A Very Good Thing: An Appreciation of Material Issue

Posted by on February 12, 2012 in Articles | 3 comments

A Very Good Thing: An Appreciation of Material Issue

By John M Borack


Power pop was in sort of an odd place in the early ’90s.  Most of the bands that are now considered pioneers of the genre were long gone, and many of the titans of the second wave (20/20, Plimsouls, stc.) were dormant.  It would be a few years before Jordan Oakes’ Yellow Pills fanzine and L.A.’s Poptopia festival would bring melody-based guitar-pop back to a small-yet-rabid following in a (relatively) big way.  Sure, there were pop acts littering the musical landscape here and there, but where was the act that could be the next big thing?  Where was the band that could sit up and make folks take notice?  Where was the future of power pop?


Material Issue came along and provided the answers for many of us.


Although the fledgling band had a few indie releases in the late ’80s, they first caught my attention after they signed to Mercury Records and released the iconic International Pop Overthrow disc in 1991.  One listen was all it took for me to realize that this was the band that I – and many others – had been waiting for.  Not only were Jim Ellison’s songs across-the-board killer, but the trio put them across with spirit and style: Ellison was a somewhat manic and engaging frontman, and Mike Zelenko and Ted Ansani formed a creative and powerful rhythm section.  (Proof of the band’s cool pop cred was provided by the use of Jeff Murphy from Shoes as co-producer, and the fact that four of the tunes featured girls’ first names in their titles.  How pop is THAT?)


From the Who-like blast of the chorus of “Valerie Loves Me” to the sweetly hopeful “Very First Lie,” from undeniable power pop classics such as “Renee Remains the Same” and “Diane” to the heart-tugging “This Letter,” IPO was damned close to a greatest hits record right out of the chute – except that Material Issue had still more greatness left in reserve for their follow-ups.  These guys were the real deal.


Live, as on record, the band could alternate between jingle-jangle sweetness and tear-your face-off rock and roll in the blink of an eye.  I experienced this firsthand the one and only time I saw Material Issue in concert, at a small club in Long Beach, CA in 1990, when they opened for Shoes.  Ellison, Ansani and Zelenko tore through much of the yet-to-be-released International Pop Overthrow record, leaving me and the rest of the pop-loving crowd breathless and somewhat slack-jawed.  That night, the band connected with me big time and made me a fan for life.


Destination Universe and Freak City Soundtrack were worthy successors to MI’s stellar debut and upped the ante both performance-wise and sonically. (The most excellent, Mike Chapman-produced Freak City is one of the most “live” sounding power pop records ever recorded.)  Ellison’s songs continued alternating between kicking your ass and tugging on your heartstrings: for every in-your-face rocker such as the nervy “What Girls Want” (which recalled Tommy Roe’s “Dizzy”) or the positively scorching “Help Me Land,” Material Issue evened the score with wonderfully evocative, touching numbers such as the absolutely gorgeous “Next Big Thing,” a sadly sweet tale of a love not quite found.  Jim Ellison seemed to be writing with his heart firmly planted on his sleeve in a manner that his audience could relate to, which is one of the things that helped make him so great.


Of course, the Material Issue story didn’t have the storybook ending we were all hoping for; despite some alternative radio airplay and a shot at the brass ring, they failed to sell enough records to satisfy the label and split from Mercury after their third album.  Jim Ellison left us far too soon in 1996, which was not only a great loss for the music community and his fans, but also for the great number of musicians who had come to know and love him as a close friend.


A posthumous MI release, Telecommando Americano, contained more than a few gems: the sneering-yet-humorous rocker “You Were Beautiful” (“…until things got ugly,” of course) and the tender ballad “Carousel” showcased the band’s yin and yang to great effect.  Fifteen years after Jim Ellison’s death, it’s still impossible for me to listen to “Carousel” or “Next Big Thing” without a tear or two coming to my eye; conversely, it’s difficult to stay in my seat and not feel the urge to jump around like a madman whenever I spin “Goin’ Through Your Purse” or “A Very Good Thing.”


Although Material Issue never quite reached that coveted “next big thing” status, they produced a body of work that still sounds vibrant today and that no doubt influenced loads of other bands (it’s not that great of a leap from Material Issue’s sound to some of the more commercial records by Green Day, for example).  In addition, they helped re-energize the floundering, early ’90s power pop scene by kicking it squarely where it hurts.


So while we still mourn the loss of a true talent and a true friend in Jim Ellison, we should also rejoice at the recorded legacy that he, Mike and Ted have left behind.  Thanks, guys – to me, you will always be the next big thing.


Reprinted from the IPO 2011 Midwest Program


  1. Great article, John! Thank you very much for writing it!!

  2. Lovely words that capture the spirit of a truly excellent group.

  3. John
    My wife and I were at that same Long Beach show you referenced !
    There might have 50 -75 people there that night!

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