For decades, the Bay Area has been fertile ground for musicians of all stripes, churning out artists at every level of stature and achievement. We all know about the likes of Metallica, Green Day, The Grateful Dead, Faith No More and Santana, but what of all the also-rans that made it up the first few rungs of the ladder only to disappear from public view? During the ‘80s and ‘90s heyday, there were loads of deserving Bay Area bands fortunate enough to score record deals, then quietly fade away for one reason or another.
One of the most deserving bands of the scene was the colorfully cool and inspired Jellyfish. Out of the ashes of indie band Beatnik Beach (who’d also scored that elusive record deal); the band centered on the songwriting team of keyboard player Roger Manning, and singing drummer Andy Sturmer. Drafting guitarist Jason Falkner of LA paisley-pop legends The Three O’clock and Manning’s little brother Chris on bass, the band was complete by the late ‘80s.
With the help of famed producer Albhy Galuten, the band got signed to Charisma Records, a subsidiary of Virgin Records and released its first album Bellybutton in 1990. With strong elements of baroque pop, power pop and bubblegum, the sound is embellished with lush harmonies and sweeping arrangements. Stylistically, it was an amalgamation of the Beatles and Queen with dashes of Redd Kross, Sweet, The Cars and Saturday morning cartoons. And surprisingly, a fair amount of the fickle record-buying public actually “got it.”
From start to finish, Bellybutton shines with numbers like the haunting, dramatic “The Man I Used to Be” and the sprite “The King Is Half-Undressed”—with its shimmering guitars and spidery verse. The solemn, Beatlesque “She Still Loves Him” is also a standout, along with the driving “All I Want is Everything.” The album would go on to be moderately successful and the band would tour with the Black Crowes and others to support it.
Three years later, Jellyfish would released its magnum opus Spilt Milk. A lot had changed over the ensuing years; Falkner and Chris Manning were gone, leaving Sturmer and Manning to fully maximize their vision for the album. Bigger sounding and slightly heavier than the debut, Spilt Milk cranks up its Queen influences on the sweeping glam anthem “Joining a Fan Club,” which benefits from thick cascading riffs and epic harmonies. “New Mistake” is mid-tempo melancholy with a pop-psych feel, while “Bye Bye Bye” has a bouncy Klezmer groove. The single “The Ghost at Number One” is a stunner with incessant harpsichord riffs, big overdriven guitars and hooks for days. With a slight Cheap Trick feel, the song’s middle breakdown goes deep into Beach Boys territory with a layered vocal interlude.
While critically acclaimed and widely lauded by the ‘Fish faithful, the success of Spilt Milk was not enough to overcome internal issues and changing trends, and thus, Jellyfish soon called it a day.
Now, as part of its comprehensive reissue campaign, the insightful Omnivore Records has recently reissued both of the band’s studio albums. Each comes remastered with loads of bonus material such as demos, live bits, cover songs and alternative versions, some only previously available on the now insanely rare Jellyfish box set. Each release is a fitting tribute to one of the truly great, lost Bay Area bands.
More recent reissues:
Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be
Highly revered in hard rock circles the world over, most associate Sweet with their heavy, idiosyncratic pop hits like “Ballroom Blitz” and “Fox on the Run.” Beyond that, we don’t often hear much about the band’s earlier output, the bubblegum stuff designed purposefully by its producers for pop radio. While not really seen by diehards as a true Sweet album, the aptly titled Funny How Sweet Co-Co Can Be is not without a few merits. Ultra-gummy singles “Funny Funny” and “Co-Co,” are well-crafted pop songs, even if the band had little to do with them. And even though the band was initially an instrument for scoring hits, you can hear the faint makings of what would later follow on future albums like Desolation Boulevard, which to this day is still one of the great ‘70s offerings. This reissue has loads of bonus tracks (17 total) that perk up the original album, making it a worthy addition to anyone’s Sweet collection. (Cherry Red)
New York Groove Plus
Unlike the above release, this current version of Sweet features just one original member, guitarist Andy Scott. That’s not entirely Andy’s fault as both vocalist Brian Connolly and drummer Mick Tucker have since departed for sweeter pastures. And as original bassist and wild man Steve Priest has his own version of the band with session players, it seems like this may be the closest we’re gonna get to a new Sweet recording anytime soon. But per that, do we actually need new Sweet material? I mean, with such classics already in the holster, could the band with just one core member still deliver the goods?
At this point, we’ll never know, as New York Groove Plus is strictly a covers album. With a clutch of cover versions ranging from vintage glam rock (“New York Groove”) to punk (“Blitzkrieg Bop”), new wave (“You Spin Me Round”) and even contemporary rock (“Gold On The Ceiling”), it’s a strange record indeed. But, Scott’s assembled a talented batch of players—and in true Sweet fashion—all with stellar vocal ranges, so the harmonies are in full effect, giving the source material a strange, carnival-like feel, but one that rocks nevertheless. While it will never truly be Sweet, New York Groove Plus is entertaining, and unlike anything else you’re likely to hear these days. (Angel Air)
Waysted was a bit of an oddball back in its day. The brainchild of bassist Pete Way of UFO fame, the band played a seedy concoction of bluesy rock mixed with sleazy arena anthems, years before it became fashionable again in the later ‘80s. With the whiskey-soaked vocals of front man Fin Muir and the dirty riffs of Way and company, the formula worked a charm on Vices, especially in the sleazy “Love Loaded” and the strange, slow burn of “Women In Chains.” This repress has the full 1983 album in crisp, remastered sound, plus some great alternative mixes. (Cherry Red)
Ready To Strike
King Kobra was an interesting lot. Some 30 years after the release of its debut Ready To Strike, there are two main things that stand out about the band. First, is the fact that it featured superstar drummer Carmine Appice. The second notable aspect is that its original vocalist Mark Free is now “Marcie,” having undergone full gender transformation a few years back. But aside from the band’s pedigree and its trailblazing ex-members, it actually rocked pretty hard for a decent part of its short tenure.
The band was assembled around Appice (who had previously played with proto-metal deviants Cactus and Vanilla Fudge) as he shopped demos to various labels of a nameless project featuring the platinum-haired Mark Free on vocals. After obtaining a record deal, Appice found three more bleach-blonde musicians from the LA scene to round out the lineup and fortify the band’s flashy image.
Image aside, the band’s 1985 debut Ready To Strike is a rousing, kick-ass pop-metal affair, rife with big hooks, chain-gang choruses and dual harmony guitars. Most of all, it has personality—something the hordes of cookie-cutter bands at the time lacked—which comes across in spades on numbers such as the infectious “Hunger” and the shuffling “Attention.” The band would go on to make one more album with this lineup, the rather limp Thrill of a Lifetime, before Appice and Free would go on to further conquests. This reissue comes remastered and packaged in a plush mini-LP sleeve that replicates the original vinyl release down to the inner sleeve, making it a cool collectible. (Culture Factory)
No Rest For The Wicked
While Canadian pop-metal merchants Helix had a couple of minor hits during the mid ‘80s by and large, they remain a footnote in the scene. But in spite of the band’s lack of indie cred, this album is pretty damn enjoyable. It starts out with some solid hooks in the form of opening number “Does A Fool Ever Learn”—one of the stronger pop metal anthems of the time. There are also a few good hard rockers in the form of the title track and “Never Want To Lose You.” The main low point is the Cro-Magnon-ish “Heavy Metal Love,” which ranks right up there with “I Can’t Drive 55” and “We Built This City” for corniness. Either way, this reissue comes fully remastered for optimal sound, and is packaged in one of Culture Factory’s svelte mini-LP sleeves. Also check out the label’s recent reissue of the band’s 1985 album Long Way to Heaven. (Culture Factory)
Alien Sex Fiend
Classic Albums and BBC Sessions Collection
For the uninitiated, Alien Sex Fiend is one of the more peculiar bands you’re likely to come across. Far too outlandish for mainstream and too unhinged to appeal to the standard gothic set, the band released several strange, industrial-tinged albums laden with effects, samples and the manic vocals of leader Nik Fiend. Truly an original, the UK band was years ahead of its time, churning out quite a racket in what was then referred to as the Deathrock scene. This posh little set contains four of the band’s studio offerings, including one of its best Who’s Been Sleeping In My Brain, plus loads of bonus tracks—all in a convenient clamshell case. (Cherry Red)
It’s funny how things have changed. At various points in time, progressive rock has been considered akin to polka music in its un-hipness, especially at the outbreak of punk in the mid ‘70s. But now, prog has taken on a whole new life and level of respect as contemporary bands such as Mars Volta, Muse, Coheed and Cambria and Opeth have embraced and incorporated some of its elements into the mix. It’s not at all uncommon to see reviews of prog bands alongside those of metal, alternative and even punk bands in today’s music media. Enter Steve Howe.
As one of the masterminds of prog pioneers Yes, Howe created a style of playing that incorporated elements of jazz, classical and rock, raising the musical bar in the process and forever infuriating early punk purists. Anthology collects key tracks from his entire solo career including many remastered versions like the haunting and strange “Lost Symphony.” While this collection will not make fans out those predisposed to hating prog, it’s a must for anyone looking to explore the genre’s roots a little further. (Rhino)
Uli Jon Roth
Fans of shredding guitars need look no further than Uli Jon Roth. Predating the likes of Eddie Van Halen, Randy Rhoads and Yngwie Malmsteen by years, the German axe man’s work as a member of the Scorpions is beyond compare, especially on numbers like “Catch Your Train” and “Pictured Life,” where his blazing, melodic solos take center stage.
Now after nearly 40 years since leaving the band, Scorpions Revisited features re-imagined versions of some of his Scorpions classics. While nothing beats the originals, the sonic quality is stellar, as is Roth’s playing, which stays pretty close to the early versions, barring an extra lick here and there. While the vocals are clearer than Klaus Meine’s and you can actually understand the lyrics, they just don’t sound the same without the screechy Scorps vocalist in tow. But, this release is all about Uli’s licks, of which there are plenty. (UDR)
During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Ray Kennedy was one of the guys behind the guys. An accomplished songwriter and producer, Kennedy (RIP) wrote songs for and worked with several bands like proto-metal heads Beck Bogert & Appice to power pop legends The Babys and more. In 1980 he released this, his second solo album, which is a hodge-podge of new wave pop and mainstream rock. Kennedy’s burly voice and presence adds a little punch to the slick pop numbers, especially on “Isn’t It Time,” which had previously been a hit for The Babys. Out of print for eons, this reissue comes with a booklet and several bonus tracks. (Real Gone)
For questions, comments or something you’d like to see, drop me a note at Retrohead77@gmail.com. —JK