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Aug 13

BABYLON ZOO – “Spaceman”

Popular134 comments • 10,077 views

#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. 91
    swanstep on 21 Aug 2013 #

    @rory, 86. All the Money’s Gone sounds a hell of a lot like Oasis to me (points off for the Gallagher-worthy ‘Your tragesty’ lyric!). I think I prefer BZ in space/industrial/glam mode. Too bad for them that it was going to take Origin of Symmetry period Muse to really start to make bank on that front (oh how I love Space Dementia).

  2. 92
    Kinitawowi on 22 Aug 2013 #

    @82: Loved most of their other stuff (particularly Marblehead Johnson, Autophilia and If…, the world’s most blatant attempt to out-na Hey Jude), but I distinctly remember hating Slight Return and it’s a hate that’s never really gone away. Something about the chorus, I think.

    Also worth noting that Slight Return puts us in Now! 34 territory (although we’re not actually through with 33 yet), and pretty much everyone I knew had that one. I bought it for my sister for a birthday present; little did I know that that was pretty much the moment that would kickstart my own collection about ten albums later.

  3. 93
    James BC on 22 Aug 2013 #

    Almost all the Bluetones’ verses are better than their choruses. I think they might be unique in this respect.

  4. 94
    Alex S on 24 Aug 2013 #

    For all the strangeness of the look, the main reaction at my school to the TotP performances was that, in the silver sarong, Jas seemed, shall we say, very visibly excited about being on TV.

  5. 95
    Tom on 27 Aug 2013 #

    Just a quick note to say I’m on holiday in France – I was going to post something last Wednesday when I left but my Internet was down. So don’t expect any updates until September.

  6. 96
    Cumbrian on 27 Aug 2013 #

    So Popular can wait :) Enjoy your holiday Tom.

  7. 97
    Matt DC on 28 Aug 2013 #

    Can someone with more time on their hands than me please analyse this song in relation to Bowie’s drum and bass album a year later?

  8. 98
    Ben on 30 Aug 2013 #

    #13 – “The Groover” T Rex

  9. 99
    James BC on 30 Aug 2013 #

    #13 – “It’s Like That” Run DMC (and 42 other hip hop songs).

  10. 100
    Ed on 1 Sep 2013 #

    Where are they now: Jas Mann.

    In the movie business, is the answer. And apparently doing pretty well: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2168572/bio

    Maybe some rewriting of history here, though:

    “In 1996 Jas developed a visual/music project “Babylon Zoo”, writing and selling the concept to “Levis” as a visual and music advert broadcasted in over 30 countries. The first Babylon Zoo Album “Boy with the X-ray eyes” would go on to sell 5 million copies and achieving 21 number one hit records worldwide at the time entering the Guinness book of records as the fastest selling record of all-time. Jasbinder directed four award winning music videos for Babylon Zoo, picking up MTV and Viva awards along the way.”

  11. 101
    flahr on 1 Sep 2013 #

    @100: “A Fantastic Fear of Everything” (2012)

    Directors: Chris Hopewell, Crispian Mills
    Writer: Crispian Mills (screenplay)

    The plot thickens!

  12. 102
    Izzy on 1 Sep 2013 #

    That album surely did not sell five million.

  13. 103
    Patrick Mexico on 3 Sep 2013 #

    Only if it was the peak of Elton John’s onomania, or there was a vested interest in Jas’s roots on the subcontinent, but that’s about as plausible a cultural exchange as Alexei Sayle in the balti house – “WAAA! I’m sorry for the Amritsar massacre”… “Mate, I’m from Wolverhampton.” Is it really the first British Asian number 1? I’m sure ફરોખ બલ્સારા‌ would have something to say about that, though apparently Freddie Mercury wished to keep his Indian/Persian/Zoroastrian heritage as private as his sexuality (odd parallel with the previous Popular entry.)

    Babylon Zoo could have been a brilliant, self-deprecating Queen in miniature, but I think they knew they were up against it when the press lost patience with Suede for cerebral rape and pillage of a Bowie of their choice.

  14. 104
    Mark G on 3 Sep 2013 #

    Possibly, but that happened a long time after…

  15. 105
    Patrick Mexico on 3 Sep 2013 #

    Really? I was only 10 at the time but thought Coming Up was a huge commercial success but not so much a critical one, kind of their “S** on F***” moment. It’s their most escapist and accessible album but Lazy still sets my teeth on edge. Uncle Teds in their legendary beds. I ask you.

  16. 106
    Cumbrian on 3 Sep 2013 #

    Coming Up was a reasonable critical hit. Made the end of year lists in a number of music magazines, got decent enough reviews at the time – I seem to remember it getting a pretty decent write up in Select. But then, Suede, to my memory, were always critical darlings somewhat, until the Great Britpop bubble had actually burst and A New Morning got a bit of a kicking (though there must have been some naysayers in the press when it came to Head Music, I’d have thought).

  17. 107
    James BC on 3 Sep 2013 #

    No, I think the press were still pretty excited for Head Music when that was about to come out.

    As for the lyrics of Lazy, the odd terrible line was part of Suede’s charm from the very beginning.

  18. 108
    Cumbrian on 3 Sep 2013 #

    Being excited for it before it came out: Did that translate into good reviews though? And did the press recant them?

    Needless to say, the Britpop press were extremely excited about one album released in 1997, gave it great reviews and subsequently recanted.

  19. 109
    Mark G on 3 Sep 2013 #

    I admit I was unsure of the time-line but then again I don’t remember Suede ever getting a ‘good kicking’ until “New Morning” album (an album title that sounds more like Placebo, but there you go) and even then it was more like an “oh no, it’s not very good, who will tell Brett our old mate?” sort of thing.

  20. 110
    glue_factory on 4 Sep 2013 #

    I remember there being music-press interest when they announced the title of Head Music, letter-by-letter (to be honest, I only remember the coverage for the letter H. “Could it be heroin?”. I can’t imagine they strung it out much past the letter A)

    Wikipedia has the NME giving it 7/10

  21. 111
    James BC on 4 Sep 2013 #

    I meant that they were excited about Head Music, so they must have liked Coming Up. HM’s reviews were probably a bit cooler and deservedly so, though She’s In Fashion is one of their high points.

    I remember the one-letter-at-a-time thing too. I followed it via Channel 4 teletext.

  22. 112
    Ed on 4 Sep 2013 #

    Coming Up is Chuck Eddy’s favourite, according to ‘Stairway to Hell’.

    In fact, it’s the 16th-best heavy metal album of the 1990s, he says.

    Not that I would necessarily want to cite him as an example of the critical consensus on anything.

  23. 113
    Izzy on 4 Sep 2013 #

    110: haha yes, they revealed the whole title in week three. They were always so inappropriately playful about this; I was disappointed to learn later that Brett really did spend years disappeared down the drug hole.

  24. 114
    Patrick Mexico on 4 Sep 2013 #

    Re: 112: Ahaha. How in the name of all that does not suck are Suede “heavy metal?” I had never heard of his “top 500 heavy metal albums ever” and might get stuck into that, but it could be grim listening.

    I suppose Franz Ferdinand now occupy Suede’s position in the early nineties. OK, nowhere near the depth or darkness of Suede’s debut or Dog Man Star, but a rag-tag bunch of likeable, well-read men, the very opposite of traditional machismo and therefore darlings of the indie press, and with many tight, peppy songs to back up the eccentricity. However, as their careers have progressed, their 70s influences have become a little bit TOO apparent. I’m still convinced enough to buy their fourth album (as well as Welsh Bunnies’ (probably crushingly mediocre)) 11th next week.

  25. 115
    Ed on 5 Sep 2013 #

    @114 They are metal the same way Miles Davis, Teena Marie and the Dandy Warhols are metal: in Chuck Eddy’s imagination.

    It’s an “idiosyncratic” take, they say.

    A truly great book, too. Grab it if you see it.

  26. 116
    sükråt tanned rested unlogged and awesome on 5 Sep 2013 #

    Chuck’s own pointer here: the salient word in the phrase “500 Best Heavy Metal Albums In The Universe” is “500”

  27. 117
    leveret on 5 Sep 2013 #

    @109 Everett True (aka Jerry Thackray) gave ‘Coming Up’ an absolute mauling in the Melody Maker when it came out, painting it as a 10th rate Bowie rip-off, but I suspect this may have been more down to a personal grudge/narcissism on Everett True’s part as much as anything. I think Coming Up’s reviews were largely positive though.

  28. 118
    Izzy on 5 Sep 2013 #

    I do remember an Everett True Suede savaging – “this is album of the year. And the year is 1973” – but could’ve sworn it was the debut.

    He really hated them, to the extent that he set Gene up as their opposites and wrote reviews going on about his love for them, their musicality and charisma, how much they moved him. Gene! For anyone else it would be a career embarrassment highlight; for True it’d maybe make an out-takes comp.

  29. 119
    Ed on 5 Sep 2013 #

    Everett True had nailed his colours to the mast of grunge, and Select told us that Suede had come to destroy it.

  30. 120
    anto on 6 Sep 2013 #

    @118 A few friends of mine suggested going to see Gene when they played at the now demolished Amser club in Bangor in 1999 but the show was cancelled due to lack of interest. I was astonished that a group who just 2/3 years earlier had been on TOTP and picking up resonably good reviews were already at the stage where they couldn’t sell tickets for a show in a town full of young people.

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