Baby Bird’s Stephen Jones talks to David Stubbs about life after ‘You’re Gorgeous’
STEPHEN JONES has written over 400 songs, most of which he committed to four-track over a period of several years in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Songs such as ‘Man’s Tight Vest’, a song of uniquely comic poignancy. Lacerating, scything songs like ‘Too Handsome To Be Homeless’, songs of infinite plaintiveness such as ‘Dead Bird Sings’. Sweet, silly, sad love songs like ‘Valerie’, which hankered in the breeze. Fuzzy, sarky songs like ‘Bad Jazz’, songs which parodied overbearing US radio overkill, other songs which were as delicious as Olde English Spangles.
And yet, after all this time, there’s a perception of him as Baby Bird, the ‘You’re Gorgeous’ bloke. A one-song pony, like Terry ‘Seasons In The Sun’ Jacks. That git in the video in the white jacket. The song lingered so long in the charts that everybody’s heard it. Everybody’s got an opinion. Stephen Jones has every reason to be happy/sad.
“Noel Gallagher’s gone on record saying he thinks I’m a tosspot, but judging by what he’s probably heard of me so far I can well understand him thinking that. I know how Baby Bird can irritate people,” sighs Jones, who, after years of obscurity, found he couldn’t go for a pint of milk without the inevitable Shout From Across The Street.
“That’s why I cut all my hair off and moved from Manchester to London. I was getting it all the time. Down here, no one recognises you. Most of what I’ve had shouted at me in bars and garage forecourts has been 90 per cent nice things, but it’s 10 per cent, ‘You’re that fucking twat who wrote that song.’
“You’ve got to take responsibility for every song you write. But ‘You’re Gorgeous’ is seven years old and was never intended as a hit. It was written for myself alone, a long time ago. Everyone tells me it’s a good song and maybe it is, but to me it’s the past. I’m a bit paranoid that Baby Bird are being judged by it. My regret is that we were persuaded to put out a nice, jumparound charty single, ‘Cornershop’, as a follow-up – and, looking back, that was naive. I’d like to have put out a more serious song like ‘Dead Bird Sings’.”
Jones has also picked up a reputation for truculence, after a few altercations with audiences at gigs.
“The trouble is, it is a role. People see you onstage and they think you really are this leery, obnoxious, slightly drunken character, which I’m not. I just like to put on a show. So many bands don’t put on a show because they’re not interested or they haven’t got the skill.
“In the early days, it was fine, with intimate audiences you could have a chat with. Then when the venues got bigger there’d be Luke [Scott, guitars] five miles to the right of you and you’d shout at people and they’d shout back and it got hostile.
“I do sometimes get bad-tempered and frustrated because of the limits of what can be done onstage. My influences are films, not gigs,” says Jones, who didn’t even start singing until he was in his mid-twenties, contenting himself prior to that with making soundtrack music for non-existent movies.
“Jim Jarmusch, Robert De Niro, that’s cool. Four blokes in jeans and trainers, that’s not cool. I’ve never gleaned much at all from gigs. People smash up their instruments for the thrashy bits, calm down a bit for the ballads. It’s not enough.”
THERE ARE currently two Baby Birds. The ‘Gorgeous’ one who’s been put out into the world of chanting brickies, Brits and Brats, TFI-Friday and the jukebox of The Queen Vic on East Enders. The other continues to release forlornly beautiful compilations culled from his stockpile of songs on his own label. Since 1995, there have been four: I Was Born A Man, which alerted the press to this hyacinth-like talent, blooming in the dark for years; Bad Shave, Fatherhood and Happiest Man Alive. Dying Happy is his fifth, the most unrelentingly, forlornly beautiful of all his compilations. It flies like an injured sparrow in the face of the Britpop triumphalism with which ‘You’re Gorgeous’ has been reluctantly garlanded.
Dying Happy is about whatever it triggers in your head but, as much as anything, it’s the implicit soundtrack to a lost England, a lost innocence, songs redolent of rusty climbing frames and abandoned boating pools in small, graffitied-over towns, Jones’ plaintive falsetto drifting through the slow, jangly reverb like a discarded boiled sweet wrapper wafting through a deserted precinct. A story he provides on the sleevenotes about four kids in a playground sets the tone. There’s something dismal yet homely about the neglected world of the provinces Jones hints at in his songs.
“Yeah, I’m already missing that from Sheffield and Manchester. There is a way that life is dire – that’s not what I mean, I shouldn’t really say that. But London is sort of a bubble, you tend to forget.
“Dying Happy was just intended for fans,” says Jones, who is nonetheless relieved that the laudatory reviews it’s received have reminded onlookers of the other things he’s capable of. “There is a bit of a Baby Bird backlash. Nothing too bad, just journalists who talk about wanting to kick me to death. It worries me that people hate me so much because I’ve never hated anybody in my life.”
Baby Bird Recordings, Jones’ own label, is uniquely enshrined within his contract with Echo on an infinite lease. In theory, there’d be nothing to stop Baby Bird from putting out more of the four-track compilations, but he has no intention of doing that. For instance, the label might in the future provide an outlet for other bands who catch Jones’ ear. In the meantime, he’s girding himself to go out into Europe and the rest of the world with the material from Ugly Beautiful – the album which saw the debut of Baby Bird the band in 1996 – before getting back down to the task of reconciling Old Baby Bird and New Baby Bird on the band’s next album.
“We’re going to slip away for a while,” he tells me, as we say our goodbyes at the traffic lights.
A moment later, he’s gone.
© David Stubbs, Uncut, September 1997