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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. 61
    Andy M on 19 Aug 2013 #

    I always thought it was ‘Intergalactic Crimes’. I had an entire backstory in my head where he was a fugitive hiding on Earth on the run from the Nazi space police.

  2. 62
    anto on 19 Aug 2013 #

    There seemed to be a lot of Tony le Mesmer types in U.K pop during the nineties. Tony Mortimer was one, Jay Kay was another, Richard Ashcroft after a fashion and Jas Mann for the duration of his 15 minutes at least. Certainly you didn’t have to look very far to find someone wittering on about nebulous concepts that involved words like ‘consciousness’ and ‘energy’ being tossed about.
    I was never disappointed by ‘Spaceman’ because I found the speeded-up part gimmicky anyway so I was merely bemused by the way it slid into a boring song. What surprises me now are the stats mentioned in the review. I don’t remember it being number 1 for that long (even though it felt long). Over a million sold? It seems especially strange that it hasn’t had much of an afterlife. I can’t remember when or where I last heard it (and the name Babylon Zoo was already becoming one of those sniggering that-was-then signifiers as early as about 1999). I suppose any day now a woman with a twee voice and piano will release a cover version.

  3. 63
    flahr on 19 Aug 2013 #

    Funny you should say that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KHMKrFPV-Q

  4. 64
    Cumbrian on 19 Aug 2013 #

    I don’t know which is worse: crap punk/metal/acoustic covers of pop songs by guitar bands or crap breathy/acoustic/piano covers of rock songs by folk/easy listening artists. A pox on both their houses.

  5. 65
    Alan not logged in on 19 Aug 2013 #

    i vote the latter (as being WAY worse). a poll perhaps…

  6. 66
    Tom on 19 Aug 2013 #

    #62 Babylon Zoo became a joke VERY quickly – the only 90s band I can think of whose hype cycle was faster was Gay Dad. I always liked that BZ called the first single off the second album “All The Money’s Gone”, though this appreciation didn’t extend to actually wanting to hear it.

  7. 67
    swanstep on 19 Aug 2013 #

    @64, Cumbrian. Have you heard Sia’s Paranoid Android cover?

    @59, Izzy. Now I think about it, I’m happy to take Brett Anderson off my impromptu list (I was thinking of Suede’s first few singles where everything was in a high register, not the luscious mixtures of lows and highs you get on Dog Man Star). Anyhow, by ‘thin’ I mean literally a very narrow range of frequencies/very few harmonics/overtones normally as a result of no use of the diaphragm at all to help produce sound, it’s all in the throat and upper chest. Anyhow, I think we all know it when we hear it – it almost sounds a little like the singer’s being strangled, which can be a good effect! assuming you find the singer otherwise interesting. Obviously too, if you’ve got a thin voice in this sense, you’re leaving a lot of space for all sort of other instruments to go crazy – and bands like the Cure and New Order really do fill up all that available space with melodic elements from the bass up.

  8. 68
    fivelongdays on 19 Aug 2013 #

    @60 – Yeah, I know what you’re getting at. Until, well, Knebworth, I suppose, Oasis were a bit of a cult thing – and Indie/Rock/Metal fans always formed a touch of an alliance – while all the ‘well ‘ards’ were into dance music. Hence why I always feel a wee bit disappointed when someone as clearly intelligent and pleasant as Tom gives good marks to the likes of ‘Dreamer’ and ‘Let Me Be Your Fantasy’ such high marks. I appreciate it might have been different if you went to Posh School, though!

    Oh, and is this the first time a number one has dropped the F-bomb, and in such plain sight? I’m convinced the middle-eight’s phoned-in lyrics are ‘Fuck it all, fuck it all, fuck it all, fuck you’.

  9. 69
    Mark G on 19 Aug 2013 #

    Well, there’s the ‘clear as day if you listen’ one by Lennon on “Hey Jude”

  10. 70
    Cumbrian on 19 Aug 2013 #

    #67: No, I hadn’t, though I have now. In my defence (and at the risk of falling into a “No True Scotsman” fallacy), I did say “crap” covers on either side of that equation. There is room for a well judged cover within those genres, I feel, but there are too many that are just by the numbers guff (the worst recent one for my money being the horrible version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop” – from a John Lewis ad here in the UK (is it John Lewis? It might have been Waitrose? It’s not the one on the new home insurance advert from John Lewis anyway) – which sucks the peppy, keep on keeping on, life out of the original and replaces it with sad sack vocals and slow tempo instrumentation to which the only answer can be “Please Stop”).

    Anyway, I thought the Sia cover you linked above was OK. I thought it was going to go somewhere really weird and memorable with the theremin initially but rowed a little back from that, though the use of cello and the maintenance of an air of unease (as opposed to the original’s collision of (impotent?) rage and despair) offered something.

    #68: I’m glad it wasn’t just me! Cumbria can be a bit disconnected to what is going on elsewhere in the UK sometimes and all the stuff in the other threads about the yobbish tendencies of fans of guitar groups really didn’t jibe with my own experience at school. In the end, the bullies versus the population at my school delineated on musical lines as dance v the rest of music. It was only when I left Cumbria – to go to gigs or to university – that I started to see some of the stuff people have talked about elsewhere on FT/Popular. Both experiences seemed to be true.

  11. 71
    Tom on 19 Aug 2013 #

    #68 the posh equivalent of the well ‘ards would have been the rugby lads, I guess. Boozing and bullying. They weren’t big into any music, but they particularly detested indie (or, to be fair, they might just have particularly detested *me*)

    The initial loved-up burst of dance music coincided with my boarding school days (though was pretty much invisible within the school – the main quality of public school music is how incredibly out of date it was, literally 10 years behind the outside world. I arrived in 1986 and the main albums the older boys were playing were by Dylan, Arlo Guthrie and Emerson Lake And Palmer.)

    By the “Dreamer”/”Let Me Be Your Fantasy” era I was at university – definitely that kind of superclub house music was ‘townie’ music but not in any very threatening way. And then a couple of years later – around the time we’re discussing now on Popular – when my wife was at Leeds Uni, all her flatmates were going out and dancing to house music, and it was never a threatening or hard vibe – very girly, very dressy, from what I saw of it. And Oasis, Weller etc were definitely shifting over into being bloke music not ‘indie’.

  12. 72
    Cumbrian on 19 Aug 2013 #

    #71: I find this really weird – since I was in the rugby team (albeit at a comp)! I guess it just goes to show how different my experiences are to those of other people. Worth my bearing in mind.

  13. 73
    Izzy on 19 Aug 2013 #

    67: thanks. It’s one of those things I always want to hear explained more – even if only so I might know how to do it better – but all I ever seem to hear are things like ‘good tone’ or ‘off key’ which, whether accurate or not, are no help at all in trying to know what’s good or not and how it all works.

  14. 74
    fivelongdays on 19 Aug 2013 #

    Just realised, my comment at 68 should read ‘a cult thing at my school’.

  15. 75
    Kinitawowi on 19 Aug 2013 #

    @64: The last time I listened to Spaceman it was a live cover done by Katie Melua about seven years ago. Quoth 25-year-old me:

    “Opinion is divided as to whether this was any good or not, and again it depends on your feelings on the original. Personally, I found the original to be a piece of shockingly awful commercialistic crud that nobody would have given half a shit about if it hadn’t been attached to a pair of jeans; so Melua is due some credit for being able to find some sort of heart and meaning in the otherwise nonsensical lyrics. Alternatively, you might like the original for being shamelessly daft and moan at Melua for trying to create meaning where there needn’t be any. It’s up to you.”

    By “divided” I meant “divided between me and my mate wot I went with”. Melua’s version is a nailed-on 5 for being able to play the track for comedy value, but Jas Mann is clearly playing his lyrical bilge dead straight. 3.

  16. 76
    tm on 19 Aug 2013 #

    The scallies at my school were grudgingly tolerant of Oasis though definitely suspicious of their long hair and acoustic guitars. I escaped many a kicking I’m sure by becoming their court jester and trotting out Wonderwall and I Am The Walrus on my acoustic guitar on the way home from school. I remember a younger boy getting all excited about the swearing on Spaceman and me a sixth-former derisively listing all the older, better songs with swearing in them.

  17. 77
    mintness on 19 Aug 2013 #

    The 888 subtitles had the line in question above as “images of fascist votes”. Fun fact.

  18. 78
    leveret on 19 Aug 2013 #

    @67 Talk of thin voices and space filled up with all sorts of instruments going crazy brings to mind another Spaceman – Jason Pierce of Spiritualized – someone who was rather more successful in conjuring up a cosmic vibe than good old Jas.

    I find Jas Mann’s vocal performance here fairly inoffensive. His Americanised intonations might have been jarring in another context, but works OK in this slightly preposterous and histrionic song.

  19. 79
    Tim Byron on 20 Aug 2013 #

    Swanstep – yup, I saw the Smashing Pumpkins in 1998 with Garson on keys, and I was amazed at Garson and the sound of him on the piano – I had no idea what he’d do when I sat in my seat (I don’t think I heard Aladdin Sane til much much later). In the context of the Smashing Pumpkins, Corgan’s voice is particularly effective at piercing their wall of sound guitars. I do have a soft spot for weird vocal tones, anyway, from Karen Dalton to Tom Waits, that I very likely inherited from being a big Pumpkins fan as a teen.

    Listening more closely to Jas on ‘Spaceman’, I reckon the song is pitched too low for him in the verses, and he struggles for control. Perhaps a Marilyn Manson or Trent Reznor could do enough with their voices to make those lines about pungent smells sound less stupid? At least, I was a fan of Muse when I first heard them, and it was only when I read the liner notes for the second album after I’d bought it that I realised that the lyrics were really, really bad. So I definitely agree that there’s an interaction between voice and lyrics, and both halves contribute to the overall feel of the vocals.

  20. 80
    Rory on 20 Aug 2013 #

    I’m just biting my tongue while you guys diss the bestest rock thing of the ’00s. But for those who agree, here’s something I just found: a fantastic Radio 1 promo filmed by the BBC at great expense in 2009 and then scrapped so as not to look as if they spent all that money has just surfaced at Vimeo, complete with soundtrack by said bestest rock thing.

  21. 81
    glue_factory on 20 Aug 2013 #

    Re: Happy Hardcore’s failure to crossover, is anyone familiar enough with the scene to know what records were huge and could have been expected to pick up enough sales to carry them into the Top 40? I’m sure I read at the time about Toytown by Hixxy being massive, but does anyone know of others.

  22. 82
    23 Daves on 20 Aug 2013 #

    Nobody’s really talked in any depth about this standing in the way of The Bluetones “Slight Return” yet (and what a weird top two that is, when you think about it).

    “Slight Return” was a gentle, warm, slightly Byrdsian record which contained a lot of cautious optimism (“I’m coming home… but just for a short while”) and wasn’t necessarily their finest moment (I’d say that was probably “Bluetonic”). But for all its strengths, it was still a very subtle single to power its way up the charts, and probably says more about the public’s taste for guitar-based pop music at that time than anything else. It’s hard to think of anything comparable achieving similar success – even if you dig around Crowded House’s discography there are no UK Top 3 hits there.

    As mentioned on the other thread where The Bluetones cropped up in conversation, it’s also easy to forget just how feted they were in some quarters. I seem to remember “The Chart Show” putting up an info box which suggested that viewers should rush out to their next gig at a moderate sized venue, because it would be “the last chance to catch them this small!” Of course, it wasn’t. Anyone patient enough to sit it out would have been rewarded the opportunity of seeing them again in smaller venues in the new decade.

    Would I rather The Bluetones had got to the top instead of this? Definitely. I do think that theirs is the better song. But had it done so, I strongly doubt it would have made much difference to their career in the long term. For all their strengths, they seemed freakishly over-valued for awhile.

  23. 83
    Billy Hicks on 20 Aug 2013 #

    81 – There was a craze in 2002-3 to take well-loved happy hardcore records, slow them down to a more top 40-friendly BPM and re-record them as poppy trance numbers. Many of Flip & Fill’s hits started out as late 90s hardcore anthems by various artists (‘Shooting Star’ which got to #2, ‘Field of Dreams’, ‘Discoland’ and Kelly Llorenna’s ‘Heart of Gold’ were produced by them) and Ultrabeat carried things on by covering Force & Styles’s ‘Pretty Green Eyes’, getting a well-known #2 hit and perhaps having the most success of the lot. They also did a vocal remake of Scott Brown’s ‘Elysium’ a few years later.

    In certain parts of Europe – Germany, Denmark, The Netherlands etc – it successfully intertwined with pop music and there’s a huge amount of native pop artists producing some quite wonderful high-BPM stuff. Dune, Blumchen, the Party Animals, Marusha and a ton more are all worth a listen if you like your happy hardcore as cheesy and sugary as you can get.

  24. 84
    Billy Hicks on 20 Aug 2013 #

    Oh, and Aquagen also tried to get in on the act around that time by doing a similar slowed-down remake of Highlander’s ‘Hold Me Now’ (which holds a special place in my heart as the first happy hardcore record I ever heard, late at night on Radio 1 as a teen) but had slightly less success peaking at #33. Both used the same sample from Chicago’s ‘Hard To Say I’m Sorry’.

    /\—far too much of a fan of this sort of thing

  25. 85
    James BC on 21 Aug 2013 #

    Not everyone who bought this can have been duped by the advert. The follow-up, Animal Army, got to number 17 with a similar sound (and added monkey noises).

  26. 86
    Rory on 21 Aug 2013 #

    @85 You’ve prompted me to check out BZ’s follow-up singles, and blimey, I didn’t expect to, but I’m enjoying “All the Money’s Gone“. Marc Bolan lives!

  27. 87
    Ed on 21 Aug 2013 #

    @13 The Pixies spell their name out as a sort of chant in ‘Cactus’, if that counts.

    It’s Bowie’s favourite Pxies song, apparently. (See, it’s all connected.)

    The cheeky scamp changes the name when he does it:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UTQP6tE9tYA

  28. 88
    @voicesby on 21 Aug 2013 #

    Srs 1996 pop (hucksterism) madeleine: Tom Ewing on Babylon Zoo http://t.co/RY3ikHqaFB

  29. 89
    anto on 21 Aug 2013 #

    re82: I remember there was a bit of a buzz about ‘Slight Return’. I’d forgotten it had actually gone to number 2. If it had usurped Babylon Zoo then who knows? The Bluetones appeared on TOTP the same night as Radiohead whose extraordinary version of ‘Street Spirit’ made everything else on the show sound either negligible or in the case of ‘Slight Return’ maybe a bit weedy. When the massive leap for the Bluetones didn’t follow they seemed quite philisophical about it and were content with having built a decent fanbase.
    With the exception of Stuart Murdoch from Mogwai, Mark Morris was the last indie figure I can remember taking issue with sellouts and bands giving songs to adverts.* He was an admirer of Bill Hicks and seemed to concur with the view that not everything was worth doing for success, which always gave me some respect for him even though I didn’t really rate him as a singer.

    *How ironic. I’d forgotten which thread this was.

  30. 90
    tm on 21 Aug 2013 #

    Re: 86: All The Money’s Gone, sounds like the band Beady Eye should have been! can’t believe it wasn’t a hit; I suppose it just goes to show what low regard BZ were held once their 15 minutes was up.

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