Pop Culture Gadabout
Friday, November 02, 2007
      ( 11/02/2007 10:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

"HIT THE ROAD, JACK KEROUAC": The "beatch" has reopened.

A precursor to the nineties cult faves, Jellyfish, Beatnik Beatch (sic) is notable as an early testing ground for 'fish drummer/songwriter Andy Sturmer and keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning. The Bay Area band's eponymous major label debut, originally released on Atlantic two years before Jellyfish's first stab at power-pop greatness, has recently been reissued through Collector's Choice Noble Rot label. Good news for those of us following the circuitous career paths of our favorite 'fishers - or for those who just like decent pop-rock in general.

Led by bassist Chris Witt Ketner (who'd later go on to I-don't-know-what), the Beatch was a fairly straightforward pop-rock outfit: less cleverly ornate than Jellyfish, though you can still hear elements of the later band's sound in tracks like the new wavey "Watching the Rain." Ketner and Sturmer were primarily responsible for the band's songwriting, and, per Scott Schindler's liner notes, it was Ketner’s refusal to perform Sturmer's compositions with future 'fish collaborator Manning which ultimately led to Beatch's dissolution. Though vocal chores are divided between Ketner and Sturmer, for most Jellyfish fans, hearing the former is like listening to those parts of the first Steely Dan album that aren't sung by Donald Fagin: something is definitely amiss. Ketner has a pleasant voice in the eighties earnest singer mode (think John Waite, for instance), but Sturmer's is consistently more poppishly elastic and expressive.

As a younger band, the Beatchers wear their influences more openly than the later Jellyfish. Band anthem "Beatnik Beatch" cheekily swipes from Ray Charles' "Hit the Road, Jack," while "How Much Does Love Cost" no less brazenly pulls from Pink Floyd's anti-"Money" song. Both tracks are addictive - and I dare you to try and get the chorus of "Beatch" out of your head after you've played it once - but the tracks that tell you something truly special is gonna come out of these boys are the simpler pop tracks.

Take "Welcome," for example, the band's catchy Ugly American song. Built on the same insistent drumming that Jellyfish used to bolster their classic "All I Want Is Everything," it's a driving track that remembers to include the "power" part of the power-pop formulation. (Noble Rot's reissue emphasizes Sturmer's drum work at the expense of both the bass and George Cole's succinct guitar, though I've read some fannish rumblings that this mix isn't the way the original release sounded.) Or "Worthless Heart," which is credited on the back of Noble Rot's digi-pack as a Ketner/Sturmer composition, but actually was one of the contested Sturmer/Manning songs. A sweet-sounding heartache song, its presence on the disc serves as a cautionary example of the dangers of excess ego in a rock band. This is a track that Ketner didn't wanna record? This guy screwed himself out of being a part of even more glorious popcraft!

Beatnik Beatch is not the disc I'd use if I wanted to initiate neophytes into the Jellyfish cult. For that, I'd either pull out Bellybutton or the British import Best!, which includes a demo of "Worthless Heart" recorded by Sturmer and Manning as a proposed track for a Ringo Starr album - and has a bang-up live performance of Badfinger's "No Matter What" besides. But for those of us who long ago joined the Fan Club, Noble Rot's reissue provides a heady hint of the sonic splendiferousness yet to come.
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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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