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Aug 13

BABYLON ZOO – “Spaceman”

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#733, 27th January 1996

Spaceman The nu millennium demands nu music. Twinkling neon keyboard and nebular swells of synth herald the cyberdelic overlord of compu-pop. What galactic visions have his mauve eyes witnessed? What secrets of the funk cosmic lie in his androgyne grasp? Cyborgs flex to hip-hop breaks as he begins his star-borne song, his voice pitched high, warped into alien tongues. Speak, voyager!

And then the actual song begins.

One version of the “Spaceman” story has Babylon Zoo playing – with the help of Levi’s Jeans – a mean and hilarious trick on the Great British Record Buying Public. Levi’s were now in the happy position, for an advertiser, of their every creative choice getting actual news coverage, and their sci-fi follow-up to the claymation shenanigans of “Boombastic” buzzed with adland confidence. Punky alien girl shocks the space-squares back home by returning from Earth – gasp! – with a pair of jeans. This cornball idea was gorgeously realised and its soundtrack played a huge part – a thrilling, helium-voiced nugget of breakbeat pop futurism. “Spaceman”, in other words, but only the first thirty seconds – spliced onto the track from its Arthur Baker remix. Viewers rushing to buy the single on the back of the ad had no idea the song was about to plunge into growly rock suet.

This story is backed up not just by the speed of sales but by the near-total indifference shown to anything Babylon Zoo did afterwards. But it’s not supported by the intensity of “Spaceman”’s popularity: five weeks at number one, over a million sold. The radio wasn’t just playing the first 30 seconds – so while some people bought “Spaceman” to recapture a commercial’s shiver of alien glamour, many more will have picked it up because they liked the whole song.

So what’s there to like? On paper, “Spaceman” looks like a hard hitting record. The first British Asian man at Number One, singing about homophobia, incipient fascism, media overload, and how “It’s time to terminate the great white world”. But that’s really not how it sounds. For one thing you have to squint selectively to pull any coherent reading out of dystopian boilerplate like “beyond the black horizon / trying to take control”. And the songwriting feels similar to the last time Levis deigned to pluck a band from obscurity – grunge soup, dynamic shifts taking the place of hooks. Behind the expensive makeover for “Spaceman”, this is no doubt what every fifth-rate indie rock band sounded like in the mid-90s.

But the main reason “Spaceman” fails is that Jas Mann is such a terrible vocalist. His performance on “Spaceman” is horribly overcooked – a nasal cyberpunk snarl distorted and amped up in ways that can’t hide how thin his voice is. It’s a crowded field, but there may well be no single sound on a 90s number one more viscerally annoying for me than Mann sneering “There’s a fire between us – so where is your God?”. Ultimately this dark-future mind bomb is a dud not because of its bait-and-switch, not because its harsh truths flew over listeners’ heads, but because its singer sounded like a tool.

Even then, “Spaceman” is a marker for a 90s current we’d otherwise miss. Babylon Zoo’s Bowie-esque playbook had been well thumbed over the last few years by Suede – a hubristic, big-talking frontman, borrowing from sci-fi and glam, teasing his audience with gender fluidity (“Saris are really comfortable to wear – and a lot of fun!”). And the sound – gothy, contemptuous, faintly industrial – would turn up independently and in a much beefier, more convincing way with Marilyn Manson’s glam rock turn.

Glam haunted the 90s, feeding into ideas, styles, and looks that were floating around pop culture, without ever really threatening a specific revival. I wouldn’t claim “Spaceman” for glam: the guitar textures and the poses fit, but glam rock’s power was in its rhythmic push, and without Arthur Baker ‘s help “Spaceman” gets stuck in its own sludge. But its success shows the appetite for theatre that’s always bubbling under British pop. You need a special talent to turn that urge into a career, though, and Jas Mann only looked the part.

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Comments

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  1. 121
    Mark G on 6 Sep 2013 #

    We lived in fast times, you know.

    And, when a scene ends, it ends conclusively. I remember one Reading Festival with thousands of people joyously yelling “you fat bastart” at John B when Carter USM headlined, thinking “This can’t be true, can it?”, and in a matter of years they would be playing to the hardy faithful as long as they didn’t play too often.

  2. 122
    love is called my old piano on 9 Sep 2013 #

    This is from memory: stuff that I’d mentally filed under ’embarrassing teenage obsessions’ before Coming Up was even out, but I loved Suede at the time. The music press backlash came earlier, circa ‘Dog Man Star’: Bernard had left, their future seemed uncertain, Brett was reportedly (ISTR a somewhat concerned NME cover story) more drug than man. The actual album got fair, but not glowing reviews. If it got panned anywhere I don’t remember it, although you can probably tell I’m nervous about making pronouncements on such things cos this site is full of people with far more expertise on the music press than me:) But there was a sense that, with the cranked-up drama/darkness/weirdness and other excesses they were over-reaching themselves on DMS…which they absolutely were, but that’s what made it exciting.

    It wasn’t quite Britpop tho, at least not in the form it had congealed into by late ’94. Pulp dressed their bleakness in nostalgic polyester, Oasis’s lightly psychedelic dreams felt firmly anchored in reality, Blur were pop, smart, snarky and semi-detached. Suede, at this point, were lyrically paranoid, desperate and spooked. (I remember the ‘nuclear wind’ of ‘We Are The Pigs’ being cited as a WTF anachronism, and possibly also that Brett was the punchline in a ‘Do you remember the 80s? Cos they sucked’ NME piece. Can’t remember if they pointed out that Numan was secretly the filter they were distilling Bowie through, but they should have and he was.) Musically, I’m guessing that some of the excess had to do with Bernard’s departure – he left us a 7(?) minute guitar solo here so let’s use that, OMG how to fill these other holes since the new guy’s still finding his feet, hey how about doing this one as an epic ballad with full orchestra? Can we get Eno in for some tape loops and stuff? This one needs horns and yes, a children’s choir! – That last one’s ‘We Are The Pigs’, again. Which was the lead single. Which can’t have helped.

    The album and the singles (WATP, the rather lovely ‘Wild Ones’, the anomalously perky ‘New Generation’ with half an eye on ‘Coming Up’, I feel like I’ve missed one but am blanking on what. It can’t have been ‘Heroine’…can it? Decent song, but yikes:/) underperformed, at least by top tier Britpop standards. They were off-message and looked like a sinking ship, fading quietly from view in the music press (Bear in mind here that I was young and obsessed. It might have been a fairly normal between-album cycle, not the eternal banishment to pop purgatory I saw it as. But, at that point, they definitely didn’t receive the same consistent level of coverage as the Big Three + Elastica + Weller + Welsh Bunnies + etc). I wasn’t following things as closely by the Coming Up era, so I can’t really speak for things then – glad that they’d survived, of course, but it was too shiny by half for me. They’d learned that lesson, I guess. As for H…E…admusic (thanks for that petite madeliene moment!), it seemed to contain some stuff that surely *must* have baited the critics, but maybe time has been kinder than my memory. It’ll (astonishingly, to me; I didn’t know it sold so well) come up eventually in an excellent blog not far from here, tho.

    I never did get the appeal of the speeded-up bit, but to my teenage ears the full ‘Spaceman’ was a blatant Suede knockoff*. I obviously would think that, since that was my frame of reference at the time. As such, I had a sort of eye-rolling affection for it; it’s daft as hell, but to have an ersatz version of something I really liked (that had been unfairly shoved out of the public discourse by the beery dominant Fred Perry parka football side of Britpop – that’s how I saw things at the time) hit no.1 was quietly validating, even in a package as impossible to take seriously as this one. Now, I see that the silliness is a huge point in its favour, but then…

    There is a particular appetite for a particular strain of glammy, dramatic rock, particularly but not exclusively amongst a particular subset of teenage girls**. This appetite is eternal, though the bands change; BZ are a fleeting and slightly silly strain of this, but it feels better to mention it here than on a bunnied Welsh band’s future thread, even though I’d put them somewhere on this continuum too. There’s a 21st century stadium power trio (will the spoiler bunny hop out of its black hole if I make this revelation? I haven’t checked. If I’m wrong, I probably still deserve a bite for that terrible attempt at wordplay) who are the machine-perfect polished culmination of this, IMO.*** It needs a genre name, I think, unless there’s already one and I missed it.

    First comment on a blog I’ve been reading forever – far too much about my unexorcised teenage obsessions – random, unprovoked bolshiness – defending Babylon Zoo – yep, my work here is done.

    *the same goes for ‘All The Money’s Gone’, which is indeed kinda great.

    **It feeds the same kind of appetite as vampires do, I think, and like them the trend emerges, fades and reinvents, but never completely goes away. The two fixations don’t necessarily overlap, though…personally, I could never take them seriously enough to get in with the goth kids, and that was back in the 90s, when vampires were nowhere near as godawful as they are today.

    ***Apologies for any potential offence caused by lumping them together, but frankly that pales into insignificance against the suggestion upthread that Suede (of whom I just realised I am weirdly protective, despite not having listened to them for at least a decade) and Franz F’ing Ferdinand (who make my skin crawl) can conceivably be mentioned in the same sentence. Sir, we duel at dawn:)

  3. 123
    love is called my old piano on 9 Sep 2013 #

    (feels strange urge to revisit Gene, fights it)

  4. 124
    Cumbrian on 9 Sep 2013 #

    Good stuff. Nice to have you around.

    Muse are not bunnied – and I doubt they ever will be barring something extraordinary happening when they release a single in the future.

  5. 125
    anto on 9 Sep 2013 #

    @122 Some very good points. I used to go by the principle of never trust any band where not even one member is wearing eyeliner.

  6. 126
    Rory on 9 Sep 2013 #

    @122 Great to have you here. We need all the long-and-thoughtful-comment-writers we can get, to feed our insatiable hunger. We Are the Pigs.

  7. 127
    weej on 9 Sep 2013 #

    I’d like to put in a word for Everett True, who may well have been “wrong” on a number of occasions, but has generally made up his own mind about what he likes / doesn’t like and refused to go with the prevailing wind even if it means being labelled a contrarian from time to time.

    And for Gene, who I listened to again for B*****p N*****s, and who had *something*, even if they never really got it out of their system. I knew the writing was on the wall for them when I was sent their new CD in 1998 for review in my fanzine, circulation of about 30. It wasn’t very good, of course, but there was a track called “You’ll Never Walk Again” which sticks in the memory as a brilliant title for a song by Gene even now.

  8. 128
    Patrick Mexico on 22 Sep 2013 #

    Re: 122. Well, bring it on. I do feel FF are elevated to a position they don’t really deserve due to current press desperation for “proper guitar music with proper tunes.” Franz had that in spades, but the thorax-in-a-vice, post-punk-pop dynamic that sucks any space out of their music, plus their influence become subservient, do mean they’re a band who I’ll treat more as like an occasional nice cup of tea rather than “I could murder You Could Have It So Much Better.. like I could murder a Sunday roast with all the trimmings.” Mind you, there are plenty of similar bands who are worse than murder. We’ll come to them here and on TPL in about eight years.

    See also: a certain Sheffield bunny. Almost everyone seems to be full of praise for them nowadays; I personally think their first album was a corker, full of such genuine teenage angst (and the naivety in the lyrics and music doesn’t bother me – here it serves as a time capsule).. some say it was the work of a poor man’s Buzzcocks, but since then they’ve turned into a poor man’s Wedding Present.

  9. 129
    Mark G on 3 Nov 2013 #

    You could say that…

  10. 130
    Patrick Mexico on 4 Nov 2013 #

    The saddest thing about this hit’s passing is that it might well be the last number one that’s unashamedly, truly, madly, deeply delighted in being “glam rock.” Or is it?

  11. 131
    glue_factory on 8 May 2014 #

    Bruins suck, Orangemen! Go Canucks

  12. 132
    Mark G on 5 Jun 2014 #

    Seasonal, clearly.

  13. 133
    Cumbrian on 5 Jun 2014 #

    I thought it might be because the NBA finals (Raptors and Thunder both NBA teams – though not actually in the finals) are starting and there is some player nicknamed Spaceman but Google is not helping me to identify whether this is the case.

  14. 134
    Erithian on 5 Jan 2016 #

    Certainly Bowie is all over this influence-wise, and that “images of fascist folks” line is in a passable imitation of the Ziggy voice (ironic given what happened to Bowie a few years later). Yes it does get a bit stodgy at times with guitar white noise breaking up a pretty solid song, albeit one which would probably have been top ten at best without the hook at the start. But hey, you have to give some kudos to a song which gets the line “sickening taste of homophobic jokes” to number one – and for five weeks? It didn’t make that much impression on me then, but listening back to it now I’m more impressed than I thought I would be.

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