“Lonely dissent doesn’t feel like going to school dressed in black. It feels like going to school wearing a clown suit.” – Eliezer Yudkowsky
Nobody wants their entertainment to surprise them. Musicians that change style usually kill their careers (unless it’s a very slow, stage-managed, and natural shift between two adjacent styles). On Goodreads, it is a criminal offense for a book to differ in any way to what the reader expects, punishable by 1 star and gifs of Robert Downey Junior rolling his eyes. “Ugh, the cover made this look like queer neurodiverse BIPOC dystopian YA, but it’s actually aro/ace instead. Do better.” The world is full of thumbsuckers who want to be comforted with the familiar. The idea that art might sometimes confound or surprise is foreign to most of them.
Even “countercultural” art is confined by audience expectation: noncomformists that all dress the same, striking rebellious poses inside tiny prison cells. Marilyn Manson is often classified as “shock rock”. He has released ten albums and counting of distorted guitars, industrial samples, and Middle America baiting lyrics, and I just can’t wait to see how he shocks his fans next.
Babylon Zoo is a cautionary tale of what happens when a band genuinely defies expectations. It isn’t pretty.
They were a rock band from Wolverhampton, fronted by Jas Mann, who had just left his previous project, the Sandkings. Their style was a modern fusion of 70s glam rock (Mann’s wavering snarl is an attempt at Marc Bolan) with 90s grunge. A brilliant idea. So brilliant that Smashing Pumpkins had already gotten there first, along with many other bands.
Nevertheless, they scored a lucky break in 1995 – Levi used their song “Spaceman” for a TV commercial. The concept was fun in the way that British ad spots often were: an alien girl (played by Kristina Semenovskaya) returns from a trip to Earth, and shocks her conservative alien parents with the ultimate fashion statement – a pair of Levi jeans.
The ad got Babylon Zoo’s music in front of millions of people…except it didn’t. The ad didn’t use the album version of “Spaceman”, it used an Arthur Baker remix that sped up the track, muted the guitars, and pitchshifted Mann’s vocals upward into an ethereal whisper of ice. It was a bright, futuristic sound, congruent with the ad campaign.
However, it sounded nothing like the actual song. The thousands of clubbers and ravers that bought the “Spaceman” single soon discovered that Babylon Zoo played turgid grunge rock, impossible to dance to. The Boy With the X-Ray Eyes held more of the same. Much more.
Once the summer of 1996 was over, so was Babylon Zoo. The couldn’t follow up “Spaceman”, and subsequent singles landed increasingly far from the top, as though fired by a marksman who drinks a double vodka soda between shots. Their second album album King Kong Groover (first single: “All The Money’s Gone”) sold just 10,000 copies, and then they were dropped from EMI.
Jas Mann was the first British-Asian to top the charts (2nd, if we count Farrokh Bulsara), and most of the publicity focused on him. It must be said that he handled his sudden fame sub-optimally, bigging himself up in the UK press (“I was expecting this success […] A racing driver knows when he’s got the best car – and I know I’ve done something that’s far superior to most things out there. […] I’m a great songwriter and I could become a musical genius.”), and making a Brass Eye appearance where Chris Morris ran circles around him and baited him into saying silly things.
Bowie always had a tight command over his public image – adopting disposable personas, then killing them when they threatened to consume him. Mann just came off as a callow youngster, trying to blast off into space with matchstick heads and a bottle rocket.
Babylon Zoo quietly ended, and Mann left the public eye, moving to an ashram in India. He now works in film. His main creative work these days might be this IMDB bio, which contains possibly the most lie-filled paragraph written in the English language.
“In 1996 Jas developed a visual/music project “Babylon Zoo”, writing and selling the concept to “Levis” as a visual and music advert broadcasted in over 30 countries. The first Babylon Zoo Album “Boy with the X-ray eyes” would go on to sell 5 million copies and achieving 21 number one hit records worldwide at the time entering the Guinness book of records as the fastest selling record of all-time
All false. The band formed in 1992. “Spaceman” was released as a promo CD by Warner Bros in early 1995, and then as a single on CD/vinyl/cassette by EMI. The Levi’s commercial happened afterward. It’s improbable that Mann (a 24 year old from Wolverhampton) had any creative control over the ad.
Five million copies sold in the UK? No. In 1996 the BPI certified the album gold, which meant it shipped (not sold) 400,000 copies in Britain. Perhaps it sold five million worldwide? Still no. Let’s assume for argument’s sake that the figure now stands at 599,000 (just under the 600,000, the level required for a BPI platinum cert). Are you telling me that Babylon Zoo, a UK band famous for a UK TV commercial, only moved (at most) 11.98% of their total units in the UK? Not a chance. This album shifted a million copies worldwide, max.
21 number one hit records where? Tuvalu? “Fastest selling record of all time?” Again, no. “Spaceman” is the fastest selling debut record of all time (according to this 1996 Billboard Issue), selling 420,000 copies in its first week. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” sold over a million copies in its first week in 1984.
Revisionism aside, The Boy With the X-Ray Eyes was definitely a victim of success. The gap between what it seemed to be and what it was proved too big to bridge, and the chasm swallowed the album, the band, and its creator alike.
But what if you listen to it on its own, and ignore the hype?
It has strengths and weaknesses. The production is raw enough to bleed. The entire album sounds like it was barely mixed – the drums are boxy and fake, the guitars are just a harsh SKRONK that’s somehow thin and overpowering at once. Jas Mann’s vocals are a tough sell, a weak and untrained sneer without any real tone. There’s precedent for this kind of through-the-nose singing in grunge (it’s not like Billy Corgan is vocalist of the year), but the album sounds like he tracked it while suffering from a head cold.
Around half the songs are uninspired or bad. “Animal Army” is dreck, a riffless, hookless alt rock song that sounds like a Dynamite Hack 45RPM played at 33RPM instead. “Confused Art”? I’m not confused at all, the song sucks. “Zodiac Sign” is distinguished only by its irritating chorus. “I’m Cracking Up I Need A Pill”? I’m Cracking Up I Need A Skip Button.
And that leaves a number of songs that are actually listenable, or well thought out. “Fire Guided Light” is a clear stand-out track, with moody verses and an explosive chorus. “The Boy With X-Ray Eyes” has quite a bit of dynamic contrast and some densely layered instrumental, including Indian santoors and sitars. “Is Your Soul For Sale?” has a cringeworthy intro that exposes how weak Mann’s voice is (“…we dahhnced the nahhht awayyy”) but it ends up being quite good.
The story of Babylon Zoo is not that of a band (or “visual/music project”, in Mann’s own words) that was a complete waste. It only adds tragedy to the comedy, but there was actually something here.
(NB: “N-rays (or N rays) were a hypothesized form of radiation, described by French physicist Prosper-René Blondlot in 1903, and initially confirmed by others, but subsequently found to be illusory.”)
“During the Vietnam War, every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.” – Kurt Vonnegut
Whether you love or hate Donald J Trump, he easily ranks as one of the ten greatest presidents of the past decade. He overcame many obstacles on the path to presidency: for example, the arts community didn’t like him.
They (along with the media) deployed the full force of Vonnegut’s custard pie against his 2016 Presidential run. For example, they called him mean names. Really mean names, like Drumpf and 45 and Cheeto Mussolini and Fuckface von Clownstick. They called him fat and old and made fun of his hair. They drew him as an orange baby, and as a pile of poop. They drew him kissing Putin (the joke is that they’re gay, LOL!). Remember that cameo he had in Home Alone 2? Someone digitally edited him out! Ha! Surely Trump would never recover recover from that.
Well, despite this scorched earth take-no-prisoners idpol campaign, Trump somehow became President anyway. From then on, the mood of the politicized left became sad and resigned, like a beaten dog. The vibe shifted from “he will not divide us” to “another day in hell”.
This was a symptom of a broader crisis of faith among the left – the sense that they’d lost. That nothing they were doing was working. Their traditional weapons were all ineffective or had been subverted by the enemy. The working class were now wearing red MAGA hats, chanting “build the wall!” Social media had become an attack surface for memes about how Hillary was running a Satanic pedophile ring under a pizzeria. And although Trump’s splenetic attacks on the media caused a brief #NotTheEnemy snuggling of the press, this rang hollow. Wasn’t Trump president because of the media?
Tim Heidecker is an alternative comedian – a term he surely hates. His flagship shows – Tom Goes to the Mayor, Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, and (particularly) Tim and Eric’s Awesome Show, Great Job and On Cinema, reveal a man who enjoys reflecting media back upon itself in a broken mirror. On a shallow level, these shows parody badly-made entertainment, but they do more than that: they carve apart the edifice of mass media before your eyes, exposing how hollow it is. Heidecker’s best work is revelatory. Few men have penetrated so deeply (or funnily) into the diseased heart of mass entertainment, and for that I commend Heidecker.
But then he started to take an interest in politics. It began to ruin his comedy. On Cinema gradually devolved from a hilarious skewering of shitty podcasts to a legitimately angry political satire with Heidecker playing a cartoon version of Trump. His cleverness and self-awareness disappeared. Soon he was unironically participating in stuff like The Big Unfollow, a campaign to reduce Trump’s Twitter follower count.
In 2017 he released Too Dumb for Suicide, an album of Trump protest songs. They were written quickly in various times and places and moods (usually “with the blood still boiling from whatever indignity or absurdity had popped up on my newsfeed that day”, as Heidecker once wrote). Some are exhuberantly filthy, others sound like a captive lamenting in Babylon. In short, it listens like a Greek chorus of the anti-Trump left, capturing its gradually deflating mood.
The songs are decent pastiches of 70s dad-rock. “Mar-a-Lago” is based on Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville”, with an easy, swinging cod-country rhythm. It contain’s the album’s most benign portrayal of Trump: as a bumbling duffer (manipulated by dark forces beyond his understanding) who wants to golf away his remaining years . “Richard Spencer” is a Randy Newman ballad about punching people (sadly not Randy Newman). “Imperial Bathroom” is a late 70s Elvis Costello song about Trump’s bowel movements, complete with nasal paint-thinner vocals and a blaring farfisa organ. Lyrically it’s not far removed from late 70s Costello, either.
Generally, Suicide is good more than it’s great, and adequate more than it’s good. Heidecker can certainly write a tune, but he’s not a dazzlingly brilliant natural songwriter. He can sing and play guitar, but his performances to make you want to listen to whoever he’s parodying. He seldom matches and never exceeds his influences. His voice is limited, and the arrangements of several songs almost bend themselves like pretzels to accomodate his narrow vocal range.
Many of these songs are as ephemeral as mayflies, dashed out in response to something happening on the news. They don’t have any juice left in 2022, unless you want to Google obscure Trump scandals-of-the-week from half a decade ago (“hey, remember when he was trying to make his private pilot the head of the FAA?”).
Or “For-Chan”, he returns fire on people who were mean to him on Twitter. On “MAGA” he comes up with Michael Moore caricatures of Trump voters. Maybe this was hard-hitting satire in 2017. But now, a different picture emerges: Heidecker as a social media addict, doomscrolling Twitter like a junkie chasing the dragon, getting high on rage and misery. He’s getting played by the same cynical media he used to laugh at, and his comment about newsfeeds is revealing. The media wants his blood to be boiling. Doesn’t he see that?
Although journalists individually may not like Trump, the media as an institution adores him. It only cares that you keep clicking and keep reading and keep getting angry, and Trump was crack cocaine. In Jul 2015, Huffington Post announced that they would only cover Trump’s candidacy in the Entertainment section, along with the Kardashians and the Bachelorette. “Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait.” One year later, the front page of their site had twenty-two Trump stories on it. I guess they couldn’t resist the bait after all.
And there’s still another side of Suicide, Too Dumb For: the naked, unreconstructed fantasizing. “Sentencing Day”, for example, describes a universe where Trump is finally held accountable for his crimes.
The jury was 12 to none
The case was cut and dry
The only question remains is:
Will he live or die?
On one hand, the song’s pathetic and masturbatory: like a teenage girl writing fanfic where Harry kills Hermione and marries her self-insert OC.
On the other hand, it’s real. Heidecker is giving voice to authentic emotions here, and this is something you seldom saw in his work up until now. He’s not being vague. He’s not building a clever ironic meta-universe. He’s just being a person.
And then there’s “Trump Tower”, which was written (if I’m not mistaken) on the day of Trump’s inaugeration.
“Well, they can take me down to the bowels of Trump Tower / And put me on the rack next to all of my brown and black brothers / And make me pledge allegiance to the hashtag MAGA, no other/ And rip my arms and legs off while I’m crying for my mother / But I’ll be hell-bent to call that motherfucker President.”
It sounds like a bit, but when you listen to it, Heidecker sounds exhausted and heartsick, and clearly means every word. He did everything he could. But the custard pie went splat, and Trump still became President.
The first Helloween album is a classic of German power/speed metal. “Ride the Sky” in particular is one the most ripped-off songs ever. It was white-hot innovative in 1985, and still plays well today,
On the back of albums like this, Germany was the dominant country for power metal through the 80s, 90s and 2000s. (In later decades it ceded space to Finland and Sweden, which is also when the genre stopped being worth listening to, for the most part). There’s a “Teutonic” PM style you can easily recognize: Judas Priest style songwriting with lots of 16th note picked-riffs, and “rough” vocals that are more enthusiastic than good. This regional style is highly distinctive: you can typically say “yep, this power metal band’s from Germany” a few seconds after the needle falls.
Kai Hansen and Michael Weikath go about 50-50 on the songwriting here (most of the songs were written years earlier than 1985, for their various proto-Helloween bands). Hansen’s efforts are stronger, probably because he’s having to sing them and knows the limitations of his voice. “Ride the Sky” is an excellent opener, full of energy and riffs. (Also, is it the first known example of a power metal band rhyming fly with sky?) “Phantoms of Death” has wicked riffs and an excellent gang vocal chorus. It features a keyboard line, like a preview of the direction they’d take on their next album. Check out the Iron Savior cover, too. “Gorgar” (which was written in 1981) has a silly, humorous tone: Running Wild and Blind Guardian certainly weren’t writing songs about pinball boards at this point. Helloween’s lightness set them apart from other bands – they weren’t serious about what they did, which sometimes helped them and sometimes didn’t. They have a lot of nerve crediting the intro track to “Weikath/Hansen” when it’s just the melody of “London Bridge Is Falling Down”.
Weikath’s songs are good but are all the exact same tempo (“Reptile” excluded), making them a bit repetitive. “Heavy Metal” is a Scanner kind of song, and “How Many Tears” is rampaging and furious epic, running a bit long at seven minutes. Hansen’s voice just doesn’t work here – he sounds ragged and out of breath in the climactic chorus. “Tears” more than any song demonstrated that the band needed to find a dedicated singer.
There’s a few different versions of Walls of Jericho hanging around. The original 1985 Noise LP is the definitive version. The 1987 CD edition has a bunch of extra songs, but it doesn’t listen as well: “Starlight” is worse than “Ride the Sky”, and “Judas” and “Murderer” have the exact same chorus (the songs are tracklisted at opposite sides of the CD, in the hopes you won’t notice!) There’s also a I really love “Warrior”. Hansen is in total command here. “Silent falls the hammer!”
Production values? What are they? You hear reverb-drenched Marshalls and not much else. Whenever the songs get fast or busy, the music kind of flies to pieces in your auditory canal like a pinata, but that’s much-loved tradition of Teutonic PM too.
(It’s also a tradition to have questionable band names. Helloween got its name because, as Hansen explained once, “Halloween comes but once a year, but you can have Helloween every day“. It’s actually one of the better names Germany has to offer: other bands include Chinchilla, Edguy, Pink Cream 69, and…ugh…Custard.)