The Sunday Times Culture
26th April 1998
Still gorgeous to listen to
Interview with Stephen Jones
His new single confirms Stephen Jones – aka BabyBird – as one of our most subversive pop artists, says ANDREW SMITH
Subversion has always been a seductive idea in pop, whose roots are in rebelliousness and transgression and — let’s be frank — parental fear. These days, however, it’s not so easy. What are you going to subvert? There’s no obviously avoidable war, no Thatcher, with her big, sexy industrial disputes and confrontations; sexual taboos have been done from every angle and nobody bats an eyelid at tunes about drugs anymore.
When BabyBird crashed into the singles chart with You’re Gorgeous two years ago, however, it was initially greeted as a rare and delicious act of subversion. With its summery, absurdly catchy chorus (Because you’re gorgeous, I’d do anything for you-ou”), You’re Gorgeous was made for humming absentmindedly between the aisles at Sainshury’s.
Only much later did most listeners notice the darker tone of the verses, which seemed to describe the narrator’s obsessive love for someone who was talking pornographic photos of him/her. This was funny for awhile, but by the end of the song’s 15-week run as a bestseller, deeper questions were being asked.
What was Stephen Jones, the singer/songwriter behind BabyBird, saying? Were his “dark” themes just an attention-seeking pose? Some fans — bizarrely, these include Jackson Browne, Robbie Williams and Sir Elton John, who has invited him to take tea in the south of France — came to view him as a cheeky pop prankster, some critics as a flippant, pretentiously amoral charlatan. Jones wasn’t sure which reputation he liked least.
“I never meant to be funny,” Jones says, over a pint in the bar of a Kensington hotel, just down the road from the flat he shares with his girlfriend. Now 35, he spent many years on the dole in Sheffield, recording on a small portastudio in his bedroom. He released four interesting, home-recorded albums in the 18 months before You’re Gorgeous turned him into a pop star and a fifth, more conventional album, Ugly Beautiful, cemented his relationship with the mainstream.
He has just signed a lucrative American record deal and life is looking good, but it didn’t seem so rosy six months ago, when it came time to begin work on a sixth album. Jones had never had to live with other peoples’ expectations before and the pressure weighed heavily on him. He hadn’t written any lyrics in over a year. He felt misunderstood and feared that success had robbed him of his muse.
In the event, Jones’s fears were unfounded. He and his band decamped to a small studio in the hills above Marbella and wrote the new album in two weeks. Set to be released in August, it is far weightier than Ugly Beautiful, which was essentially a compilation of updated old material and, in that respect, marks a return to the form of the first four albums, Of more immediate interest is the first single, Bad Old Man, which is released tomorrow.
Musically, this is as stunning as anything Jones has written, with its melancholy, descending chord sequence and lingering piano motif, which, once heard, is impossible to dislodge from the mind. The lyrics, too, are characteristically loaded and ambiguous, full of memorable and disturbing images. In the nearest thing the smart arrangement allows to a chorus, we learn that “he drowned his stepson in the duck pond/let the wife beater out to make a pop song/be put razor blades in the ice crean-shot a paedophile in a wet dream”.
Nasty stuff, you might think. Jones won’t agree with you.
“No, my songs are taken from things that have affected me or moved me or are interesting. I’m not using the images in Bad Old Man lightly, to shock people. That song came from watching a lot of satellite TV in recording studios — in particular, talk shows with people such as Jerry Springer and Geraldo. You sit there waiting for a guest to get shot, that’s the only way it can get more extreme than it already is — to have someone executed. The song is just trying to find a way t~ say that maybe we need to think about the implications and effects of these things before we sanction them.”
The life and deeds of presenter and guests are cleverly run together, thus setting up a moral equation between them. Jones sug people up for our titillation, the television star is implicated in the crimes that gave them their freakish fascination. As are we, as viewers.
The singer claims that “the whole album is about that kind of morality” though, in another outstanding song, the slow, elegiac You Will Always Be Mine, he returns to one of his favourite themes, which I interpret as the ambiguity of unconditional love, it being the highest form of emotion, and yet the most dangerous and oft exploited. You’re Gorgeous was concerned with this, though I took You Will Always Be Mine to be about the relationship between children and parents.
“Yes, that’s in there,” Jones says. He has always been interested in dualities, partly because he recognises the different sides of his own character. He declares that on tour this time around, he is going to make an effort to drink less (“I only drank so I had the courage to dance, overcoming nerves, but there were times when I’d come offstage and I’d be so pissed I’d be annoyed about something but I’d forgotten what it was,” he said recently).
At the same time, his awareness that, when he drinks certain things, he gets “a bit nasty” confirms his view that there’s a bad old man in all of us. He wonders where it comes from. “I’m not trying to subvert peoples’ minds,” he concludes. “To write something that’s slightly unusual and make it mainstream, that’s the challenge.” Which, in this age of soundbites and the media’s saturation with trivia, is subversive enough.