PRINT Summer 1996


Babylon Zoo

THEY STARTED SHOWING up in mid-December. Posters featuring a larger-than-life graphic of an alien’s head—with large green almond-shaped eyes, machine-gun slit nose, and pesky eyebrows—were suddenly all over London. Bold and anthropomorphic, speaking a different language than most advertising, this unsettling image offered no clue as to what it was promoting, except the legend, “Beam me up I can’t breathe.” Yup, any of us smog-saturated Londoners can identify with that. Right on, whoever you are.

Round two followed in the New Year: the same alien outline now overlaid with human hair, lank and center-parted. The legend was simple: “He is coming.” At the same time, a new Levis ad was running on prime-time TV: the old arrival-of-the-alien routine—this time, an attractive young woman emerged from the spaceship wearing “the only jeans in the universe cut from 01 denim”—against a moon-valley suburban setting that dazzled on the first few viewings, not least because of the bizarre, sped-up soundtrack of chipmunks singing “spaceman.” Er, wot?

By the time the final poster was on the streets, the record—that’s what it was promoting—had bust right out. Babylon Zoo’s first single, “Spaceman,” went straight to number one and stayed there for five weeks, a stunning coup for the one-man band of 23-year-old Jas Mann, an Asian/Native-American from the Midlands’ industrial belt. Block-booked on Britain’s prime pop show, “Top of the Pops,” Mann rode the alien implications all the way. Taking a leaf from David Bowie’s Ziggy period, he presented himself as the height of androgyne chic: dressed in a silver sari with his bulge showing, delivering the kiss-off lyric—“electronic information tampers with your soul”; “the sickening taste of homophobic jokes”—with total self-absorption. Staring into the cameras, as sexy/strange as Mick Jagger in 1965, Mann cast the nation under his spell.

The whole point of space in pop, is that it provides a jump cut into the future: simply by projecting into a future—however corny—it makes it clear that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is. The main hook of “Spaceman” is that the track is varispeeded—to double time—in the intro and outro: the sinuous grunge of the song is bookended by chipmunk/alien shrieks. The effect is simultaneously surprising and fascinating. In a culture dedicated to the familiar, this is no small feat.

For the past year, British pop has been dominated by ’60s retro—for all their heart, Oasis can be slotted right into this matrix. Twisting time like the most committed junglist, Mann has broken through this obsession with a mythical past in a song that isn’t scared to stare down the present and the future. What “Spaceman” says—and you’ll have to take my word on this, ’cos for the U.S. release this March the varispeeded parts were edited out—is that we are living in the future predicted by ’50s and ’60s sci-fi: get real, get with it. In this respect, “Spaceman” is a perfect pop moment.

Jon Savage is a writer living in London. He is a coeditor, with Hanif Kureishi, of The Faber Book of Pop.