Forget about ‘You’re Gorgeous’… Recorded two years after that big hit, this extraordinary, dark, and remarkable album was Babybird’s REAL main event. Released 20 years ago on 24 August 1998, ‘There’s Something Going On’ never became a massive seller and never found itself above ‘OK Computer’ or ‘Definitely Maybe’ in the usual ‘best of the 90s’ lists. It does however, remain a very special and deeply loved album for those who actually bothered to listen, something of a cult classic perhaps.
The Babybird story begins in the late 1980s when Stephen Jones begins writing music for a Nottingham-based experimental theatre company. By 1994, he had written over 400 songs and landed himself a publishing deal, but was unable to get a recording contract. With great faith in his work, he used his own money to finance the release of some “lo-fi” albums under the name Baby Bird. Featuring his homemade demo tracks, the releases were met with critical acclaim. With guitar groups booming in the mid-90s, Jones got in on the action by forming his own band. So
Baby Bird became Babybird, and built themselves a following, scoring a record deal with the Echo label.
I wish I didn’t have to talk about ‘You’re Gorgeous’. It’s been talked about enough, and it’s not even Babybird’s best moment. It must be even more frustrating for its author, who has written so many incredible pieces of music and yet is still remembered mainly for “that song”. However, it must be mentioned to fully understand the context of Babybird’s career, as well as the fact that its success played a vital part in the making of ‘There’s Something Going On’. The 1996 hit was one of the decade’s biggest anthems, featuring one of the catchiest, simplest and most memorable choruses in musical history. But when you have such a big success with such a recognisable track at such an early stage in your career, it’s inevitable that you will be heavily associated with it. Like many people, my first impression of Stephen Jones was of a blonde guy in a smart white suit, serenading audiences with these saccharine melodies and affectionate words. In the 90s, they could’ve easily been mistaken for a Britpop band who specialised in love songs. That is unless you were actually paying attention to anything beyond that sweet, sugary chorus…The truth is that ‘You’re Gorgeous’ was much more subversive than it seemed at first. Far from being the sort of a thing that couples should be singing to each other, its lyrics actually concern a perverted photographer offering a girl 20 quid in exchange for some dirty snaps. “I didn’t mean to get one over on people,” says Jones. “I thought they’d get what I was singing about. I was just making a very simple point.” And yet the song still became an anthem for affectionate couples, a wedding disco favourite, a staple of daytime radio, and was even infamously played in a DJ set by Prince William. Those who still missed the point might have started to see Babybird in a different light when observing the band’s artwork, with its bubble-wrap devil heads and condom necklaces. The casual pop consumers were probably taken aback when they heard the rest of ‘Ugly Beautiful’, a mixed bag of songs where the big hit was placed alongside frightening songs about death and religion, dark lo-fi moments, as well as some more melodic tracks. A lot of the more ignorant people knew it as ‘You’re Gorgeous and some other songs’. But those who were actually paying attention soon learned that this Stephen Jones bloke was actually a bit of a weirdo.
To me, this became apparent as soon as I played the album. Expecting a whole record of bright, breezy indie pop, my 12-year-old self felt rather uncomfortable when confronted with the weird hip-hop of ‘Jesus Is My Girlfriend’ and the cacophonous, insane ‘King Bing’, Jones’s nine minute “no thanks” to the music industry and pop stardom. Aware that all of these were re-recorded versions of older songs, for a while I did think that Babybird’s future would be based around the ‘You’re Gorgeous’ sound rather than the sinister lo-fi tracks that provided such a stark contrast, but made ‘Ugly Beautiful’ sound so unfocused and almost schizophrenic. While their record label would’ve been keen for them to take the more commercial route, in hindsight I’m so glad they didn’t. They would’ve been a complete joke if the next album had been full of ‘You’re Gorgeous’ retreads. Echo didn’t exactly do the band any favours by following the big hit with single releases for the songs that were the most similar. Playing it safe when maybe they should’ve followed with a track like the disturbing ‘Atomic Soda’ instead, to showcase the two very different sides to Stephen Jones and his music. Maybe then, people would’ve “got it”.
Instead, those who hadn’t heard the album were left with a rather one-dimensional view of this group. Radio didn’t really bother with the follow-up singles anyway, they were still busy playing “that song” to death. The follow-up singles reached number 14 and 37. Most people didn’t get a chance to judge Babybird fairly. Some just didn’t allow themselves to: there were many that would’ve thought “there’s no way I’m listening to anything by that ‘You’re Gorgeous’ bloke…”. Having a massive pop hit had made them unforgivably uncool in the eyes of the alternative crowd, while the casual hit lovers didn’t really care if they heard anything more from them, since hearing The Hit repeatedly was enough to keep them happy. Pop fans who ventured beyond the big single would have found the other songs too weird and disquieting and were probably returning their copies of ‘Ugly Beautiful’ to the shops for a refund. Luckily, there was another section of people like myself, who were more aware of music than the average member of the general public, but unlike the indie crowd, weren’t that bothered if something was judged “cool” and credible or not. I loved ‘You’re Gorgeous’ and still do. But I also equally loved ‘Candy Girl’, ‘Goodnight’, and ‘Cornershop’, and soon I grew to love all the other tracks from ‘Ugly Beautiful’. But if you mentioned the name Babybird on the street to someone, they would instantly think of one song. Jones should’ve been up there with Albarn, Yorke, Gallagher, and Cocker as one of the UK’s best songwriters. Instead, he was just the writer of this big pop hit, and people couldn’t take him seriously. What Jones and his band needed was to banish that memory with a classic album that showcased and truly defined where his talents lay. A more focused, more accomplished record where every track had real depth and substance as well as hooks, memorable choruses and superb melodies. An album where the darkness and the light could be combined more effectively.
A few years later in 1998, Babybird re-emerged with a startling new single which couldn’t have been further away from ‘You’re Gorgeous’. I remember hearing the incredible ‘Bad Old Man’ for the first time on the radio and being shocked. If people didn’t “get” the darkness at the heart of Babybird first time around, this time it couldn’t have been clearer. “That should do it,” I thought. Possibly the only Top 40 single to ever contain the word “paedophile”, ‘Bad Old Man’ moves slowly and darkly, with its gloomy piano hook joining a funeral march rhythm, providing the perfect musical backdrop for Jones’s deeply unsettling central character. Like some sort of a cross between Trump, Saville, Morgan, Cowell and Springer, the ‘Bad Old Man’ in question “drowned his stepson in the duck pond, let the wife beater out to make a pop song”, bringing to mind stories of corrupt perverts who lurk in the world of entertainment. It was EXACTLY the sort of song that should’ve been the immediate follow-up to the big hit. However, ‘Bad Old Man’ and the rest of the fascinating ‘There’s Something Going On’ wouldn’t have sounded like they did if Babybird hadn’t already had that big hit. British guitar music may have been going out of fashion at the time, but it was the perfect time for Stephen Jones to release his masterpiece, while his band still had enough of an audience for people to hear these songs.
Despite standing as one of the most hard-hitting singles of the era, ‘Bad Old Man’ only went to number 31 in the UK charts. Needless to say, its frightening lyrical content meant that daytime radio wouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. Plus, a lot of the audience who would’ve appreciated it was missing out due to their refusal to listen to anything by Babybird. Their loss. To me and other listeners, Jones and his band had just stepped up to another level. A few months later, the album’s second single was released. After the terrifying ‘Bad Old Man’, it was a wise choice to provide a stark contrast with the stunning ‘If You’ll Be Mine’. Calling the mesmerising intro “dreamy” would be the biggest understatement: it’s more like waking up to the most beautiful, dazzling light. The song also plays the known Jones trick of using sweet melodies to disguise lyrics that are sad, disturbing, or sometimes strange. In this case, we get a tale of lost love and what could’ve been, wrapped in a warming, comforting blanket. With its pretty lo-fi drum loops and picked guitar lines reminiscent of their best-known song, ‘If You’ll Be Mine’ is The Hit’s far superior and deeply poignant relative. And yet the radio and media still didn’t give it the attention it deserved, and the single charted no higher than number 28.
The second “proper” Babybird album was released on 24th August 1998, the same day that I also went out and bought ‘If You Tolerate This Your Children Will Be Next’ by the Manics and Mansun’s ‘Being A Girl’, two singles that remain big favourites of mine to this day. But ‘There’s Something Going On’ ruled my hi-fi system that particular week. Or at least some of it did. I was so excited by the two singles and the album’s first half, that it admittedly took me a while to get my head around the tracks that make up the second part. Once it had sunk in, I thought it was a great album. However, it took me about 12 years to realise just how brilliant it actually is.
Helpfully, TSGO begins with the two singles, both setting the tone perfectly: ‘Bad Old Man’ plunging the listener into overwhelmingly grim depths, before the magnificent ‘If You’ll Be Mine’ provides sweetness and poignancy. A far more focused record than ‘Ugly Beautiful’, all but one of the songs were newly written by Jones. Perhaps this way it was easier to form an overall concept, and maybe there was more room for the songs to breathe when they were being developed in the studio, rather than having the tendency to stick to the structures of demo tracks. The sparkling ‘Back Together’ is the song that fans say should’ve been their biggest hit, and the fact that it wasn’t can again be put down to a complete lack of support from the industry. Mysterious yet oddly breezy, it’s a moment of baroque pop perfection where splendid piano meets smart, intricate guitar, a stately yet understated drum sound, and the dynamics of Jones’s vocal; intimate and warm one second, leaping up to high-reaching emotional heights the next. It’s arranged and structured masterfully, using space brilliantly during the perfectly utilised instrumental bridge that eases into the first glorious chorus. Also with plenty of room to breathe is the ghostly ‘I Was Never Here’, where a majestic chord sequence kicks around for a while, initially sounding aimlessly satisfied, circling around like it could happily go on forever. Without one rhyming line, the vocals could be described as conversational if they weren’t so brilliantly dramatic, building up the song’s suspense while leaving space for the instrumental backdrop to keep its hold. Suddenly it goes off like a bomb, with vicious guitars thrashing against scuzzy bass, and nasty drums which sound like they could rip your ears apart.
The pace is cranked up a gear for the sick, crazy ‘First Man On The Sun’, a perverse romp through rhumba rhythms and drum n bass vibes, with lots of black humour in its lyrical twists and turns, as well as its seedy kazoo hooks. It’s followed by the stark, delusional, creepy ‘You Will Always Love Me’, a bit like an inverted Celine Dion ballad sung by a fixated stalker. It’s the sort of thing that you find at the very core of ‘There’s Something Going On’, a record that deals with the dark side of love in a way like no other. Far from being sentimental or romantic, these are songs that concern obsession, power, control, dependency, shady human instincts and male ego. Although it’s more focused than its predecessor in terms of subjects and vibes, this album brings just the right amount of musical diversity to the table. ‘The Life’ for instance, is a woozy, nauseous slice of paranoid schizophrenic hip-hop, not unlike the Happy Mondays on a very, very bad comedown.
The rabid ‘All Men Are Evil’ is the musical equivalent of a madman on the loose, where a murky groove mixes with lines that read like some sort of sinister nursery rhyme, evoking all sorts of gruesome lyrical imagery, while blaring harmonica adds more startling alarm to the already utterly hectic urgency. Afterwards comes the album’s centrepiece, and arguably the most powerful and devastating piece of music Stephen Jones has ever penned. Centred around big brushed drums, solemn piano and a captivating vocal, it’s impossible to think of anything more haunting than ‘Take Me Back’, a harrowing account of a roadside rape, and the following feelings of shame, guilt and desire for revenge. Jones’s versatility as a vocalist is exhibited to spectacular effect here, his voice rising from an unsettling whisper to a forceful manic yell, as the alluring yet distressing atmosphere takes hold of the listener. A novelty pop hit it is certainly not.
Things become so heavy that the tearfully mystifying ‘It’s Not Funny Anymore’ sounds like a moment of relief in comparison, another glistening lo-fi ballad beaming with weeping synths and stacked drum loops, truly soaring by the time it reaches its lengthy, moving outro. It provides an ideal penultimate climax before this remarkable record closes in subtle, delicate fashion with the sparse, home-recorded title track, where this intense journey ends on a lighter, somewhat redemptive note. Is ‘There’s Something Going On’ a concept album? Is it a reminder that all people need love, even bad people? Or is it a revelation that love itself can be a dark and cruel thing? You’ll have to ask Stephen Jones.
What happened next? The album was received well by critics and sold modestly, reaching number 28 in the UK album charts. Early the following year, a remixed version of ‘Back Together’ entered the singles chart at number 22. The next album ‘Bugged’ was far less successful, not even making the Top 100, resulting in the band packing it in. Stephen Jones worked on other projects and released a solo record, before reforming the group in 2005 and releasing three more albums, one of them featuring a guest appearance from Johnny Depp on guitar. Babybird would end again in 2012, with Jones returning to his DIY roots and releasing a massive amount of homemade music under various different aliases via his Bandcamp page. Just a few years later he would reprise Babybird for a third time, taking the band back out on tour and putting out a series of limited edition albums.
The brand new album ‘Unsung’ will be released via Bandcamp next month in September, and the group will be playing a three-date mini tour of the UK in early December.
As for me, I didn’t listen to Babybird or much other alternative music between 2003 and 2009. But I got back into Stephen Jones’s music after buying the album ‘Ex Maniac’ in 2010, and rediscovering the genius of ‘There’s Something Going On’. He wanted to be remembered for more than a shallow pop hit, and set out to make a solid, accomplished album that would stand the test of time. And here I am listening to this extraordinary record twenty years later, finishing up an article celebrating its brilliance. How’s that for longevity?
I really rooted for this album back then, hoping it’d be a big seller, and put Babybird into the big league where they deserved to be. But maybe it’s better suited to being a cult favourite, a fascinating secret that only a few of us lucky listeners are in on. A hidden Easter egg in music history that acts as a revelation: there really was a lot more to that ‘You’re Gorgeous’ band. But only those who dig a bit deeper will have found the real treasure. Inevitably, Jones feels undervalued, and with many great songs under his belt, it’s understandable. Yet, if I was in his shoes and if I knew how much this album means to some people, I would feel proud. Maybe not known and adopted by the masses who have a casual, fleeting appreciation of music, but instead loved dearly by the lucky people who took the time to investigate it. Why should Jones give a shit if he’s seen as a “one hit wonder” by “most people”? After all “most people” listen to Ed Sheeran, and spend more money on their lunch break than they do on music in a whole year. Their loss is again for those in the know.
The big pop hit was what led me to Babybird. But this album is the reason I’m writing about them two decades later. Here’s to 20 years of this melodic, powerful, bewildering, intense, unsettling, crazy and extraordinary record. Have you heard it yet?
Stream ‘There’s Something Going On’ in full below on YouTube. Better still, buy yourself a copy.