There is a manifest destiny to discover all obscure DIY recordings of the punk/post-punk era and an exhaustive crate-digging quest by the current crop of DJ’s to find unexpected dance songs – at the intersection of the two lies a band called…The Jellies. The perfect marriage of homemade oft-kilter pop and an ultra minimal post-punk groove, the Jellies had remained a mystery. Dating from 1981, little was known about the band from Cambridge, UK, other than the 99 Records-style 7" inch released on their own Jelly Records ("Jive Baby on a Saturday Night" and "The Conversation both featured on my 2004 Marathon Premium, “Yet Another Piece of Future Landfill.”) Recorded at the legendary Spaceward Studios in Cambridge, of the four names that appear on the record, two go merely by Frances and Justine, and the two others, Mark Tomblin and Richard Lewis, produced no search results. Message boards devoted to old Cambridge bands revealed more head scratching and no memories about the era. “Could you mean the Wobbly Jellies? I think I have a record by them,” one person mentioned. Even that was more substantial than the response from Spaceward Studios. They provided tales of the Users and Dolly Mixture, but no recollections of the Jellies, nor knowledge that the recordings had occurred.
The record itself popped up only in the oddest of places. Thurston Moore used “Jive Baby On A Saturday Night," as the soundtrack for a solo performance at the Roulette in 1997, and John Allen found his copy at the dearly departed East Village mostly-vinyl shop, Shrine. I found mine cheaply on e-bay in 2001: it’s not a sexy story (like any story from e-bay), but it’s the unfortunate truth. Some Israeli/UK friends found a copy on another e-bay listing last year, in an uncredited lot with the ever elusive Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend.”
“Jive Baby On A Saturday Night” was also featured prominently in Optimo’s Essential mix for BBC, and on the new Betty Botox mix for Endless Sleep. Yet neither of these recent releases coaxed out further Jellies information, nor commentary from the band members.
About three weeks ago I decided to start the search again. Making some headway this time, I emailed a Mark Tomblin I found from a completely non-musical c.v. on the web. A few days later I received a response: Yes, he was in fact the Mark Tomblin from the Jellies, and he was shocked and delighted that anyone would want to talk about them...
In 1980, two Cambridge graduate students worked through the summer to raise enough money to record their band, the Wobbly Jellies, a pop party band inspired by the Talking Heads, Glam Pop, the B-52s and Chic. The band covered bubblegum songs, “Psycho Killer,” The Sweet’s “Blockbuster, and a reggae version of “Day Tripper.” Backing the band were the aforementioned Frances and Justine, two of the four girls who formed the Wimpettes, a mini-skirt wearing tongue-in-cheek group of girl singers. In between finals and studies, the band played student unions, the only outlet for underground bands in the days before the rise of “the Indie venue.” Along with the Wimpettes, Lewis provided vocals. Tomblin noted that, despite not singing on their lone release, Lewis had “a really lovely voice.”
When the summer ended, the band as a duo of Tomblin and Lewis continued to take odd jobs to make money for the recording. On Christmas day 1980, they entered Spaceward Studios to record their 7 inch. They set out with a goal to make music self-described as “minimal disco,” a term which seemed ridiculous to them at the time, but today, crucial to the current state of underground dance. Without the drummer (Phil, who later married one of the Wimpettes), or the rest of the live band, they asked two of the Wimpettes to provide vocals and handclaps over the rhythm loops and the Jellies recordings were born.
After the pressing, Tomblin stamped the sleeves, but the band as a live unit kind of fizzled. Having completed the 7 inch, the band waned. Tomblin graduated in 1981 and thought little of his musical past. Mr. Lewis went onto restart the group in a new, more “world-music” direction which led to the mysterious and confusing Wobbly Jellies 7 inch a year later. After the second record and Lewis’s graduation from Cambridge, Lewis married an American, moved to New York, and formed another band. Tomblin theorized that the copies in America probably were circulated after this move. I asked him about Mr. Lewis, to whom he hadn’t spoken in a few years, having vague information of his current whereabouts.
An epilogue (a.k.a. the rest of the story):
Within hours, I’d located a Richard Lewis who was on the faculty of an East Coast college and the singer in mid 80’s band, Movieland, and is currently in a new Boston area band called Machine 475. It was actually the Movieland fan pages which led me to Mr. Lewis’s homepage, which I e-mailed at once feeling a little bit more sure of myself.
Lewis, while shocked that anyone actually cared about the Jellies, was a bit used to the obsessive whims of record collectors and music nerds via the Movieland inquiries. In a follow-up conversation, Lewis was happy to shed additional light on the Jellies recording session. He remembered the drums were recorded with a DIY metronome (pencil on a turntable.) He described his bass playing as “some of the worst bass playing in history,” but looked back on those Spaceward recordings with happiness. He remembered that Lewis brought thirty copies down to the Rough Trade shop in Notting Hill. All of the U.S. and U.K. copies had come from that source.
Mr. Lewis shared with me that he listened to the 7 inch for the first time in ages prior to talking with me: “You know, it really is quite good.”