Music

How A Sampler Tape Created a Lifelong Material Issue Fan

It was either late 1990 or early 1991 when a package arrived at my house addressed to me. It was from Musician magazine, which I subscribed to, but I couldn’t imagine why they were sending me something in a manilla bubble wrap envelope. So I opened up with curiosity.

Inside was a cassette tape, which were still in wide usage at this point in the music industry. It was from a band I’d never heard of, Material Issue. Three guys, shown in a black and white photo, two with guitars, looking like some mix of slacker gas station clerk and mid-80s British pop musician. I was intrigued and looked at the back.

It was a sampler tape for their upcoming album International Pop Overthrow. On the tape was the full-length version of “Valerie Loves Me” along with 30- or 45-second snippets from the other 13 songs on the album. There was a letter included in the package that explained I was receiving the tape because they thought I’d be interested in hearing about this up-and-coming band, whose album would be hitting record stores shortly. More information about Material Issue was there, but not a whole lot.

So I had to listen to immediately. I grabbed by Walkman and plugged it in. I was hooked from Jim Ellison’s first guitar lick. That slow, somber yet upbeat hook was followed by a bouncy, jangly bass and drums that pushed the beat forward relentlessly. It was, to my ears at the time, as if someone had taken the three-part structure of CBGB’s-era flash punk and applied the pop sensibilities of the British Invasion.

And Ellison’s lyrics..My goodness. He was singing about girls and girls and life and girls and frustrations and girls and everything that seemed to be going through my head at the age of 16 living in suburban Chicago. It wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard as my musical tastes at the time, which were firmly in “arena rock” and related genres. it was fresh and original and catchy as all get-out.

This was my “grunge” moment. I never got into bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden and found that whole sound just kind of…off-putting. I always preferred music that was more tuneful, more finely crafted. Not that those and other bands weren’t filled with talented musicians who didn’t care about their craft, it’s just the end result didn’t resonate with me. I wasn’t that angsty, just melancholy and inclined to daydreams, often involving some girl I was crushing on at the moment. I wasn’t raging against my parents, I just wanted the cute girl in English to notice me. It hit me, in modern parlance, right in the feels.

The letter, if memory serves, said the full album wouldn’t be out for another couple months. So, with full gratification delayed, I played that tape endlessly. It was constantly in that Walkman as I listened to it between classes in high school and went about my life. I told everyone I could about it and forced them to listen to it. Only a few friends got it and shared my enthusiasm.

It wasn’t until later that I found out they were a Chicago band, one that had been playing local clubs for years and that the album was, as a later interview with the band mentioned, basically a glorified demo, with little post-production work that was recorded over a couple years in various locations. This was obviously before the internet, so it wasn’t until the album came out and I read about the band in Entertainment Weekly and other magazines that I found out more about them.

Anyway, I knew when the album was scheduled for release and waiting eagerly for it. Eventually on one of my trips to Flipside Records, the music store located in Hillside Mall not far from my house, it was there on the new release shelf. I plucked the CD longbox out of the rack and saw that yes, all the tracks I was expecting were there in their full-length glory. It wasn’t hard to find as the cover art was the same from the sampler tape, just bigger.

In the 26 years since that album came out I’ve probably listened to it hundreds of times. It’s one my go-to records for when I need a pick-me-up, a boost of energy. The songs still resonate with me and take me back to the halls of York High School in Elmhurst, IL and the days of recording CDs onto tapes so I could listen to them on-the-go.

This wasn’t a fling, though. I stuck with the band all the way through its dissolution after Ellison’s tragic suicide. I bought Destination Universe and loved its more polished feel and sound. Freak City Soundtrack is a great third record, as Ellison seemed to be branching out his songwriting a bit.

I finally saw the band live in 1994 in a show at Chicago’s Metro with my friend Todd, a show that was recorded and released as Goin’ Through Your Purse [Live]. It was everything I wanted it to be, with the three-piece band offering a powerhouse performance to the local crowd, playing all the songs we loved. There had only been a few radio hits for them over the years so it wasn’t a case where we were waiting for that one hit or another. The band seemed to be playing its favorite songs off the three records, the ones they enjoyed and knew the fans would react to. They mixed up the up-tempo and slower songs so everyone kept moving in some manner or another.

There’s been a lot written about Ellison and Material Issue over the intervening years. MI doesn’t quite get the recognition it deserves in oral histories of the late-80s/early-90s Chicago music scene. And it’s unfortunate that they never broke into the mainstream in a meaningful way. For me, as well as other loyal fans, the band remains one that impacted my teenage life significantly and one I will gladly still champion. That’s all because of a sampler tape mailed to Elmhurst 27 years ago.

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