Inside the album that helped usher L.A. rock into the 1990s
If you polled music lovers in the know about the greatest power/psychedelic pop-rock artists of the last several decades, chances are they’d put the tragically short-lived Jellyfish at the top of their list.
Formed in San Francisco, CA in 1989 by vocalists and multi-instrumentalists Jason Falkner, Andy Sturmer and Roger Joseph Manning, Jr.—following their departures from Beatnik Beatch and/or the Three O’Clock—their infectiously colorful, jubilant, and robust music led to them being thought of as a fresh culmination of 1960s British Invasion and 1970s classic rock (as well as individual acts like XTC, David Bowie, and Todd Rundgren).
Although they’d only released two albums—1990’s Bellybutton and 1993’s Split Milk—before disbanding in 1994 (due to internal conflicts and poor record sales), Jellyfish cemented their place in the hearts and minds of fans. In fact, both records are still regarded amongst the best that the genre ever produced, and for good reason. In particular, Bellybutton—which just turned 30 in August—remains wonderfully carefree, memorable and stylishly vivacious, with a purposefully whimsical and vintage aesthetic that makes it timeless and influential.
Like many great creative duos (namely, Lennon & McCartney), Sturmer and Manning almost always shared songwriting credits and approached Jellyfish like a partnership. Speaking to Modern Drummer in 1993, Sturmer expounded: “I write all the lyrics, but we write the music together. The way Roger and I write is that we embellish each other’s ideas. . . . We grew up together and had a lot of the same records in our collection, so we don’t have to explain our offbeat ideas to each other.” Meanwhile, Falkner saw their advertisement for “like-minded musicians” and was officially brought onboard by Manning (with the unfulfilled promise of having a stronger role as a songwriter). From there, they set out to create Bellybutton, using the skills of guest bassists John Patitucci and Steven Shane McDonald on different songs. (Tommy Morgan also provided harmonica.)
Between September 1989 and March 1990, they recorded in Schnee Studios, Ocean Way Recording, and Studio 55, with Albhy Galuten (Bee Gees, Eric Clapton, Barbra Streisand) and Jack Joseph Puig (Amy Grant, Kenny Loggins, Smokey Robinson) as producers. Not wanting to waste money or effort, they completed demos prior to entering the studio, freeing themselves up to use the extra time to try new things and see where they went. (Nevertheless, Falkner and Sturmer didn’t always get along, so the sessions didn’t always go smoothly.) During that time, they were unhappily still signed to Atlantic Records (who’d signed Beatnik Beatch beforehand and agreed to take on Jellyfish following the aforementioned split). So, they looked for a new home, eventually settling on English label Charisma whose prior roster, such as The Nice, the Bonzo Dog Band, Genesis and Hawkwind, made them a good fit.
Despite knowingly going against the grain—1990 was mostly fixated on hair metal, glittery pop, and grunge, after all—Bellybutton did surprisingly well critically and decently, if disappointingly, commercially. It peaked at #124 on the Billboard 200 (outdoing its successor by several dozen spots), and publications such as The Slate and Q showered it with praise amid favorably comparisons to 10cc, Crowded House, and World Party. Its few singles received respectable radio airplay, and MTV were integral to promoting the “Baby’s Coming Back” and “The King is Half-Undressed” music videos. (The latter was even nominated for Best Art Direction at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards.)
Speaking of World Party, Jellyfish ended up touring with them and the Black Crowes for about a year immediately after Bellybutton came out, with Roger’s younger brother, Chris, recruited as touring bassist. As reported by Craig Dorfman in 2016’s Brighter Day: A Jellyfish Story, they doubled down on their vibrantly zany look on stage by incorporating a towering standee of Gavin MacLeod, a Lite-Brite, a bubble machine, and a white picket fence. Although they accrued a sizeable cult following as a result, Falkner still decided to leave upon their return, citing frustration at Manning and Sturmer easily dismissing his songwriting ideas and—in keeping with the Beatles analogy—treating him like the George Harrison of the group (my words, not his). Thus, the duo spent the next few years working with other artists (Ringo Starr, William Shatner, and Tears for Fears’ Curt Smith) as they focused on new material and landing a new line-up for the worthwhile follow-up, Split Milk. (That’s a tale for another time, though.)
Today, Bellybutton is still a joy from beginning to end, with its forty-minute runtime adding to its old-fashioned charm. Case in point: opener “The Man I Used to Be,” which begins with stately keys before transforming into a downtrodden, almost noirsh ode in waltz time. It’s an urgent, glorious, and emotional way to start, leading into the equally dejected—but livelier—“That is Why.” Afterward, “The King is Half-Undressed” and “Baby’s Coming Back” are pure 1960s psychedelic paradise: catchy, hopeful, and densely intricate yet accessible, with blissful harmonies, timbres, and imagery throughout. Elsewhere, the twangy “I Wanna Stay Home” is lusciously contemplative; “She Still Loves Him” comes across like a flowery lost King’s X gem; “All I Want Is Everything” is raucous but encouraging; and—at the sake of yet another reference—“Now She Knows She’s Wrong” is like Sgt. Pepper era Beatles mixed with Crime of the Century era Supertramp. “Bedspring Kiss” is a patient slice of symphonic and tropical Middle Eastern tranquility, while “Calling Sarah” is a comparably direct yet dreamy folk rock closer. The whole thing drips with textural imagination and melodic comfort, so it’s nearly impossible not to fall in love with it.
To that end, fans have been understandably clamoring for some sort of reunion ever since the group disbanded; thankfully, the past few years have brought bits and pieces of such wish fulfillment. Of course, there’s the satisfactorily expanded 2015 reissue of Bellybutton. More recently, though, Manning and Split Milk players Tim Smith and Eric Dover—bass/vocals and guitar, respectively—formed The Lickerish Quartet (whose debut EP, Threesome Vol. 1, was unanimously adored). Plus, drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, Neal Morse Band) filmed an affectionate at-home cover of “I Wanna Stay Home” with Manning, Falkner, and his daughter (Melody) for The Prog Report’s May 9th, 2020 “Prog from Home” concert. A longtime fan of Jellyfish, Portnoy was overjoyed at the chance to work with them and keep the music alive.
Taking a look back at how remarkable and resonant Bellybutton still is, It’s no wonder why he and so many other admirers ceaselessly adore it.