A one-man bedroom band is suddenly topping the charts. Ben Thompson meets Baby Bird
HOW SAD would you have to be to listen to an entire Top 40 rundown, just to see what number a particular song has come in at? If the tune was Baby Bird’s ‘You’re Gorgeous’ and the rundown in question was on the radio a week ago today, you would not have to be very sad at all. Not because ‘You’re Gorgeous’ crashed into the charts at a triumphant No 3 — after all, Kula Shaker can do that, too — but because this song’s obscenely infectious refrain beckons the idle thrill-seeker into one of the strangest and most captivating pop visions ever created.
Thanks to chord structures of deceptive, almost African simplicity, fulsome baritone vocal stylings, and a synthetic xylophone that is manna to the eardrum, it hardly matters that beneath the building-site chorus, Baby Bird’s second single is actually a feminist role-reversal tableau in which a man has his picture taken by a woman on the bonnet of a car. And that’s only the beginning. Or rather the end, because this enigmatic Sheffield-based pop phenomenon lives by the trusty ship-in-a-bottle-maker’s axiom: if a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing backwards.
In the 12 months prior to July — when their similarly insidious debut, perversely entitled ‘Goodnight’, set sail across unsuspecting summer airwaves and was becalmed at No 27 — Baby Bird had already released four albums on their own Baby Bird Recordings label. If the titles of these (I Was Born a Man, Bad Shave, Fatherhood and The Happiest Man Alive) seem oddly familiar for records that only came out in limited editions of 1,000, that’s probably because almost everyone who has listened to them has felt compelled to go on about the experience at inordinate length, even if only in their diaries. This was the sound of someone flying before they should have been able to walk.
Performed and recorded by one man, Stephen Jones — the chicken in Baby Bird’s egg — on whatever instruments came to hand, these 68 songs were selected from a library of 400 built up over six years of solitary endeavour. The remarkable thing about the four-discs-in-a-year career plan is that it was hatched, not in confident expectation of the frenzy which has justly resulted, but for want of any alternative option — Jones’s manager having been laughed out of every record-company office in London (most memorably by Nick Beggs, Kajagoogoo mainstay turned A&R eminence — a clear case of the pot calling the exquisite Wedgwood vase a kettle). When the demos were pressed onto CDs with funds from a small publishing deal, anguished talent scouts phoned in their droves to ask how the tapes had been changed. The answer was they hadn’t.
Before anyone had time to come to terms with the idea of a solitary genius writing absurdly direct but stunningly omnifarious songs, Baby Bird became a band. Within weeks of the first album’s release in the summer of last year, Jones had recruited four like-minded individuals from the East Midlands/South Yorkshire badlands and set out to prove himself no bed-sit wonder. Far from the sensitive, socially maladjusted hermit everyone was expecting, he turned out to have a stage persona pitched midway between Les Dawson and Father Jack Hackett.
The secret of all great pop music is to speak directly to individuals in a mass audience, and Baby Bird took this literally. In the course of the band’s already legendary autumn 1995 residency at London’s Splash Club, Jones personally ordered a couple of talkative EFL students to leave the venue: “Madame Tussaud’s is straight down the road on your right”. And this was only one of the milder of the many spectacular on-stage displays of artistic temperament that have enlivened Baby Bird’s vertical takeoff.
Having witnessed a number of these, the mild-manneredness of the off-duty Stephen Jones still comes as a shock. Sitting quietly with genial bass-player John Pedder, he seems almost house-trained. Is he on a mission to stop people talking at gigs? “Not a mission exactly, but I like to think that might happen.”
What’s it like to play with someone who’s liable to turn on the audience at any moment? “It actually feels quite protected,” Pedder grins. “So long as we’re on stage, Stephen is the hardest man in the building. When he goes too far, it’s usually because he hears the wrong thing: if someone shouts ‘I love you’, he tends to hear ‘you wanker’.” Jones looks sheepish. “My hearing is a bit selective. ‘More’ always sounds like ‘boring’ — that’s another tricky one. But if I overstep the mark, the band will always come and tell me. I’m not normally the way I am on stage: I blush very easily.”
In the dressing room before Baby Bird’s first TFI Friday appearance a couple of weeks back, nerves are touchingly apparent. Their manager tries (as managers will) to slide a Baby Bird poster in over the top of another band’s, and in so doing breaks the clip-frame. Happily, this is not an omen. In rehearsals, Chris Evans sports a ‘You’re Gorgeous’ T-shirt. This is a cause for concern — the song’s title also happens to be one of Chris’s catchphrases, and no one wants it to become too identified with the ginger fellow — but when the show is recorded, a cardboard cut-out of Jarvis Cocker is wearing the shirt, which seems much more appropriate.
Baby Bird get paid just before going on. How much? “Two hundred and eighty pounds each.” Shouldn’t that go into a band kitty or something? “It can’t,” Pedder beams, “it just says our names on the cheques.” On the subject of nomenclature, no one seems quite sure whether Stephen is spelt with a “ph” or a “v”. “It’s with a ‘v’ actually, but I like to spell it with a more stylish ‘ph’. Steven with a ‘v’ can be shortened to Steve, which is the Sex Pistols’ guitarist or the presenter of The Pyramid Game. It’s such a bland name anyway, anything to stretch it… well, anything short of Stefan.”
This exchange says something very significant about why the things Steph(v)en Jones does turn out the way they do, but I’m not quite sure what. Does he think it will be strange for people to hear the songs Baby Bird have re-recorded for their debut band album Ugly/Beautiful in their new, less homespun form? “I think so, yes. It might disappoint a lot of people.”
The real question, though, is how Baby Bird will face up to the Pulp conundrum: ie what happens to music that is an exquisite distillation of quotidian normality when the music itself becomes a part of that normality? The sound of ‘You’re Gorgeous’ emerging from a chip-shop doorway has a delicious whiff of vinegar about it.
© Ben Thompson, The Independent, 12 October 1996