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Squids In: are Jellyfish the great lost band of the 90s?

Power-pop princelings Jellyfish were the new Beatles, ELO and Queen all in one – until bad vibes and psychic turmoil snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

The last time Andy Sturmer and Roger Manning spoke to each other was in the spring of 1994. They hooked up in Los Angeles to record a song for a tribute album to Harry Nilsson, the American singer-songwriter who’d once run wild with John Lennon and had died of a massive heart attack earlier that year. Having cut the track in an afternoon, the two high-school friends went their separate ways. Or, to be more accurate, Manning split for a career as a jobbing musician, while Sturmer effectively vanished.

Both of them prodigiously gifted musicians and songwriters, Sturmer and Manning seemed to spark best off each other. In 1989 they formed a band to realise their shared vision of a single group capable of sounding like all the music they’d discovered on FM radio while growing up in suburban California in the 1970s; a heady mix of The Beatles, the Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, ELO, 10cc, Fleetwood Mac, Wings and much more besides. They called their band Jellyfish, accurately conveying the sense of something imbued with grace, yet amorphous, alien-looking and fleeting.

Over their two albums together they pulled off a musical conjuring act. All at once Jellyfish sounded like a haphazard jumble of ideas rushing together, as well as something entirely coherent. Into their wondrous pop-rock songs they corralled labyrinthine harmonies, soaring string arrangements and melodies as evocative as a Californian sunrise. The best of these sounded like smash hits from the two previous decades that had somehow escaped the collective memory. Their tragedy was that the band surfaced at the point when the music business swam into the darker, gloomier waters of grunge, and Jellyfish were doomed to drift out of time and place. 

The final song Sturmer and Manning put down together that day in 1994 was fitting, since it was a cover of Nilsson’s surreal ode to psychic trauma, Think About Your Troubles. For all the glories of Jellyfish, it was a band riven by frustration and pain. It broke its two leaders in two and sent one of them fleeing into a self-imposed exile from which he has never returned. 

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