An illustration of 1990s power-pop band the Joy Poppers embedded in the title card for the Secret History of Chicago Music
The Joy Poppers Credit: Steve Krakow for Chicago Reader

Since 2005 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.

When I started the Secret History of Chicago Music in 2005, I had a rule: no artists from the 1990s. Not enough time had passed, I figured, for them to be forgotten. It’s been 18 years, though, and the local scene is full of people who don’t remember the 90s—or who weren’t even born then. So I feel OK covering a favorite band who put out their first album in 1995: the delightfully confounding and outrageously underappreciated Joy Poppers.

The one constant member of this eccentric power-pop outfit is singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Tom Szidon. He was born in Chicago on February 16, 1969, and in 1976 his family settled in Highland Park. As a lad Szidon picked up clarinet, then took piano lessons. By the end of high school, he was a Beatles fanatic itching to play guitar. He also took inspiration from newer UK bands he learned about from a friend of his sister’s—he remembers especially liking New Order and Haircut One Hundred.

During his senior year at Highland Park High School, Szidon met Jason Batchko, who was a couple months younger but a year behind him in school. Batchko played drums in the school jazz band and orchestra, and his skills in punk rock, jazz, bossa nova, and other styles meant he was already in demand off campus too: he played in local groups the Change and the Surface.

In 1988, Szidon joined Batchko, Surface guitarist Mike Datz, and Change guitarist Mike Ruekberg (now on bass) in a cover band called Kick Out the Jams. Despite the name, they didn’t specialize in tunes by the MC5, instead focusing on current alterna-pop (the Replacements, the Slugs, R.E.M.) and tossing in the occasional surf-rock medley. Ruekberg soon moved away, though, and Datz went back to school. 

Szidon left town to try California living for a year, and when he returned to Chicago in 1991, he wanted to start writing his own songs. Datz was too busy to join him, so Szidon and Batchko forged ahead as a duo. They initially called themselves the Girls (a name Batchko later adopted for a solo project), then switched in 1992 to the Joy Poppers. “Joy popper” is an obsolete slang term for someone who could shoot heroin recreationally without becoming addicted (Nelson Algren used it in The Man With the Golden Arm), and Szidon and Batchko were both big fans of famous opiate aficionados the Velvet Underground.

The Joy Poppers cut a four-song cassette demo in 1993 with engineer Marshall Dawson at Orange Recording (1014 W. Belmont). The sessions included bassist Jeff Larson, who’d found Szidon and Batchko with a “bassist seeks band” flyer. (When they got in touch, Batchko realized he knew Larson from college.) The demo got a good review in the Illinois Entertainer, and the trio version of the Joy Poppers landed their first gigs at Elbo Room and Thurston’s.

Larson got married and left the band, so Dawson replaced him on bass. Within a year the Joy Poppers had established themselves on the booming local indie-rock scene, which had attracted national hype after Liz Phair, Smashing Pumpkins, and Urge Overkill signed to major labels. In 1994 the Poppers played the Empty Bottle with local group Ultraswiss, fronted by Veruca Salt drummer Jim Shapiro. His Veruca Salt bandmates Nina Gordon and Louise Post were in the crowd, and they became fans of the Joy Poppers.

Success in the music business may be 90 percent who you know, but when the Joy Poppers released their first proper album, 1995’s Zoomar!, their major-label friends didn’t help it take off like it should have. Szidon shoveled all his mad ideas and influences into its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink arrangements, which were indebted to the CinemaScope studio treatments of the Fab Four, Trip Shakespeare, and 1960s Pink Floyd and Beach Boys. 

Tom Szidon uploaded a track from Zoomar!, “Paraphernalia,” specifically so I could share it in this story.

Even Szidon acknowledges that he loaded Zoomar! down with “overcomplicated harmonies, sound effects, and abrupt arrangement left turns.” Deliriously infectious and eccentric, the album drew on the songwriting of Alex Chilton, Robyn Hitchcock, and Andy Partridge, and Batchko added a perceptible tinge of avant-garde jazz. 

Zoomar! was released by the Widely Distributed label, run by Jack Frank, the occasional manager of Jeff Lescher’s cultishly adored local power-pop band Green. The Joy Poppers were in fine company: their labelmates included not just Green but also experimental new wavers Alegbra Suicide and noisy rockers Hip Deep Trilogy, fronted by former Da! vocalist-bassist Lorna Donley

The album earned praise from the Tribune, the Sun-Times, Richard Milne at WXRT, and national music magazine Option. Peter Margasak described Zoomar! in a 1996 Chicago Reader Spot Check roundup: “One of the more impressive examples of wiggy pure pop to come out of Chicago in years,” he wrote. “Taken alone the band’s melodic skills would be nothing to sneeze at, but Szidon clearly favors the sideways quirkiness of XTC: his songs go in myriad directions, interrupting hooks with weird passages of noise, gloppy harmonies, and off-kilter instrumental virtuosity.” 

“Tom had great musical ideas for drum parts,” Batchko says. “And they weren’t easy pop songs! He wanted me to feel free and play like me, while still having parts in his head he was hearing.”

Batchko toured a lot with a different band, pop-rock hopefuls Rollover, so for Joy Poppers gigs Steve Frenkel would often sit in on drums. While the Poppers were supporting Zoomar!, they opened for Veruca Salt at Lounge Ax and Semisonic at Schubas.

YouTube video
Relatively little of the Joy Poppers’ music is streaming anywhere, but this track from the 1998 album Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower has survived on YouTube.

In 1998, Szidon self-released the Joy Poppers’ second disc, Golden Hour of the Shrine of the Little Flower (with cover art by yours truly). Batchko and Szidon overdubbed almost every instrument themselves, with less help from guest players than on Zoomar! The quirky album got good reviews in power-pop circles but didn’t sell well, perhaps because the band didn’t do much touring. Its release also put Szidon into credit-card debt, which ensured that there wouldn’t be another Joy Poppers release for years to come.

The Joy Poppers kept playing in town, though (they especially liked Double Door), joined by Fig Dish guitarist Rick Ness on bass. In 1999 they even flew to Los Angeles to play the second installment of the International Pop Overthrow festival. (It’s since expanded to a literally international assortment of cities, including Chicago.) “When we were ‘cruising the Strip,’ I was wearing very tight pink jeans with baby chickens on them (given to me by Veruca Salt’s Nina Gordon), no shirt, and a long silk kimono,” Batchko recalls. “I remember Scott Weiland giving me a double take, sorta nodding in approval. Then we joined him at his table.”

Though Szidon couldn’t fund another release, he kept writing new material. He remembers recording 15 songs at four or five studios between 1998 and 2000, working with producers such as Belfast transplant Joe Cassidy of Butterfly Child. Szidon was planning a loose concept album spanning three discs, each in the style of a different fictional band—the psychedelic pop of the Ice Cream Eaters, the groovy soul of Sidonius, and the pop metal of Gangue. He didn’t go public with all that work till 2012, when musician and producer John Swamy, a friend of Szidon’s, helped him pull the various sessions together. The long-delayed release, titled The Joy Poppers III, came out on Soundcloud.

In 2012, when the Joy Poppers finally released their long-delayed album, III, it came out on Soundcloud.

In the early 2000s, the Joy Poppers went on hiatus. It’d take half an hour to list everything Szidon and Batchko have done since then, but notably they both played in the Married Men with Scott Lucas of Local H, and Szidon also worked with Lucas in Cisco Pike. Batchko played in Caviar, a successor band to Fig Dish, and joined Jonny Polonsky’s group.

Thankfully, that hiatus didn’t turn out to be permanent. Since 2016 the Joy Poppers have been playing sporadic reunion gigs. In 2019 they brought aboard two new members, guitarist Marc Sloboda and bassist Dani Malloy, but the COVID pandemic soon slammed the door on live shows. They opened for Jeff Lescher and Green at Gman Tavern in March 2020, not yet aware of how bad things would get. “It felt like our first gig,” Szidon recalls. “Then everything ended.”

The Joy Poppers play at the Red Line Tap in 2017 during Chicago’s International Pop Overthrow fest.

Since then Batchko has stayed busy as a sideman—he’s played with the Imperial Sound, Grit & the Double Knit, and Rachel Drew’s band, among others. In 2020 he also released an album on Pravda Records, I’m So Happy You Called!, documenting his late-90s phone-prank comedy. The four-piece Sloboda-Malloy Joy Poppers are still together, and they’re working on a new single. Szidon says they’ve got one side recorded.

Any group that’s existed for as long as the Joy Poppers will have a few lineups to choose from, though, and on Saturday, December 16, a “vintage” version of the band will play a Secret History of Chicago Music concert at the Hideout. Szidon and Batchko will be joined by two Zoomar!-era players, Frenkel and Dawson (both on guitar), and former Joy Poppers bassist Dan Polonsky (a veteran of Nash Kato’s band and brother of Jonny Polonsky). They’ll share the bill with Lescher’s group the Larks and my duo Spiral Galaxy. I booked the concert, but I’m not taking a promoter’s fee—and any proceeds will go to the other bands.

The music of the 1990s is being relentlessly and indiscriminately pillaged by nostalgia merchants, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I wouldn’t dare attempt to explain why some bands get resurrected, but obviously I don’t think they’re always the ones that deserve it most. But as long as the Joy Poppers keep playing shows, the odds remain better than zero that their beautifully excessive and strangely tuneful songs will get a second life.

The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.