Mike Zelenko (drummer): “I met Jim through an advertisement in the Illinois Entertainer (a local monthly music magazine) right out of high school.
He called me a couple days after the ad started running and told me to come out to Addison, IL (where he lived) right now. With him still on the phone, I’m asking my mom if I can I borrow a car. ‘I thought you were gonna mow the lawn,’ she says. In my other ear, I hear Jim saying, ‘Tell her that if you can’t borrow the car tonight, you’ll never mow another lawn.’
What impressed me the most about Jim was the fact that he was always thinking about the band in the future, planning 3 steps ahead. Forward progress was always being made.
We had a very D.I.Y. ethic, were getting college play, and were willing to work harder than other bands. We made sure to hit New York at least once a month.”
Ted Ansani (bassist): “Jim and I were friends at Columbia College and one day he asked me to start a band with him.. In turn, I asked, ‘Do you have enough music?’ He just smirked and said ‘Of course I do, man.’”
Jim was such a prolific songwriter, every day he’d write a song that was better than the song he’d written the day before.
In the beginning, we literally ran the record company out of Jim’s bedroom. We would glue the covers together, insert the vinyl, and send them out to every college radio station in the country.”
Mike Zelenko: “We recorded the songs for IPO sporadically from 1989 and 1990, with our own money, at Short Order Recorder in Zion, IL. Our mindset was always that this was a record we were going to release on the best major label possible, or on our own.”
As a subscriber to Musician magazine back in the day, I received a promotional cassette from the publication promoting a new band called Material Issue. The cassette was a mix of interview snippets and tracks from the Chicago band’s debut release. My first thought was “Why is Musician magazine sending me promotional cassettes?”
Turns out Material Issue was the first, and, as far as I know, only band that the magazine ever endorsed in such a manner.
As I lived in Chicago at the time, I was already familiar with Material Issue. They’d been getting moderate airplay on the local alternative station, WXRT. Also, the band’s guitarist/singer, Jim Ellison, was an acquaintance of mine, having given my band our first Chicago-area shows. We also had numerous mutual friends and were always bumping into one other. It was well-known that Ellison was already a rock star in his own mind and, even those who acknowledged this begrudgingly knew it was only a matter of time before he was one in real life. Still, when the band signed to Mercury Records, it came as something of a surprise, as Chicago was not exactly an industry hot spot.
Considering the fact that this album is but a gathering of demos the band had recorded over an eighteen-month period at Shoes’ Short Order Recorder, with head Shoe Jeff Murphy producing, most other bands’ debut albums should be so focused. International Pop Overthrow sounds, even now, like an album made by a band on a mission. Of course, singer/guitarist Jim Ellison was on a mission — and having two capable accomplices, in bassist Ted Ansani and drummer Mike Zelenko, made for a united attack.
What made IPO stand out from the rest of the pack was the depth of Ellison’s songwriting. He wasn’t exactly blazing new territory, but his lyrics showed a real vulnerability that went against the bravado and ceaseless self-confidence that he exuded in person.
Much like Cheap Trick’s debut album, Material Issue’s songs seem normal enough on first listen, but if you dig beneath the surface, you’ll soon see that things in (sole songwriter) Jim Ellison’s world are a bit left-of-center. “Valerie Loves Me,” after all, isn’t your average boy-meets-girl love song:
“Valerie’s dancin’, on the room above my bed, you know
For all of the world below to see
Valerie’s leaving, in a car outside my house, you know
Such a shame she’s not with me and all the pretty things
And all the love my heart would bring
I would give my whole life to her…”
Poetic, yes…but the third verse suggests a haunting purview:
“Valerie’s lonely, in an apartment down the street, you know
And her hair has turned so gray
But she’s so happy for the memories she has, you know
She can believe in the day when love was always on a string
And she could have had anything
But she will not ever have had me.”
Ted Ansani: “My personal fave from this album is ‘Renee Remains The Same.’ Jim liked doing that kind of mid-tempo song with heavy harmonies and a driving backbeat. It just lends itself to sounding great on the radio. As a matter of fact, it was the first song to get a lot of radio airplay prior to our signing to Mercury.”
Despite a propensity for songs with girls’ names in the title (“Diane,” “Renee Remains the Same,” “Li’l Christine” and the aforementioned “Valerie”), Ellison is better than most at accurately capturing the loneliness and longing experienced during those confusing adolescent years. At the same time, his ability to understand the subtle nuances found within the early stages of a new relationship is quite endearing, as succinctly expressed in “Very First Lie”:
“I’d like to wake up with you early in the morning
Or stay up late just playing records on your phonograph
I’d like to get to know your mother and your father
Maybe just once pretend to be somebody’s better half
And I would like to tell the very first lie”
The title cut is perhaps the album’s lone song not dealing with boy-girl scenarios. Even so, it still manages to paint a vivid portrait of the restlessness of youth and what life on the road is like for a young rock band wanting to take over the world. Thus, is it not also a paean to love, albeit for the music that is their lifeblood?
Even though sadness and despair are an almost constant part of the equation, Material Issue’s first album is nothing if not a tale of innocence mixed with the first hints of experience. Never had the social outcast, the kid who feels that no one understood them, had a better band in their corner.
Mike Zelenko: “The second album was a bittersweet experience. We went in knowing we wanted to use a big-name producer. Our manager and A&R guy wanted to work with Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads). Ted and I were behind that decision, but ultimately it came down to Jim and, since he was not a fan of Talking Heads, he was against the idea.
We flew into Milwaukee, had dinner and talked to him. Jim told him he wasn’t really a fan of the Heads and Jerry explained that he was a producer and nothing was going to end up sounding like Talking Heads. The feeling at the label was that Jerry was a producer on the rise and set to have a big year. Jim, however, didn’t like Talking Heads and that was the deciding factor.
Also, he wanted to have the band co-produce the record with Jeff Murphy, which allowed him to record the album in Zion, away from the record company, who would have preferred we record in New York or L.A to keep tabs on us. Basically, Jim didn’t want to be bothered.”
From the opening wah-wah riff of “What Girls Want,” it was easy to see that the band was aiming for the fences on their sophomore long-player. Obviously eager to claim the fame and acclaim that had been lavished upon Nirvana, Pearl Jam and their ilk, the band was at least confident enough in their own skills to stick to their guns, stylistically speaking.
Considering how grunge forced almost every other band on the planet to change its game plan, the fact that Material Issue chose to make this kind of album in the midst of the flannel revolution is, to say the least, admirable.
Ted Ansani: “Since we had an actual budget, we figured we were going to polish stuff up, add more layers, throw in some percussion, and do some things that we weren’t normally accustomed to doing. In hindsight, I think it was a mistake to do that in light of the grunge scene taking off.”
Mike Zelenko: “The record company, wanting to see us have a hit record this time out, were making a lot of suggestions. They hated “What Girls Want,” but suggested we bring in Steve Albini to mix the track. His mix buried the vocals, made the drums sound muddy, and just put guitars on top of everything. Andy Wallace was then brought in to re-mix it. His mix sounded so great that we wanted him to remix the whole record, but, for whatever reason, that didn’t happen.”
Was Destination Universe a step forward for the band? Aside from the somewhat gimmicky “What Girls Want,” the rest of the album quickly settles into a definite groove that quickly differentiates itself from International Pop Overthrow. “Next Big Thing” utilizes a Byrds-ian riff to set the scene for a star-crossed cute-meet that stays with you forever.
“Everything” is a heartbreaking ballad that manages to be both idealistic and soul-crushing in the span of four minutes. It’s also the kind of song that makes you wonder why it wasn’t a gigantic hit at a time when such ballads always managed to find their way into the Top 40. That double-naught rockers Stereo Fuse have seen fit to place the track on both of their albums shows that they have superb taste in cover material, but alas, the song has not yet found its rightful place atop the charts.
Ted Ansani: “From the moment it was released, there was some head-butting going on. I honestly felt that the record company was frustrated over what to do with us. We weren’t grunge, nor were we from Seattle. Green Day and Weezer, bands we ultimately had much more in common with, hadn’t happened yet.”
Despite containing three of my favorite Ish songs (“Next Big Thing,” “Everything” and “Don’t You Think I Know”), Destination Universe has always struck me as an album not quite sure what to make of itself. Not a bad album by any stretch, but one that shows the band pulling back from the all-out rock & roll attack.
Ted Ansani: “It just came up that Mike Chapman was available and we jumped at the chance to work with him. We were huge Blondie fans. I’d always thought Mike’s drumming style was similar to Clem Burke’s, so it just made sense. We loved working with Mike. He taught us to let loose, capture some raw performances, whereas we’d been more precise when working with Murphy.”
Mike Zelenko: “Freak City was the most fun to make, as we were working with a big-name producer, having a lot of guests taking part in the sessions. Nash Kato from Urge Overkill, Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) played on a track, Liz Phair sang backup vocals, and Gilby Clarke played guitar all over the record. He was gonna tour with us and almost ended up joining the band. I loved his playing, but a lot of the tracks weren’t used because they were just too “arena” sounding. We were afraid it wouldn’t sound enough like Material Issue and we didn’t wanna come across as metal.”
That Material Issue were still considered “up-and-coming” by the time they began contemplating their third album was probably a hard pill for Ellison to swallow. If anyone craved the limelight and all the trappings that stardom brought, it was Ellison and, while he had amassed a credible collection of vintage guitars, owned his own place in a hip section of Chicago, and was a bit of a local big shot, he and the band wanted more.
Anyone who’d seen the band live and heard their blistering cover of the Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz” saw the enlisting of producer Mike Chapman as an obvious choice. After all, he’d twisted knobs on some of the best pop records to come out of the ’70s and ’80s – the aforementioned Sweet, Blondie, The Knack, Pat Benatar, et al. That he’d failed to strike gold in the ’90s was of little concern to Ellison, Ansani, and Zelenko. Of course, that didn’t stop Ellison from ribbing Chapman for producing a Baby Animals record.
That album-opener “Goin’ Through Your Purse” is built upon the same percussive foundation as “Ballroom Blitz” should come as absolutely no surprise and sets the tone for an album that chooses to wear its influences on its sleeve like a badge of honor.
Mike Zelenko: “On ‘Kim the Waitress,’ we could never get the bass to sound as cool as the Green Pajamas version. Finally, Chapman figured out that the bass on the original version was out of tune, so Ted de-tuned his bass and played the part .”
Aside from being a song by the unjustly obscure Green Pajamas, “Kim the Waitress” is an odd choice for first (and only) single. Ish’s version boasts a made-for-radio chorus, but the sparsely percussive verses seem uncharacteristically restrained and, to my ears anyway, keep the song from fully taking flight. When Ellison sings “She doesn’t come around anymore and it bothers me,” you can’t help feel the sense of loss.
Listen closely and you can hear the vulnerabilities in Ellison’s coat of armor. Freak City Soundtrack sounds like an album written by someone who knows what it feels like to lose at love. Of course, in the end, we all lose in some way or another. Sometimes, though, it takes an outsider (in the form of Green Pajamas’ singer/songwriter Jeff Kelly) to put it best.
Mike Zelenko: “One of the first things Mike Chapman said was ‘No fucking click track,’ and he made sure everything was done as a band, right down to having all of us sing harmonies around a single mic.”
“Goin’ Through Your Purse” opens the album Sweetly, pun intended. Zelenko admirably replicates “Ballroom Blitz’s” manic drum beat, over which Ellison’s tale of mistrust and impending betrayal glides effortlessly. Did this tune deserve to be a hit? Perhaps. It didn’t quite fit in with radio formats at the time, but who on Earth could fail to be moved by Ellison’s angst-ridden list of items discovered in rummaging through his lover’s purse:
“…Well a photo of your mother
And the boys who dated you
And your high school graduation ring
And a paycheck from the place you work
And some poetry from some stupid jerk
Who’s trying to steal your heart from me
I hope you don’t get offended girl
And I hope you don’t get hurt
By the things I found when I was goin’ thru your purse.”
“Kim the Waitress” was about as close to the Ish were ever gonna get to playing the “lookin’-for-a-hit” power ballad game and, while the chorus is out of the ballpark, the verses lag a bit too much, in my humble opinion. The Ellison-penned “I Could Use You” is easily one of his most heartfelt ballads and, while not boasting the smash-hit chorus of “Waitress,” it is just as deserving of consideration as a single.
Considering that the Smithereens, with whom Ellison was friendly, were still chart contenders at the time, the unabashed Smithereens ripoff “One Simple Word” may seem a smidge too derivative, but what the hell, it could have been a single as well.
Are you beginning to see a pattern here?
In hindsight, there were singles aplenty on this record, yet none of them were getting the promotion they deserved. In the end, Freak City Soundtrack failed to chart.
By the time this live EP was released, most in the MI camp could see the writing on the wall: the band’s days with Mercury were all but over. Despite moderate success with “Kim the Waitress,” the band’s third studio album had failed to generate the interest that all involved were hoping for. Ellison, like most under-achieving artists do, blamed the label, and was confident that he and the band would be happier elsewhere. That they were to receive only lukewarm interest from other labels was news yet to come.
On one humid summer night in their hometown of Chicago, though, all was right with the world and a couple thousand fans got to bask in the power pop glory that was Material Issue.
On the surface, this appears to be nothing more than a live EP built around “Goin’ Through Your Purse.” Even the track listing seems to indicate as such. When you listen to the CD, though, you quickly notice that track four (“Very First Lie,” for those keeping score at home) includes four unlisted tracks, making this a full-length live album.
Ted Ansani: “The hidden tracks were actually a mistake on the part of the record company. A few things like that had happened. On ‘Destination Universe,’ for example, they released the CD without the photos of the band after we’d gone to the expense of paying a big-name photographer and taking all these pictures. The record company told us, “Well, the photos are on the cassette version, just not the CD.” We didn’t understand that one at all.”
Of course, anyone who was lucky enough to see “The Ish” live knows that the stage was where they far surpassed their peers. Ellison was always the very essence of a rock star and never failed to find a way to connect with his audience. The track listing may be short of surprises (“Ballroom Blitz”? You don’t say), but this CD is high on energy and infectious hooks. I was at this show, and, while no live recording ever fully captures the electricity a band like Material Issue generated, it does come damn close.
Mike Zelenko: “My fondest memory: I’d say it was right near the end when we’d parted ways with Mercury and were recording the demos that ended up becoming this album. We were recording with Jay O’Rourke (a member of CBS rock act Insiders and producer of early Ministry, Rights of the Accused, and Slammin’ Watusis). We had interest from Capitol Records and some other labels. We’d already accomplished a lot and were excited again. Those six months were great.”
Ted Ansani: “Looking back, he didn’t really know what to do. He was convinced we had some label interest. The recordings were about 80% finished when Jim died, so we eventually went in and just finished things to make it presentable.”
It’s hard to judge a posthumous release fairly. You either romanticize the material due to the circumstances, or grade much too harshly. The ability to merely accept what you hear at face value is rendered impossible.
The first song slowly fades in, Ellison’s voice eerily suspended in space:
“Satellite, flying high above me/Satellite, send someone down to love me”
It’s hard not to hear “Satellite” as the, ahem, ballad of a lonely man. Ellison’s lyrics are deceptively poignant, akin to wishing upon a star, and cursing it at the same time. I’ve listened to the song hundreds of times, but it never fails to stop me in my tracks It’s like knowing somebody’s going to hit you, bracing yourself, and having it hurt twice as much.
Ted Ansani: “We’d been playing “What If I Killed Your Boyfriend” while opening for The Pretenders and Chrissie Hynde had told us how much she liked the song.”
For those who easily empathize with their protagonists, Telecommando is not an easy listen, by any stretch. After all, the next track is “What If I Killed Your Boyfriend?,” a song that would have scared the shit out of me if the singer in my band brought it in for the band to learn. It’s one thing to think such thoughts, another thing entirely to vocalize them. Heavy shit, no matter how you slice it.
Having established the volatile, heart-heavy nature of Ellison’s lyrics, let’s try placing this album within the context of the rest of the band’s catalogue: Much like their debut album, Telecommando Americano was recorded without label backing. The youthful bravado of their debut has been replaced by a maturity that can be heard in Ellison’s voice. The band rocks with definite conviction, revealing a few new tricks along the way, and one is left with the plaguing questions of what could have been.
Ted Ansani: “We basically lived on the road for four years. It was a lot of fun and we took it for granted. We had no idea it was going to end so abruptly and I wish I’d taken more time to smell the roses. We didn’t see any end to it, so we didn’t really have a chance to bask in the glory, as we were right in the middle of it all the time.”
My heartfelt thanks to Mike Zelenko, Ted Ansani, and Lee Lodyga for their invaluable contributions to this article.