Thursday, 26 September 2013

Babylon Zoo - The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes (1996)


Ah the nineties; weren't they great! Ned's Atomic Dustbin, Carter the Unlistenable Sex Machine, Shed Seven, Primal Scream, all that good stuff...

Babylon Zoo is of course remembered as the name attached to the only ever single to wobble the charts on the strength of an advert for trousers that wasn't a pile of wank. Unfortunately the mind-bending moon disco everyone liked so much from the telly was actually the Arthur Baker remix which serves the single as a five second prelude to what may as well be a completely different song, almost a prefix provided just in case you'd forgotten why you bought the thing in the first place. It's David Bowie saying that yes he knows how much you enjoyed Ziggy Stardust, but if you'd just give Black Tie White Noise a chance...

Well not quite, because even if it wasn't on the original menu, Space Man is still a decent song in its own way, that way being roughly a portastudio Nine Inch Nails covering Suede's interpretations of early 1970s Bowie. That probably shouldn't sound quite so much like a criticism, and I'm not exactly suggesting it's a bad thing so much as that the music isn't entirely unlike anything ever heard before. Babylon Zoo was, or perhaps is, an apparently textbook case of an artist becoming too famous too quickly, and whose work really would have benefited from a collaborator who could point out which parts sounded faintly ridiculous, or that once you're past the first two tracks on The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes, it's a tough job telling any of the others apart. They all seem to operate at a certain tempo, share a similar structure, the same effects, same mood, same ambiguous and occasionally slightly clumsy lyrics just crying out for recognition as the deep, meaningful testimony of a true visionary; which is a tough call with lines like pungent smells, they consummate my home...

The word on the street regarding Jas Mann, the person behind, to the side, and in front of Babylon Zoo, is that the music industry didn't treat him very well and he went a bit bonkers; and for the record, the street in question would be the one in which the design studio responsible for the cover of this disc was situated wherein laboured my lifelong chum who shall remain nameless and was always good for showbiz revelations of this kind, although I probably need to keep my trap shut regarding Alexander O'Neal and the alleged reasons for why all those people ever did was criticize... 

Anyway, having dissected the deep and meaningful lyrics of Jas, I fear he may have been a troubled young Mann even without the pressures of fame and producing a second single which didn't sound exactly like the first one. The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes would presumably be a person who sees beyond the lies of falsehood to the truth of the facts of this inverted Babylon in which the sane ones are the caged animals in the zoo who do knoweth about global warming and people telling you to be this or that and stuff, or at least that's how it sounds to me; with only Caffeine - one of several songs for which the chorus is actually the title spelled out letter by letter - offering variety, hinting at wonky brain problems, as the condition is known amongst psychiatric professionals, and possibly the difficulties of an orthodox religious upbringing - although to be honest I'm just guessing here.

There are all sorts of reasons why The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes fell so quickly into the bargain bin of history, and fairly good reasons, but still it's difficult to dislike with conviction. It's repetitive, but at least it repeats tricks that were worth repeating, and with a few minor tweaks here and there it really could have been a great album rather than simply a curiosity; and of course Animal Army was a fucking fantastic single even allowing for the mispronunciation of tyrannosaurus.

The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes is an oddly appealing failure that's still superior to the entire Primal Scream back catalogue for all its being the weirdo electronic rock equivalent of Come Back Mrs. Noah.

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