Autobiographical records are not unusual. Most artists draw from their own experiences, and these often make an appearance in their lyrics. A less common phenomenon is a record that is musically autobiographical, but that’s exactly what James Maker offers in ‘Babelogue’.
Reading Maker’s autobiography, ‘Autofellatio’, it is clear that he is everything a rockstar ought to be. He is intelligent, articulate, frank, astute and side-splittingly hilarious, even when discussing the darkest periods of his fascinating life. The fact that he was never hugely commercially or critically successful could be put down to his eccentricity, but in the late 1980s, following the rise of his close friend Morrissey with The Smiths, to dismiss unconventionality as unappealing would be wilfully ignorant. More likely, Maker simply didn’t have the luck he deserved. As a result, he is largely unknown beyond the realm of cult popularity. ‘Babelogue’, which could, under different circumstances, have become an indie classic, is instead an unsung gem.
Maker was inspired to enter the world of music by an adolescent love affair with the New York Dolls. Their ongoing influence is evident even from the ‘Babelogue’ sleeve: Maker appears shirtless with an impressive head of hair. Inside, meanwhile, Maker’s raw vocals and elongated notes are at times distinctly David Johansen-esque – though at others, he could be more accurately likened to Elvis. In ‘Rock n Roll Ancestry’, Maker explicitly situates himself in a musical tradition which had a profound influence on him. Here we begin to see Maker’s life, from East London beginnings to infatuation with American rock, embodied in his work.
To call ‘Babelogue’ eclectic is an understatement, and its variation further serves the autobiographical qualities of its sound. For instance, side one closes with ‘Gospel Song’ and side two opens with ‘Oh Hellish Choir!’ Respectively sounding like something from a Sunday church service and a Gregorian chant, they are presumably influenced by Maker’s long since forsaken religious upbringing. When the record then launches abruptly from ‘Oh Hellish Choir!’ to the experimental and infectious ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’, we catch Maker’s young life at a glance. Openly gay, Maker’s swift switch from hymnal to decidedly alternative is a coming of age contained in one vinyl groove.
Powerful vocals and obvious knowledge of music history aside, Maker is also notable for his lyricism. The most well-known song on the record is the opening track, ‘No-one Can Hold A Candle To You’, promoted by Morrissey through his 2004 compilation, ‘Songs To Save Your Life’ and covered by him for the B-side of his single ‘I Have Forgiven Jesus’ in the same year. Its forthright and poetic lyrics, juxtaposed against a breezy guitar riff, mark Maker out as a critically underrated songwriter. He is of that rare breed of musician whose lyrics and voice are equally captivating.
Moving and thought-provoking proclamations are also myriad throughout the record. The closing track, ‘Son of the Soil’, begins with the poignant declaration ‘I’m a son of the soil, I’m a son of the land, I’m the son of my father, and I know I could never be a happy man’. ‘Stop Kicking My Heart Around’, meanwhile, opens with a catchy advocation of singledom: ‘stop kicking my heart around – I don’t want to be weighed down with responsibilities, and love intervention, and a conservative convention.’ Maker is adept at touchingly and wittily expressing his thoughts and feelings, and his intelligence radiates from this record.
Heartfelt, bold and immensely danceable, the only downside to ‘Babelogue’ is that it’s infuriatingly difficult to get hold of. Unavailable on iTunes and Spotify, it takes a stroke of luck on eBay to get your hands on a copy. Thankfully, the album is available on YouTube – if ever fans deserved ease of access to a record, it’s this one. From the affecting ‘Been Too Many Years’ and ‘Every Single Night’ to the infectious ‘Solid State Soul’ and the poetic ‘Fool of Fortune’, Maker’s abundant talent is plain to see – or, rather, to hear. An invaluable artefact for musos and a delight for anyone who likes a dance, ‘Babelogue’ is a masterpiece. A must-have for vinyl collectors of the alternative pop persuasion.