Celebrating 30 years of Material Issue’s power pop masterpiece
February 5, 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the release of International Pop Overthrow, one of the quintessential albums in the power pop genre.
Its auteurs are Material Issue, a band whose history includes a three-record deal with Mercury Records, airplay on MTV, several sold out shows, and a triumphant “reunion” in 2011. Material Issue was formed in Chicago in 1985 by two Columbia college friends: singer/songwriter/guitarist Jim Ellison and bassist Ted Ansani. They were soon joined by Mike Zelenko, who had placed an ad in Illinois Entertainer as a “drummer looking for band.” MI was named after a form that Ellison used (and despised) at his day job. In 1987, they self-released an EP titled Sixteen Tambourines, which got a good buzz around Chicago. This was followed by the single “Renee Remains the Same”, which received lots of local radio play and led to several gigs. Over the next few years, they recorded the songs that would make up International Pop Overthrow, which included the tune that would propel the band to national recognition, “Valerie Loves Me.”
VIDEO: Material Issue “Valerie Loves Me”
“’Valerie’ was a song that Jim wrote around 1990,” Zelenko tells Rock & Roll Globe. “We had recorded it at Short Order Studios with Jeff Murphy (of Shoes) some time in early 1990. Our plan was to release International Pop Overthrow either on our own or shop it to whomever. It was the song ‘Renee Remains the Same’ that was getting airplay on WXRT. As a result, our shows were getting sold out and a buzz over the band was created. It was at this time where managers and agents were approaching us, which led to our deal at Mercury Records.” That deal would be for three albums, which was quite unusual at the time for a “baby band.”
Material Issue had worked quite hard to get where they were. “We financed 75 percent of International Pop Overthrow on our own,” explains Zelenko. “When we signed with Mercury, they agreed to release what we had in the can with what became the remaining tracks recorded after the deal.” One of the first things one notices about “IPO” is that the first three songs on the album contain girls’ names in the titles, reflecting Jim Ellison’s fascination with females…but one thing every song has in common is the strong hooks that are the foundation of power pop. It didn’t take long for the public to notice, and the album wound up selling 300,000 copies, a rather impressive amount. The tours were fast and furious, as was Jim Ellison’s stage persona.
“That kind of came out of nowhere”, remembers Zelenko. “Up until we started drawing bigger crowds, Jim was pretty much standing by his mic, and no snarls and stuff. I guess he saw that the extra performance got results. It was just that. Performance. Jim was a rock ‘n roller at heart. Always had an attitude. That’s a good thing”. Indeed it was.
Two excellent albums followed International Pop Overthrow: the equally hooky and slightly more polished Destination Universe, and Freak City Soundtrack, which featured another tune that received air and video play, “Kim The Waitress” (written by the Green Pajamas’ main-main, Jeff Kelly). Unfortunately, commensurate sales didn’t happen, and Mercury dropped Material Issue. Undaunted, the band continued to tour and write songs, but Jim Ellison was plagued by severe personal problems, and on June 20, 1996, he took his own life. The band would not be forgotten, neither by the general public nor this author, who started the International Pop Overthrow music festival in 1998, naming it in honor of Material Issue and Jim Ellison.
In February of 2011, the International Pop Overthrow album celebrated its 20th anniversary, and with that, Universal Records, which had Mercury under its auspices, reissued of the album, including several bonus tracks. Not bad for an album which wasn’t a huge seller! Both Mike Zelenko and Ted Ansani were thrilled and decided to tour to support the reissue. The only “issue” was who to take Jim Ellison’s part as lead vocalist and guitar player, but in the end the choice was clear: local revered singer/songwriter Phil Angotti.
“Phil was the perfect guy for the job,”says Zelenko. “He was friends with Jim and his style works for what we wanted to do.”
When yours truly heard about the plans to tour, I thought it appropriate that their first show be held at the International Pop Overthrow festival in Chicago, which would be held in April. I approached the band with my invitation, and happily they accepted. The show took place on April 23, 2011, at the iconic Chicago venue, The Abbey. Zelenko had been concerned that “nobody would show up,” but the show sold out, and everyone who attended got even more than they’d hoped for: the band was as tight as ever, and it was as if the spirit of Jim Ellison had been imbued in Angotti. The band played the entire International Pop Overthrow album, and it was note-perfect.
VIDEO: Material Issue at IPO 2011
Ten years on, the memory of Material Issue remains strong, buoyed by the upcoming documentary, Out Of Time: The Material Issue Story. So, with the 30th Anniversary of that classic album upon us, let’s celebrate by “riding around with the radio up and the windows down.”
Even if it’s really cold where you are, we all could use a bit of that!