"All songs recorded on a 4 track tape recorder no bigger than a VCR. No Casio keyboards, no bellow-operated jazz synthesisers, no calor gas amplifiers have been used in these recordings. My attitute to resourcefulness-dictated-by-poverty never quite ran to stretching elastic bands over a washing up bowl; though this technique, however tempting, is probably closer in spirit to baby bird than to musicianship.
"The Happiest Man Alive is quality control on the grandest scale imaginable."
In the mid 1990s, British singer-songwriter Stephen Jones released 5 albums of lo-fi recordings under the name of Baby Bird. That Baby Bird is, Jones insists, not to be confused with Babybird the band, which he also fronts and is still best known for the much-misunderstood hit song You're Gorgeous. The Happiest Man Alive (Baby Bird Recordings, 1995) is the fourth of these albums, made up of material recorded between 1988 and 1995, and is perhaps his finest collection of bitter pop gems.
Unsurprisingly, the title is ironic, as the copious and eccentric sleevenotes make clear. These writings of Jones (also quoted above and at the end of this write-up) include a story of a family clad in "Peter-Cola virtual reality glasses" escaping the bounds of an Americanized Britain, "city limits of invisible USA", past the golden arches and black ticks, seeing visions of "a man nailed to a plane with no engine", driving until they skid off the road "the happiest family alive".
But if this was a work of social criticism, it would not be anything so like as great an album. Jones isn't interested in political points; there's something very English about his records, a sense of dismay and bitterness at the loss of something he can't pin down, a certain conservatism tied to aesthetic radicalism, an atmosphere of horror and hate and nostalgia. Very Morrissey, very Luke Haines.
There is something of Shelley in Jones's manifesto on the back of the CD:
On the bed, the newspapers open. An advert for puff-shaped breakfast cereal lies visible between music items. It's just words - no photograph: "In a world where people cannot feel like other people, the centre of the universe has to be ultimately selfish. To be someone else is the closest we come to splitting the atom."
Despite the clever titles (Copper Feel, Seagullably, Sundial in a Tunnel) and Jones's verbal doodles on the sleeve, where it counts is in the ears. It's hard to believe these songs were recorded on "a 4-track tape recorder no bigger than a VCR". Some tracks, like Horsesugar, certainly sound muffled and lo-fi, but the invention, the instrumentation, the use of samples, and the desire to transcend limitations rather than to rely on sludge and feedback to mask them, all point to greater ambitions.
1. Razorblade Shower. It opens with a sample from some bad talk radio show, probably available on a compilation called "Death of civilisation: the Radio Years" specially produced for lazy recording artists to slot into their faux protest songs. The actual tune is better though, thudding drums, buzzing guitar and distorted, drowned-out vocals.
2. Sundial in a Tunnel. After the first song, the album instantly drops to melancholy with plaintive keyboards, falsetto vocals and strange rushing noises. This song sets the peculiar sad-happy mode of the album, when you're unable to embrace the future or accurately judge the present, when you really don't know what's going on, just that things are harder now: "You're so happy, so why am I so sad. / You prefer tomorrow to the times that we once had."
3. Little White Man. Baby Bird tries blues, with more than a nod to The Teddy Bears' Picnic, as he says "you're too damn white to sing this song". The first of a few songs on the album to show a real nursery rhyme feel which always adds to their threatening nature rather than detracting from it.
4. Halfway Up The Hill. Almost optimistic, and yet beset by doubts, one of the most perfect songs on the album. His voice is as full of yearning and dreams as it is of distortion, a minimalist musical backing track adding sunniness and giving him space to reveal shade and turn hope inside out into fear.
I could see the light if I could only look up
But if I did that, then I'd have everything
And there would be nothing left to live for.
But there's a nagging bass drum
in the background.
5. Horsesugar. Hiccups and unnaturally deep vocals mark out this song about anger and drunkenness. The guitar and fake snare drum sounds give it an odd bluesy quality as well as a boozy one. ("Sugar" is a common British euphemism for "shit".)
6. Please Don't Be Famous. His meditation on fame; showbiz anecdotes on the sampler, a bright and tinkly melody.
7. Louse. Ignore the happy melody, this is Jones at his cruellest and most nihilistic. Narrated from the point of view of a transsexual, it's poisonous with self-loathing, disgust for the flesh and the ridiculous idea that we could ever change anything about our lives.
Cut a hole in my chest, push in some blood.
I'm about as female as a sexual retard.
8. Copper Feel. Next comes a silly nursery rhyme about how you have to take the rough with the smooth. "Today when I was walking I saw some good things and I saw some bad things. A little old lady fell over and a young kid of fourteen picked her up. That was a good thing and a bad thing." Great title, by the way.
9. Seagullably. A somewhat maudlin little tune that outstays its welcome. Its understated sadness would be more in place on his next solo album, Dying Happy.
10. Dead In Love. One of the strongest songs, a sadly romantic tune that plays on the ambiguity of whether "dead" means "very much" or "deceased". A nice 80s synth pop feel and some whispered falsetto vocals enhance an atmosphere of enclosure and vague feelings of loss.
11. Candy Girl. A clever lyric, the verses a series of questions:
Are Norway without whales?
Are you the tornado in my sails?
Are you the Bury Met without rails?
Are you Jesus without the nails?
and the chorus about fellatio
or sweeties. (There's definitely no link to New Edition
). It was re-recorded for the Ugly Beautiful
album, released as a single and reached number 14 in the British singles chart. Let's hope it's about lollypops.
12. Gunfingers. Another almost-innocent lyric, about a child playing guns with his hands, who later finds other uses for his fingers. A menacingly whispered vocal (in what seems to be an attempt at an American accent) makes this striking and threatening. Also kudos for the rhyme "gunfingers / fish fingers".
13. Married. More cheesy American radio phone-in concerning the "M" word introduce this tune, which combines a shuffling, jerking, almost drum and bass rhythm with some house music piano. Lyrics about drugs; what it has to do with the title is anybody's guess.
14. In The Country. With the cheesy rhythm and keyboard sounds of a seedy middle-aged entertainer doing the rounds of old people's homes and bed and breakfasts, this pastoral ditty is a bit more upbeat. Maybe this represents Jones's nostalgia for Britain's rural tradition, because the song is straightforward praise to haymaking and "licking up some frog spawn. / It's the caviar of the country."
15. Planecrash Xmas. The indie band attempting the alternative Christmas song is always interesting (Christmas Skies by Thin White Rope is possibly my favourite). Baby Bird's attempt seems happy but hints at the terrible smugness of the festive period. The title is a reference to the 1988 tragedy at Lockerbie where a Boeing 747 traveling from London to New York was destroyed by a terrorist bomb and fell on the Scottish town. If that is the inspiration, it's a barely mentioned one, the song starting off in Yuletide happiness and ending in a planecrash that the loving couple avoid by reason of holiday. The intro also sounds suspiciously like Last Christmas by Wham!
16. This Beautiful Disease. Big beats in a sort of Madchester feel brighten up the lyrics to this horrible song. Two lovers entwine their bodies more deeply than most: "Open up my knees, rub your fingertips on my bone. / Little drops of saliva making blood their home." The most gruesome love song ever made, only equalled by Chris Morris's "whack my bonobo". It might be about AIDS, but really whith this song HIV is the least of your worries.
17. You'll Get A Slap. Humming introduces this less interesting song, in which the singer asks to not get what he wants, which goes a good deal further than The Rolling Stones's You Can't Always Get What You Want.
18. In The Morning. A happy ending of sorts, in the manner of Eels's P.S. You Rock My World; mornings are when you wake from a nightmare. Unlike E, Stephen Jones is less compelling when he's being nice, but this is still ok, if not really a fitting end. You can go home now, if your home's still there.
The album was originally released on CD and vinyl in a limited edition of 1000. As of summer 2003, a mint copy of either would be worth 50 or 60 dollars.
Sources (the last 2 are online merchants and liable to change):
Mark B. "Hate Songs: The Baby Bird and Babybird Lyrics Archive". http://www.zoo.co.uk/~z0001530/songs.html (August 28, 2003).
Baby Bird. "The Happiest Man Alive". Baby Bird Recordings BABYBIRDLP4. 1995.
EIL. http://eil.com/shop/moreinfo.asp?catalogid=253154 (August 28, 2003).
Music Stack. http://www.musicstack.com/tsearch/babybird/the_happiest_man_alive_-_sleev (August 28, 2003).
"Baby Bird Recordings are guaranteed manufactured in 99% alloy and vinyl, equal in quality to any computer game in the world. They are responsible for attempting to hold back the tide of disc technology. Any imperfections or crackles may result on record as the vinyl has be reconstructed from melted down Level 42 and Queen albums."