Friday, 4 January 2013

Babylon Zoo 'Spaceman'

Chart Peak: 1 [5 weeks]

'Spaceman',the million-selling debut No1 smash, is 1996's biggest single so far... It's {sic} creator is Jas Mann, the vehicle Babylon Zoo whose name joins "...The Babylonian colour riot of Jas Mann's childhood years in India to the bleak urban zoo of his adolescence in Wolverhampton".

As you might have noticed with the Oasis post, a lot of personal reminiscences are creeping in at this stage. Part of my reason for choosing Now 33 at this juncture is that most of the music is half a lifetime ago for me - all the tracks were hits when I was 17 and I'm 34 now. My strongest Babylon Zoo memory is the kerfuffle that his album The Boy With The X-Ray Eyes caused in the Upper Sixth Common Room: one of my fellow pupils had bought it and I'd arranged to borrow it on behalf of my younger brother. I surmised from the excitement as I transferred the CD to my briefcase that it was an album that many were curious about but very few willing to pay money for: and since it managed only as many weeks on the Top 75 as this single spent at Number One, I seem to have been right. They weren't quite a one-hit-wonder, managing a second Top 20 hit with 'Animal Army' and scraping a final Top 40 appearance with the album's title track, but neither was it the sort of resounding success you can be pretty sure Jas Mann himself expected. So, presumably, did record company executive Clive Black, who had signed the act to two previous employers before finally landing at EMI when the material was ready for release. My recollection of the album itself, by the way, is that the first nine tracks sounded almost identical but with different intros; only the final two songs varied the style a bit and I didn't like them much either. But it's now available cheaply so you can play along with the 1p Album Club if you don't believe me.

There was only a slightly smaller amount of excitement on the Tuesday a few weeks earlier when somebody brought the single of 'Spaceman' itself into the common room. In the days when hefty pre-release promotion of singles was becoming the norm, it had distinguished itself as one of the most anticipated singles of the year because we'd all seen this Levi's advert for several weeks before the release. I was faintly surprised when I heard the full single for the first time and discovered that the sped-up sections used in the ad only bookend the track, with the bulk of the track being the grunge hybrid we all know now. As it turns out, that was an invention of Arthur Baker's remix B-side and wasn't featured at all on the original edit - it was added to the commercial release purely because of the advert. The album version (which accounts for most of the hits on YouTube) differs again, retaining the chipmunk intro but not reprising it at the end. Buyers weren't deterred though, and this bucked the usually quiet January market by selling 418000 copies in its first week, at the time a record for a debuting act (not counting Band Aid and similar charity ensembles). I think it may only have been beaten by charity records and reality show winners since. And it was no seven-day-wonder either, topping the listings for five weeks until it was finally overtaken by Oasis - with hindsight I suspect at least part of the reason the Oasis single got postponed was for fear it couldn't beat 'Spaceman' earlier in its chart run. What the million plus buyers got was a slightly odd glam-grunge hybrid which was clearly supposed to reflect Jas Mann's own experience of being an alien in a strange land, but seems to be submerged too much under the weight of the complex imagery he's bringing in and his desperation to sound important - songwriters often seem prone to throw religious phrases in to try and sound mysterious even if they don't really make sense. I'm thankful to Wikipedia for pointing out that he is not in fact chanting the name of former World Rally Champion Juha Kankkunen after the first verse, he's apparently saying "I'll kill you all" instead. Some have claimed in retrospect that Marilyn Manson was inspired by this style in his late-90s work which I guess is not unthinkable, but it's the closest 'Spaceman' comes to a legacy.

Available on: Greatest Hits: 90s

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