Currently Babybird's song You're Gorgeous is being used in Britain to sell infants' painkillers, Nurofen for Children. Normally when your favourite artist lets his music be used for advertisements, you cry sell-out, but there is something perfect about this. For all of its lifespan, this ugly and squalid song has been mistaken for something of happiness and love, while drugged up babies fit perfectly with a songwriter who (on the notes to Dying Happy) described cashless loveless inner-city kids playing spacemen with plastic bags over their heads until they all stop breathing.
Babybird and Baby Bird were twin projects of Sheffield-based English songwriter Stephen Jones. With a space in the name, the recordings are him alone with a four-track tape recorder and cheap musical instruments; without the space they are Jones and his band, still playing some of the same songs, sometimes just as cynical and tuneful. British pop has always had a special place for those too clever and too pitiless to fit in anywhere else: Babybird followed in the same tradition as Morrissey, Luke Haines, John Lennon, Ray Davies, and Jones's namesake Steve Jones's band the Sex Pistols.
Jones was born in Telford, Shropshire, England, in 1963, before moving with his family to New Zealand for four years. Later, they moved back to England, to Repton in Derbyshire. He worked with a performance theatre group in Nottingham for 12 years, whilst recording songs in isolation at home. Then in the mid 1990s he sprung upon the music industry under the name Baby Bird.
What you have here are the first thirteen songs taken from over two hundred four-track tapes. They are musically illiterate, computer-free and way beyond the cleanliness of sound and hi-fidelity. Spliced together in an attic with weak walls and a paper thin slate roof these songs are already survivors. Scapegoats for the English rain, sex next door, cheap orange headphones and taxi interference. This is quite simply the world of Baby Bird. One man, ten fingers, great songs. - Sleevenotes to I Was Born A Man, 1995
Baby Bird first hatched in 1995 onto a British music scene that was trying to get past Kurt Cobain
's death and busy uncovering a new wave
of upbeat but often shallow British pop music
. He promised ambition, poetry, and cruelty in abundance, announcing his intention to release five albums of demos on his own Baby Bird Recordings
label, each in limited editions of 1000 CDs (and some of them 500 LPs), and allowing purchasers to vote for their favourites to feature on an upcoming compilation
. He would then follow this up with a proper album recorded in a real studio with a band. In a world where many bands struggle to follow up their first disk (The Stone Roses
's hiatus after their debut was in many people's minds at the time), this prolificness
seemed far from the norm.
Spurred on by confrontational live shows in which he shouted abuse at the audience and they heckled back, critics leapt to praise him even as they struggled to categorise him. At first he was lumped in with the developing, mainly American lo-fi scene as much as with Britpop, but while he has some links to the classic British pop music that Blur, Oasis, Pulp, and Suede were mining, his music is far from the sensitive introversion of Sebadoh or the naive experimentation of Flying Saucer Attack. He released four home recorded low-fidelity albums in a few months: I was Born a Man, Bad Shave, Fatherhood, and The Happiest Man Alive. These vary in quality, with I was Born a Man and The Happiest Man Alive generally reckoned the best; Fatherhood is particularly morose and downbeat, and Bad Shave more variable.
The young boys applied to be astronauts five years ago. They found the advert in the Financial Times lying on a tramp. They left a forwarding address: 'Brown's Playground', and still hadn't heard a thing. - Sleevenotes to Dying Happy, 1997
After four lo-fi albums, his record label couldn't wait any longer, and there followed his major-label debut, on Echo
. The single You're Gorgeous
proved an immediate success, reaching number 3 in the British charts. The song has a pretty chorus, as you'd guess from the title, and it was instantly co-opted for use in television shows whenever happy innocent music was required (there are rumours of it being played at weddings, but they may be untrue). Sadly, the people using it either hadn't listened to the whole song or didn't care: as the verses make clear, it is not a love song, but describes a man enticing a woman (perhaps his girlfriend) to pose naked for some cheap pornographic magazine
. Some of the more unlikely lyrics to feature on what rapidly became a soundtrack to a million cutesy television moments:
You said my clothes were sexy, you tore away my shirt.
You rubbed an ice-cube on my chest, snapped me 'til it hurt.
The fame of the song and its huge radio play seemed to curse Babybird almost before they had begun, despite the good press his home recordings had built up. (Is there any point in hiding dark meanings behind triteness
if nobody even notices you're not really being trite?)
The song was followed by Ugly Beautiful, Babybird's first album as a band, which combined re-recordings of earlier tracks with a few new songs. To be frank, the album was a little less good than expected, with too many inferior versions of tracks already recorded on his lo-fi albums. But Cornershop, the sunny tale of a retail entrepreneur was upbeat pop on an unlikely theme that nobody else could have come close to, Candy Girl was dirty and funny, and a retread of Too Handsome To Be Homeless added welcome darkness.
After Ugly Beautiful came the last of the home recordings, the splendidly morbid Dying Happy. This received mixed reviews, considered dull and scraping the bottom of the barrel by some people; however, despite being short on lyrics, it is long on atmosphere, and contains some of his most darkly beautiful music.
If all men are evil and all the girls are good... - All Men Are Evil, 1998
The second "proper" album There's Something Going On
was an attempt to balance the intimacy of the old recordings with the requirements and opportunities of working in a band. It moved away from the pop delights of Cornershop and You're Gorgeous; the lead single being the vitriolic Bad Old Man
. This song's attack on a depraved TV host set the tone for an album that plunged deep into the corruption and darkness of modern life.
Take Me Back is the standout track, an astonishing narrative by the boyfriend of a rape victim full of self-loathing, hatred, impotence, and the desire for violence. Masculinity has always been a prominent theme of his work, and here it gets a particularly full and savage treatment: faced with his girlfriend's suffering, the narrator can do nothing but rage impotently and dream of revenge.
I'm so angry she's not angry every second of every hour.
She shuts the door and slides the latch in, tries to wash him off in the shower.
Other songs give the album a mood that is sinister, full of suppressed terror and a sense of the uncanny. I Was Never Here is one of the spookiest songs ever recorded, heavy with paradoxes that reinforce a sense of detachment and isolation:
And if I told you that the sky was green today,
lying upside down looking at the grass,
would you believe me, would you understand why I told you what I did?
The F-Word's here but the F-Word's bad, cuss my mother and cuss my dad - The F-Word, 2000
The third album, Bugged
, was weaker, led by single The F-Word
. The whole thing felt half-hearted, rushed, lacking either interesting lyrics or strong tunes. Possibly the best track was the hidden bonus The Xmas God Of New York
. Following this, Baby Bird was dead, killed at last by the albatross of You're Gorgeous. In November 2002 came the final word: Jones released a box set
with the five lo-fi Baby Bird albums and another disk of old unreleased tracks. This new disk was called the Black Album
, on account of being black and titleless.
In 2001, he released the first "Stephen Jones" album, a complilation of old, mostly instrumental work called Squeeze the Trigger Gently. His proper return, again under his own name, came with Almost Cured of Sadness in 2003. This release is a return to form, this time rejecting both lo-fi home recording and conventional band playing, in favour of studio wizardry, samples, and eerie drifting vocals. It's been called a hip hop album, which is overstating things, but luckily it's far from the rock sludge of Bugged.
Stephen Jones has also writted 3 books: The Bad Book (2000), a novel; Travel Sickness (2000), an art book, in collaboration with designers DED Associates; and another novel, Harry and Ida Swop Teeth (2003).
Home recordings (as Baby Bird)
Band recordings (as Babybird)
Solo recordings (as Stephen Jones)
- The Bad Pages. http://www.bad-pages.dk/index/main.htm (September 22, 2003)
- Babybird official website. http://www.babybird.co.uk/ (September 22, 2003)
- Hate Songs. http://www.zoo.co.uk/~z0001530/hate.html (September 22, 2003)