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Babylon Zoo 's rise has been formidable just one song, Spaceman, has put them on TV and in contention with George Michael. Where next, asks ANDREW SMITH.

As most of us climbed blearily from our beds this morning, a silent but tense drama was already moving towards a climax, flexing like twine between two houses at either end of the M6. In the first, a mansion in St John's Wood, north London, George Michael will have been wondering whether his comeback single, Jesus to a Child, will still be at No1 when the new chart is announced this evening. For him, the question is an important one: to have held the position for only seven days at this time of year will be seen a failure on his part. Having got there, it had been expected that he might stay a while.

What neither he nor anyone else had banked on was the arrival of a hitherto unknown 24-year-old former art student from the midlands, named Jas Mann. Like Michael, Mann will be awaiting a phone call. He will be hoping to hear that a tune he wrote in an upstairs room of his parents' house in Dudley a year and a half ago, a tune called Spaceman, has cut short Michael's comeback. As Spaceman is his group Babylon Zoo 's first single and in its first week of release, this is an extraordinary prospect to be contemplating a perfect start to a career that could go anywhere.

Spaceman has benefited not just from a show-stopping preview appearance on Top of the Pops 10 days ago, but from the fact that the clever, double-speed intro/outro to the song has been appearing on TV as the soundtrack to a Levi's advert. Shot in primary colours and featuring a space girl in Apollo 11 bra and jeans (what else?) traipsing spunkily through a Midwestern American town at twilight (jaws drop, men dissolve with desire, etc), the ad is rather good. Its undoubted quality hasn't stopped questions being raised about Babylon Zoo 's ultimate staying power, though. Are they a novelty act? Is Jas Mann the natural heir to Bowie, a new British Prince, or just another Stiltskin the British band who bagged a Levi's ad, hit No 1 and disappeared forever.

Sitting in the cafeteria at the massive Nomis band-rehearsal complex in Shepherd's Bush, Mann looks the part. Skinny, in silver trousers and shiny matching Reebok trainers, a Spandex vest worn over a blue, fitted, long-sleeved top, his face has that strange ability to look different from every angle. His father is Indian from the Punjab, his mother half native American, and you can see all these things in his features. Though where his strange, iridescent blue eyes come from is a mystery. A contact lens case cannot be ruled out.

More curious still is that he denies ever having listened to David Bowie claiming to have been raised on Indian film music, hints of which are discernible in his own work because his vocal on Spaceman is, to be polite, immensely suggestive of the older man's Ziggy Stardust period. Despite this, Mann likes to think of the sound a taut, glam rock-inflected, post-grunge squall (underpinned, if you listen hard enough, by a reggae bass line) as futurist, rather than retro, and he has a point. The album from which Spaceman is taken is called The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes and, if Bowie had kept trying after Scary Monsters, his next one might have sounded something like it. Due out at the beginning of February, The Boy with the X-Ray Eyes is the best reconstructed rock album since last year's eponymous debut by Garbage (the band formed by former Nirvana producer Butch Vig). Will it be received as such? This will be interesting to watch.

Either way, even the, so far, limited embrace Babylon Zoo have received goes some way towards confirming a suspicion that this year will be about everything Britpop-obsessed 1995 wasn't. Mann's own story is illustrative of this. Speaking rapidly, never finishing a sentence having moved on to the next thought before having had time fully to articulate the last he explains that he was born in Britain, but taken back to the Punjab as a toddler. His earliest memory, he says, is of a spider monkey that lived in his family's yard. Boys used to throw stones at it on the way home from school, and one night it tracked down the ringleader and bit off his cheek (as a reviewer, you wonder if Mann is trying to tell you something here). He remembers the fuss at his house that night.

Mann hated school because his mother never cut his hair, which was consequently long and attracted the attention of bullies. He grew up to be quiet and shy. Even now, he says that he seldom goes out, unless it is to perform. Most of his time is thus spent making music or watching movies, especially sci-fi ones, a taste he inherited from his mother. She now runs her own business, designing saris. His father has worked at a foundry for 21 years. Pulp or Blur, then, might have considered the family Mann good material for a song. Mann doesn't, he prefers fantasy and sublimation to observational lyrics, and abhors the recently mooted idea of a British Rock the Vote campaign (where pop groups attempt to persuade young voters to register for the next election, as happened last time round in America). Babylon Zoo 's first deal was secured after Mann sent a demo tape to Parlophone A&R man Clive Black. The story goes that Black came to see him three days later and asked: "What do you want, Jas?" "I want to become the biggest-selling artist in living history," he replied. Talk to Mann for a while and you notice that his ideas often reach far beyond his current ability to realise them. This is a good sign, one which persuaded Black, when he moved to Warner Brothers, and then later to EMI, to take Mann with him on both occasions.

If everything goes according to plan, as it has so far, Jas Mann could become one of the few mainstream pop stars of Asian parentage. There haven't been many, he says, because in the Asian community entertainers are viewed as glorified servants, not people to aspire to be. More importantly, Babylon Zoo may be the first manifestation of this year's Britpop: a more vital and elastic version that owes its Britishness not to some twee parochialism that makes no sense to anyone else (witness its abject failure in America), but to all the chaotic cultural processes, the aesthetic mix-up, mend and make-do that make this country such an interesting place to be lost in music right now.

21 Jan 1996: The Sunday Times - Page 19 - (1120 words)
By: Andrew Smith

This article was submitted to Babylon Zoo Online by accadia. Thanks!

 
Other Information
Jas, fully named 'Jasbinder', was born in Dudley in the West Midlands on the 24th day of April 1971

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