Not Lame Records’ Jellyfish Story Is a Fitting Tribute

This is the story of two talented Bay Area songwriters who create a pair of brilliant power pop records and then fade into obscurity.

Power pop is, in most respects, an extremely ‘cultish’ genre of music. The fans of power pop tend to be music obsessives, record bin prowlers and tape traders, chatroom regulars and cover song collectors. One of the long-term supporters of the genre, Not Lame Records’ founder Bruce Brodeen, created a massive mail-order enterprise and power pop record label in the mid-’90s, releasing over 100 albums before shutting down the business in 2010.

Fans of Not Lame’s mail order catalogs were often informed that a new band sounded like some other touchstone power pop artist, from one-hit wonders like 20/20 to borderline cases like XTC, but one touchstone always seemed to be dead-on accurate: California pop sensations Jellyfish. They only released two albums in their five-year career but spawned numerous imitators and more archival releases than actual albums (a live record, an instrumental record, a long-out-of-print box set, and a pair of double-disc deluxe reissues), but they cast a very long shadow over the power pop genre. In a fitting tribute, Brodeen’s publishing offshoot of the catalog and label has published the first biography of the band, Craig Dorfman’s well-researched Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story.

Jellyfish rose to (moderate) popularity in the pre-Internet era, breaking up for good in 1994, and they cultivated an aura of mystery in the intervening years. The core of the band, drummer/singer Andy Sturmer and singer/keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., cycled through talented guitar players and bassists over the band’s five-year lifespan, and the book offers some explanation for this inconsistency in sidemen. Put simply, the two main songwriters and singers in the band were musical perfectionists and more comfortable in the studio, leaving some of their talented rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle co-workers out in the cold.

Jason Falkner, an extremely talented singer and guitar player, was repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to get one of his songs on the debut album, Bellybutton, and finally quit the band after being aggressively accused by Sturmer of trying to take control of the band (145-146). Sturmer’s cold glare at his bandmates was prominent enough to receive its own nickname (“the Andy Eyes”) and production engineer Jack Joseph Puig actually created signs that he could flash from the booth to make Sturmer aware of his dour expression. Manning also suffered from studio perfectionism, and neither of the core members seemed to ever fully embrace the lifestyle of touring that’s required for success in the music industry.

Personality conflicts aside, the band created two brilliant records: 1989’s Bellybutton and 1993’s Queen-influenced Spilt Milk. Dorfman’s access to the band members and producers allows him to paint a detailed picture of the incredible studio work required to make both of these touchstone power pop records. The tours that followed these records were grueling (particularly for Sturmer, who played the drums while standing and sang every song) and the band divided into factions before and after shows.

Anyone who has read a band biography can see the writing on the wall as they tour for Spilt Milk — a band divided against itself cannot stand. There’s a feeling of obligation and frustration from the core members as they try to sell an extraordinarily musically complex record to a nation in the grips of grunge, and the band fizzles to a halt in the spring of 1994, after Manning and Sturmer’s attempts to begin writing a third record fail to bear fruit. In a phone call to Sturmer, Manning says “I think we’re done” and receives “I’ve been thinking the same thing” as a reply. This was the last time the two founder members of the band have spoken to each other, although there was no bad blood between the two men. The band had run its course, and the bandmates simply let their friendship fade with the band (207-209).

Dorfman’s book is a nicely balanced telling of “a Jellyfish story”. He digs into the dirt where the dirt is necessary but also leaves the legacy of the band mostly untouched. All of the primary members are presented in conflicting but complementary lights: brilliant, driven, and talented on the one hand, but also selfish, overly-introspective, and obnoxiously perfectionist in others. The music speaks for itself.

Dorfman avoids trying to over-sell the band’s body of work because anyone who reads this book probably owns the records in multiple formats already. Instead, he gives the reader some insight into the conflicted relationship between two extremely talented songwriters and how their often fraught relationship created two of the most influential power pop records of all time. It’s a fitting postscript for Brodeen’s work as one of the main cheerleaders of the band, and the genre, that this book has a Not Lame Media logo attached to it.

RATING 6 / 10