Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Belltower: Unlocking A Piece of Indie Rock History with Today's Internet

I've been noticing one thing in my life a lot lately. It's how much a bit of quick, easy internet research today often illuminates for me, about the history behind music I fell in love with, before we had all this technology that can deliver so many answers.

Case in point: The Belltower. This was a band whose one album I knew of, Popdropper, fell into my hands as a DJ on my college radio station. I fell in love with all the songs the station's music director marked for play on the air, and then I bought the CD to have as my own, and fell in love with all the other tracks.

But all I knew about the band itself, and all I remembered before doing some speedy 2012 internet research, was this: they were from England.

That's it. I had no idea how they came to be on an indie label to release the album I owned in 1991.  I had no idea what happened to them after that, because I never heard of them again.  Part of me was surprised by this, because it is still one of my all-time favorite albums, and every single song seems genius to me.  But knowing the music industry as I do, another part of me was not surprised at all.  Many, many talented, amazing bands make one album on an indie label and then disappear from the entire range of the Public Eye forever.

So for some reason I'm not entirely sure of, I started diggingon the internet recently, in the full awareness of the volumes of information that are now out here on what used to be considered highly obscure topics, such as indie rock bands who maybe only put out one album in the 1990's.And I learned a lot. Here's a summary.

The Belltower, which had four members, was mostly the creation of two of them: Jody Porter and Britta Phillips. They both played guitar and sang vocals, one of the many things I love about their Popdropper record. They both have amazing singing voices, both when heard alone and when blended together.  They met and founded the band in New York City.  Britta had a job as the signing voice of the television animated cartoon character Jem. She also got a choice acting role in the film Satisfaction with Julia Roberts, Justine Bateman and Liam Neeson. Once the band was up and running, all four members decided to move to London, England.

Britta and Jay fell in love and got married. The Belltower first released an EP, then later, the Popdropper full LP. Popdropper soon got the band to be all the buzz of the British rock press. They were widely touted as The Next Big Thing, meaning, the next band to rise from relative obscurity to huge, nationwide success, in England and perhaps also in their original home, the U.S.

But Jody couldn't handle it. He freaked out. He felt a ton of pressure to co-create and put out a record that would prove they were worthy of being The Next Big Thing, and actually make them into The Next Big Thing. So he backed out of the lucrative contract with the major label they had signed their deal with. In doing so, he instantly transformed himself and the other band members into personae non grata with the entire British and American recording industries. He fired bassist Mark Browning and drummer Nino Dmytryszyn. On his insistence, he and Britta moved back to the U.S. and settled in North Carolina.  He recruited a new bassist and a new drummer. Under his leadership and direction, they put out one single.

And that was it.

For The Belltower, anyway. Eventually, Jody and Britta divorced. Britta Phillips moved back to New York City, convinced she would never be a part of a commercially successful band again, after the debacle between Jody and The Belltower's record-label-in-waiting. But she still loved making and playing music. So she played bass in a few bands. Later on, she met Dean Wareham, founder of the indie rock bands Galaxie 500 and Luna. She replaced the bassist in Luna, and she and Dean fell in love and married. After Luna disbanded, Britta and Dean formed their own musical project as a couple, called Dean and Britta, in which they both still continue on in today.

Jody Porter eventually moved on to join the band Fountains of Wayne after his friend Adam Schlesinger asked him to.  He continues in that band to this day.

And that's the beginning, middle, end and epilogue of The Belltower.

In one sense, I suppose learning all that didn't change much about how I feel about the record I have owned since 1991.  I still love it, I still listen to it, I'm still blown away by it every time.

But in another sense, I think it's gotten me to fall in love with the record even more.  To know that it captured and still relates a musical couple at the height of their love for each other and for what they were creating together.  That it catches four incredibly talented musicians who took the risk of moving to another country to make their start and live out their destiny together.  That it really is the seminal work of an amazing band, that only existed as an active, performing and recording entity for a very short period of time.  That so many in the British rock press felt exactly as the 1991 Version of Me did when he listened to it:  This band is going to be huge.  Or at the very least, they deserve to be.

In hunting around YouTube, I discovered two actual, official music videos the band made, for two of the songs from Popdropper. One for "In Hollow," and the other for "Outshine the Sun." They're both great, and they're both in my new playlist titled "The Belltower (Band)" on my second YouTube channel, Collin's Channell.  In that playlist, there is also an interview with Jody and Britta from circa 1991, and audio-only videos of the rest of the tracks from Popdropper.

BUT...I enjoyed learning the history of the band so much, that I made my own slideshow-style video for another amazing Popdropper tune, "Eyes on the Time," which was probably the 3rd single they released from it in the alternate universe where it went to Number 1 on the Billboard Albums chart a few weeks after its release.  I cobbled this video out of old publicity photos, flyers and such I found online, along with still shots from their two official music videos.  In making it, I grew to feel very strongly that I almost knew the members personally, or maybe that I had hung out with them and talked to them for hours in a bar one night, and they had told me all kinds of stories of their short life together as an active band.

Anyway, I now feel connected to this band and this record far more than I did before making it. If any of the members ever get to see it, I hope it brings good memories to their mind, and a smile in their heart. It's the video posted at the very beginning of this post.

Is there a band you didn't know much about when you first fell in love with their music?  Have you researched them since, or are you still in the dark?  If you looked them up, what did you find out?

Leave me a comment with your story, I'd love to read what you have to share.

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