Material Issue: International Pop Overthrow

The rise of Material Issue seemed almost predestined. Their music lived in the realm of girls, cars, and hanging out with girls in cars. They sounded instantly familiar yet slightly wild, like a radio playing Top 40 hits in a dream. Jim Ellison, the band’s gangly and remarkably self-possessed frontman, was sure of their success from the very start: “Most people would enjoy our stuff,” he told the Los Angeles Times just a month after the release of their 1991 debut album, International Pop Overthrow. It was that level of faith in the purity of his project—the way he treated pop like a religion, the unshakable belief in the categorical goodness of his vision—that made the band’s eventual failure impossible to accept.

Material Issue, by their own admission, “reeked of Chicago”: The trio formed in 1986 when Ellison found bassist Ted Ansani at the city’s Columbia College (“We both had leather jackets,” Ansani later explained). They soon recruited drummer Mike Zelenko through an ad in the local music magazine, Illinois Entertainer, in which Zelenko professed his love for Buzzcocksthe ReplacementsTom Petty, and the Beatles. “The most important thing about Mike was the fact he had a van,” Ellison later said, which gave them access to studios and gigs around the city. The band was Ellison’s brainchild, down to its name, a reference to a request form from his job installing home security systems. He had a specific vision for Material Issue’s public image—shag haircutspsychedelic fonts, and American flags—as an homage to Merseybeat bands from three decades prior. Ellison called it “psycho pop,” which meant the simple rhythms and sun-soaked melodies about being sad, perfected by power-pop bands like Raspberries and the Romantics.

Material Issue strived for the platonic ideal of pop, music that was as much about nodding to its predecessors as it was about hooks and harmonies. For Ellison, songwriting was the pursuit of perfection, a chance to craft something so affecting and catchy that it was almost scientifically guaranteed to break big. The band didn’t want to peg their sound to a specific place or era, and they weren’t interested in political music or the folksy alt-country that was overtaking their city at the time. Nor were they fully in step with the outgrowth of the peak of ’70s power-pop, which had morphed into jangly twee and “alternative pop” in the form of Matthew Sweetthe Posies, and the K Records extended universe. Those bands wrote about talking to the wind and the sun—Ellison wrote about talking to girls, or at least, dreaming about talking to girls. If punk was an attitude and pop was a style, power-pop was its commentary, a layer of self-awareness that made lovelorn songs about waiting by the telephone into high art.

The three booked studio time at Short Order Recorder, the Zion, Illinois studio owned by Jeff Murphy of local power-pop heroes Shoes. There were Chicago studios closer to the band, but the legacy of Shoes—who went from recording their 1977 debut in their living room to premiering on the first day of MTV four years later—represented the self-made pop explosion Ellison wanted to capture. Material Issue’s first singles share Shoes’ scrappy enthusiasm: “Renée Remains the Same”—one of four Material Issue song titles to feature a woman’s name on their eventual debut—places the band in the lineage of power-pop greats in the first 30 seconds: someone else’s girl, someone else’s car, and a fuzz pedal. The band released “Renée” and a B-side as The Super Sonic Seven-Inch on Ellison’s Big Block Records in 1988.

By the end of the ’80s, Chicago had become a hub for house music, but the Second City lived up to its nickname when it came to rock, trailing its coastal counterparts. But due to investments in the once hollowed-out industrial neighborhood of Wicker Park, by the middle of the decade, the city’s DIY scene was taking shape. The rise of Material Issue mirrored and bolstered Chicago’s overdue reckoning as a bona fide destination for innovative bands, built from new venues like the Empty Bottle, new labels like Drag City, Wax Trax!, and Touch and Go, and groups like Urge OverkillSmashing Pumpkins, and Tortoise.

Surrounded by a typically humble Midwestern scene at odds with his prideful, self-aggrandizing personality, Ellison clashed with his fair share of local acts (one Chicago Reader column from 1995 details Ellison and members of Red Red Meat getting into urine-soaked skirmishes). At the same time, he put his hustle and sense of importance back into his hometown, working the door at long-dead local venues like Batteries, booking shows at Gaspar’s, and supporting local acts at spaces like Phyllis’s Musical Inn. The city returned the favor: Before long, the band’s first singles were in heavy rotation at local rock station WXRT, and they were packing spots like the Cubby Bear and what was then called Cabaret Metro. Their success was the city’s success: “It may be Chicago’s turn” in the spotlight, Chicago Tribune music critic Greg Kot wrote in February 1991, spurred by the news that two local bands had recently inked major label deals: Eleventh Dream Day had released Beet on Atlantic Records in 1989, and Material Issue had just signed to Mercury for their debut.

International Pop Overthrow is a debut album by way of a collection of singles. Ellison, Zelenko, and Ansani made the record piecemeal with Murphy over the course of three years at Short Order Recorder. Songs were written in four-hour sprints when they could afford studio time with the money earned from gigs; they tracked songs on rented tape. After the band signed with a label, Ellison asked Murphy if they could remaster the recordings, but their songs had long been taped over—their demos would have to serve as their debut. All told, the album’s 14 songs were recorded for under $6,000.

Material Issue excelled at creating a sense of incandescent melancholy, decorating heartbreak in arpeggios and chorus pedals. Album opener “Valerie Loves Me” is an unrequited lover’s manic breakdown, equal parts exhilaration and desperation. Written about Ellison’s childhood crush on his downstairs neighbor, the song’s verses are sung as an outsider looking into a life he dreamed of attaining, peering from his bedroom window, hopelessly obsessed: “I would give my whole life to her,” Ellison croons. But it’s the chorus—a gnarled, almost pained shout of “Valerie loves me!”—that launches the song into the stratosphere. With each screaming refrain, Ellison seems further detached from reality until by the end he’s praying poor Valerie winds up alone forever. The song—and its music video, in which an anonymous woman waltzes around in sunglasses while the band awkwardly tries on their best beatnik impressions —entered heavy rotation on 120 Minutes and rock radio, eventually peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts.

Like “Valerie,” the songs on International Pop Overthrow bend familiar lyrical and musical tropes into mangled, alien reflections. On “Very First Lie,” Ellison opens by listing all the little things he’d like to do with a girl—staying up late listening to records (“phonograph” and “better half” is an especially memorable rhyme) and meeting her parents—before dropping the song’s title: “I would like to tell the very first lie.” It’s a sly twist that takes its lyrics out of the realm of fantasy and into a more subversive kind of love song: Even an unrequited love is still love; a lie to a lover is still its own curdled form of intimacy. Elsewhere, Ellison gets closer to Ric Ocasek as carnival barker: “Diane” describes a woman who’s “got everything: a helicopter, a submarine!” We don’t learn much more about Diane—she’s maybe 19—but in her anonymity, she becomes an avatar for the eternally elusive dream girl. The song’s chorus, just an increasingly emphatic repetition of her name, conjures a woman who just might own multiple motorized helicopters and submarines. He makes it sound like Diane could stop the world.

In the world of power-pop, the goal isn’t to get the girl, it’s to write the best song about the girl. Ellison is not just in thrall to his subjects but to the history of pop music, from the rollicking country of “Chance of a Lifetime” and the swaggering morality play “Trouble” to the slow, shimmering soft rock of “A Very Good Idea.” Whenever the songs threaten to veer too far into paint-by-numbers romance, small interjections—“But hey, it was your birthday” on the bridge of “Li’l Christine”—bring them into Material Issue’s unique lane of punk and Brill Building pop. Material Issue built a pop universe that sounded fully formed from the start, as if its rhymes and rhythms had always existed in the ether and had just been waiting for Ellison, Ansani, and Zelenko to track it to tape.

International Pop Overthrow was released in February 1991, and by the next month, they were performing “Diane” for a group of neon-clad fraternity brothers on MTV’s Spring Break. Ellison and his band thought it was ambitious when their record shipped at 60,000 copies, but by the end of the year, Mercury had sold over 200,000; they instantly went from local scenesters to one of Chicago’s most successful new rock bands. They headed back to Zion to work with Murphy on a second record on Ellison’s request, returning to the familiarity of Shoes’ studio out of Ellison’s devotion to Murphy’s self-made melodies, despite their label advance providing them the freedom to leave Illinois. The result, 1992’s Destination Universe, sounded like a prime-time remake of their debut—the same hooks, the same layered vocals, the same girl-crazed lyrics, but without the come-from-nothing exuberance that made International Pop Overthrow so electrifying.

The band still found success—the boldly assumptive single “What Girls Want” landed them on The Dennis Miller Show—but the album didn’t sell. Despite recruiting a new producer, Mike Chapman (who had worked with Blondie), and including contributions from Cheap Trick’s Rick Nielsen for their third record, 1994’s Freak City Soundtrack, it failed to lift the band out of their slump. Ellison’s ideas in their purest form were strong enough to carry an album without a budget or expensive mastering, and their sound was hampered by additional money and time. The album sold less than 50,000 copies, and Mercury dropped the band within a year.

Material Issue was so predicated on forward momentum that Ellison couldn’t reconcile their fall from grace. He might have been a notoriously boastful frontman, but that was because he believed his music spoke to a collective pop truth that transcended the band. “He thought he had tapped into something universally great,” Steve Albini said later in the 2021 Material Issue documentary Out of Time. Ellison had tapped into what he thought was the core of the great American pop subconscious and found its heart beating in 4/4 time, yearning for someone to come along just to feel anything, even heartbreak. And though the band continued to work on new music in the years following Freak City Soundtrack—including several covers with Ellison’s close friend, the newly ascendant post-Exile in Guyville Liz Phair—there was a sense that Material Issue had stalled.

“Anyone who knew Jim personally knew what it was to be touched by the light of his star,” Phair said later. It seemed surreal, then, when the news came that he had died by suicide on June 20, 1996. By all accounts, it wasn’t meant to be the end for Ellison. He had just joined a local supergroup Wild Bunch with members of Guns N’ Roses and Blondie, and was co-writing songs with Phair at the height of her success. Appropriately, Material Issue played what would be their last show at Metro, one of the Chicago venues that helped launch their career five years earlier.

Two years after Ellison’s death, fanzine writer David Bash founded the International Pop Overthrow festival in Los Angeles, in tribute to Ellison. For International Pop Overthrow’s 20th anniversary, the band reunited at the festival, fronted by local musician Phil Agnotti, as “Material Re-Issue.” And though their debut has been remastered in the years since its release, their original recordings sound just as vital as the day they were made. The band’s debut crackles with the energy of a fighter finally getting his chance in the ring, shining with a glimmer of that universal truth Ellison eternally strived to reach. Of course, Ellison put it briefest and best: “We just rock—that’s it.”