Intro. Chasing rumours of fresh Baby Bird material, I stopped by Stephen Jones’ Bandcamp page and snagged a 1996 live album. A ‘thank u’ email from the man himself arrived the following morning to which my reply – a mixture of journalistic curiosity and fanboy excitement – kickstarted an email conversation about how Jones’ up and down career in the music business has taken him from Sheffield bedsit-recorded demos to international stardom back to selling Cheshire home-recorded material via Bandcamp.
Our subject didn’t solicit this coverage – my motivation for this post comes purely from being a long-term fan and wanting to see Senor Jones shift more digital units. Know also that I received zero free rides in researching this article. I paid full sticker for each and every one of the Bandcamp releases mentioned below.
Writing about Stephen Jones isn’t easy. His Bandcamp page has played host to a combination of back catalogue and new releases since 2012 but the volume of material on offer is confronting. And then there’s his numerous aliases: Black Reindeer, Arthritis Kid, Deluder and – of course – Babybird.
Anyone casting an untrained eye over the nineties could be forgiven for thinking that Babybird (the band)’s star fell as quickly as it rose. After detonating smash hit single “You’re Gorgeous” in the middle of a decade obsessed with looking backwards, Jones knack for marrying wit to impossibly catchy hooks barely troubled the UK’s Top 10 again.
“Cornershop”, “Goodnight” and “Candy Girl” were better songs but less successful singles and combined with “Your Gorgeous”’s international success, they helped cement Babybird’s walk on part in the Britpop story. Just. Anyone doubting this assertion is directed toward The Shirehorses’ parody song “You’re Gormless”.
Like Luke Haines and his Auteurs, Jones’ offbeat lyrical content didn’t really fit with the stupid-is-the-new-clever swagger of the times. Newly found fans buying Ugly Beautiful on the back of the aforementioned radio friendlies wont likely forget the album’s fulcrum, “King Bing”, a ten minute jazz-inflected grind through the music industry’s predictable machinations. “It’s rust, it’s things rotting. It’s Mike & The Mechanics doing Celine Dion doing Sting.”
Ugly Beautiful wasn’t Jones’ debut album but it was his first with full band in tow and their second long player There’s Something Going On was more tightly focused and, at times, darker than its predecessor. Was the funeral-marching “Bad Old Man” plucked as lead single in order to sever ties with those who had hitched a ride into Jonestown on the back of “Your Gorgeous”?
Here’s Mr. Jones: “I think it was probably more a subconscious reaction to the ridiculous success of Ugly Beautiful. I had to move from Manchester to London due to the attention from lovely northern folk. ”You’re Gorgeous” was a real chanter, from 2am at petrol stations to Noel Gallagher screaming it out of a taxi cab window but more than a reaction against all that, it was the band’s desire to write proper fleshed out, weighty songs like “Take Me Back” and “Back Together” – typical grand ambition but hopefully devoid of all that blustery pretence.”
“’Cornershop’/’Goodnight’ etc were already old songs from the lo-fi – changed hugely for Ugly Beautiful – but for me still old songs/re-workings. ‘Bad Old Man’ was brand new. That particular song I wrote at home and we recorded it the following afternoon – immediately – with Luke Scott’s guitar and piano being the signature sounds.”
The ‘lo-fi’ that Jones refers to can be heard on the five albums that preceded Ugly Beautiful where the songs bear scant resemblance to the full band versions. Released under the two-word moniker Baby Bird (note the space) this was Jones the solo artist. He’d recorded hundreds of 4-tracks demos as a way to alleviate boredom during years on the dole in Sheffield in the late eighties, early nineties.
“They were all recorded on a 4-Track Tascam cassette machine. All were bounced down over and over, cranking up the gain and volume together to get fantastic fuzz and distortion to completely pollute the sad sorry string and brass sounds of my lovely Casio mini arpeggio piece of shit.”
The first two demo compilations – I Was Born A Man and then Bad Shave – were self-funded releases. Melody Maker (or was it NME?) poured forth with the critical acclaim and those with sharper memories will recall both albums quickly selling out of their limited pressing runs and thus fetching princely sums on the second hand market.
The third release, Fatherhood, is what finally snapped yours truly out of his Blue Aeroplanes obsession. Here were vignettes that sounded like they’d been phoned in from a different planet and time. The odd jocular moment aside (“Valerie”, “Shopgirl”) many songs were shot through with a razor sadness (with apologies to Tom Waits) which quickly became one of Jones’ songwriting hallmarks. “Cooling Towers”, “Bad Blood” and the fuzz-guitared “Aluminium Beach” are strangely joyous if you buy into the notion (as I do) that listening to melancholic tunes can make you happy. If not, Jones’ demos contain sufficient cabaret moments, “bah-bah-bahs” and “ sha-la-la-la” moments to shine a dim light into the darkness. The (equally compelling) The Happiest Man Alive and the (slower, more instrumental) Dying Happy rounded out the lo-fi compilations in 1996.
The first two lo-fi albums caught the ear of Echo Records and landed Jones a record deal for which he subsequently recruited a band to tour and re-record a few choice cuts. The fruits of those sessions would ultimately spawn Ugly Beautiful and the chart bothering years that followed.
Live album aside, anyone wanting to hear this more hi-fi-friendly, full band Babybird – or even “You’re Gorgeous” proper – won’t find it on his Bandcamp page. “Echo own it [all] and I think sadly ‘You’re Gorgeous’ is theirs for ever”.
Instead, consider yourself directed to Tidal or ye olde Spotify for Ugly Beautiful and There’s Something Going On. Whilst you’re there check out 1999’s weaker Bugged if only for lead cut “The F-Word”, a song that re-surfaced six years after single release as the title tune to the Gordon Ramsay cooking show of the same name. If what you hear has you wanting to give money to the artist directly then grab Live at The Electric Ballroom 1996 from Stephen Jones’ Bandcamp for a measly £4 (as I did).
Post 2000, Jones recorded several albums as Babybird that “came out and got lost” (his words). He finally called time on the name in 2012.
“[They] just seemed low key in the wake of a huge single. Still recovering from that until now”, laments Jones. That’s a shame because 2010’s Ex-Maniac is as good anything Babybird recorded in their heyday.
“I set up Black Reindeer, Arthritis Kid and Deluder on Bandcamp to fill the gap after Babybird (the name) was retired. I needed a break from Babybird and it kind of took over – the Black Reindeer albums pay the bills even though ‘You’re Gorgeous’ also does that.”
However, it’s Baby Bird’s lo-fi releases that have better stood the test of time. And they’ve done so because they were never in step with the moment or a movement. To this day, they sound as weird and wonderful as the cover art that fronts Fatherhood and Bad Shave. A CD box set of the five original lo-fi albums – suitably entitled The Original Lo-Fi – was released in 2002. It included a sixth album of home-made recordings – The Black Album – and it’s an absolute must…if you can track a copy down.
Then there’s the Lo-fi The Greatest Hits, a 2CD highlights set created for the US market, which is available from Jones’ Bandcamp for £8 here. It contains zero chart hits.
CDs no longer your format of choice? Enter Bandcamp once more. Jones is offering the “The Original Lo-Fi Greatest Hits” as a download for £6 here. This 21-cut release features a superior track selection to its 2CD cousin. It too contains zero chart hits.
If you’ve not much cash or you insist that music is worth next to nothing nowadays, then there’s Volumes 1 and 2 of the Jones-curated Lo-Fi mixtapes, each of which are available as name-your-price downloads. Tuck in here and here.
Proving that he has oodles of solid demo material stashed under the stairs, the plainly titled Outtakes album appeared in January 2013. None of its 39 cuts were recorded during the furtive years that begat the first six lo-fi albums but each and every one sounds as though it could have been, proving that the intervening years haven’t blunted Jones’ ability to pen earworms. That Bandcamp download will run you £4 here.
Listeners finding Jones’ more straightforward songs a little too kooky might prefer Dying Happy’s melancholic musical molasses. In which case, a journey through 3” CD box sets 1985-2001 and Plastic Tablets is advised. The Rubber Pills (1985-2012) download collects each box’s best bits for a name-your-price download right here.
After that, make the left turn into Black Reindeer and Arthritis Kid territory. Jones reckons the eponymously titled album recorded under the latter moniker is the best music he’s ever written. Without the intrusion of vocals it’s the perfect accompaniment to a cold, foggy morning. £8 dropped here nets you a download.
“The Black Reindeer stuff – there’s definitely a lineage from those mini 3inch cd things”, clarifies Jones.
If that’s still not enough for you, the cellar clearing has continued into 2015 with not one but THREE new downloadable Babybird compilations. Roadkiller (£6 here), Roadtripper (£5 here) and Roadfiller (£5 here) feature “archive recordings recorded in various studios and homes across the world, on cassette/CD/studio tape/mini disc/DAT and memory [that were] made in in-between time as demos that time ran out on or didn’t fit the flavour of Babybird albums from early lo-fi through to The Pleasure Of Self Destruction.”
I plugged Jones for more background on his latest trio of releases: “Yes, the instrumentals of the last month are pieces I’d found in bags in the cellar and garage. I started listen to it and it all seemed good and interesting stuff connected to the history of my recording – cassette – mini disc – DAT – studio tape – laptop – invisible digital. It was a journey of music so I thought it might appeal to fans. I’ve tarted them up and made them presentable!”
“Roughly 80 out of 400 ended up on the 6 lo-fi albums – some of the lost ones and left out ones are now on Roadtripper, Roadkiller AND Roadfiller”.
“There will be hopefully a Lo-Fi number 7 called Back To The Womb following on that cycle of birth to death with the original lo-fi.”
Concerned that he might have turned his back on vocals for good, Jones reassures us that proper song songs will see the light of day very soon: “I’m living on the other side of the Pennines in Hale now. The plan is to come back with new material – proper sung songs under a new name – there are now 33 plus waiting to be released. This is taking a while as I have just gotten back with my old manager and we are plotting new ways of getting these out. So, no I’ve certainly vocalised myself to death on these 33 – I’m bursting to get them on vinyl, cd and download soon as we can!”
This won’t be a Bandcamp affair – it’ll be a proper release. There are also vague plans to get the Black Reindeer catalogue onto Spotify.
Stephen Jones’ lo-fi recordings remind us that the idea is often more important than its execution. He remains an under-appreciated talent who knows that kicking a pop song until it limps is a far more interesting proposition than halving it walk straight and tall.
My secondary point? If you don’t like Jones’ music, fine. However, if you dig it as much as I do but refuse to listen to his songs because your hardware exposes their lesser production values then you’ve probably lost your way with your love of music.