Popdose Flashback ’91: Material Issue, “International Pop Overthrow”

material issue

When Material Issue front man Jim Ellison committed suicide in June of 1996, the act was sharp and sudden. The 32-year-old wasn’t a stereotypical grunge sad-sack. He was an anachronistic rock vocalist who sported clean-cut looks, tight jeans, leather jackets and pin-up swagger — all in an era when looking scruffy and damaged had greater cachet.

To this day, why he committed suicide is a mystery to the general public; it was reportedly over a broken relationship, but the contents of a suicide note remain private. Still, Ellison’s death retroactively colors Material Issue’s three albums. (The catalog numbers four if you count Telecommando Americano, an album the band had just about finished before Ellison died that was released posthumously.) And that’s a shame, because the Chicago trio deserves better than to be known as a band whose career had a premature expiration date.

Growing up in Cleveland, regional bands such as Material Issue were a steady presence on the radio. I especially loved the creepy 1994 jangle “Kim the Waitress,” which received heavy airplay. (I didn’t find out until years later that it was a cover of a tune by the Green Pajamas.) But other Ish tracks popped up every now and again: “What Girls Want,” “Valerie Loves Me” and “Diane.” That triumvirate was contemporary to the power-pop which scraped the mainstream in the first half of the ‘90s – Jellyfish, Hoodoo Gurus, Gigolo Aunts, early Blur. As of 1992, I was a newly minted R.E.M. fanatic, and I couldn’t get enough of music filled with hooks and harmonies.

“Diane” and “Valerie” appeared on Material Issue’s 1991 debut, International Pop Overthrow, which was produced by power-pop god Jeff Murphy of Shoes at his Zion, Illinois, studio. Unsurprisingly, the Ish is frequently compared to Shoes and fellow Illinoisans Cheap Trick. (“Renee Remains the Same” in particular is a melancholic slice of fuzzpop perfection that the boys from Rockford could’ve written.) But Overthrow generally isn’t full of arena-fueled swagger or puppy-dog mash notes. It has a distinct proper-British rock slant – blame Ellison’s slightly affected singing voice and the album’s bashed-out mod riffs – and a gum-cracking toughness at the same time. (Ellison was reportedly a skilled mechanic and a car enthusiast; in hindsight, it’s easy to see how Overthrow is the ideal album to blast while working in a greasy garage.)

The album is also abstractly indebted to early R.E.M., “Li’l Christine” especially — although the Ish always sounded like a winsome college-rocker dolled up in glam’s glittery accoutrements. (In fact, they were known for covering Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” live.) While Overthrow’s production sounds distinctly of-its-time – it has that slightly-tinny, slightly-hollow sheen found on many early ‘90s albums – the songs’ details are timeless. Ted Ansani’s harmonies waterfall all over “Diane” and “Chance Of a Lifetime,” while his bassline on “Valerie Loves Me” is taut. Drummer Mike Zelenko’s grandfather-clock rhythms tick through “Very First Lie,” and he helps “Trouble” and the title track become amped-up rock joyrides. In fact, the album is a near-perfect debut; only the syrupy ballad “A Very Good Idea,” which sounds like a cutting-room-floor Replacements, sounds a bit clunky today.

Yet “Idea” is wholly redeemed because of its lyrics. It’s a devastating song, really, in which the protagonist begs, “I think it would be a very good idea if you didn’t break my heart.” It seems like the other party didn’t heed this advice, leaving a teenage-sounding Ellison to whisper, “Don’t break my heart – tear this apart.” The “insecurity” mentioned in the song’s first line permeates the song – the main character senses the break-up is inevitable and maintains a defensive tone throughout.

In other words, Overthrow isn’t your usual bouncy pop album sulking over pretty girls. It isn’t full of carefree laments or simple tales of relationships-gone-sour; the album’s characters and relationships are burdened by guilt, regret and obsession. The person in “This Letter” is inappropriately hung up on an ex – he calls and hangs up, drives by the house, rings the bell and runs away — even while he says, “I’m only pretending you’re someone I know again.” How many people have held on to a faded relationship, simply because the thought of being alone was too painful? (Answer: Just about everyone.) But Ellison makes this complex emotional turmoil deceptively simple, almost matter-of-fact.

Still, Overthrow is far from emotionally bulletproof. The protagonists are awkward and do the wrong things; in “Li’l Christine,” he sends flowers because “hey, it was your birthday” – even though it’s apparent that the recipient of the gesture has no use for another lover. The boy in “There Was a Few” fruitlessly pines for a girl named Lulu, while declaring his misfit-dom: “’Cause every time I turn on the T.V. screen/I don’t see no one at all who looks like me.”

And Ellison’s lyrics are subtle, so subtle that the ominous undercurrent is easy to miss. When he howls “Valerie loves me!” in the namesake song, what’s overlooked is that the girl in the song never acknowledges the affections of the boy in the lyrics — mainly because he apparently crushes on her from afar. And then when she’s “lonely in an apartment” and “her hair has turned so grey,” the boy now crows that “she can’t have me.” In a twisted bit of self-satisfaction, the tables have turned on the once-pretty girl. (Not that Valerie has any clue, still, about the vengeful admirer.) “Trouble” is about a rowdy example of revenge, which culminates in the protagonist ending up in jail. And “Renee Remains the Same” is cryptic poetry that’s ostensibly about not living up to potential, the sting of rejection and the pain of splitting up, all at once.

Overthrow’s traces of sadness are perhaps most poignant. On the title track, Ellison motormouths, “Drivin’ in this van, playin’ in this band, you know it’s bringin’ me down” – but then immediately notes how being onstage perks him up. “Very First Lie” is even more cutting. The character outlines all he wants to do with a beloved – wake up early in the morning, play records together “on your phonograph,” meet family – and then ends the list with the line, “[and] maybe just once pretend to be somebody’s better half.” That tossed-off wistfulness is a sucker-punch; the list preceding it must be the daydream of a perpetually lonely person.

But then it’s immediately followed up with, “I would like to tell the very first lie.” You could take that as a magnanimous gesture – he’s willing to screw up first in the relationship, so he’s in the position of needing to be forgiven – or an act of self-sabotage. (Think about that, though — the protagonist is already imagining the self-inflicted cracks in a hypothetical relationship.) Or maybe the lie is one he tells himself – that he could even be capable of finding such idyllic times with another person. Either way, the implications are sobering.

To prep for writing this article, I read a lot of remembrances about Ellison’s life and even a few interviews with him. By many accounts, he wasn’t an easy guy to know, although the kindness he showed to fans and friends came up time and time again. But these articles underscored the importance of Overthrow. The album represented a triumphant time for the hard-working band — an appearance on MTV’s Spring Break(!), slots on other late-night talk shows, music videos in rotation, sales up over 300,000 – and helped pave the way for later tours with the Pretenders, Simple Minds and INXS. Above all, Overthrow‘s exuberance is unfettered by the long-term future – it brims with youthful energy that’s deeply felt, but not paralyzed by its despair.

  • Rich

    Spring Break ’91, watching MTV all weekend, destroying a hotel room at the Red Carpet Inn, Daytona Beach. Good times.

  • Joeyboy

    Good read, saw them many times from ’88 – ’91 during my misspent youth. Awesome live band, and this album, as you stated, is nearly perfect and frankly still holds up. I showed up early for one show and while drinking at the bar was approached by one of their tour people and given a free CD of live performances from the band. I later found out they pressed about 200 of them, and I still cherish that disc to this day. A great live version of Ballroom Blitz is on it, and it kicks.

  • Matt

    wow, I’d love to hear that, Joeyboy. Sounds awesome, indeed!

  • Eric S.

    I’m not sure if I liked Material Issue better for their originals or their great choice in cover songs. I have one of their promo CDs from 1991 called “11 Supersonic Hit Explosions”. It has covers of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”, Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” and Sweet’s “Blockbuster”. These guys had talent and outstanding taste in music.

  • http://twitter.com/MattSpringer Matt Springer

    Great piece, Annie. Made me give the disc a spin on the way home from work. It is as great as I remembered it.

    I think there’s something in the line from the title song, too–“I don’t need a girlfriend, I need an accomplice.”

  • Keith

    Thanks for the awesome tribute Annie. I also grew up in Cleveland and discovered Material Issue when someone plopped the band’s interview cassette in a product sampler bag given out on the Kent State Campus. I soon moved to Chicago and was thankfully able to see the band live. Jim lived nearby my house, so it was quite chilling that it all ended on such a quiet, pretty street. I hear there’s a 20th anniversary edition on the horizon – so hopefully a new generation will discover this amazing album and the rest of their wonderful catalog. In the meantime, JBTV online has some good clips and the blog-o-sphere is packed with amazing gems. Long live the Ish.

  • Beyesn

    Love Material Issue…..found that band, as well as Mathew Sweet, to be saviors during the grunge-stained period of the 90s. Fans can get a big dose (overdose?) in an ongoing Material Issue “rarities” series currently going on over at http://powerpopcriminals.blogspot.com/

  • http://www.rftmusic.com Annie Zaleski

    Thanks, Matt!

    Yes, that is a line from the song — it’s pretty brilliant indeed, agreed. Kind of sums up rock & roll, eh?

  • http://www.rftmusic.com Annie Zaleski

    Thanks for reading!

    I get the impression that the Ish was pretty big in Cleveland (although I think I was a bit younger than you). I have heard that there’s an edition on the horizon, yes — in fact, just got an email that it’s out April 5!

  • Ted Ansani

    Beautifully written piece Annie. Thank yhou for the kind words.