As Stephen 'Babybird' Jones prepares for his first UK tour in half a decade, Wyndham Wallace argues it's time the 'Gorgeous' audience which flew the nest came home to roost
There are, perhaps, more tactful ways of grabbing your attention, but most people will already be familiar with the age-old joke behind that allegation. Paul McCartney told it in 2008. Elon Musk tweeted it in 2011. Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton shared it in a 2012 TED talk. There are, in fact, more variations on the gag than remixes by Kieran Hebden. In case you're unfamiliar with it, however, Musk's version is most concise: "Sew one button, doesn't make u a tailor; cook one meal, doesn't make u a chef; but f* one horse and u r a horsef*er for all of history."
Obviously, Stephen Jones didn't really fuck a horse. What he did was release a song, 'You're Gorgeous', delivering one of the most immediately recognisable - and, for a while, inescapable - choruses of the past 25 years. Some will never forgive him. The track spent 19 weeks in the charts, peaking at number 3, and its success wasn't restricted to the UK. Its refrain became an anthem and part of primitive, drunken mating rituals throughout the world. It was used in Australian ads selling Nurofen for Children and in British Christmas commercials salving Mastercard's conscience, while, according to the Daily Telegraph, Prince William even dedicated it, at the climax of a Chilean DJ set - and these very words are enough to make one shrivel - "to any of you people who are in the mood for lurve".
These days, in comparison, Jones' work garners little attention. This seems unfair: the man whose career started with five 'lo-fi' albums - I Was Born A Man, Bad Shave, Fatherhood, The Happiest Man Alive and Dying Happy - has spent the past six years doing exactly what first brought him acclaim. Almost quarter of a century ago, those albums - described by critic Ben Thompson, amid a general torrent of praise, as "the sound of someone flying before they should have been able to walk" - compiled 81 songs from some 400 home recordings amassed over around a decade. Released between July 1995 and May 1996, the limited edition collections provoked enviable comparisons with an extraordinary range of revered artists - among them Beck, Ray Davies, Smog, Badly Drawn Boy, Stephen Merritt, Lou Barlow, Echo & The Bunnymen and Robyn Hitchcock - and sold out within days, leading eventually to a deal with The Echo Label.
Nowadays, just as when he started out, Jones records religiously almost every day. Back when he was on the dole, he says, "it was done on the kitchen table. Everything was under the sofa, and I'd take it out, and when it was tea time I'd put it back. It hasn't changed much. You stick with what you know." So these days, retiring after breakfast, he settles down to write in the box-room of his family home in Cheshire, regularly emerging with at least one finished track, and sometimes even more.
The setting is different, but some things aren't, most pertinently the fact that - after three albums with The Echo Label, and two on Unison Music, plus a handful of releases under other names - he's been without a deal since 2011's The Pleasures Of Self Destruction. This hasn't impeded the flow of music, though. Instead, he uses Bandcamp, where he's accumulated a staggering amount of work. Some is archive material: 2003's Almost Cured Of Sadness, for example, released under his own name, or Babybird outtakes from 2006 to 2011, as well as selections from the original 'lo-fi' material. There are also 'bootlegs' of Babybird's live performances, from a late 1996 London Electric Ballroom show (complete with that big hit, this time titled 'You're Gormless') to last December's low-key live return at London's St Pancras Old Church. (This time he introduces the song as "the cabaret part of the evening".)
Most of what's online, though, is brand new, made available under a wide variety of artist sobriquets - at the last count, he'd employed 15 different identities - and often captured by Garageband only days earlier. Jones enjoys the immediacy of writing and releasing music swiftly, with 2015's ten track Meloncholy, for instance - also released under his given name - recorded entirely alone in just ten days. There's also a taster for a new double Babybird album, You And Me Is Wrong, which contains seven work-in-progress recordings, and further work by Jones, The Great Sadness and Outsider, most of which would suit the more wistful portions of Babybird's catalogue, and which confirm his still remarkable ear for witty wordplay and ennui-soaked melody.
Additionally, there are lush, often lengthy ambient experiments conducted under names like 5th Base ("a soundtrack," Jones says, "to the backdrop of the Middle East war"), The Foetal Sparrow (extended pieces "based on orchestral drone"), Arthritis Kid (whose recent "very filmic" album trilogy is among his favourite recent releases), and Black Reindeer, one of the first pseudonyms he adopted. Then there's Wayz 2 Die's conceptual, beat-heavy work (so far just a single "mad dance album based around ways to defeat death"), the similarly rhythmic, if more bewildering, Trucker ("Hi-NRG dance"), and Deluder (a project lying somewhere between Air, The Orb and Death In Vegas, whose releases include the dubiously titled Media Paedo Terrorist Pop Songs).
Jones estimates he's so far uploaded at least 200 new tracks during his residency, with each available as a download exclusively from Bandcamp. But many are also, if only initially, offered as limited edition physical releases, "hand painted or written packages," Jones explains, "signed individually to the person buying, and with gifts. These are sometimes written after people have paid, so they're buying something that's being produced as they wait." The numbers aren't overwhelming but, he points out, apart from social media he has no means of driving traffic to the site.
This, however, isn't such a bad thing, as it ensures the labour involved remains manageable. "I'd like more," he says, "but I'd probably have another wobbly episode." He's referring to the minor heart attack he suffered last year, something about which he kept few secrets on social media. "There was no specific time it happened," he says, "just a stretched-out thing, not a 'grabbing chest and collapsing like on EastEnders, shouting in cockney' event. Two stents shoved up the arm into the heart and done. Pills for life. Gym. Healthy shit."
Jones also suffers from Ménière's disease, an inner ear condition. "When I put stuff out," he says, "I've got no idea how people are going to hear it, because even though my headphones are fine, I've got one ear which had tinnitus and is blocked now, and [the hearing] comes and goes. Apparently, it's one of the reasons Van Gogh cut his ear off. I can see the positive side, though. If there's a fucking pigeon outside at 4am in the morning, and you lie on this side you can't hear it! I'm not all cynic, you know."
Nonetheless, Jones recognises differences between what he does now and what he did back in his salad days. "I think I can write songs now. I think all that stuff on the 'lo-fi' albums, they had verses and choruses, but… I'm not saying structured songs are good, but you do have to hit certain points when you're writing. You have to hit climaxes or there's no point. You're not going to get the hairs standing up on the back of people's necks. I think I've learned, basically, what I have to do more of."
What emerges from Jones' current habits are perhaps best described as musical haikus, his uncluttered style reducing ideas down to their essence, musically and lyrically, though he's not afraid to stretch songs out, varying the layers for dramatic effect. At the heart of all his work, though, lie captivating melodies and at least hints of grief and gloom, albeit coloured with traces of optimism. Try a mournful track like 'Slugs', from 2015's Stephen Jones album, Outsider - though not the project Outsider, as if things weren't already complicated enough - or the graceful, 15 minute 'Friday', from The Foetal Sparrow's 2016 release, Gravity Reversed, or 'Trust Me Not', from 2012's Black Reindeer album, Music From The Film That Never Got Made, which, inspired by his Christian education, hypnotically matches an American preacher's sermon with just piano and programmed beats.
Listening to these numerous, poignant releases, one wonders why no one's declared Jones a genius again, much as they did before. Perhaps it's that his story was already told two and a half decades ago, and people have moved on. Otherwise, were one to stumble on an unknown artist with a back catalogue this rich and expansive, people would be queuing up to tell their tale. Maybe it's that the recordings - made with improved technology by someone around three decades older than the man who wrote tender, evergreen tunes like 'Dead Bird Sings', 'Too Handsome To Be Homeless' or 'Candy Girl' - no longer sound 'lo-fi'. The hiss of tape provides a certain romance, underlining the limitations that an artist has overcome.
But it might be that to be prolific on this scale betrays the fact that creating music isn't always the harrowing, soul-searching ordeal that some like to pretend it is. No one likes a smartarse, and, in Jones' hands, writing songs - and he claims to have over 10,000 under his belt - appears to be a piece of piss. Whatever it is, though, that keeps his once sizeable audience at arm's length, it's not too great a stretch of the imagination to suggest that, if he hadn't fucked that horse, Stephen Jones might be recognised with the same sense of reverence as Britain's equivalent of someone like Guided By Voices' Robert Pollard, or even Beck. That he's not is frankly myopic, unfortunate, and ultimately music's loss.
As with Pollard's catalogue, however, it's an absolute bitch to navigate one's way through Jones' maze of identities and recordings. It's something the musician acknowledges. "With some names it's just to keep it fresh," he says, "but naturally I'm shooting myself in the foot with over-complicatedness. As per! It sadly always comes back to that name I have problems with - Babybird - mainly because of its associations with the past. Oh, that song…"
That Jones has been pushed to the margins by "that song", forcing him to rely on Bandcamp as the only outlet for his work, might be seen as tragic, or perhaps even karma: the once ubiquitous pop star - whose occasionally boorish behaviour at times alienated those around him - forced to reinvent himself as a cottage industry, bribing fans with cheap trinkets and his signature. After all, if you measure success in income, then Jones has fallen a long way since The Spice Girls introduced 'You're Gorgeous' on a Christmas Top Of The Pops Special, or since Lulu introduced 'The F-Word' on The National Lottery. The less charitable might even say it serves him right.
But there's another way of interpreting this situation, which is that he's a poster boy for the very practises musicians have, since the early 2000s, been encouraged to adopt. As a man famously uncomfortable with the business - something that provoked much of that boorish behaviour - he now bypasses the industry entirely. Instead, he's made a virtue of independence - artistic and financial - by recording music on his own terms and controlling what he does with every penny he makes. In fact, he states, for some years now he's made enough to balance his bills, with sales steadily growing.
Some might even consider him fortunate, and this is something with which Jones definitely agrees. "Twenty odd years of doing music at my age?" he laughs. "It's ridiculous! I'm grateful for it. One break is more than enough for anyone, isn't it? It's greedy otherwise. I'm very lucky I got picked out, and since then, of course, a few big hits make carrying on possible."
There's definitely a certain irony to the fact Jones can't find a deal. Three years ago, he reemployed his former manager, who shopped his work around the industry but came back empty-handed, despite initial optimism. The situation must have felt familiar. Back in the mid 90s, when Jones was first trying to get a contract, he and the same manager were turned away by pretty much every label in existence. Jones likes to tell the story of how, as an A&R for Phonogram Records, Nick Beggs - once of Kajagoogoo - allegedly told him, "When you've written a middle eight and done these songs properly with a band, then we might be interested."
Of course, once the acclaim started, following the release of the 'lo-fi' albums, those same labels started scrapping for Jones' signature. "When the demos were pressed onto CDs with funds from a small publishing deal," Ben Thompson wrote in The Independent in late 1996, "anguished talent scouts phoned in their droves to ask how the tapes had been changed. The answer was they hadn't." Labels began flying him around the world, wining and dining him, and then, as 'You're Gorgeous' became ubiquitous, kicked themselves for their early hesitation. "A&R people," Jones laughs. "Arses and rectums, I call them. So witty, I know!"
Jones was in his 30s when this happened, so life had already instilled in him a healthy degree of distrust. He watched the industry's profligacy with weary distaste, even as he reaped its rewards. "I did an EMI conference before we got signed," he continues. "We got money from this guy who, the first time we stayed in a hotel to meet him, came in a helicopter. So we were seeing all the clichés. When we were going to America, we got hunted down by Reprise and Atlantic and some other small label. We ended up in this label guy's amazing panoramic apartment, with windows everywhere. He said, 'We need to keep the noise down, my little daughter's asleep.' We thought he was going to check on her, but he came back with a massive bag of guns. He had a Magnum and all these other handguns, and he said, 'Have a go!' Then he said, 'Put that one down, it's loaded!' Everyone could see us from the other buildings. It was absolutely mental."
Jones now finds himself in the same position as back in the early 90s, and yet again, were far-sighted labels to listen to his current work, they'd find him writing truly great songs: the epic 'Feel', for example, or the heart-wrenching 'The Happiest Girl' (both from KONpilation). They'd also see he's happy to take to the road at a time when it's becoming increasingly economically precarious to do so: following his first live shows since 2012 in London over two nights last December, he'll perform five further UK gigs this month. "I absolutely loved it!" he says. "It was like riding an old bike."
Still, lurking in the shadows, there's always that damned horse. What makes this so complicated - given that, even today, income from the tune is one reason he forgoes a 'normal' day job - is that Jones didn't ever want it released. The original 'You're Gorgeous' never even made it onto the 'lo-fi' albums: like a bouncer with a guest list, Jones says, "I didn't like it, so it didn't get on." He only eventually conceded to a re-recorded version because his label piled on the pressure - "The record company saw the chorus was big," he sighs - and when you're newly signed you want to please your patrons as much as your patrons want to please you. "Some members of the band have said, 'You should never have really done that', but I think we all decided we should go along with it. And we did, because it was fun."
But the song became a beast, and Jones clearly still struggles with being best known for a tune about which he laughs, "It makes me feel quite icky." Released as the second single from 1996's Ugly Beautiful, Jones' first studio album with his live band, 'You're Gorgeous' still triggers a Pavlovian response. Like it or not, the title alone evokes its melody, with the next line, "I'll do anything for you," burrowing into brains like a proverbial earworm. If you can sing the verses, though, you're definitely in the minority, and therein lies another issue often forgotten by its detractors: the song was almost entirely misunderstood.
Like much of Jones' work, 'You're Gorgeous' is a darkly provocative track, to be filed alongside, for instance, his debut album's 'Man's Tight Vest', whose central theme was way ahead of its time - "Wish I'd been christened Valerie instead of Stan/ In a man's tight vest I don't fit into this world" - or, in an entirely different vein, 'Hong Kong Blues', which found him ranting "Pull your pants down and dance around completely naked in the middle of Chinatown." Jones also proudly points out that the central character of 1998's 'Bad Old Man' "drowned his stepson in the duckpond" and how with this he even smuggled the word 'paedophile' into the Top 40. Indeed, his fondness for the grotesque hasn't altered much over the years: even now he releases tracks with Wayne Coyne-esque titles like "In Hospital He Dislocates His Knuckles In And Out Of The Sockets, As The Nurses Laugh About Some Shit That's Nothing Remotely To Do With Him", the instrumental opener to The Happy End, Arthritis Kid's latest collection.
So the steed upon which Jones rode into Shit-Town was an inadvertent Trojan Horse, with its subversion rendered palatable by producer Steve Power, who arrived fresh from working on Babylon Zoo's 'Spaceman', and who'd soon toil on Robbie Williams' Life Through A Lens. Neutering the wryly bitter lyrics of its verse with his saccharine production, he tailored the song for the charts, and though this seemed, at the time, like a victory for the band, it proved damaging in little time. As Caitlin Moran wrote in her Melody Maker review of the "hideously lovely" Ugly Beautiful just weeks after the single's release, "I've already seen gruesome couples mouthing this at each other, little realising the lyrics, with their 'legs pulled apart' and ice 'rubbed on your chest', are about sticky porny photographers hunting beaver shots from models."
Asked if he'd ever imagined people might misunderstand the song, Jones recalls his surprise. "I genuinely had no idea," he says. "I was singing the whole thing, whereas most people went for the chorus, which they do with all music. They always say that so long as you can hear the drums and the chorus, you can sing along in the car. That's all you need, so it became pop music, when I wouldn't call it pop. But it was recorded in a pop music way."
That Jones succeeded in hoodwinking the nation - and indeed many nations, judging from its global success - by shoehorning a song about grubby photographers into the charts would be worthy of celebration if only it had been his intention. Instead, he says, "I didn't mean to get one over on people. I thought they'd get what I was singing about. I was just making a very simple point." No wonder it feels like a hollow victory: it's hard to think of many other songs whose meanings have been so misconstrued - or wilfully ignored - yet have become so successful. At least Springsteen himself chose to release 'Born In The USA', interpreted by so-called American patriots - including President Ronald Reagan - as a message of hope and pride, when it's actually critical of hardships faced by Vietnam vets.
Perhaps the cruellest repercussion of its success is how it's become the benchmark against which everything Jones has done since is measured. For some, it's one of those songs that's been played so often, and become so overfamiliar, that they cannot bear to hear it, or anything associated with its author. For others, it represents the peak of Jones' creativity, so nothing can compare. Then there are its original, literate champions, who lauded its seditious qualities but turned their back on him because, with its triumph, the elite 'lo-fi' club they'd once been part of opened its doors to anyone, including beer-wielding lads who considered Jamie Oliver pukka. "There is a bit of a Babybird backlash," he told Uncut's David Stubbs in 1997. "Nothing too bad, just journalists who talk about wanting to kick me to death."
At the time, too, it raised commercial expectations to such a degree that everything that followed was doomed to disappoint. "The record company wants you to repeat it, to come out with 'You're Love' or 'She's Good'," Jones smiles. "That was the plan at one point, as a joke to piss them off. But we didn't repeat 'You're Gorgeous', so it was bound to go back to the level of the 'lo-fi', which is where I always wanted to be. I had this stupid, ridiculous hit that threw everything out of whack. You can't carry on rising slowly because you've already gone up there. And it was a fluke, really, because all these things are flukes."
It didn't help that playing the game didn't suit Jones. "I sabotaged the 'You're Gorgeous' period," he says. "I didn't enjoy it at all. I think the band did, but I didn't. I don't like being the head of anything." Nor did his unconventional songs suit the wider public, so commercial decline became inevitable. By the time the album's fourth single, 'Cornershop, charted at number 37, it had become known as 'Cornerflop'. Ultimately, "that song"'s success may have been why the band lost its deal. Ugly Beautiful went Gold, while 1998's There's Something Going On - lauded by some for turning back to his 'lo-fi' roots and criticised by others for not offering another 'You're Gorgeous' - only reached number 28, and 2000's Bugged then peaked outside the Top 100. If the only way had been down, four years later they were out.
So, with Jones refusing to play ball by writing something catchy, and sales beginning to fade, record companies congratulated themselves on their prescience, and even now one wonders whether it's that horse's stench that continues to prevent him from finding a deal. The song symbolises a past he may never escape. Furthermore, that he never came close to repeating its success means he's sometimes regarded as a novelty artist, despite enjoying seven other Top 40 hits, more than most artists can dream of. Even Nick Beggs, the former Kajagoogoo member briefly turned A&R who rejected Babybird, has disingenuously rewritten history by boasting about his decision on his website: "I was told not to sign one-hit wonders."
It probably doesn't help that Jones did sign another deal, ten years after Bugged, that led to little more than disappointment, though it at least afforded him an improbable adventure. It with a phone call emanating from a source so unlikely that initially neither Jones nor his manager took it seriously. "It was Johnny Depp," Jones remembers. "I was in Pembrokeshire at the time. He said, 'Do you want to come up and meet me in London?' Apparently, he has an in-ear thing that he wears, and he has different music to trigger different emotions, and I think he used a lot of Babybird. So yeah, I walked in and he was fiddling with some speakers on his knees. I saw this arse in a pair of jeans. That was the first time I met Johnny Depp. He came over with some carrot sticks and said, 'Do you want this with some hummus?'"
They soon switched dips for booze, and Depp's hangover after a night spent on Grappa was so bad that Jones was declared responsible for waking him the next morning so he could get to the Finding Neverland set. "He had to do this stuff with Dustin Hoffman. I couldn't even see straight. Grappa's evil. It was the wrong thing to do, especially after lots of red wine. He ordered it, but I got the blame." Nonetheless, the friendship that developed from this implausible encounter led to 2010's Ex-Maniac. Back in 1980, Depp had joined a band called The Kydz, and in 2006 he helped the group's co-founder, Bruce Witkin, launch Unison Music. In a similarly charitable spirit, Depp encouraged Jones and Witkin to meet.
"I obviously signed up, thinking that Depp might have a bit of influence," Jones admits, "but I didn't want to encroach on his help, and he paid for a million-dollar video! I had my own massive Winnebago, and I think the head of photography had just done Pirates Of The Caribbean, so it was a proper five day shoot! When that's happened, you feel a bit funny about asking for more favours, because that's quite a big one. They were a small label, and he couldn't just go to Johnny and ask for money. They were friends since they were 17."
Ex-Maniac barely squeezed into the Top 200, despite Depp directing that video for 'Unloveable' and playing guitar on it. (He also appears on 'Jesus Stag Night Club', from the knowingly titled, 2011 follow-up, The Pleasures Of Self Destruction, which fared even less well.) Jones is philosophical about the experience. "It was nice to go to America and record," he says, "but the two albums we did were quite rock, and I'm quite soft and amiable. If I'm sitting there in LA in their studio, I'm like, 'OK, let's go with that'. Then you come back to grey old England and suddenly think, 'Oh, why did I let that happen?' But if that hadn't come along I wouldn't be doing music. It didn't really work, unfortunately, but I'm kind of here because of his support. Things have come along at the right time. Even Bandcamp came along at the right time."
And that's where we leave Stephen Jones, still sewing buttons like a skilled seamstress and cooking meals like a cordon blue chef. "This is all I can do," he says modestly, and it's for such artistry that he should be remembered. Scattershot though his early work was, Jones proved himself a songwriter of unconventional, rare distinction, and he continues to do so in much the same way today. He was, for a while, dragged down by what might be described as - using an altogether different bestial term - an albatross around his neck, but his talent never deserted him.
Whether his cultural contribution is ready to be reassessed, though, is up to the general public, but his forthcoming live shows will hopefully encourage this process to begin. To have a lifetime of work overshadowed by only one of its constituent parts - one whose success was greater than most people ever aspire to, and yet one whose intent was almost entirely misread - must be exasperating. That the body of work of which it is a part is constantly expanding must make this even more frustrating. Let’s at least remember, however: it's not Jones flogging that dead horse. He merely fucked it once.
Babybird tour the UK May 11-19. Visit Stephen Jones's vast Bandcamp catalogue for more music.