The ingredients for truly great creative work

These Animal Men were a relatively short-lived, Brighton-based band who rose to a minor level of cult fame in Britain in the mid ’90s. Following in the wake of the Manic Street Preachers’ unique blend of spiky rock with politics, literature and philosophy, they were named after Julius Caesar’s description of the British. And they lived up to their controversial billing with headline-grabbing moves like issuing a punk manifesto (Commandment 7: “Love’s good but not as good as a wank.”), claiming to have shagged each other, celebrating amphetamine use and inviting fans to kill them onstage. I loved them for all of five minutes.

With their tight jeans, eyeliner, journalist-baiting slogans and grandiose absurdity, they were a rubbish-fantastic mod Spinal Tap. However, while briefly entertaining and even inspiring, they never had the combination of musical chops and smart ideas required to break properly big and sustain a career. They did, however, produce one moment of undeniable brilliance, the song and video above, You’re Not My Babylon. The reason I wanted to hark back to it is that, for me, it perfectly combines the key ingredients required for any truly great piece of creative work. I’ve written before about “the holy trinity of great ads”, – writing, casting and performance – but that was more focused on moving image work. Stepping outside of those specifics into a more channel-neutral debate about pure creativity, I think the essential elements are: ideas, storytelling, craft and passion. You’re Not My Babylon has them all.

The song’s idea is based on the strangeness of obsessive love and it’s explored through the story of Billie Frechette, the lover of Depression-era bank robber John Dillinger. Frechette was a French-Indian singer and waitress who became involved with Dillinger in 1933. Both John Toland’s book, The Dillinger Days and the 1971 film Dillinger with Warren Oates and Michelle Phillips, depict a very violent relationship, with Dillinger punching and kicking Billie, including beating her black and blue on Christmas Day 1933. After a bank job in 1934, she helped him hide and ended up doing two years in prison for aiding and abetting a criminal. When she was released she went back to Dillinger and toured with his family for five years in a musical called Crime Didn’t Pay. She later returned to the Menominee Reservation where she remarried, then died of cancer in 1969.

Exploring the idea of obsessive love through Billie’s life story is ambitious stuff for a bunch of druggy upstarts but, amazingly they pull it off with phenomenal passion (the last 30 seconds are seriously powerful) and wrap it up in a simple, perfectly crafted and brilliantly iconic video of heroes and villains. These Animal Men never scaled the heights of You’re Not My Babylon ever again, which I think demonstrates the extreme difficulty of producing truly great creative work – and goes a way to explaining the phenomenon of one-hit wonders. Of course there’s no magic formula for creativity but I do think that without one of the aforementioned key ingredients – ideas, story, craft and passion – or with a discernible lack of one of them, any creative endeavour is doomed to fall short of greatness.


About antmelder
Executive Creative Director at Host/Havas Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

2 Responses to The ingredients for truly great creative work

  1. Couch Boy says:

    Great piece, thanks. I was looking for an explanation of the song, and found much more here. TAM had some other great songs (IMHO), most of which pushed different buttons but – you’re right – this is easily their best. And what an ending!

  2. antmelder says:

    Cheers! Reading it back now, I feel I was a bit harsh on TAM. You’re right, they did have some other decent songs. My Human Remains was great.

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