You should know I left something crucial out of the 90’s countdown. Very crucial.
Remember that song ‘You’re Gorgeous’ from 1996? Even I remember it, with that ridiculously catchy chorus, but looking back on it, I realised it’s about as much a love song as ‘I Am The Walrus’. It’s about a fashion photographer who exploits his models: “You said I wasn’t cheap/You paid me twenty pounds/You promised to put me in a magazine/On every table in every lounge”. When I saw this, I saw what a great pop song it was and sought out what happened to this band. On my list of good decisions, this lies somewhere near the top between giving peanut butter another chance and climbing out of the womb; ie. it was a good decision. It turned out that the frontman of Babybird (Stephen Jones), had been recording songs in his bedsit on cheap tape recorders for years. One drunken evening him and his friends decided to self-release 80 of them as five albums, cherry-picked from the 400(!) he had recorded. How did he record this amount? The simple answer was that he was bored. He was an unemployed actor with a just a dole-check and some cheap no-name instruments to his name. Either he had a lot of time to practice or he was a natural because the majority of the songs contained within ‘The Original Lo-Fi’ (the box-set that collects these albums) are priceless. The slightly dodgy recording quality has to be ignored, but the songs themselves are mostly so weird that they take a couple of listens to click, but sometimes they’re great from the word go. However long it takes to love them though, it’s worth it.
I Was Born A Man
“I thought 5 people would buy it, it’d get a three-out-of-ten review from the NME and that would be it”. Instead the first collection ‘I Was Born A Man’ sold out its limited 1000 copy run extremely quickly and found a fan in legendary DJ John Peel. Deservedly so. In a world that has grown up with The Beatles as its musical lords and masters, this is a stark alternate reality of what independent home recorded music might sound like, had the fab four never asked us to hold their hand in the first place. Inside it were agonised journalistic accounts of gender dysphroia (‘Man’s Tight Vest’), squeaky organ-led sing-alongs (‘Hong Kong Blues’) fuzzed-out nonsense rhymes (‘Kiss Your Country’) and poignant pleading declarations of dependence (‘Dead Bird Sings’) and others which resist pigeon-holing much more than those do.
With the indie success of ‘I Was Born A Man’, Jones swiftly followed it up with ‘Bad Shave’, a record that sounds like it’s having far more fun than its predecessor. ‘KW Jesus TV Roof Appeal’ is a clear highlight, poking fun at televangelism while spouting out a weird funky organ and drum machine crank. The funniest is clearly the brilliant ‘Valerie’ which portrays a sweet and stupid Northerner attempting to woo his girlfriend, though the only rhyme he can find to go with “Valerie” is “you’re like a gallery”. When ‘Bad Shave’ gets serious though it can really haunt you. The title track does just that, burning with a mournful regret (and don’t worry it has little to do with bad shaves). ‘Oh My God You’re A King’ is both funny in its delivery and touching in its subject matter. Imagine if the narrator from The Kinks’ ‘Lola’ decided to give the transvestite a sporting chance and took her home then you’d have ‘Oh My God You’re A King’ and after a while it pretty much forces you to give a warm smile at its affectionate sentiments. While not so much an “instant hit” as its brothers, it’s a fantastic record which I’m still unearthing things to enjoy in.
‘Fatherhood’ was included in the 90’s countdown, but at an absurdly meagre position at #84 when it deserves to be in the top 25 at least, as does ‘Shave’ and ‘Born’. This was purely because it was the first one I’d heard and I thought it was too early to tell that it needed to be any higher than that, but a year later and I’m sure that this deserves to be in any 90’s countdown. This is the most heavy in terms of heart-on-sleeve confessionals and meditations on life, the universe and etc. Not that it doesn’t have fun. ‘Cooling Towers’ is just three gorgeous sing-along choruses strung together that works brilliantly and by the time the last phase rolls in there’s not a frown in the house and the franco-pop pastiche ‘May We’ closes the album with a wink and a nod, but for the most part, ‘Fatherhood’ is surprisingly naked (no pun intended, if you’ve seen the horrifying cover of Stephen Jones apparently pregnant). ‘Good Night’ is the perfect no-confidence love song; ‘Aluminium Beach’ is a pulsating DIY psychedelic number; ‘I Was Never Here’ is an aching ballad that makes little sense on paper but plenty when Jones sings it while ‘Not About A Girl’ makes even less sense on paper and even less than that on record, but it somehow works brilliantly as a slightly tongue-in-cheek love song to the self. I honestly can’t say which of these three records is better because they’re all just wonderful. Virtually no track is a throwaway; they all feel like they had to be there. For Christ’s sake, get these records. I don’t care how, but if you love leftfield slightly weird pop music, you have no excuse not to check these out.
The Happiest Man Alive
Easily the weakest in the canon is ‘The Happiest Man Alive’, an uneven and heavy handed work which, nonetheless has some great songs scattered here and there. Songs like the drunkenly joyous ‘Louise’, the bizarrely funny ‘Please Don’t Be Famous’ – with its memorable “I wanna make out with mothers, single parent mothers” refrain – and the low-budget intoxicated sexual deviant James Bond theme ‘Married’. The two other clear highlights are the rhyming-dictionary-ready ‘Candy Girl’ – which was a brilliant cheeky pop song when it was rerecorded, but here sounds like the soundtrack to grimy oral sex in a junkie’s flat against a dry-rot wall – and sing-along-swear-athon ‘Horsesugar’ which sounds like blues music on ketamine. There are more holes in this album than in any of the others, but it’s still a solidly good record, for the most part.
Easily the weirdest album here is ‘Dying Happy’, which was released after Babybird (the band) hit it big with ‘You’re Gorgeous’. They couldn’t have released a more commercially disastrous record than this one. The opener ‘Losing My Hair’ might work if Jones wasn’t doing a horrifying falsetto that just sounds like a bad joke more than anything else. He sounds like The Flaming Lips’ Wayne Coyne after a tracheotomy. It’s a shame because ‘Losing My Hair’ would be a genuinely great song if it was delivered more sensitively. The rest of the album consists of more songs like this but performed much better, like the eerie, clanking ‘Petrol Cigarette’. ‘P.C’ sees Jones’ falsetto becoming more distant which suits it nicely since it becomes part of the hollow, cavernous atmosphere. For the first time, he introduces influences of krautrock, sampling and ambient into the mix, even going so far as to sculpting atmospheric instrumentals like the six-minute ‘Tomorrow’s Gone’ which sounds like it’s being broadcast from a satellite orbiting a lifeless earth. The highlights include the lullaby ‘TV’, the beautifully eerie ‘It’s Alright Dad, Isn’t It’ and my personal favourite, the gently throbbing ambient techno of ‘Lead Cloud’ with its ghostly distant vocals. The instrumentals are either pointless or weirdly mesmerising, such as the suspenseful ‘When Everyone Speaks English The World Will Explode’ and the soaring grief of ‘Cheap Astronaut’. It’s by far the weirdest of the five albums and takes some getting used to (more so than the others) but once again, it’s worth it.
You’d be hard pressed to find a copy of ‘The Original Lo-Fi’ box set. I got mine from eBay and I haven’t looked back. It also comes with, what Jones describes as a “CD zombie”, ‘The Black Album’ which sounds like ‘Dying Happy’ crossed with ‘Fatherhood’, but I don’t know it well enough to make judgements. Be warned: for better or for worse (for you, at least) these are very very different from the studio recordings that Babybird the band released and if you’re expecting something similar you will be disappointed. Otherwise, I’d recommend this to any serious music fan. The wealth of material here is just staggering. Over and out.