photo courtesy of Ted Ansani
Playing Through The PainThe story of Jim Ellison and Material Issue, to me, is about happy tears. It makes me glad to be alive, glad to enjoy the vitality of life's most beautiful ugly things. It makes me glad to enjoy Material Issue's wonderful catalog of beautifully flawed power pop/rock n' roll gems. And if you're not familiar with the story, fear not--most people aren't. I sure wasn't until about 2002 or so, when the impact of the events that unfolded was lost on me, as I had literally heard nothing about such events. So I will not and cannot state that I was there when it happened, rather that the music and events affect me more now simply because I was too late, and wasn't there.
by Ryan Settee
My first experience with hearing about Material Issue was in 1994, after reading a review of their third albumFreak City Soundtrack. (which came out that year) I think it was for a now-defunct Canadian magazine, Meat. Anyway, the reviewer gave it a 5 out of 5 review, and claimed that it was "so fired up it left everyone in Chicago eating dust" (an obvious dig at more well known Chi-Town bands like Smashing Pumpkins). The reviewer also said something along the lines of: "the music is in the feel of Redd Kross, but different", and they went on to say that the energy on this record was one of the reasons why it absolutely knocked them down. Any time anyone gives something a 5 out of 5--especially jaded reviewers for magazines who are inundated with records from artists and bands that they could not care less about--I keep track of that.
Fast forward to about late 1995, where I finally wanted to special order this album, as it was one that I definitely wanted to check out. It was deleted, out of print. Couldn't order it even when I wanted to. The record company, Polygram/Mercury, no longer had it available, as it was obviously not making money. Let me reiterate how obscure and buried this record was: even in my alternative/grunge/alternative pop worship, I literally saw no videos for this record. I heard no songs, even on specialty programs, for this. It wasn't on MuchMusic's "The Wedge," in which I'd make mixtapes of videos, but with the audio dubbed to cassette. I watched that stuff royally. And I'm the guy that can remember Carter USM, Possum Dixon, Dig, Course of Empire, Flop, Whale, Hum, Hardship Post, Seaweed, the Auteurs and literally about ten million of these other bands that were signed in that whole late 80's indie/alt movement that was gonna get big, or the early '90's movement that also never made it "big."
But there was a huge difference between those bands and Material Issue: they at least got their material or videos played once or twice or (in some cases) a few times. And Material Issue were nowhere to be found. No special inclusions on important soundtracks, like The Crow, Judgment Night, or even soundtracks that were renowned for having better music than movie quality (Last Action Hero). No appearances (or public battles) with Courtney Love, no SubPop ties, no Matador links, no real way to be indie critics' darlings, as MI had already been long been launched into the stratosphere of "sell out" claims from their original underground and grassroots supporters. No videos were even shown for me to even make a crappy dub off of a VHS copy of these videos. When I say zero, I mean zero. Never shown. Never played. So when I say three-chord pop rock n' roll was an anomaly then, it was an anomaly. It just had no market, no context, no vaguely implosive qualities that could even be remotely considered grunge or whatever.
According to the liner notes of Telecommando Americano (Rykodisc, 1997), the bandís first major label album (as well as their fifth and last album), International Pop Overthrow (their 1991 debut), did break the Billboard Top 200. But it's not like they had anything resembling a top ten hit or anything like that--you know, something that could at least be heard by a young, impressionable listener's ears.
When I eventually bought Freak City Soundtrack, it was everything that the 5-star review said it was... and more. The songs were fast and catchy as hell, like some sort of Husker Du/ Redd Kross MEGA-amped powerpop, but the thing is (and this leans more towards the Redd Kross style of arena pop n' roll), these were rock n' roll songs. Songs about girls, cars, Sweet records, "turning the eight-track up way too loud," going to the beach, Evil Knievel, love, hate and everything in the middle. Everything that rock n' roll should be about. The band looked cool, too--leather jackets, mod haircuts, and singer/guitarist/band-leader Jim Ellison even sporting an American flag T-shirt in the liner notes.
The real solidifier is that the production on this record is amazing--electrifying, loud, and in your face. Mike Chapman (the old Suzi Quatro/Sweet/Blondie/Pat Benetar hitmaker) worked on it and mixed everything up front. Distorted electric fuzz guitars in the red? Check. Can you hear every last tom hit, every snare hit, every crack of Mike Zelenko's drumming? Damn right. Ted Ansani's bass? Way up in the mix. Jim's vocals? A bit buried, but still bizarrely like a knife through it, as his high vocals slice through everything. This was an extremely edgy mix for something that was aimed for radio. And last but not least, guitar solos courtesy of Cheap Trick's Rick Nielsen and Guns n' Roses' Gilbey Clarke? Like I say, man, this is a rock n' roll album. And the cocky quote, "Material Issue uses Gibson Guitars and basses because only the best will do," rounds out the liner notes. How KISS of them...
It starts off with "Goin' Through Your Purse" (which seems like an update on Tom Petty's "American Girl," especially with the clever use of a B minor chord at just the right time), starts out with a "Ballroom Blitz" like drum beat from Zelenko. There's high octane rockers ("Eko Beach," "She's Goin' Through My Head," opening track "Goin' Through Your Purse," "Help Me Land" and the vaguely AC/DC-ish "One Simple Word"), pop songs (the whimsical "Funny Feeling", with it's wacky slide guitar and string sections), and beautiful, jangly pop balladry "(I Could Use You"), with a sitar and twelve-string guitar here and there. If this album has one flaw over their other albums, it's that a bit of the storytelling and lyrics have taken a back seat to sheer energy and power. But everything is as catchy as it should be, and the songs themselves have been abbreviated to concise and short blasts of three chord wonders (sometimes MI's previous songs could seem long, even at 3 minutes) And keeping the simplicity in check: there's one-note Johnny Thunders-esque guitar solos in "One Simple Word" and "Help Me Land."
Sample lyric from "Goin' Through Your Purse":
"Your makeup, your compact, lipstick and shit like that
And the keys that you keep on a chain
Your cigarettes and my lighter too, and a picture of your sister
God, I think you're one of the same..."
Looking on the surface, everything seemed to be pointing towards megastardom for the band, with nothing but promising things. And then I did some more research.
June 21st, 1996: Jim Ellison was found dead in his garage, from carbon monoxide poisoning. He committed suicide. The phrase "found dead, slumped over a moped, due to carbon monoxide poisoning" has a profoundly huge effect on me and still makes me sad, namely because he sang so happily and fervently about cars, motorbikes, girls and "turning the radio up loud" (the "loud rock n' roll radio as therapy" thing especially was a frequent theme in his songs). So I guess it was just metaphorical that what was bringing him up suddenly was bringing him down and that it could no longer save him. And apparently none of his friends knew.
Like many people, I want to know why he did it. Reports have it that his girlfriend dumped him on his birthday, and he was dropped from his major label deal with Mercury/Polygram. Without having access to the note that he left behind, my own personal slant (and belief) is that Jim felt that his big shot at rock stardom had come and gone. Unlike another other pop culture hero who met a similar fate (and whom I still respect), Jim wanted to be a rock star. Mercury/Polygram dropped Material Issue for not selling enough records, even though they had no promotion, and that's pretty hypocritical, if you ask me. Jim and MI, thereafter relegated to recording their next album in a friend's garage, conceived the sadly weak "Telecommando Americano", which was released after Jim's death. On that album, it sounds as though the vigor is gone--although it has many good songs, such as "2 Steps," "What If I Killed Your Boyfriend?" and the country-ish "Carousel." That spark, that zest for life, that velocity--that freewheeling "carefree without being careless" theme (like in lyrics such as "...he's buying me a brand new leather jacket, man....I don't remember what it was like to care") that was on Freak City Soundtrack is sadly gone on this record--partly due to the anemic production, but also due to the songs and performances themselves.
The last two songs on MI's last record (which were unfinished demos at the time of Jim's passing) make a very strong reference to his mindset. Take "Off The Hook", a barbed rant about what appears to be the whole record label deal:
"Hey tell me man, do you remember the bass player's name
Blond hair and blue eyes, they tell us we all look the same
But maybe you should'a taken a second look
Just to see if you let me off the hook"
Even more haunting is, the last song on the last MI record ever entitled "0:15" (and I never put two and two together with this until I sat down and wrote this and did more research). Fifteen seconds of intended silence. Not since the Melvins' "Prick" ("Pure Digital Silence"), have I heard any band thave a song on an album that's just pure silence. I'm sure that this was a hint that Jim was leaving for us. But does it mean that he felt his fifteen minutes were up, or that it rather felt like a mere 15 seconds, due to record label fumbling?
It was as if Polygram/Mercury built Jim and MI up, and then tore them down. I'm baffled as to why they'd finance such an obviously expensive budget record--with such big budget names-- and then not follow it up with the proper push for the album and singles. I want to make it perfectly clear: I'm not saying or trying to infer that Jim was a pouting rock star or anything. It's more like rock n' roll was his lifeblood, his sole mission in life, and when he felt he had to settle for anything but the best, then it seemed like it was too difficult to overcome. To the suits at Polygram/ Mercury, he was just some guy; some nobody. Some nobody that was losing their label--their business--money. And in fairness to them, I can see that if a record--or band--isn't making money, then it is after all, just business. But in Jim's case, this was his career, his life, something that he set out to do ever since he windmilled his first air guitar when he was a young kid. I can identify with that. And it was seemingly over; a monumental task of coming back from being told that your best effort ain't good enough, that you're just a number on a sheet; a tax write-off, a liability.
Even after his death, I won't deify him as being perfect, or state that he was the most gifted songwriter that ever lived. His songwriting skills were often primitive and often more rudimentary than they should have been, and he did have many three minute songs that often seemed dispensable in large doses. But he did have tons of moments of pure pop brilliance, as songs like "Renee Remains The Same," "Goin' Through Your Purse," "What Girls Want" and "Whole Lotta You" show. And the thing about their primitiveness and simplicity is that they never defied their indie, DIY punk rock roots (MI's first EP was released on Jim's own record label, Big Block Records, which was run out of his parents' basement). They were all simple three- or four-chord songs done in three to four minutes, with Chuck Berry-styled leads. Nothing was extraneously showy or there because it didn't need to be; it sounded like pop rock being played by punkers--even with their first EP, it had the jangle of early REM to be sure, but was also more abrasive and more primitive. The guitars are occasionally out of tune on the records; Jim's voice cracks in boyish earnestness when he strives to hit the highs in some of MI's songs, so there's a "rough around the edges" feel to it. Plus, the insistence on the "power trio" format, keeping everything to a minimum, only reinforces the theory that "less is more" in Material Issue land.
As a result, that's the first reason as to why they possibly never broke out in a huge way: the average radio listener expects Eagles-styled pretentiousness and bombast, or something like Rush, where you have to be overly qualified just to even think about playing an instrument. Or if you're not slick top 40 R&B, you're not gonna break out on the charts in any big way. The second reason is that the Issue was probably too rough around the edges in their delivery and skills to be fully embraced by the growing indie/college/jangle pop scene in the late '80's (Posies, Primal Scream in their first incarnation, R.E.M., Gigolo Aunts), where even thinking about wanting to be a rock star was unheard of. The third reason was that they were probably too "light" for the indie rockers who preferred the more molten, in-your-face pop via punk injection that Husker Du or the reckless pop rock n' roll surliness that the Replacements did so well. And the fourth reason is that the three-minute pop song has long been an on-and-off outcast in the rock world, so that likely never helped the Issue's cause.
But where Jim really excelled was with lyrics and relating to the average person's insecurities, needs, and wants. He wanted us to have fun, and everyone was a part of the Material Issue experience. He was also the consummate frontman, as the shouts out to the crowd-- "Are you ready?? Are you ready???"-- on MI's live recording, 1994's Goin' Through Your Purse, displays. Something that I've also never heard anyone give Jim credit for was how he alternated from a first person to a third person's view, often in the same song, such as in "What Girls Want," going from a male's perspective in the verses, to a female's perspective in the chorus ("I want a man with lips just like Mick Jagger... Rod Stewart's hair and Keith Richards' stagger"). So he fully understood the whole perspective of the love experience, telling us about it like someone who observes people well.
As a result, deciphering his lyrics in hindsight makes it hard to understand whether the people that he sang about were himself disguised in third-person storytelling mode, or whether he simply became a character that he once wrote about. I'd love to ignore the lyrics and messages and just listen to the music in a pure way, but it's impossible to not listen to what Jim is singing about and wonder.
"Ballad of a Lonely Man":
"He said 'I've got a job to do
You got a a tale to tell
Make sure it's a headline
Tell 'em that you knew me well"
Even though it's sung from a third person's point of view, as if Jim's relating a story to us of someone that he knows, is that person he knows himself? It's difficult to ascertain. It clearly foreshadows everything, yet I have a hard time believing that, rather indicating instead that he truly did become one of the characters that he related to us about.
Not since lyricists (and note that I say "lyricists") like Neil Young and Bob Dylan have I heard someone pen lyrics that were so gut level, so real, so beautifully able to tell a complex and interesting story. While I'd never put Jim in the same category as those two legendary songwriters/ lyricists--as his style is much more crude, simplistic and possibly cliched--I'd also put him in his own category of being able to relate to the average person much more than other lyricists. As a matter of fact, I don't know if anyone's done the "love story, laid bare out for all to see, frayed nerves and all the neurotic silly love things" better than Jim. After all, we're all looking for the same things: to be accepted, loved and appreciated, no matter what. Those tenets differ for different people in certain capacities, but they remain the same at their core. Different lyrics pop out to me at different times. His stories are often written from opposite confident/unconfident views, as he is after all, just like us and experienced rejection, even though he has a cool band and the coolest mod bowl cut.
Even though Jim is gone, his music is a big part of my life, as well as to the few, but appreciative Issue fans out there that still remain--as well as the undoubtedly few but amazed converts there will be in the future. While he left us too early, he left behind enough material to give us a taste of what he was capable of, in all it's perfectly flawed, humanistic simplicity. The bandís first record, International Pop Overthrow (1991) is a great album. Their follow up, Destination Universe (1992) is pretty good. And their last album, Telecommando Americano is all right. But Freak City Soundtrack is off the charts, a power pop/rock n' roll punk flavored modern-era classic that nearly no one heard, and you owe yourself to seek it out and crank it royally. And here's to that.
- Of note, Polygram/Mercury seems to have righted a bit of the wrong, releasing a 20th Century Masters--The Millennium Collection: The Best of Material Issue compilation this year in 2006. The proper compilation/ "best of" was part of the reason why I felt the need to resurrect some of the painful memories of the band's legacy, as well as to shed some light on the history of this sadly underrated band, that is/was otherwise destined to be a short footnote in the history of music.
Also see the website for the Ted Ansani Project
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