After the demise of Jellyfish, Roger Joseph Manning Jr. picked up the pieces and put together Imperial Drag. Joining him were drummer Eric Skodis, bassist Joseph Karnes and vocalist/guitarist Eric Dover in a project that grabbed bits and pieces of glam, healthy swaths of Britpop in the style of Blur and a dose of Led Zeppelin from the era when the golden gods got up to their funkiest business. The 1996 self-titled debut stands as the definitive statement from this too-short-lived unit.

On opener “Zodiac Sign,” the keyboards whirl by with incisive crunch that summons recollections of Led Zep’s “The Crunge” while all manner of guitar sounds spit forth from the speakers, creating a whirlwind of sound seemingly intent on creating panic within the listener’s internal speakers. Things settle down considerably for the draggy, T. Rex-inspired “Boy or a Girl,” with its gorgeous gang vocals, perfectly placed power chords and drums that clomp, clomp, clomp along like platform shoes on the dance floor. “Crosseyed” summons the spunk of the Sweet, though it adds a set of higher-minded lyrics more conceptual in nature than the “Ballroom Blitz” originators were likely to have ever summoned.

It’s high-energy in the extreme, though the pace relents ever-so-slightly for the aptly-named space oddity “The Man in the Moon,” with its rustic, Mick Ronson-inspired lead guitar lines and Mott-style six-string layers. It feels so much longer than four minutes, but its sense of sonic sanctuary is quickly interrupted by the sheer dirtiness of “‘Breakfast’ by Tiger (Kiss It All Goodbye).” Meanwhile, “Dandelion” and “The Salvation Army Band” hold their own, never relenting in quality even when not quite reaching the same levels of sonic intensity.

Manning had proven himself to be a superior writer in Jellyfish, and with Dover he found an ace foil to join him in crafting the 14 tracks on this recording. The latter had worked in the Jellyfish live band and came to the sessions for this recording after a tenure in Slash’s Snakepit. You needn’t go looking for traces of the hatted one’s influence, though. They’re not there. Instead, this is music written by two guys aware of what they were trying to (re)capture and then doing it with accuracy.

It’s hard to see why the record didn’t catch fire upon its release; it crackled with a rock ‘n’ roll sincerity that had come to be viewed as passé in the days of grunge but wasn’t burdened by the snarling irony of what came after. The lyrics were smart, sometimes satirical and easy to sing along with you if you tried. Then again, the sands were shifting toward a much more diverse corpus rock at that moment with Moby vying for attention beside Tool, hip-hop and the first indications of R.E.M.’s death rattle. If anyone could have predicted what would burst in a year that saw Bill Clinton win his second bid for the White House, they might have told Imperial Drag to hold off for a more receptive season. Then again, that season may have been more 1994 or 1991, instead.

As it turns out, 1996 might have been a watershed year for Manning and evidence that his ear was cast in both the past and the present. While Imperial Drag was doing its retro thing, he was also thinking back to the glory days of synthesizers with the brilliant Moog Cookbook, known for its retro-tinged covers of hits by Green Day, Ted Nugent, Lenny Kravitz and others. Manning finds the humor in these sounds (as he did with Jellyfish) but mutes the silliness for the betterment of the material.

Manning has gone on to work extensively with Beck, recorded with the band TV Eyes and has issued some superior solo releases that are on par with the work of his old chum Lyle Workman. Dover became a member of Alice Cooper’s band and has later worked with outfits such as Sextus. Karnes has recorded and tour with Fitz and the Tantrums while Skodis boasts credits with Glen Campbell among others. While it’s beyond wishful thinking to expect that we’ll ever hear anything more from Imperial Drag, what we have in lieu of that is one fine record surrounded by a little bit of mystery and a whole lot of happy memories for those who heard it then and those who dig it today.

One Comment

  1. Mark Joyce

    April 29, 2021 at 9:07 am

    Nice summary. Fortunate enough to catch Jellyfish playing at a pub in Leeds in ’91; hadn’t seen a singing/standing drummer before. Karen Carpenter doesn’t count. Great live band & followed Manning’s subsequent output with interest given his smart pop sensibility. Unfortunately, as you neatly explained, Imperial Drag arrived at the wrong time. At that time, the UK was wallowing in nostalgia with Britpop and waiting to see if the Manics would break pt until Radiohead gained sufficient momentum to offer an alternative. The band briefly appeared in the UK for a short tour but, other than that, I don’t think they attracted much attention. Shame.


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