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.