phillips and Vanilla Ice.)”

Charles Koppelman, the main guy behind the label, gets an understandably adoring profile in the piece, at least in terms of business sense, and who can blame him? Here’s a guy who signs Tracy Chapman to a publishing deal and then a few years later has a hit record in the form of Jesus Jones’ “Right Here Right Now” that explicitly references and mocks Chapman’s “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”. It’s not that Koppelman wanted to rub it in Chapman’s face, more that he knows, or at least knew, how to ride many tides over the years.

In any event, SBK pours on the money and Jesus Jones get the promo mileage, the whole nine yards. The difference between them and the previous hitmakers on the roster is that Jesus Jones seemed to be this alternative thing, whatever alternative was. Ill-defined, reactive as much as creative, a marketer’s dream, indie-rock or alternative or whatever you wanted to call it — sure, it had stations like KROQ and the like, and some acts seemed to keep sneaking through to MTV and actual hit records, but that seemed to take a long time.

But SBK thinks, “We marketed all this other stuff, we can market this.” They do, and Jesus Jones, being young, reasonably good-looking, a little different but not too different — they love their hip-hop and they seem to like this “rave” thing being talked about and all, but they’re still very much a rock band for all the samples — and blessed with a song that does sound good on the air and over PAs at sporting events and more, break on through. They break on through so well that hot on their heels, another EMI-related band, EMF, who were seen as something of Jesus Jones-knockoffs with their UK hits, scores THEIR own major American hit with “Unbelievable”, also a number one smash. Jesus Jones tour the States twice, score a follow-up hit as mentioned, and pull in the crowds as mentioned.

So here’s the trick: According to my memory of this long-forgotten and buried-in-the-past story I keep mentioning, enough label folks — and radio station types and retail folks — look at all this and think, “Huh. So maybe this modern rock deal has something really going for it. We should keep our ears and wallets open.” By this time it’s the summer of 1991 as well, and everyone’s noticing that Lollapalooza has been doing some gangbuster business. So they’re primed for whatever else might be pitched along those lines.

Which is where DGC, part of David Geffen’s ruthless promo machine of life in general, steps in, with a punchy song from some Seattle band that was originally on Sub Pop.

Besides this particular LA Times story I keep mentioning, I saw other contemporary references to this hidden history of 1991. The one that most immediately sticks in the brain was from late 1992, when Mark Arm, in an interview for Melody Maker with his band Mudhoney, drops a seemingly random mention about how Jesus Jones helped pave the way for grunge’s commercial breakout due to said band’s success. Jesus Jones didn’t gain any leverage from all this, of course — by the time they came back with new material in 1993, what previously was immediate and of-the-moment seemed like “weird electronic British shit”, which, in comparison to the actual weird electronic British shit going down at that point, was more just kinda dull. Koppelman kept doing his thing at EMI in general, but by 1993 there were already plenty of questions swirling, though it seemed in keeping that part of his response was to lure Gary Gersh away from Geffen, partially to clear out a lot of acts that Koppelman himself had happily signed not all that long beforehand. If you can’t beat a guy who benefited on a record label end from the Jesus Jones story, might as well hire him.

So it’s 2011 and Koppelman was last seen working with Martha Stewart and Jesus Jones are as mentioned and Nirvana we probably know too much about. But not enough, I’d argue, if only to kick back against a convenient myth or two. There’s nothing surprising about this story on a macro-level, really, and little of it might even be outright morally wrong or bad — it just proves once more than the future is unpredictable, that being in the right place at the right time helps, that money talks, and that if some things are best understood via a long view, others are best seen right at the time. If the exact model is somewhat outmoded, the desire to keep an ear out for “the next big thing”, whatever it might be, remains a constant, especially if there is money to be found, or if there is any at all. It might not be something to result in soft-focus memories, but it’s always easy to see very clearly, if you let yourself look.

Ned Raggett works at UC Irvine’s library system, writes for a variety of spots across the web, sometimes updates his blog Ned Raggett Ponders It All, and otherwise wonders where the time goes.