The very definition of "cult favorites," the Chrysanthemums (known since the mid-'90s as Chrys&themums) are the sort of group who inspire loyalty among a small band of admirers while remaining entirely below the radar of the public at large. Their music, a mixture of British Invasion-inspired pop, experimental eccentricity, and psychedelic flourishes, is just slightly too odd for wide mainstream acceptance, but few bands walk the knife's edge between accessibility and impenetrability so well.
The Chrysanthemums started in 1986, when the British fanzine Outlet printed articles on guitarist/songwriter Alan Jenkins' lo-fi psychedelic pop band the Deep Freeze Mice and classically-trained keyboardist/indie label owner Terry Burrows in the same issue. Jenkins and Burrows swapped records and quickly found themselves in the studio together. Over two weekends, the duo recorded enough material for a single, "Another Sacred Day," and a debut album, Is That a Fish on Your Shoulder or Are You Just Happy to See Me? Although Jenkins and Burrows recorded all the instruments themselves, the pair made up three other members for the credits. (Burrows also adopted the name Yukio Yung around this time; like the band name, the pseudonym came from Burrows' fondness for Japanese culture.) Released on their own Eggplant label, both the single and the album did well enough for the Chrysanthemums to become a full-time venture. Adding Burrows' friend Martin Howells (who adopted the identity of one of the first album's imaginary musicians, Vladimir Zajkowiecz) on bass, the Chrysanthemums quickly recorded an EP, 1988's The **** Sessions, which was housed in a sleeve parodying the never-ending series of BBC Radio 1 disc jockey John Peel's live sessions. Following this, the trio recorded 1988's Little Flecks of Foam Around Barking, a double album released in a sleeve covered front and back with mock hieroglyphics and including a hilarious, lengthy sleeve note by Jenkins explaining the purported "concept" of the album. Brilliantly catchy and at times profoundly weird, this is the original lineup's artistic high water mark.
After another EP, the five-track Picasso's Problem, the Chrysanthemums hit on the inspired idea of covering the Zombies' baroque lite-psych classic Odessey and Oracle in toto. Rather than faithfully copying the original arrangements, the trio did every song in a different musical style, from folk-rock to acid house, while remaining basically reverent to the source material, and released the album in a sleeve featuring the original back cover of the Zombies' album, with handwritten amendments and comments by Jenkins.
For their next trick, the Chrysanthemums released an odd EP, Porcupine Quills, featuring four widely varied and mostly instrumental versions of one song, an extended psychedelic groove with major hints of Gong and the Canterbury progressive scene. It would prove to be the last recording by the original lineup; during a 1991 five-week tour of Germany, Burrows and Jenkins had a falling out, and the group broke up upon their return to England. Jenkins formed the Creams with ex-members of his side project Ruth's Refrigerator, and Burrows released a number of albums and singles both as Yukio Yung and under a variety of other group names.
In 1995, the German label JARmusic released two live albums chronicling that ill-fated tour, Insekt! Insekt! and the excellently-titled Two Thirty Gallon Drums of Banana Puree (Really Bad Coffee and Several Vegetable Steamers Creating Interesting Light Patterns). Both discs are available by themselves and as part of two elaborate box sets that feature not only the discs but also a bewildering variety of other objects, including a yo-yo, a German-to-English dictionary, and a pen knife. In the mid-'90s, Burrows and Howells reunited, resurrecting their old band name with a clever new visual pun, Chrys&themums, to differentiate the new material from releases by the Jenkins/Burrows/Howells lineup. With Andy Ward (Camel, Hawkwind, the Bevis Frond) on drums, the duo released 1996's The Baby's Head. Less overtly bizarre and with a much greater emphasis on catchy, Brit-pop-style melodies, the new incarnation is poppier but no less satisfying than the original.