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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.

4

Comments

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  1. 1
    fivelongdays on 17 Aug 2013 #

    This a stupidly brilliant – or brilliantly stupid – record. The squeaky, dancy intro shifts into grinding rock, the lyrics combine politicised statements with cosmic mentalism, and it grooves harder than an awful lot of the things we’ve heard lately. It’s genuinely menacing (though not as much as a track we’ll come to in *thinks* a couple of entries time). Also, it’s a heck of a lot of fun to go “INTERGALACTIC CHRIST” at people.

    Jas’ voice isn’t that annoying – I can think of a lot more annoying sounds in nineties number ones – and good call on the nod to Mazza. There’s a strange similarity, when you think of it, although Antichrist Superstar (MM’s finest moment, which also came out in ’96) benefitted from a shithot production job by Laughing Boy Trent. The only flaw with it is that the helium bits – especially the one at the end – sound a touch bolted on.

    This is the first of a trend of British Asian Number Ones In The Early Months Of The Year, but more on that later, obviously.

    Where is your God, Tom? This is easily an eight, possibly a nine.

  2. 2
    thefatgit on 17 Aug 2013 #

    I CAN’T GET OFF THE CAROUSEL

  3. 3
    Tom on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Another comparison point – which Babylon Zoo come out well ahead in, even vocally – is “Zeroes And Ones” era Jesus Jones.

  4. 4
    flahr on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Tom you must not know how intensely amusing it is to play this to young adults (unfamiliar with the song except its intro) who

    a) like dance music: who get really pissed off when it turns out to be WELL GOFF

    b) don’t like dance music: who go “oh god no” and then look like idiots when it turns out to be WELL GOFF

    which alone makes it worth 6

    (I think it will take some more comments to decide whether it is WELL GOFF enough for a 7)

  5. 5
    flahr on 17 Aug 2013 #

    (I’m pretty sure I prefer “Slight Return” tho)

  6. 6
    Tom on 17 Aug 2013 #

    #4 this is played at almost every Club Popular for that reason. Well, the first 30 seconds are. And not that young adults unfamiliar with the song ever attend Club Popular.

  7. 7
    Alan not logged in on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Another ref point? Placebo’s first album came out in 96 (sa wikipedia)

  8. 8
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 17 Aug 2013 #

    i am the illest goff and i come among you to ask: ARE SCOOTER BUNNIED? Because surely here is where we celebrate them if not

    viz “Endless Summer” july 1995 –> (= invented Fennesz as well as helium-speed BZoo)

  9. 9
    Alan not logged in on 17 Aug 2013 #

    they are not :-(

  10. 10
    Ed on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Things you know that ain’t so: I had always believed that Bowie’s Hallo Spaceboy was a response to this, a sign that although his taste might not have been as impeccable as it once was, he was at least aware of the way his spirit and ideas were stil alive in the nineties.

    Turns out that must be wrong: Hallo Spaceboy was released the year before.

  11. 11
    JLucas on 17 Aug 2013 #

    I vividly remember the school discos at the time when everyone would beg the DJ to play this song, go wild when he relented, then stand around awkwardly not really knowing what to do when the first bit ended.

    I actually think it’s entirely possible that most of those million people *did* only buy it for the first thirty seconds. It’s like wondering who took 16 weeks to get around to buying (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, or who was still buying LeAnn Rimes after nigh on six months of bouncing around the top 40 with How Do I Live. An element of the public can be very slow to respond to things they like, and the advert aired for a very long time as I recall.

    Of course, I’m sure there were a few who really did like the goth element, but I reckon if you asked 99.9% of children, teens and young adults of the 90s to hum any other element of the song, they’d be completely stumped.

  12. 12
    Izzy on 17 Aug 2013 #

    it’s entirely possible that most of those million people *did* only buy it for the first thirty seconds

    Oh, totally. It’s certainly why I bought it. The rest is tolerable, but who’d buy it on its own? I’ve never come across the Arthur Baker remix, it sounds like that’s where I should’ve been heading.

    On the principle that you mark a record by its high point: (8), though obviously as a whole it’s probably (4)

  13. 13
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 17 Aug 2013 #

    So about four minutes in to the 5.42 version I’m playing right now, they start background chants of “Babylon Zoo”, and it struck me that this is quite an unusual thing to be doing. Obviously there are acts who sing songs of the same name as themselves — cue Black Sabbath, cue ancient Monty Smith/Danny Baker joke review of Imagination’s eponymous first alb — but this is not that, and I don’t mean that. I’m trying to think of other songs where the act’s own name is used as a chant during a song of a different title — there must be some!

  14. 14
    23 Daves on 17 Aug 2013 #

    I’ve argued about this record so often online over the last ten years or so that I can barely summon up the will to do so again. But…

    My relationship with “Spaceman” is slightly different to most people’s. The first time I heard it was in a local record shop, who were playing it over the sound system at least one month before the Levis ad was aired. I don’t know if they’d received a pre-release copy, acetate or a demo, but my first impressions were: “Is this Pop Will Eat Itself’s new direction? Seems like a leap forward for them if so!” A backhanded compliment to say the least, and I meant to talk to the cashier to see if my suspicions were correct, but I got distracted and forgot all about it until I heard the thirty second extract yet again on the Levi’s ad. So, unlike most of the UK, I already knew how the rest of the song went and had already made up my mind that I quite liked it. I’ve had this story challenged on a number of occasions and if someone can prove to me that I might have misremembered something along the way and I couldn’t possibly have heard the track so early on (it was a long time ago, after all) I’m happy to step down and admit I may be mistaken.

    So, before the ad I’d already decided that the track stood a chance as a minor breakaway indie hit – a high top twenty or low top ten placing, maybe. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer force of the record’s popularity, which does admittedly seem inexplicable. “Spaceman” is a bit over-the-top and silly, and actually sounds rather dated for 1996. As posters have pointed out above, it has echoes of Jesus Jones about it, whose moment had long passed. My initial comparison with Pop Will Eat Itself seems slightly inaccurate in retrospect, but the vocals do have that slight Black Country grebo whine to them which were prevalent in the early nineties as well. Mann’s roots were also in a Brum trad-indie act The Sandkings (http://youtu.be/oHC0ejrLTbI) of whom I was aware, and were passable and unobjectionable and clearly operating in the shadow of their region’s bigger brothers.

    Whatever I originally supposed, “Spaceman” initially seemed as unlikely a number one as Eat suddenly having a glam-tinged million seller. But I think in its own way the track also shines a searchlight over a wide demographic – the dance kids who probably wanted the Arthur Baker remix, the Suede fans, the goth kids who enjoyed the doomy aspects, the less picky Bowie fans, and any unreformed grebos who might happen to have been listening. Couple that with enormously wide exposure on an advert, and you’ve clearly got a smash, although I actually doubt the construction of the track was as cynical as that.

    And while it’s a strange number one in retrospect, I’ll still maintain that it is a good single. The central hooks are incredibly powerful, the verses theatrical enough to be enjoyable if you tell yourself that Mann knows he’s being ridiculous. I didn’t buy it in the end, but I always find myself enjoying it if it comes on the radio, which happens very infrequently these days. And of course, everything else Babylon Zoo released was total rubbish, which is why they faded from view so quickly – they were complete one-trick ponies. But it’s an interesting 7-out-of-10 trick to my ears.

  15. 15
    23 Daves on 17 Aug 2013 #

    #13 – The Sweet did it at the start of “Teenage Rampage” with the chant “We want Sweet/ We want Sweet”.

    The KLF/ Justified Ancients of Mu Mu also did it more times than I can possibly count.

  16. 16
    Tom on 17 Aug 2013 #

    There’s a Fall track – I forget which – that begins “Fall Ad-Vance! Fall Ad-Vance!” chant style.

  17. 17
    Brendan F on 17 Aug 2013 #

    #13 – Utah Saints

  18. 18
    swanstep on 17 Aug 2013 #

    @13, Mark. Ugh, at least half the tracks on Madonna’s 1987 remix album, You Can Dance, broke down to chants of “Madonna! Madonna!….” over just a beat at various points. As far as I can recall, however, M. never chanted her own name in the principal/original, non-extended mix of any track until the recent, uninspiring,’Gimme All Your Luvin which chanted ‘L U V Madonna, Y O U you wanna’ right from the outset. Gaga, of course, chants her name everywhere in original versions of lots of her songs.

  19. 19
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 17 Aug 2013 #

    My first thought was that the chant was a kind of a tell: indicating that this was a stunt single rather than the first move in a “routine rocky chart-pop career” (whatever that might be). Of course the KLF/JAMMS link — very good call — doesn’t really disprove this. As KLFish first move, this should have been a corker! So did Jas Mann’s nerve fail, did he not see the opportunities open to him, or did he really think that the Levi’s ad was merely a door-opener and now he would shake off such stuff and get back to his “real” music? (The second single of the second LP was a cover of Mott the Hoople’s Honaloochie Boogie, released only as a promo, in France…)

    Hmmm, isn’t the Sweet chant more the invocation of the audience that loves you — the presence of their voices on your record — and thus a slightly different thing again? It disrupts the more classic social-vocal geometry of protagonist — or sometimes protagonist-antagonist — vs the implied Greek Chorus of the “coloured girls go doo de doo de doodedoo” etc.

    Of course the class Greek Chorus generally stands for the authors idea of the rest-of-us observing (“Yes, we see!” or indeed “WHAT ABOUT US!?”), where recordings of the actual audience — even when introduced as a faux verité element by the producer-as-author — surely stands for something less universal. Justified fandom, for example.

  20. 20
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 17 Aug 2013 #

    ^^^ps author’s actual-real best paper in his finals was non-euclidean geometry and he should probably be discouraged whenever his speculations amble in a similar direction :)

  21. 21
    swanstep on 17 Aug 2013 #

    And then there’s always the infamous track A To Z from ABC’s third album.

  22. 22
    lonepilgrim on 17 Aug 2013 #

    listening to this now, it sounds like a palatable if unmemorable racket – The chipmunk vocals reminded me of The Prodigy’s Out of Space at the time but they’re the nearest thing the song has to a hook. 5 for me.

  23. 23
    swanstep on 17 Aug 2013 #

    ‘Spaceman’ is new to me. At first few listens, then, it seems like a pretty flimsy construction, owing a lot to Filter, Monster Magnet, maybe Placebo, but never quite punching things home. The guitars are loud enough to be irritating but somehow don’t ever deliver anything truly grunty and rifftastic. I dare say that Muse could probably play and sing the hell out of this track so that it’d deliver more in the ways it clearly wants to. Instead, BZ would seem to be the glam/industrial Stiltskin which is not a thing to be (although ‘Spaceman’ transferred a lot better down under than ‘Inside’ did: in New Zealand, BZ peaked at #4 and spent 5 weeks in the top 10 whereas Stitskin peaked for 1 week at #20). Agree with:
    4

  24. 24
    Jonathan Bogart on 17 Aug 2013 #

    That anyone in the decade of Corgan could complain about anyone else’s nasal whine is astonishing to me. (Though it occurs to me that I have no idea how Smashing Pumpkins did in the UK.)

    I’ve had some nostalgic affection for “Spaceman,” perhaps because I only heard it once or twice on the radio at the time, so it retained an aura of mystery until websearching came into my life. (Although sometimes I still confuse it with 4 Non Blondes’ “Spaceman,” which got played about as often on English-language Guatemalan radio.) It’s all tied up with the mix of emotions that was graduating from high school and preparing to leave Guatemala where I’d been a teenager for a largely unknown “home” in the US; early 1996 was the last time I would listen to the radio in quite the same solitary, uncritical way ever again.

  25. 25
    Kat but logged out innit on 17 Aug 2013 #

    #6: I can’t really remember but I think at the last one we followed aforementioned 30 seconds with Cliff Richard’s ‘Congratulations’…

  26. 26
    AMZ1981 on 17 Aug 2013 #

    One thing I’ve only just realised is that Spaceman was pretty much the only million selling single by a rock band in 90s (Bohemian Rhapsody, sixteen years old, was the only other). I remember I didn’t particularly like it at the time and it’s not really stood the test of time either – when was the last time you heard it on the radio? Previous Levi’s chart toppers had really been stopgap number ones so that doesn’t explain why this record broke so big.

    During the five weeks this held the top spot the number two spot was occupied by the well remembered `Slight Return` (yet another Britpop number two) and the completely forgotten Anything by 3T (Tito Jackson’s sons).

  27. 27
    Steve Mannion on 17 Aug 2013 #

    This is sort of all 808 State’s fault. Apparently the ad was originally to feature the intro to a piece of music by Graham Massey (which eventually became their single ‘Bond’) fresh off his success producing Bjork’s ‘Post’ but this was rejected in favour of the Baker ‘remix’ (afaik this really was just the whole song sped up?) of ‘Spaceman’ from a tape of the trio’s radio show. Conf: http://www.mdmarchive.co.uk/archive/showartefact.php?aid=1956&bid=4537

    What the huge fuss over the intro suggested so strongly to me was that Happy Hardcore would’ve been far more popular (chart-wise at least) but the obstacle was not chipmunk vocals but the tempo. There was to be no floodgate breach for HH in the wake of BZ despite being championed by John Peel (who did enable significantly the high-pitched horror of the Cuban Boys a few years on from ‘Spaceman’) on R1 (you could hear HH on Peel but NEVER on Tong’s show and I don’t think the latter played the Baker mix of ‘Spaceman’ either despite its more practical Big Beat compatibility).

    Still we can always savour Jas Mann’s jib-jab with Chris Morris on Brass Eye. “Do you think you’ll ever write a spherical song?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3XgouVH9-Y

  28. 28
    TriffidFarm on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Re the five weeks at number one and not falling for the ‘trick’: The CD single had the version we had all heard, and three remixes of the same track. I bought it with my sister, convinced – CONVINCED – that one of them had to be the dance remix that the first thirty seconds had promised. (The ‘Fifth Dimension’ one promised much.) And we, and a few others that we spoke to on that holiday who had made the same mistake, were astonished – ASTONISHED – to find that they were all awful.

    This may be unfair, but I recall Jas Mann coming across at the time as resentful of the way his song had become famous, and doggedly refusing to give the public what they wanted was his way of insisting that his talents were not further sullied.

  29. 29
    thefatgit on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Jas Mann seems to me the first 90’s pop comedy touchstone since Candy Flip, but he’s indirectly responsible for Fischerspooner (image) and Enter Shikari (dance-rock kludge). I’m willing to cut him some slack and give BZ a 7.

  30. 30
    hectorthebat on 17 Aug 2013 #

    Sample watch: contains a sample of “DMT” by deee-lite

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