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Jellyfish: Bellybutton - Album Of The Week Club review

Honeyed harmonies, subversively witty lyrics and superb musicianship? It can only be Jellyfish's Bellybutton

Jellyfish: Bellybutton
(Image: © UMC)
Jellyfish: Bellybutton

(Image credit: UMC)

The Man I Used to Be
That Is Why
The King Is Half-Undressed
I Wanna Stay Home
She Still Loves Him
All I Want Is Everything
Now She Knows She's Wrong
Bedspring Kiss
Baby's Coming Back
Calling Sarah

Jellyfish, the greatest unsung British band of the 1970s, actually emerged from the San Francisco suburbs in the late 1980s. 

During their all-too-fleeting five-year existence, these gaudily dressed dandies  released a pair of albums that channelled the vaulting progressive ambition of Anglocentric visionaries such as ELO, The Beatles, Queen and 10cc into a series of pocket masterpieces that either arrived a decade-and-a-half too late or were so far ahead of their time that they’re still waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.

Debut album Bellybutton was a seamlessly constructed statement of intent: 10 vibrant songs stuffed full of wit and invention, and further elevated by the assured touch of veteran producer Albhy Galuten, who had recorded the Bee Gees’ Saturday Night Fever.

Contributing bass guitar to the album was Redd Kross's Steve McDonald, lured in by the promise of an album that was meant to sound “somewhere between Queen and the Partridge Family”.

“I was blown away, because they actually achieved what he said they were setting out to do,” said McDonald. “I didn’t know of anyone that could do that– and I’d been trying for many years."

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in July 1990

  • Armchair Theatre - Jeff Lynne
  • Smooth Noodle Maps - Devo
  • The Hard Way - Steve Earle
  • Lights...Camera...Revolution! - Suicidal Tendencies
  • Seven Turns - The Allman Brothers Band
  • Spirits Dancing in the Flesh - Santana
  • 10 Brick by Brick - Iggy Pop
  • Flesh and Blood - Poison
  • Naked Thunder - Ian Gillan
  • Tales from the Twilight World - Blind Guardian
  • Apple - Mother Love Bone
  • Cowboys from Hell - Pantera
  • Goodnight L.A. - Magnum
  • In the Heart of the Young - Winger
  • Un-Led-Ed - Dread Zeppelin

What they said...

"Even the more subdued tunes on Bellybutton have a charming swagger and the playful confidence that reveals a rock star in training, and if Jellyfish often sounded like they were projecting to the last row in the upper deck on Bellybutton, they also sounded like they had the talent and the savvy to actually fill an arena with this stuff in a better world." (AllMusic)

"Though often noted as Beatlesque, the San Fran quartet takes its inspiration from a different generations of pop greats, from Harry Nilsson to Squeeze, from the Zombies to ELO, from Emitt Rhodes to Prefab Sprout – the band was more likely to listen to artists inspired by the Fab Four, rather than the Beatles themselves." (Blurt Magazine

"While the first Jellyfish album's eye-popping cover art and the band's absurdly whimsical wardrobe pushed the Summer of Love style, there's nothing remotely psychedelic about the music contained within. The disparity was unfortunate, because Bellybutton is a fine debut, a pleasant—occasionally wonderful pastiche of pop icons from the Beatles to Squeeze via 10cc, the Beach Boys and Badfinger." (Trouser Press)

What you said...

Chris McGlyn: Now this is my territory. When this album came out I was working for Virgin - Our Price and as a new signing to Virgin, Jellyfish were being pushed by the label and ended up being the band that played at the Christmas Party! Or was it Managers meeting? One or the other!

Bellybutton is like the best of 60s and particularly 70s pop and rock moulded into one and viewed through a kaleidoscope! Every melody and harmony that The Beatles, Queen, ELO and more ever wrote are in the mix here, and all moulded into shape by the genius of Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning Jnr, in particular, with utter style.

I had the pleasure of seeing one of their first (real) UK gigs at the Hop and Grape in Manchester Uni with this lineup (saw the Spilt Milk lineup later too) and the star quality from the stage was clear to see. An awesome live act.

The label pushed hard, but the band struggled to get the airplay they deserved, sadly. The King Is Half Undressed, The Man I used To Be, Baby's Coming Back... all pop-rock genius.

I remember a review at the time said something like, Jellyfish may not be metal or even a rock band, but as a metal or rock fan, you should still listen to them.

Many of us still do.

Kurt Torster: This band and album changed everything I thought I knew about music. Maybe the most personally influential album of my lifetime.

Mike Fildes: An absolute peach of an album, as was their second, a band that defies categorisation, existing solely in a world of their own creation.

OK, so there are touches of Beatles, Big Star, Supertramp, and others but more than anything they are just Jellyfish, there is nobody else like them, step inside their world, jump down the rabbit hole, it's a unique and joyous trip.

Jonathan Novajosky: This was the first time I had ever heard of Jellyfish, and I found Bellybutton to be straightforward, enjoyable, and very accessible. I would expect anyone (a fan of rock music or not) to find at least a few songs in here that suits their taste. That Is Why, I Wanna Stay Home, and Baby's Coming Back were my favourites. It's very melodic (something that always scores points with me) and doesn't take itself too seriously. Bellybutton didn't blow me away by any means, but there wasn't a song that I disliked. I'm sure I'll like it even more on subsequent listens. 7/10

Mark Tucker: An absolute work of art. Truly memorable songs with wonderful musicianship and outstanding lyrics. Clearly influenced by The Beatles and ELO among others, it put a contemporary spin on writing good songs that are not dominated by guitar solos and the wailing of out of tune wanna be singers. Pure joy!

Iain Macaulay: All I hear in this album are ideas from lots of bands I don’t necessarily like, but also don’t really dislike. Let’s say, bands I appreciate for their art rather than being a fan of their output. Bands such as Crowded House, XTC, The Beatles. Not that’s it’s a bad thing per se, for a band to sound like it’s influences. All those bands were blessed with phenomenal inventive songwriters. Song writers that were very original. Song writers that wrote very clever songs. 

The songs on this album have very obviously been put together with a lot of thought, effort and time. But blatantly updated, old-fashioned music that’s overly melodic doesn’t do it for me. Even if there is a very British story telling lyric style running through it that reminds me of Ray Davies. For a West Coast sunshine band there is a hell of a lot of the U.K. kitchen sink-style social commentary running through their songs.

I remember this album coming out, and I let it slip by. Too pop for me. The same as now. It’s just not my thing. it’s well put together and the production is fantastic but that’s about it. There’s nothing to make me press play a second time, I’m afraid.

However, not to put a compete damper on the whole situation, I let Spotify keep playing after the last track finished and it went straight into Spilt Milk, which has a lot more ‘piss and spite’ about it that did appeal. Particularly in the guitar stakes. Much darker and nastier than its predecessor. And quite a bit more memorable. Really enjoyed it. Makes you wonder what could have been. So, not all was lost.

John Davidson: This passed me by on release, and while I had heard of Jellyfish I had no recollection of their sound. They are, as others have said, their own band and don't fit within easy genre boundaries Clever, melodic guitar pop is as close as I can muster.

Musically it's relentlessly upbeat and 'sunny' as befits a west coast band, but the lyrics veer from Beach Boys to Squeeze, by way of XTC, Crowded House, Prefab Sprout and Cheap Trick along the way, though the band they most remind me of is 10cc (clever guys playing poppy songs).

Given they arrived in 1990 somewhere between the death throes of hair metal and the triumph of grunge it's not surprising that they didn't take off. Sometimes quality songwriting isn't enough and you have to hit the tone of the times.

If they'd started out two or three years later and 3000 miles east they'd probably have done well as part of the BritPop scene - like a gentler The Wonder Stuff or Blur.

I suspect I'll listen to this again, but it will never become a favourite album. 6/10.

Mike Knoop: I dated a girl who loved this album when it came out. I mostly remember how emphatically it did not rock. Bellybutton still does not rock, but I hear something new with each listen, like the mournful horns (uncredited? Synthesised?) on I Wanna Stay Home, a harmonica solo worthy of an 80s Stevie Wonder record on The Man I Used to Be, the step-harmonies on Calling Sarah, or the fantastic noise orgy that ends All I Want Is Everything

I was all about the deafening guitar squall of the budding alternative nation when this came out in 1990, but now find it well-crafted artisanal pop for discerning adults. I don't know if Bellybutton will go into my regular rotation, but it was obviously worth a re-visit.

Mauricio Telles: The first time I've heard them was with Spilt Milk, around 20 years after its release, and it got me at first listen. Such great mood, great harmonics, variety of instruments, awesome pop rock for a happy day, beach trip, etc.

It was a mix of The Beatles, Supertramp and some other stuff, but putting into  perspective the fact that they recorded back in the early nineties it was a great achievement, because all the recording companies were looking for grunge bands, that's why I think they did not get all attention or sales they deserved.

Bellybutton does not borrow from Supertramp as much as as Spilt Milk, but it is an amalgam of stuff created and successfully tested before, so no credit for originality here. Anyway I still love to hear them, and I don't mind the 'inspiration'. And I love Andy Sturmer's voice.

Score 6.5/10 for the lack of originality and because it's not my favourite kind of rock.

Brian Carr: As I headed out for the dog walk tonight and started up Jellyfish’s debut album Bellybutton for the second or third time this week, I must admit I felt rather pissed off that American radio force fed the masses No Rain by Blind Melon but somehow neglected Jellyfish’s brilliant and far superior The Man I Used To Be that was released just a couple years prior.

The rest of the album is a vintage pop-rock throwback, full of hooks and gorgeous vocals and interesting instrumental choices. I can envision much Bellybutton exposure this week and look forward to checking out their follow up. Thank you, internet, for righting the wrongs of the flawed music business, and thanks, Classic Rock Magazine and Andrew Johnston for turning me onto this thirty years too late (though to be fair, my 18 year old self quite possibly wouldn’t have thought much of Jellyfish).

Bill Griffin: Cheap Trick has never tried to hide their love for The Beatles so the idea of someone doing original material as them doing The Beatles has great appeal. Indeed, I really like this but I can't help but feel that actually listening to either of the aforementioned bands when I have the urge would be more satisfying than this hybrid. It is just barely not quite there, maybe because Andy Sturmer's voice is just not quite as appealing to me as John's, Paul's or Robin's. Close but no cigar, as it were. Still, I'm disappointed that I've never even heard of these guys before because they were a local band.

Kathy Kerr Gonzalez: Really well done - this was a big hit with the alternative crowd when it came out, and we all loved it. The only thing for me that holds it back is that it doesn't really present anything new or innovative - the music world was the same after this album as it was before. After a few great songs, I find it sort of bogs down - like I feel I get the idea already.

Gary Claydon: Classy, upbeat power-pop. The influences/comparisons are pretty obvious but Jellyfish had a fine grasp of melody & a neat line in lyrics. In that respect I hear quite a few echoes of Squeeze scattered around Bellybutton but, as I've always been a big fan of Difford & Tilbrook, that is no hardship. Calling Sarah is a real earworm. Always liked the sophomore effort, Spilt Milk as well. Nice.

Tim Kaufman: I looked at the cover and I felt like I'm going to get a Sgt. Pepper vibe when it comes to intricate, precise musical choices and I was definitely not disappointed. I've never heard of them and I saw that critics gave strong positive reviews. 

You can tell that there was a lot of time spent on this album and the band must have been exhausted (there were alleged stories about how Strummer was difficult to work with). The lyrics, about 80% of the time, were not dull. There's a blend of seriousness and comical style of lyricism. 

I think the second half of the album is stronger than the first half because I think you hear more of their power-pop style. The vocals were consistently good throughout the album. The best way to describe this album is if Sgt. Pepper was a power-pop album because this album has a psychedelic element mixed with exciting and catchy guitars and lyricism. 

Standout tracks were, to me: The King Is Half-Undressed, She Still Loves Him, All I Want Is Everything, and Baby's Going Back. My average score per song was 8.6 and I had to choose either an 8 or 9 and I scored a 9 because the effort is there in the production, quality lyricism, and it's an album that came out in the 90s that would have probably done much better sales-wise in the 60s. Props to them. Definitely one of my favourite albums.

Jon Peacock: Just finished listening to this album, definitely fell under my radar all those years back. I really enjoyed it, the songs are so well structured and so much more than ‘pure pop’. So impressed I have just purchased it! This is why I follow this and other music pages, brings things to me I have otherwise missed.

Final Score: 7.83⁄10 (104 votes cast, with a total score of 815)

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