Babybird

TrackAlbum / Single
Baby BirdUgly Beautiful
FarmerEcho ECSCD31
It's Not Funny AnymoreThere's Something Going On
FirefliesBugged
In The CountryBest of Babybird
Too MuchBetween My Ears There Is Nothing But Music
Sing It AwayBetween My Ears There Is Nothing But Music
UnloveableEx-Maniac
Isn't Love WonderfulUnison Music BBV7
Not LoveThe Pleasures Of Self Destruction

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Contributor: John Hartley

Somewhere in a parallel universe the greatest songwriters of all time will be getting their just rewards. Malcolm Eden of McCarthy will be collecting nods of approval for his political insight and articulate depictions of Thatcher’s Britain. Nigel Blackwell of Half Man Half Biscuit will be the newly crowned poet laureate, revered for his portrayal of everyday British life. And over there, just behind the staircase that goes both up and down at exactly the same time, stands Stephen Jones of Babybird.

This is the same Stephen Jones whose four-track low-fidelity records graced an earlier Toppermost under the similarly-monikered Baby Bird. But there is a significant difference between Baby Bird and Babybird; in effect the latter took the chalk and charcoal A5 sketches of the former and turned them into full blown, wall-filling oil and canvass extravaganzas that somehow, miraculously, manage to retain the delicate, fragile beauty of the embryonic outlines.

This is the same Stephen Jones whose name is lauded by the likes of Johnny Depp, Bob Mortimer and Dom Joly. The same Stephen Jones whose songs are heard worldwide on a continual basis in the form of You’re Gorgeous and the Gordon Ramsay-soundtracking The F-Word. And yet the best of the work by this same Stephen Jones remains largely – and cruelly – unheard by the masses.

Legend has it now carved in stone that the lo-fi recordings of Baby Bird were accompanied by voting cards which were to inform a Greatest Hits CD at the end. However, the lo-fi ‘greatest hits’ were not the greatest hits. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, Jones hooked up with a quartet of similarly Sheffield-based musicians, removed a space and a capital letter, and allowed Babybird to record full versions of songs that comprised a debut album that would spawn no fewer than four Top 40 hits.

In 1996 the album Ugly Beautiful became the first major label release by Babybird. As would befit an album of such titling, the 70 minutes of music contained some outrageously beautiful songs alongside a smattering of others which, to be blunt, aren’t that much cop. This however has always been the joy of Babybird: yes, there may be lumps of coal mined from the caves but there will also be diamonds.

Luckily with Babybird there are far more diamonds than lumps of coal, and at the end of Ugly Beautiful dazzles the brightest of them, Baby Bird. Here guitars quiver underneath wavering ‘la-la-la’s whilst Jones’ gruff vocals issue a plea to that most fragile thing of beauty, the new born. Here the imagery brings tenderness and love from a place least expected. Here the lyrics express fragility, hope and mutual dependency; “Set up home in a beautiful nest, you can lie here on my soft red chest … Baby bird I’m so lonely, and the sky is so cold and unstable; don’t you fly away from me”. The press photos of the band at the time suggest a gaggle of blokes you really would not wish to meet down a darkened alley; the musicianship on the track reeks of love, tenderness and an almost tangible vulnerability.

It would be very easy at this point to stop writing about Babybird the band and write a whole essay about Baby Bird the song; that would however do so much injustice to so many other of the band’s songs. And they are ‘the band’s songs more than just Jones’. Without the initial input of Rob Gregory, John Pedder, Hugh Chadbourn and Luke Scott you would not be reading about a further nine great pieces of pop music. Take Farmer, for instance. On one hand this could be a quirky little keyboard-based bop of a song (as found on the first lo-fi album). On the other, it could be a lilting, bold and brash ballad with vocal harmonies and instrumental melodies to warm the coldest of hearts, as found on the b-side to third single Candy Girl. And there’s humour too, “Farmer, farmer play your guitar and lead your sheep with every baa”.

By the time Babybird introduced their second album There’s Something Going On (the title track of which could be heard at various points soundtracking Reeves and Mortimer sketches) Chadbourn had departed. However the importance of the ‘band’ approach was not diminished. This time, only one track – I Was Never Here – was pulled from the earlier lo-fi releases and again that was given the full blown treatment. Meanwhile, alongside the intimidatingly intuitive single Bad Old Man and its warmer follow-up If You’ll Be Mine could be found driving guitar-heavy tracks such as First Man On The Sun and The Life. And then yet further examples of simple, shimmering beauty of which It’s Not Funny Anymore is the finest: “air the brakes from the floor, drop your toes on the gas, I’ll stand here like a wall that you made from sugarglass” sings Jones before he reiterates just how funny ‘it’ no longer is. To be honest, the romantic beauty painted earlier in the song would suggest it wasn’t funny in the first place. And then there is the instrumental outro …

Bugged, the third album to be released by Babybird, saw only Jones and Scott remaining from the original line-up but the standards of songwriting and musicianship remained undiminished. Lead single The F-Word would become famous as a TV theme tune, whilst the second track Getaway soundtracked some of Trigger Happy TV. Sales were ‘disappointing’; as the story goes, when a record label uses that word it is never a good sign, and their refusal to release the band’s preferred choice of song as a single seemed to spell the end. Fireflies would be released on an independent label, leading a five-song EP; its nursery-rhyme skipalong exterior complementing the childhood tale of collecting flies in a jar only to find them expired (“oh no, it’s hot in here” complain the captive insects).

As was now customary, the quality of songwriting was not restricted to the album. B-sides to the singles, spread across two or three formats at a time, maintained the standards. There are few songs other than those listed here to better the wistful Bad Habit, for example. However, the reconstruction of another lo-fi original, In The Country is most definitely one of them. Similar in bouncy, singalong, childlike form to much of the album, the track is indeed superior to some found on that long player. “If you know what’s good for you,” sings Jones, “Then you’ll know what’s good for me: a little house in the country, a little grass and a big tree.” Only now there are hints of a melancholia that will come to increasingly pepper later work, “God has gone and left us here with everything to do …

Babybird went quiet. Silent, even. It would be six years before any new music would be released under the band’s name. When it arrived, however – with Rob Gregory welcomed back to the fold – the songs were, if anything, more relevant than anything released before. The eleven tracks contained within Between My Ears There Is Nothing But Music certainly appeared to be more personal, with lead track Too Much setting the way ahead for the rest of the album, “all this new stuff is way too much. I’m tired and it’s enough” reflects Jones, “I want to go back to the little kid I was who had nothing else but love.”

The apparent world-weariness of Too Much is to an extent misleading, however. Perhaps a more accurate approach would be to see Babybird’s later works as those coloured by maturity; the maturity that comes with the bursting of a popstar bubble, that comes with responsibility, parenthood and the need to provide for others. Sing It Away, B-side to the digitally released single Lighter ‘n’ Spoon (and available as a bonus track on the digital version of Between My Ears There Is Nothing But Music), showed a willingness to accept that others may be feeling similar frustrations and that here was someone with a bit of power to change things, “If you’ve been knocked around, kicked down, and your life’s like a smile on a dead clown” offers Jones, then he’ll at least be able to cheer you up with your favourite song, “turn the speakers up [and] tell the world to fuck off”. Babybird have certainly done that remotely not too far from where I am sitting now.

Of course, as is a recurring theme in Babybird’s history, the album didn’t sell millions. Their top 3 single from ten years previous remained a millstone round the band’s neck, and the nation could be forgiven for thinking Jones and co were actually called ‘Babybird – you know, the band who did You’re Gorgeous’. In 2010, Jones replaced that millstone with a noose; not literally thankfully, but in the Johnny Depp-directed video for Unloveable, the first single from the album Ex-Maniac. Depp even contributes lead guitar to the track, a song which captures the resigned realisation of a failed relationship better than anything else you will ever hear.

Those lucky enough to buy a vinyl copy of the single would have flipped over and found a song of contrasting sentiment and emotion (it would later become available as a digital extra track). Isn’t Love Wonderful promises gently that “love is coming”, recognising that at times couples can take it in turns to hate each other but that this doesn’t have to be a permanent state. Like the relationship it describes, the song peaks and troughs, crescendos and crashes – “without the bad you have no good” – and lays bare the lie of love that is perpetuated around us: “I know I’ve seen it on TV, all wrapped up and just there for me”. It isn’t like that, Jones knows it, and is happy to let us in on the secret.

A year later and Babybird would release their last album. Those who have trawled Stephen Jones’ Bandcamp site will of course be aware of another album declaring itself the last Babybird album. For most of us, however, The Pleasures Of Self Destruction (2011) stakes that claim. In keeping with the twists and turns of emotional being that decorate the previous albums, Not Love describes the contradictions of love: “This is not a love song, this is not flowers. We just want something, something that’s ours” sings Jones over cascading pianos and hustling drums.

Like so many of Babybird’s finest works, it is a love song, something for all of us; just not in the saccharine coating we are constantly peddled through the mainstream. And for that reason, if no other, you should explore the Babybird back catalogue as a priority.

 

Stephen Jones on Bandcamp

Babybird Music

Babybird: Stephen Jones website (archived)

The Babybird Page: website dedicated to the music of Babybird and Stephen Jones

Black Reindeer on bandcamp

Baby Bird – Toppermost #482

Babybird biography (Wikipedia)

John Hartley is the author of “Capturing The Wry”, an autobiographical tale of the unsigned side of the music industry, published by i40Publishing and available here. After spending the best part of twenty five years trying to write the perfect pop song he has also turned his attention to writing about those who have done a much better job at it. He tweets as @JohnyNocash and gives away his music, generally for free, at Broken Down Records.

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